This week, we're joined by 4 Catskills writers, teachers, and board members of Writers in the Mountains, a non-profit organization whose mission is to provide a nurturing environment for the practice, appreciation and sharing of creative writing.
Simona David isa media consultant, author of How Art Is Made: In the Catskills (published in 2017), and former president of Writers In The Mountains (from 2012 – 2019). She's currently working as an advisor to the Board.
Sharon Israel hosts the radio show, Planet Poet-Words in Space, on Roxbury's WIOX, and she hosts a podcast by the same name. Her debut chapbook, Voice Lesson, was published in 2017 by Post Traumatic Press. And she's been on the Writers in the Mountains Board of Directors for over a decade.
Anique Sara Taylor is a Pushcart Prize nominee. Her work has appeared in Rattle, Common Ground Review, Stillwater Review, Earth’s Daughters and several anthologies. She’s co-authored works for HBO, Scholastic, Simon & Schuster and a three-act play that was performed by Playwrights Horizons and Williamstown Theatre Festival. She's also an award-winning artist, and she teaches Creative Writing for Benedictine Hospital’s Oncology Support Program, Bard Lifetime Learning Institute, and Writers in the Mountains.
Leslie T. Sharpe is a lifelong naturalist living in the Great Western Catskills. Her book, The Quarry Fox and Other Critters of the Wild Catskills, is an Independent Book Publisher "Gold Medal Award winner for Excellence". And I had the pleasure of producing the audiobook edition, beautifully narrated by Leslie, and available wherever audiobooks are found. In 2019, Leslie was named one of Fifty Stewards of the Catskills. She's taught writing and editing at Columbia University, New York University, the City College of New York, and currently, at Writers in the Mountains.
Supported by WIOX and the Central Catskills Chamber of Commerce.
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Transcribed by Jerome Kazlauskas via otter.ai
Simona David 0:06
I'm glad to hear, but I think we're still missing Leslie, right?
Leslie T. Sharpe 0:10
Yeah, here I am. I finally just got on everybody. Hi!
Leslie T. Sharpe 0:15
Hey everybody! It's so great to hear you all. I can't tell you how much I've missed you guys.
Brett Barry 0:20
Welcome to Kaatscast, a biweekly podcast delivering interviews, arts, culture, and history from New York's Catskill Mountains. This week, I'm joined by four Catskills writers, teachers, and board members past and present of "Writers in the Mountains," a nonprofit organization whose mission is to provide a nurturing environment for the practice, appreciation, and sharing of creative writing. Simona David is a media consultant, author of "How Art Is Made: In the Catskills" (published in 2017), and former president of "Writers in the Mountains." She's currently working as an advisor to the board. Sharon Israel hosts the radio show, "Planet Poet - Words in Space," on Roxbury's WIOX, and she hosts a podcast by the same name. Her debut chapbook, "Voice Lesson," was published in 2017 by Post Traumatic Press; and she's been on the "Writers in the Mountains" Board of Directors for over a decade. Anique Sara Taylor is a Pushcart Prize nominee. Her work has appeared in Rattle, Common Ground Review, Stillwater Review, Earth's Daughters and several anthologies. She's co-authored works for HBO, Scholastic, Simon & Schuster, and a three-act play that was performed by Playwrights Horizons and Williamstown Theatre Festival. She teaches creative writing for a regional oncology support program, Bard Lifetime Learning Institute, and Writers in the Mountains; and last but not least, Leslie T. Sharpe is a lifelong naturalist living in the Great Western Catskills. Her book, "The Quarry Fox and Other Critters of the Wild Catskills," is an Independent Book Publisher "Gold Medal Award Winner for Excellence," and I had the pleasure of producing the audiobook edition, beautifully narrated by Leslie, and available wherever audiobooks are found. In 2019, Leslie was named one of the Fifty Stewards of the Catskills. She's taught writing and editing at Columbia University, New York University, the City College of New York, and currently, at Writers in the Mountains. After checking in and catching up, we began our conversation on Writers in the Mountains. Obviously, there's a lot of really positive things that are coming out of this organization. Can we go back and just start with some of the basics? Where is it based? Who does it serve? Can you break down the types of things that Writers in the Mountains is offering and...and who it's appealing to?
Simona David 2:46
Writers in the Mountains was founded almost three decades ago in Roxbury about 1992 to promote literary art in the Catskills and beyond. Over the years, the organization has grown to a major cultural force, a major force in the region by significantly expanding its programs and outreach anywhere between, you know, Kingston and Delhi, in addition to its coordination to offer creative writing workshops year-round actually. WIM has ventured into our arenas as well ... 2014, we started on Annual Catskills Literary Festival. Unfortunately, the pandemic was just getting started on we had to cancel that. We are also used to host a very popular quarterly literary salon called Random Context to bring together a variety of publishing professionals; kind of like the Literary Festival, but throughout the smaller scale: writers, illustrators, editors, literary agent, educators, consultants, publishers, offering them a space to network, exchange ideas, you know, peer community, really.
Brett Barry 3:50
All of you are past or present board members, but you're also teachers. Can you give us a sense of the classes that are offered and who's signing up for them?
Leslie T. Sharpe 3:58
In my own case, I've been teaching a nature writing workshop obviously coming out of the quarry fox, which has been very popular and, you know, I would teach it over at the Delaware County Historical Association. People would come that same day from Albany. People come from Cooperstown and I also did a class that was a one-day seminar, which was really the art of proposal writing (the nonfiction book). How to take your nonfiction book, whether it was memoir or even a how-to and how to basically find an agent. If you want it to be commercially published, I will say I've met some incredibly wonderful people.
Anique Sara Taylor 4:40
WIM has given us the opportunity to bring in semester-long graduate school level classes into a writing community setting and this is really a revolutionary concept to have that intensity at community availability and it's given the students' opportunity to study craft as they would in graduate school with the time to integrate learning and growth and many are working on full-length books. Our students range from beginners to professional writers and some has a long-range projects (other have shorter pieces) and still others are either emerging or re-emerging or exploring a relationship with writing. Writers in the Mountains seems to attract writers at all different levels and they are incredible. They're curious, they're open, they're devoted, they're supportive of each other and they want very much to learn. They work very hard and with the advent of online classes, we've expanded so we have an incredible brocade. It's really impressive what they've been able to accomplish every week. I just can't wait to hear what they're going to bring in.
Brett Barry 6:13
And so the classes range from everything from a one-off seminar to a weekend workshop to (as you say) semester-long graduate level classes, how do you integrate those into the work that you're doing?
Anique Sara Taylor 6:26
I ... I'm in a group with my husband called Orphic Mix. He's the composer and we sent homes to his music and we're sort of mutual muses. So one of the things we presented at the Zadock Pratt Museum in Prattsville was a workshop performance where we performed and then we had a workshop after that was a very intimate workshop at the museum itself and the prompts were the artwork that were surrounding us as we had the workshop. I was just recently trained in the Amherst method for artists and writers. It's a generative workshop format and everybody listens and gleans what they like from the work, and then you can bring back the more edited pieces for more complex critiques. That was a very successful experience and it brought a lot of people who have never written a word and that was like I was levitating with the beauty of the work that was produced.
Simona David 7:27
That speaks to Wayne's mission on via for the organization has put into building partnerships with other organizations, as well in the Catskills (like the Catskill Center), the bread museum on ours to reach the kids ... kids' cultural life. We are the Writer Talks series that we're organizing (2017); in partnership with the Catskill Center was called "The Arts Converge" - Mutual Muses in the Catskills, and it was hosted at the Catskill Interpretive Center. We paired a writer with a visual artist or a composer to a great effect. For instance, Leslie is a nature writer. She was in a conversation with a nature photographer (Rudd Hubbell). I share the excerpt from my book of interviews about good, good artists. A bunch of them were there (Lisbeth Firmin, Margaret Leveson (two painters) and ceramicist Peter Yamaoka and the textile artist Tabitha Gilmore-Barnes). They're all there sharing their work, while I was dissecting the artistic process, what inspires them kind of like, you know, featuring some ... some of the interviews that were included in my book. So I thought ... I thought this was a very successful program as well, but the pandemic has put a lot of these programs on pause.
Brett Barry 8:42
What is the Catskills bring to the literary table and the artistic table? What is it about these mountains that make them unique and bring creative people together?
Leslie T. Sharpe 8:52
You know, I think first of all, there's an extraordinary sense of place, you know, we know that regions like the south can give you great writers like William Faulkner and that's very important, and then there are some places where place really is what comes out of you like Proust ... but here, the physical surroundings are always going to seep in and ... and shape us and really open our heart and mind to new and unique landscapes. I think that what that sense of place is a physical sense as a gift that the Catskills really gives writers living in our what's called our creative hearts and struggling to clarify our thoughts and to find the right words can often leave us feeling unmoored. I know it does me, but the elements here, you know, the thunderstorm or bluestone boulder outback. These have a way of tethering us to something real and ... and greater and more permanent than ourselves and I think another important aspect is really history is alive and evident and really has a singular kind of amalgam. It's the intertwining of human history with that of our natural world, you know, we're living in ... in America's first great wilderness celebrated by Thomas Cole, the Hudson River School, and we know that ... that world disappeared and by the mid-19th century, you know, due to the tanning industry, you know, and other unfettered economic development, but those hills of ours have regenerated. Even though we still faced challenges today with so many issues for our forests that have to do with the changing climate, but I think it's important to remember that here on the Catskills, the first American school painting (Thomas Cole), the Hudson River School was founded. This is the site of the short story genre. This is "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," "Rip Van Winkle" (Washington Irving), and of course, it's the home of nature writing. John Burrows, who after all came out of Roxbury, which is this ... the home of Writers in the Mountains, where it started and where it's continued, and I also wanted to (sort of) pay a little tribute to Susan Fenimore Cooper. I mean ... she's our neighbor (Otsego), but she's the daughter of James Fenimore and she was the first woman to publish nature writing "Rural Hours" (it was called), which is a journal of Cooperstown's seasonal days and that was a very strong influence on both Burroughs and Thoreau; and all of us who make art here in the Catskills stand on the shoulders of these ... of really these pioneers we can call them, but I think for me, it's a personal history is even more immediate and even more telling, I find it every day in the land that I live on, you know, I've collected arrowheads left by the Lenni Lenape. I've discovered pot lids in bluestone rubble foundation of an old sap house. I reclaimed recently a plow abandoned by a farmer who tried to cultivate this unforgiving land of ours and most affecting to me are the stone walls, boundary markers, gravestone, sheet pans, you know, really fragments of another time of the lives of people who lived who went before me and these give me an extraordinary sense of humbleness and a perspective and I think more than anything. If you live in right here ... what the Catskills do is teach us to see, to listen, to explore, and to be curious, you know, this landscape, this history helps hone those senses that are so essential to writing and I guess if I had to sum up with the Catskills, all for artists, I would say it's the inspiration of nature, whether we're nature writers or not, you know, it's the solace of silence and the perspective of time that is so important in our own lives and in our lives as writers and above all, it gives us the solitude needed to create. What these hills did like was a community of like-minded creative souls, all of this struggling and exuberance, celebratory, and that's what Writers in the Mountains has done because it's important as these things that I just talked about including solace and solitude, which we still need, we really need to find a way to break out of that to find a balance, and I think that's what the key of this organization is for those of us who are Catskill writers; and of course, the organization is now going beyond Catskills, but the roots are there. The roots are there in our place and the roots are there in our history, you know, the rocks, the streams, the critters that are so companionable for me, they forced me to write about them. I did not come up here. I'm going to write a book. It was like I had to write because they were whispering to me. Tell the world about us.
Simona David 13:42
I think the gift ... gifts have inspired artists and writers for generations because artists and also writers not only learn from one another on give or receive feedback, but they're so gain validation and position themselves in relation to our work. So they need to be surrounded by like-minded individuals like Leslie was pointing out ... kind of like balancing the salary to work like an artist works in the studio, the writer, director, or computer ... and if ... for the most part, it's a solitary work about these types of creative works on in the collective to go and share their ideas on give and receive feedback. So I'm going to call up psychologies in Mihaly whom wrote a book called "Creativity" in 1996. He's actually a leading researcher on creativity and he explained that creativity is such a central source of meaning in our lives because it enables us to reach that ideal fulfillment that we all aspire to and according to Mihaly (clearly) creativity does not happen inside people's head, but is the interaction between a person falls under socio-cultural context. That's why I think writer groups artist collectives are so important to the artistic process, really.
Brett Barry 15:02
We'll hear poems from two of our guests plus returned to their conversation in just a moment. But first, a word from our sponsors. Kaatscast is supported by WIOX Community Radio. Live and local in the Catskills. Reflective, responsive, and supportive at 91.3 FM, MTC cable channel 20, wioxradio.org, and with any smartphone radio app (Alexa, Play WIOX), and by the Central Catskills Chamber of Commerce. Providing services to businesses, community organizations, and local governments in the Central Catskills region. Follow the Central Catskills Chamber of Commerce on Facebook and sign up for a weekly email of local events at centralcatskills.org. Orphic Mix is a collaboration of poet Sharon Israel and composer and husband Robert Cucinotta. Here's a piece from that collaboration called "Rare Sighting." "Rare Sighting" is about an unusual appearance of a hawk owl in the Catskills that attracted loads of birders from all over the area.
Sharon Israel 16:15
Surnia ulula; more hawk than owl strayed from his boreal forest to hunt small prey in the Catskills for a while. Perched high on his lookout, his yellow eyes surveying the land for voles and the frogs. He seemed ordinary enough, gray and white, not large or small. His genius was subtle. Tiny serrations at the ends of flight feathers, silenced is lethal loop quieting the hunt for unsuspecting prey; though he did have an unusual cry, a quick swelling ululation, a sound large for his size. Suddenly ... he took off, swooping down fast, talons out, brushing past heads, just missing eyes, hands, skin.
Brett Barry 16:45
And a poem by Anique Sara Taylor called "Driving Home."
Anique Sara Taylor 17:42
Chapters so stop action/her eyes reflect iridescent in the high beams/the dough has the teeth on pavement falters backward into the highway/confused she locks me in her gaze topples ungainly and the parallel brightness is/a standard birch is somewhere beyond my headlights/hairline tracings, charcoal bridges, spread across violet sky until the bleach crescent of Cassiopeia's Chair scorches incandescent holes into the blackness/hungry to on Earth/my own invisible map/I traced the wiry pinpoints I used to know/jealous of the fervent body that circle/they haven't so sure of their own orbits/I think to myself through the night/as I drive the rented car into doll.
We've been in the talking stages of developing a literary journal that would highlight students' work and maybe have sections for teachers who were ... we're also talking about real wakening. The literary fell on random context, which was wonderful. It was quarterly with a featured reader at the distillery in Arkville ... and so that brought in seasoned writers, aspiring writers from all over several counties and it was a chance for writers to me and hang out and chat ...
Leslie T. Sharpe 19:42
... and drink ...
Anique Sara Taylor 19:44
... and break. Yes, definitely and ...
Leslie T. Sharpe 19:49
Have a lovely vodka over there.
Anique Sara Taylor 19:52
... and so now, we're actually talking about starting to have that instant zoom event.
Brett Barry 20:00
Do you have an ETA on the literary journal or maybe some names in the mix?
Anique Sara Taylor 20:04
We've been working on methods like how do we curate, who do we choose, who is it up to, and then will there be second separate sections for students and for teachers, but we've ... we've gone about halfway down the road on that ... our original opening day was January. So that has passed, but we're working on it.
Brett Barry 20:29
And now that the pandemic has pushed a lot of this online, how have you seen the makeup of the classes change? Are there a lot more people coming in from outside of the area, both as students and as teachers?
Simona David 20:40
Absolutely. I mean ... a class now where people are from New York City, Syracuse, Midwest, someone from Wisconsin, someone from Virginia, this is definitely something new to us to have people from other states registering, I guess so ... for one reason needs to be instructors, you know, they have a high profile, the quality of the classes, the affordability ... and, you know, online, it is very easy for people to find us and very easy for them to, you know, register and attend. The pandemic turned us into a national organization even international overnight. I do want to emphasize the fact that we continue to focus on our local communities here in the Catskills.
Anique Sara Taylor 21:18
It's also brought in a different demographic and said there are a few young mothers. Also, a few people who are working full time, but they're working from home. So we have (sort of) a new convergence of 30 and 40 year olds.
Leslie T. Sharpe 21:37
Necessity is the mother of invention and it's just push the organization into a more virtual world, which has really expanded its reach and it's just so wonderful. The new instructors that it has pulled in who can teach.
Simona David 21:51
The pandemic has forced the organization to reinvent itself. After New York went into lockdown in the spring of 2020, when took a pause, then we merge the waiver series of online programs that catapulted organization into the national limelight virtually overnight. Once we moved our programs online, we were able to invite instructors to teach for us that otherwise would have not been available to nationally recognized professionals from New York City, Syracuse, North Carolina, Michigan, other places. So the online programs have opened up the opportunity to our writers to attend as well, in addition to our local communities here in the Catskills. Consequently, our literary community has grown bigger on moreover happier because we get to learn from each other and grow professionally at a decent pace, which makes the experience ever more fulfilling.
Brett Barry 22:51
When we've gotten back to some kind of normalcy, do you think that you'll have a combination of both in person and online offerings?
Anique Sara Taylor 22:58
When the world opens up, I definitely intend to continue my class online and I'm hoping that I will encourage and make it possible for some of that demographic that to continue with us. We'd love them.
Brett Barry 23:14
Will there be in person classes again? Who here is looking forward to those?
Anique Sara Taylor 23:18
I think a hybrid is definitely something that can be done. It's not one or the other. I think that there are so many opportunities now.
Simona David 23:28
Also, to a certain point, we have to resume some in person activities, but too soon to tell when on how, but I think the online programs are here to stay on probably run some hybrid programs.
Brett Barry 23:42
At your event at the Union Grove Distillery ... that one has to be in person again.
Sharon Israel 23:48
I think my one achievement as a board member of WIM was suggesting that we have the festival at the...at the Union Grove Distillery.
Leslie T. Sharpe 23:59
That's a pretty big achievement. That's a great venue.
Anique Sara Taylor 24:02
I mentioned this. It's such a crazy idea and I'm so glad I got the courage up to say why don't we have it at the distillery.
Brett Barry 24:10
And it's a great location in terms of centrality to the whole Catskills region right there in Arkville. So for all of the upcoming classes and workshops, the place to go is writersinthemountains.org, but I also just want to go around and ask you for your own personal websites, so that if anyone wants to get in touch and see your own work where can they find you, Sharon?
Sharon Israel 24:33
You can go to my website Sharon Israel (I-S-R-A-E-L); sharonisraelpoet.com and you can also hear my podcasts on WIOX Radio in the Catskills what's called "Planet Poet - Words in Space," and I have archived shows on the website. You just have to click "Planet Poet" or go to any platform to hear the shows.
Brett Barry 24:57
Anique Sara Taylor 24:59
I can be reached at aniquesarataylor.com. Anique is antique without the "T." Sara has no "H" and Taylor is just the regular old Taylor; aniquesarataylor.com. Come visit.
Brett Barry 25:19
Simona, how do we find you, Simona?
Simona David 25:22
My website is simonadavid.com.
Brett Barry 25:25
Thank you. Well, that was short and sweet ... and Leslie?
Leslie T. Sharpe 25:28
Well, unfortunately my website hasn't been built yet because of the pandemic. Simona is going to do that for me, but I'm pretty active on Twitter and on Facebook. The easiest way is just to go to @CatskillCritter that is my Twitter handle and people reach me that way.
Brett Barry 25:45
I think there's light at the end of the tunnel, not too far away. So hopefully we'll be able to all meet again in person, but in the meantime, thank you for wrestling with the technology this morning and joining us for this conversation. This has been great.
Leslie T. Sharpe 25:58
Thank you so much, Brett. Now I have ... I'm watching out my window as my ... as the snow is covering the black oil sunflower seed I put out and Mr. and Mrs. Cardinal are getting more and more despondent so I know what work I have to do. Keep feeding my critters.
Brett Barry 26:13
To hear more about those Catskill critters, download Kaatscast episode fourteen for a sample of Leslie's audio book, "The Quarry Fox." For more information on Writers in the Mountains and to register for classes, go to writersinthemountains.org. Upcoming classes include creative nonfiction, confessionals, spontaneous prose, cut-ups, jazz poetry and picture poems writing under the influence of the Beat Generation, the animals of our lives, a poetry workshop, and micro memoir. Kaatscast is a production of Silver Hollow Audio; production intern and dialogue editor: Skye Ruse. Please be sure to subscribe wherever podcasts are found for automatic downloads of our upcoming shows and follow us on Instagram @kaatscast. I'm Brett Barry. Thanks for listening.