A Year Like No Other

High school student writing in the Great Hall during Ironwood Writers Studio, June.

It’s January 3rd and abnormally warm. I’m sitting in a rocker on the porch of the Mike Mullins center with a light sweater and a cup of Earl Grey. I’m listening to crows in a tree over the May Stone Gathering Place and cars passing campus on the road.

It’s my one-year anniversary working at the Settlement School, and it’s been a doozy.

I mean that in all the possible ways. This year was profoundly enlivening, heart-breaking, scary, fulfilling, and creative.

My official position is Community Programs Manager, and I was hired to establish a young writers program and work with our foodways staff, especially our former Community Agricultural Support Coordinator Kelsey Cloonan, in establishing agricultural and gardening initiatives for area schools.

After a 17-year career teaching writing, literature, and humanities classes for community colleges and universities in Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee, and having a small family subsistence farm, I do not exaggerate to say this was my dream job. It could maintain the things I love most about being an educator (creating opportunities for students to learn about the world and themselves), it involved two things I am passionate about: food and writing, and it was for a place I deeply cared about.

In the first 6 months, our new programming was fleshed out and got on its feet. We were awarded funding to install learning gardens in two area elementary schools, one in Knott County and one in Perry County. We met with administration, faculty, and students to get them excited and help us plan. We gathered our curriculum and set a date to dig in the gardens. We coordinated our first writer-in-residence at Wolfe County high school. We planned and held our first week-long Ironwood Writers Studio on campus in June with students attending from across eastern Kentucky.

Staff and volunteer mudboots on Mike Mullins Center porch, August.

The months that followed the flood paused our plans. We did not dig in our learning gardens because the schools were closed and soil contamination needed to be tested. We postponed scheduled classes for the Makery and other events. We focused on assessing our damage, digging ourselves out (literally and figuratively), rescuing our archives, and helping our community by housing and feeding those in need and serving as a supply and resource distribution center.

We were able to get back to some of our regular work, such as dyslexia and literacy tutoring throughout several counties, art and music lessons online and in person once the schools reopened, a writer-in-residence at Cordia School in Knott County, and writers retreats on campus in October and November. Additionally, there were new initiatives like our Gather & Grow free community suppers each month which arose as a direct response to the flood and a desire to continue community building during the extended flood recovery process. Our January Gather & Grow supper is scheduled for the 21st.

Throughout this year, on both sides of the flood pivot, I’ve learned more of what makes the Settlement School so vital and magical. This place is a conduit.

During the flood recovery, I saw new examples of how we act as a conduit for resources, help, and support for the community. Donations of money, food, supplies, emotional care, and physical labor came to us from around the nation and helped rescue us directly and filtered out into the surrounding communities to our neighbors.

When Leatha Kendrick and Robert Gipe held their residencies with the students in Wolfe County High School and Cordia School, we were a conduit for Leatha and Robert and faculty members Lisa Creech and Moriah Warner to do their magic in helping the young folks discover more about themselves as writers. Same with the Ironwood faculty Neema Avashia and Chris McCurry and supporting counselors and session leaders.

Ironwood students with Frank X Walker in the Gathering Place, June.

Maybe the metaphor isn’t a conduit, but more of a prism, like Pink Floyd’s iconic Dark Side of the Moon album cover. Community support, talents, and effort come to us, and we are a prism that directs the incoming light in various ways. Without all the light coming to us, we couldn’t make or accomplish anything. We would just be a hunk of dusty glass.

Me and Dorothy Allison after her writers’ workshop keynote, 2019.

As our offices have been destroyed by the flood, and the weather is nice enough for it to be a porch office day instead of a Great Hall office day, I look up at James Still’s and Elizabeth Watts’s graves, the Stucky and Preece buildings, the treed hillsides, the parking lot full of vehicles, and all these comfy, empty rockers beside me on the porch, and I see so many overlapping images. I see my first time on campus for the Appalachian Writers’ Workshop in 2015 and getting to know folks on this porch who would become deep and lifelong friends and teachers. I see the Ironwood high school students walking up to Stucky to get dressed in their cosplay character outfits for our last supper together for the week. I see volunteers and my colleagues, mud-splattered and tired, unloading pallets of water in this parking lot. I see musicians in the McLain chapel, the woodshop, the Stucky porch playing music late into the night. I see a child, whose family was displaced by the flood and was staying on campus, swinging over the hillside slope of grass in the August sun.

I wonder, and can’t predict, what future images will overlay these as my relationship with this place and its people continues. It’s impossible to know exactly what this upcoming year will be like for Hindman Settlement School, just as on July 1st of last year we couldn’t have predicted where the month would leave us at its end. But it’s an honor to sit in the prism and think of where we could shine and split the incoming light, how to color our world around us.

Writers’ workshop faculty and participants jamming in the woodshop, 2015.

For our youth agricultural and foodways educational program, things are currently paused. We are accepting applications for someone to step full-time into that leadership position. I have faith the right person will find their way to us so that this year our educational gardens can be established and start impacting our youth and their families.

For certain, the young writers program will be facilitating more writers-in-residence in area high schools. The goal is at least 2 this spring semester and 2 in the fall. The dates and faculty have been established for Ironwood Writers Studio, where we will welcome high school students to campus for a week of creative writing in June. Stay tuned for announcements!

I’m excited to be presenting or teaching at some great upcoming conferences. I’ll be teaching the poetry workshop at the Mildred Haun Conference at Walter State Community College in February. In March, I’ll be on a panel about the importance of regional archives and what happened to our collections during and after the flood with Caroline Rubens from Appalshop and Robert Gipe at the Appalachian Studies Association conference. I’ll be co-presenting with Jayne Moore Waldrop, author of Drowned Town, and Amy Clark, a scholar on Appalachian linguistics, at Revival: Lost Southern Voices conference in Georgia about lost places, dialects, stories, and history. Also, this summer I am beyond delighted to be leading my first classes during our 46th Appalachian Writers’ Workshop. They will be afternoon sessions about poetry writing.

Writers’ workshop trivia tournament, 4 hours before the flood hit, 2022.

I’m dreaming of other ways to split the light in our literary community. A monthly book club? A series of Facebook posts about our Appalachian writing ancestors? Open mic readings on campus? Once a month free generative prompt classes over Zoom? A series about featured books from Mr. Still’s library? Videos of our archive materials while we rescue and rebuild? Establishing a youth advisory board for the young writers program to help plan Ironwood? Fireside Industries merch (I want a hoodie with the logo!) and other ways to celebrate our University Press of Kentucky publishing imprint? Reading a poem from a workshop faculty member on TikTok each day during National Poetry Month? A Hindman alumni oral history collection project? A guest lecture series on campus about Appalachian history? Expanding the Appalachian lit collection in our Lee Smith Reading Room? Partnering with area organizations like Kentucky River Community Care or the public libraries for a teen creative writing club? A midnight Appalachian ghost story event on the night of a full moon?

I don’t know. But I’m excited to find out where the year takes us.

Sitting and dreaming in the prism makes for a magical day of work.