Home is Where the Art Is: Writing as Community

by Bianca Spriggs

Today, I am writing from the historic Hindman Settlement School in Hindman, Kentucky.  It is yet June and the temperature is already rising into the high nineties. James Still’s cabin resides on this land as does his final resting place. There are copperheads, silkworm moths, elk, and brushfires in this area, and until recently, the water was a clay color and undrinkable from the tap (a casualty of mountaintop removal) before the city decided to draw this precious resource from another reservoir. Every year, writers and readers of every age descend upon this campus to inspire and be inspired.

I am here with my administrator hat on, helping to run The Twenty: A Kentucky Young Writers Advance, the brainchild of poet, Nikky Finney and several other committed authors who saw an opportunity to get a hold of the burgeoning talent in Kentucky, a state many call the literary capital of Mid-America. Hosted by the University of Kentucky, The Twenty welcomes young writers between the ages 19-23 (or thereabouts) who are serious about maintaining a relationship with writing throughout their lives whether they plan on becoming full-time writers or share their art with another passion or calling. They sojourn into the mountains to study professional development and craft with established authors for an entire week, and it is our hope that they emerge, with a much stronger take on what they envision for their writing-lives.

At the beginning of the week the students arrive in various stages of intent and accomplishment. Some of them have met previously. Some don’t know a soul on this campus. But they are all here because something in them craves a literary community, people who aren’t their parents or friends or family members or teachers in school, who understand their writerly impulses. Many arrive nervous, but willing to write boldly, to take real risks in their work for the first time. At our opening circle this year, one of the students, a tall young man, a poet, with a beautiful twang, who doesn’t know we all practically hold our breath to soak it up when he reads, said, “All you need is a week.” We’ve dubbed that as our unofficial motto this year because of the maturation rate of the writing that happens in this six days residing on a campus where the experience is only a few steps up from roughing it camping-style.

I’ve long had a taste for activism and reaching underrepresented populations. I can remember how my mother used to take my sister and me into nursing homes for Sunday programming revolving around her ministry. I’d wanted to do something similar in my adult life more along the lines of my own calling, that of wordsmithing. In late 2010, my friend and occasional collaborator, LeTonia Jones approached me as a representative of the Kentucky Domestic Violence Association because she’d spent almost a decade as an advocate in the prison systems of Kentucky and knew the need for creative writing workshops, particularly in the women’s facilities. LeTonia knew of my interest in starting a workshop community within this demographic, and she also wanted to document the process similar to the work Eve Ensler and Wally Lamb have produced with women’s prisons in their regions. And so we met and began to secure funding through KDVA, the Kentucky Foundation for Women, as well as the help of an intern and a photographer.

Our first reading at the Federal Prison Camp featured a reading in a basement community room surrounded by handmade quilts. Frank X Walker, Leatha Kendrick, and I read to a room of about fifty riveted women inmates. We gave the inmates copies of books on the writing craft, journals, and other goodies. There have been a few challenges along the way, but since that first reading, we’ve accepted a slew of paperback book donations to the facilities we visit, and soon, we will have a publication featuring the women’s portraits and writing, the physical representation of all our hard work over the past couple of years coupled with the cooperation of the various facilities’ administrations, and of course, the cooperation of the women we visit as often as we can.

As different as they are, the sojourns to Hindman and into women’s correctional facilities are both reminiscent of my first communal experience of unfettered, unparalleled writing, that for me, did not occur in any classroom workshop. I have very fond memories of my first year at a writing retreat known as Cave Canem: a home for black poets.

I first heard about Cave Canem from someone in the Affrilachian Poets, the first writing enclave I was ever invited into, in 2004. I believe it was Kelly Ellis and Frank X Walker who started talking about their experiences at Cave Canem and encouraged the rest of us to apply. Founded in 1991, the Affrilachians who are spread out around the nation but always, always remain rooted in the Appalachian Region, now communicate primarily over an email list-serv. There’s a distinct familial vibe to us despite the fact that several of our members are enjoying some serious accolades, academic, and publishing credentials. We know one another’s spouses and partners, children, literary aesthetics, and bourbon tastes, as dearly as our own. And so, I trusted that any organization they might endorse, I should probably seriously look into. At the time, I was also enrolled in the Creative Writing M.A. program at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and had met other writers who’d come through town and were already Cave Canem fellows or in the process of applying. I felt instinctively from meeting them that Cave Canem was my tribe and I should figure out a way to join.

I applied to Cave Canem twice. I was wait-listed the second time in 2006 but in a fortunate turn of events, asked to join the retreat that summer, which included among its faculty—in addition to Toi Dericotte and Cornelius Eady—Patricia Smith, Kwame Dawes, Cyrus Cassells, Elizabeth Alexander, and Lucille Clifton as our feature that year. Since that time, I’ve met and worked with other amazing poets including Rita Dove, Carl Phillips, Yusef Komunyakaa, Ed Roberson, Claudia Rankine, and on and on. This does not even begin to cover the caliber of black poets who have come through the program as fellows and continue to do, as they say in the South, “the Lord’s work” in the literary world. 

Why is this important? Cave Canem was specifically geared towards not just people of color, but black poets. It was supremely refreshing and a luxury even, to be immersed in an environment where so many of the cultural references my poems and personality are often infused with were a given. This was very important for me at a time when my writing consisted of exploring strong themes of identity. In past experiences, there might be one or two other people of color, sometimes another black poet, in the same workshop. Although UW-Milwauke delivered consistently rewarding workshop-mates and professors, it just didn't feel so lonely to be in Cave Canem. Also, because of the model of writing a poem a day, that really sort of opened up my world in terms of the relationship between inspiration and self-discipline. I had previously always thought that poems just sort of dropped in your lap like ripe fruit. Cave Canem taught me to bring a ladder to the orchard and how to glean inspiration. And not just how to glean, but to take the initiative to decide to look in the first place rather than wait. An important lesson.

Cave Canem also offers further opportunities through our list-serv. After your first retreat, you're added to the list and are privy to announcements from Cave Canem headquarters and other fellows about publishing opportunities, residencies, job postings, and so on. So there's an element of professional development there for us to take advantage of. A day doesn't go by that Cave Canem isn't in my ear. Also, there is typically a Cave Canem reading every year at AWP and plenty of fellows and faculty on panels, so a mini-reunion is always nice to refresh that sensation of solidarity.

Of course this is all the aftermath of what happens during that week in June. During the retreat, there's a palpable energy on campus. You can almost see it. I imagine it looks something like that river of pink slime in Ghostbusters II. Except that slime was agitating in a sort of destructive way. This slime is a luscious, irresistible azure. You throw some inanimate idea up in the air and it comes to life. I have found myself arriving at the retreat in a stalemate with my craft and by the time I leave, I'm doing the Electric Slide through poems. Sometimes literally depending on which day of the week we're on. But I think it's one of those things where we're all just ready to go there. There's no telling what circumstances everyone's leaving behind to take that week off. But there's no mistake, we're all there to work really hard and play really hard, both equally integral to an artist's health. It's impossible, if you're willing, to not grow exponentially as an artist in that week. To sample from that great cornucopia of ideas and methods to reach ideas, to learn what people are doing elsewhere, figuring new ways into your own work, the competition of outdoing oneself everyday in workshop, which faculty member you really want to wow...it's a mosh pit of creativity. The idea is to come armed with that attitude, that willingness...the stronger that is in each fellow, the stronger the community wellspring.

There's never an official time where we all sit down together and say, "Okay, here's what it means to be a poet and specifically a black poet." There is an opening circle the first night where we all introduce ourselves and say who we are and where we're from. You start to see those themes emerge. But for me anyway, the conversation of being a poet and black poet is an ongoing umbrella topic throughout the whole week and beyond. This is happening simultaneously alongside conversations about Michael Jackson, tattoos, almond milk vs. soy milk, and whether or not midnight frisbee or foot race could be a good idea before or after the erotic poetry reading someone scheduled for midnight.

There is even a healthy mix of *gasp* slam poets and performance poets who've attended and even been faculty...seasoned poets well known and decorated for their spoken word prowess. But to differentiate between poetry meant for the ears versus poetry meant for the eyes is tricky. For me, it's meant for both. Do you have poets who more actively practice techniques to perform or read their poetry in venues dedicated to that sort of thing? Certainly. But I don't know that there is a separation of camps during the retreat or afterward. You have your poets who are perhaps more experimental on the page, almost like visual artists. You have your poets who are more adept at narrative, more at concept or language. I would like to think we're all learning from one another. Personal style is akin to the way people choose to worship. There are plenty of denominations in terms of poetic style to go around at Cave Canem. And we celebrate them all.

I know I am making Cave Canem sound like poet-Disney World. It is that for many of us. But, look. I was going to be a poet whether I had Cave Canem or not. Perhaps being a fellow gives you a kind of edge in terms of networking and the rampant creativity I mentioned earlier that we all have access to. That is certainly a luxury. But there are some people who get to the retreat and are like, "You know what? This isn't what I need. This isn't for me." And they go off and do their own thing. And they might have applied numerous times to get in, just to find out it wasn’t for them. What I like about this writing enclave is that while plenty of us have enjoyed publication, funding, awards, etc., I think Cave Canem fellows as a group are unique in that there are so many of us who understand that you value the craft first. The trappings of success are nice, but at the end of the day, writers write.

But perhaps the necessity of an established writing community, The Twenty, Cave Canem, the Affrilachian Poets, and The SwallowTale Project is what makes these groups so successful. There was a serious void before they came along. And because so many members and instructors recognize that these groups are unique and precious, it makes our time together feel hallowed, something to be cherished. I don't know that you can replicate that notion specifically as each community has different needs, but there are underrepresented poets everywhere who would surely benefit from a consistent artistic community. Ultimately, as long as a writing community is willing to grow together, to stay committed to producing quality work, it will remain successful.