Righting the writing ship: Longstanding WriteAngles Conference returns after five-year absence

The WriteAngles Conference, the long-running Valley literary get-together that shut down five years ago because of the pandemic, is returning April 6 in Northampton.

The WriteAngles Conference, the long-running Valley literary get-together that shut down five years ago because of the pandemic, is returning April 6 in Northampton. Image from WriteAngles Conference website

Poet and novelist Honorée Fanonne Jeffers will be the keynote speaker at the WriteAngles Conference April 6.

Poet and novelist Honorée Fanonne Jeffers will be the keynote speaker at the WriteAngles Conference April 6. Photo by Sydney A. Foster

Poet and novelist Honorée Fanonne Jeffers, who won widespread acclaim for her 2021 novel “The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois,” will be the keynote speaker at the WriteAngles Conference April 6.

Poet and novelist Honorée Fanonne Jeffers, who won widespread acclaim for her 2021 novel “The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois,” will be the keynote speaker at the WriteAngles Conference April 6. Photo by Sydney A. Foster

 “The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois” won the 2022 National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction.

 “The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois” won the 2022 National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction.

 “The Age of Phillis” was  long-listed for the 2020 National Book Award for Poetry.

 “The Age of Phillis” was  long-listed for the 2020 National Book Award for Poetry.

Northampton writer Ellen Meeropol, a co-founder of the Straw Dog Writers Guild, is a key organizer of the WriteAngles Conference.

Northampton writer Ellen Meeropol, a co-founder of the Straw Dog Writers Guild, is a key organizer of the WriteAngles Conference. Photo by Danielle Tait

Valley writer Regine Jackson is one of about 30 presenters at the WriteAngles Conference.

Valley writer Regine Jackson is one of about 30 presenters at the WriteAngles Conference. Photo courtesy of Ellen Meeropol

The late Abel and Anne Meeropol. Keynote speaker Honorée Jeffers will receive an award at the WriteAngles Conference named after Abel Meeropol, who wrote the seminal anti-lynching song “Strange Fruit” in 1939.

The late Abel and Anne Meeropol. Keynote speaker Honorée Jeffers will receive an award at the WriteAngles Conference named after Abel Meeropol, who wrote the seminal anti-lynching song “Strange Fruit” in 1939. Photo courtesy of Ellen Meeropol

Abel Meeropol with his adopted sons, Robert, left, and Michael circa early 1950s. Keynote speaker Honorée Jeffers will receive an award at the WriteAngles Conference named after Meeropol, who wrote the seminal anti-lynching song “Strange Fruit” in 1939.

Abel Meeropol with his adopted sons, Robert, left, and Michael circa early 1950s. Keynote speaker Honorée Jeffers will receive an award at the WriteAngles Conference named after Meeropol, who wrote the seminal anti-lynching song “Strange Fruit” in 1939. Image courtesy of Ellen Meeropol

By STEVE PFARRER

Staff Writer

Published: 03-14-2024 2:48 PM

Modified: 03-15-2024 12:07 PM


Since 1987, the WriteAngles Conference had been an annual fixture in the Valley, typically held at one of the local colleges, bringing together area writers, poets, editors, publishers, and booksellers to examine all things literary.

Then COVID-19 arrived, the 2020 conference was canceled, and it was not revived — until now.

On April 6 in Northampton, WriteAngles will celebrate its rebirth with a full day of panel discussions and workshops on varied literary topics, from storytelling ideas to carving out time to write to investigating different ways of publicizing your work.

And under the organization of Straw Dog Writers Guild, the principal planners for the 2024 conference, the event has developed, well, some new angles, bringing in panelists from across western Massachusetts and opening forums in particular for younger writers and writers of color.

As in past years, the conference will also feature a keynote speaker. But whereas area writers primarily served in that capacity previously, this year’s speaker hails from Oklahoma: Honorée Fanonne Jeffers, the noted poet whose 2021 debut novel, “The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois,” won a National Book Critics Circle Award in Fiction and landed on the “10 Best Books of 2021” lists of dozens of publications.

“We wanted to have a good speaker to relaunch the conference, and we’re all really excited to have Honorée coming here,” said Ellen Meeropol, a Northampton novelist and a co-founder of the Straw Dog Writers Guild; as such, she’s been a key organizer of the 2024 conference.

Meeropol added that she was “blown away” by Jeffers’ novel, a sweeping story of a modern African American family that also explores the nation’s tortured history of slavery and how that shaped the different generations of the family.

“I loved the historical aspects of her novel,” Meeropol. “Her writing is really lyrical … of course she has that deep background as a poet.”

Article continues after...

Yesterday's Most Read Articles

Hadley’s Hampshire Mall faces foreclosure
GOP silences McGovern over Trump remarks
Looming rent hikes worry artists at Cottage Street Studios in Easthampton
Balise finds temporary home for Subaru dealership in Hadley
Officials sorting out disarray at Leverett Elementary School
Guest columnist Larry Hott: ‘Daughter of Cummington’ brings stories to the stage

Jeffers, who teaches creative writing at the University of Oklahoma, was chosen from an initial “long list” of 10 potential keynote speakers, Meeropol noted, which had been whittled down from an earlier, larger list.

Jeffers is the author of another acclaimed book, the 2020 poetry collection “The Age of Phillis,” which was inspired by the poetry of Phllis Wheatley, the 18th-century American writer from Massachusetts. Enslaved as a young woman and later freed, she’s considered the first published African-American poet.

Efforts to reach Jeffers for comment were unsuccessful.

Meantime, the April 6 conference, which takes place at 33 Hawley from 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., will feature over 30 area and regional writers and educators, from various genres and backgrounds, hosting 12 separate panel discussions and workshops.

For instance, spoken word poet Lyrical Faith, a co-producer of the Valley Voices Storytelling Slam, will be part of a discussion that looks at formats other than books — podcasts, poetry slams, fan fiction sites, songs — for sharing stories.

Singer, songwriter, and writer Nerissa Nields, of the longstanding folk group of the same name, is also on that panel, as is Nicole M. Young-Martin, a poet, playwright and arts event producer.

Meeropol, who’s been involved with WriteAngles since the early 2000s, said when Straw Dog Writers Guild took over planning for this year’s event, “We really wanted to take the best parts of the old conference and add some new elements, particularly based on input” from past attendees and area writers.

In the last couple of years, Meeropol explained, planners held forums in all four western Massachusetts counties, in conjunction with regional arts organizers, to get feedback on new topics for the conference. One suggested forum, for example, was a panel on “writing in community,” in which writers of varying skill and experience levels can get feedback.

Meeropol noted that in taking over planning for WriteAngles — previous conferences were put together by volunteers from different organizations — Straw Dog Writers Guild decided a bigger budget (between $35,000 and $40,000) was needed to make sure all contributors were paid. That’s meant seeking donations and sponsorships, as well as grant funding, has been a big part of this year’s effort.

“We’re fortunate that a lot of people and businesses have really stepped us for us,” she said.

Honoring Abel Meeropol

The 2024 WriteAngles Conference will add an additional element: Jeffers, the keynote speaker, will receive the Abel Meeropol Social Justice Writing Award from Straw Dog Writers Guild.

It’s the second time the group has offered the award, named for Abel Meeropol, the late father-in-law of Ellen and a teacher and poet who wrote the seminal 1939 song “Strange Fruit,” a cry against lynching that was recorded by Billie Holiday and many other artists; it was named Song of the Century by Time magazine in 1999.

Abel Meeropol and his wife, Anne, also adopted Robert Meeropol, Ellen’s husband, and his brother, Michael, as young boys in 1953 after their birth parents, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, were executed by the U.S. government following a controversial trial for passing state secrets to the Soviet Union. The Meeropols were active in a number or progressive causes during their lifetime.

“I’m not sure what Abel would think of us giving out this award in his name,” Ellen Meeropol said with a laugh. “He was a very quiet, self-effacing man.”

On the other hand, she noted, “He would have really admired Honorée Jeffers’ work … and we think she’s a great candidate for the award because of how eloquently she’s spoken and written about our need to come to grips with the history of slavery.”

For more details of the WriteAngles Conference, including registration fees, visit writeanglesconference.com. Attendance will be capped at 150 people.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.