"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:https://as.vanderbilt.edu/nashvillereview/archives/12859

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? http://rhinopoetry.org/tag/j-joseph-kane/

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! 

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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? http://chapter16.org/dry-shade/

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?  janemarcellus.com

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

Be brave, be reckless, stay weird: An interview with poet Tiana Clark

Tiana Clark is a Pushcart Prize nominee, first-year MFA student in poetry at Vanderbilt, and recipient of the 2015 Rattle Poetry Prize. (She's also a Porch board member.) Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Raven Chronicles, Nashville Arts Magazine, Word Riot, Native Magazine, Rattle, Crab Orchard Review, Best New Poets 2015The Adroit Journal, Muzzle Magazine, and elsewhere. Porch Intern Gabriela Garcia sat down with her to talk about growing up in Nashville, literary citizenship, and the politics of poetry.

GG: In July Rattle published your poem “Sandy Speaks” about the police brutality against Sandra Bland for their Poets Respond series. They also published a recording of you reading it out loud where you were kind of inhabiting her words. What was that experience like?

TC: When we read poems they go through our bodies, and so much of police brutality is about silencing. I wanted to be a megaphone for her. I think poetry is a powerful act of witness and a way to respond to injustices.

GG: “The Ayes Have It” felt connected to “Sandy Speaks” in its address of racial trauma in American society. How did it feel to talk about that particular issue through poetry?

TC: I’m interested in the ontological approach of asking what race means as a construction. What I love as poet is asking how to manipulate and subvert the roots of words and create a new meaning, a new place for myself.

GG: Poetry is often thought of as a difficult career path. In The Paris Review, Eileen Myles talked about poetry as a career. She said: “In the poetry world, people need to act like they don’t know how this happened…It’s the loafer posture, the veneer of I don’t really need this. People loved to talk about how Frank O’Hara didn’t really care about getting published. That doesn’t jibe with my experience.” What are your experiences with publishing and envisioning your career?

TC: Literary citizenship is really important to me, and publishing is a way for me to connect with a larger community and consciousness. Poems are conversations and I want to be in dialogue with an audience. Especially when talking about race, I don’t want to shout into the void. I’m humming; I want people to hum too. With technology and the Internet, we have immediate access. It feels so powerful to have that connection, to have people interact with my work. It democratizes the process. You don’t go into poetry for the money, but I do I think there’s something noble about a vocational approach. Finding innovative ways to bring poetry into the marketplace helps writers thrive and hopefully fund their art.

GG: You were an Africana and Women’s Studies major at TSU. Did you also take creative writing?

TC: I didn’t! I was writing in the margins of my notebooks and then just couldn’t give it up. But studying Africana and Women’s Studies changed how I view history and taught me to be really honest and critical. Poems can investigate unanswerable questions when we explore things like grief or loss, and I think having that investigative mind helped shift my view.

GG: So you hadn’t taken formal workshops until Vanderbilt?

TC: I took classes at The Porch, started my own workshop group, and did a conference before I started. I called it my DIY MFA.

GG: Did that cause your poetry to evolve in any way?

TC: Absolutely. As a poet you spend a lot of time by yourself, so finally having people respond to my work and ask questions was really important. It raised the level of critical analysis in my poems.

GG: When did you first start to engage with poetry?

TC: I grew up an only child and I would always talk to myself. I look at that now as the beginning of my relationship with poetry and love for language. I was speaking into the silence of me and my Mom in a single room. It was a way for me to self-soothe.

GG: Did you grow up in Tennessee?

TC: Pretty much. I was born in Los Angeles but moved here when I was seven.

GG: Where we are in the world affects how we process poetry, how we create. How has this particular landscape influenced the way you write?

TC: I actually have a poem all about this. In Los Angeles, everyone was different. I didn’t stick out like a sore thumb. Then I came here and people asked, “What are you?” That’s a question I’m constantly answering in my work, and I think it will be the engine or drum behind my first book. It’s really what “Equilibrium” is about. Being uprooted was very interesting.

GG: What’s next?

TC: I’m working on a chapbook. It’s fun to see how my poems are talking to each other. I can see the holes, as well—where I need to write the connective tissue.

GG: Do you ever find that your poems have a better memory than you do? Do things show up that you didn’t know were there?

TC: It’s like you’re an archeologist dusting off bone. Like most of us, I don’t know how a poem is going to end, and that’s usually when I am most surprised, like, “This is what this experience made me feel.”

GG: What is a word or phrase that you think is highly underrated?

TC: I think the lyric “I” is underrated. I find liberation in the “I.” Only I can tell my story. Muriel Rukeyser said, “What if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open.” That, to me, is the power of the “I” in the poem.

GG: What writing advice would you give your younger self?

TC: “You’re not alone. Write no matter what. Whatever you’re scared about is what you need to be writing. God’s still gonna love you. Your parents will still love you. No one’s gonna leave you for telling the truth.”

GG: That reminds me of the last line of your poem “Magic”: “It took me a while to understand that I didn’t have to beg for it, God was already washing the dust of my feet.”

TC: Yeah! I used to be very afraid. I thought I was too emotional. I thought I was this weird Sylvia Plath/Maya Angelou trapped in a fourteen-year-old body, but it takes intensity to write mypoems. I would tell myself to be brave, be reckless, and stay weird.



Food as Lens: a Q&A with Jennifer Justus

This weekend, we're excited to bring local writer Jennifer Justus, author of the recently released cookbook Nashville Eats, to the Porch for a special food-writing workshop. Jennifer will whip up some evocative dishes for you to enjoy; then she'll pair them with readings and writing exercises to provide a rich experience from which to summon your own food stories. If you've ever wanted to dabble in food writing—or if you just want a unique entry point for exploring family and personal histories—this is a great place to start! —Ed. 

Porch Program Assistant Ryne Driscoll had a few questions for Jennifer in advance of her workshop. 

How did your relationship to food and cooking when you were younger influence the place of those things in your life now?

I grew up in a small town in North Georgia and started pitching in on family meals during high school, especially when my parents worked late. As I learned more about cooking, I feel like it became a portal to other worlds—a way to experience people and places. I haven’t had the opportunity to travel to Cuba yet, but I can make picadillo and fried plantains and experience a little bit of that culture through food.

You mention growing up with parents who “worked hard outside the kitchen, but not so often in it." What do you suggest for busy parents who want to begin a tradition of cooking family meals? How about college students, with very few cooking utensils and not a huge income, who want to branch out from frozen dinners and pizza delivery?

I’ve never owned many cooking utensils myself, and I really wanted that to come through in the recipes of my book. I also wanted to keep the steps simple and ingredients basic. I don’t think we need anything more than that. So for younger people, I would recommend finding dishes that you like through trial and error and just slowly and steadily adding to a repertoire.

In your writing you seem to go so much further than just sharing recipes. You travel and really get to know the people and communities behind the food. What's your favorite place you've visited in search of the culture behind food? What did you love so much about it?

I spent some time on a farm in Dorset, England as part of the WWOOFing (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) program.  We would get up every morning, drink tea and discuss what needed to be done that day. For me, it usually meant a couple hours outside and then finishing the day in the kitchen helping bake bread, grating beets for salads and making soups. It was a simple way to live during a difficult time in my life, and I met great people from around the world in that little kitchen.

Who are the biggest inspirations in your career?

The people of the Southern Foodways Alliance have been my biggest inspiration: the writers, food stylists, restaurant owners, chefs, historians, teachers. It’s such a smart and interesting collection of varied people who gather a few times a year to talk about and study food in such genuine and alternative ways.

What advice would you give to an aspiring food writer?

Focus on living, staying curious, and experiencing as much as possible. Study the craft, the writing, and worry less about being an expert on the food. I like to think of food as the lens through which to tell stories about the people and sometimes make sense of the harder topics of religion, politics, race, etc. Food helps us connect and understand one another a little better.

What’s your comfort food?

It changes depending on my mood and the season. Right now, it would be spaghetti and meatballs.

What ingredients do you always have in the kitchen?

Eggs. There’s so much you can do with an egg. It’s pretty much the perfect food in my opinion.

What do you hope readers will take away from your book, other than great Southern meals?

I hope that it gives people a sense of Nashville hospitality, past and present, through the recipes and the people who make them, whether it be a cheese maker, farmer, chef, musician or home cook. It’s a love letter to Nashville, really.

What’s next for you?

The Dirty Pages exhibit that I put together with Cindy Wall and Erin Murray is headed to New Orleans next month for its permanent home at the Southern Food and Beverage Museum. The exhibit showcases a diverse collection of Nashville women with their messiest recipes and the stories behind them. It’s the original version, but we’re also starting to think about the next iteration of Dirty Pages, which we hope to hang this summer.


Register Here to take Jennifer’s workshop, "Read It, Write It, Eat It: Food in Literature from the Page to the Pen to the Plate," October 31 at The Skillery in Germantown. Here's the full description: 

From Proust’s madeleine to Quentin Tarantino’s Royale with Cheese, food has long served as a writer’s muse. In this class we’ll read and discuss excerpts from fiction and nonfiction, and even listen to song inspired by food. We’ll explore the ways food can help us make deeper emotional connections in our work. And we’ll eat, of course, as some bites will be inspired by what we read while others will inspire us to write our own stories. 

Old House, Tragic Past, Weird Families, Dark Secrets: Writing Where the Story Is

We're proud to bring you this essay by Nashville writer and blogger and friend of the Porch Betsy Phillips, about her writing process for her novel in progress. In it, she talks about how writing on an actual porch (!) is fueling her storytelling. —Ed. 

I love ghost stories. Most of my own fiction—perhaps all of it, if you squint just right and look closely—contains ghosts. I love movies about ghosts. I love books about ghosts. I especially love movies and books about haunted houses. Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, Caitlin Keirnan’s The Red Tree, Stephen King’s The Shining, Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves, and on and on.

One thing I noticed is that the haunted house story is a New England story. Even haunted house stories set someplace else are usually written by someone, like King, with deep New England roots. But the elements of a haunted house story—old house, tragic past, weird families, dark secrets—seemed to lend themselves to a story set in the South. Plus, the South has quite a few old houses that actually purport to be haunted. Why aren’t there any fictional Southern haunted houses?

We’ve all heard that we should write the kind of book we want to read, so I’m working on a haunted house story set in the South. I reread all my favorite haunted house books. I watched all my favorite movies. I visited as many old houses in Middle Tennessee as I could find time and money for.

Once I felt steeped in the genre and the location, I wrote a draft.

On the one hand, I’ve never written straight-up horror before. A lot of the draft was me feeling my way around the form, trying to make sure that my plot consistently aimed toward scary and unsettling. When I finished my draft, I reread it and I felt proud. It is scary and unsettling. It’s the kind of book I would want to read.

On the other hand, it stinks.

Not irredeemably. At least, I hope not. But as embarrassing as it is, I’ll admit it stinks. Extraneous characters need to be cut. Scenes need to be reworked. It needs a massive revision. The story’s good, I think, but the revision’s going to be tough.

I needed some place to sit with a notebook, a pen, and my thoughts and map this nightmare out.

One day, as I was pondering how stuck I was on my revisions, I was googling antebellum houses in the Nashville area and I came across a news item about a new park in Brentwood, which contained such a home. I drove to Smith Park which, it turns out, is an antebellum plantation—house included—that the city has put hiking trails all over. The house has been refurbished and you can rent it for events.

The house, Ravenswood, has a history very similar to the one in my manuscript—built in the 1820s, lived in by the same family for generations, and renovated over the years. If I wanted to see how a real family built and lived in a real home similar to my fictional one, well, here it is.

The house has three porches—the grand old front porch overlooking the lane that approaches the house, a small, Victorian-era addition side porch with two rocking chairs, and an L-shaped back porch that faces the hills.

The first time I sat on the Victorian porch with its gingerbread spindles, I looked out over the lawn and I thought, “This would be a good place to think about the book.” Two-hundred-year-old brick at my back, a comfortable rocking chair under me, the quiet of a part of the park with no paths nearby.

Like I said, the house is used for events and I don’t want to intrude. So, I check the house’s calendar and my calendar and on Saturday mornings, when we’re both clear, I go down and sit on the porch and work on revisions. I’ve sat there, just myself, thinking. I’ve brought a notebook and taken notes. I’m hoping to sit there with my laptop very soon.

I’m revising a book about a brick house built in the 1820s while sitting on the porch of a brick house built in the 1820s. If I have a question about how thick a wall is or how the bricks might feel or how many steps it is from the back door to the freestanding kitchen, I can just go check.

If I’m trying to imagine what it would be like to walk up the country lane to the house for the first time, there’s a country lane. I can walk it. I get a sense of the sounds of the place. The people talking to each other on the trails give some sense of the level of noise on a plantation full of enslaved people doing their daily thing off in the distance. The crows calling in the trees, the way the wind sounds as it whistles past the chimneys, the smells of the flowers planted up near the house, they all tell me something about what life would have been like for my characters over the years.

Plus, Ravenswood, the house itself, is noisy. Since I want to keep using the porch without fear, I keep telling myself those are just the sounds old houses make. But it clicks, it knocks, it pops, it groans. As much as I find it a little unsettling, I’m really glad to experience it. When my main character enters my haunted house, how does she decide which strange things are ghostly and which strange things are just the results of an unfinished war between a two-hundred-year-old house and gravity?

My time on Ravenswood’s porch has been instrumental in helping me write this book. I never know what I’m going to learn there, but it’s always worth going.


Betsy Phillips is the author of A City of Ghosts and the artist's book, The Wolf's Bane. Her fiction has appeared in Apex and Betwixt and is forthcoming in Science Fiction & Fantasy

The Storefront Writer

What's it like to write in public? We asked friend of the Porch C. Williams, who keeps a writing studio at the Shoppes on Fatherland in East Nashville, to tell us a bit about how her chosen location shapes her writing life (and others'). We think you'll be inspired by what she has to say. --Ed. 


I have surrendered. By 10:30 am, on a good day, I am working behind tinted windows in my  storefront writing studio, huddled on Nashville’s East side. I’ve already written from 5­ to 6:45 am, been to the gym, downed a protein shake and walked my cat. This schedule  requires endurance. I’ve so much to do and I’ve come late to this career. More and more,  I spend my time here. I’m teaching myself to give in to focus. This is my work, a serious  job. So, I keep shop hours. I put in the time.

As for proof I’m a writer, I’ve no papers. With less than half a dozen short stories  published in literary journals, I must work hard writing every day. There’s no MFA, Prize  Winner or New York Best Seller that follows my name. Yet. 

Writing is a Fever. 

I caught it early 2009 in a writing class. At first, I couldn’t finish a short story. By  Christmas, ten months later, I’d written a novel. It’s no great work, but it opened me up  like true love will, to a thread of need. I didn’t know it was the tail of a dragon.

The process resolved a heavy darkness that I’d carried far too long. It offered a  new shape, an incarnation from what was left of me before I simply burned down to dirt.  One needs a cave to hunt fiery serpents, so I built my own in a tiny storefront.

I call it my Hut, as if my intent is less than serious. This is a trick. This frees my  subconscious to build its peculiar worlds and stories. It is unafraid to create, destroy, fly  and crash. Burn it all down. It is that mind that tosses the match. 

Nothing could be further from my sensible brain, alert with shrill warnings of  danger, doubt… already grieving the great loss before my fall. 

Fear lives in that mind, but not in the Hut. In the Hut, I am shameless.

My little storefront sits among a thriving retail enclave in a popular tourist-stop  neighborhood. People wander into my studio every day looking for things to buy. I have  no stock, no tangible exchange. But as I’m telling them where to find tea or souvenirs, I  keep the essence of their embodied stories.  I was raised to catch and release. 

But for those few moments they look around my studio, I give them something to  consider. My hope is, even if they never read a novel, they can imagine themselves sitting  alone in a room, watching people walk by as they sit and struggle to create a story, to  produce art. It lures people to slip inside characters’ minds (in this case, mine) and  experience life through the eyes of someone maybe extremely different from themselves. 

I am teaching myself to write in public because then I cannot toss about lame  excuses or elegant rants about how hard it is to be a writer. I rented this space to be  visibly accountable so I would show up, walk the walk and demonstrate that this is real  work. Damn hard work. My work.

Tick-­tock. There is no plan B. 

No muse shows up looking like Charlize Theron in a gauzy wrap with a bottle of  cold white wine at sunset on the beach at Malibu whispering J’Adore in your ear.

Dedicated writers know you have to drag the fecund beast up from the dark scary  place, put it in a cage and shake it like hell. You have to feed it with a long, pointy stick.  Watch your fingers, and make sure you double­check the lock when you close your eyes  and wait for sleep. You get used to its howls of things long gone.

You must scratch 1000 to 100,000 words out of black marks on white paper that  shape the creatures we call stories. By grace, they may lead you to your awake life or  others who’ve cured their own somnambulism.

To inspire others, I must show this is a decision, a choice. I wanted to create a  studio, a space that evokes a desire in others to sit down and write. 

If one kid taps on my vintage typewriters and it gets in her blood, then job well  done. She will understand the language, its call and tenure. I will have helped shout a voice in the world. 

I write in my shop window to prove that somewhere, a human being is physically sitting down and writing a story. People see me doing this.

I’ve purposely set my struggles up as a show going on behind my picture window.  By publicly sitting and writing, reading and pacing, talking and listening, I create an  opportunity for anyone seeing me in my studio, a chance to experience empathy. 

This is the miracle of fiction. It teaches us to see beyond our own beliefs by the  ability to change our point of view. We come to understand how others learn to feel how  they do. Hate and anger lose their power when we come to know someone’s story. We learn to look out at the streaming world, and recognize shapes of truth.

I never know who will walk through the door, so I leave it open as weather  allows. This has brought me riches in the form of people who teach me that we all have a  common desire to bear witness, communicate and be heard. 

I’ve been befriended by an African American woman who gets up to write at 4 am  everyday before rushing to work at a drive­thru window. She inspires me to shut up and  write. She’s let no one read her work but me. Her diligence, her genius, is humbling.

She has the Fever.

A young Hispanic, teacher of Literature for the US Army, explained to me how he  could identify the cadets at West Point who will become leaders, simply because of how they  understand the importance of poetry.

He spreads the Fever.

A brilliant young woman from India talked to me for several hours of her dread of  confessing to her parents that she was quitting medical school to finish her second novel.

She is aflame.

One of my writing heroes walked in my studio. She is an icon in screenwriting.  We had a brief chat before she was whisked away by her driver to make her plane to kick  off her European lecture tour. But not before I promised to send her info on how to  submit her new short stories to literary journals.

Relentless Fever.

It’s a lonely pursuit most of the time... y’all know this.

Because it’s so hard to go this alone, I crafted my studio to be a Writer Trap. Before…I worked in film designing visual worlds.

That is why I picked a storefront, to attract others of my kind. I feel a longing for  a deeper camaraderie and feedback, challenge and validation that is beyond me, sprinters  I have to chase to keep up. I hope to convince writers I believe are better than me, to  come in and give me a push. I’ve played a lot of sports; this is how you get an edge. 

Sweat and Fever.

Sometimes, behind this glass window, I feel like the lone monkey at the zoo.  Most of the time, that’s all right. Then there are days when someone walks into my tiny  studio and there is a look of wonder and surprise on their face.

I watch them try to decipher the dark red oval sign with just my name and a black  crow.  Then they step to my door, where another small, framed sign has that crow  perching over the words: Writing Studio.

Most read it a few times like they are seeing things, like it makes no sense. Like  they are seeing an ancient plank of wood, handcarved: ALCHEMY, ELIXIRS & BLOOD LETTING.

“What do you do in here?” they say, poking their heads in the room. “Do people  really hang out here and write?”

“Yes, “ I say. “Come in.”


C. Williams writes in a tiny storefront studio among busy shops on Nashville’s East side.  She’s also a photographer and Production Designer in film & Television. C. Williams’  fiction has appeared in The Louisville Review, Motif, Appalachian Heritage, Revolution  John, and Still: The Journal.