Since returning to Roanoke, Cara Ellen Modisett has revived the monthly community reading series that was shepherded for a time after her departure by Dwayne Yancey of The Roanoke Times and faculty at Community High School. The busy musician and writer slowed down enough to share with us some of the thinking behind Words3, the encouraging environment she’s creating for emerging and diverse voices.
BOOK CITY ★ Roanoke: First, what’s the background of Words3, or Words, Cubed?
Cara Ellen Modisett: The original reading series, Writers at Liminal, was held at LIMINAL: alternative artspace, at Community High School of Arts and Academics. In 2014, I moved to Memphis, Tennessee, to work at Church of the Holy Communion (Episcopal), and launched a new series modeled on Writers at Liminal. Whenever I was stuck for ideas, my friend and colleague, Katie Clark, would give me a list of what she called her “best worst ideas,” and that would get me going. Words3 – Words, Cubed – was inspired by one of those brainstorms. The main idea behind the “cubed” was the idea of three dimensions, layers of creativity. These aren’t just words on a page or a screen, but words that are read and performed aloud in three-dimensional space, words that have been prompted by an idea or theme, and words that hopefully in turn prompt more conversation and creativity once they’re out in the world.
Each reading consists of short pieces, short “takes” on each month’s theme, with the hopeful result being that the reading is just not a traditional reading of text by one or two or three writers, but a conversation among eight or 10 or dozen or more writers. That’s why I set a six-minute limit for all participants. Each writer approaches the theme differently, and so the hope is that each event will be something of a multifaceted lens on the theme – multiple perspectives. Three – or more – dimensions.
BCR: You call it a reading for writers – what do you mean by that?
CEM: The extra two words, “for writers,” are meant to be an encouragement of sorts. Many traditional readings are just one or two or three voices – Words3 invites many voices, many writers, of all backgrounds and genres, to share their work.
Writers at Liminal, and Words3, were partly inspired by No Shame Theatre, cofounded by Todd Ristau, program director of the Playwright’s Lab at Hollins University. At No Shame, artists in all genres presented work late night on Fridays. The only rules were: 1. be original; 2. keep the performance 5 minutes or less, and 3. don’t break anything (including the law). No Shame has recently been revived in Salem by some of its longtime performers.
BCR: How does it work with all of those voices in one room?
CEM: In both Roanoke and Memphis, I’ve seen a community grow out of each reading series. On a given evening, our readers may include college professors, published authors, newspaper journalists, retired doctors and homeschooled teenagers. I love to see multiple generations of writers encouraging each other – in Roanoke, I saw curmudgeonly reporters affirming nervous young poets. In Memphis, I saw conversations and friendships blossom among people across the spectrum of religious denomination, generation and artistic discipline, from newspaper columnist to retired priest to blues musician to photographer to young mother with an MFA in poetry. Younger and older, experienced and novice, lyrical and nonconformist – we find common ground in words and in our love for words. I’ve seen such acceptance and encouragement from everyone, to the point that writers are not afraid to write and read about things very personal to them.
BCR: How about someone who’s just beginning? What would they expect at a reading?
CEM: I’d encourage a new writer, or an aspiring new writer, to just come and listen. I look for themes each month that are focused enough and broad enough to prompt a variety of responses to them – any given theme can be addressed literally or metaphorically. We have donuts and tea, and sit in a semicircle. Readers’ bios are listed in reading order in a program, so they don’t need to introduce themselves or their piece any more than they wish – they can just stand up, read, and sit down. And we’ll clap.
BCR: You’re a block away from your first home at the Roanoke Symphony Orchestra’s Green Room. That’s right in the center of things. Is that intentional?
CEM: The Roanoke Symphony Orchestra has been wonderful in opening their space to us – it IS right in the center of things, and I hope that passersby on the sidewalks will see what’s going on inside and come in to listen. As a musician/writer, I’m always interested in collaborations among the arts, so I love hosting literary events in a musical space. The RSO Green Room is at an intersection – a crossroads – and there’s some poetic significance in that. And writers write about the world surrounding them – that isn’t always sunsets and gardens. It’s also the busy noise and traffic of the city.
In addition, we have to thank the Dr. Robert L.A. Keeley Healing Arts Program at Carilion Clinic, which is sponsoring the series and underwriting most of our costs. I was an artist in residence at Carilion in 2014, and it’s a wonderful, wonderful program. I speak as an artist – musical and literary – and as a person with a medical history of my own: Creativity and self expression can strengthen healing, physical, emotional and spiritual. What Carilion is doing with its arts programs is forward-thinking and wonderful.
BCR: What do you look for as you select the writers reading?
CEM: I don’t select them! I invite people who I know are interested in writing, and I try to reach out to writers I know when there’s a theme that might be particularly relevant to their work, but the writers in a sense select themselves. Word of mouth helps – Dan Smith, author and founder of the Roanoke Regional Writers Conference, and Maurice Ferguson, editor of Artemis, have both brought many talented writers to the series.
BCR: What’s been your favorite theme so far?
CEM: In Memphis, I loved “Blue,” which connected with so many things important to Memphians, including blues music and the Mississippi River. In Roanoke, I’ve loved various themes connecting with roads and landscapes, perhaps because I was a regional magazine editor in a former life (Blue Ridge Country magazine). I added Found Texts a couple years ago – creative writing built out of text that was never meant to be literary in the first place – and I’ve loved seeing what people come up with.
BCR: Just for fun, are there any risky or edgy themes you’ve been wanting to do but aren’t sure how they’ll fly?
CEM: Good question. You’ve inspired me to come up with some. I will say that I’ve avoided political topics, and I’ve been careful with any topic that can encourage agendas or soapboxes. These readings are not about advertisement or about attempting to convince others of our own opinions, whether political, religious or otherwise. There are platforms for that – and I embrace them – the readings are meant to be a celebration of words and the craft of writing. Given that, I also don’t discourage controversial topics or language. Good writing often can involve one or both.
BCR: Anything else?
CEM: Come read, come listen!
BCR: Here’s how. ★