By Abriana Jetté
Sayreville, NJ, USA

It is sometimes easy to feel lost in a sea of voices when thinking about the large communities that are literary organizations. Large crowds have the potential to spark fear: the fear of saying something wrong, the fear of saying something inaccurate, the fear of saying something other than what you wanted to say, and so on and so on. When speaking in the presence of respected scholars and writers, this fear can be overwhelming. The Association of Literary Scholars and Creative Writers (ALSCW) is dedicated to eliminating such fears. Whether members are tenured professors, accomplished writers, or first-year graduate students, the purpose of the ALSCW is the commitment to keep literary discussion thriving. Over the span of two decades, the ALSCW has continuously supported writers through generous fellowships and residencies, and, perhaps more importantly, it has established an inclusive, diverse community for its members to share their ideas.
I first joined the ALSCW at the recommendation of a former Poetry Professor in Graduate school. On our last day of class, she said, with conviction, that if we were only to be a member of one literary organization, the ALSCW should be the one. After talking with her privately, I remember, she paid for the first year of my membership. She said she was offering me this gift because she knew I would renew it come the following year. Seven years later, she was right. This memory continues to define the spirit of the ALSCW for me: the generosity of its members is only matched by their intellect.
Throughout the year, the ALSCW hosts local poetry readings and author talks, publishes two journals, Literary Matters and Literary Imagination, and hosts an annual conference. The 23rd annual ALSCW Conference, which will occur from October 3-6, 2019, will be held at the College of the Holy Cross, and the “Call For Papers” is available on its website.      

Stay Thirsty Magazine and the ALSCW share a common mission to promote conversations surrounding the arts. Because of our shared commitment to the artistic community, portions of the proceeds from Stay Thirsty Poets - Vol. I, my latest anthology published through Rove-Over Books, an imprint of Stay Thirsty Publishing, will be donated to the ALSCW. We hope that with this donation, the ALSCW will continue its history of supporting literary scholars and creative writers. 
This winter, I caught up with Executive Director of the ALSCW, Dr. Ernest Suarez, to find out more about the history and future of the ALSCW. Dr. Suarez is the Chair of the English department at the Catholic University of America. He is currently co-authoring a book with Mike Mattison (Tedeschi Trucks Band) on how the blues and rock & roll impact modern and contemporary poetry.

ABRIANA JETTÉ: Tell us a little about the ALSCW. When was it founded? What is its mission?

ERNEST SUAREZ: The ALSCW’s mission is ensure that literature thrives in both scholarly and creative environments. We encourage the reading and writing of literature, criticism, and scholarship, as well as wide-ranging discussions among people committed to the reading and study of literary works. The organization was founded in 1994 by what an article in the New York Times called a “Who’s Who of
Ernest Suarez
literary critics.” We still have a very rich membership, one that consists of critics, poets, playwrights, novelists, translators, musicians, secondary school teachers, editors, filmmakers, and literary agents. Our members have received MacArthur Fellowships, Grammy Awards, Carnegie fellowships, and more. We’re all about literature and the arts—and about providing opportunities for people from many walks of life to interact. 

People often ask why the ALSCW was founded. It’s important to stress that the ALSCW started because of the ascendancy of postmodernist theory in the 1980s and 1990s, but not because of the politics associated with postmodern theory. The issue was that literary study had become so overly politicized that people were losing sight of why literature is valuable. Literature and the arts often contain a political dimension, and that’s an important part of the picture, but it’s not the entire picture. We read great writers, from Homer to Toni Morrison, because their work helps us think about what it means to be human. Great literature has been written by people from different times, from different backgrounds, and encompasses a range of perspectives. Writers approach what it means to be human in a variety of ways. That dynamic is what makes literary study rich and textured. Any method—whether it’s postmodern theories or approaches that use literature to affirm the greatness of western civilization—that doesn’t take this into account is lacking. When literature is turned into a sociological abstraction, the individual human element is lost. A sense of craft and a sense of literature as an art form are lost. Emotional subtleties are lost.

ABRIANA JETTÉ: What changes have occurred in the organization since its inception?

ERNEST SUAREZ: The organization has grown. The organization began in 1994 and the first issue of Literary Imagination (Oxford UP) came out in 1999. That journal is still thriving, and over the last few years Ryan Wilson has transformed Literary Matters, which was a newsletter, into a first-rate online journal. Our annual conference has also continued to evolve. We run seminars as well as plenary panels and special events—readings, musical and dramatic performances, keynote lectures, and other things. The quality of the seminars particularly is rewarding. People who might be giving the keynote at another conference work side-by-side with younger scholars and others. The focus is on the subject matter and the quality of the exchange, not on what stage of career you’re at. It’s refreshing. Mentorship remains part of our ethos, but it tends to be a casual and natural outgrowth of the exchanges that transpire during the sessions and outside of them. The ALSCW is very non-hierarchical, though people sometimes have a hard time believing it when they see many of the members’ accomplishment. But once they experience how the seminars work and how the conferences are organized, they settle into the flow of things.

ABRIANA JETTÉ: What kind of opportunities does the ALSCW provide to its supporters? What sort of opportunities does the ALSCW provide to those who are not members?

ERNEST SUAREZ: Members receive the publications I mentioned and have the chance to attend and participate in our annual conference. They can also submit their writing for the annual Meringoff prizes. We give awards in the categories of fiction, poetry, and the essay. Each prize comes with a $2,500 cash prize, the opportunity to read at the annual conference, and publication in Literary Imagination or Literary Matters. We also give out two fellowships every year. Members can apply for the Vermont Studio Center fellowship for creative writers and translators, and apply or sponsor a student for the ALSCW dissertation fellowship. Both of these fellowships are designed to provide the winners with a substantial stretch of time in a quiet, beautiful setting in order to focus on their work.

We also hold local events around the country that usually are open to non-members. This spring we have three in Washington, DC, an event in Chicago, and another in NYC. These events feature a prominent speaker and/or a performance, and typically are followed by a reception. They tend to be free and open to the public. We sponsor the Meringoff High School Essay prize, which is open to non-members; it carries a $2,500 award. On a larger scale, the ALSCW works to promote literature and the humanities among decision makers in and outside government. We study and make proposals for high school, undergraduate, and graduate school curricula.

ABRIANA JETTÉ: You mentioned that the ALSCW publishes two journals. Tell me more about them.

ERNEST SUAREZ: Literary Imagination publishes essays that explore the significance of literary works throughout the ages, as well as original poetry and fiction by writers ranging from Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winners to folks whose careers are just getting underway. The journal’s editor—Archie Burnett—is a world-renowned scholar who has edited the verse of Milton, Housman, Larkin, and others. Rosanna Warren and I are associate editors. Rosanna is one of our finest living poets and a wonderful scholar. Our overriding criteria for Literary Imagination are excellence, relevance, and lively lucid prose.

I think there’s been a slow and steady shift, especially among younger scholars, back towards studying literature-as-literature and towards an emphasis on the relationship between literature and the other arts, and away from seeing literature primarily as a sociological phenomenon. The ALSCW and Literary Imagination have played a powerful role in this transformation. This doesn’t mean ignoring literature’s political and cultural dimensions. It means engaging those things more fully and accurately. I like criticism with a narrative emphasis, scholarship that carefully situates writers and works within their historical moment and that offers close readings of works within those contexts—and I appreciate criticism that goes on to explicitly and implicitly assess how particular writers have impacted subsequent writers and the implications for our thinking today. I would like to see more criticism by practicing artists; it tends to help remind us that literature and art are created by human beings, and contain all the ironies and paradoxes associated with diverse people at different times and in different places.  I think there’s excellent work being done by narrative theorists, like Brian Richardson at the University of Maryland, who understand the nuances of literary form and its relationship to human expression. I also think there’s terrific work to be done on “poetic song verse,” forms of song that use voice, instrumentation, and arrangement to foreground richly texture lyrics. We see it as a subgenre of song that’s also a form of literature. Literary Imagination supports all of these things. Literary Matters is our online journal. It’s published three times a year and is free. The journal has taken off. The quality of the verse, the essays, and the reviews are outstanding. Like Literary Imagination, it features work by established writers and up and coming ones. It also publishes recommended readings, as well as a list of recent books by our members. 

ABRIANA JETTÉ: What can we expect from the future of the ALSCW?

ERNEST SUAREZ: I believe we’ll continue to grow. Our membership has almost doubled over the last few years. One of the challenges is keeping our annual conference intimate. We want to give folks the opportunity to participate, of course, but the conference is designed to promote an ongoing dialogue about literature and the arts over several days as people move between seminars (four or five at a time) to plenary sessions (one at a time) to readings and social events in the evening.  We’ve worked at raising money to help graduate students attend the conference, and will be offering them substantially discounted registration and banquet fees at the conference. We’ve also made it a point not to raise the membership fee for students, retired faculty, and people making less than $50,000 a year. Hopefully more of this is in our future. People have been extraordinarily generous. 

Stay Thirsty Poets is an example of that generosity. When you have the likes of Jericho Brown, Billy Collins, Paul Muldoon, Robert Pinsky, and A.E. Stallings donating their profits to the ALSCW, it’s remarkable. We are very grateful!

With our annual conferences, local meetings, publications, fellowships, and other endeavors we stress quality—not elitism, not hierarchy, not self-importance—but quality, generosity, substance, humor, intelligence, openness, diversity, and a genuine love for literature and the arts with an emphasis on what it means to be human. That’s our present and our future.

Rove-Over Books at Stay Thirsty Publishing    


Abriana Jetté is the author of the Amazon #1 bestselling women's poetry anthology 50 Whispers. Her newest poetry anthology, Stay Thirsty Poets - Vol. I, was released in February 2019.

All opinions expressed are solely those of its author and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.