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Group working on Mississippi literary trail

Mississippi already has cultural trails that celebrate the state’s musical heritage and honor those involved in the Civil Rights movement.

A group of arts-centered state agency heads hopes to add a literary trail.

The Culture Club — which includes directors from Arts Commission, Library Commission, Department of Archives and History and the Humanities Council – has met once a month since Hurricane Katrina to kick around ways to promote Mississippi’s cultural history. The literary trail is the club’s latest big project.

Malcolm White, a Jackson restaurateur and director of the Arts Commission, said in an interview last week the literary trail is still in the very early planning stages.

“The way these things work, you start with research. You bring on a group of scholars to develop a comprehensive list of sites, places and people. We’d then develop a plan to get started on getting a dozen or so (sites) and start to raise money.”

The scholars for the project would most likely be culled from the state’s universities and public libraries, said Sharman Smith, executive director of the Library Commission. “They’d serve on a jury, so to speak,” she said. “We’d probably rank whatever list they came up with and then, once we have enough money in hand, we’d start going down the list.” The group has formed a list of possible scholars to serve, but hasn’t pared it down to who will actually be asked to do so, White said.

Like the Blues Trail, the Country Music Trail and the Freedom Trail, the literary trail would be self-funded, White said. The markers for the three existing trails cost $6,000 each; the literary trail’s markers would be a bit smaller in size and cost, at $4,500 apiece. White said an open book prototype marker has been developed.

The funding model for the literary trail will be similar to the one used for the other cultural trails. Leading the fundraising efforts, White said the Arts Commission would collect half the money needed for a set of markers via foundation grants, donations and sales of specialty license plates. The other half would come from private sources outside the Commission.

“That’s been the prototype for how we’ve gotten 156 blues markers in the ground, and 25 country music markers and 12 Freedom Trail markers,” White said. “So we’re kind of looking at that as a best practice.”

White said the preliminary planning work on the trail has not included settling on a number of markers. With the state’s volume of celebrated authors, 300 markers is doable, he said. Realistically, White added, a first phase of 50 markers is more likely.

To get there, the group would need to raise about $250,000. “That would end the talk and start the walk,” White said. As for the timeline, he added, the quicker it happens, the better. “The state absolutely must have this. It’s not something we need to get to later. It needs to be done now. Mississippi has such a strong cultural story to tell.”

Some of the authors who would be a part of the literary trail’s story are more obvious than others. “We all think about the Faulkners and those folks but there’s an entirely new set of authors to consider,” Smith said. “We have a huge number of writers in this state and I think we need to recognize them. There is something in Mississippi that cultivates writers, and I think it has a lot to do with our natural story-telling ability.”

White echoed Smith, saying not all of Mississippi’s literary heritage is in its past. He points to new U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey, a Gulfport native who also serves as Mississippi’s poet laureate. “We have a lot of young and active writers in Mississippi that are turning out high-quality, award-winning literature,” White said.

The Culture Club’s next meeting will be sometime in August. The literary trail is already on the agenda, White said.

“We’ve got money to raise, and we’ve got work to do so we’re getting started.”


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