Conversation: Nan Cuba and Inkstravaganza

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When I first moved to San Antonio in 2010, Nan Cuba was one of the first people I met. After that night, I knew I’d love this city.

I’d seen Nan’s name over the years in various literary publications and settings. I was happy to finally meet her. What I did not take for certain was that I’d be welcomed with such warmth and hospitality, combined with a quick engagement with and openness to new ideas. That is who Nan is, short and sweet.

Of course, Nan is known to most for having founded the nationally acclaimed literary arts center, Gemini Ink. Many in San Antonio, outside of the world of books and writing, don’t know how grandly Gemini Ink’s reputation stands. Indeed, talented staff, committed funders, passionate board members, and loyal students go a long way to make that happen. But at its foundation, the vision and keen execution in those early years seems all-Nan, and it became the infrastructure for what Gemini Ink is today.

Nan Cuba involved in a discussion about her book at Gemini Ink. Photo by Al Rendon.

Nan Cuba involved in a discussion at Gemini Ink. Photo by Al Rendon.

Because Nan is an artist, she is attracted to challenges and the tough, important questions. She is able to envision what does not yet exist and employ her passion to make it happen,” said Paula Owen, president of the Southwest School of Art. “And, she does it all without thinking that it’s exceptional.”

Nan draws together people from all walks of life who seek creativity and intellectualism – writers, readers, visual artists, musicians, arts supporters – and makes each feel like an integral part of the creative community,” said Josie Seeligson, a former protégé of Nan’s.

Nan Cuba is a little indescribable – or she was to me at first,” said Gemini Ink executive director Sheila Black. “She was so friendly and genuinely kind, yet she was also so elegant, so composed, so effortlessly chic. I could never think of her as being anything but a lady. At the same time she seemed so down to earth – there was no one, or so it appeared, Nan did not like, that Nan could not sit down and break bread with. But she also has moxie, daring, bedrock bone-deep courage. I am so lucky to know her.”

There is much more to Nan than the founder of Gemini Ink, so I was delighted when I was asked to interview her in advance of her upcoming recognition at the 2014 Inkstravaganza fundraiser gala on Oct. 9 at the Pearl Stables, billed as the “literary party of the year.”

Thomas Payton: How did the idea for Gemini Ink come to be and reflect on the amazing growth of the organization over the years?

Nan Cuba: Gemini Ink came about by accident. A friend, Marylyn Croman, and I invited actor friends to perform scripts we pieced together of great literature. The first show was a celebration of James Joyce, but others included Jewish literature, African-American literature, and literature about the AIDS epidemic. After a year of those shows performed in restaurants, campuses, museums, and theaters, I thought she and I, along with invited friends, could offer some classes in writing and literature, which we did. 

A lively conversation fills the air at Gemini Ink, where Nan Cuba has established a community for writers. Photo by Al Rendon.

A lively conversation fills the air at Gemini Ink, where Nan Cuba has established a community for writers. Photo by Al Rendon.

“The first ones were held in my husband’s law office. Marylyn left after the second semester, and I continued building the organization for 10 more years. There have been two executive directors since then. Rosemary Catacalos focused on building the Writers in Communities Program, which sends writers to teach in schools, shelters, community centers, and such. Thanks to her, that program is thriving. Sheila Fiona Black is the current E.D., and she’s not only developing new community efforts like Earth Talks and a citywide poetry slam contest – she has reintroduced the multi-session creative writing courses and the Mentor Program, which is a master-level, semester-long intensive. The organization has grown because of these talented, visionary directors and the dedicated board and staff members who labor to serve our community.  During my 11 years, the number served doubled, then tripled, each year – proof that there was a need for these programs.

TP: There are many writer’s centers and continuing education programs focused on creative writing across the country. How would you say Gemini Ink stands out and also reflects San Antonio’s uniqueness?

NC: From the beginning, my vision was to bring people of all backgrounds from all areas of the city together to talk about writing and literature. That has always been reflected in class and event attendance. Everyone has been included, and that diversity creates an energy that generates deep conversation and, consequently, powerful writing that is set in and around our city. The staff, board, and programs reflect this diversity, which, of course, enriches everyone’s experience. Cultural richness defines San Antonio, and Gemini Ink strives to reflect that uniqueness. The organization has also emphasized the artistic side of literature. Beginning writers are encouraged to develop their individual voices, but even those participants are taught about literary craft. Only by striving for an artistic standard can voices hope to be shared with large audiences. In fact, the first mission statement was “Gemini Ink celebrates the art in literature.” My vision was to celebrate serious literature and help students craft their writing so it could have a chance to be published.

TP: How would you say the San Antonio creative community has evolved, changed even, and what does the future look like?

A copy of Nan Cuba's novel, Body and Bread (2013), which won the PEN/ Southwest Award in Fiction and the Texas Institute of Letters Steven Turner Award for Best Work of Fiction. Photo by Al Rendon.

A copy of Nan Cuba’s novel, Body and Bread (2013), which won the PEN/ Southwest Award in Fiction and the Texas Institute of Letters Steven Turner Award for Best Work of Fiction. Photo by Al Rendon.

NC: For years after I started Gemini Ink, there were few, if any, literary events open to the public.  Now, you can find at least one every night. Gemini Ink has a national reputation, and a number of San Antonio writers are publishing critically acclaimed work. This success can only continue. Just this fall, my department at Our Lady of the Lake University launched an MA/MFA Program in Literature, Creative Writing, and Social Justice. The program received support because administrators were confident that the community was ready for such an opportunity. In the same vein, the Southwest School of Art just launched a BA Program. These are tangible signs that our city’s art community is healthy and growing.

TP: Tell us about the experience publishing your first book, Body and Body (Engine Books), in 2013. The book has been critically acclaimed in wide-ranging media and was even named a must-read book by both Oprah Winfrey and the Huffington Post. After so many years of teaching and nurturing writers and seeing so many of them publish, how has it felt to have your first novel come to life and find such a strong audience?

NC: I didn’t plan to create a nonprofit literary center. When Gemini Ink classes were first offered, the response was so great that I realized the community needed such programs. I pledged then to stay with the organization until it was stable enough to pass on. Thankfully, that hope has been realized, because I have always been a writer first and an administrator and teacher after that. As OLLU writer-in-residence, I’ve now also limited my teaching. So having my novel published, after 20 years of work, has been the signal I needed. More than the lovely reception given “Body and Bread,” the fact that I now may spend most of my time writing is the challenge I’ve been waiting for.  I’m nervous and excited, but determined to focus on this new stage of my career.

TP: You’re a graduate of the widely admired college, Warren Wilson. Reflect on your educational training and college years relative to creative writing in the U.S. today. People think of you as community-minded. How have others writers influenced your work and your larger worldview? I hear that you consider yourself a bit of a ‘misanthrope,” which may surprise some. How so?

NC: I am a product of the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College, a low residency program that brings students and faculty together only twice a year. It is the first program of this design, and now there are many. This alternative approach to attaining a terminal degree inspired me to create the University Without Walls and Gemini Ink’s other components. My teachers were not only award-winning writers, but generous human beings as well. They generously participated in Gemini Ink programs. More importantly, they taught me to dedicate my professional life to teaching and producing literary art. They convinced me of the value of literature, which is to inspire empathy, tolerance, and critical thinking. Aren’t these qualities needed in every community? Yet, I admit that during weak moments, I’ve called myself a misanthrope. By that I mean that, like all artists, I’m more comfortable when I’m working by myself. I also am perplexed about our culture’s growing anti-intellectualism, the attack on teachers, disappearance of newspapers and serious journalism, and steady decline of readers. The current debate about the significance of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch winning the Pulitzer and more adults reading young adult literature has caught my attention. These trends are worrisome. Ideas that challenge and stimulate thinking, rather than simply entertain or furnish vocational skills, must be supported. I am inspired by those who do just that.

TP: Today you are writer-in-residence at Our Lady of the Lake University. Discuss the importance of support for writers, be it from universities, foundations, writers’ retreats, or other groups?

Nan Cuba listens intently to a conversation at Gemini Ink. Photo by Al Rendon.

Nan Cuba listens intently to a conversation at Gemini Ink. Photo by Al Rendon.

NC: When I started Gemini Ink’s Autograph Series, which brought famous writers to teach a class and read at the Charlene McCombs Empire Theatre (free and open to the public), I wanted people to see writers as celebrities, equal in popularity to athletes and rockstars. In St. Petersburg, Russia, there are museums dedicated to Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Anna Akhmatova. Other cultures revere writers, while people in our culture read less and think writers of serious literature are elitist. A recent survey revealed that 74% of responding writers earned less than $25,000/year. When artifacts from our current day are analyzed, what writing will represent us? A stock report? An article about Kim Kardashian? Or a story by Alice Munro, who won the Nobel Prize? The work that is being published reflects who we are. That means we need to support writers who produce work that honestly depicts the human experience. That support should come from governmental agencies, universities, and private foundations, but also from people who buy books and urge friends to do the same. 

TP: I understand there is a door frame from your old house that you had many of the writers who’ve stayed with you sign and adapted it into a book case? Do you still use it and what is the story behind  all the signatures?

NC: Indeed, when famous writers came to teach and read for Gemini Ink, they often stayed in a guest apartment behind my house. Before they left, they signed the door frame, which I brought with me to a new home. It now borders book shelves in my office, where it brings memories that inspire. Here are a few of the names: Tillie Olsen, William Merwin, Richard Russo, Robert Boswell, Antonya Nelson, Wang Ping, Chuck Wachtel, Annie Proulx, Christina Garcia, Debra Monroe, Phillip Lopate, Robert Coover, Ellen Bryant Voigt, Alberto Rios, Edward Hirsch, and Li-Young Lee.

TP: What surprises you most about what Gemini Ink has grown to become, something perhaps that you did not imagine or expect when you started the organization?

NC: There are new projects that are extensions of the core program components. There are also collaborations with the city and other agencies and nonprofits that have produced community events. All this fits my vision. The only major change is that there are few Dramatic Reader’s Theater productions. This makes sense since that is what started the organization and the audiences those shows attracted are not so necessary anymore.

TP: When did you first realize that you were destined to make your life in the literary arts, and was the recognition of desire to be a writer, teacher, and advocate simultaneous or more of an evolution?

NC: When I was in the fifth grade, I saved money for six months and bought a turquoise typewriter.  I spent the next summer typing pages from an encyclopedia to produce my first book. I spent Sunday afternoons with my grandmother memorizing poems and reciting them I thought I would go into theater. But I married young, so my undergraduate degree was in education, and I taught elementary school for 10 years. My writing life didn’t begin until my mid-thirties when I published feature articles for a variety of magazines. This led to three years of interviewing a serial killer and writing about the origins of extraordinary violence. While I was earning my MFA degree from the Warren Wilson Program, I taught as a writer-in-the-schools. These experiences – teaching, community work, being an advocate for literary art, witnessing alternative education – enabled me to create Gemini Ink.

*Featured/top image: Nan Cuba at a recent discussion of her latest book at Gemini Ink. Photo by Al Rendon.

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Gemini Ink: Connecting Literacy and Literature

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