The Imagination of Literary Spaces: On Contemporary Literary and Artistic Outreach
Viniyanka Prasad Profiles Organizations Creating Communities for Marginalized Writers
It was not as long of a walk as people presume from my days as a public defender to founding a community-based literary arts organization. After years of working in the chasm between judgment and the individual accused, I understood that the stone courtroom repelled the vulnerability of trust. I witnessed the system’s foundational skepticism, of the messy multitudes of our lived experiences, close paths to collective restoration. I wondered then: what, instead, would an ecosystem with a core of trust look like? This question brought me back to books—my space of possibility—and to the community who can nurture a story from mind to bookshelf, a process toward adding more space for shared sight.
A deep-dive into community literary supports that existed at that time, in 2016, revealed clear breakages in the interconnected continuum of writer, publisher, bookseller, and reader, especially when considering BIPOC and LGBTQIA2S+ communities, and communities with disability and neurodiversity. With the notable exception of We Need Diverse Books’ then mostly writer-focused programming, those supports proved thin to a point of non-existence when it came to intersectional community-led work. From this space, we began The Word, A Storytelling Sanctuary, an organization seeking collective abundance through the seed of storytelling.
Our first program was born from the truth that our communities know how to care for ourselves. The work had to be rooted in collective sharing and listening. The Word’s Editor-Writer Mentorship pairs up-and-coming writers from across intersectional identities with editors experienced in acquisition. The program filled a gap at a time when mentorship offerings focused almost exclusively on writer-to-writer connections while community members identified a need to better understand the publisher side. To date, mentees from this program have signed 14 traditional book publishing contracts, and have published a total of 29 works across additional book formats and anthologies.
The direct impact on opening publication paths through a program of which the main request was education and community building recalls another key aspect of The Word’s work: honestly trusting in that wisdom that is shared from within our community. My dear friend Angela Maria Spring, founder of Duende District Bookstore, summed it up perfectly: we can create shapes we haven’t seen before. We often have an instinct to deny that lines will meet if we can’t yet see where they do. This work requires a commitment to slowness, a valuing of less defined journeys from safe spaces to expansive writing and publishing outcomes.I wondered then: what, instead, would an ecosystem with a core of trust look like?
From this trust sprang the “Community” track of The Word’s [margins.] Literary Conference: distinct from writing and publishing sessions, this track’s focus is allowing participants to air questions that are misunderstood in other spaces. Even without direct answers, writers have shared that they feel the release of these questions like the release of a creative fog. This trust led to our #MarginsBookselling author pre-publication events. The first session was a small virtual room of booksellers learning from Ingrid Rojas Contreras about her vision for The Man Who Could Move Clouds. In that quiet space, the author and booksellers found an oft elusive connection, and the booksellers formed fuller vision for supporting the book, which would go on to a Pulitzer-finalist recognition. It is in this trust that we continually braid together writers, editors, agents, and booksellers who previously felt unseen, through workshops, planning committees, and informal gatherings, and witness the resulting collective that unites in ways we could not have imagined.
At The Word, we’re honored to play a role in expanding models for our publishing ecosystem through our slow, intimate forms. We work in tandem with a vast literary community that has imagined so many ways of moving. As an offering to all of our radical imaginations, I share this small collection of work from among our literary compatriots and collaborators whose great many shapes are a marvel in themselves:
More about The Word, A Storytelling Sanctuary
Visit www.thewordfordiversity.org for more information on our Editor-Writer Mentorship, #MarginsBookselling, the BIPOC Bookseller Award, publishing and writing workshops, our literary resource database and more.
There is still time to join us for the 2023 virtual [margins.] Literary Conference Sept. 8-9, register here; and save the date for our full biennial [margins.] Literary Conference + Book Festival live in-person and virtual hybrid in September 2024.
Contact us via firstname.lastname@example.org
As described by the organization: Cave Canem was founded by Toi Derricotte and Cornelius Eady in 1996 to remedy the underrepresentation and isolation of African-American poets in the literary landscape. Cave Canem Fellowships have supported more than 500 poets, many of whom have gone on to distinguished literary careers, including winners of the National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize, recipients of the MacArthur Fellowship, and Poets Laureate.
Cave Canem offers a suite of core programs that consists of Fellowships, Regional Workshops, Prizes, and a Legacy Series, as well as readings and other presentations that highlight the poetry of our Fellows and that of the African diaspora. Programs are open to the general public, offering Black poets exposure to new audiences and new audiences exposure to Black poetry. Our programs and publications enlarge the American literary canon; democratize archives; and expand the notion of what is possible and valuable in a poem for students, aspiring poets, and readers.
“Cave Canem offers a series of programs reinforcing the importance of Black poetry and poets to the overall cultural landscape. The influence of its community continues to grow, with Cave Canem poets and Fellows participating in interdisciplinary programs with institutions throughout the country. We invite the public to participate in one of our programs and to experience the power of Black literary voices for themselves.” – Lisa Willis, Executive Director of Cave Canem.
Emerging Diné Writers Institute
As described by the organization: The Emerging Diné Writers’ Institute (EDWI) is a creative writing program that supports Diné writers in all aspects of their writing journeys. In addition to acclaimed Diné writers and visiting faculty, we invite regional hataałii (traditional healers) and cultural knowledge holders to share ancestral stories and storytelling practices. At the heart of our community are the ancestral stories and knowledges that continue to fortify our people. Through workshops, craft talks, hands-on cultural activities, lectures, cultural site visits, Diné language sessions, faculty readings, and community-centered discussions, Diné writers expand their creative writing approach to emphasize Diné foundational knowledges and to situate the production of knowledge from within our communities on the Diné nation.
“We hope that all Diné writers grow in the EDWI. It is imperative that we continue our storytelling traditions, and that more Diné writers continue to honor and work from within our own literary traditions that predate colonial institutions and ways of knowing. Through k’é (kinship) and hane’ ‘ílíinii dóó bee dziilii (impactful stories of compassion and strength), we can continue adding to the storytelling legacy of our relatives from the past, present, and into the future.” – Dr. Manny Loley, Director of the Emerging Diné Writers’ Institute
As described by the organization: Founded in 2004, Kundiman is a national nonprofit dedicated to nurturing writers and readers of Asian American literature. We see the arts as a tool of empowerment, liberation, and solidarity. We host an Asian American Creating Writing Retreat annually, the only one of its kind, and offer online craft classes and workshops, as well as in-person and virtual readings, salons, and panels through regional groups across the country. We also present free publishing panels to demystify the publication process. This series is archived on our YouTube channel.
We believe strongly in developing deep community bonds and recognize no artist or organization does its work alone. Kundiman was mentored into being by Cave Canem: A Home for Black Poetry, which provided support, encouragement, and a model for running our signature Retreat. We hope to continue to foster solidarity across groups that serve writers of color, including CantoMundo, Cave Canem, InNaPo (Indigenous Nations Poets), and RAWI (Radius of Arab American Writers), so that together, we can empower the many identities and experiences seeking a voice in literature. As we look toward our 20th Anniversary, we look forward to strengthening relationships with other organizations that serve writers of color. Kundiman organizes together with others as a founding partner of the Asian American Literature Festival, a core member of the Poetry Coalition, and a co-organizer of the annual Asian American caucus.
Nearly 300 writers have attended the Kundiman Retreat. Retreat Fellows report first-time publication in national literary journals, finalist distinction in literary awards, and a greater sense of confidence in their pursuit of a life centered around literature. Kundiman Retreat fellows have published work in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and The New York Times and have sold over a million copies of writing collectively.
As described on the organization website: Kweli’s mission is to nurture emerging writers of color and create opportunities for their voices to be recognized and valued. By creating a community of Black, Indigenous and POC artists and programming based on artistic excellence and rigor, Kweli empowers writers to share stories that engage and impact our communities. Our vision is for a world where the narratives being told reflect the truth of our histories and the possibilities for our future.
Learn more about the Kweli Journal: https://www.kwelijournal.org/currentissue
Learn more about the Kweli Color of Children’s Literature Festival & Kweli International Literary Festival: https://www.kwelijournal.org/annual-events-conference-and-festival
Latinx KidLit Festival
As described by the organization: The Latinx Kidlit Book Festival is a FREE virtual celebration of Latinx children’s book authors, illustrators for all students, educators and readers around the globe. The Festival offers a combination of educational materials and virtual literary content in the form of craft sessions and illustrator draw-offs with best-selling and award-winning Latinx authors and illustrators of picture books, middle grade, young adult, graphic novels, comic books and poetry. The sessions are geared toward all schools, educators, students and book lovers, not just those identifying as Latinx. Everyone is welcome!
The mission of the Latinx Kidlit Book Festival, Inc is to foster a love of story and literacy as well as increase empathy and conversation among educators, students, and book lovers while uplifting the voices of Latinx kidlit book creators. The festival would not be possible without the dedication and support of staff and volunteers. They have worked long hours to create an event that celebrates Latinx voices and inspires kids of all backgrounds through the power of story. We are equally grateful for the contributions of our many sponsors, community partners and donors, who have invested their resources to amplify Latinx creators.
Roots. Wounds. Words. Inc.
As described on the organization’s website: Roots. Wounds. Words. Inc.: A Literary Arts Revolution for Us. Roots. Wounds. Words. is for Us Black. Us Latinx. Us Indigenous. Us Brown. Us POC. Us felons. Us formerly incarcerated. Us currently incarcerated. Us living under Community Supervision and Control. It’s for Us queer. Us trans. Us gender nonconforming. Us LGBTQIA+. Us poverty-born. Us trauma survivors. Us marginalized. Us brazen. Us revolutionaries. Us.
Through visionary educational workshops, performance showcases, publication opportunities, and an annual writers’ retreat, Roots. Wounds. Words. centers and celebrates the storytelling traditions of Us marginalized writers. Roots. Wounds. Words. primary goals are to provide our storytellers with exceptional education, a plethora of opportunity and a robust tribe. Roots. Wounds. Words. seeks to propel our storytellers into the larger literary community, ultimately diversifying canon and what is currently a non-inclusive arts industry.
Split This Rock
As described by the organization: Split This Rock cultivates, teaches, and celebrates poetry that bears witness to injustice and provokes change. With a focus on both Literary Arts Programs and Youth Programs, the organization offers writing workshops, an archive of poetry by socially-engaged poets that expands weekly, roundtable discussions, and more. Split This Rock’s three full-time directors share executive-level responsibilities within a consensus-based leadership structure.
Split This Rock is home to The Quarry: A Social Justice Poetry Database, a searchable collection of over 600 poems by a diverse array of contemporary poets that has been viewed over one million times since its launch in 2015. The Quarry includes poems from the Poem of the Week Series, which is distributed via email and social media channels every Friday.
This year, the organization launched its Poetry Writing Capsule Series through its YouTube channel. Each 10-15 minute video in the series features one poet presenting a topic, discussing poems, and sharing writing prompts. ASL interpretation, precise captioning, visual descriptions, and access documents are included with each video. Poetry Writing Capsules are intended to be timeless and self-paced explorations that can be used by individuals, classrooms, writing groups, and through other collective engagement.
With disability justice as a core value, Split This Rock strives to provide programs, materials, and communications that increase access for people within the disability community. As the organization returns to some in-person programming, Covid precautions are carefully considered and will be clearly messaged. Split This Rock is also determined to be inclusive of those whose socioeconomic realities may otherwise present barriers to access. Currently, all virtual programs and youth programs are provided at no cost to participants.
Learn more about Split This Rock at www.splitthisrock.org.
As described on the organization’s website: Zoeglossia is a new literary organization seeking to pioneer a new, inclusive space for poets with disabilities. Much like its forbearers Canto Mundo, Kundiman, Cave Canem, and Lambda Literary, Zoeglossia strives to create an open and supportive community that welcomes and fosters creativity. Through the creation of an annual retreat, poets from all backgrounds will have the opportunity to learn and develop from prominent, established writers, who also have disabilities. These retreats, which individuals will attend over a period of three years, will promote professional development among this shared creative community.
Our vision for the retreat centers around emerging writers coming to campus for three days of intensive work. The three-day retreat will admit approximately eight poets, who will be mentored by two prominent poets with disabilities. A third writer will be responsible for delivering a keynote lecture and panel participation. All attendees—teachers and students—will present their literary writing at a series of readings open to the public. Teachers and returning poets will provide panel discussions on professional and literary issues, as well as one-on-one conferences with the emerging writers.