When the Wild Seeds Retreat for Writers of Color wrapped up its week-long stint at SUNY Polytechnic Institute in Utica, NY last month, Dr. Brenda Greene and Charlotte Hunter were highly satisfied with the creative space they provided for the 18 writing fellows who attended. Greene (founder and executive director of the Center for Black Literature [CBL]) saw this most recent event as a continuation of her initial reason she started the first retreat back in 2004 at the Valcour Center near SUNY Plattsburgh.
“There are less than five in the country that are just for writers of color in the country,” she said. “There are so many people writing than when I first started this more than 20 years ago. The kind of support that is needed has become much broader and many more people are eager to find a safe and nurturing space where they feel that they don’t have to be the one voice in a writing community.”
This year’s event featured three writing disciplines—fiction, memoir, and poetry—respectively led by workshop leaders Jeffery Renard Allen, N. Jamiylah Chisholm, and Joanna Sit with attendees evenly divided into each section. Prior workshop leaders have included an array of esteemed creative talents including Sonia Sanchez, Ravi Shankar, Willie Perdomo, and Sandra Jackson-Opoku.
This year’s class of writing fellows was an intergenerational mix of people whose ages ranged from 19 to 50-years-old and hailed from as far away as California, Delaware, and Mississippi. Among the participants were former journalist Roy Campbell, novelist/SUNY Old Westbury professor Nick Powers, Maryland poet Natalie Cruz, and Brooklyn fiction writer Kalem Christian. One of the attendees was Medgar Evers College freshman Shamiqua Wilson, who attended the poetry workshop with Sit.
“I enjoyed working with my workshop leader,” Wilson said. “She understands what it’s like to put yourself out there in a way that’s never been done often or before in spaces made for you.”
There are two writers retreats (a four-day one is held at Medgar Evers College in the winter). Potential attendees need to be working on a piece of writing that is peer-reviewed and evaluated by a committee. They also have to write a letter saying why they want to be involved and want to attend. This year’s fee was $600, which includes food and board, and is supplemented by grants the CBL applies for with scholarships offered to those in economic need. The summer week-long event finds attendees getting three square meals a day, having their work critiqued by peers and instructors, one-on-one meetings with workshop leaders, and the chance to have communal time with their cohorts. The last two days center on readings from both cohorts and workshop leaders. With the base commonality being that all involved are writers of color, Dr. Greene feels it makes for the kind of positive experience you can’t get at most writer retreats that are predominantly White, something she personally experienced in attending one in New Mexico that inspired her to start Wild Seeds.
“I was the only black person and I didn’t get anything out of that workshop. I was doing memoir and when I told my story and they didn’t really believe it because I’m not the typical black woman,” she said with an incredulous laugh. “The questions were along the lines of, ‘Did that really happen to people like you?’ It was that kind of thing.”
While working on the craft of writing is at the crux of the retreat, other topics include navigating the world of publishing as a person of color whether it’s what a manuscript should look like, how to craft proposals and letters of intent, and the importance of connecting with a mentor. Inclusivity is a guiding light for Wild Seeds.
“We want to make sure that we’re creating that space for everyone to come in,” Dr. Greene explained. “Ideally, what we’ve done in the past is give [the fellows] a forum where they can read to the public, because we’re also trying to impact the community where the writing retreat happens. It’s not just about having that safe space, but to impact that community and increase and make visible the presence of writers of color, because there are so many people who don’t know the range of writing that’s being produced.”