Carolina African American Writers’ Collective
Celebrates 25 Years of Nurturing Black Voices
It was a Saturday afternoon in August 1995 when African American men and women flocked to poet Lenard D. Moore’s house in Southeast Raleigh, eager to be a part of a black writing movement.
They sat in his family room in fold-up chairs, on the hearth of the fireplace, and on the couch, waiting their turn to share the rough drafts of their work that needed polishing.
They came with their manuscripts and their dreams of becoming published authors and poets.
This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Carolina African American Writers’ Collective (CAAWC), which has aided in the development of many celebrated writers such as Evie Shockley, the 2018 Pulitzer Prize finalist in poetry; Camille T. Dungy, a 2019 winner of a Guggenheim Fellowship for Creative Arts; and Fred Joiner, the Carrboro poet laureate and winner of a 2019 Academy of American Poets Laureate Fellowship.
“I was just trying to help people,” says Moore, the founder of the collective. Just months before he started the group in 1995, Moore graduated Magna Cum Laude with a bachelor’s in liberal arts from Shaw University. The former teacher’s guide clerk would soon pivot to his professional career.
One member recalls, Moore saying, “Look, if you want to be in this group, I’m not talking about any leaves blowing in the breeze.” Members were writing about the beauty and challenges of black life.
Moore had already published his 1992 autobiographical Forever Home in which he captured in verse the beauty of the landscape and rhythms of rural life in his native Jacksonville, N.C. His 1993 poetry volume, Desert Storm: A Brief History, recorded snippets of the Gulf War.
Moore founded the collective because of the experiences he had in a poetry class taught by the late acclaimed poet and professor of creative writing Gerald Barrax at N.C. State University. “I got the idea to start the CAAWC while taking Professor Barrax’s advanced poetry writing class because my classmate Janice W. Hodges and I spent too much time explaining cultural references in our poems to other classmates. . .it takes too much time away from one’s critique of his or her poetry by explaining cultural and historical references.”
“We wanted the work polished, but not whitewashed,” says Rev. Hodges, one of the charter members of the group. “Our goal was not to make our story palatable to those who didn’t understand it. It was simply to tell it, the way that was uniquely our voice.”
For the first six years, the group met one Saturday a month in Moore’s basement, forming a literary kinship they couldn’t find anywhere else. Moore often invited people he met at writers’ conferences, colleges, and readings to become a part of his group. People travelled near and far to be a part of this nurturing group.
Dungy, now an English professor at Colorado State University, wrote about driving from Lynchburg, Virginia, to the CAAWC meetings in her essay, “Out of Isolation.”
“Its founder, Lenard D. Moore, is dedicated to supporting what he calls the ‘important literary work’ of the collective’s membership.. . .I love it when writers build their own communities, their own networks and organizations, collectives, and coalitions. This institution building, though separate from the necessarily solitary act of writing, seems crucial to keeping writers’ spirits alive.”
“It was like a family,” Hodges explains. “We looked forward to seeing each other. There were no titles, no separation in experience level. We put all of that side. We came with ears to listen and a heart to understand.”
The meetings started around lunch time and lasted often until it was dark outside. Moore and his family offered a literary feast with soul food. There were platters of cold cuts, chicken wings, snacks, and cool drinks steps away in the kitchen. And then downstairs, the real work was happening.
“People were hungry for a place to be,” says Dr. L. Teresa Church, the CAAWC archivist and membership chair. “Hungry for a group of people to be with, looking for people like ourselves. I always felt like the eternal stranger when I shared my work in other groups. I was not ready to reveal myself. I didn’t want them to judge me.. . .White writers didn’t understand what I was writing about.” Church, an archival consultant for libraries and museums, writes poetry including free verse, formal, and haiku.
“It was a super important time for me and my work,” says Shockley, who attended the meetings from 1996 to 2000. Shockley is now a professor of English at Rutgers University in New Jersey. “I was in grad school at Duke at the time.. . .I needed to be in a space with Southern black people and think about words within that cultural context in a community of understanding. Lenard and Teresa [Church] made me feel very welcome as a newcomer to North Carolina.”
“We all took each other’s work seriously,” says Shockley, author of the 2017 semiautomatic, her poetic response to race and gender violence. “We were considerate the way we offered critique but we were pushed to do our best work, but never torn down.”
“If you want to make your writing better, you’ve come to the right spot,” Church says. “We are listening and marking up on paper.. . .We are wasting our time if we are not permitted to make suggestions and changes.”
The work was just too important. Collective members wrote about universal themes but through the lens of black life. “Black folks were always in that universe, whether you were talking about church, farming, or tobacco,” Church says. “The black narrator is in that landscape giving you that look from the inside out.”
“You knew they were black people without saying they were black,” she says. “You heard it in the cadence and language of the story.” It was in the small details of how they cooked their collards, how they played music for their chickens, or how on Saturday night they pressed hair with a hot comb for Sunday morning church.
As Hodges explains, there was power in numbers, especially with that many gifted writers coming together. “There was that feeling of a new renaissance,” she says. “There was that support of helping each other face rejection and keep submitting, keep writing, and keep honing your skills.”
CAAWC on the Road
Eventually, the collective met in various cities in an effort to make it more convenient for members who lived outside the N.C. Triangle Area. The group met in Charlotte, Greensboro, and Fayetteville.
More than 60 writers have been members of the CAAWC, ranging in age from the 20s to the 70s. CAAWC was opened to writers working in all genres.
In addition to poets, the members included a mix of journalists and other prose writers such as Bridgette A. Lacy, a former features writer for the Raleigh News & Observer and author of Sunday Dinner; Elizabeth Wellington, a style writer at the Philadelphia Inquirer; as well as fiction writer and essayist Angela Belcher Epps, the author of Salt in the Sugar Bowl, a novella championed by the late Nancy Olson, owner of Quail Ridge Books & Music.
Some of the group members are now teaching writing themselves, such as award-winning poet Dr. L. Lamar Wilson, an assistant professor of creative writing at Wake Forest University. He’s also the author of author of Sacrilegion (Carolina Wren Press, 2013), a finalist for the Thom Gunn Award.
Collective members have produced about 100 single works and contributed to more than 500 anthologies, journals, newspapers, and collections.
As the group evolved, so did Moore’s career. He is now an associate professor of English at the University of Mount Olive and is known internationally for his haiku. In 2014, Moore received the North Carolina Award, sometimes referred to as North Carolina’s Nobel Prize.
Prodder in Chief
For many members, Moore was a mentor, encouraging them to their best work. Poet Crystal Simone Smith joined the group after graduating from the MFA program at Queens College in Charlotte in 2011.
She was searching for an African American writers’ group whose members understood the nuances of her free verse.“I was looking for the comradery of black writers.. . .My MFA program didn’t have many.”
Almost as soon as she entered the group, her work was printed in a special issue of Obsidian II, the legendary black literary magazine based out of N.C. State University.
“I was reading at North Carolina A & T and N.C. State. I had never really done public reading. I was nervous and sweating all the time, but it was good to have those opportunities to push through and learn to read poetry publically.”
Smith is a professor at St. Augustine’s University and her poetry collection, Down to Earth, was selected by N.C. Poet Laureate Jaki Shelton Green as the winner of the Jacar Press New Voices competition. Smith received a Duke University Fellowship for 2020-2021. She will be studying African American haiku, something she learned under Moore’s tutelage.
“Lenard became my haiku mentor because I didn’t know how to write haiku. He challenged me to write one per day for a year. I did and became really good at it.”
Moore’s reputation for helping writers has spread beyond the Tar Heel state. When Joiner moved from Washington, D.C., to Carrboro, N.C., he knew who to call about joining a writing community. “I knew about the collective through writers such as Evie Shockley, DéLana R.A. Dameron, and Cedric Tillman. I knew the collective would provide fellowship and a good group of people who would listen to my work and give me constructive feedback.”
“It’s a diverse group,” Joiner says. “First of all, there is age diversity. I’m 44 years old, and people like me fall in the middle. Then there are some younguns in their 20s and older writers. Everyone has different sensibilities. Everyone has different reading habits, exposed to different art and books.”
“The feedback on my work is helpful. I leave inspired to think about new work,” he says.
Gideon Young, a 34-year-old former K-5 reading teacher and literature specialist, echoes some of the same sentiment as Joiner. “The collective has helped shape a lot of who I am as a writer…it has instilled a sense of dedication to the craft and professionalism.”
The upcoming meeting forced Young to keep working. “If I am in a rut, I keep working because want to bring something I’m proud of to the group. I want to share something that showcases my growth” says Young, a poet and children’s book writer.
From the beginning of the group, it was always clear that good writing means revision. Church says, “We were a bunch of voices that were pent up; we needed a way to hear ourselves speak. We needed a place to go and be heard. We have something to say and some of the members could tell it to you verbally, but they couldn’t tell it to you on paper in a logical way.”
A Call to Action
“Are you writing?” Moore would ask during follow-up calls to members.
“I was trying to encourage people and show them the collective was not just about attending the meetings. What were they doing outside of the meetings? Were they writing? Were they reading? Were they sending their work for publication? Were they working on manuscripts? That was important.”
Moore made a part of his mission to get the group published as a collective. He researched markets to find out what literary scholars and editors were publishing emerging black voices.
When Shockley first joined CAAWC in the late 1990s, she had only published two to three poems. Shortly afterward, she, along with several collective members, were published in Catch the Fire!!!: A Cross-Generational Anthology of Contemporary African-American Poetry.
It’s no wonder writers are still finding their way to the group. CAAWC’s youngest member, Ashley Harris, drives from Winston-Salem to attend meetings. The 27-year-old Harris said the workshop is great. The three-hour sessions generally start with a writing exercise and members sharing their work for critiques.
“It always inspires me to keep publishing,” she says.
“Everybody plunges back into writing after the meetings,” Church says. “Some of my most prolific works come the Sunday after Saturday meeting.. . .The writing is based on the inspiration and encouragement. That’s my gift to myself.”