Tell Tell Poetry interview with Trish Hopkinson and Cathleen O’Connor – IWWG Board Chair.

Cathleen O’Connor, Board Chair for the International Women’s Writing Guild, talks with Tell Tell and Trish Hopkinson about the guild’s mission, wide variety of programming, free virtual events, and upcoming in-person events. Learn how you can participate or become a member and the exciting, upcoming Poetry Palooza open mic on April 7, featuring Maggie Smith!


Pssst. The following transcription is made possible thanks to Descript.

Trish Hopkinson: [00:00:00] Hello, everyone. I’m excited today to share with you some information about one of my favorite literary organizations. The International Women’s Writing Guild. I’ve been a board member for almost a year now, and it’s been an amazing pleasure to work with women passionate about the literary arts. Today’s interview is with IWWG board chair, Kathleen O’Connor, who is a 30-year member of the Guild and former technology CIO with an MBA in international finance.

She’s on the faculty of IWWG teaching creative writing, “The Power of the First Chapter” for fiction, and how to create a successful anthology. She has been featured on ABC news in Green Bay, Wisconsin, and quoted in the Huffington post. Her books include, The Everything Law of Attraction Dream Dictionary and the collection Flash Fiction for Flash Memory.

She’s currently working on her first novel.

Welcome to Kathleen. And thanks for taking (stumble) some time to [00:01:00] chat with me (laughs) for Tell Tell Poetry “Submission Interview” series.

Cathleen O’Connor: Hi Trish. It’s a great pleasure to be here with you today to talk about the Guild. You know, we’re in our 46th year as a non-profit organization and we’re not slowing down.

We’re working to build a vibrant global literary arts community that empowers women writers through learning experiences that foster both personal and professional growth, that dual focus on both the woman and the writer has always been part of the vision of this organization. We embrace all avenues of creativity through the written and spoken word and support women writers of all ages and at all stages of their writing lives.

Well, there’s been changes. And a lot of them over the years, particularly in the realm of technology and the online world, our primary focus has remained the same and that’s to support, educate, and inspire women writers. [00:02:00] And we have international in our name. We’ve always been international, but now we’re becoming truly global with attendees at our online events from Europe, Africa, the middle east. Asia.

And in the same way, we’ve always been diverse: with writers of all forms and genres always welcome at our events at our workshops and at our readings. So the organization continues to evolve as women continue to evolve, but in terms of our mission and our vision, we’re really holding still the vision of when it was first organized and brought forward as an organization for women writers.

Trish Hopkinson: It is such an incredible organization. I’ve truly enjoyed being part of it. I wish I had found y’all sooner. And what you said about the different genres, I think is so important because one thing that I’ve noticed is that the members dabble in a lot of different genres [00:03:00] and some write poetry and prose and nonfiction or memoir, and they, they– some of the programs are just a really great, uh, so for example, there is, uh, the Friday Free Rights, which you see all types of writers attending those. And then there are workshops, there’s an open mic series. And, um, I mean, you told us already quite a bit about the mission of the Guild and how it came to be.

Can you mention a few of the other, uh, programs or some of the workshops that, that have been going on?

Cathleen O’Connor: Well, you know, one of our objectives, um, and a key focus of our executive director, Michelle Miller, in the last two years, has been expanded outreach to women in underserved communities. So in the us alone, we’ve launched a successful mentorship program where our women writers, who are members, mentor young women of high school and college age, [00:04:00] and we began this program, which has been funded by grants, fortunately, with a partnership with the nonprofit 826 Boston and out of that came acclaimed anthology series called Heels into the Soil. And that is now being prepared for entrée into the Boston public school system at the request of Boston mayor, Mary Wu. In 2022, we’re going to be partnering with Kitchen Table in Florida, working with executive director, Sheree Greer, on a mentorship project focused on writing for healing or healing for writing. (Laughs)

And we’ve begun plans with BYP 100, which stands for black youth project, a member-based organization of black youth activists, creating justice and freedom for all black people. We’re working with 826 in NOLA with BYP 100, the NOLA branch, and also Tulane [00:05:00] on a story collection project. And then in Rhode Island, we’re partnering with the Nellie Mae foundation for a new comers writing project that was launched in partnership with Write Rhode Island, School One, the Jorge Alvarez school, the Sophia academy, all schools with high percentages of newcomers to the us. And we’re being helped with outreach by Progresso Latino. Each one of these amazing organizations are serving young women and are representative of how we help to continue our mentorship efforts in partnership with them and other groups in future.

Globally, we’re working with organizations in Kenya and Ghana and soon parts of Asia to provide writing opportunities and education to women writers there. And we’re partnering with First Pages prize, a non-profit that runs a contest annually in the us to award, uh, prizes, uh, to [00:06:00] writers of mainly fiction and creative non-fiction, we’re going to provide editing services to their award winners.

So, I’m very excited that we’re continuing to expand in many directions and as you noticed: a lot of our members write in a lot of genres. And we find that for many people, poetry is the most accessible to begin to try their hand at writing. And then many of our members write and have published poetry, memoir, fiction.

And they just keep going, you know, wherever the creative muse leads them. So, we’re really pleased with that as, uh, the fact that we offer that wide array of opportunities for women writers to explore their creativity, whatever form they want.

Trish Hopkinson: Yeah, no, it’s so great. And it’s really exciting to go to some of these events and have people from all over the world tuning in and the virtual [00:07:00] opportunities have just, I think that’s really helped to expand the Guild and I’m looking forward to seeing more of that.

So, I’ve also really loved working on the PoetryPalooza programming. Um, we’ve been doing that in the spring and the fall. And I want to specifically mention something along those lines because we have this amazing open mic event coming up for national poetry month. It’s coming up really quickly actually. It will be on April 7th at 7:00 PM Eastern time. And we’re featuring Maggie Smith, which is really, really exciting. She’s such an incredible, she’s just got such a great spirit. Um, and she has some really amazing poetry books out and also, uh, a book out. It really comes from tweets that she was tweeting about, just, you know, inspirational tweets.

So, it it’s pretty exciting stuff. Um, but besides all the virtual programming, the Guild also offers annual in-person conferences and the next one’s [00:08:00] coming up this summer. So can you tell us a little bit about the in-person conferences?

Cathleen O’Connor:  Yes, we’re, we’re really excited that we’re able to be in person this year, after two years of not being able to. Like everyone else, we’re eager to get back out, get back together. Um, this annual conference was a signature event and has been a signature event of the organization since the early days of the organization. I think this might be our 43rd or 44th conference. Um, and it’s one of the few week-long conferences for women writers in the United States. Um, and it’s late July. I think this year it’s going to be, uh, the 23rd through the 30th and we bring together an array of faculty offering multi-day workshops, featuring fiction, non-fiction, poetry, memoir, screenwriting, as well as a high energy youth [00:09:00] track for rising artists in our global community.

And we also have inspiring evening programs. I just want to mention a highlight we’re doing this year, which is we are going to be hosting the United States launch of a documentary film about Zorah, the African woman’s orchesta, now in exile, after the Taliban resumed control of the country. The orchestra is named after the Persian, godess of music, and we’re so excited to provide the venue at Endicott college, where the conference is being held for the first showing of this documentary in the US and we’re also going to marry that with somewhat we call “salons,” some discussion groups and send some welcome to Afghan women writers to the conference for the weekend.

In addition to events like that, and there are others, and our regular curriculum, we also have that special youth track that I mentioned and people can come for the week. They can come for the weekend, [00:10:00] they can commute daily and we’ll also have somewhat of a hybrid option doing writing sprints and what we call writing circles. Uh, online and in person, if people can’t attend but would like to still write with us, we’re offering that option. And we also, because of COVID, every room is a single room. Uh, unless someone specifies they want a roommate, and all the rooms are air conditioned, which, believe me, in past summer conferences, we bowed down to air conditioning in every room.

Sometimes summers, you really, really need it. Our theme this year is Reconnect, Re-imagine, it’s something all of us are going through in our lives. Um, no matter where we’re from, uh, because of the pandemic. I want to also mention one of the highlights of the conferences we do Open Mic Nights, where people just sign up and they read for three minutes of their work to a really [00:11:00] welcoming, supportive, and enthusiastic audience of fellow women writers.

They used to become a highlight of the conference. I think 25 women read, and we might have three nights of this and it’s– You see people for the first time getting up and reading their work and the transformation that that brings in their sense of themselves and their sense of their own empowerment, as well as in the support they receive from the other women in attendance.

So that’s a very brief overview. We also have some craft classes. Playwriting and a play gets presented. So we try to bring in some other, not strictly writing, let’s say. Um, and do some mixed media, collage and things like that. Just to stimulate creativity in any way that we can.

Trish Hopkinson:   I love what you said about the open mics, because [00:12:00] that’s really what brought me back to poetry. You know, years ago I had sort of gotten into my career and raising my children and went to an open mic. And it just totally brought me back to it and it made it something, it was the way for me to, to learn how to read to an audience.

Right? There’s just so much that you can gain from that. So I do think that’s really important and there is nothing like, you know, reading in a place where you feel safe, gives you that initial confidence boost so that you can start to do it in other places, you know, where it might seem a little bit intimidating. So now that’s, that’s awesome that the conference sounds so great. What would you like to see more of in the literary community?

Cathleen O’Connor: I’d like to see, um, more of a focus on sort of a new definition of success and, um, definitely a move away from comparison to celebrating each other. A lot of that [00:13:00] is happening.

Um, you know, I mainly am on Twitter where I follow a lot of writers, but I still see, you know, some of that discouragement criticism, um, that competitive spirit. And I think we want as a literary community, we want to let writers know that just by sitting down to write and finishing your piece, whatever that piece is, you’re successful. Just in doing that, in honoring yourself, and giving yourself the time to sit and write. You know, are you going to get published or get a book deal or get an agent or whatever happens after that is, is sort of, um– It’s sort of gravy on top of it.

Let’s say even if you decide to self-publish and share your work, however you want to get your work out there, by whatever means should be considered celebratory and successful. Um, because I just think that we need to lift each [00:14:00] other up, not just women writers, but women writers in particular. You know, if we look back in history, Women’s voices were not always acknowledged.

So we want to raise the decibel level of women’s voices. That’s one of the things our organization likes to do and do it in a way that’s truly supportive and celebratory.

Trish Hopkinson: Yes, no, that’s great. That’s it. It couldn’t have been stated better. That’s exactly how I feel about poetry and creative writing and why I’ve done the work that I’ve done, because it really brings me so much joy just to really advocate for creative writing as an art form. And you’re a hundred percent correct that that success can be measured in so many ways. And just participating by writing could be enough. So I love that so much. What do you think has helped you most as a writer and a teacher?

Cathleen O’Connor: Uh, I would say what’s helped me most was being part [00:15:00] of an organization that supported writers at any stage or any age.

You know, I spent so much of my life as a corporate executive, so I was doing a ton of business writing. Um, But being a member of the Guild and attending those summer conferences sort of kept my dream alive of being a writer, which was a dream I had since I was a very small child and used to write a little family newspaper just for the four of us.

And I’d draw cartoons, then I’d write news and I’d write little articles from the age of five forward. And then of course, you know, you grow up and you go to school and you study different subjects, and if it’s a high pressure corporate career, it’s hard to make the time. So for me, the guild was where I first stood on a stage and uttered the words I am a writer, you know, and claim that for myself. And it kept my dream alive until I had both the [00:16:00] time and the will and the opportunity to really focus on it in my life as I do.

Trish Hopkinson: Yes, that’s great. Community–a hundred percent–helps us, right? It, it reminds us that other people are doing what we’re doing and it, I think it does, it sort of keeps the spirit alive because you’re engaged in other ways.

I mean, everybody talks about how writing can be such a solitary activity, but it doesn’t need to be at all. So. Yes. No, that’s that’s great. Great. Well, I think we’re coming to the end of the interview, which went by so fast. Um, how, how can our listeners participate or become a member of the Guild?

Cathleen O’Connor: Well, uh, the easiest thing is just to go to our website

Uh, we’re actually in the midst of trans transitioning it to a new platform. Um, but on there they should be able to see what courses they’ll be able to find out about the summer [00:17:00] conference. They’ll be able to find out about membership and we’re hoping to expand our members. It’s soon. Um, they can also just find a prime mailing list.

That’s what I suggest. So this way you’ll get the notice of what’s going on. You don’t have to start with membership and you can just put being in the mail and mailing lists can attend one of our free writes and just get to see how we work and how we operate or attend one of our free open mics. I think we run one or two of those a month.

Um, and then we have all sorts of special membership. You know, offerings, um, we even have financial aid if people need it. Um, so they can always contact our executive director who is wonderful, Michelle Miller. And, uh, you can just contact her at, and she’ll be happy to answer any questions and help you further along.

Um, and also if you’re interested in the conference, [00:18:00] explain the different levels and what’s going on. And, um, one of the things that I want to mention, uh, because it’s something that’s on my mind is if any of the listeners out there are interested themselves and know someone who would like to be part of our great nonprofit board, uh, they can just send an email to Michelle and she will let me know.

And I’ll be happy to talk to them more about that. Because we’re continuing to grow and we’re looking for people who want to stay aligned with the mission of this organization.

Trish Hopkinson: Yes. It’s certainly been a big pleasure to be involved with the Guild. And I just still feel very fortunate to have found this group and know all of you and work with all of you. It really has just been a great, great pleasure. So thank you so much for spending time with me today for this [00:19:00] interview and enjoy the rest of your afternoon.

Cathleen O’Connor: Thank you, Trish. It’s been a pleasure.

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