“But it’s really hard to learn and grow because the opportunities as a Black artist here are not significant. Part of that is there were never many Black venues. And largely white venues only booked certain types of things. You can be Black and play rock and still not get the rock club guild. And then you can’t go to the Black club if you don’t play the right music. Now it doesn’t matter because all the clubs are gone. You know? Or they all are jukeboxes. Getting to play live here is not what it used to be. Campus used to have venues all up and down the street, bars where you could play live. You could do a whole week of shows on campus, do it again and do it again. And all of those places are gone. And so Columbus just developed its culture, you know, the artistic culture out of itself. And it’s only largely interested in it now because it needs to sell.”
In these two clips from an interview conducted at the 2019 Parallels Writing Conference, writer and poet Scott Woods discusses his work as a community arts organizer in his hometown of Columbus, Ohio. Touching on his twenty-year live poetry series, his evolving performing arts space the Streetlight Guild (which hosted the conference), as well as his reflections on the fundamental importance of nurturing creative community, Scott offers plenty of suggestions for ways in which any writer might productively apply themselves to supporting mutual growth in the arts. You can read the transcripts for these clips here.
- Take a few minutes to discuss or consider your perceptions and experiences of your local arts community, whether it be events, institutions, organizations, or other means of social engagement in the arts. Does your local or regional sphere support what you would call a cohesive or well-connected arts community? If yes, what are some of its strengths? If not, what do you think would help?
- In what kinds of places are you most comfortable, or most excited, to express yourself artistically? Have you ever performed or sold your work before? Where would you most like to share, perform, or offer your work if you could do so anywhere?
- What kinds of resources do you feel are necessary to support a thriving arts community? Money and/or funding is certainly key, but what may also be required or beneficial?
- Keeping your thoughts and responses to the previous questions in mind, what do you believe are good ‘first steps’ you or other writers might take to support or develop the arts in your community, particularly in regard to the work of underrepresented or marginalized artists?
- Imagine a literary or arts-related event that you’d like to be a part of, and write a short announcement for it that would be suitable to share in some form of public media. Describe your event and consider the task of attracting both performers and audience members. What will the venue be like? What kind of performances will your event focus on? Will it have a theme? If applicable, read your announcement to your class or group.
- On your own or with a partner, write a short description (one half to one full page) of your ideal community arts space. Would it be dedicated to a particular form of artistic practice? Would it host performances, community events, or work spaces? What would it look like, and where would it be? The sky is the limit!
- Consider your answers to the first discussion question — what is your local arts community like, and/or what does it need? Now, return to your list(s) and write down one way that you can engage with each entry. If your community has a venue that hosts readings, you might simply write ‘check event schedule,’ or ‘inquire about local authors.’ You might plan to simply talk with friends about teaming up, search online for organizations that support your interests, or even contact local officials regarding the value of local arts culture. To make this a truly effective exercise, share with your class or group, and/or complete at least two entries on the list for homework!
- Scott Woods, ‘Black Art in Columbus: A Keynote Speech’
- Scott Woods, ‘Ending the Debate Over Art Scenes’
- Scott Woods, ‘The Poet Must Take Care of the Musician’ (practical advice about community organization in the arts)
- Other published fiction, poetry, and essays by Scott Woods at Brick Cave Media
Scott Woods is a writer, poet, and community organizer from Columbus, Ohio who has published a wide variety of work, including poetry, fiction, and essays. He is the former president of Poetry Slam, Inc. and one of the founders of the successful and ongoing Writer’s Block poetry reading series, as well as the founder and director of the Streetlight Guild, a community arts space that focuses on showcasing local and underrepresented writers and artists. Scott has published two books of poetry (2013’s We Over Here Now and 2016’s Urban Contemporary History Month) and the essay collection Prince and Little Weird Black Boy Gods (2018), and contributed to the short story collection Futurewords (2017), all in association with Brick Cave Media. You can keep up with Scott and learn more about his work on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook, and be sure to check out the full SLF interview here (24:01).
Tags: community organizing, arts, support
Mary Anne Mohanraj: So talk about the new space.
Scott Woods: We’ve been talking about the open mic, which is still at Cafe Kerouac. When I opened Streetlight Guild, it was a performing arts venue. It’s a two floor building, it has a performing arts space. I’m doing all manner of programming now, I’m doing music, dance, poetry, lectures, workshops. You got a conference. And I’m pretty much spending full time hours on that at this point. And the open mic is still off to the side. It does its thing, cooking on the back. And the question I used to get a lot was, are you gonna move it to the Streetlight Guild? And I said, absolutely not. The goal is for two things to be happening at the same time and then both succeeding.
Mary Anne Mohanraj: So what led you to try to open up Streetlight Guild? It was a process right? It took a while.
Scott Woods: It did. Well, it’s interesting. I’ve always wanted to have some kind of venue. I wasn’t 100% sure what that looked like. But space is extremely important to creativity. As writers, we think, Oh, I need to have my desk, my closet, my space where I write. That’s true for culture as well. Culture needs a place to learn itself, figure out what it wants to be. And if you don’t have space for that, it can’t happen, not really. Or it happens under certain restrictions. Or it only happens a certain way that’s guided by institutions, organizations or whatever, the city. And so to me, it’s important that there’s space for culture to happen at a level that is accessible to people who are just really trying to figure out culture, or the person knows how culture should work, but they don’t have the space to try something new. So the band that wants to do it’s original work and not just covers, you know, to develop an audience, to record something, to figure it out, to try out the material. We need spaces like that. And frankly, Columbus didn’t have it.[…]
Scott Woods: But it’s really hard to learn and grow because the opportunities as a Black artist here are not significant. Part of that is there were never many Black venues. And largely white venues only booked certain types of things. You can be Black and play rock and still not get the rock club guild. And then you can’t go to the Black club if you don’t play Black music. Now it doesn’t matter because all the clubs are gone. Or they all are jukeboxes. Getting to play live here is not what it used to be. Campus used to have venues all up and down the street, bars where you could play live. You could do a whole week of shows on campus, do it again and do it again. And all of those places are gone. And so Columbus just developed its culture, the artistic culture, out of itself. And it’s only largely interested in it now because it needs to sell.
Mary Anne Mohanraj: But there is maybe an opportunity now. It seems like the city is perhaps realizing what it’s lost and is looking to…
Scott Woods: Yes and no. Yes it’s aware of what it needs. But it’s a machine. It doesn’t know how to not do what it does. It wants these artists, it wants that quote on quote, diversity. But it doesn’t know how to not do it the wrong way. It still does it the old way. Now we need to do all this paperwork, now we need you to do this process, we need to attend these things, we need you to fill this out, apply for these grants or die, you know. It was like, Yeah, I just want to create. And the machine isn’t designed to really absorb artists and culture that it wants without making them do something that they don’t want to do. So my space says we don’t do any of that. I either have the money to pay you or I don’t. And I have the time and the space and I have all the things that you need, so let’s get the book in. And it’s awesome. They get to come there. I bring an audience, they bring an audience, somewhere in the middle of the audience is me. Grow, feed each other. It’s a beautiful thing to own space. Space is so important.
Mary Anne Mohanraj: Because it enables community. I mean, you brought us together this weekend. It was myself, Nick Mamitas, a host of writers who you brought in from out of town, also your fabulous local talent. And then you created the structure where we could talk to aspiring writers, we could hear from them. Because there’s always stuff to learn from them. They ask fabulous questions. They made me think about my own practice. Am I doing what I want to be doing as a writer right now? And then we can talk to each other. Because so often as a writer, you’re working in isolation. If you make time to read, great. But there is something to the in-person back and forth exchange of ideas and support. And yes, stick with it. I think you’re doing something really interesting. And sometimes you just need to hear that.
Scott Woods: No doubt. Columbus has a lot of great talent, but it’s not honed. It doesn’t get a chance to really experience a lot of these hardcore lessons that the conference and people like you are attempting to teach. And as you saw much of the audience for the conference was people of color.
Mary Anne Mohanraj: Which was fabulous. I mean most of my audiences at academic conferences and so on are still white. So I actually had to rethink some of the things I typically say because they didn’t apply in the same way to your audience. Like, I didn’t have to give the diversity speech. [laughter] That was awesome.
Scott Woods: But they all gotta learn. There’s a lot of craft stuff that they need to know. If they’re actually going to stick in this game. So I wanted to give that to my city. To me all of these events are a gift. It’s what I wish was there when I was coming up. If I had this 15, 10 years ago. By now we would be done. [Laughter].
Mary Anne Mohanraj: That’s right.