At TLR, we love the fact that our writers are also active participants in building literary community. This week, we bring you a conversation between Issue 4’s Tasha Cotter and Kimberly Miller, the new President of the Kentucky Women Writers conference. -kd
TC: Thanks for letting me ask a few questions! First off, congratulations on your new role as President of the Kentucky Women Writers Conference!
I first learned about the organization as an undergraduate at the University of Kentucky. Getting involved with the organization was one of the highlights of my undergraduate days. In fact, I loved the mission so much that I later became a board member. I think one year we brought Poets Louise Gluck and Dana Levin to Lexington – it was an amazing conference! Hearing those writers read together at the downtown Lexington Public Library was an experience I’ll never forget.
Can you tell me a little about how you first learned about the Kentucky Women Writers Conference? Were you an attendee? A volunteer?
KM: Tasha, so good to talk with you about a project we both care so much about! Like you, I was a student when I first attended the KWWC. New to Lexington and in my first semester of graduate school, I was entirely impressed by the seriousness and excitement I saw in the women who attended. Although there were distinguished women presenting and reading their work – the conference had a history, even then, of featuring writers on their way up – what I remember with a certain awe was the very focused facial expressions and postures of the conference-goers themselves.
Unlike those of us who were students, many of the women who participated in workshops and attended readings were claiming time away from their partners, children, and, for some, their paid employment. At that time, I couldn’t have grasped this concept, though I see it now: attendance itself was a political statement for many of those women, a way of saying “My writing life is important, and I’m doing this.”
TC: One of the best memories I have of the conference was being a moderator for Poet Molly Peacock’s workshop. Even though I wasn’t technically a participant, being a moderator meant I could be in the room, listening, and taking it all in. I think I even got a poem out of the whole thing! Looking back, has there been one moment or one experience that stands out?
KM: Once I served for a year in the late 1990s. At that time, all decision-making by the Board needed to be unanimous, so our process could be…slow. I think that was a holdover from the very earliest days of the Board, when Second Wave Feminism’s influence was at its peak, and women wanted to distinguish our ways of taking action from the top-down methods of Patriarchy. Although I wasn’t a rebel, I was one of the youngest board members, and I remember finding the idea of unanimous decision-making unusual. I was probably a little impatient, though I kept that to myself! Anyway, I learned to notice the respect and care each woman practiced in voicing dissent. There was patience in hearing others’ ideas. That was very good to witness. These days we still show respect for one another’s opinions, of course, and we try to reach a consensus if we can, but with compromises, as needed.
TC: I know it’s a little early to start thinking about next year’s conference, but when I was on the board, I always felt that one of the best parts of being on the board was getting to dream up which authors you’d love to bring to the conference, and then bringing those ideas to the board for consideration. Have you all started coming up with some ideas of who you’re considering for next year? And if you can’t answer, are there any themes that you all are considering for the 2016 conference?
KM: This year several of us felt strongly that we wanted 2015 to be the year the KWWC hosted its first transgender woman writer. We approached a writer we were all excited about and made an offer, but we weren’t able to gain a commitment from that writer for the funds still available. I think it’s likely that we will continue to search for a gifted, emerging writer who is transgender, but we will also continue to look at other ways of maintaining our commitment to inclusiveness.
For writers who look to the KWWC and similar conferences as a means of establishing a broader audience for their work, I would offer this advice: we’re always on the lookout for writers who can teach. As funding has become tighter at every level in today’s economy, the KWWC is affected. Our generous contributors make our work possible, so we feel an obligation to use their donations carefully. We strive to benefit the women we serve to maximum effect. Part of that commitment includes seeking presenters for the conference who can multi-task. Our very savvy director, Julie Wrinn, articulated that as a criterion this year, and it’s a smart approach. Our conference attendees love to hear strong craft talks, and they also want experienced, organized instructors leading the workshops we offer. If we can find writers who can wear several hats, those are the writers we will court.
TC: Besides having a role in deciding which writers will attend the conference, one of the greatest perks of being a board member was getting to be around writers you deeply admire and respect. I remember driving Kim Addonizio and Tara Betts back to their hotel one evening after a social event on the University of Kentucky campus. It was thrilling to be around them both! Tell us about an experience that was unplanned, yet deeply meaningful for you as a board member.
KM: One year I led a generative writing workshop for conference-goers. After we spent perhaps 15 minutes writing, I offered our participants an opportunity to share what they’d written. One woman read about the death of her mother. The writer was still in her 30s, so I think we were all absorbing how young she was to have that loss. We learn about being women from our mothers: they’re our first mentors. This woman’s grief and her honesty moved all of us. The circle of women just took in her pain, but also the beauty of what she had read to us. I hadn’t anticipated sharing something like that with these other women who were strangers to me and to one another. All these years later, I still remember that. That moment was precious and unscripted, could not have been planned for.
TC: This fall the Conference brought an amazing lineup of writers to Lexington: Ann Beattie, Meghan Daum, and Jacinda Townsend, just to name a few. During the conference I attended the keynote address plus Q & A with Hannah Pittard at the Singletary Center for the Arts. Not only was Beattie’s keynote wonderful, but the Q & A was completely fascinating! I loved the concept of one-time student (Pittard) interviewing her one-time professor (Beattie)! It was funny, eye-opening, and seemed to get at what the conference has always been about: women mentoring women.
What was one element of this last conference that you’re especially proud of?
KM: Each year we host a reading by the winners of The Betty Gabehart Prizes in poetry, fiction, and creative non-fiction. The awards are named after a past director of the Conference. Typically, board members have a chance to read dozens of entries; our winners receive free admission to the conference for themselves and a guest. Although we don’t have a publishing relationship with any journals currently, the winning entries often appear in journals later through the writers’ own efforts. This year I served as a judge in poetry and was delighted to hear our winner, Deborah Bernhardt, read and to meet her. She already has a book and a chapbook, so it was exciting that I had a chance to read more of her work without having to wait! I was particularly proud that we’d chosen her poem, “Oil,” which deals with our stewardship of the environment. Science and the protection of the earth are two themes we see more of in writing now, and I’m so glad the KWWC could be a platform for that poem.
TC: And lastly, what’s on the horizon for the conference? Any events planned that you’re especially looking forward to?
There’s always the hope of discovery: our best conference is always our next conference. As the calendar year winds down, the Board will meet to discuss what went well and where we can improve. We always begin batting about names. Some years it’s apparent that a certain constellation of writers emerges. We can see that the writers who interest us will organize well around a theme; other years, we may have a phenomenal group of guest presenters, but no single style or theme is dominant. I can’t wait to see who we’ll bring to our attendees in 2016!
A native of Appalachia, Kimberly Miller teaches English and Humanities at Bluegrass Community and Technical College in Lexington, Kentucky. In addition to her work with the Kentucky Women Writers Conference, Miller co-leads a community poetry workshop, Poezia. Her poems about the natural world have recently appeared or are forthcoming in Clade Song, Saltfront, and North Dakota Quarterly.
Tasha Cotter is the author of the poetry collections Some Churches (Gold Wake Press, 2013), That Bird Your Heart (Finishing Line Press, 2013), and Girl in the Cave (Tree Light Books, 2016). Winner of the 2015 Delphi Poetry Series, her work has appeared in journals such as Contrary Magazine, NANO fiction, and Booth. A contributor to Women in Clothes (Blue Rider Press, 2014), The Poets on Growth Anthology (Math Paper Press, 2015), and the 2017 Poet’s Market (Writer’s Digest Books). She makes her home in Lexington, Kentucky where she works in higher education.