By Natalie Axton, Spalding MFA alum
I remember the first time I heard a story told for a live audience. I was a young girl, maybe ten or eleven, not yet in charge of my logistical destiny. It was fall. My parents had packed me and my brother into the car to head to some kind of Halloween happening.
We brought a picnic and a blanket, which we spread out on a hill. I assume we ate dinner; my memory of the event is both hazy and distinct. I don’t remember what we were told about the event before we arrived, or what I made of it. I do remember that we sat on that hill with hundreds of other people. As the sun set and the temperature grew cold, all of us were focused, listening to stories being told by a woman on a stage below us. The stories were scary stories, ghost stories. In east Kentucky we’d call them haint tales.
That event was the Corn Island Storytelling Festival. Louisvillians of a certain age will likely recall that festival’s heyday in the 1980s. Now that I’m an adult storyteller, I have become a big believer in the importance of literary events like the storytelling festival. It’s important for its own sake. Also, what I call ‘literary outreach’ builds community around reading, writing, and ideas, and that is always better entertainment than the television. This kind of literary outreach brings people together in real physical space. The sociologist Ray Oldenburg wrote decades ago about the importance of what he called the “third place.” We need these places between work and home where we can drop in, see familiar faces, laugh, and take the pressure off.
Living in east Kentucky, I see every day the social problems that plague America’s rural areas, east Kentucky being only a more concentrated enactment of the forces that have driven out small business and small town socializing, to say nothing of the problems of extractive industry. I started the Appalachia Book Company (The ABC) in many ways as an economic development project. I want to explore how we can get people out of the house, talking and laughing and sharing stories. How can we harness the social capital of that area, an area that should be a net exporter of culture to the rest of America, and use that to strengthen our community?
The ABC is a literary event company, and I’m thrilled to announce that this month the Appalachia Book Company, in partnership with the Appalachian Center for the Arts and Pike County Extension Fine Arts, is launching Porch Talk at the App, a live storytelling series. Our first performance will be February 18 at the Appalachian Center for the Arts (also known as the App) in downtown Pikeville. We plan to make the event a regular feature of the App’s calendar.
We don’t yet know exactly what Porch Talk at the App will look like, and that’s part of the fun. In the next few weeks we’re holding workshops for those interested in participating in Porch Talk. We’ll be using the workshops as a space for writers to develop material and work with our acting coaches on delivering their work in front of a live audience. We want Porch Talk at the App to be community led. We want it to be a place for eastern Kentucky to come together and tell tales, share personal stories, listen to some good music, and take the pressure off.
I’d be delighted to have Spalding writers participate. If you’re available for the February 18 event, please let me know. If you are in the Pikeville area and would like to help us with the workshops, please drop me a line. We’ll be holding workshops on January 23 and 30 and February 6 and 13. Those are Thursday nights, 6:30 – 9:00 p.m. at the Pike County Extension office on Trivette Avenue. UK will provide snacks and writing materials.
Porch Talk at the App might have haint tales, later in the year. With any luck, it can become something people remember for the rest of their lives.
You can reach Natalie via email at Natalie.Axton [at] gmail [dot] com. Follow the Appalachia Book Company on Twitter @appalachiabook and on Facebook @appalachiabookco.
Natalie Axton, MFA (F ’19), is a writer in Pikeville, Kentucky. She is the co–founder of the Appalachia Book Company. She is the founder and editorial director of Critical Read, a nonprofit publishing company dedicated to making art history more inclusive and more discoverable.