Phoenix Poets Literary Festival engages students with South Side literary community

The University of Chicago Press and the Creative Writing Program celebrated National Poetry Month with a three day program

An unseasonably warm spring week was the perfect backdrop for the Phoenix Poets Literary Festival, a three-day program of readings, panels and roundtables featuring world-renowned writers in conversation with University of Chicago faculty, students and the literary community on the South Side of Chicago.

The event ran from April 12-14 in celebration of National Poetry Month and the relaunch of the Phoenix Poets series. Originally founded by the University of Chicago Press in 1983, it has published countless contemporary poets. Books in the series have won many major awards, including the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the National Book Award and more.

The Phoenix Poets series logo
The Phoenix Poets series logo

In 2021, a new editorial team took over the series, led by UChicago professor, poet and literary scholar Srikanth Reddy, the series’ first publicly named editor since the 1990s. Under new leadership, the Phoenix Poets series hopes to expand its reach and readership by including and promoting emerging literary voices both nationally and globally.

The literary festival was a collaborative effort from both the University of Chicago Press and the UChicago Creative Writing department. Its programming was created by faculty and geared towards undergraduate students in the program, in particular those interested in poetry.

The festival began on Wednesday, April 12 with a reading by Vijay Seshadri, author of the poetry books “Wild Kingdom,” “The Long Meadow,” “The Disappearances,” “3 Sections,” and “That Was Now, This Is Then,” as well as dozens of essays, reviews, and memoir fragments. His work has been widely published and anthologized and recognized with a number of honors, among them the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. The reading was then followed by a Q&A moderated by Reddy.

On April 13, an entire day of events took place at Experimental Station, a multidimensional space supporting South Side artists just at the edge of the University campus. Programming opened with “The Poetics of Nonfiction,” which focused on the many relationships between poetry and nonfiction, and navigating moving between these genres. This conversation with Vijay Seshadri was led and moderated by Rachel Cohen, Professor of Practice in the Arts at UChicago.

This was followed by a roundtable conversation and readings in “Phoenix Poet Relaunch” with Rosa Alcalá, Douglas Kearney, Katie Peterson, Srikanth Reddy, and Alan Thomas on the official relaunch of the Phoenix Poets series. The new editorial team spoke about their visions for the series and how their own literary practice as poets informs their decisions as literary editors.

The day ended with a reading by Dong Li and Annelyse Gelman, who were the first to be featured in the relaunched Phoenix Poets series. Both poets displayed their distinct styles in both their writing and their readings, captivating the audience with their works and voices for the full hour.

Li’s “The Orange Tree” is a collection of narrative poems focused on Chinese history as experienced by one family through time. Here, he experiments greatly with language, inventing several words and phrases based on the Chinese language through translation to conjure and connect the family stories. Annelyse Gelman’s “Vexations” is a book-length poem that details a mother and daughter's journey through a world of social and economic collapse in search of a post-capitalist safe haven. She explores the speculative and the uncanny, and employs repetition and variation to engage her readers.

Attendees were then invited to a celebratory dinner at the venue, which provided students in the Creative Writing Program an exciting way to mix and mingle with the faculty, poets and other participants.

The final day of the festival was held at the Logan Center for the Arts Penthouse. The first event, “Poetry in Motion: A Roundtable on Translation” featured a discussion on translating poetry with Hai-Dang Phan, Rosa Alcalá, Margaret Ross, and Rachel Galvin. 

This was then followed by a panel on literary publishing, which consisted of editors of major publications—Chicago Review, Fences, Paris Review, and Poetry Magazine—meant to give students the opportunity to ask questions and learn about the publishing world.

The closer of the festival was a reading with Hai-Dang Phan on his poetry collection “Reenactments,” in which he grapples with the history, memory, and legacy of the Vietnam War. Phan works in a kaleidoscope of binaries—past and present, remembered and imagined—to provide perspectives on conflicts both private and public.