Words and Images from The Twenty 

Editors’ note:  

We are excited to share a special section of writing in this issue from “The Twenty”—a collective of young writers who gather at the Hindman Settlement School in Knott County, Kentucky, each June for a writing intensive. 

“The Twenty” is described by its Organizing Committee as “a small but diverse group of young writers, between the ages of 19–22, who exhibit great seriousness and jubilant promise in their writing. These young writers, chosen to participate in a weeklong summer intensive, hail from both rural and urban Kentucky enclaves." 

Read about “The Twenty” from administrator Bianca Spriggs and view her visual collage. We are also reprinting founder Nikky Finney's comments on the origins of "The Twenty." 

Click on the featured writers below to sample recent writing from “The Twenty.” 


A Few Words About “The Twenty”

                               by Bianca Spriggs

I want to tell you a little about the historic Hindman Settlement School in Hindman, Kentucky, and what a group of young people, known as “The Twenty” have been doing there for the past three summers. By June, the temperature has begun its ascent into the nineties. Historic cabins reside on the land as does James Still’s final resting place. There are copperheads, silkworm moths, elk, and brushfires in the area, and until recently, the water was a clay color and undrinkable from the tap (a casualty of mountaintop removal) before the city decided to draw this precious resource from another reservoir. Every year, writers and readers of every age descend upon this campus to inspire and be inspired.

I attend with my administrator hat on along with my husband, musician Hendrick Floyd, to help run and document “The Twenty: A Kentucky Young Writers Advance,” the brainchild of poet Nikky Finney and several other committed authors who saw an opportunity to get a hold of the burgeoning talent in Kentucky, a state known as the literary capital of Mid-America. 

Hosted by the University of Kentucky, “The Twenty” welcomes young writers who are serious about maintaining a relationship with writing throughout their lives whether they plan on becoming full-time writers or share their art with another passion or calling. They sojourn into the mountains to study professional development and craft with established authors for an entire week, and it is our hope that they emerge with a much stronger take on what they envision for their writing lives.

At the beginning of the week the students arrive in various stages of intent and accomplishment. Some of them have met previously. Some don’t know a soul on campus. But they are all here because something in them craves a literary community—people who aren’t their parents or friends or family members or teachers in school, who understand their writerly impulses. Many arrive nervous, but willing to write boldly, to take real risks in their work for the first time. The students receive their tools right away: books, books, and more books, journals, pens, portable flash drives, snacks, more books, and a complimentary t-shirt with “The Twenty” emblazoned upon it like a family crest. These will aid them for a week of working not only individually or in their groups with faculty, but prime them for our guest speakers which over the years have included Silas House, Gurney Norman, George Ella Lyon, Mikey Swanberg, and Rabbit Catastrophe Press. 

At our opening circle last year, one of the students, a tall young man, a poet, with a beautiful twang, who doesn’t know we all practically hold our breath to soak it up when he reads, said, “All you need is a week.” We’ve dubbed that as our unofficial motto because of the maturation rate of the writing that happens in this six days residing on a campus where the experience is only a few steps up from “roughing it” camping-style. I mention this notion of “roughing it” because I believe the setting of Hindman is just as responsible for the students’ exponential growth as their imaginations and willingness to learn. Being removed from creature comforts, from consistent cellular range and access to one’s own desk and room, being removed from regular hours, and being obliged to share your space with maybe a dozen someone-else’s at any given time, where you can literally find someone scribbling away at any hour of the day or night, on a front porch or tucked in at the base of a hill somewhere, is vital to the energy of this week. In order to take full advantage of what “The Twenty” can offer, one must feel isolated, but not alone.

Ultimately, we show these young people the ropes; we set the pace for their future success as wordsmiths whether they decide to become full-time writers and educators themselves or not. That said, a good number of them have taken the red pill. Our students are even now pursuing their MFA’s, giving readings and becoming published around the nation and beyond, some are even winning awards, and starting their own reading series, journals and small presses. With “The Twenty” at the helm, we can all rest assured that Kentucky’s literary future is in good hands. 


Founding "The Twenty"

            by Nikky Finney  (originally published in pluck! The Journal of Affrilachian Arts & Culture Issue VII, 2012. Used with permission.) 

When I was asked to think about what this region needed, regarding young writers and their work, I knew it had to do with that middle time of life, ages 19–22, when the passion is high but so too is the doubt. I quickly remembered my own life and how those were the years when I could have made a different turn in the road. This was the time when those nagging questions erupt and never seem to go away without a push: Can I devote my life to writing? How will I get any money? Who will believe in me? Should I choose something easier? 

I knew I wanted to center our work on young writers in this age group. I also knew there were other writers who might not be in this particular age group, who got started late, but still needed nurturing. I wanted to make a place for them also. I knew I wanted to ask teachers and organizers who did not usually sit at the table together, to sit together, and help bring a young group of hungry writers together. I knew there were high school writing teachers who had helped fan the flames of writing in several rural high schools across the state for generations. I wanted them involved. I knew there was one writing teacher in Lexington, Carole Johnston, who was absolutely legendary, who had nurtured dozens of young writers up and out into the world. 

I wanted to not just find the young writers that had been found before. I wanted to seek out any who had been passed over for reasons out of their control. So a small organizing committee of writers and teachers and community citizens met at the Carnegie Center [Lexington, Ky.]; Crystal Wilkinson, Jan Isenhour, Betty Duke, Carole Johnston, and myself. We used our extensive histories in various communities to pull together an initial young writer contact list. We then introduced ourselves and contacted these young writers and asked them to submit a work sample. Many of them were in their first or second years at community colleges and universities. We invited them to think about what it would mean to them to be able to travel to the historic Hindman Settlement School in eastern Kentucky during the summer of 2011 and spend a week—free of charge—talking and thinking about writing. 

It was as if we had set a fire out in the woods and all you could see and feel for miles around was light and flame. We hired some brilliant passionate teachers for our weeklong summer intensive, Joyce Dyer, A.J. Verdelle, Crystal Wilkinson, and Jan Isenhour. We asked the great Kentucky writer Silas House to come and talk with them about writing and the writer’s life. He arrived in the middle of a storm and read to us in the great darkness of a great storm. It was a magical week! 


 The Twenty


The Twenty: A Photo Gallery

(all photos courtesy of Hendrick Floyd) 

Jay Collier

Cory Collins

Jaria Gordon

Kate Hadfield

James Dean Johnson

   Elizabeth Kilcoyne 

Rachael A. Parker

Joy Priest

Deri Ross Pryor

Danni Quintos

Adina Ramsey

Ashley Ruderman

G. A. Smith

Travis Stidham

Victoria Sullivan

Elle Wong