Kitchen Table MFA: An Interview with Marty McConnell

This interview is part of the Kitchen Table MFA, a series that showcases writing communities through interviews and creative writing.

Marty McConnell’s Gathering Voices is based on her many years of experience facilitating community writing workshops in New York and Chicago. Each of the 24 workshop plans are included in the book.

The writing exercises are innovative – and just fun! Many of them are collaborative, with participants asked to contribute to worksheets that are passed around, so that each writer has a sheet of unexpected words to draw on for inspiration in their writing.

Marty’s emphasis on patience in reading reminds me of one of the most important lessons I learned in my time as a writer in the Inprint Teachers as Writers Workshops. In my college creative writing classes I’d been very taken with my own seriousness as a writer, and one of the things that meant for me was that I spent some portion of each semester trying to figure out who else was serious, who else was good, who I was going to listen to – and then tuning out many of the other students. I can see now how that attitude was born out of both competitiveness and anxiety, and how it impeded my own ability to listen and learn. In those community workshops, however, I wrote alongside writers from a much wider range of backgrounds, and the workshops were led by writers who insisted we take everyone’s work seriously. I remember one early workshop when a participant – a very nice woman, but someone I’d decided was not serious – brought in a brief and, to my mind, straightforward poem. I wanted to jump right to the part where we fixed it – but the facilitator insisted we spend time understanding it first, that we talk about the choices the writer had made with words and images and line breaks. That slowness was hard for me to learn, but it’s an invaluable lesson. 

Nancy Reddy (NR)

I really love the workshop plans in your book. They do such a great job of preparing writers for conversation about the selected poem, then using the poem as a jumping-off point for new writing. And I particularly love the exercises that involve collaboration, like the exercise accompanying Ocean Vuong’s “Because It’s Summer” in which students write on slips of paper, then swap papers, and the one for Patricia Smith’s “A Colored Girl Will Slice You If You Talk Wrong About Motown,” in which students trade random nouns and adjectives. They feel like a really great way to interject surprise and play in a writing practice. How did you develop your approach to workshop?  

Marty McConnell (MMC)

Before I went to grad school, my only experience with writing workshop was a group of women who got together each week to read and discuss our poems. We didn’t really know what we were doing, but we loved poetry and we loved each other, and it was fun. I loved my MFA workshops and craft classes, largely because I was just absolutely obsessed with language and so grateful to be in a place with other folks who were as well. I also had teachers who, for the most part, were about open-ended exploration of poetry and its possibilities, were committed to supporting us in deepening and broadening our understanding of poetry so that we could sound more like ourselves, rather than conforming to some stultifying idea of what poetry should be. Does that make sense? I felt very freed by what I was reading and learning, rather than feeling like the more I learned, the more I had to fit into some kind of poetry box, which I know is an experience some folks have had with writing programs. 

All that to say, when I returned to Chicago I was really interested in doing workshops that incorporated craft conversation, generation of new work, and some feedback opportunities. It does seem that one of the most significant things that sets the Gathering Voices approach apart is the playfulness of the writing prompts. Some of that came from a desire to break out of my own comfort zone, to generate work that did something new or different from what I’d gotten accustomed to creating. I was tired of my poems all sounding the same, and hearing poems from other people that all sounded more or less the same, so we started using these prompts that shake things up. It’s really easy to get attached to the first words we put on the page, for the first thing we make to become super precious, and these workshop practices defy that, complicate that. 

There’s also a kind of generosity that gets going when you give away your language, even if it’s just a few words, and that generosity generates its own momentum, and that momentum sparks a kind of connection, a sense of community, among the people in a room making poems together. 

Play is essential to writing – if we lose the ability to surprise ourselves in the writing process, we’re never going to produce something with the ability to surprise anyone else. I believe that these group exploratory practices help build that delight muscle, that freeing sense that the more we let go and get our egos out of the way as we write, the more likely we are to connect with the larger source from which great writing comes. And that’s such a joy. 

NR

I’m interested in the differences between academic and community writing spaces – the pedagogy of each, as well as how those spaces welcome (or don’t) different identities and different approaches to writing. You have an MFA, and you have a lot of experience as the facilitator of your Gathering Voices workshops. I’m curious how your experiences as a student in an academic poetry context influenced your approach to the community workshop.  

MMC

So I mentioned this above, that I really enjoyed my MFA program. I think sometimes about doing another MFA because I miss that sweet rigor. I was so uneducated in the ways of academia, and so in love with poetry, and so fortunate to have simultaneous community in my academic program AND in the slam world… one thing I took away from my academic studies was the need to read broadly and deeply and thoughtfully. Most of the writing workshops I encountered or knew of outside of academia focused exclusively on offering critique of one another’s poems, and while that has real value, it never felt quite enough. My first craft class teacher, Robert Danberg, introduced to us the idea that a poem is a human-made thing, and as such, a thing that can be unpacked to understand its making. Simple. And incredibly complex. And that stuck with me, and really formed the basis for how I approach poems on my own and as a facilitator. 

NR

How does your work in facilitating community-based workshops shape your own writing practice?

MMC

I can be a bit of a hermit in my writing practice, and facilitating workshops helps to combat that… while I do need solitude to write, it’s boring only to hear what the voices inside my own head have to say about poetry and the world, and poetry in the world. I’m consistently surprised by what I learn in these workshops, by the ways that others perceive poems and the fabulous tangents and rabbit holes we get to investigate. Each session becomes its own little temporary world, with its miniature obsessions and repetitions – what I take away from sessions is sometimes content, some concept we’ve chased down together, but more often is a reminder that the act of exploring ideas and perceptions without a limiting end-goal (like a test or grade) is as important to the writing process as putting words on the page. I’m reminded that my job as a writer is not to have all the answers, or any answer, but to live into the questions. 

NR

Your book is such an incredible resource for people looking to create a community-based workshop, or for writers groups who would like some additional guidance or inspiration. What advice would you give to writers looking to find or build writing community? 

MMC

Thank you! My first piece of advice is not to be afraid to start small. A writing community doesn’t have to be large in order to be powerful. Find the folks you connect with, who are interested in some of the same questions you’re interested in asking, and build with those people. Also, go where the people are – open mics, literary events, and such – and let people know what you’re doing in terms of offering workshops. Go places where people who are unlike you in some way gather — pay attention, listen, and talk to folks to see if what you’re offering is of interest, or how you can collaborate.

Looking for more Kitchen Table MFA interviews? Read about Dogfish, ALL, World Above, and Madwomen.

Kitchen Table MFA: An Interview With Dogfish

This interview is part of the Kitchen Table MFA, a series that showcases writing communities through interviews and creative writing.

After the interview, be sure to check out the work of Dogfish members, Laura Mattingly and Benjamin Aleshire. Also, read Nancy’s essay on the Kitchen Table MFA series here.

Dogfish is a monthly reading series and open mic in the St. Roch neighborhood of New Orleans. Since 2015, its readings have featured New Orleans writers including Megan Burns, Cassie Pruyn, Alison Pelegrin, Ladee Hubbard, Jami Attenberg, as well as writers from elsewhere—like Cave Canem founder Toi Derricotte. Since 2018, it’s hosted the opening night of the New Orleans Poetry Festival, which this April featured Henk Rossouw, Chen Chen, Lee Ann Brown, and Oliver Baez Bendorf. 

One of the things that makes Dogfish so special is that it takes place inside the home of series coordinator Jessica Kinnison’s, a former art space and bakery that was featured in Curbed New Orleans. The series is run collaboratively by Kinnison and three other writers—Alex Jennings, Taylor Murrow, and Cate Root—who are all chiming in here. 

Nancy Reddy (NR)

New Orleans has lots of literary activity connected to the universities in the city. What do you see Dogfish’s role as in the literary scene? What need or niche did you want to address? 

Cate Root (CR)

Our goal was to host a true community space, not an affiliate of a university or a store. You don’t have to spend any money at Dogfish, and that’s important to us. The idea is that if you can strip down as many barriers as possible—greet and welcome people at the door, ask them to make themselves at home, help themselves to food and drink, and just exist in this space with other people who also want some kind of connection—the space becomes its own sacred thing because of the intention people bring to it. There is a lot of ugly hierarchy and brutality in the world, and we can be a balm and bulwark against that, but it takes genuine work. 

NR

There’s also a relationship between Dogfish and the New Orleans Writers Workshop. How do the aims of the reading series and the writing classes intersect or complement each other? 

Jessica Kinnison (JK)

Taylor, Cate, Alex, and I challenge one another to build community and make a safe, welcoming space for everyone, particularly new writers. Writing can be a lonely pursuit. Finding your tribe–the folks who will urge you on—is so important. My hope is that our New Orleans Writers Workshop students know of at least one literary space where they will be welcomed with open arms. From there, and this has happened over and over again in recent years, I hope they will form writing groups, events and literary partnerships that will help them reach their personal writing goals.

NR

The landscape of neighborhoods has changed so much in New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina. Could you talk about what it means to have Dogfish located in St. Roch? What’s the neighborhood like, and what is the series’s relationship to your neighbors and the neighborhood?

JK

My house was a neighborhood bakery for more than half a century. As Cate said, while it is my personal living space, it takes on a sacred feeling once a month that, in my view, ties directly to the building’s long history of being a place of nourishment and restoration.  Thinking of how our environment—neighborhoods, weather, buildings, opportunities, and physical landscape—has changed on so many levels since Hurricane Katrina, and continues to change, is heavy. I worry about respect daily. My chief goal is to respect my neighbors. Show up—move our trash cans back from the road, look out for the kids at play in the street, give folks who live nearby a heads-up when Dogfish is happening so it’s not too much of an inconvenience, roll the Dogfish ice from Brother’s corner store with neighbors offering a hand and always answer questions from neighbors and passersby about what the event is all about. We are just one of the house readings now present in New Orleans, including Rubber Flower Poetry Hour, Under the Creole Chandelier, Gathering of Sparks, and I’m sure many others I don’t even know of. Each space means something different to different communities. We try to listen to what works, what doesn’t, and shift along the way to keep things safe and keep them good.

NR

What other organizations (either literary or not) inspire you, or have you learned from? There are so many nonprofits and social entrepreneurship ventures operating in New Orleans right now. Are there any groups in the city that you’ve learned from, or that you’ve worked with or would hope to?

CR

I’m a member of the New Orleans chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, and in many ways, I feel like Dogfish was the first organizing I ever did. The fact that we put on Dogfish as a gift to the community, that no one earns money on it and you don’t have to spend money to be there, is really important to me. Also everything I know about literary community I learned from Megan Burns, who runs the New Orleans Poetry Festival and Trembling Pillow Press. When I first started reading my poetry in New Orleans more than a decade ago, I was at Megan’s open mic. She’s kept the lights on for poets for so many years, and I’m blessed to know her.

JK

So many friends, teachers and communities helped us build our event. My teacher Christopher Chambers gave us the name. My teacher Sherrie Flick gave me advice gleaned from her wildly popular Pittsburgh series Gist Street. Taylor and I worked on the 1718 Reading Series at the Columns Hotel when we were students at Loyola University New Orleans over a decade ago now. Through that experience, we got to learn some of the basics of running a series and had the opportunity to spend time with some of our favorite writers.  Writers whose readings I can still recall include late New York Times writer David Carr, poet Cate Marvin, poet and nonfiction author Rodger Kamenetz and poet Richard Siken. It was huge for us as young writers to have that time with our heroes. 1718 Reading Series is still run by Tulane and Loyola students at the Columns Hotel today. Other communities and groups that have challenged and inspired me include the compassion and hope shown by neighbors involved in the St. Roch Neighborhood Association, the collective spirit of Antenna.Works, and the fierce passion for poetry I’ve witnessed while helping Bill Lavender and Megan Burns coordinate the New Orleans Poetry Festival. Those two have taught me so much about building community, sustaining nourishing friendships, and making art. 

NR

Any big hopes or plans for the future? What are your goals and hopes for Dogfish moving forward?

JK

Never get comfortable. 

Alex Jennings (AJ)

Stay sustainable and keep the magic going.

CR

Replace ourselves. Meaning that our space inspires others to keep the lights on for poetry. 

Taylor Murrow

Keep the community growing and leave it in good hands if/when we ever decide to step back.

Kitchen Table MFA (Dogfish): The Handless Maiden

This poem is part of the Kitchen Table MFA, a series that showcases writing communities through interviews and creative writing.

I.

Her small hands learn through pleasure

coiling like sea shells’ pale swirls, a shushing,

fumble and feel around.

The textures are a foreign pallet. 

Her baby fingers lay like chubby matchsticks—then splay.

They learn what they want

reaching by interest,

survival and self-gratification—thrill of following the tedium to see where it goes—fresh and fantastical.

Touching and touching, 

feeling and knowing.

Outside herself

the dry, crumbly-veined leaves,

soft cloud-cotton clothes,

the sharp pain of cold snow.

Inside herself

mysteries, and swamp monsters,

wet branches that gleam, 

poke and shake.

Then older, her own worst life-planner,

she makes a bargain in a moment of weariness.

Cut the hands off 

and where do the seeds of the story go?

Cut the thought off, amputate its flailing creativity at the base and afterwards asks herself in what soil shall she plant the hands, in what patch of swirling swamp reeds?

Instead of please

she goes walking.  

After the ax crosses her wrists, the entire world fills with ringing.  The sun knows this.  And so does the ocean and every tree.  

Feeling with memory, and also, now, feeling with feet.  Swinging her stumps in numbed shock between the trees, hair mussed as a quick spring nest. Callousing after the severance from the idea of a whole, a woman is made of many things.  Sensitivities and absence, wild patience, haphazard endurance, her parents’ strength and conscience, 

and the great alchemy of mistakes,

time makes and makes

II.  

Off as in completely gone

Off—how birds swim swirls in the sunset evening at a distance

Off—never again.  Don’t even call anymore

Off—in the middle of the river, drunk or very sober, hoping the barge lights don’t just sneak up

Off—more dark than it’s ever been

Off—a free day, time belongs to no one, no need to report

Off—to be, unexpectedly, and despite earnest intuition, entirely wrong

Off—the lover sheds clothes in absolute certainty

Off—departure without expectation of being found, where no one will even look

Off—way out there

Off—you missed the mark, dart hitting wall half a mile from the board

Off—the edge

the glass hydroplaned in a lake of condensation.

Now I’ve make you mad.

Off—the phone goes directly to voicemail

Off—left the room completely, though the light smell of breath probably clings

Off—removal of clothes for the shower, think no one will enter the room now that he is gone, and then dry

Off—my shoes on the ground beside the bed, always get pushed under

Off— turn the knob to the music in summer and hear the neighbors’ roaring chorus of window units

Off—in the distance sailboats seem stale, I can’t hear the canvas flapping

Off—I remove your guard for the first time like a swirl of evening birds taking off, and you smile back without control

Off—the fingernail, now so sensitive I can’t touch anything

Off—the way I pushed into water with no one watching—the way I enjoyed the sun on the water all by myself through an afternoon, curved and waiting.  When the rain caught me blinded I laughed and laughed Off—my head. 

III.  

For three years after I sold myself to the devil 

without knowing

I waited without anything but myself, I

cried every day and did not sing. 

The river is a slow mirror before its drop 

into hell.  

The grandmothers gone send me words, 

spontaneous sourceless sprouts in my ears at night

you are strong but you have no courage

you are so strong and the strength of your self-hating 

                                                                                negates you

I bathe frequently

I dress in white,

eat raw white onions to singe and scour me out inside.

                     My safety lies within a thin white line.  Circles, well, 

they’re perfect—a stick of chalk 

traces a small rotation, a thoughtful wrapping.  

My dead grandmothers comb my hair.  

If I love myself is that enough

to send even the devil himself 

back to hell without me on his arm?

His message is this:  you will die.

                                You will die

                                and your mother and father

                                your sisters and brothers, they will die too, 

                       and the flowers and trees

                                       and the fields and fields of grasses, 

                              all the thoughts like winding reeds, 

                  all the thoughts, lush, pushed up from the soil, 

           their green heads spinning—gone—fields and fields 

of thoughts felled

every cell in my body yelled and yelled

              with wooden marimba-key resonance

though they produced no sound.  

Take my hands off—tattoo my face,

free my wrists,

if you want a bargain, I’ll bargain like this

               Devil won’t want me without fingers to hold his dick.

               I’ll fill my mouth with leaves 

               and I’ll fill my cunt with twigs, 

               I’ll fly hell in the sky like a kite

               and I’ll bury heaven deep and safe where

                                no one can touch it.  

               Won’t be choppin’ no wood no more, no, 

               no,  I won’t be sweepin’ the fallen needles no more,

                                 no.  

And her innocence broke up like a boat made of paper, 

innocence that had crowded and clouded her eyes.  

Now she’ll see everything very clearly for the rest of her life.  

No more working. 

  No more working.  

No more working.  

She’ll walk around the world dissolving motes with her will, 

                      eating pears that bump her cheeks, reaching 

                                 down from their branches.  

              No more work but walking, 

              she’ll survive by sight.  

She will marry a king who will craft her silver hands

                     that will shine for the world like 

               a river mirrors at the confluence of awe,

silver fingers ginger enough to play another song on the piano, 

      strong enough to strangle the devil or

                                                                   any bad man.

Read Nancy Reddy’s interview with Dogfish here. Be sure to also read the work of Dogfish member Benjamin Aleshire.

Kitchen Table MFA (Dogfish): Poet for Hire

This essay is part of the Kitchen Table MFA, a series that showcases writing communities through interviews and creative writing.

900 words, excerpted from the novel Poet for Hire, by Benjamin Aleshire

Berlin

The funniest thing about the gunshot is afterwards, nobody moves. All along the canal lined with sailboats, thick with wealthy families dining at restaurants in the unsuspecting sunshine, no one moves a muscle. I’m sitting by the water with my typewriter, where the swans patrol. I don’t move either. We are all paralyzed, characters in a movie and someone has pressed pause—the roaring laughter shuts like a faucet. The music of thousands of forks, suspended in the air on the way to thousands of mouths. The sailboats behind me bob imperceptibly, their hulls white with sun, while the swans circulate aimlessly.

An elvishly blonde waiter finally pierces the stasis, striding unafraid across the street to a post locked with several of the innumerable bicycles that flock through Berlin. She turns back toward the restaurant and makes her annunciation in a confident voice I can’t understand yet understand perfectly: It’s nothing! Just this bicycle here. Its tire exploded in the sun.

The sense of relief is a hand, patting all of us on the back. We are not on a bridge in London, we are not among the Côte d’Azure crowds plowed by trucks, not on a Madrid metro. We are not Ground Zero, after all.

The second funniest thing is how quickly everyone resumes eating as if nothing had happened. 

*

In Boxhagenerplatz park flooded with light, an unshaven expressionless man comes over and reads my book quietly while his four-year-old daughter spoons pudding from a cup and traces wide arcs in the dirt with her sandals. He returns the book neatly, clears his throat and blurts out in that fearless German way, “Write me a poem about why we hurt ze ones we luff.” 

“Oh no, what did you do?” 

He laughs. “It’s for my wife, ja? I hope she will shtill be my wife—” 

“You cheated on her, didn’t you? Why?” The daughter is inventing a song to go along with the patterns she traces in the dirt, her face smeared in pudding. It’s as if the typewriter has become a time machine and transported me to just one of many possible futures where I’ll have the opportunity to interrogate myself. 

“I don’t know,” he says lamely, which is what all infidels say. 

“Mama!” The little girl squeals, and her mother walks over, tucking stray strands of wheat behind her ears. The husband shuffles them away and I write this for them—

A screenshot of text

Description generated with very high confidence

—which I worry will not save their marriage. But I cannot give him schmaltz. He asked me a direct question. I feel like a defendant in court whose lawyer has blundered. Maybe I should have written two versions—one for their marriage, and one for me. But there wasn’t time. There never is. 

*

“Jude. Jude. Juuuude—”

In Kottbusser Tor station, three pairs of unnervingly blue eyes blaze through the dingy florescence, like so many sapphires beneath meticulously coiffed platinum hair. Teenagers. They look like they work out. All of them holding the same liter bottles of Kindl as the one I have tucked under my table. Two of them lean on the tile walls, smirking. The short one with the hair-lip blows his cigarette smoke in my face just to see what I’ll do. It must be my suit and hat, broad-brimmed for the sun and raked at Whitman’s angle, or maybe my grandfather’s nose is the only thing I’ve inherited. 

“I’m American, you fuckin’ douchebag,” I snarl, and he leaps back, surprised. The other two mock him. He turns pink, pushes them savagely. Now he’ll have to prove himself to them, I think, my eyes taking in the periphery. The station empty, just an old lady at the far end holding groceries. Vibrations. I see a feeble light building itself in the tunnel, still faraway. He turns back to me.

“I luff America!”

“You would. Maybe I am Jewish—why do you care? Are you a Nazi?”

“I yam Donal Tramp!” he says heiling, and the other two double over, bursts of beer foam irrupting out their mouths. Rabid hyenas. The train, humming closer—for a split second, time slurs again. I can see them rush at me, manage to clock one of them with my Kindl bottle and expect it to shatter like the movies—it makes a dull thud and clatters to the station floor. Behind him as he staggers cursing I can see the old lady with the groceries’ head cock sideways like a bird’s and she just stands there, otherwise motionless. The other two plunge at me with the table tipping over between us and instead of pushing them away I stoop down to catch my typewriter before it smashes, pitching me off balance and the one with the hair-lip gets his fist square in my belly which has never felt more like soft bread dough. I’m bending over, top-heavy now and windless Jude he whispers again and something else I’ll never understand. Where’s my typewriter I think and why am I so weightless all of a sudden, these golden children would never pitch me onto the tracks—

I blink. Nope. Not today. Just a vision of one possible future of so many. The train glides into the station. Hairlip smirks, rolls up his sleeve for me. His tattoo a stout black cross, flaring out at the tips. He kisses it, flicks his cigarette at my feet, exhales soot, and then the train takes him somewhere, I don’t know where.

Read Nancy Reddy’s interview with Dogfish here. Be sure to also read the work of Dogfish member Laura Mattingly.

Kitchen Table MFA: An Interview With World Above

This interview is part of the Kitchen Table MFA, a series that showcases writing communities through interviews and creative writing.

After the interview, be sure to check out the work of World Above members, Kit L. Lok and Cole Eubanks. Also, read Nancy’s essay on the Kitchen Table MFA series here.

Photos are from an event called “Driving While Black.”

The South Jersey Poets Collective is the nexus of a whole host of creative writing programs: World Above, a poetry reading series in Atlantic City; A Tour of Poetry for Seniors, a monthly poetry workshop sponsored by Stockton University’s Stockton Center on Successful Aging and led by a rotating group of regional poets; and poetry workshops held at community centers and facilitated by students in Emari DiGiorgio’s Why Poetry Matters course. South Jersey poets programming reaches an incredibly wide range of people across Atlantic County, from the retirees who attend the Tour of Poetry poetry workshop at the Otto Bruyns Public Library of Northfield, to senior citizens, teens, and children who participate in the Why Poetry Matters poetry workshops. World Above is regularly home to a packed house of poets from all backgrounds: retired community college professors, high school teachers, computer programmers, professional gamblers, community gardeners, social workers, baristas, stay-at-home parents, and students.  

On a personal note, I’d add that World Above is really special to me: it’s the first place I read when I’d just moved to New Jersey and was feeling a bit adrift and in search of community, and I’ve returned many times to hear featured readers including Cynthia Arrieu-King, Nomi Stone, Claudia Cortese, to read in the open mic, and just to be among writers. There are two things about World Above’s format that I think are a bit unusual: each night includes an open mic and a featured reader, and the open mic is first, which feels to me like a way of saying that the open mic readers are real poets, too, not just an afterthought after the feature. There’s also always a writing prompt, mostly written by the amazing Barbara Daniels, and poets often return to a later poetry night to share the poem the prompt inspired. I love those prompts, because it feels like another acknowledgment that the people in the audience aren’t just listeners, but are writers, too. (The first four years of Barb’s prompts are available on the South Jersey Poets Website, here.)

Our interview is with Emari DiGiorgio, a poet and professor at Stockton University. She’s the author of Girl Torpedo (Agape Editions, 2018), the winner of the 2017  Numinous  Orison, Luminous Origin Literary Award, and The Things a Body Might Become (Five Oaks Press, 2017). She’s the recipient of the Auburn Witness Poetry Prize, the Ellen La Forge Memorial Poetry Prize, the Elinor Benedict Poetry Prize, the New Jersey Poetry Prize, RHINO’s Founder’s Prize, the Woodrow Hall Top Shelf Award, and a poetry fellowship from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts. She’s received residencies from the Vermont Studio Center, Sundress Academy of the Arts, and Rivendell Writers’ Colony.

Nancy Reddy (NR)

The South Jersey Poets Collective includes so many different programs – the reading series, the poetry workshops, as I mentioned in the overview, and even more I didn’t know, like the Poets on a Jitney and the Bard on the Boardwalk projects that have been part of Atlantic City’s 48 Blocks celebration. How have all of these programs come together? To what extent did you build intentionally, and what parts of it were just serendipity and opportunity? 

Emari DiGiorgio (ED)

As poets and writers, we often talk about observation, about tuning in to the world around us. I think that organizing community writing projects requires the same type of attention and listening. In this way, most of these projects grew out of serendipity. Take World Above, as an example: there was a core group of community writers who wanted to meet and share poetry, and they moved from library to library to a beach playground (behind a third library). These people did not have a long-standing relationship with each other; they were bound by poetry, and they were actively pursuing an opportunity to be in the company of other writers. Acting on the observation is intentional, but it was serendipity that we found ourselves meeting in Stockton’s Dante Hall Theatre.  

A lot of the other smaller projects grew out a desire to create more opportunities for community poetry. For the first two years of AC’s 48 Blocks Celebration, members of the SJ Poets Collective toured AC on a Jitney, offering pop-up poetry readings at storefronts, restaurants, along the boardwalk, and at a senior highrise facility. The Collective brought poetry directly to the people, and at numerous sites, members of the community wanted to share their own original work. This past year, the SJ Poets Collective hosted Bard on the Boardwalk, where poets wrote poems-on-demand for passersby, and AC’s Longest Poem, where participants wrapped the outside of the Atlantic City Free Public Library in paper and wrote a collaborative poem titled, “I, Too, Sing Atlantic City.” Both of these projects were incredibly moving, as people who may not identify as poets/writers, or even as readers, wanted to engage with language and wanted to share their stories.

NR

Could you talk about the physical spaces in which the South Jersey Poets Collective programming happens? The geography of South Jersey can be hard – things are spread out, and there’s not a lot of public transportation. What kinds of university and community spaces does the group use, and how has that played a role in how the programming works and who’s able to access it?

ED

World Above is fortunate to use part of Stockton University’s Noyes Arts Garage, located in the heart of Atlantic City’s commercial district. The ground floor includes numerous reduced-rent studios for local artists, the African American Heritage Museum, and cafe. The University permits South Jersey Poets to use this space each month. This location is a few blocks from the Atlantic City bus and train terminals, and there is ample affordable parking in the garage and free street parking, as well. The building is also ADA accessible. World Above is the only monthly reading series in Atlantic County. As the only series of its kind, it seems essential to make it as accessible as possible–this means that everyone should be able to get there. Additionally, its proximity to the AC transportation hubs have made it easier for out-of-town visiting poets to make their way to the city, too.

In contrast, Tour of Poetry is held at the Otto Bruyns Public Library of Northfield. This facility has a large parking lot, and it is ADA accessible. There is also a bus stop close to the library, but most of the older adults who attend this monthly writing workshop choose to drive. 

All of the poetry workshops offered by students enrolled in GIS 3307 Why Poetry Matters are place-based, as in the workshop is held on site. This fall, we’re offering workshops at the Chelsea Heights Atlantic City Boys and Girls Club, Covenant House, Atlantic Community Charter School, Egg Harbor Township High School, Villa Raffaella Assisted Living, and the South Jersey Veterans Center. 

These projects reveal that poetry is alive and well in a variety of communities. We just create a space for it to thrive. 

NR

One of the things I love about World Above is its diversity – not just in terms of race, but also in terms of age and class, which I think is really unusual for community writing spaces. (As you noted in your AWP In the Spotlight interview, “it’s not unlikely to have a nine-year-old and an eighty-year-old sharing their original work” – and I’ve definitely been at readings where I’ve seen that happen!) I know it’s been one of your goals to have the writers engaged with the South Jersey Poets mirror the diversity of the region as a whole. How have you made the series welcoming to so many people?

ED

It’s funny that you ask this because I am always asking, “How can I make the series welcoming to more people?” Perhaps the fact that I want to do better is part of why it is welcoming to so many. 

For World Above, I’ve tried to incorporate the best aspects of other series and to listen to feedback on the series. Before I took over as facilitator, the open would run for hours, and the people at the end of the list rarely had an audience remaining. People did not feel heard. But enforcing a time limit, more people could read and be heard in the open. 

As the host, I try to introduce myself to all of the new faces before the event begins, and I try to make sure I have the right pronunciation of everyone’s name. These are little details, but when I am new to a space, I feel safer when I’ve been greeted and when someone attempts to learn my name. 

I also moved the open before the featured poet. In this way, the local poets are the opening acts to the feature. Additionally, we always have a take-home writing prompt (thank you, Barbara Daniels) after the break, which encourages everyone to stay and is a kind of poetry party favor. 

In terms of the featured poets, I do try to create a diverse slate of readers. I’m interested in bringing in poets who represent various perspectives. I think it means a lot to someone to see and hear a poet who looks like you or who is writing stories that are your stories, too. This makes people feel welcome.   

NR

In this series, we’re looking primarily at programs that are independent and not connected to any university, and South Jersey Poets is a bit of an outlier, in that it is supported by Stockton University. Could you describe the university’s relationship to the programs you run – and perhaps make some suggestions for other academics looking to create or develop programs like these about how to build institutional support for them? 

ED

South Jersey Poets is fortunate to receive both in-kind and financial support from Stockton University. In-kind, we are able to use space, access the graphics department and print shop, and work with support staff to help with the logistics of payment and processing contracts.

Though we do not have a dedicated budget lines from the University, I solicit contributions from various University offices to help pay the visiting writers’ stipends. This year’s contributing offices include the School of General Studies, the School of Arts and Humanities, the Center for Community Engagement, and Stockton’s Center on Successful Aging. 

When seeking to develop institutional support, it’s important to ask different departments and/or offices for financial or in-kind support. Just because your project may not align with some of the institution’s larger strategic plans, it may align with departmental goals. 

That said, it’s vital to know exactly what you need–in terms of funding and space and anything else–and what you’re offering the institution in return. Stockton University values its role as a community partner and aspires to be an anchor institution in Atlantic City. The South Jersey Poets’ programs help the University work toward these goals. 

Kitchen Table MFA (World Above): Champions of Norwood Street

This poem is part of the Kitchen Table MFA, a series that showcases writing communities through interviews and creative writing.

In cities around the world, hundreds of millions 

Of thin walls divide sets of lives like parallel 

Universes. If quiet, you can hear the hunger. 

Lying in bed at night, when you roll away from

your lover, you might be closer to the breath

and arms of another. Sheetrock might be the 

only thing separating you from infidelity, because 

you are almost sleeping together. Decades ago 

in Philadelphia, goaded by my twin sister, we 

pressed ears to drinking glasses pushed against

a wall and listened as our pro-boxer-neighbor beat

his wife like an opponent. Facing each other, we 

heard wincing blows come staccato when he 

was throwing combinations. Twice, the thud

of her head crashed to the hardwood, unlike

the stretched canvas on which he often found

himself. He was undefeated in his house. Long

after they moved away, I mirrored my sister

slow- motioning her cup to the side of her head.

From her expression, I knew she heard what I

heard      punches.

Read Nancy Reddy’s interview with World Above here. World Above member Kit L. Lok’s poem can be found here.

Kitchen Table MFA (World Above): Papan, Malaysia on My Mind

This poem is part of the Kitchen Table MFA, a series that showcases writing communities through interviews and creative writing.

Papan, your name on the highway sign draws me

I turn left onto a tree-lined approach

And you come in view, a one-street ghost town.

Crumbling pre-war shophouses on left, on right, 

their gap-teeth doorways, deep and dark.

Papan, What lies behind your gaping mouths? 

What words are stuck there? What tin-stained 

laughter, tears? How many tons 

of tin ingots do these damp, peeling walls once hold? 

The clatter of abacus strangled now by the grip

of creepers, the impinging trunks, branches 

of banyan trees. 

Papan, your lodes of rich tin once drew traders, seekers.

I imagine you a beaming, bustling one-street town.

I was once like that, busy and beaming, with purpose.

They say $200 million worth of tin still sit beneath you.

Worthless now, the world has rust-proof substitutes. 

Unless…someone can come up with another use 

for you. 

Reinvention. I like that, lost now in Jersey.

One can always start over anywhere….

Read Nancy Reddy’s interview with World Above here. World Above member Cole Eubank’s poem can be found here.

Kitchen Table MFA (ALL): Frost

This poem is part of the Kitchen Table MFA, a series that showcases writing communities through interviews and creative writing.

Inside, the windows become a ​museum 

of ephemeral doilies 

made by lonely savants. 

In another hour, 

the sun will spread

its yellow oil, will take 

what it wants from 

knobs and sills, the blades 

of snow blowers and the mustaches 

of men unzipping their jackets. 

Until then, no one can be sure. 

We step tentatively 

down the shining walks, 

sending out from cold lips 

little ghosts without boots. 

Read Nancy Reddy’s interview with ALL here. Also check out the work of other ALL members Steve Tomasko, John McCracken and Jesse Lee Kercheval.

Kitchen Table MFA (ALL): Green thumb

This poem is part of the Kitchen Table MFA, a series that showcases writing communities through interviews and creative writing.

I scrape scabs

into scars from the cuts

I gave myself.

I sow them in the damp:

a familiar grit

a place to plant.

I long to be cut down,

sweetness drained from branches.

I hoped for evergreen.

For now I will settle for not dying

beneath the grit.

I can’t see myself

in this foliage anymore.

I refuse to stumble upon myself

cut down on the forest floor,

moss-covered, unforgivable.

Read Nancy Reddy’s interview with ALL here. Also check out the work of other ALL members Steve Tomasko, Marilyn Annucci, and Jesse Lee Kercheval.

Kitchen Table MFA (ALL): Welcome to Hell

This essay is part of the Kitchen Table MFA, a series that showcases writing communities through interviews and creative writing.

This essay first published in Ploughshares.

The way my husband tells the story I slipped on the ice, got a concussion, and when I woke up said, “I want to learn to play the accordion.” It is true that, after a concussion, I emailed my friends who were musical, asking if anyone had an accordion I could borrow. I wanted to try one out. I remember this process as being rather more logical than my husband’s story, but I could be wrong. I wanted something portable. Something musical that had buttons or keys like a computer, not something as daunting as the violin, which my daughter plays, where your fingers only know where to be because your ear tells them. My entire lifelong experience with music was a year of half-hearted piano lessons when I was six. I wasn’t sure I had an ear.

A friend replied to my email asking if anyone had an accordion with “You’re kidding, right?” Because it turns out her husband Will has uncounted number of accordions, six in her living room alone, a room I have been in countless times. This is my new realization. Life is full of accordions. I couldn’t see them before, but now, magically, they are everywhere. Will said he would be happy to lend me an accordion.

The first thing Will asked me was what kind of music I wanted to play. I honestly had no idea. I was born in France and had a vague image of the kind of bal musette music, sad, wet, weepy, played in cellar cafes in old French movies. I imagined myself in a beret, with a cigarette dangling from my lip. Okay, he said, for French music you need a G/C. He picked one accordion off the shelf. It was in a case about the size of an old-fashioned record player. He opened it and pulled out a small rectangular instrument, black wood with gold trim. It had buttons, not keys.

On one side were 21 buttons. On the other, 8. It was a Hohner Pokerwork. A good accordion for a beginner, Will assured me. He showed me how to hold the accordion, how to play a C scale. He played by ear. I would learn to pick out tunes, he said. He found his way into a few, apologizing as he did, saying he played mostly Irish music on a B/C accordion and the layout was completely different. I nodded as if I understood. He warmed up and begin playing so fast his fingers blurred, jigs, reels. At the end of a half an hour or so, I thanked him. He put the accordion back in its case, and handed it to me. See how you like it. We shook hands.

I brought the accordion home. I really had no idea how to play it. It turned out I had been right. I had no ear at all. I couldn’t think of a tune, not even “Mary Had a Little Lamb”, and then find the notes. So I Googled “How to play a button accordion” and was rewarded with dozens of sites and thousands of videos. So I set out to learn what I thought of as a decidedly old-world instrument in the new world wide web way.

“Good thing we’re the landlords,” my husband said, joking. He wasn’t the only one.

After I starting noticing accordions everywhere, I noticed accordion jokes are too. The most famous is a cartoon by Gary Larson. People lined up on a cloud are welcomed by an archangel who says, “Welcome to Heaven–Here’s your harp.” Down below, a line is greeted by a devil who says, “Welcome to Hell–Here’s your accordion.” Still I happily spent hours playing, until the odd fact that the same button makes one note when you pull the bellows and another when you push became second nature to me. Like breathing in, then breathing out.

On YouTube I watched Argentines playing tango accordions (as well as bandoneons), Austrians schrammelmusik on schrammelharmonikas, Brazilians forró on their accordions, Chileans cumbia and vallenato, Domincans merengue, Eastern Euroean Jews klezmer music, Egyptians baladi, Greeks rebetiko, Italians tarantellas, Mexicans Norteño and Basques squeezing their trikitixas, The list goes on. Cheap, portable, nearly every country on the globe has taken the accordion as their own. Once I looked, I saw accordions everywhere in indy rock world as well, The Decemberists, Beirut, The Magnetic Fields. I settled on the music of Brittany, ancestral home of the Kerchevals, with its sad Celtic tunes. I practiced and practiced.

And it worked. I got better. When I played the Hohner Pokerwork, first my dog, and then my family, stopped fleeing the house. A statement that is both true and, at least partly, an accordion joke.


Read Nancy Reddy’s interview with ALL here. Also check out the work of other ALL members Steve Tomasko, Marilyn Annucci, and John McCracken.

Kitchen Table MFA: An Interview With ALL

This interview is part of the Kitchen Table MFA, a series that showcases writing communities through interviews and creative writing.

After the interview, be sure to check out the work of ALL members Steve Tomasko, Marilyn Annucci, John McCracken and Jesse Lee Kercheval. Also, read Nancy’s essay on the Kitchen Table MFA series here.

The Arts + Literature Laboratory in Madison, WI is a community writing and arts space that hosts an amazing array of activities including exhibits, screenings, and workshops, as well as education through writing workshops, arts classes, a queer youth book club, and a teen leadership program. ALL hosts the monthly Watershed Reading Series, which has recently featured Natalie Eilbert, Barrett Swanson, and Chekwube Danladi. It also runs a Craft Talk Series which aims to gather writers at all stages of their writing careers to share information about craft and publishing topics; recent craft talks have included Catherine Stephenson and Rita Mae Reese’s discussion of tools for writing like Scrivener and online writing communities and Michelle Wildgen’s talk on moving past rejection. ALL is also home to the smALL Press Library, which includes books by Sarabande Books, Persea Press, Graywolf, Milkweed, Coffee House Press, Copper Canyon Books, as well as literary magazines. 

Nancy Reddy (NR)

ALL has so many different kinds of activities, and I really love that the space is home to both educational programming (workshops, classes, mentoring, discussion groups), as well as readings and exhibits by emerging and established artists and writers. So many groups and spaces do one thing or the other – classes/workshops or readings/exhibits, which can create this sense that either you’re a student taking classes, or you’re a “real” artist sharing your work. I love that both things happen in the same space at ALL. How did you all land on that combination of activities? How did ALL become a space for education and performance?

Rita Mae Reese (RMR)

ALL started in New Haven, Connecticut in 2003 as a nonprofit for artists and writers. When founder Jolynne Roorda moved to Madison, she knew she wanted to re-open the organization and make it responsive to the needs of Madison. She teamed up with a group of writers, including Rita Mae Reese who now serves as the Literary Arts Director. Rita Mae has a background in continuing studies and is passionate about connecting experienced writers with newer writers. Madison has a wealth of both experienced writers and people eager to learn more about writing. ALL provides the perfect space for forming those kinds of relationships. Even better, there is exponential creativity and learning from the presence of visual arts, performance and music. There has traditionally been a pretty strong town/gown divide in Madison, and that is another division that we work constantly to overcome. We are committed to the democratization of access to the arts because we know that when people come together, we all have a much better chance at leading our best lives. 

So the “Arts” and the “Literature” part of our name is important but so are the “+” and the “Laboratory.” We strongly encourage that idea of a laboratory–a place to labor and experiment, not just show off what you do well. And the +, which speaks to making those connections between people but also thinking about how adding arts and/or literature changes our personal equations. We want everyone to bring their own answers to what “Art + you =” or what “Literature + you =.”

Watershed reading at ALL’s old location

NR

There’s so much literary activity in Madison – the MFA program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the Wisconsin Book Festival, the Madison Writer’s Studio, Monsters of Poetry, the Cabin Fever writing workshops through The Bubbler at the public library . . . and probably lots more I’m forgetting. What was your aim in creating the Arts and Literature Laboratory? How do you see ALL engaging the literary community that already exists in Madison – or perhaps reaching new writers and artists, or filling a niche those other groups don’t? 

RMR

A professor at UW-Madison recently pointed out that 30 years ago, there seemed to be a pretty sparse literary scene in Madison. There was a poetry group, that seemed opposed to the university writers. But now I think there’s much, much more cooperation across the board now. We believe that a strong arts ecology is good for everyone, so we provide a performance venue for other organizations, including at times Monsters of Poetry. We’re co-sponsoring a reading in October, held at Room of One’s Own, with the Wisconsin Book Festival. We don’t see other organizations as competition at all–we put on over 200 events a year, so we’re happy that there other options out there, and promote those options when we can. 

We have a literary arts curatorial team that represents many different perspectives in Madison–poetry, spoken word, fiction, storytelling, creative non-fiction, university, non-MFAs, published, never published—and I think that keeps our programming dynamic and bringing together people who probably also participate in many or all of the areas you mentioned into one space. 

NR

ALL has been located in a gallery space on Madison’s East Side, and I saw that you all may be moving to an even bigger space. I’m always interested in how physical space and geographic location shape the work that community organizations can do. How did being on the East Side (rather than, say, closer to the university or on the West Side) influence the work ALL was able to do, and the community it served? What new possibilities might the new space create for you?

RMR

When we started, we had about 1000 square feet, and even that felt like a real leap of faith. Could we pay rent and utilities for a space and still have most of our events be free or donation-based? It did, of course, and we grew so quickly that when the second side of our building became available, we rented it with fingers crossed it would work out. We added youth education programming and quickly felt very squeezed with 2000 square feet. Now, we’ve been approved by the City, thanks to the hard work of our alder Marsha Rummel among others, for a new commercial space that is over 4 times that. The building is located one mile from the current space. It’s technically out of our current neighborhood but we’re expecting to stay connected to our wonderful neighbors in our current neighborhood, and serve a lot more people with our increased visibility (we literally never had a sign on the old building) and accessibility. 

We’re really excited that we’ll have designated spaces for education, performances, the smALL Press Library, and the gallery. We’ll also be able to add four to five artist studios, which are in short supply in Madison. Our hope is to build out a mezzanine that is entirely dedicated to the literary arts. We also expect more organizations will be able to use our space. 

Groundbreaking ceremony at new location

NR

A practical question: ALL is a 501(c)(3) and has been able to secure funding from the Madison Arts Commission, the Madison Community Foundation, the Wisconsin Arts Board, and tons of local businesses. What practical advice do you have for other artists or writers looking to create a space like ALL’s? How important has the 501(c)(3) status been, and what have you all been able to do to secure funding to make ALL’s programming sustainable and affordable for community members?

RMR

Being a 501(c)(3) is very important. You can arrange a fiscal sponsorship, but that relationship typically comes with a percentage cost and if you’re operating on a thin margin already (which you almost certainly would be), then that could make the difference between viability and closing your doors. 

Our initial meeting to create a literary arts center in Madison attracted 24 people. There was great initial enthusiasm. Some of the people at the meeting are still very actively, even daily, involved with ALL. But most aren’t. You have to expect that even the people who seem most committed might not stick around. So you are always changing, always welcoming new people and allowing the organization and programming to reflect those new perspectives without compromising the mission of the organization. 

We are also a membership-based organization. Grants will likely never cover very much–in fact, I think they account for something like 20% of most non-profit’s budgets. Individuals keep non-profits afloat. You’ll need those individual gifts for matching funds in your grants, and also just to know that you are really serving the needs of the community. They’ll definitely let you know by the gifts you are receiving. And you’ll want someone who can maintain good relationships with those supporters. 

We have a grant from the City of Madison to help with the costs of build out for our new location, but we’ll still need to raise a significant amount to complete the build out and to support staffing for the first few years while we build the programs. So far, we have relied mostly on volunteers, but we value the time of artists and writers and believe they should be paid for their labor. (In fact, over half of our budget each year goes to paying artists, including writers and musicians.) So we’ve made the decision to enter a long-term lease so that we can invest in people–paying people to do the necessary work of managing so many events, connections, and opportunities. We know we can’t do it alone, but we know we absolutely can do it.

Groundbreaking ceremony at new location

Kitchen Table MFA (ALL): You said I should write more love poems and

This poem is part of the Kitchen Table MFA, a series that showcases writing communities through interviews and creative writing.

Poem first published in The Fiddlehead.

I said, I’m sorry, but I’ve been thinking about

sloths. Well, actually, the moths that live

on sloths. Nestle into their fur, take the slow,

slow ride through the rain forest. Once a week

the sloth descends to the forest floor. Defecates.

Female moths leap off; lay their eggs on the fresh

feces; jump back on. Their caterpillars nourish

themselves on the fetid feast, metamorphose

into moths, fly up into the canopy to find

their own sloths. They prefer the three-toed

over the two-toed. Eh, who can figure attraction?

The algae-covered sloth fur is the only place

they live. The only home the sloth moths know.

It’s a Darwinian thing, I know, but fidelity

comes to mind. Commitment. Patience.

The world writes love poems all the time.

Read Nancy Reddy’s interview with ALL here. Also check out the work of other ALL members Marilyn Annucci, John McCracken and Jesse Lee Kercheval.