Q&A: Laura Keigan, founder of Generations Literary Alliance
If history is a thing that repeats itself so that we may learn from it, maybe literature is that thing that best gets the message across. The jealousy of Othello still feels as fresh as it did in Shakespeare’s day, and the flowering trees the old Haiku poets wrote about still reflect our own beautiful dogwood and redbud springs. In a world where older and younger generations have fewer chances to mingle and interact, one local nonprofit is finding reasons to put people of all ages together using literary works that speak to us all.
Generations Literary Alliance works to connect generations and strengthen the sense of community by having older and younger adults engage in literary arts together. It does this through four main program initiatives:
• The LifeWords program meets weekly at Sherrill Hills Retirement Community in West Knoxville and at Shannondale Retirement Community in Maryville. There, college-aged readers meet with older adults, led by a program facilitator, to talk about two or three themed pieces of literature a week.
• In the Knox Generation Spoken Word program, area teens meet each week to hone their poetry-writing and performance skills, and they participate in slam performances and workshops.
• The Origins Poetry Project, which grew out of LifeWords, engages the whole community in writing individual poems centered around a theme or prompt.
• And in the Bridge Summer Reading Program, adults 65 and over meet with 10 to 13-year-olds to read four young-adult novels over the summer.
All of it is the brainchild of Laura Keigan, who grew up in Farragut and returned to the area a few years ago after earning her doctorate in Brit Lit. She and her husband, a medical resident, have two young daughters, and she has taught area college-level courses. She founded the nonprofit as a literary arts performance organization; when she added the “generations” to it, everything clicked.
Why is the intergenerational component so important?
If you look at research on what makes strong communities, it’s when you have connections between generations. There’s something about literature that connects people on so many levels, that gets people sharing their own stories.
I never got to spend a lot of time with my grandparents, and there are a lot of things I wished I had asked them. I realize I missed out, but I am getting that experience now with these women in the LifeWords program. The oldest participant, who is 93, was born in France and was a teenager during the German occupation there. My nephew, who is almost 13, has been a part of the Bridge Summer Reading program, and I get to watch him engage and speak intelligently with older adults.
What makes your organization different from other literary arts groups or mentoring groups?
There’s not a whole lot out there like what we do. It’s part lifelong learning, part literary arts program, but the way we have combined them is different. We use the things we read to share and connect and experience with each other.
Do you have to have writing experience to participate?
Of all of the people who have participated in the LifeWords program, none had ever written poetry before. For our Origins Poetry Project, everyone from the teens in our slam poetry program to our 93-year-old LifeWords participant has written a poem. We want to make the Origins project so accessible that anyone can do it, to open it up to all generations. Right now we’re looking to partner with other local arts organizations to get the word out.
Knox Generation is currently just high school students?
Right now, it’s slam poetry for young adults, set up for high school students from all over Knox County. Knox Generations meets weekly at Awaken Coffee in the Old City. McKay Books has covered our costs—they’ve been very generous with us. In the fall we’re hoping to introduce older adults to the program, too. We’re trying to figure out the best way to do that, whether it will be as mentors, or having them workshop with each other, or compete against each other.
What’s up on this year’s reading list for your summer Bridge Reading group?
We’re still deciding on the books for this summer for the Bridge Summer Reading Program. We read four books last year: From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, A Wrinkle in Time, Ender’s Game, and The Wednesday Wars, which takes place in the Vietnam era in America. Last summer, we had seven adults and three kids, including a grandmother and granddaughter who participated together.
GLA started with a different mission?
We got our 501(c)3 status in November 2015 as “Own the Boards.” [Puzzled look, as Keigan laughs.] Right, that’s the reaction we got. It was meant to represent the idea of owning literary performance [“boards” being what stages were called in Shakespeare’s time]. It was centered around the literary arts, but there was no other organizing theme. On several grant organizations, the first question people had wasn’t “What do you do?” but “What does the name mean?” So we knew. The push to change the name sped up the transition to the intergenerational focus.
The biggest challenge for any young not-for-profit is funding, of course, but I’ve been so lucky to have some very supportive and knowledgeable people in my corner. Now that we have solidified our mission, we have a real path forward.
Generations Literary Alliance
• LifeWords: College-age readers go to local retirement community centers.
• Knox Generation Spoken Word: Teens hone poetry writing and performance skills.
• Origins Poetry Project: A community-wide poetry writing initiative.
• Bridge Summer Reading Program: Seniors meet with 10 to 13-year-olds to read four young-adult novels.
How You Can Help
• College-aged volunteers are needed for the LifeWords program.
• Volunteer mentors are needed for the Knox Generation Spoken Word program.
• Join their community funding partners.
• Attend the second annual GLA benefit (see box).
When: Friday, April 7, 6:30–9:30 p.m.
Where: The Square Room (4 Market Square)
What: A silent auction and spoken word performance gala and benefit for Generations Literary Alliance, featuring slam performances by
Knox Generation students, live music with Latitude 35, hors d’oevres, and a cash bar. Silent auctions up for bid include goodies from
Dollywood, Alliance Brewing, Union Ave Books, Striped Light, First Watch, and others.
Cost: $20 per person; $35 per couple; $10 for students with valid student I.D. (Tickets available online and at the door.)
Featured Photo: Knox Generation Spoken Word students, courtesy Generations Literary Alliance.
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Writer Tracy Jones lives in Knoxville, Tenn. One of the original contributors to Metro Pulse, she worked as a lifestyle magazine editor in Fort Myers and Naples, Fla., where she wrote about home, design, not-for-profit organizations and more.
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