Tuesday, November 15, 2022

Somerville’s Creative Writers on Writing from Place


Somerville’s Creative Writers on Writing from Place

 By Off the Shelf Correspondent Rachel Ranie Taube

What does it mean to write from Somerville? To find out, I asked writers associated with our city three questions: How does living here influence your writing practice? What does it mean to write from this place? And what do other Somerville writers need to know?

A dozen writers replied to my call for interviews, and participants included present and past Somerville Poets Laureate Lloyd Schwartz and Gloria Mindock; award-winning novelists Daphne Kalotay and Elizabeth McCracken; as well as a number of emerging writers. They talked about the unique privilege and responsibility of writing from Somerville, shared writing advice, and offered plenty of recommendations for local writers’ haunts, groups, and programming.

Many specifically talked about the possibilities of writing about Somerville itself:

To write from—not simply in—any place requires some significant knowledge and connection. Cities have many layers and corners; it’s helpful to visit and understand as many as you can. Longevity in a place can bring about this familiarity, but so can delving into it—walk around, talk to people, look and listen… Personally, I think it would be difficult not to write here in Somerville. My first book, Curious Peach, follows the cycle of the seasons. But it’s about the fringe and remnants of nature in this heavily paved and built-up city.

—Denise Provost (poet)

Somerville is lively, dense, with a weird history and more artists per square mile than anywhere. You will feel right at home... Just know that everything in Somerville has been written about at least once if not twice, but not from your perch.

—Gary Duehr (artist and critic)

I feel like I know the most about Somerville through the people I know who have always known it, in all its incarnations. I tried to set a novel in Somerville a while ago, but I couldn’t do it justice. In the end I had to make up a city because I couldn't make Somerville obey the rules of fiction.

—Elizabeth McCracken (novelist)

An experience I had here is the subject of my poem “Jerry Garcia in a Somerville Parking Lot,” in which that classic Somerville experience makes me conclude “how little it takes to restore [my] affection for the city.” The incredible diversity of Somerville and the community of poets here are consistent inspirations.

—Lloyd Schwartz (poet)

In fact, many interviewees commented on that community. Gloria Mindock said, “Somerville has more artists and writers than I have ever encountered in other cities [and s]o many writers in Somerville and the surrounding area have books out published by presses here… I could not imagine living any place else.”

[I] have long associated Somerville with creativity. One of my fondest memories is of a reading/performance a writer friend put on in a little building here that was so packed, some of us ended up standing on the sidewalk and watching through the open window. That to me summarizes the energy, enthusiasm, and support of the creative community here.

I take my inspiration from the streets and houses, have written about my neighborhood and the vast, extreme changes that this area has undergone…. To me, the best thing about Somerville is the opportunity for exchange with all sorts of people, from college and grad students half my age to longtime homeowners who have been here for generations… Inspiration is important, but so is feeling part of community, part of humanity.

—Daphne Kalotay (novelist)

So, how to connect with this writing community? Denise Provost suggests checking out the local presses Ibbetson Street Press (founded by Doug Holder, it publishes poetry and a nationally respected literary journal) and Červená Barva Press (founded by Gloria Mindock, it publishes fiction, poetry, and translation from around the world), and the public library’s listings of readings, book clubs, book launches, and other literary events.

One important source of support and connection, referenced by several of the interviewees, is the Somerville Arts Council, a local agency supported by the Massachusetts Cultural Council. In fact, a literature grant from the Council made this interview project possible. A not-so-side note: The annual deadline is October 15th, and any artist living in Somerville can apply for funding for a public arts project—I highly encourage you to apply. Sign up for their listserv, too.

Many interviewees also got specific about the best places in town to write. Suggestions included Bloc Café (with several votes), Diesel Café, The Somerville Museum, The Arts at the Armory (with a lovely café as well as a slate of arts events), and of course the public libraries (check out their local history collections).

I cherish living somewhere that has a Brazilian market, a Korean and Japanese market, an African market, three other bodegas, a bougie donut shop, and a natural wine bar, all within a two-block radius. To write from here means to speak of an entirely small community, that feels so vast at the same time.

Grab paper and a pen. Diesel in Davis Square turns their wifi off on the weekends to discourage people from hunkering down at their laptops. Bloc Café is calmer during the week, but still bustling on the weekends. It’s much easier to take your coffee outside and your notebook with you when places are crowded. As a laptop writer this dynamic helps me write in a different, more present way.

—Madelyn Musick (poet)

Several people also commented on the rising cost of living in Somerville. Doug Holder said, “Somerville has vastly gentrified over the years, and many artists have had to vacate the city because of high rents, etc... I hope this will not change the sensibility of the city.” One anonymous submitter agreed, “We are getting pushed out of the city by rising rents and by those able to pay the rising rents. While you are here, be sure to give back to the community.”

How do they suggest you give back to the arts community? By supporting our local presses and buying local writers’ work (Červená Barva Press, for example, published a high school poetry anthology edited by Lloyd Schwartz); by “getting to know [your] neighbors” (Schwartz); by “volunteer[ing] with the Somerville Arts Council, Somerville Open Studios, and other local groups that continue to make Somerville an interesting place to live” (anonymous); and by making sure that, when you visit a café, you “buy food and drink—don’t just use free internet!” (Provost).

Somerville obviously offers inspiration and community aplenty, but still, the work is the writing. A local writer and editor had some parting advice:

There is no such thing as a perfect book. And the closer you get to finishing, the louder the voices in your head will become, telling you it’s no good, reminding you of a plot hole, or repeating a critique you got once that stung just a little too hard. The secret to finishing a book is to finish it. The rest can come later. I think that here in Somerville, I learned to be myself—I learned that I am good enough as I am. And that helps my writing every day.

—Amy Maranville (editor and children’s author)

You can read these interviews in full (or add your own submission) here: https://somervillewrites.wixsite.com/place

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