Art Works Blog

Spotlight on YMCA Writer's Voice, Billings

Crow Indian poet and former Montana Poet Laureate Henry Real Bird, a frequent participant in activities presented by the YMCA Writer's Voice in Billings, Montana. Photo by Corby Skinner

"I’ve always believed culture is the way to have people communicate better, whether it’s art or poetry or music or literature." --- Corby Skinner

With only two part-time employees, in the past couple of years, the YMCA Writer's Voice in Billings, Montana, has presented numerous readings, workshops, and classroom residencies, a Big Read program around Louise Erdrich's Love Medicine, and even an annual book festival. Founded in 1991 as one of the more than 30 literary arts centers at YMCAs nationwide, the Billings outpost takes its mission to support and foster the literary arts very seriously. This past spring the Billings Writer Voice received an NEA grant to support Native Voices, which will be a series of readings by nine Native American artists from diverse Native cultures. Participating writers will include Lois Red Elk, Debra Magpie Earling, Heather Cahoon, and former Montana Poet Laureate Henry Real Bird. In his own words, here's Corby Skinner, director of the YMCA Writer's Voice in Billings, on the work the organization does and just how much they're able to accomplish with a small budget and a state's worth of creativity and imagination.

On Montana and writers…

The Writer’s Voice started in 1991. It was a new project of the YMCA to expand literary programs through YMCA sites across the country, and we were one of the sites for that pilot program. Because Ys are so different across the country, each center kind of evolved. In New York, there’s a focus on writer’s workshops and training, and that didn’t fit into the mold necessarily in Billings. We don’t have as many aspiring [writers] as the city does.

Despite the fact that there are so few people, Montana is a very literate state. We have a great tradition of fine writers from the state---Ivan Doig, Tom McGuane, Jim Welch. So we have a literary history, but there’s very little support for literary presenting here. Certainly New York publishers don’t see Montana as a market because of the size and demographics.

Our programs really evolved to support regional writers. We do a lot of public readings. We have programs where we send writers and artists out into rural schools for teaching. A lot of our program is about access in a state that has six people per square mile.... It’s not unusual for me to send a writer 250 miles to go do a reading somewhere. That’s just the nature of the geographic expanse of the state. Really our focus has been to provide support for writers and access to their work in underserved communities.

On how the Big Read led to a festival of Native American writers…

Two years ago we had a Big Read program here with Louise Erdrich’s book Love Medicine. We had a big festival involved with it [that featured] Native American writers. Though we didn’t have a big audience for all those events, the depth of the conversation with Native writers and the quality of the work inspired me to do this grant. I really wanted to give support for Montana Native-American writers. I’d done other programs with Joy Harjo, Alison Hedge Coke, and Diane Glancy, and Sherman Alexie’s been here. But I just realized that it’s so hard for Native-American authors to find an audience---even harder if you’re not a well-known, well-published writer.

[I wondered] is there a way for us to present something that bridges cultures through work, through art? And that’s what I hope to accomplish---giving exposure to the work of these writers and giving them a vehicle to present their work and find an audience and readership in a broader community.

We will be going to some of the tribal colleges---we have seven reservations and five tribal colleges in Montana—so we’ll be sending these writers to some of those schools. But I also want the general public to see the quality of work we have in our Native culture. Primarily these are indigenous people in the state. We have several tribes here, but we don’t know very much about them. It gives an opportunity for understanding culture better. And I’ve always believed culture is the way to have people communicate better, whether it’s art or poetry or music or literature, whatever.

“Our whole budget’s about $70K or less, yet we were ranked first in the state by the Montana Cultural trust for the kinds of work that we do in the region.”

One of the things that’s really important to us in getting recognition from the NEA [is that] we’re a small organization. I work part-time; I have a half-time staff person. Our whole budget’s about $70K or less, yet we were ranked first in the state by the Montana Cultural trust for the kinds of work that we do in the region. We actually serve a really large region. It’s important to get national recognition despite the very small nature of our program.

I think our scope is big, but I never pay anybody more than $100. I do the most with the little money we have but it hasn’t diminished the enthusiasm. So getting the national recognition for our program really bolsters the program within our own state. I’ve been on many NEA panels. The work is so good, but a lot of them are from big organizations---universities and theaters. I know the NEA focuses on quality first; they have the Challenge America grant to reach out [to smaller organizations]. I want to compete on the same stage because I really feel the work we’re doing deserves recognition.

On the importance of NEA support…

We’re very thankful. …[I]t gives us some leverage power so when I’m applying for additional grants for the same project---whether it’s a foundation or business---I can say this has been recognized nationally as an exceptional program.

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