At the beginning of June, Straw Dog Writers Guild officially launched its Emerging Writers Fellowship with an online event. The inaugural recipient of the fellowship, Amina Jordan-Mendez beamed as she was introduced and thanked everyone involved with setting up the fellowship.
She went on to read some of her work and then engage in a discussion with singer-songwriter, poet, composer, filmmaker, educator, and scholar, Dr. Diana Alvarez.
Straw Dog Writers Guild’s Emerging Writers Fellowship was started to support women and gender non-binary writers of color based in Western Massachusetts at the early stages of their career. It will be awarded every two years and will help emerging writers negotiate barriers that often prevent them from pursuing publication and public access to their work.
The fellowship was initiated by poet, playwright and activist, Nicole M. Young and made possible by support from members of Straw Dog Writers Guild. It awards a $2,500 stipend which can be used to subsidize travel to writing events, meetings with mentors, etc. throughout Western Massachusetts, an all-expenses paid writing retreat, up to 5 days long, access to mentors throughout the year and other benefits.
But, as with all beautiful and uplifting things, there is a long story behind the birth of the fellowship.
In March 2015, Young’s mother passed away suddenly. Just over two years later, in December of 2017, her father died. She was shattered.
As she dealt with the greif, she says the fact that her parents left her an inheritance inspired her to ‘pay it forward.’ She stopped thinking about how sad her situation was and decided she would do something to help make a difference. It was in those moments that the idea of a fellowship for emerging writers was born.
Valley of Writers spoke to Young about the journey from that tough time to the creation of the fellowship.
If I may, I’d like to start in a very sad place which, to my understanding, is foundational to the birth of this fellowship. Both your parents passed away suddenly. You wrote on your blog how this derailed you and yet, somehow, in all of this, you managed to find light. Could you tell us a bit about this and the process that led to the formation of the idea for a fellowship?
Thank you so much for acknowledging that. Their passings were initially funneled into the creation and production of my self-produced spoken word album, In/Put: Live from the Valley (recorded in front of a live audience at CLICK Workspace in Northampton in March of 2018).
I wanted to think of a strategic way to use both the income generated from CD sales and the money I inherited from my parents. I thought back to the struggles I’ve had as an artist, beginning with the lack of resources I had while pursuing classical music in a past life (I started playing clarinet at age 8 and stopped at 22 for an entire host of reasons) to my work now as a writer; that’s how the idea of the fellowship was born.
Knowing that CD sales wouldn’t be enough to start a program like this, I thought about partnering with a nonprofit organization that had the capacity for fundraising (for tax-deductible donations) and writing grants to help fund the program. And, given that my full-time work has been in the education and not-for-profit worlds for over 15 years, I immediately thought of how to make this type of program work and for it to come together as quickly as it has.
You wrote on your blog last year that you had an idea for a fellowship. Today, it has kicked off. As artists, we have many weird and wonderful ideas that never come to fruition. What led you to believe that a fellowship like this would be necessary? What made it imperative for this idea to become a reality?
I’m very surprised that we were able to turn it from an idea into a realized initiative so quickly! I’m not gonna lie. I created a program that I’d like to be a part of. I’ve applied or considered numerous programs like this in the past but either didn’t get accepted or couldn’t go due to the time commitment.
Similar programs, like one I’m thinking of, sponsored by PEN in Los Angeles, where you have to relocate to the area and you receive a small stipend (not enough to cover living expenses), weren’t doable because I have a full-time job (one in a different industry and one that I need because it pays me a living wage).
With the type of job I have and that of many other writers in this area who have not reached a place to be able to sustain gigging as their main source of income, I can’t afford to take that type of time off especially given I only get two weeks of vacation time a year.
What I love about this fellowship is that it allows for the fellow to be able to continue doing what they need to do to survive. The requirements and benefits of this program are mentor support, a stipend, performance and reading opportunities and access to a paid retreat space that they can use either for a weekend or an entire week.
The fellow really gets to design what this program should look like for them as they tell us what type of mentorship they need. Also, I really wanted to replicate resources that would be available to students of an MFA program, which many of us cannot afford to pursue. I actually have an MFA in a different discipline but was fortunate enough to receive financial support to be able to attend. I’m not familiar with a lot of MFA in Creative Writing programs that offer financial aid packages sizable enough to cover tuition, fees and living expenses. And, also there’s been so much written about the overt racism that occurs in these programs.
Can you talk a bit about how you partnered with Straw Dog Writers Guild to make it happen?
I’m a member of Straw Dog Writers Guild (SDWG) where I also serve on the steering and social justice writing committees. I had unique access to people and an organization who could get this program off the ground quickly.
I joined SDWG after attending one of their open mics (Writers Night Out) in Northampton. I really liked and appreciated the support I received after performing that evening and hearing about all of the work they do in the region. They support writers of all stages and of all genres throughout all four counties of western Massachusetts. So, this partnership seemed like a natural fit.
Many of its members are award-winning published authors, editors, professors and educators who had access to agents, managers and knew a lot about the business of writing. I can’t remember how I initially brought up the idea, but having the ears of others in leadership positions with Straw Dog helped.
I worked with members of the social justice writing committee, led by Ellen Meeropol (who was especially supportive) who helped with coming up with the program criteria, benefits, and application and assisted with fundraising. I presented the idea to the steering committee and got their full support – many donated, helped promote the program and served as judges.
Since Straw Dog is an almost 100% volunteer-run organization (there’s an administrative director who works part-time to support the organization and a few contracted employees), I chose to run this program every two years so that we have the time to properly plan. I would like to support a different genre each cycle. This year, it’s poetry because that’s what I write and I know of the many other poets of color based in Western MA.
What was the response like when you put out the call for applications. How did Amina stand out?
We received 11 applications and several inquiries from people who didn’t end up applying. I was very surprised with this number given that it is the first year of the program and only grassroots efforts were done in terms of recruiting applicants.
There were several applicants whose writing was so strong that we suggested they start looking to book publishing contests. Also, many of the applicants already had work published in literary journals or chapbooks and had unique access to the industry, either being a current writing instructor or arts professional but in a different medium.
We were specifically looking for a writer at the early stages of their career – one who is a very talented writer but who’s received little support and had very little exposure.
In the case of Amina, who is someone I’ve known for over 10 years (since they were in high school), I especially thought of the fellowship program for a writer like them: someone who has been discouraged to the point of almost quitting and needing to take a break from their artistry as Amina did for a long time.
The judges unanimously loved their writing. There’s a unique rawness to Amina’s work – one that is very poignantly relevant to the crises of our society as they are relevant to race, gender, sexuality and class oppression that speaks to igniting spirits of young people to get involved in the work all while offering points of engagement to a diverse audience.
Do you think there is a big need for other fellowships like this in Western Massachusetts?
I HIGHLY believe there’s a big need for these types of programs in Western Massachusetts. There’s a large influx of very talented people in the region who want to be able to support themselves from income generated from their art but don’t know where or how to start.
There are several support services and competitive grant opportunities through organizations like Massachusetts Cultural Council, local arts councils, Assets4Artists and a number of MFA Creative Writing programs, but you have to know how to prepare applications for consideration for these types of initiatives.
I would love to see other opportunities similar to our fellowship program that allow those who want to take more non-traditional paths. For reference, the Emerging Writers Fellowship program does not consider applicants with an MFA as those with this type of education have access to resources to get exposure to their work.