By Sherry Cook Stanforth
Professor of English, Thomas More College
The Words writing celebration, founded by Sherry Cook Stanforth, is held annually at Thomas More College and showcases student writing, much of it regional and Appalachian in spirit and style. This year’s event, held April 22, featured writer-in-residence Pauletta Hansel and guest author Robert Gipe. Through the summer, the UACC Blog will publish short pieces by some of the student writers.
Despite our fast-paced, tweet-and-text culture, the writers and artists of Thomas More College are following the wordier, more reflective path of literary commitment. Every April, these undergraduates gather with local and regional authors to publicly launch the latest edition of their campus literary magazine, Words. This year’s Celebration reflected an ongoing TMC value that truly inspiring fine arts events are not stuffy or costly—instead, they connect folks from both sides of the river in the true spirit of community and collaboration. Imagine round tables, a generous spread of food, snippets of Appalachian folk music, art on easels and both new and established writers sharing their creative work in a conversational, family-friendly venue.
The Words publication is unique in that it is managed by high energy undergraduate students, instead of a professional staff or graduate assistants. Young editors market and operate the campus-wide literary contest, jury literary submissions, edit accepted pieces, layout the proof and manage the entire production schedule for the publication. TMC English professor and Creative Writing Vision Director Sherry Cook Stanforth believes that this expectation for high-level undergraduate performance follows the academic principles initiated decades ago by former TMC English professor Sandra Cuni, who died in 1973. Cuni left behind a legacy of excellence that merits continuance and proud leadership in both alumni and current students.
“In the early fall, I mentor the people on the Words Team and then I find my place in the corner. Our students amaze me—not only do they put together a top-notch, free literary magazine for the community, they also work hard to publish their creative pieces in forums beyond the college,” Stanforth notes. “Here’s the deal. If you assume excellence in your students, you will frequently find it.”
Stanforth started the Words Celebration 15 years ago to showcase the work of talented undergraduate students after gaining the material resources to convert the historically stapled, low budget version of Words into a perfectly bound, full-color literary magazine for public distribution. Since that time, the students’ published work annually appears in Words alongside literature from some of the region’s best writers. Some of the regionally-committed authors and musicians who have supported the Words mission include poet laureates Richard Taylor (KY), Frank X Walker (KY) and Marc Harshman (WV), as well as Appalachian heritage artists Jean Ritchie, Awiakta, Gurney Norman, Atwater-Donnelly, Robert Gipe, Jean Bryner, Maurice Manning, Randy Wilson, Dana Wildsmith, Cathy Smith Bowers and Stephen Holt.
Finally, our own Cincinnati-based literary greats—Richard Hague, Pauletta Hansel and Mike Henson—have been steady supporters of Words and the creative writing programs it has inspired. Hansel, in fact, just served as TMC’s first writer in residence and continues to lead community creative writing workshops and retreats every semester. In recent years, the Words-planted seeds of camaraderie and apprenticeship have bloomed into a high-energy outreach mission called Creative Writing Vision, which offers free and affordable arts events and down-to-earth mingling among well-known regional authors and diverse community members, including young people. In the spirit of the Words project, the Creative Writing Vision program emphasizes student leadership and community involvement—it includes teaching assistantships, on-campus public creative writing workshops, day-long writing retreats along the Ohio River at the TMC Biology Field Station, K-12 “meet-the-artist” programs and interdisciplinary activities, music concerts, bookstore and library events, and collaborations with other non-profit organizations.
Words matter. Words inspire people to impact communities in meaningful ways. The challenge for Stanforth is in developing environments where people feel encouraged to take time from their busy lives to think, read and write together. “If the design reflects a genuine family spirit, then people will want to form lifelong relationships with the fine arts and each other,” says Stanforth. “The more diverse the crowd, the better. Our goal is to provide settings that represent a creative homecoming of sorts, where people from all corners meet at the table over and over again to experience writing inspiration.”