Each summer, Richmond’s Poe Museum brings together high school students from across the country for an intensive week of workshops, lectures and writing critiques. The Edgar Allan Poe Young Writers' Conference aims to educate youth about the legacy of the 19th Century author and encourage youth to follow their literary passions. Catherine Komp has more for Virginia Currents.
It’s the fifth and final day of the Edgar Allan Poe Young Writers' Conference and youth are getting ready for their next workshop inside St. John’s Church Parish Hall. Seven participants are from Richmond, others traveled here from New York, Pennsylvania, Indiana and Georgia. They’ve had an intensive week, hearing from award-winning author Brad Parks and Richmond Magazine Editor Tina Eshleman; learning about allegory; and traveling to sites significant to Poe, including UVA where he studied for a semester and the Ragged Mountains, the setting of one of his short stories.
Austin Lange: So everyone read the poem, correct?
Conference leader Austin Lange focuses the group’s attention on Tamerlane, from Poe’s first published collection.
Lange: Quite honestly, I drift from this poem, it is not my favorite Poe poem. But it’s Poe, so I wanted to go through and find things that I felt like I could understand.
Student reading: Kind solace in a dying hour! Such, father, is not (now) my theme- I will not madly deem that power…
Students go around the table, each reading a stanza from the epic poem Poe wrote when he himself was a teen.
Student reading: I was ambitious-have you known; The passion, father? You have not: A cottager, I mark'd a throne; Of half the world as all my own...
After Lange and the students discuss the poem’s themes of love, beauty, pride and death, they move on to the collaborative exercise called exquisite corpse. They start with a line from Tamerlane, follow it by writing something original and pass their work-in-progress to the left. Each student folds the paper so only the previous line is showing; when the poems are shared, the content is a surprise to all:
We walk'd together on the crown
Of a high mountain which look'd down
Afar from its proud natural towers
This poem goes on for hours and hours
about things like love, and things like loss
And things much too high a cost
which all glisten like a jewel...
Introductions: Hi, I’m William Plott. I’m Haley Cannady.
Both from Open High School in Richmond.
Introductions: I’m Justice Marshall.
A rising sophomore from Atlanta.
Introductions: Hi, I’m Aubrey Link.
A gothic and macabre writer from Philly.
Introductions: My name’s YoLani Martin
Who’s entering the 12th grade in Chantilly.
YoLani Martin: And I found out about it because my past teacher and also my yearbook teacher recommended it to me.
A love of books and English class, as well as supportive parents and teachers, got many of these teens into writing; it’s a passion for some, therapeutic for others. The Conference has exposed them to different types of writing, say the youth, and deepened their understanding of the practice, both its highs and its lows.
William Plott: The conference has taught me a lot about publishing and how important that is, and what one of the speakers called grit and determination, to just keep attempting to get yourself out there despite the knowledge you’re going to fail a lot.
Haley Cannady: Learning about Poe has taught me how important writing is, it’s kind of all Poe really had as his life was very depressing, there was so much death and that is how he kept going and I think that’s very inspiring for me, that writing is there for me when I need it.
Justice Marshall: Studying Poe taught me that it’s totally okay to have tragedy in your life and write about it. Before I got here, I didn’t read a lot of my creative non-fiction, like journals or stuff people made me write when they asked how I was feeling, ‘cause I’m not a very open person. So I guess I found my niche sitting here just writing about how I’m feeling and just reading it.
Aubrey Link: You need to have a very distinct voice if you want to last, if you want to be one of the great writers, you have to be very different and memorable. You want to read it and know that it’s you.
YoLani Martin: After learning more about Poe, I realize that writing is a struggle and that it’s okay to struggle, because throughout the practice you eventually get better and you just learn from your mistakes and if you get rejected, sometimes, it’s okay and you just keep going and going, no matter what other people might say about it, because you just believe in what you write.
Although many think of writing as a solitary act, Conference Leader Austin Lange, a poet herself, says throughout the week, they’ve learned the importance of creating a network of support.
Austin Lange: And that’s something I tried to stress to them, as an adult and as a writer it’s so important to establish that community of people so you can go to them for an honest critique or advice or, “Hey, I’m working on this, can you help me?”
Student montage: I think my soul likes to be hung on hooks, I think it’s changing color… Then the tumultuous evening came when Mr. Dens made a fateful decision… I dream of us laying under a collection of intertwining branches, my arms wrapped around yours like the arms of the trees lying above us… As Aries thunders across the sky, the black dawn shall follow… Lately I found myself wondering, do you think of me? Because I do, of you...
This is the 7th Young Writers' Conference organized by the Poe Museum. Past participants have gone on to write for university publications, and one, Rachel Martens, has already finished two Poe-themed thrillers. For Virginia Currents, this is Catherine Komp, WCVE news.