On May 13, Alison Meyers started her new job as the third executive director in the 38-year history of Writers & Books, Rochester’s literary organization founded in 1981 by Joe Flaherty.
Selected after a national search that drew 150 applicants, Meyers is a Pushcart Prize-nominated poet and fiction writer. She’s also a veteran nonprofit leader. From 2006-2016, she was executive director of Cave Canem Foundation in Brooklyn, New York, the nation’s pre-eminent organization for African-American poets and poetry. She served as director of development at the Community of Literary Magazines and Presses in New York City, poetry director and director of marketing at Hill-Stead Museum in Farmington, Conn., and general manager of the Oberlin, Ohio, Consumers Co-op. For many years, Meyers owned and managed Everyday Books & Café, a Connecticut-based independent bookstore.
Meyers met with Rochester Beacon Senior Editor E.C. Salibian to discuss her vision for the future of Writers & Books. The following is an edited version of that conversation.
ROCHESTER BEACON: What inspired you to apply for the position of executive director of Writers & Books?
ALISON MEYERS: I wanted to establish my roots full-time in an organization whose mission I could really vibrate to. I had been doing consulting for several months and I really enjoyed it. But I wanted to affiliate with one organization. I have known about Writers & Books for many years. I was acquainted with Joe Flaherty because we are colleagues in the industry, we listened to each other’s presentations. What cinched my desire to work here was coming up for a full day of activities, including time spent with staff.
ROCHESTER BEACON: You have described your vision of Writers and Books as “a pivotal space for transformational experiences.” What kinds of transformational experiences? For whom?
MEYERS: The United States for many years, through academia particularly, but even through the publishing industry, was Eurocentric in its vision of what’s canonical and what should form the basic reading list of students growing up. There also have been rigid tropes about who’s entitled to tell their story. Over the recent past that perception has shifted in dramatic ways through the agency of activists in the field as well as literary organizations that changed the paradigm. One of those organizations I was privileged and proud to work for was Cave Canem Foundation, an organization for black poets. That served as a model for other organizations such as Kundiman, for Asian American poets and poetry. Small presses that are mission driven have been a critical aspect of changing the landscape of literature. As time goes on, more and more stories, narratives, histories are being made visible and entering the popular culture. It’s critical that we shape our vision of American history in the plural, American histories. What are the American realities? Who are citizens? We can take Claudia Rankine’s interrogation of the word “citizen” through her groundbreaking, amazing book “Citizen” to think about all the ways we as a culture exclude rather than validate and include.
The written word and the spoken word, language itself, are so important to forming consciousness. Writers & Books has an opportunity to engage with this awesome responsibility and accountability. One way we’ll do that is to interact with, listen to, as many of our greater Rochester communities as we are humanly able to, and keep ourselves abreast of the national discourse. Language goes back to the very beginning of the arts and it’s also very portable. If someone has a pencil or a pen and a piece of paper, they can write. The obstacles for accessing the written word are not high, but they are culturally produced. Our job here at Writers & Books, is to break down obstacles, break down boundaries, widen the circle and be good listeners. We can be a generative center for people. We have a chance to become part of Rochester’s future in this role.
ROCHESTER BEACON: When you come to Rochester from New York City, what kinds of community divides do you see?
MEYERS: Here at Writers & Books, there’s a priority concern within the organization—staff and board—that the question “Whom do we serve?” is the critical one to ask right now. Why are we here? Whom do we serve? What’s our story? What is our capability beyond what we’ve been doing? How can we retool to create more access? Those concerns lead me to certain, perhaps early conclusions (that) there have been some social and psychological divisions. I know that Rochester is an extremely diverse community, and I also think that there are de facto some economic divides. Rochester city center is over 40 percent black. Right now, that statistic is not well represented at Writers & Books. There is a great desire to change that here.
ROCHESTER BEACON: What are some of your ideas on how to change that?
MEYERS: Really talking about it. Being open and transparent. You also internally can set some goals: by this date, XYZ will happen. It’s about reaching out and asking questions and meeting with individuals who are from different communities, who may not be engaged with Writers & Books. As we go through this organizational self-study, reaching out to our various communities is key. The board wants to diversify its composition. We would like to do that on the staffing level as well. One of the first things I wish to do is, in June, put out a survey to our 6,000-member mailing list asking for opinions, ideas, contacts. Other actions are face-to-face meetings and making sure we belong to other organizations. It’s dialogue. It’s listening. We’re also working with wisdom consultant (Jeremy Cooney), who has a great outreach into in many communities. Having the conversations, one thing leads to another, one person will lead us to another.
ROCHESTER BEACON: What changes can we expect to see at Writers & Books over the next year, maybe over the next five years?
MEYERS: A lot of that depends on this several months of studying, but I can see some programmatic change. I would like to see us get in sync with important national initiatives such as Gay (LGBTQ) Pride Month, Black History Month, Women’s History Month, National Poetry Month. Also (to engage with) interactive art forms. We’ll look at what workshops we present, how we can foster intergenerational dialogue, interracial dialogue, inter-class dialogue, engaging with literature that aligns with the critical questions of our time. There are programs here that I think are phenomenal, such as SummerWrite. The goal will be to make that program as democratically available as possible. Of course, that involves seeking financial support so we can widen access to every child who wants to attend. We have a good scholarship program but our goal is to expand the opportunity beyond that.
ROCHESTER BEACON: I had a conversation in December with Joe Flaherty, and he described three top priorities: community relevance, creative innovation and financial stability. What are the top challenges as you see them?
MEYERS: I think creative innovation and community relevance are opportunities, not challenges. I think we’re financially okay. I’d like to reframe (the issue as) financial sustainability. Right now, we pretty much go year to year raising our operating budget. One of the projects on the horizon is developing our Gell Retreat Center in the Finger Lakes, which we forecast as an earned income stream that will help sustain the entire operation. There’s also an opportunity for us to become a center for revitalizing the bookstore as a center for small press literature, and to tie our bookstore more closely with programmatic offerings. We want to be of great service to our immediate community and we also think we can draw readers and writers around the country if we specialize in things that are particularly compelling.
I just signed up for the Arts in the Loop Symposium at the Eastman School of Music, how creative leaders from Pittsburgh, Minneapolis and Nashville leveraged their community and creative assets to revitalize their cities. There’s an amazing organization called City of Asylum Pittsburgh. It evolved from the mission of providing 360-degree support—housing, food, career development—for imperiled writers from around the world, becoming a destination city center for literature that matters. I’ll be talking to folks there about their process. We have models out there for how some of this transformational work occurs. Recrystallizing the story of Writers & Books will evolve from taking in community feedback, feedback from the field and enlightened information that informs our activities in terms of governance, development, marketing programs. I’m right in line with Joe about creative innovation. Those priorities were made clear to me in the board search, and I was excited because it’s an opportunity to work with engaged individuals developing vision and strategies. It’s hard work but it’s wonderful work.
ROCHESTER BEACON: Why is Writers & Books essential to Rochester? How you would describe your organization’s grand purpose?
MEYERS: Bringing words and people together. Writers & Books is essential because reading and writing are essential. If a city the size of Rochester has a physical site that has the ability to bring together and serve the needs of the community through the art form, that’s awesome. I think empowering people to tell their stories is a way to help people find their strength. It’s really about quality of life. Literature reveals the problems in our culture. It puts forward the possibilities for beauty. It allows us to put ourselves in the place of other people. It allows us to put ourselves in other circumstances, other places, and it builds humanity. There are so many ways people can enter into books and reading. Some of it can be interdisciplinary with other art forms for little kids, even grownups. Intersectionality is key. Community relevance is key. Articulating what Writers & Books should it be in 2020, 2025.
ROCHESTER BEACON: I’d like to switch gears a bit, and just ask you a few questions about yourself. What was the last book you read? What are you reading right now?
MEYERS: I just finished Mira Jacob’s book, “Good Talk.” Right now, I’m reading “To Float in the Space Between: A Life and Work in Conversation with the Life and Work of Etheridge Knight,” by Terrance Hayes. There are so many amazing ideas in this book. I love Terrance’s poetry and I’ve followed him for years.
ROCHESTER BEACON: I know that your husband, Billy Sledge, moved with you to Rochester. Tell us a little bit about him.
MEYERS: He is an IT consultant, and his plan for Rochester is to find new opportunities for his work here. He specializes in designing technology systems for nonprofits. And he runs a small website company called Poetskiss. Right now, he’s getting us settled in, unpacking boxes and moving furniture around, and he’s volunteering for Writers & Books. He’s really excited about being here and he really likes the city.
ROCHESTER BEACON: Take me behind the scenes of your conversations about what you see here, what you’ve liked, what you haven’t liked.
MEYERS: I’ve attended two theater productions, one at Blackfriars and one at Geva, The Return of Son House. I am soon to tour MAG. I have glimpsed the lilacs. I’m eager to enjoy the Fringe Festival and the Jazz Festival. The main thing I’ve been enjoying here is the really warm attitude of everybody I’ve met. So welcoming, so forthcoming. The arts community here is very sharing and generous and interactive and eager to jump into conversation. I think it essential that we work together. I love the fact that the local media is interested in Writers & Books. If I were to join a new organization in New York City, as I’ve done, there’s a press release, and a flurry of emails in a welcome and then it’s absorbed into the vast cauldron of arts and culture in New York City. But here I think there’s opportunity for all the arts and culture organizations, all the social justice organizations, to make exponential impact because of the size and engagement of the community. I find that really encouraging and exciting. It gives me a lot of optimism. I saw the play directed by Alexa Scott-Flaherty. It was delightful. I’m going to make sure I become a member of our local theaters. I love the theater and I love film. The community offers a great deal.
ROCHESTER BEACON: What was the last movie you saw?
MEYERS: “Girl.” It’s a Belgian film about a transgender girl who becomes a ballerina. It’s beautifully done.
ROCHESTER BEACON: Is there anything you’d like to add about what you’d like us in Rochester to know about who you are, why you’re here and what you plan to do next?
MEYERS: I would like Rochester to come knock on my door, give me a call, send me an email. Talk to me. Invite me to have a coffee or conversation. This is how I’m going to get to know my community better. I want Rochester to know that we have an open door here, not just me, but our staff, our board. And I also want to tip my hat to Joe Flaherty, our founding director, who is a true visionary. It’s exciting to come to an organization that has been such a part of the fabric of the community for so long. I think about his own journey, starting as a book bus, then going to a small storefront and then acquiring this building, raising the money for Gell and the Gleason Lodge. These are amazing accomplishments and they’re the building blocks for our future. A key function of any arts organization is to be a bridge builder. The arts is a place where people can heal and learn and grow and find beauty and pleasure and hope. It’s a place for everybody.
Upcoming Writers & Books events include a conversation and book signing with Mira Jacob, author and illustrator of “Good Talk: A Memoir in Conversations.” Friday, June 7, 6:30 to 7:30 pm at Writers & Books, 740 University Ave., Rochester, N.Y.
On Saturday June 8, Writers & Books will hold the 2019 Ladder Literary Conference , 8 am to 6:30 pm at Rochester Riverside Hotel.