In the Spotlight

Candace Wiley & Monifa Lemons
Photo credit: Larry Frazier of The Foto Bros, LLC (Candace on left, Monifa on the right)

Candace Wiley & Monifa Lemons

Founding Directors, The Watering Hole

Columbia, South Carolina       Members Since: 2016

About: Candace Wiley is a FAWC and Callaloo Fellow who writes in the mode of Afrofuturism and covers topics of black aliens, mutants, and mermaids. She has recently finished a Fulbright Fellowship in San Basilio de Palenque, Colombia. Her work has appeared in Best American Poetry2015, Prairie Schooner, pluck!, Jasper, The New Sound, Illuminations, Electronic Corpse, and Home Is Where, among others.

About: Monifa Lemons, also recognized as SelahthePoet, began her poetic journey in Columbia, South Carolina in the late 1990s. Both Spoken Word Artist and Host at various venues for 18 years, she's now Co-Founder/Director of The Watering Hole Poetry Organization, which creates Harlem Renaissance spaces in the contemporary South. She also facilitates workshops on writing and intentional creation. Her work can be found in The African American Review and African Voices.

What is your organization’s mission?
We are a vanguard whose core purpose is to build Harlem Renaissance spaces in the new contemporary South and cultivate Tribe everywhere we go. When we come together as a village, we build poets of color from the ground up and help them reach their best work. We do this by providing retreats, workshops, online classes, and other programs.

The Watering Hole’s (TWH) Core Values:

  • Our aesthetics are deeply rooted in the African American tradition.
  • We exist for ALL poets of color and create protected environments.
  • We hold space for Southern poets, particularly ones from/in rural areas.
  • Our focus is growth through education. We level the playing field of academia.
  • We keep affordability and accessibility in the forefront of our minds.
  • We cultivate diverse community partnerships that unite our Tribe with area youth and regional artists of ALL backgrounds.

We believe that when one of us wins, we all win—family beyond blood.

What is your organization’s vision? How do you see it growing three years from now?
The Watering Hole has been creating arts spaces for adults and youth since 2013, and now we want to do this in a permanent home—a Live Work Arts building. Here, artists will be able to live for free and work on their art. There will be indoor and outdoor performance spaces for writers and musicians, galleries for visual artists, multi-use rooms for community classes, and several lofts and apartments for artist residences. Arts will be happening all day, all year, for all ages. This artist village will be a premier destination in the South.

In addition, some of these lofts and apartments will be rented at market rate to non-artists who want to live or work in an artistic space. They will have the benefit of engaging in arts activities as frequently as they’d like, while also knowing that their rent goes to support the artists who are living and working around them. There will also be commercial spaces for rent. Imagine a local coffee shop, restaurant, or bookstore leasing downstairs spaces and further supporting local arts and artists. This project is designed to support itself by strategically engaging the community at large. These strategic partnerships will also attract a diverse shared audience.

Imagine grabbing a coffee at The Watering Hole Lofts, hearing some poetry, seeing someone painting, and heading back to work. Or dropping the kids off at a collage class and sitting in on a poetry class in the next room, both classes taught by professional artists in residency. Or spending Saturday mornings doing yoga in the community garden.

Imagine resident artists teaching supplemental classes in Richland County schools to increase literacy and empower at-risk youth through the joy of art. Imagine Columbia as an arts oasis. Imagine having an oasis like this in every state capital. Imagine yourself being on the forefront of what will become a major self-sustaining arts movement.

What does your community want the most from your organization?
Our community shows up for Tribe. The kind of love you get at The Watering Hole is unique. There is no sense of hierarchy or competition. The PhD-ed professor, the performance poet, the retired census worker, the bike messenger, they all sit in the same circle and learn from each other. Writing can be isolating. Creative writers go months without having a conversation with another writer, which is why The Watering Hole is important. The Watering Hole is all about building tribe, whether that means moving chairs, building a fire, or helping a fellow poet break down a poem. It is absolutely beautiful. The Watering Hole works to build an affordable, accessible home for poetry of color in the South, a region which is home to most of us whether by birth, heritage, or influence.

How do you balance directing your program with your own creative work? When do you find time to write?
Monifa: Seasons. I am clear that there is a season for everything in life, and I honor them accordingly.  That could mean waking up every day for 2 months with only the business of poetry on the plate. In the midst of a busy season, my poems are more a collage of one-liners in my kitchen or on my nightstand, waiting to be formed. As far as finding time when I’m in a creative season, I wake with writing and keep many journals in various spaces in my home so that any moment that grabs me is honored.

Candace: When I’m working full time, it’s really difficult, but right now I’m on fellowship at the Fine Arts Works Center in Provincetown, MA. That’s been a huge help. To not need to physically clock in at a job, to be free of financial worry, to be in a community of artists whose very presence everyday reminds me of what’s important—this is the ultimate goal for most artists, right? To be able to live this life every day. We need more spaces like this. This is part of the reason The Watering Hole is working towards building an Artist Village. This kind of creative space and support is invaluable.

To be more specific, I balance nonprofit work and writing (and teaching and family and laundry and exercise and so on) by tracking my time. What gets measured gets done. I have a process-oriented program that I Frankensteined together. I set my 6-month or 1-year goals and link them with process-oriented tasks. Then I keep my head down and focus on those objectives on daily or weekly basis. Some weeks, this works perfectly to keep me balanced and progressing, but some weeks need to be grading weeks or grant writing weeks. This isn’t ideal, but it’s my pattern. The plus side to that is that that some weeks get to be writing weeks and if I’m operating on all cylinders, I complete tasks for each goal multiple times per week.

Tracking my time is a constant reminder for me of what’s really important. Sometimes I can get obsessive about a task that doesn't need to be done, to the point where I’m doing it to the highest standard. I had to redefine prioritizing as to only do what must be done, only as good as it needs to be done, and to only do tasks that make several other tasks either easier or null and void (Tim Ferriss). That concept helps me stay off the hamster wheel and make key decisions about how I spend my time.

Who encouraged you to be a writer?
Monifa: Actually Nikky Finney. Before Nikky, I was a journaling my poetry privately while pursuing acting and hosting poetry venues.  I loved the art, but I was far from a poet.  A little over 15 years ago, a friend of mine took me on a surprise date to see Nikky read, and I was born. I remember spending the next few years with the vision of her at that podium as my muse.

What was the first book that you loved? The first book that you hated?
Monifa: The first book I loved was The Color Purple. Alice Walker has always been a mental mentor to me after that book.

The first book I hated was Song of Solomon. I ended up having to “read” that book from an audio file to fully comprehend it’s meaning.  It then became one of my favorites, but I always feel a twinge when I’m in conversation about it, like I’m unqualified to speak on it.  There’s something about actually reading Morrison.

Would you like to share a project you are currently working on?
Candace: I’m working on a project that’s Afrofuturist in nature. I’m trying to use poetry to place interstellar space, deep sea, mythology, mutantism, and speculative futures as part of the African diaspora and in some cases, part of the Black Atlantic. The work takes historical events and explains them through this mystical lens. For example, the reason we can’t find any of the bodies lost at sea during the Middle Passage is because Yoruba deities transformed captured Africans into Afro Atlantan Merfolk (or mermaids). The myth of the Flying African comes from Klingon intervention and the use of black alien transporter technology. I’m also interrogating how the ability to mutate plays into contemporary cases of excessive force. My hope is to create this revisionist science fictional and fantastical world that relocates agency in both an historically accurate yet imaginative way. The goal is for the final version to be a graphically rendered collection of poetry (in the style of a graphic novel).

Monifa: I am currently working on a Choreopoem that has been tapping on my spirit for a couple of years now. This work is a collaboration between myself and other women about the currents in our lives. It will be both published and performed by Fall 2018.

What projects are you currently working on?
As part of our Lit Kids! Programming, The Watering Hole is finalizing our Debate Slam incubator sites. Debate Slam is a creative writing and oratory contest that mixes the rhetorical training of Debate competitions with the creative foundation of Slam competitions. Debate Slam requires research, critical thought, problem-solving skills, poetic prowess, teamwork, and performance.

We’re also raising funds for a Live Work Arts building that will become The Watering Hole Village. It will be financially self-sustaining, house creatives through residencies, and host classes and workshops for the community for free as well. Artists will be able to live for free and work on their art. There will be indoor and outdoor performance spaces for writers and musicians, galleries for visual artists, multi-use rooms for community classes, several lofts and apartments for artist residences, yoga in the community garden.

As always, we are setting up for our next cohort of fellows at our capstone event, our Fifth Annual Winter Retreat. Since 2013, we’ve hosted affordable annual winter retreats in South Carolina that draw 42 to 60 poets from New York, to Florida, to New Mexico, to Wisconsin, from 21 to 64 years old, from written word to spoken word to experimental. At each retreat, we’re floored by the spirit of giving and teamwork among our fellows.

At our retreat, The Watering Hole turns education on its ear. There are no traditional classrooms. Classes are held in living rooms to recreate the atmosphere of the down-home sit-downs that Harlem Renaissance artists and Black Arts writers hosted in their living rooms. Our fellows learn at the feet of each other just as much as they learn from our renown facilitators and speakers--who are winners of the National Book Award, MacArthur Genius, NAACP Image Award, American Book Award, Whiting Writer's Award, National Slam Championship, among others.

Guests are welcome to join us at the retreat for any of the public readings (on December 27 and 29) and at our Annual Fish Fry (on December 29). The Winter Retreat is December 26 to December 30 every year with a submission period from April 1–July 15.

Share your favorite work-related memory.
There are so many, but one of our favorite is how our annual fish fry started. This was at our second Annual Winter Retreat in 2014. We sent someone out to the store to get a couple of fish for dinner. We’d already cooked, but we needed a couple more. That person came back with several bags of fish! What do you do when life gives you fish? Throw a fish fry! We were able to feed all of the poets and facilitators fish plates with hushpuppies. Everyone crowded in and around our cabin on couches, kitchen tables, picnic benches. We ended up playing card games and chatting. Many of the poets took turns at the frying pan. Everybody got as much as they wanted. And when we ran out of plates, people ate out of coffee filters, regardless of rank or position. It was such a bonding experience, and it all happened because someone bought extra fish.

How has AWP helped you in your career and creative endeavors?
Candace: In 2011, I attended my first AWP. At the time, I was a MFA student at USC and just trying to find her my voice in my writing. At AWP, I attended a panel during which the panelist shared work generated from their grant period, as well as information about the application process. The very next year, I was a Fulbright Fellow living in Colombia, South America. The important thing for me was that I was not simply inspired by the panelist; even more, the application process had been demystified for me. The goal was achievable, so I applied.

What is your favorite AWP conference memory?
Candace: At my first AWP in 2011, I was invited by a friend of a friend to an after-hours get-together in one of the Affrilachian hotel rooms. It was like seeing a bunch of unicorns up close and personal. Everyone was milling around, having conversations about poetry and life, catching up with one another or like me getting to know people for the first time. It was amazing. Everyone was so welcoming.

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