“Jacksonville is one of the biggest small towns in the world,” said Jessica Hatch, editor and publicist at Hatch Editorial Services. “So one of the biggest challenges is, how do we become greater than the sum of our parts?”
And it is. Jacksonville is spread out and fragmented, but everyone seems to know each other. The writing community is like that, too. Efforts to make it stronger are spread all throughout the city. The Jacksonville Public Library hosts author talks at most of its locations. There are workshops located in Ponte Vedra, poetry nights downtown and readings in Riverside/Avondale.
But writing by nature is individualized and isolating. You hole up in the corner of a coffee shop, hunched over your laptop, headphones stuffed in your ears, and you don’t talk to anyone for hours. So how do you build a community made up of a bunch of introverts?
The internet has helped bridge that gap, according to Tim Gilmore, Jax native and author of “Devil in the Baptist Church: Bob Gray’s Unholy Trinity.”
“Jacksonville has always been a place that’s had a hard time being in touch with itself,” he said. “But I think it’s a much more sophisticated town than it used to be.”
Gilmore is also in charge of JaxbyJax, an annual literary festival that spans 14 venues across Riverside/Avondale, with readings from over 25 local writers.
“The purpose of JaxbyJax has really been to showcase how much there is and bring writers together,” he said. He also praised the inaugural Jax Book Fest held at the Main Library, which connected writers with readings and meet-and-greets.
Hatch agreed. She attended the festival as a literary professional. “I felt like this was a great way for writers, literary professionals and readers to interact in one place,” she said. The festival will be held again on March 23, 2018.
Siddie Friar is a member of the worker-owner cooperative at Coniferous Cafe. She has scheduled local author and poetry nights at the cafe with considerable success.
“It seems like a really supportive, growing and diverse community that stands through all the boroughs of Jacksonville,” she said. It’s also far-reaching. She’s met people who attend that travel from as far as Georgia and Lake City at least once a month.
Others are not as optimistic about the community. Yvette Angelique is a local poet, essayist and writing teacher. She craves a more unified community that’s focused on learning the art of writing, together.
“In our community, there’s a hodge podge of patches of people who write. But there’s not a lot going on with creative writing that takes it beyond emotional journaling,” she said. Angelique moved here from Philadelphia four years ago and has had trouble finding writers who want to really learn about their craft.
She believes it’s because UNF’s graduate writing program isn’t as strong as it could be. The only literary program offered is in English, not creative writing. It’s also a master of arts, whereas most renowned writing programs are masters of fine arts.
Sohrab Homi Fracis, local author of “Go Home,” and a reader at last year’s JaxbyJax, has an M.A. in English from UNF. His concentration is in creative writing, which isn’t offered anymore. It is frustrating for him to continually clarify that his M.A. is just as good as an M.F.A. But he is proud of what UNF taught him, and has achieved national and international recognition. He was the first Asian author to win the Iowa Short Fiction award, called one of the most prestigious by the New York Times.
He believes what will really help the community is more local writers becoming more well-known.
“The more writers we have who transcend the local exposure, the better,” he said. He thinks the community is strong right now, but that it needs events that merge local authors with national and international authors.
Jacksonville’s writing community has some work to do. But if it can keep up the momentum it has going now, there’s no telling what it will bring to the Bold City.