An Amazing Non-Profit for Southern Poets of Color Tells All
- Can you tell us the guiding principle of The Watering Hole?
The Watering Hole began as a response to the isolation that Monifa and I felt as poets in South Carolina. We would go to spoken word venues and feel the camaraderie and teamwork, but not necessarily get the poetic growth we needed. Then we would go to academic workshops and receive nuanced critiques and stimulating discussion, but not necessarily in a community that fully understood our work. We knew that both of these worlds needed to come together for poets of color to survive as whole artistic beings. For this reason, The Watering Hole provides affordable, accessible education for poets of color writing about the South or in the South. We welcome the stage, page, traditional, experimental, formal, performer, literary, rapper, anybody who uses poetry in their work and wants to develop their craft. We do this through three main platforms: an annual winter retreat Dec. 26–30, online masterclasses throughout the year, and poetry festivals, including our new partnerships with Deckled Edge Festival Feb. 19–21 and the Clemson Literary Festival this spring. We’re all about reaching poets not just in physical spaces, but also in the virtual classroom. There is a mother of three who might be our next great poet, if only she could fly to NY, LA, or DC for workshops or pay for a Master’s in Fine Arts or even find a babysitter. TWH is for her.
2. You mention on your site that you all came together because, in part, you were inspired by Kwame Dawes’s workshops and the facilitators there, including Nikky Finney, Patricia Smith, and Frank X. Walker. What went on at these sessions that were so inspiring to you all?
The impact of those workshops came from several directions. First, it was a poetry workshop full of poets of color. Monifa had been in the spoken word game for almost 15 years at this time, and I had been in school for my whole life. I was in my second graduate program and slipping off to spoken word venues at night to get what I was missing during the day. To be in a room with people who knew and respected the authors who inspired me, to not need to explain the idiosyncrasies of my work, to have guides who would point the way to my next reading/listening list, to not be questioned, resented, or undermined for writing race, and to have poignant critique of my work was priceless. Second, the sheer caliber of authors was unmatched. To list all of their awards here, would take up all of my word count, so I’ll just say that all four are poetry legends. Period. And they each approach poetry from a different aesthetic. Going through their bibliography is a degree in and of itself. Third, I walked away with a community I didn’t have and didn’t know how to access. It was in those workshops that Monifa and I met and began to form a friendship.
3. Can you tell us a bit about your backgrounds as the founders of this group? What made you feel you were ready to take on this type of initiative and responsibility?
We didn’t set out to form a nonprofit organization. We set out to fill our own need. Cave Canem South had lost funding and wasn’t coming back. Kwame Dawes was recruited to his current position in Nebraska and we had no idea who would fill his shoes. We couldn’t wait for someone else; we had to make the decision to build what we needed. We decided to hold 3 days of workshops similar to Cave Canem South, to invite poets who we wanted to learn from, and to put it all in a place that would minimize distractions, unify us, inspire us, be a great change of scenery, and represent South Carolina well. We promoted the whole thing on Facebook and Youtube. It worked. People believed in what we stood for. They liked the idea of building this space in the South. It was during this first 3-day retreat that our participants began telling us what we would do next. They told us and we listened. That’s when we became an organization. Our participants were our Board. The Watering Hole had humble beginnings as a Facebook Group, but in 2.5 years it has become a grassroots movement with more than 500 members and 52 fellows (some of whom have since become Cave Canem fellows, Callaloo fellows, and candidates in various MFA programs).
4. What do you think are challenges that face both writers and performers of poetry (whether written or spoken word)?
It all comes back to craft for the stage and page poet. Poetry is so big and so diverse. There’s always something new to learn, or something old you haven’t encountered yet. It’s important for poets to read published poets and listen to performance poets. It would be crazy for a person to aspire to be a great basketball player or musician, but never watch or listen to the greats. To know Allen Iverson’s crossover, to study his technique, makes one a better baller and builds the skill a player needs to get to that next level and eventually invent some new. It’s not enough to be a writer of poetry, we must also be students of poetry. Whatever you wrote last week will always be the dopest thing you ever wrote, until you learn something new. Then it’s crap, and you are forced to grow.
5. What challenges do you find are more specific to getting support as an artist and poet of color?
One of the biggest challenges can be simply finding a community where poets of color are learning! Open mic venues are exactly what they say they are — performance spaces. The great thing is that poets can share their work and use the audience’s reaction to calibrate and rework portions of poems. However, that is the extent of the learning. Spaces like the MFA and academia are designed to help poets learn, but they are predominantly young, white, middle to upperclass students, and the majority favors a certain kind of aesthetic that can sometimes erase or ignore the experience or value of people of color. This is especially hard for young poets who are simply expressing and need a guide who would contextualize the work they are trying to create, in a longstanding historic, international diasporic dialogue. This can help a young poet build the necessary skill (ie. the Allen Iverson crossover). There’s a tone-deafness there that does little to help the poet develop. By tone-deafness, I do mean to point to inability and unintentionality. In those spaces, poets of color are often misunderstood or rendered incomprehensible because the cohort there have primarily been schooled in Eurocentric poetics and have little framework from which to help. Finding a community where this major barrier is removed is important. It’s like finally hearing, “You’re not alone!” and you realize there is a Tribe.
6. Your work and workshops also seek to help poets find ways to express not just their verse but also verse that reflects life and feelings about the South since you all are based out of South Carolina. Do you find that the poems produced, when they deal with the South, have a variety of themes and flavors? Is there a sort of bittersweet relationship for poets and writers of color who have been raised in the South with their home states and towns?
There’s a national monochromatic perception of the South and South Carolina, but monochrome only shows so much. It seems that we are the reality T.V. of states: people watch us to feel better about where ever they are from. Yes, we are rural, but we are also urban. We have racism, but we also have equality and love. Yes, our Klan marches, but they march all over the nation. We are jumble of contradictions like any other place, and I love South Carolina. The South is not a monolith. No place is. There’s definitely a bittersweet relationship with being raised in the South and being a poet, but southern poets have a love and pride in their home, as well as a keen awareness of the legacy of slavery and oppression. (The two cannot be separated.) However, this is also national legacy and the historical resonances are a national reality. (This cannot be separated either.) Much of the poetry we see, contemplates on many levels the relationship of the individual with state and nation, but we also see home, loss, love, death, growth, and all of the universal themes of human experience. The Watering Hole’s intention is to document voices that might otherwise be silenced, to record stories that might otherwise be lost, and to fully bask in what it means to be southern, of color, and gifted in this millennium. Let me tell you, our poets are cutting edge. There are a variety of themes, forms, and stances in their poems.
7. What are also challenges you think that women face in academia, especially in literary circles?
We need more women in high places — editors and publishers, agents and critics, grantors, gate-keepers, and decision-makers. That way when women write about their worlds, there might be a gate-keeper who appreciates it. That’s not to say that their aren’t male feminists who are raising the flag. Sherman Alexie, for example, recently chose my poem “Dear Black Barbie” for this year’s Best American Poetry anthology, which I’m extremely grateful for and floored by. I simply mean to say that more women in high places would equalize representation and possibly increase women’s chance at publication. Plus, women still face the possibility of being type-casted and therefore dismissed. Women still become the, “Oh, she’s the one that writes about rivers.” This is true for any marginalized group — the LGBTQIA community, poets of color, the differently-abled, and so on.
8. Did working first in academia or having that background help the two of you tackle creating and running a non-profit like The Watering Hole?
It is the merging of two worlds (academic and performance) that has enabled us to attain what we have so far. Monifa has a background in spoken word. I have one in academe. We both crossed-over at one point and realized that these worlds need to dialogue. There is so much that each needs to learn from the other. At The Watering Hole, titles and egos fall. Professors, saleswomen, bus drivers, from youngins to oldheads, all sit at the same table and learn from each other.
9. Can you describe a bit more about what you do? I know that you work hard to promote and create retreats for poets. What is your next one going to be like?
Throughout the year, we have several online master classes, online interviews, partner to host festival events, hold a summer STEAM camp for kids, sit on conference panels, and we’re working on publishing our inaugural anthology. In addition, we hold our winter retreat from Dec. 26–30 every year. This year, we’ll have phenomenal, award-winning facilitators: Jericho Brown, Tara Betts, Randall Horton, and a surprise guest. Our retreat is unique because it is in South Carolina at Santee State Park. We stay in cabins that look out onto Lake Marion. Lots of Live Oaks, Spanish Moss, and wildlife.
Poets take their small-group workshop classes in the living room of each other’s cabins. They host a class and are hosted in return by a classmate. Just the setting does a lot to build Tribe. Rather than sitting in a sterile classroom, all facing the teacher at the board, (not the most effective way of teaching or learning), we use the learning style that Nikky Finney says she experienced in Toni Cade Bambara’s living room. Nikky says that much of her growth as a poet came from sitting in a living room filled with writers and talking about craft. We purposefully picked a location (Santee State Park) that would allow us to experiment with this aspect of Toni Cade Bambara’s teaching style. Two or three times a day, we all gather in the large meeting space, light the fireplace and have an interactive, full body class or a lecture or a game night or share a meal. On the last night, we have a fish-fry and a final reading the last morning. It’s a packed 5 days! This year will be even more exciting because we will have our very first Graduate Fellows! The deadline to apply is Oct. 8, 2015. Please, spread the word to any poets of color you know.
10. You’re raising funds for that next retreat via an Indiegogo campaign. Can you tell our readers a bit about that and how they can help?
This is our second annual Indiegogo campaign. Last year we surpassed our goal of $5,000, which helped us pull off the retreat and get nonprofit status. We have to thank not only those generous Indiegogo donors, but also our in-kind donors who helped us make those first two years possible. This is a heART work we truly believe in and this kind of support shows us that other people do to. In fact, this is our first year working with our Administrator Jennifer Bartell, who joined us purely from a love for the work we do and the value we bring to S.C. poetry. She has been an integral part of our team since last December. We are entering our third year, we are nonprofit, and we are three women of color working to transform the landscape for poets of color in the South. In essence, we’re working to change our world.
This year, our goal is for $10,000 to supplement the costs of a $30,000 retreat! Since we’re now nonprofit, we’ve merged our IndieGogo Fundraiser with our 2015 Giving Campaign. We have lots of giveaways, like t-shirts, notebooks, online classes, festival passes, workshops, readings, etc. and since all donations are tax-deductible, you receive whatever gift you’d like and get your donation back with your tax refund. If you see something you’d like, grab it. If you don’t see something you’d want, let us know so we can make it available. The deadline of October 30, 2015 is quickly approaching. That is when we have to reach our fundraising goal. As of this interview, we are at 11% with 29 days left. As an arts-education nonprofit organization, we need all of the help we can get. Donations of any amount are welcomed. Please spread the word about the campaign and help us reach that goal.
11. What do you feel is the future for TWH? What aims do you have for, say, five years from now?
We see ourselves moving towards a physical retreat space that is ours all year around. We would transform it into an artist residency and open it to artists of a variety of genres. There’d be a space for performances and a bring-a-book-take-a-book library. Monifa’s a bit of a hippie, so she sees artists doing yoga with the neighborhood folk in a community garden. I see a hammock on a porch that looks out on the sea.
12. How do you see poetry growing and expanding in the future, especially for work by writers of color?
The future looks bright. More and more writers of color are being published, anthologized, and taught in classrooms, including those from performance backgrounds. This is part of what equity looks like. The Watering Hole now has a unique opportunity to bring this kind of equity to other events like the Deckled Edge Festival Feb. 19–21 and the Clemson Literary Festival this spring.
13. Besides checking out your site and your campaign, what’s one thing you hope readers take away from this interview?
I hope that your readers feel the love we have for what we do. The kind of passion that people have shown us has been immense and it keeps our energy high. I also hope your readers go and read a book of poetry by a poet of color just for fun. Poetry is a powerful way to enter someone else’s world. If you don’t know who to choose, check out our past facilitators! They are all amazing! Finally, I hope your readers join our Facebook group to keep up with us. #TWHTribe
The images are not the property of Legendary Women, Inc. Most belong to The Watering Hole, and we do not profit from their use.
Finally, please do check out and contribute if you can to the Indiegogo campaign for The Watering Hole and spread the word as well to friends!
This is our first interview for our first annual Literary Month, but we have a ton more planned, including the posting each Monday (starting the 5th) of our contest winners’ interviews and great stories. So enjoy the month and get your love of reading on!