Meet Our Poetry in Motion "How I Got Here" Contest Judges

by Kelsey Beleyer, Porch intern, Spring 2019

Since 2012, Nashville has been participating in Poetry in Motion, an annual celebration put on by the Poetry Society of America, “helping to create a national readership for both emerging and established poets”. This movement has become a nationwide phenomenon for writers young and old to showcase their works on busses and bus stops in over 20 cities such as Atlanta, Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York. Public transportation hosts thousands of riders everyday, and engages a wide variety of readers with art from their own communities.

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Beginning in 2018, The Porch teamed up with the Metro Arts Commission and WeGo Public Transit to provide programming for Poetry in Motion in Nashville. Last year’s theme asked poets to provide haikus about mobility, inclusion, and access. The Porch also created an anthology of poems and short prose on the theme of Nashville neighborhoods, featuring poems from 23 local poets. The anthologies were distributed at Music City Central, on buses, and at community locations around the city. The contest-winners’ poetry was launched with an official Poetry in Motion Celebration Day to encourage and establish community within Nashville’s poetry scene, and the winning haikus appeared on the official Poetry in Motion city bus.

For this year’s contest, The Porch asked participants to write short poems on the theme of “How I Got Here.” The winners will be announced in mid February, and another Poetry in Motion Celebration day will occur in later this year (date TBD). In honor of this year’s Poetry in Motion contest, we have asked our judges a few questions about their experience selecting the winning poems.

Meet our judges

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Frank “Frizzy” Skyes, a local poet and spoken word artist, graduated from Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, TN. Frank has performed his spoken word pieces throughout the South, and has a mission to use his voice “to create positive change through the action of love”.

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Joseph Kane, the Program Director of The Porch’s youth programming arm, SLANT (Student Literary Artists of Nashville, TN), has taught creative writing in Detroit public schools, and has published both poems and stories in a number of magazines including: RHINO, Elimae, theEEEL, Clapboard House, The Splinter Generation, Cricket Online Review, Psychic Meatloaf, Temenos, Right Hand Pointing, Admit2, and the podcast Versify.

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Rosie Forrest is the winner of the 9th Annual Rose Metal Press Short Short Chapbook Contest, and her work has been published with Dogwood Literary Journal, Literary Orphans, Hobart, Wigleaf, Word Riot, Whiskey Island, and SmokeLong Quarterly, among other journals. Rosie was a writer-in-residence with Interlochen Arts Academy, and she holds an MFA from the University of New Hampshire. A Nashville resident, Rosie serves as the Director of Community Engagement for OZ Arts.

What do you look for in a winning piece?

Frank: I look for the piece to meet the guidelines of the topic, while at the same time creatively saying something to the people that are going to be reading and enjoying it. With this contest in particular, knowing this was going to be visibly posted was a factor in the impact that it would make on the readers for me.

Joseph: I try to keep an open mind every time I look at an entry. There are a lot of things that can make a piece of writing good. Mostly, I ask myself, “Is this poem achieving what it sets out to do?” If the author is using a lot of rhythm, does that rhythm carry me through the poem? If the author is using a lot of creative language, does that language feel fresh and captivating? If the author is writing in an intimate tone, do they make me feel connected to their story?

Rosie: Of course there’s no magic recipe or equation, but that’s the joy of it. What I look for in a winning piece is what I look for as a reader and lover of writing. I hope for surprise. I hope to uncover a line or phrase that rings true. A piece might make me laugh. Or an image could land crystal clear. If there’s a commonality for these winning poems or any works that stay with me, it would be that I immediately want to read them again – and when I do, something sparks anew.

Have you ever submitted your own work to poetry contests? How did that experience (winning or losing) guide your decisions as a judge?

Frank: I have. I submitted one online. It was a spoken word contest with the topic "wounded heart." I submitted and won first place. That allowed me to key in more on hitting the topics of what was being asked creatively.

Joseph: I have submitted to many publications and contests. I’ve received a ton of rejections, and I’ve been lucky enough to win a few times too. It has certainly given me a deep respect for anyone who submits to a contest. I know that a twenty-word poem isn’t just twenty words. Years of lived experience, hopes, losses, joys go into those words. Turning those experiences into writing and then sharing that writing is a wonderful gift. I try to make the most of that gift by making sure that I am completely present and focused when reading contest entries. I never read entries when I’m tired or hungry. I also make sure to set aside enough reading time to really take my time and enjoy reading each piece.

Rosie: I’ve submitted a handful of poems to poetry contests, but as a fiction writer primarily, most of my submissions tend to be short stories or flash fiction. But to submit your work is to submit your work. It’s vulnerable, it’s exhilarating, and if we’re honest, most of the time submission is met with rejection. No matter which side of the submission process I find myself, I try to enter the process with a whole lotta heart and big time respect for the beauty of subjectivity.

What is the biggest challenge you face in judging creative works?

Frank: When they all are good. That's the hard part and biggest challenge. It's hard to choose between greatness.

Joseph: The biggest challenge was definitely the fact that we received way more good poems than we could include in the project. This year we received hundreds of poems, and I was blown away. I know that Nashville is a creative city, but to see so much creativity from so many people all at once—it’s a bit of a shock.

Rosie: As a judge for Poetry in Motion and other contests as well, I’d say the biggest challenge (and the biggest gift) is that there’s no right answer. In fact, as I read pieces over and over again, peeling back layers, in many ways the process becomes more difficult as it goes along. But I wouldn’t have it any other way! Immersing oneself in the work and discussing the merits of each poem is a wonderful and inspiring way to spend time.

What do you do when you can’t decide between two pieces?

Frank: Hope that one of the two people are lucky when it comes to this coin being flipped. LOL!

Joseph: It’s tough to be sure. That’s why we always have three judges. No one judge has final say on who wins. When we have to make difficult choices, we just debate until we reach a consensus. Sometimes hearing someone else explain why a poem speaks to them helps me see it in a new light. But when you get to the last few finalists, there’s no easy way to do it.

Rosie: This happens more often than you might think. I would say most of our group conversation lived in this in between space. Again, with no right answer, the discussion allowed us to share our personal responses, the intangible qualities, language that leapt of the page. I loved hearing the ways in which certain poems spoke to the other judges, and often, this would be enough to change my mind. When multiple pieces rise to the same point, I think the only answer is to be open and generous with one another – and recognize that when the decision is tough, it’s a terrific problem to have.

What do you want Poetry in Motion to portray to Nashvillians? Or what message do you hope they might get from the poems?

Frank: The awareness of poetry in the community. The knowledge of knowing that the art is still alive and thriving. The curiosity to create involvement. The knowledge and understanding that we are not alone in thought.

Joseph: I hope that the poems encourage viewers to reflect on their own life journeys. Often, we’re so busy trying to get through life that we don’t think about all the past people, places, and decisions that make us who we are. I’m certainly guilty of that. But the magic of creative writing is that reflection is contagious. Reading about someone else’s experience helps us pay closer attention to the story that we’re living every day.

Rosie: I think about the small moments of a day – the moments that pass, sometimes in a haze, and suddenly, we find ourselves back home. For me, poetry on bus stops is a way to offer Nashvillians a window or a brief pause for reflection. Maybe they revel in the language of the poem or maybe the poem extends a hand to a passerby. We can all use a moment of stillness and connection wherever we can find it. To stumble upon a little art and creativity in our daily lives, only good things can come of it.

A huge THANK YOU to our judges, Metro Arts, WeGo Public Transit, and everyone who submitted to the contest! We’ll announce the winners soon.

Meet the Porch Instructor: Loie Rawding

Today we feature Loie Rawding, another new-to-Nashville Porch instructor. She comes our way via Colorado, but she’s originally from an island off the coast of Maine. She lives in East Nashville and is teaching “Novel in Progress” (sold out), “The Importance of Supporting Characters,” and “Writing Scenes of Action & Violence” this fall. And she’ll be back in the spring with more. This interview was conducted by our fall intern, Kristopher Carey.

You write in a way that defies genre, even describing your work as “a cocktail of prose and poetry.” For you, how does your style reflect your thematic and narrative goals?

I think the way that I write, first and foremost, has to do with the way that I think and the way that I perceive the world. I move through my day to day in nonlinear tracks; reliving memory, anticipating different futures for myself and my family, and usually splitting my attentions between two or three versions of the present. I am a woman, a mother, an artist, a spouse and while these facets do all coexist, they also forge their own voices that I find impossible to deny in my writing.

I don’t know if I have consistent thematic or narrative goals. I am a project-based writer. My first novel, Tight Little Vocal Cords, began as an exploration of Marsden Hartley’s paintings. I wanted to translate his visual representations into language, a sort of ekphrastic practice but not a mere exposition of what the paintings portrayed, rather an attempt to capture tone and texture. To create a world in language that was in conversation with his world in paint; like talking to a different version of yourself in the mirror, I guess, and this meant using all my tools; poetry, script, epistolary, and prose that was more interested in sound than in plot. It’s a lot of experimentation and it can be pretty overwhelming, but it’s that lack of tether to form that I needed in order to complete the project. Now, I am working on something that is much more constrained in fictional prose. It is a shared narrative between three women, trying to make sense of a violent loss and the echoing repercussions of that loss. Still nonlinear and still a collage of perspective. That’s about as consistent as I get, I’m afraid.


Most of all, I want to produce art which defies the notion that our human lives are somehow experienced in a straight line, birth - life - death. I think this kind of formalism is tired. Our contemporary climate, in art and in life, demands more of our minds and our bodies.

Alongside your writing, you are an artist in all respects, working with paint, sculpture, and other diverse mediums. How do these different ways of making art inform your writing, and vice-versa? Do they emerge from similar emotional spaces?

I grew up dancing and acting; this is where my training as an artist began. From the age of three, I also began scribbling in these miniature composition notebooks, insisting to anyone who would listen that I was writing something really, really good. I initially went to Emerson College in pursuit of a theater degree, but ended up at Pace University in New York (long, long story) and found my community in the English department. Throughout all of these transitions I was experimenting with visual forms: paint, clay, photography. I guess my short attention span made me curious for any mode that could help me make sense of my emotional experience. I think that curiosity is the singularly most important thing we must cultivate as artists, and as such I’m not much interested in any ‘rules’ of the art world or restricting myself within a single form.

When I feel a story or a poem coming on, I often process it through my body first, as a dancer might. I need to move physically as I organize my ideas internally before anything comes out on the page. I also find it useful to collage, paint, or scribble when I’m stuck or between drafts. At this point, the visual art is more of a mediation on or a respite from the rabbit holes that writing can push me down. So, yes, whatever medium I may be working in, the motivation is growing from the same emotional space within. And for me, I cannot express one form without considering the other artistic languages I have at my disposal. I think it’s important for writers to understand that you can be more than this one thing, that by immersing yourself in other modes of art you might find a trap door into your most truthful and necessary stories.

As a self-described advocate for women and for at-risk youth, what do you feel is the role of writing in activism and the experience of marginalized bodies?

This is something I struggle with quite a bit. Writing is essential to accessing the most profound depths of empathy. Without open and honest empathy, it becomes very difficult to productively share in the conversations we are having today about the experience of marginalized bodies. I think writing, perhaps more so than other mediums, empowers and incites action because it activates individual brains in a personalized and singular manner. Language can be manipulated in ways that other forms cannot, and this gives us a unique opportunity to strive for writing that can effectively communicate this messy, sublime existence we both share and do not share.

Activism is trickier and this is what I struggle with, I guess. While writing might empower and incite, without physical action in real time and real space very little is achieved. It can be as simple as teaching our children how to really listen to others, calling out unacceptable behavior, attending a protest, or volunteering with organizations you believe in. Writing might be a key component to the process of activism, but this process does not end with writing or with the individual who receives it. We have to take the knowledge and emotional influence of language and do something tangible with it.

With a background in academia, having formal writing training and teaching experience, what do you feel is the role of teaching when it comes to creative writing?

I think teachers of creative writing have a responsibility to guide their students, rather than ordain. I do believe in a certain level of classical training before breaking all the rules. This does not necessarily mean a college degree, but an understanding of how language works in a formal sense makes for an ideal foundation. For this I like to suggest specific readings and encourage open lines of questioning so that we have a shared understanding of the craft.

In teaching 18 and up, I’ve noticed a dramatic loss of curiosity as we age. There are so many fruitless distractions, so many false prescriptions for our emotional health, that it becomes easier to use what we feel we already know than to actively pursue knowledge. I think I said this before: curiosity is essential to creativity. I might know that I do not enjoy eating seafood, but I still try the damn snails because with this information I now know how to describe the tide pools in my next story. Curiosity opens us to possibility and with possibility comes power.

How will these ideas inform your classes with The Porch?

I also like to encourage a seriousness of intention. And this is as much for myself as for my students. I recently read an interview with Samuel Delaney in which he said, “If you’re going to write something, try to take it seriously.” And I think this is really important, to commit oneself to your craft; challenge yourself to become more than a hobbyist; give yourself permission to prioritize your writing. These are things that become more important the older we get and the more full our lives get. The Porch has given me a unique opportunity to work with adults at varying levels of experience. In class, I often get caught up in our conversations, as much about life as how to write. With so many stories to be told, some of the most important work I think I do in my Porch workshops is to incite that essential curiosity, to suggest that our worth as writers is only as strong as our commitment to exploration, experimentation, and embracing how funny, strange, frightening, lovely, and serious we are all capable of being.

How does your process and mentality regarding your work change with major shifts in your life, like your twins or your rather recent move to Nashville?

On mentality: After the birth of my twins writing became even more crucial to my survival. I always thought of myself as an artist, even when I wasn’t necessarily practicing. But motherhood dismantled my sense of language and, more generally, my entire existence. No big deal, right? So terrifying, but also so exciting! I’ve spent the last three years rebuilding the possibilities of language and training myself to accept that my writing is now almost as important as eating, which might say something about how little I enjoy cooking too.

If I don’t get some writing done after a while I become a monster, so much so that my family will say, “Oh Mama, you need to go work.” And so, I go. I persevere.

About Nashville I will only say this, I am a born and raised New Englander. My transition to living in the south is perpetually ongoing. But when we moved here I began sensing a profound urge, a need really, to write fiction. Exclusively, prose. Something about this place, for me, encourages narrative, above all else. I think Nashville is a place ripe with stories, the air is thick with them. It’s a calling towards fiction I’ve never felt before and I am more than happy to oblige.

My process has always been pretty much the same. I do not write every day, but I write consistently. It’s taken me a long time to accept that I spurn set routines, at least in my writing life. I sort of resent being told a million times that I need to write every day. I’m working through that too.

I typically write long hand, with a pen, in a lined journal. The right hand pages are committed to wanderings of my mind, and personal happenings, while the left hand pages are filled with my creative work. After a time I will transcribe the creative work into a Word doc which doubles as a drafting stage. I will usually take this opportunity as forced revision, in part because my handwriting can get so terrible. Sometimes images and emotions from the righthand side will bleed in.

One thing motherhood has taught me is to ditch the idea that my writing is so, so precious. I used to agonize over every phrase and would often quit if I felt I was writing poorly. Now, every chance to write is a gift and I don’t have time to waste on a phantom idea of perfection. So I set aside that hour and begin writing and I may be thinking, this is crap, this is crap, this is crap, but I write anyway because I’ve learned to search for the pearls that might form from all that waste.

What draws you to the subjects that you’re teaching with The Porch this fall – about supporting characters and writing scenes of action and violence?

I’ve been reading a lot of books that prioritize supporting characters: Rachel Cusk’s Outline series, Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation, Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere. In both sneaky and obvious ways these texts were showing me how crucial it is to create a fully embodied story for those on the periphery as much as for the main character.

A year ago, in my own novel, I rewrote the entire second section in the voice of the Lover because he became too important to deny. In fact his perspective almost entirely circumvented the experience of my leading character, enough to validate a temporary shift in point of view. That these people have the motivation and the power to observe and influence our main characters, producing dramatic and surprising results, made me realize how unfair it is that we often forget to give them credit where credit is due.

As for violence, like sex, I feel that we often mishandle these complicated and difficult scenes. Fear is such a potent place from which we work as writers, I think that it can often cloud how we translate trauma and high impact activity in our stories. Fear of the events we need to write about or fear of screwing it up, it can all hinder our productivity and our honesty. Film captures action and violence so well because it accesses our emotional field with an immediacy that writing cannot. A scene of action, when read, requires a second level of processing that makes it more challenging to pull of.

So, I wanted to face this head on, so to speak, in a workshop atmosphere where we can talk things out and look at writers who are doing it well. I think we have a tendency as writers to be drawn to work that is cognitive, mental, intuitive, or philosophical, but this does not mean that it is (or should be) devoid of action. What’s so incredible about The Porch is that they are excited and open to all subjects, giving me the freedom and trust to explore these weirdo, niche kind of craft elements in my workshops.

Meet the Porch Instructor: Yurina Ko

In this new column, we’ll feature brief interviews with the talented writers who teach classes for us. First up: Yurina Ko, one of our newest instructors and a relative newcomer to Nashville. She spoke with our fall intern, Kristopher Carey, on a rainy morning at the Southern Festival of Books, and the two discussed the nature of the personal in fiction-writing, Ko’s plans for her upcoming class “The Personal Essay,” and what you can learn from writing romance novel book-copy.

You’ve described your work as “surreal literary fiction.” To you, what are the grammar and goals of surrealism, and what attracted you to that genre?

Oh man, I probably chose those words because it’s so hard to talk about my own work – to really categorize it – and “surreal” maybe captures a kind of vague stand-in for all the things I don’t want to put names to. In my work, which is largely autobiographical, the world is completely exaggerated. It almost has this tint, as if you’re wearing pink glasses,. To my character, her world is so skewed and the world she’s entering is so skewed that, as you’re reading, you might wonder, “Is this really the way she’s experiencing it, or is this just the way the world actually is?”

You mentioned your work is generally quite autobiographical. Has writing always been a way of processing for you?

I want to say yes, but, honestly it hasn’t. As someone who has grown up in both America and Japan, going back and forth, there was a significant amount of time in my childhood where I was not fluent in either language. That was always a huge struggle for me, to feel like I couldn’t communicate. I think, as a Japanese kid in America, it was really hard to feel like I couldn’t say what I was feeling. Reading, writing, talking: these were things I didn’t enjoy for a really long time. In fact, that’s how I turned to music. It was a way to communicate what I was going through and what I was feeling, but in a more universal language.

There was a point where, in third grade, where the teacher said, “You can write whatever you want.” And I didn’t know what to do, so, in my stilted English, I asked, “What… write?” And she thought I was asking what does writing mean, so she kept using the symbol of taking pencil to paper like, “this is what writing is.” But I literally couldn’t ask the question, and it took her maybe half a year to understand what I was actually asking, and so during that entire time, every time when we had that slot to write something, I was just doodling.

So writing was definitely not something I really did for a while. And when I finally found language as a comfortable thing for me, toward the end of high school and into college – where I really felt like I could use English as a way to communicate – that’s when writing became fun.

Since you’re teaching “The Personal Essay” with The Porch this fall, how might these personal experiences fold into the class?


I actually have taught undergraduate classes on academic essay writing before, but, those times, I’ve always pushed for them to think non-academically a little bit. I teach essays like those from James Baldwin, Joan Didion, Richard Rodriguez, and Michel Foucault – you know, all these people you might not think of as personal essayists, but who are able to use their writing to communicate their ideas in a very strong way. Through The Porch, I plan to use a lot of the same material but, since it’s not an academic setting, I feel like I can just unleash all of the constraints of academia, and I can teach what I want to teach. So there’s no limit to the kind of essay the students can write. I’d like to show that there’s really an infinite number of ways that you can write an essay, and show that the thing that stays consistent across these writers – no matter the story or the form – is that they’re doing it in a way that doesn’t confuse readers. That the essay is something that can almost be a piece of your identity, structured in a somewhat limited form. And whether that’s short, a five-paragraph essay, whether it’s in fragments – a form that I love – whether it’s an essay full of pictures, whatever the form, I want my students to have some exposure.

Having taught at Columbia and having worked as a freelance writer and editor, what would you say the role of teaching is in creative writing?

For me, at least in my classrooms, I don’t want to be the kind of teacher who thinks that they know what writing is. I don’t have any answers, and I’m not going to pretend that I do. I think that the biggest strength in a workshop is for everyone to learn from each other. It’s not a sit-down lecture where the teacher spits out wisdom that the students take notes on and go home with. I want my workshops to be a place where we build the work together. I think my role is more of a moderator; I want to be able to draw out everyone’s stories, and ask questions that challenge their writing and challenge their thinking. I want to be there so that everyone feels safe and comfortable sharing their stories.

Less than a teacher, I’m there as a moderator or – if we are to use orchestral terms – a conductor, making sure everyone is on the same page, on the same tempo, and that they’re in by seven and out by nine. That’s really my main job, to be there to structure. Everything else, I’m leaving open to my students.

So how do you think that kind of ethos – of writer-led workshops and open-endedness – is reflected in institutions of writing?

In academia?

Yeah, whether that be academia or publishing or wherever else writing is systematized.

I mean, I think trying to do workshops as writer-led as possible is going to lead to the best work. If you put limits on writing – a short story looks like this, a novel has plot and voice, blah blah blah – if you set up those kinds of rules, people are going to be sort of shut off. I worry that that happens in a lot of classrooms. But if you keep things more open-ended, asking like, “What do you think a novel or an essay is?” you’re going to get a lot more answers. I feel like I’m constantly learning from my students, so I like to go in without answers. I think doing that will be better for the industry overall. It will reflect in books that tell different stories and different styles; who wants to live in a world where all the books sound the same and follow the same rules? That’s my take.

How has your freelancing experience impacted your process, then?

Well, let me tell you about one type of freelance writing that I’m doing right now. I write the back-copies for romance books.

That’s super-interesting.

Yeah, it’s a gig I got from a friend of a friend in publishing, and I just started this summer. Every week, the publisher will send me some details from an upcoming romance book. There’s always a hero, always a heroine, always conflict, and there’s sort of a pattern that it will follow. Something like “opposites attract,” two people who never liked each other but are forced to spend time together, and magically, they fall in love. All of these follow a very straightforward formula, and I just write the back-copy that makes it sound sellable. I don’t want to say that this is “selling my soul,” because it’s so non-literary, but it’s actually taught me so much about writing. It’s kind of crept over the boundary of genre, and I’m thinking a lot harder about what makes a book readable, what people are looking for, and why people are drawn to formulaic plots.

I think there’s a lot we can learn from genre writing. Something my boss for this freelance job always tells me is, “Don’t reveal so much of the plot. Focus on the emotional connections.” And I feel like that’s a lesson we can all learn. Instead of X leads to Y, this happens then this, princess meets prince, focus on the emotional stuff. Why is the princess drawn to the prince, what kind of psychology did she come from that made her more susceptible to a prince like him? I think these kinds of questions are of use to any kind of writer. I mean, it’s certainly helped me. And it pays the bills!

As a new resident of Nashville, and a writer whose work is very much informed by a relationship to space and place, have you noticed any new themes or reworking of themes in your writing since your move?

Yes, yes, definitely yes. In my current work, I’m exploring a lot of what it means to be Japanese. Because I am Japanese, and the characters are Japanese. There’s a whole world of what it means to be Japanese in Japan, or in a place like New York, where everyone’s from a different place and it’s not really a novelty to be international. That’s what makes New York so exciting, that’s it’s such a diverse city. Now, moving to Nashville last summer, it was the first time living in a place where I was, more often than not, the only Asian in the room, if not the only non-white person in the room. I’ve never experienced that before, and it’s been really interesting. Some might assume that to be kind of a negative experience, but I’ve never had an encounter that left me feeling uncomfortable or that there is prejudice, nothing like that. In fact, I feel like in a place like Nashville, people are just curious to know where I came from, what I’m doing in Nashville, and I feel like I’m forced to feel more comfortable about what makes me different.

In New York, it was sort of a given, like “You’re from Japan, cool, I’m from Spain.” Everyone is from somewhere different. Here, I get to talk about what it means to be from a different place. On top of that, Nashville being a growing city, there are a lot of people moving from places like New York or L.A, and they are also discovering these questions for themselves. I feel like I’m having so many more conversations about what it means to have a home and to look for a new home since moving to Nashville. All of these experiences have definitely crept into my writing, so that I’m forced to think about these questions in terms of my characters. What it means for them to ask questions in a different setting.

As more time passes, I’m coming to terms with the fact that, as I spend more time away from Japan and as Japan continues to change, the more unrecognizable Japan is going to be to me. Even though I’ve only lived here a year, I feel a closeness to Nashville, and I want to call myself a Nashvillian and to call myself a Southerner, and I want to integrate myself more with the communities, and that’s going to come with its joys and challenges. The Porch is definitely helping me with that, too. In the creative nonfiction class I’m teaching, we talked about the places that everyone considers home. That was our big icebreaker, and everyone came from somewhere different. Two people who had lived in Nashville all their lives talked about how Nashville is changing, so even, being here, they notice that their home is changing and that they don’t recognize it anymore. It doesn’t matter where you’re from, in one way or another, you’re forced to think about these questions. So yes, yes, yes, I’ve definitely been thinking about these things since I moved here.

Can you give us any insight into your writing process – do you write at a specific time of day, in a specific mood, in specific places?

Let me tell you, I wish I had a process, but I don’t. Especially since becoming a mom recently, I’ve had to make do with the very limited time I have for myself. I have to hold myself accountable for things like, if I hire a babysitter for three hours, to devote those three hours to my writing. Before baby, I had all the time in the world – well, maybe not all the time, but certainly more than I have now. My process is basically just to write when I have time, which is not much of a process. Sometimes I’m sitting there for three hours and I just can’t get anything out, and other times I’m able to write because I’m inspired and because I feel the energy to.

Maybe one thing that’s changed since becoming a mom, and because I  have limited time, is becoming more okay with writing something that I’m not going to love. Acknowledging that I put something on a page, and being proud of that. I used to be a lot more of a perfectionist with my writing, and I felt like what I wrote had to perfect. It took me forever to just get out a sentence or a paragraph, but now I think I’m a lot more okay with getting out a paragraph that I know I’m going to edit later. So I’m just doing a lot more writing now. That’s really my only process.


Learn more about Yurina and register for her upcoming class, “The Personal Essay” — only a few seats left for this fall’s edition!

Introducing Camp SLANT, or, The Importance of Having Fun

by Joe Kane, Youth Programming Director for The Porch

Growing up in a small city in Michigan, I often felt like the only writer for 100 miles in any direction. I was interested in writing, but I had no idea how to get started or who to talk to about it. Not even my friends who were bookworms seemed excited about creating their own stories. I remember sitting at the kitchen table after my parents fell asleep and watching moonlight transform the colors in the poplar trees outside. Even small breezes set the leaves shimmying, and they made an excited paper sound that filled our quiet house. It all seemed very important, and I wanted to write something important about it. Struggling to find those words left me frustrated, but I figured that that was how I was supposed to feel because writers needed to suffer for their art.

I have since learned that, in my sleepy Michigan hometown, many of my classmates were also aspiring writers who thought that loneliness was part of the job. It turns out that feeling is pretty common. Even in metropolitan areas with vibrant literary communities, like Nashville, young writers often feel like they are the only poet or novelist for 100 miles. Well, that stinks, so we are doing something about it.

This June, in addition to our monthly programs for high school students, SLANT is hosting a creative writing summer camp for aspiring writers in grades 5 – 8. Over the course of five days, campers will get to explore the fun side of writing in a room full of peers who share their interests. Established local authors will help campers learn key elements of writing poetry and fiction, as well as provide creative prompts to help the words start flowing fast. There will even be a song writing day with a special guest instructor. Campers will write hard, have fun, and discover the joy of being part of a writing community.


I still occasionally try to find words that seem important, but I’ve noticed a curious phenomenon: the poems and stories that resonate most strongly with readers (also the ones most often accepted for publication) are the ones that I had fun writing. It’s true: having fun with your work is not only conducive to happiness, it can help you become a better writer.

Help us make the “lonely writer” a thing of the past by spreading the word. Do you know an aspiring writer in grades 5 – 8? Perhaps a young person who always has their nose buried in a book, or who won’t leave home without their journal? Share this post with them, and send them our way!

"Protesting with My Grandmothers' Ghosts:" The winner of the 2017 Nashville Reads Writing Contest, Adult Category

We're proud to present this essay by Shan Overton, which received 1st prize in our adult category of the 2017 Nashville Reads Writing Contest. Congratulations, Shan, and keep writing!

Lately, I’ve found myself wading into the streets of Nashville to march for an America of justice and mercy. Each time, I don a pussy hat hastily made from cheap pink fleece, and I feel the electric intensity of protesting running through me. Back in March, when Donald Trump visited our city for one of his never-ending campaign rallies, friends and I walked, hats and all, beside the mile-long line of vocal Trump supporters curling around the State Capitol. We joined our fellow resisters at the front doors of the Municipal Auditorium, where I admired their creativity in signs, slogans, and costumes. The Trump supporters outnumbered protesters, and I considered the likely futility of our efforts. Then, I pondered how it is that I came to fling myself into these situations in the first place.

It turns out that, when I march in the streets, I’m surrounded by the ghosts of my grandmothers. They were not marchers, exactly, but they were inclined to put their bodies where their beliefs were. Mary Frances Overton, a surgeon’s country-clubbing wife with devotion to a Methodist faith, was not one to remain silent when she witnessed an injustice unfolding in her presence. Nancy Turner, also a faithful Methodist, was a career school teacher and farmer’s wife who was less colorful regarding public demonstrations of her opinions. Both had been born in small towns in Tennessee long before women’s suffrage came to pass, and they were dissenting voices in their generations and locations, in their respective ways.

Relating my grandmothers’ lives to my own political activity, I see that I learned a lot from them. At a very young age, I witnessed Mary Frances stopping a white man on a sidewalk to tell him, in no uncertain terms, that he had been rude to a black woman coming out of a store, and that this was completely unacceptable behavior for a God-fearing human being. A small episode like this might not seem like much now, but for a white woman of my grandmother’s generation, who had been raised in the shadow of slavery times in Pulaski, to publicly demand respect for a woman of color -- from a white businessman in a suit -- was really something. Mary Frances had a reputation around town for pulling her car up onto sidewalks and stopping rush hour when she didn’t like the flow of traffic; she spoke her mind and used her feet in situations when others would have stayed put and kept their mouths shut. She was not politically enlightened -- Mary Frances was a woman of her time and wore her white, wealthy privilege where everyone could see it. But her voice, her energy, her sense of human dignity, long gone from her body, walk with me as I carry my own dissent in these difficult times.   

Nancy was another matter altogether. Born and raised in a farming family, she graduated from Peabody College with a teaching degree before she was 20 years old. She had offers to teach in more illustrious schools in Nashville, but she took her first job in a one-room schoolhouse in Smithville, riding to school with her students on a bus driven by future U.S. Senator Al Gore, Sr. When asked why she decided to return to the sticks to teach when she could have taught in better city schools, Nancy replied: “Well, don’t the little country kids who have no shoes deserve as good an education as those big city kids with their fancy shoes?” If Mary Frances was an urban force-of-nature, Nancy was a quiet country radical who supported gay rights before there was such a thing, had zero truck with racists, and took good care of the poor kids in her classrooms. I inherited my way of doing politics from Mary Frances, but I learned the contents of my beliefs from Nancy.

Standing in the cold on James Robertson Parkway a few weeks ago, I felt the lively presence of these two powerful women whose blood courses through my veins. When I think of quitting, when I consider that the forces of domination and oppression may be too much to bear or defeat, I see the ferocious dedication to mercy and justice shining in my grandmothers’ eyes. I hear it in the echoes of their voices in my ears. They might not wear pink pussy hats, but their spirits protest in solidarity with me and keep me going despite the odds.


Shan Overton, a native Nashvillian, currently splits her time between urban life in East Nashville and country life on Wedge Oak Farm, her family’s century farm in Lebanon. She has taught creative and spiritual writing in workshops and retreats and academic writing in secondary and higher education institutions, including Middle Tennessee State University, Volunteer State Community College, Vanderbilt Divinity School, and Boston College.

Photo credit: Beatrice Phelps Kouvalis


"Strong I'll Be:" The Winner of the 2017 Nashville Reads Writing Contest, Youth Category

We're proud to present this essay, which received 1st prize in our youth category of the 2017 Nashville Reads Writing Contest. Congratulations, Veronica, and keep writing!

Strong I'll Be

I stayed up on election night, nervous about the next day. I finally had to go to bed without knowing the winner. The next morning, it was gray. I heard my mother come into the room. “Did he win?” I asked nervously. There was a pause. “Yes,” she said. I burst into tears. She persuaded me to go to my brother’s room, where everyone was waiting. Donald Trump would be president. I had many reasons to dislike him. He had called women pigs, he had sexually assaulted women, he had mocked disabled people, and he wanted to kick innocent immigrants out of America.

We had a family meeting to talk about it. “We’re moving to Ireland,” I said. “No,” my mother said. “We are going to stand for our rights and be brave.”

Maybe the worst thing about the news for me was that it happened on a school day. I had been for Hillary Clinton, and many of my classmates had been for Trump. I absolutely love Hillary Clinton because she understands what women mean to this world. When we arrived at school, some classmates started teasing me. They called me names like Little Hillary. Most of them were boys.

A few months before the election, I had been invited to go to a Presidential Inauguration Leadership Summit in Washington, D.C. in January. When the time arrived, I felt ready to conquer anything. I had realized since the election that what my classmates said did not matter. They just wanted to make me mad. “You’re just a girl!” they said. I didn’t care. I knew that to be a girl is a privilege. I knew that to be a girl is an opportunity. I knew that girls can do anything that boys can do. I knew that this world could never survive without girls.

I arrived at the summit and met my team. I had signed up for the group that focused on, you guessed it, Women in Leadership. What startled me was that, in addition to girls, there were three boys on the team. This gave me hope because boys my age cared about women’s rights too. Also, all of us were different colors. But still we were all the same because we believed in the importance of women. I loved it!

The best part of the summit occurred the second day when Malala Yousafzai called on video chat from England. Ever since I had read Malala’s book I had wanted to be like her. When she came on screen, the crowd exploded with applause. Malala talked about how women are just as strong as men. She told us that some of her friends had been married as children. I was astonished. It was scary to think about being in her friends’ shoes. Malala said child marriage was wrong. She talked about the importance of girls’ education, and how she fights for girls who cannot go to school. It was an emotional and amazing speech.

At one point, I noticed that Malala, THE Malala, was looking straight at me. I felt courage and pride. I held my breath and looked right back into her eyes.

Some people from the summit went to the inauguration, but I decided to visit the home of our first president, Mt. Vernon, with my family instead. The next day, I went to the Women’s March. I saw all kinds of people: people of different color, people speaking different languages, and elderly women who had been standing for women’s rights for years. It was like a family. We chanted outside the White House: “Welcome to your first day, we will not go away!” That memory will stick with me forever. “Take it in honey. You are now part of history,” my mother said. I knew she was right.

When I returned home, I wrote a letter of advice to Trump saying he should be careful about the choices he makes as president. I have been talking to some of my classmates and friends about women’s rights and have ignored the comments of boys at my school.  I have big plans for my future and for other girls’ futures.

To all girls who are being teased: stay strong. It doesn’t matter what other people say. You are your own person, and you can be whatever you want to be. This is my story. I am going to continue to stand up for women’s rights. How about you?

Veronica Pierce is the daughter of Amy Seigenthaler and Tim Pierce, and she attends Overbrook School. She has a brother and a sister who are eleven-year-old twins. She loves to write stories, poems, and papers that talk about her beliefs and opinions. She takes ballet, plays basketball, plays softball, sings with the Blair Chorus, and writes for the Overbrook newspaper. She is very grateful to The Porch for hosting this contest.


Today's the final day of our #PorchTNPeople celebration! We're delighted to wrap it up with Gary McDowell, an incredibly talented poet, essayist, and Belmont professor of English who frequently teaches for The Porch, too. We're so thankful for his support, generosity, and enthusiasm for teaching. 

Don't forget: We're throwing a happy-hour party tomorrow, 5 to 7 pm, in honor of our community and the #BigPayback, with free food and drinks, giveaways, writerly conviviality (alllllways), and raffle prizes from Sweet 16th BakeryEast Side StoryParnassus BooksAsh BlueHer BookshopGift Horse NashvilleWoodland Wine Merchant, and more! Plus, all party-goers will receive a gift bag of goodies from Aesopan Australia-based skincare brand that will be opening a Nashville location in Edgehill Village this summer. If we get the most unique donations during these hours, we'll win $2500 from the Community Foundation -- so we hope you'll give what you can ($10 minimum donation) during these hours. But if you need to give at some other point during the day, that's A-OK, too. We deeply appreciate your support! 

Now, meet Gary:

In six words, describe your writing, or you as a writer: “The poet doesn’t invent; he listens.” —Cocteau

My favorite thing about the Porch is… the community it simultaneously creates and maintains.

Faulkner or Hemingway? Faulkner every day.

Best thing that's ever happened to you on a porch: Hmmm, how to answer this without getting in trouble. How about this: Sitting on the porch of my Aunt Mary’s cabin in Arbor Vitae, Wisconsin, with my dad and grandfather waiting for the sun to set so we can boat to Mielke Bay to catch some walleyes.

Where can we read your writing online? Here’s a poem The Nashville Review published last year:

Your favorite quote about writing/books: Just one?! I’ll go with this then: “Truth must conform to music.” —Richard Hugo

Tell us why you think The Porch should get lots of love during the Big Payback: The people I’ve met—for one, Susannah is a saint, a superstar, an amazing friend of both writers and writing—are incredibly kind, supportive, loving, and talented; the community cultivated at The Porch doesn’t exist just during the courses offered there but extends into the future, and for that alone we should all be grateful. Support The Porch because without a community, writing can be so lonely; with community, writing can be transformative.


The #BigPayback, an annual day of giving to Middle Tennessee nonprofits, is coming up MAY 3. In a time when local funding of the arts is more crucial than ever, we hope to see lots of #Nashville love through donations of just $10 or more. Please consider giving what you can on May 3! Also, mark your calendar to JOIN US on the big day, May 3, for a Porch People Potluck, from 5 to 7 pm at the Refinery Nashville. A suggested Big Payback donation to the Porch on that day of $10 or more gets you into the party. We'll have free beer, snacks, a raffle, giveaways, and more. Expect raffle prizes from Sweet 16th BakeryEast Side StoryParnassus BooksAsh BlueHer Bookshop, Gift Horse NashvilleWoodland Wine Merchant, and more!  AND: We're excited to announce that all party-goers will receive a gift bag of goodies from Aesopa skincare brand that will be opening a Nashville location in Edgehill Village this summer. They have a literary bent, including their own literary magazine, The Fabulist—check them out!

We all know that it's PEOPLE who make The Porch great—so, to get amped for the Big Payback, we’re celebrating some of our #PorchTNPeople. Today we're featuring none other than our wonderful Program Assistant, Ryne Driscoll, an indispensable member of our team! We're so glad she's on the Porch with us. 

In six words, describe your writing: Sporadic bursts of kinda all right stuff.

My favorite thing about the Porch is…the community that’s grown around it, and because of it. There aren’t many other places where you can find a group of people who so genuinely want to see and help others succeed. 

Faulkner or Hemingway? Hemingway

Best thing that's ever happened to you on a porch: Every lengthy, beer-fueled conversation with old friends. The especially good ones included a steamy, summer rain and ice-cold High Life. 

Your favorite quote about writing/books: "I want to stay as close to the edge as I can without going over. Out on the edge you see all kinds of things you can't see from the center."

Tell us why you think The Porch should get lots of love during the Big Payback: The arts in any capacity help people see into worlds that aren’t their own. They widen perspectives, and fuel empathy. More room needs to be made for any program that encourages and grows our creative community, and The Porch absolutely does that. 

What you’ll bring to the Porch Potluck on May 3 (if you can make it):  Either fried cauliflower or vegetarian chili.



The #BigPayback, an annual day of giving to Middle Tennessee nonprofits, is coming up MAY 3. In a time when local funding of the arts is more crucial than ever, we hope to see lots of #Nashville love through donations of just $10 or more. Please consider giving what you can on May 3! Also, mark your calendar to JOIN US on the big day, May 3, for a Porch People Potluck, from 5 to 7 pm at the Refinery Nashville. A suggested Big Payback donation to the Porch on that day of $10 or more gets you into the party. We'll have free beer, snacks, a raffle, giveaways, and more. Expect raffle prizes from Sweet 16th BakeryEast Side StoryParnassus BooksAsh BlueHer BookshopWoodland Wine Merchant, and more!  AND: We're excited to announce that all party-goers will receive a gift bag of goodies from Aesop, a skincare brand that will be opening a Nashville location in Edgehill Village this summer. They have a literary bent, including their own literary magazine, The Fabulist—check them out!

We all know that it's PEOPLE who make The Porch great—so, to get amped for the Big Payback, we’re celebrating some of our #PorchTNPeople. Today, we're featuring Joe Kane, the director of the Porch's youth program SLANT!

Joe Kane BP.png

In six words, describe your writing: My family's well pumps cool water.

My favorite thing about the Porch is... the way it brings people together.

Faulkner or Hemingway? Oh, tough choice. I have to go with Faulkner because chapter 19 of As I Lay Dying is one of my all-time favorite chapters.

Best thing that's ever happened to you on a porch: My father's house is far enough away from town that it gets pretty dark. When I was growing up, on nights when a storm was rolling in off the lake, I'd sit on the back porch and wait for it. The prickle of thunder before the sound. The smell of water that's about to fall.

Where can we find your writing online?

A favorite quote about writing/books: These might not be the exact words, but in his memoir Stephen King said, "Don't live to enrich your writing. Write to enrich your life."

Tell us why you think The Porch should get lots of love during the Big Payback: Through my work with The Porch's youth program, I've seen students say they hate writing at the beginning of a workshop and an hour later run to show off their original poem or story to family and friends. A kid who never thought writing was a possibility is suddenly a poet. That gets to the heart of what The Porch does. The Porch hosts a ton of workshops, readings, and other events, and one thing that brings it all together is the belief that writing is for everyone.

Writing can help us heal, find joy, and understand ourselves. We all have stories worth telling. We're all born with a spark of creativity, and with a little encouragement, all of our sparks can grow into flames.

What you’ll bring to the Porch Potluck on May 3: I think I can make it. I'll bring something, but I have no idea what.





The #BigPayback, an annual day of giving to Middle Tennessee nonprofits, is coming up MAY 3. In a time when local funding of the arts is more crucial than ever, we hope to see lots of #Nashville love through donations of just $10 or more. Please consider giving what you can on May 3! Also, mark your calendar to JOIN US on the big day, May 3, for a Porch People Potluck, from 5 to 7 pm at the Refinery Nashville. A suggested Big Payback donation to the Porch on that day of $10 or more gets you into the party. We'll have free beer, snacks, a raffle, giveaways, and more. Expect raffle prizes from Sweet 16th BakeryEast Side StoryParnassus BooksAsh BlueHer BookshopWoodland Wine Merchant, and more!  AND: We're excited to announce that all party-goers will receive a gift bag of goodies from Aesop, a skincare brand that will be opening a Nashville location in Edgehill Village this summer. They have a literary bent, including their own literary magazine, The Fabulist—check them out!

We all know that it's PEOPLE who make The Porch great—so, to get amped for the Big Payback, we’re celebrating some of our #PorchTNPeople. Today, we're featuring writer/reporter Grace Tatter, who has taken a bunch of our classes, helped out in our tent at Bonnaroo, and generally been a great friend to The Porch. We're both very sad and excited that Grace will be leaving Nashville this fall to pursue a Master's in education at Harvard, but maybe we'll win her back after! 

In six words, describe yourself as a writer: Always a reporter, aspiring creative writer.

My favorite thing about the Porch is... the people, who serve as inspiration, entertainment, and above all, friends!

Faulkner or Hemingway? Hemingway.

Best thing that's ever happened to you on a porch: I was sitting on the porch of the house I lived in senior year of college when I got the email inviting me to Nashville for an in-person interview for the job I now have. I had never been to Nashville before and I remember looking at it on Google Maps, wondering if I could live there.

Where can we read some of your writing online? I wrote about long-form feature about gentrification in East Nashville for Scalawag

A favorite quote about writing/books: "Remember that writing things down makes them real; that it is nearly impossible to hate anyone whose story you know; and, most of all, that even in our post-postmodern era, writing has a moral purpose. With twenty-six shapes arranged in varying patterns, we can tell every story known to mankind, and make up all the new ones—indeed, we can do so in most of the world’s known tongues. If you can give language to experiences previously starved for it, you can make the world a better place." — Andrew Solomon in "The Middle of Things," The New Yorker

Tell us why you think The Porch should get lots of love during the Big Payback: The Porch's events make Nashville a better place, and their classes make Nashvillians better people. The more support they have, the more support they can give.

What you’ll bring to the Porch Potluck on May 3: Black bean salad!


The #BigPayback, an annual day of giving to Middle Tennessee nonprofits, is coming up MAY 3. In a time when local funding of the arts is more crucial than ever, we hope to see lots of #Nashville love through donations of just $10 or more. Please consider giving what you can on May 3! Also, mark your calendar to JOIN US on the big day, May 3, for a Porch People Potluck, from 5 to 7 pm at the Refinery Nashville. A suggested Big Payback donation to the Porch on that day of $10 or more gets you into the party. We'll have free beer, snacks, a raffle, giveaways, and more. Expect raffle prizes from Sweet 16th Bakery, East Side Story, Parnassus Books, Ash Blue, Her Bookshop, Woodland Wine Merchant, and more!  

We all know that it's PEOPLE who make The Porch great—so, to get amped for the Big Payback, we’re celebrating some of our #PorchPeople. Today, we're featuring our amazing Spring 2017 intern Hannah Fowler, who's on the verge of graduating from Vanderbilt University. She's been such a helpful member of the Porch team and we know her future is very, very bright!

Hannah Fowler - BP 2017.png

In six words, describe your writing: Love letters and leftover teen angst

My favorite thing about the Porch is... the sense of community and encouragement. Facing my impending graduation is infinitely easier knowing I’ve found a family of fellow writers.

Faulkner or Hemingway? Virginia Woolf

Best thing that's ever happened to you on a porch: My back porch is my favorite place to read. I’ve survived floods and birthed children and fallen in love there.

Where can we find your writing online? *shakes Magic 8 ball* “Ask again later”

A favorite quote about writing/books: “I was working on the proof of one of my poems all the morning and took out a comma. In the afternoon, I put it back again.” –Oscar Wilde

Tell us why you think The Porch should get lots of love during the Big Payback: Writing stuff is the closest thing we have to immortality. We don't just support life here. We support eternal life. Donate to the Porch if you want to live forever.

What you’ll bring to the Porch Potluck on May 3: Probably wine



The #BigPayback, an annual day of giving to Middle Tennessee nonprofits, is coming up MAY 3. In a time when local funding of the arts is more crucial than ever, we hope to see lots of #Nashville love through donations of just $10 or more. Please consider giving what you can on May 3! Also, mark your calendar to JOIN US on the big day, May 3, for a Porch People Potluck, from 5 to 7 pm at the Refinery Nashville. A Big Payback donation to the Porch on that day of $10 or more gets you into the party. We'll have free beer, snacks, a raffle, giveaways, and more. Full details coming soon! 

We all know that it's PEOPLE who make The Porch great—so, to get amped for the Big Payback, we’re celebrating some of our #PorchPeople. Today, we're featuring Sara Estes, a writer and editor in Nashville, whose writing has been featured in The Bitter Southerner, Hyperallergic, Oxford American, BookPage, Burnaway, Number, Chapter 16, Empty Mirror, Waxing and Waning, The Tennessean, Nashville Scene, and others.

In six words, describe your writing, or you as a writer:

For each success, a thousand failures.

My favorite thing about the Porch is...

that in workshops, I never feel pressured. I can be as introverted or extroverted as I please and it’s fine. In other words, it’s a safe and encouraging environment in which to work, learn, and develop ideas.

Also, it’s always funny how, in the longer workshops, we students can initially be very shy about sharing our work, yet by the last class, there’s this sense of freedom and we’re spilling our guts out to each other on the page. A certain kind of trust is built over the course of the workshops, between the students. It’s a rare and important thing for many writers, I think.

Faulkner or Hemingway?


Where can we read some of your writing online? My recent essay Good Luck, Morons: Lazarus Lake and His Impossible Race in The Bitter Southerner

Best/worst thing that's ever happened to you on a porch:

Well, I have a terrible fear of june bugs, so late-night, lit-up summer porches are always nightmarish scenes for me. Also, I once caught a burglar crawling out the front window of my house while standing on the porch!

A favorite quote about writing/books:

There’s a quote from Ira Glass—it’s been meme-ified and instagrammed a thousand times over—but I turn to it again and again when I’m struggling or feeling defeated/unsatisfied with my work:

“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take a while. It’s normal to take a while. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”

Why should The Porch get lots of love during the Big Payback?

It’s the only place in town that truly helps writers develop a platform and work on their craft without the pressure of a program.

The Porch has done more to foster the writing community in Nashville than any other organization. It helps people become better versions of themselves. How? Because writing has so much to do with introspection, compassion, and self-knowledge: to teach these things, to nurture them in other people, is to build a better, more compassionate, more reflective community. Whether you are a seasoned writer or an absolute novice, learning how to tap into and express one’s inner world, learning how to access your deeper self, is an act of love and a gesture towards our shared humanity. Plus, the workshops are actually affordable!

What are you going to bring to the Porch Potluck on May 3?

A box of wine?



The #BigPayback, an annual day of giving to Middle Tennessee nonprofits, is coming up MAY 3. In a time when local funding of the arts is more crucial than ever, we hope to see lots of #Nashville love through donations of just $10 or more. Please consider giving what you can on May 3! Also, mark your calendar to JOIN US on the big day, May 3, for a Porch People Potluck, from 5 to 7 pm at the Refinery Nashville. A Big Payback donation to the Porch on that day of $10 or more gets you into the party. We'll have free beer, snacks, a raffle, giveaways, and more. Full details coming soon! 

PIER-BP 2017.png

We all know that it's PEOPLE who make The Porch great—so, to get amped for the Big Payback, we’re celebrating some of our #PorchPeople. Today, we're featuring theater professional, workshop participant, and Nashville newcomer Pier Carlo Talenti:

In six words, describe your writing: Less rococo than it once was.

My favorite thing about the Porch is . . . that it creates community, which is so vital to newcomers such as I.

Faulkner or Hemingway? Faulkner

Best thing that's ever happened to you on a porch: I was probably too drunk to remember it. 

Where can we read some of your writing online?

A favorite quote about writing/books: "When a writer is born into a family, the family is finished." -Czeslaw Milosz

Why should The Porch get lots of love during the Big Payback? It's fostering new generations of amazing Southern writers. And it's run by women.

What you'll bring to the Porch Potluck on May 3: Whatever catches my salt-loving eye at Trader Joe's.

#PorchPeople of the #BigPayback: Korby Lenker

The #BigPayback, an annual day of giving to Middle Tennessee nonprofits, is coming up MAY 3. In a time when local funding of the arts is more crucial than ever, we hope to see lots of #Nashville love through donations of just $10 or more. Please consider giving what you can on May 3! Also, mark your calendar to JOIN US on the big day, May 3, for a Porch People Potluck, from 5 to 7 pm at the Refinery Nashville. A Big Payback donation to the Porch on that day of $10 or more gets you into the party. We'll have free beer, snacks, a raffle, giveaways, and more. Full details coming soon! 

We all know that it's PEOPLE who make The Porch great—so, to get amped for the Big Payback, we’re celebrating some of our #PorchPeople. Today, we're featuring our board member and singer-songwriter Korby Lenker:

In six words, describe your writing, or you as a writer: Sitting on the last pew half-drunk.

The best thing about the Porch is... that introverted writer-types have an easier time hanging out with each other.  

Faulkner or Hemingway? Faulkner is too fancy for this Idaho potato.

Best thing that's ever happened to you on a porch: Made love while a thunderstorm poured down around us.

Where can we read some of your writing online? Imaginary conversations with animals 

Your favorite quote about writing/books: "In this there is no measuring with time, a year doesn't matter, and ten years are nothing. Being an artist means not numbering and not counting, ripening like a tree, which doesn't force its sap, and stands confidently in the storms of spring, not afraid that afterward summer may not come. It does come. But it comes only to those who are patient, who are there as if eternity lay before them, so unconcernedly silent and vast." —Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

Why should The Porch get lots of love during the Big Payback? The more people who read, and read critically, the better the family, neighborhood, community, world. Also I have tremendous belief in Susannah and Katie.

What you’ll bring to the Porch Potluck on May 3: Something I make in a crockpot.


Introducing #PorchPeople of the #BigPayback 2017!

The #BigPayback, an annual day of giving to Middle Tennessee nonprofits, is coming up MAY 3. In a time when local funding of the arts is more crucial than ever, we hope to see lots of #Nashville love for the Porch through donations of just $10 or more. Please consider giving what you can on May 3, and help us be around for the long haul!

We all know that it's PEOPLE who make The Porch great—so, to get amped for the Big Payback, we’re celebrating some of our #PorchPeople. Look for profiles of Porch People every day from April 24 - May 2, and mark your calendar to JOIN US on the big day, May 3, for a Porch People Potluck, from 5 to 7 pm at the Refinery Nashville. A Big Payback donation to the Porch on that day of $10 or more gets you into the party. We'll have free beer, snacks, a raffle, giveaways, and more. Full details coming soon! 

To kick things off, we bring you Jane Marcellus, a professor at MTSU, participant in our workshops, and Porch member:

Jane is pictured here with  Mad Men and Working Women: Feminist Perspectives on Historical Power, Resistance, and Otherness  (Peter Lang, 2016), a book she co-authored with three other women.

Jane is pictured here with Mad Men and Working Women: Feminist Perspectives on Historical Power, Resistance, and Otherness (Peter Lang, 2016), a book she co-authored with three other women.

Describe yourself as a writer in six words: Media historian, former journalist, sometimes essayist

My favorite thing about the Porch is... that everyone I’ve met there values good writing, but no one is pretentious about it.

Faulkner or Hemingway? Faulkner.

Best or worst thing you've experienced on a porch: As a child, coming to Dickson County and listening to my father and his brother and sister-in-law tell stories about their lives. Second best thing: Painting river rocks with my best friend Kay Lynn when we were six.

Where can we find more of your work?

Favorite quote about writing: “Make writing and thinking one” – F.D. Reeve (poet, translator, and actor Christopher Reeve’s father)

Why should everyone support the Porch during The Big Payback? The Porch is like sourdough biscuits: It’s nourishing, self-rising, regenerative, and just good.

What will you bring to the Porch Potluck? Something involving quinoa.


Art-Directing Your Fiction

We asked Tobias Carroll if he could share some thoughts on the craft of creative writing prior to his reading at The Porch on April 22. He shared with us this great essay on how studying the art of film can guide your storytelling on the page.  

To the extent that I have formal training in storytelling, it’s as a filmmaker. I studied film as an undergraduate from 1995 to 1999, and learned plenty of things along the way that have turned out to be useful after I made the shift into writing fiction. For me, the impulse to write comes from the same place as the impulse that I first had in wanting to make films: there’s a desire to tell stories, and a hope that someone else will find the narrative I’m spinning to be compelling. And while there are plenty of techniques in cinema that can’t be duplicated on the page–or can be evoked to ill effect–there were a few left-field choices that have been vital to me as I’ve written short stories and a novel.

In my second year of studying film, we began working with moving images: half the year was spent shooting on 16mm film, and half was spent working with video. It was then that the lessons we’d had in the concept of art direction were translated from theory into practice. We were reminded that a random sign or object in the background of a scene might add unwanted consequences. One project that I shot featured, in the background, an arrow pointing down. “Was this an implication that the characters were actually in some sort of underworld or hell?” someone asked me. No; no, it wasn’t–but, when they brought the question up, I realized that that interpretation was absolutely understandable.

Essentially, I’d been careless. I hadn’t looked at how the entire set might have looked to a viewer; I hadn’t thought about how an audience might read the background of a shot and process it. It was a valuable lesson to learn: even what seems like the smallest of details to you can be hugely significant to someone else experiencing the narrative.

It’s something I think about a lot more now when I watch films and television. When a sinister corporate CEO on the show Mr. Robot has a map of the world circa the early 20th century prominently displayed in their office, I ask myself what it might mean about their worldview. In the short-lived espionage series Rubicon, a shot of the protagonist’s apartment revealed a photo of the post-punk band Unwound on his wall–which added another layer of backstory to the character. Did his taste in music ever come up in dialogue? No–but the image felt specific rather than generic, a sign of a particular idiosyncrasy. It felt like something I might see in a friend’s apartment, rather than in a design store’s sample catalog.

Sometimes that can work in the opposite way, too. The surreal science fiction film Upstream Color features a conspiracy involving drugs and the life cycle of worms, haunting musical compositions, and a psychic connection between people and pigs. Here, the level of specificity in the background is toned down: it’s nearly impossible to determine the location in which it was shot, for instance; the characters’ backstories are less important here than the bizarre situation in which they find themselves. It’s the cinematic equivalent of minimalist prose–and it can be used to similar effect.

If a film announces via a title card or an establishing shot of a landmark that it’s set in Chicago, that tells the viewer one thing; if it eschews anything like that and lets things unfold in a more generic or archetypal urban landscape, that tells the viewer something else. Similarly, if a story opens with “They were driving on Interstate 90, outside of Buffalo,” that tells the reader one thing. A story opening with “They were driving on the highway, outside of a city that sat on the nation’s northern border” gives a very different feeling, even though they’re literally describing the same thing.

Still, applying concepts of art direction to fiction can be difficult. There are no real background elements, for one thing. You’re using the same language to describe a character’s living space and attire as you do to convey thoughts, dialogue, and anything else that might be crucial to the story that’s unfolding. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t use some subtle details to accentuate certain aspects of your book or story.

My novel Reel follows the lives of two characters, Timon and Marianne, who meet briefly at a punk show and immediately clash, largely due to Timon’s propensity for drunkenly careening into people at high speeds and his general disregard for the well-being of others. But as each goes through their everyday lives–Timon grappling with his role in his family’s business, Marianne deciding whether she feels at home in Seattle–their paths continue to almost cross, again and again.

As I wrote Reel, I had a sense of the place in which it’s set: Seattle, for the bulk of the book, with a handful of trips elsewhere due to characters’ restlessness or flashbacks to fill in gaps in their history. In my mind, the book was also set about fifteen years ago: a point in which cellphones were in use, but not quite ubiquitous. And, because of my fondness for music–among other things, a friend and I ran a record label that worked with a few artists in the Pacific Northwest in the late 1990s and early 2000s–I wanted to throw in a few references to Seattle bands of the time.

For me, this was less about inside jokes and more of a way to ground the narrative, which took more than a few cues from pulp detective fiction archetypes and fused them with a more realistic setting. A reader unfamiliar with those bands might have no idea if I’d made them up entirely or whether I was alluding to actual bands. That’s fine. But ultimately, I needed to settle on some way of working these in in a stylized manner, so that it wasn’t just a case of me showing off how much I knew about a particular scene at a particular moment in time.

One of the meanings of the word “reel” is a dance, and that informed parts of the structure of the book: it’s a dance in which neither participant is aware that they’re dancing. Because it’s a two-person operation, I decided that I would only refer to groups who had a two-word band name. This meant that I could throw in nods to Kentucky Pistol, Black Halos, and FCS North–but not to bands with one-word names or names with three or more words. In the novel’s first chapter, Timon thinks about a band with an album called I Am That Great and Fiery Force, but he doesn’t actually cite their name, Behead the Prophet NLSL, because it wouldn’t have quite fit in the stylistic scheme that I’d worked out.

There are a few other similar things in there as well: one character has a cassette marked “split seven inches,” which both evokes my teenage practice of recording vinyl onto tapes so that I could listen to it in the car and–more importantly–provides one more nod to the idea of division and parallel narratives that runs throughout the book.

These are all small things, to be fair, but I can only hope that they had something of a cumulative effect on readers. When you point something out to the reader–saying the name of a band rather than just “music,” naming a city instead of saying, “a city”–you’re focusing their attention on that aspect of the narrative. If you’re going to do that, there should be a reason for it–hopefully one that accentuates some of the themes of your novel or story, or provides a counterpoint for them. It’s the small details that can make a narrative more memorable, and can turn good work into something great.

Images of Mercy & Magic

Please enjoy browsing our gallery of pictures from MERCY & MAGIC, our third annual fundraiser, featuring Mary Gauthier and Wally Lamb. 

Missed the show? Here's a recap by our Spring 2017 Vanderbilt intern, Hannah Fowler:

Following opening remarks from Porch founders Susannah Felts and Katie McDougall, as well as a few testimonials from Porch members, singer/songwriter Mary Gauthier opened up the show with what could be considered the unofficial anthem of the event, a song called “Mercy Now.” She set the tone for the evening splendidly by crooning, “Every single one of us could use a little mercy now.”

Gauthier wrapped up her first set with a few questions from Korby Lenker, who then introduced author Wally Lamb. Lamb read an excerpt from his 2010 novel Wishin’ and Hopin’, to which his most recent publication, I’ll Take You There, is something of a sequel. Both novels follow Felix Funicello, a distant cousin of the famous Mouseketeer Annette, and the bit he read involved Felix’s sister’s struggles with anorexia.

The intermission presented what I—and others I spoke to—found to be the highlight of the show, a reading from local poets Ciona Rouse and Destiny Birdsong. Rouse and Birdsong are both part of Poetry on Demand, a Porch program in which writers listen to the personal stories of participants and immediately churn out a poem. Prior to the show, Rouse and Birdsong sat down with Lamb and Gauthier. (Keep an eye—or in this case, ear—out! Poetry on Demand is soon to be a podcast called Versify, in partnership with Nashville Public Radio and PRX!)

Rouse presented a heartrending poem about Lamb’s longtime friendship with a man who initially wrote him to say that his work had saved his life. Birdsong read a lighter-hearted but no less breathtaking poem about Gauthier’s first performance at the Ryman, the Mother Church of Country Music.

The second half of the show focused on the impressive work that Lamb and Gauthier have done in helping others tell their stories. Gauthier is part of a program called Songwriting With Solidiers, an organization that pairs veterans, active duty military, and the partners of servicemen with musicians in order to craft songs about their experiences. For his part, Lamb has spent nearly two decades teaching creative writing classes in women’s prison. The performers rounded out the show by sharing the work they had collaborated on in these programs.



Slightly More Than 3-Minute Interview with Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib

by Hannah Fowler

When I asked one friend if he was familiar with Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib’s work, he replied, “He’s an excellent tweeter!” While this response doesn’t fully encompass the poet and critic’s talent or highly acclaimed publications, it does point toward something unique and important about Willis-Abdurraqib. Although his work—poetry, in particular—deftly handles universal themes of violence and loss, he also seems to have a finger pressed firmly upon the cultural pulse. His poems, essays, and tweets all respond to the contemporary moment in a way that is thoughtful yet timely—and often, humorous. Immediately after I received his responses to my questions, I texted all my friends to share—in particular—his absurdly beautiful response to a relatively inane question about his emotional state following the most recent installment to the X-Men franchise. In another answer, Willis-Abdurraqib briefly discusses the daily struggle to get oneself out of bed; yet his writing demonstrates him to be someone who has his eyes wide open.

Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib’s first collection of poems, The Crown Ain’t Worth Much, was published by Button Poetry in July of 2016. His essays have appeared everywhere from Pitchfork and The Fader to The New York Times and ESPN. The Huffington Post included his essay “In Defense of ‘Trap Queen’ As Our Generation’s Greatest Love Song” on its list of the most important writing from people of color in 2015. Willis-Abdurraqib is the poetry editor of Muzzle Magazine, co-founder of the Echo Hotel poetry collective, and is currently working on both a chapbook and a collection of essays. Somehow, he has also found time to come read to us on April 8 at 6 pm at Refinery Nashville—where he will host a workshop earlier in the day—and to answer of few of our burning questions.

The workshop you’re teaching at The Porch is on poems of self-affirmation. How did you decide on this topic, and why do you think it’s important?

So, I'm always thinking a lot about how precious joy is, and also how consistently vanishing it can feel. Especially now, in the tenseness of our social and political moment. The opening of each day, for me, can feel tedious and difficult. I love thinking about the poem I would write myself which would get me out of bed. I'm mostly just trying to get myself out of bed and see if maybe some other folks would like to join me. The world is so big, and so vast in the ways it can overwhelm. It needs as many of us as possible. I've got nothing against sadness, obviously. But part of this is challenging myself, too. To speak a different language, even if briefly. 


Many of the poems in your collection, The Crown Ain’t Worth Much, are reflections on your college experience. Did you write most of these poems then, or did they come later? If so, what did it mean for you to look back on this time? (I'm mere weeks from graduating, so this is one of my selfish questions.)

Oh, they came much, much later. I didn't write poems in college, thankfully. They would have been very bad and extremely problematic, I'm sure. It was hard to look back on that time and be honest and hold myself accountable to behavior I'm not entirely proud of now. I think that's the hard part about memory and nostalgia, isn't it? It's really seductive to paint a certain type of narrative that isn't the one where you're at your worst and not glowing. 


Some of your poems that I most connected with are those that come from conversations or that (at least seem to) deal with real people and real interactions. I’m interested in anything you have to say about why you lean towards those topics. Specifically, how do you select the moments that you write about? What role does fiction play, if any at all?

I love the idea of working in a kind of surprising conversational narrative. I love poems that read the way I speak out loud and I want to write poems with an ear tuned towards intimate listening, and molding a conversation out of that intimate listening.


In the years past, you’ve been included on lists such as Blavity’s “13 Young Black Poets You Should Know” and the Huffington Post’s “The Most Important Writing From People of Color in 2015." How do you feel about being distinguished as a Black writer? Is it something you embrace?

Definitely. I think my identity plays a role in the narratives I write, so embracing recognition for it makes sense, especially if it serves as a tool to use larger conversations to bridge gaps with people who don't identify as I do.


How is your process different when writing an essay versus a poem? How do you know when a certain thought or idea will become one or the other?

I don't, and I think that's the exciting part! Well, at least it is some days. I really and truly believe that the work we all write will tell us how it wants to live in the world, we don't always get to tell it how it should live. And I think working in between genres has really afforded me an ability to see that firsthand, to see a piece of work come to life in refreshing and unexpected ways. I've learned to trust my instincts when it comes to the starting point and stopping. I'm guided more by instincts than by what I think the work is demanding out of me.


As a genre, pop music isn’t generally taken that seriously. By both writing about pop music critically in essays and including it in poetry, however, it seems that you view it has having significant value or meaning. What is that value? Or perhaps another way to ask this question would be: What made you start writing about music like this? I’m thinking particularly about your poem in response to Carly Rae Jepsen (which has actually been discussed in one of my classes)!

I think anything that people can touch and interact with frequently on a very frequent basis has a lot of value if it can be turned into a mirror and pushed into a position to critique something larger. People love pop music, even when they say they don't. There's this great quote from a Rolling Stone cover story on Fall Out Boy from maybe 2006, where Pete Wentz says, "There's the music you say you listen to in public, and then there's what you actually listen to." And I've just got bored with blurring that line, so I'm going to talk about the music I really listen to in public, in hopes that maybe some other people will join me in talking about the music they really listen to in public, and then we can have a bigger talk about something else. A larger critique of gender, or race, or politics, or power, tethered to that singular entry point that we all know and love so well. And sometimes, as is the case with the Jepsen poem, it's just fun to revisit an artist that thrills you and see what you can pull out of what they were generous enough to share with the world. 


What can you tell us about your forthcoming projects, particularly your essay collection, They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us?

I've got a chapbook called Vintage Sadness coming from Big Lucks this summer. It kind of acts as a bridge between The Crown Ain't Worth Much and the new manuscript of poems I'm working on. The Jepsen poem is in there. It's a lot of poems pulling directly from songs and seeing what I could come up with. I'm really excited about it. The essay collection is coming along. It's almost finished. There's about 27 brand new essays in there, so it was really exciting and thrilling to write new work with no restriction about time or relevancy. There are some things pulled from previously published spaces and re-worked, but I'm so excited about it. I look at the cover almost every day. It was the first book cover of mine that I had a vision for and I'm really glad that when I articulated the wild and somewhat ridiculous vision, Two Dollar Radio was able to bring it to life.


What are you reading right now? Any recommendations for us?

Read Khadijah Queen's I'm So Fine: A List Of Famous Men and What I Had On and the re-read and then re-read. That's been my year.


Finally, I recently made the wise decision to follow you on Twitter, and so I have to ask: How are you working through your post-Logan grieving process? I gasp-cried through most of the last scene and need some advice on coping.

Yeah, Logan was such a tough one. For some reason, I was so unprepared for both the sadness and violence in it. I didn't thoroughly read reviews, and my friends told me it was sad, but I was expecting maybe a 6 on the sadness scale. A thing that's tough about me is that once I open myself up to feeling things, it's really hard for me to close that door internally. And so movies that have kind of persistent, hovering sadness are hard for me to get through unscathed. There's kind of a small house inside of me that sadness is always eager to occupy. Logan unlocked the door to that house early, and then sadness had a party. But also such a richly textured and surprising narrative in a superhero movie, wasn't it? I feel like it raised a bar for storytelling and emotional honesty in the genre, and I'm looking forward to what comes next. I want to watch a million movies with those kids.

"IMMERSE YOURSELF IN GREAT SENTENCES:" THE 3-Minute Interview with Jamie Quatro

Chosen as a New York Times Notable Book, NPR Best Book of 2013, and New York Times Editors’ Choice, Jamie Quatro’s debut collection of short stories, I Want to Show You More, was received with overwhelmingly positive critical reception. The fiction writer, poet, and essayist will release her first novel, Fire Sermon, in early 2018 and a new collection of stories later that year. The Porch is proud to host her for a reading and workshop this spring. In advance, Quatro was kind enough to answer a few questions about sex, spirituality, and setting. —Hannah Fowler, Porch Spring 2017 intern


How does place inform your writing, and to what degree do you feel connected to region as a writer?

When my last book came out, I was often asked, Do you consider yourself a southern writer? We’ve lived in the South for twelve years now, and have raised four children here, but my answer is still: yes and no. If you define a “southern writer” as one with deep ancestral roots in the south, I don’t qualify. I was born in California and raised in Arizona. But if a “southern writer” is one who deals in some fashion with topics that have historically defined southern literature—religion, the grotesque/gothic, racial tension, the Civil War—then I’m a southern writer, no question.

When writing I Want to Show You More, did you set out to explore the intersections of faith and sexuality, or was that something that happened more or less organically? 

I didn’t set out to explore anything! I didn’t even know I was writing a book. I knew something needed to be said, though I didn’t know what it was, or how I would say it. I just re-read the Paris Review interview with T.S. Eliot, and I love what he says about authorial intention: “One wants to get something off one’s chest. One doesn’t know quite what it is that one wants to get off the chest until one’s got it off.” It wasn’t until I had this little body of stories that I was able to sit back and realize there might be some thematic links, including the intersection of the sacred and sexual.

How does your writing process differ when working on a novel versus writing short fiction? Specifically, how do you know when an idea for a story will expand into a novel or when it will fit best into a shorter piece?

I don’t know how to talk about “process,” or if it’s a useful thing to discuss. Stories, novels, essays – they all emerge sentence by sentence. Everything happens on the page. The “process” of writing feels, to me, as much like listening as it does composing. When someone asks, How do I become a writer, what is the process? I usually say: read. Immerse yourself in great sentences, in poetry. Start with Shakespeare. That said: somehow, running is part of my process. I often work out narrative problems during that open-brain/endorphin hit of a long run. Playing the piano opens up that same space. Prayer, too, plays a part — the paying-attention kind of prayer. And human interaction, away from the writing desk, is essential to me. The longer I do this work, the more I realize how important the work/life balance is, not just to my mental health, but to the health of my art. 

How do I know if something is a novel? I started writing a story about a backwoods prophet and got to 60 pages and realized I wasn’t even close to the middle, and I was going to need a lot more real estate. And then this new novel hijacked the first. I wrote it in secret while I was under contract for the prophet novel. I was cheating on the contracted novel. I told no one. It felt dangerous and rebellious and I had no idea that it would become a sell-able book, or even anything I could show anyone. When I was 100 pages into cheating, I decided to “confess" to my agent and editor, and see what they thought about the material. They both said to keep up the affair. 

What can you tell us about your forthcoming novel Fire Sermon?

It’s about—what else?—God and sex and marriage and infidelity. A physical affair this time. (I suppose it makes sense, given that the writing of it was a torrid adulterous fling.) I can tell you it’s quite short—you can read it in one or two sittings—and it’s partially set in Nashville.

What will you be teaching at the Sewanee School of Letters this summer, and what works might you assign to your students? How do you go about that selection process?

Initially I was going to teach a literature course, Faith and Fiction: Religious Themes in the Short Story. But things shifted around with faculty appointments, so I’ll be facilitating a traditional fiction workshop instead. It won’t be as text-heavy, obviously. I’ll likely have two or three books on the syllabus: a short story anthology (I like the Paris Review anthology, Object Lessons) and one or two short novels. Maggie Nelson’s Bluets for sure, and maybe Robert Seethaler’s A Whole Life, or Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams. Since I’ve just written a short novel myself, I’m excited to talk about the possibilities and limitations of the form.

"End the Poem Singing": The 3-minute Interview with Keith Leonard

With this post, we begin a new series at the Porch blog, "The 3-Minute Interview," in which we ask just a very few questions of some of our teachers and favorite writers. A literary snack, if you will—a handful of words rather than salted almonds.  

Keith Leonard

Keith Leonard

Keith Leonard, a Visiting Lecturer in Creative Writing at Indiana University, will come to the Porch the weekend of April 22-23 for a reading and poetry workshop, "Letting Narrative Lead the Way." Leonard's debut full-length poetry collection, Ramshackle Ode, is now out from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; a chapbook, Still, the Shore, was previously published by YesYes Books. When Porch instructor Kendra DeColo raved to us about Leonard and suggested we bring him to Nashville, we were all-in. Leonard was kind enough to answer a few questions for us in advance of his appearance.

Your Porch workshop will look at combining narratives as a way toward a new poem. Could you give us a brief example of how you've done just that in one of your works?

Sure! I have this poem called “Osiris Ode” (which was first published here) in which I imagine my friends ceremoniously burying my body by planting corn in curved rows on my gravesite. That narrative eventually gives way to a second narrative of how frustrating that unruly gravesite would be for the groundskeeper whose sole responsibility is to make the cemetery look orderly. If independent of each other, each narrative is a little quaint—maybe even humorous—but together they combine to a become (I hope, at least) a meditation of living an unstructured vs. a highly structured life.

Tell us a question that you kept coming back to, or circling around, while writing the poems in Ramshackle Ode.

Well, I’m not really sure I answered anything, but I think that’s my intention with poetry. Besides the fact that I’m not all that wise, I was much more interested in poetry as a method by which I might poke at some questions I can’t answer. You know, some of the big ones—like why love? And that approach usually led the poems to wonder, and that—in turn—led the poems to an appreciation of my own small and miraculous life.

In your years of working with established poets and teachers of poetry, what's one approach or piece of wisdom that you've carried with you into your own classroom?

Maurice Manning once told me that a poem should never end in the emotional register that it began in. That might seem like a simple point, but I think it speaks towards what a writer and reader mostly want from a poem. We want change in the speaker. We want to know that something was realized in the writing of the piece, and that such knowledge has shifted the speaker’s understanding. And to go a bit deeper, I think that shifting of emotional register also speaks to how a poem might be an artistic mode well-suited to the expression of compassion. My favorite poems are the ones where a speaker starts out disgruntled and somehow—as if by magic—ends the poem singing.

Who would be present at your dream literary dinner party?

I’m generally a fan of intimate diners between no more than three or four people so I think I’d go with:

  1. Walt Whitman: I get the impression that he’s long-winded and has a big sloppy heart, so there wouldn’t really be any awkward conversation lulls.

  2. Lynda Hull: I’m an unabashed fan of her under-read poetry, so I could just sit there in awkward awe half the time. Plus, from what I gather, she lived an interesting life, so I’m sure she’d have some great stories.

And the menu?

Fondue? I’ve never had fondue, so if either of them have had it, they could show me what it's all about. And if none of us have had it before, then we would partake in the melty experiment and bumbling newbies.

Keith Leonard will read from Ramshackle Ode at the Skillery at 6 pm on April 22. His workshop, "Letting Narrative Lead the Way," will be held from 2 - 5 pm at the Skillery on Sat., April 23. Register here. —Susannah Felts