Into the Furnace: Chatham lecturer encourages writers to harness Braddock’s creative energy
Inspiring creativity through the visceral energy of Braddock, Pa., is the idea behind a new writer-in-residence program, organized in part by Sherrie Flick, a lecturer in Chatham’s MFA in Creative Writing program and artistic director of Gist Street Reading Series.
Braddock’s atmosphere and ongoing revitalization efforts seem like the right environment for creative production, says Sherrie.
Sherrie, along with John Fetterman, mayor of Braddock; Jeb Feldman, owner and co-manager of Braddock artist haven Unsmoke; and others, collaborated to turn a two-room suite in the former St. Michael’s parochial school convent into a breeding ground for the art of the written word. “The residency is about giving one writer the gift of time,” says Sherrie. “Time to write.”
Named for its proximity to active steel mill Edgar Thomson Steel Works, “Into the Furnace” is a molten opportunity for writers.
“The name of the program also references Thomas Bell’s amazing book Out of This Furnace, so it’s a play on words in a couple different directions,” says Sherrie.
Braddock already has a supportive writers’ community, says Sherrie. It is home to the Biblipolis writer-in-residence Eliza Griswold and has several writer studios in UnSmoke, a gallery/events venue with classrooms and artist studio space—housed in a repurposed Catholic school building. “We thought we could help cultivate a community that was already in place,” says Sherrie.
Josh Barkan is the inaugural writing resident. He is the author of the short-story collection Before Hiroshima and the novel Blind Speed, which was named a finalist for the 2009 Paterson Fiction Prize. Josh was awarded a literature fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and has taught writing at Harvard, New York University, and Boston University.
“Braddock is a place full of contrasts—the old machinery of industry, against the new mosaics and murals of arts revitalization; the beautiful detail of brick on structures that have been abandoned and fallen apart; the positive energy of youth service programs and of AmeriCorps and many other social service groups with the tough poverty the children in the community are born into,” says Josh.
“All of these contrasts heighten my awareness of my surroundings—a sense of place—that is so necessary for writing well. What I see more clearly is the history of the city, the strong effort of the mayor John Fetterman, Sherrie Flick, Jeb Feldman, and many others to bring positive experiences to the Braddock community,” continues Josh.
Much of Josh’s childhood was spent abroad, living in Kenya, Tanzania, France, and India. After attending Yale University, where he graduated Phi Beta Kappa, he spent a year teaching in Japan and received his Master of Fine Arts from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His writing has appeared in Esquire, and he is a contributor to The Boston Book Review. Most recently, he called New York City and Mexico City home.
“Josh is a perfect fit for the program,” says Sherrie. “He’s lived all over the world and so has learned, I think, to adapt to his surroundings, to see and appreciate beauty in the unlikely.”
“I find Braddock exciting because of the freedom there,” says Josh. “There’s a sense of being in a place where you can try whatever kind of artistic creation you want. Nothing is censored and there is no preconceived outcome. There is a strong willingness to experiment in Braddock, a willingness to try anything as long as it is done with passion, intelligence, and with genuine quality.”
There is currently no application process for the writer-in-residence program. Sherrie and Marc Nieson, assistant professor in Chatham’s MFA in Creative Writing Program, collaborated to articulate the kind of writer that would be a good fit. They decided the opportunity is best suited for someone mid-career “who would enjoy and embrace the pioneering sense of adventure that Braddock has to offer,” says Sherrie.
Sherrie is pleased with how the residency is unfolding, and though the future of “Into the Furnace” is unwritten, Sherrie notes the residence does have enough space to expand in years to come.