Featured Writing: Ironwood Writers Studio
Writers featured from the inaugural class of Ironwood Writers Studio, 2022:
Be Like Them
[A girl with swooping bangs]
In June 2022 we began a new chapter in Hindman Settlement School's legacy
of fostering the writers and literature of Appalachia. We held our first
Ironwood Writers Studio. ~Melissa Helton
I first came to the Appalachian Writers’ Workshop at Hindman Settlement School in Knott County, Kentucky in 2015. I was from the Great Lakes region of Ohio and had been living in the southern Appalachian region for five years, and my sense of myself as a writer, as an Appalachian writer, would change forever that week.
Writing is often a solitary endeavor, with the author scribbling or typing away by themselves. But through the workshop at Hindman, I was brought into an active and engaging community of writers, scholars, mentors, musicians, artists, activists, and friends. I was brought into the long-established and far-reaching literary legacy of the Settlement School before I even knew the scope of it.
I always describe it as I was washing dishes with George Ella Lyon before I knew who she was.
In June 2022 we began a new chapter in Hindman Settlement School's legacy of fostering the writers and literature of Appalachia. We held our first Ironwood Writers Studio.
Ironwood is a week-long event where high school students stay on our historic campus, study with published writers, develop their own skills and passion, and build a writing community of their peers. We took the format of the Appalachian Writers’ Workshop and adapted it for the youth.
Participants studied various genres (poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and speculative fiction). The inaugural faculty was Neema Avashia (author of Another Appalachia: Coming up Queer and Indian in a Mountain Place) and Chris McCurry (author of Open Burning and leader of Lexington Poetry Month). In addition to being writers, Neema and Chris are also current educators in middle school and high school. This was important in our faculty selection because the gaps (in life experiences and social philosophies) between the last three or four generations has probably been wider than in any other point in history. My grandmother could not imagine the world my teenagers are growing up in now. I wanted to assure our faculty were not only published and celebrated regional writers, but that they knew this generation, its needs and personalities, and how to effectively engage and inspire them.
Other sessions included an illustration session with Robert Gipe (author of the illustrated novels Trampoline, Weedeater, and Pop), a journal-making session with Marianne Worthington (author of The Girl Singer and co-founder of Still: The Journal), a cosplay character supper, and a techno square dance (led by T-Claw and Ben Townsend). They had a mindfulness session with teacher and yogi Kelli Hansel Haywood (author of Sacred Catharsis), dulcimer lessons with Sarah Kate Morgan (our Director of Traditional Arts), and a reading by Frank X Walker (founder of the Affrilachian Poets and former Poet Laureate of Kentucky).
I wanted to roll out a prestigious cultural carpet for these high schoolers to walk in on, even if they didn’t fully grasp to scope of who they were learning from yet.
We had 10 students attend Ironwood, coming to Knott County from Louisville, Lexington, Ashland, Campton, Hyden, and Knoxville. Many youth in Appalachia are geographically isolated from each other, and may not have any peers who enjoy writing, so time at Ironwood is a great opportunity to meet other young people who share similar interests in the region. Especially coming from additional isolation due to the COVID-19 pandemic, being in community is of increased importance. Between living in community on campus together, being creatively and emotionally vulnerable with each other in class, and our Narrative 4 story exchange (a method to build radical empathy between participants), a community was born. The attendees bonded immediately. Two days into the week, they even held a mock wedding in our greenhouse and posed for ironic, cheesy “wedding photos.”
I named the gathering Ironwood because it seemed an apt metaphor and meditation. There are dozens of species of trees and bushes around the world called ironwood, including the American hophornbeam here in central Appalachia. These earn their name by having heavy, dense cores. Because of their strength, these woods are used to make fences, tool handles, furniture, and even long bows.
You can’t tell an ironwood tree from the outside. You only discover its strength and density in its core. The same can be said for people.
Ironwood made the summer of 2022 historic enough, but then the flash floods on July 27-28 tore through campus, damaging five of our buildings, destroying our offices and archives, and causing devastation across several counties of southeast Kentucky. The house where the Ironwood writers stayed, played Uno late into the night, and bonded over writing assignments, became home to displaced local families and their pets. The Great Hall of the Mike Mullins Center, where the Ironwood writers stood to read their work at the podium (the same podium that has welcomed Dorothy Allison, Nikki Giovanni, Wendell Berry, Gurney Norman and so many others), converted to an emergency archive rescue center and community donation pick up location. The dining hall where the Ironwood writers shared groggy breakfasts became a location for community members to find three hot meals a day, meet FEMA workers, connect with mental health care providers, and receive free tetanus and hepatitis vaccine boosters from UK medical personnel.
The strength of the Appalachian writing community and its ties to Hindman Settlement School can be seen in the response to the flood. Our adult writers were in the middle of our 45th annual Appalachian Writers Workshop when the flood hit. Praise be to all the forces out there that they all were safe, though several lost vehicles and many carry trauma from the night. Even if they hadn’t been there firsthand, I know they would have risen up in response to the flood with their love and support, donations and fundraising, as much as they have.
For many who attend the adult writers’ workshop, it is transformative, as it was for me. Silas House and others are quick to acknowledge Hindman’s influence and support of their writing lives. The community and power of the adult workshop is why I have been so honored to begin Ironwood for the high school writers. I want to create this conduit that brings young writers closer to their writing selves, to each other in a regional network, and to the broader community already established and thriving through the adult workshop.
And I couldn’t have asked for a better inaugural cohort. These are tremendous young humans and I am delighted to now share their writing to the world. Please click the names above to read works from the inaugural Ironwood Writers Studio.
Manager, Community Programs at Hindman Settlement School and Director of Ironwood Writers Studio
all photos supplied by Melissa Helton