The Leader of Clemson’s Literary Festival: Meet Professor John Pursley

Ahead of the English Department’s 15th annual Literary Festival, John Pursley, a senior lecturer at Clemson University, sat down with the English Unbound team to discuss how his involvement in the festival has evolved over the years. When Pursley started at Clemson, he began working on the Literary Festival with Keith Morris, and taught Creative Writing courses. Pursley is now in his fifth year of teaching the Literary Festival course on his own and is excited by the challenge it presents every year.

The student-run Literary Festival course is led by a different cohort every year, with the spring 2022 group consisting of seven undergraduate students. Students work closely with Pursley to plan the festival, contact featured writers and use their varying talents to contribute to one of the English Department’s biggest events.

John Pursley

“The group has really stepped up. Some of them are doing a lot of work, and I am really happy with what they have done,” said Pursley. 

One of the unique aspects of the Literary Festival course is that the contributors are not all English majors, allowing them to bring their different skills and interests into the planning process. Pursley describes one of the students as being a very talented graphic designer and another one as being analytical and knowing exactly what they want. “Everyone in the class has found their niche and that’s what I need every semester,” said Pursley. 

Pursley also collaborates with students to choose which authors they are interested in inviting to the Literary Festival. They begin by taking recommendations from students and faculty and creating packets of close to 30 different authors per genre. In the early stages of planning, Pursley and his students will discuss which writers should attend and narrow it down based on what they believe will draw in Clemson students and community members. Between poetry, fiction and nonfiction, they try to maintain balance throughout the genres to ensure that there is something for everyone. 

Each year, Pursley aims to read all of the works by each author. As an Alabama graduate, he believes in Nick Saban’s infamous method of “buying into the program”, which he does through investing himself in the Literary Festival. Pursley and his students have been able to bring writers they want to hear from to Clemson and build relationships with the writers by communicating before the festival and helping them throughout. 

“I come from universities that had really vibrant literary communities, and it is something that Clemson is trying to build,” said Pursley when discussing the potential of growing the Literary Festival and possibly developing an MFA program in creative writing. 

Pursley hopes that the Clemson community will continue to back the arts and encourage students to get involved. He mentions the importance of supporting the arts at schools like Clemson, where the reputation is rooted in STEM and sports. Expanding the Literary Festival is just one way for students to be involved with the arts.

Outside the time Pursley spends working on developing the Literary Festival, he teaches three literature classes. Along with his career at Clemson, he plays in a local New Orleans jazz/blues band that kept him busy throughout Mardi Gras. Although Pursley always has lots going on, he always finds it fun to learn and adapt from the challenges of the Literary Festival. 

When asked to describe the Literary Festival, Pursley says that it is “a week of chaos that is really fun.” Pursley mentions that he used to push for a fourth day but now realizes that the extra day of rest is much needed and well-deserved, as they will begin planning the 2023 Literary Festival in April. 

“It’s awesome because when they finish the festival, they just want to do it again. The second it ends, they almost inevitably are like, ‘I can’t believe it’s over, I want to do it again!’” said Pursley.  

Pursley’s passion for helping his students and curating the annual Literary Festival is evident through his appreciation and excitement. When asked why Clemson students and community members should attend the Literary Festival, Pursley compared it to his first time going to the symphony. He didn’t know how he missed out on it for so long, and he hopes that students will feel the same about the readings and events of the Literary Festival.  

The spring 2022 Literary Festival will take place during the weekend of March 30 – April 1. If you are interested in helping with next year’s Literary Festival, you can register for ENGL 4990-002 Student Directors of the Clemson Literary Festival. Check out the schedule for this coming Literary Festival in the March edition of English Unbound or at this link:

 Written by: Chandler Brown



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