In the Spotlight
Co-founder, Seersucker Live
Fairfax, VA Member Since: 2013
About: Zach Powers’ debut story collection, Gravity Changes, won the BOA Short Fiction Prize and was published in 2017. He co-founded the nonprofit reading series Seersucker Live, led the workshop at the Flannery O’Connor Childhood Home for eight years, and as an educator volunteered with Deep, leading writing workshops for middle and high school students. He also has served as a mentor for AWP’s Writer to Writer Mentorship Program.
Photo Credit: Joshua A. Powers
What is the biggest challenge you face in promoting writing?
It was through Deep that I came to value learning experiences that flow in both directions. I know I can introduce students to the craft of writing. I know I can provide them with a set of tools to improve the clarity and effectiveness of their stories. But if I come away from a workshop having grown myself, then I know, too, that I truly connected with my students and their work.
What are you reading right now?
I just finished books by two of my favorite writers/people: Patricia Lockwood's new memoir Priestdaddy, and Amelia Gray's new novel Isadora. Both should be at the top of folks' reading lists for 2017. And I'm almost done with Imbolo Mbue's Behold the Dreamers. In poetry, I read Chen Chen's new collection, When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities, which I'm recommending to everyone. All in all, it's been a good reading month.
If you could meet any writer, who would it be? What would you say to her or him?
I once wrote a story in which I happened to sit next to Haruki Murakami at a bar. He was drinking Cutty Sark, so I ordered one, too. We chatted about the Red Sox game on the TV over the bar. He left. The end. I think that's still my ideal author meeting.
What do your books look like once you’ve finished reading them? Do they have broken spines and dog-eared pages? Notes in the margins? Or do they still look brand new?
I have a background in visual media, so I love books as objects. I'm careful never to crack a spine or crease a page. But I also like to read in bars and coffee shops, so I have to accept frayed corners on paperbacks. Still, my books tend to stay good as new. I have a friend who abuses books so badly I can't lend him mine. If I really want him to read something, I have to buy him a copy of his own.
The book you could read again and again is __. Why?
The Girl in the Flammable Skirt by Aimee Bender. Whenever I'm feeling sluggish or awkward or dimwitted as a writer, I read one of the stories in this book to remind myself how words work. Aimee Bender writes such perfectly transparent prose, and re-reading her work is like pressing the reset button on the literary part of my brain. Even after reading just a paragraph, I'm always able to come back to my own work and overcome whatever mental block I might be facing.
When do you find time to write?
I go to a coffee shop every morning and write before I start work. Some days I write more, some days less. Not infrequently I write nothing at all. But I carve out those morning hours as "writing time," and I'm protective of it. Everything else I do is to support my writing, so those brief hours at the coffee shop are the most important part of my professional day.
Do you feel influenced by your peers to produce a certain type of creative work, or do you feel free to follow your own interests and passions?
Pressure to conform comes from everywhere, but I've been fortunate to have friends and mentors who support me even at my weirdest. In the end, I write the stories that most make sense to me, and those tend to be fabulist and speculative. I'm not sure I could conform even if I wanted to. No, not everyone will like my weirdness. But I hope some people will identify with it. There's no shame in having a style that evokes both love and hate. To me, at least, that's much more interesting than writing something that everyone sort of likes OK.
What is the greatest compliment that you could ever receive about your writing?
"I read this out loud to my dog."
What is your favorite AWP Conference memory?
I always manage to find a good time at AWP, but this year, I pre-released my debut book at the BOA Editions booth. It was great to share that moment with so many writerly friends, especially the ones I only get to see once a year at the conference. And I'm not gonna lie, it felt quite nice to be on the other side of the book signing table.
What would be your advice to new AWP members, on how to make the most of their membership?
Use the organization and the conference to make friends in the literary community. Don't worry about meeting an editor to publish your next story or an agent to sell your novel manuscript. Those are great goals, but they'll take care of themselves if you first present yourself as a friend and advocate and literary citizen. Be interested in other writers. Buy as many books at the conference as you can reasonably afford. Tell a writer how much you like their work. That's how you make the connections that will most benefit you down the line.
How have you seen your organization’s membership grow and change over the last five to ten years?
I started volunteering with Deep when it was still a relatively young organization. I was part of the first few generations of instructors, and I was there as Deep's workshops expanded to include every public middle school in Savannah. I watched firsthand as the public student reading outgrew venue after venue, and now it draws hundreds of attendees to one of the city's largest theaters. In 2015, Deep received the nation's highest honor for youth programs, the National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award, presented at the White House by Michelle Obama. I think the volunteers knew all along how meaningful the work we were doing was to the young writers we mentored, but to see the organization honored nationally reinforced that.
How have your outreach efforts changed over the last five to ten years?
I have one specific memory of working with Deep that sums up my experience pretty well. At the end of each semester, we dedicated one or two workshop sessions to revision, encouraging our students to revisit some of the work they'd produced throughout the course of the program. This could be a hard sell to middle schoolers, requiring cajoling and arm-twisting to get them to revisit something they assumed was already complete. In one of these workshops, I and my co-teacher sent the students to different corners of the library to focus on their revisions while we made the rounds among them. I discovered one of the students huddled in an empty section of the stacks, reading her work out loud to herself, furiously scribbling over old passages and rewriting them. We had tried to teach the value of reading out loud in revision, and it had clicked for her that day. She rewrote every piece she'd written that semester, pieces that were already good to begin with, and she ended up with some truly beautiful work. I believe every student benefited from Deep's workshops in one way or another, but it was gratifying to witness the students who experienced this sort of profound revelation, either about writing or the way they viewed the world.
What have you found to be the most successful ways to recruit members?
When we started Seersucker Live, we were simply interested in putting on rad readings and building a literary community in Savannah. There wasn't much thought to it beyond that. As we progressed, though, and as our reputation grew, we realized we had responsibilities not to just to support to the literary community, but to help make it more equitable and diverse. Over the last few years, we've dedicated ourselves to making deliberate efforts to that end, and it's never been more rewarding to be part of the organization.