Starting tonight, the Midwest Writing Center is presenting a new four-week poetry workshop series, called “Crafting the Mixtape” and led by Melissa Conway.
The MWC is on the ground floor of the Rock Island Public Library (401 19th St., Rock Island), the series is limited to 10 participants and it will also be offered via Zoom every Thursday in January (Jan. 5, 12, 19, and 26), from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.
An avid roller derby enthusiast with a day job. Conway (pronouns they/them) has been instructing writing workshops in various forms since 2017 and has loved every second of it. Melissa’s work has been published in Augustana College’s Saga Lit Magazine in 2016-19, the MWC’s These Interesting Times anthology, the upcoming Beholder ’23 and their chapbook Sundog is out now.
A native of Ottawa, Ill., Conway graduated from Augustana in 2019 with a degree in creative writing. They work in graphic design at EBE Technologies, East Moline. Conway hopes to inspire writers in the new workshop, and study poetry.
“The whole idea is, we’re gonna be looking at a ton of different writers, different bands, lyrics and every week there’s two main ones we look at and then a few extras in the same style,” they said. “The idea is to take information whether it’s a line you really like, and using that as the title of the next poem, finding an image you really like, and then learning how to take those things and work with them without plagiarizing,” Conway said Thursday.
“The whole point of after poems, which is what we’re writing in this workshop, is to find inspiration, whether they’re in conversation with the poem, or whether they’re responding to something that was said in the poem, or even just using an image they really like, how to work with that and make sure that you’re properly attributing it.”
Conway is basing the workshop on making mixtapes, or a variety of songs.
“We wanted to look at was making sure that it’s very varied, there’s something for everyone,” they said. “When I was going through this whole list, it’s like this feels like when I was younger and I would make mixtapes of all my favorite songs or a ton of different stuff to give to a friend and it really felt that same way of just putting together some really brilliant things all in one.”
“I think it’s really important especially for people who are newer, to be able to draw inspiration from all kinds of sources. And I think music is such a beautiful way to do that. So it’s a pretty big mix but still mostly centered on poetry.”
“I definitely think that the creative writing process is so open-ended, whether you’re kind of writing something and then reading it later thinking, oh this really describes what I was feeling, even though I didn’t know it or just being able to put really complex thoughts or feelings into words,” Conway said.
“And I think especially teaching workshops, it’s really amazing to see people come back from a prompt and say, oh my god, look what I wrote, this is the coolest thing I’ve ever written,” they said. “Things like that, of just seeing people who are really excited about the way that their own brain works, the way that they can create something that they think it’s brilliant.”
Veteran working with teens
Conway has taught for the MWC Young Emerging Writers program for four years.
“We spend the summer writing work shopping, editing everything and going through the whole production of a chapbook, they get published at the end of it, with a release party,” they said. “It’s really fun and really, really great for the kids. They always love it.”
Conway said their favorite exercise for generating poetry and getting out of a rut is by reading work from other artists and writing poems inspired by them.
“I take a line or a feeling or a writing style that I’ve never tried before, and write poems based on that aspect of the work,” Conway said. “Crafting the Mixtape” will “apply this exercise to a long-form structure in which the group will read works from two artists each week and pick one piece to write ‘after’.
“We’ll talk as a group about what felt good, bad, new, and uncomfortable for each work and challenge each other to apply those new and uncomfortable strategies to our own writing,” they said. “This workshop has a deep focus on pushing personal style boundaries. The structure is meant to guide writers through finding, refining, and solidifying their own voice with experimental trial and error.”
Works to be explored include Nayyirah Waheed, Neil Hilborn, Foxing, Warsan Shire, Mitski, Andrea Gibson, Danez Smith, Ocean Vuong, and The Mountain Goats. This workshop is made possible thanks to the support of Illinois Humanities and the Illinois Arts Council Agency.
The cost is $70 for MWC members, $80 for non-MWC members. Scholarships available for students, veterans, and those with financial need. Just a couple slots are still available for the series.
For more information, visit the MWC website.