Stephanie Pruitt Connects Dots Through Poetry

Stephanie Pruitt, 37, is a poet and a social practice artist but was first a reader. She was that kid under the covers with the flashlight and that kid on the school bus with her nose in the books totally unaware of anything else going on.

After reading many books, she came to the realization she wanted to change the ending of the ones she loved and read over.

“There was always one little thing like a character flaw or the end of novel or poem that wasn’t entirely satisfactory so, I started rewriting them,” she said.

One of her teachers found what she wrote and told her she had something in writing. A graduate of Hume-Fogg, in high school Stephanie took her first creative writing class with a teacher who was passionate and attentive about his own work.

“Seeing someone like that ignited a passion in me.”

RIGHT BACK at HOME

After high school, she went on to college in 1997, attending Agnes Scott College, a small women’s school outside of Atlanta. She said it was a smaller school than she had imagined she wanted to attend, but being in Atlanta gave her a good balance of a small community within a larger space.

Stephanie returned to Nashville in 1999 after two years in Atlanta.

“I thought Atlanta was the Mecca of the Southeast. I still wanted to be in the South, but Atlanta was overdone. People weren’t connected. It didn’t feel like people were interested in being a community and knowing one another.”

She said a lot of it was rush-go-go and with six lanes of traffic on the interstate, it wasn’t quite her style.

Now, everything she would look for in a larger city is here in Nashville.

“I’d never imagine I’d live here as an adult,” she said. “I came back and went to MTSU. I took the long windy road, and I finished in 2005.”

In 2000, she had a daughter and started working.

“I started a few miscellaneous companies and had all sorts of various jobs where I felt like I was an artist but I had a child, so, I needed to get health care,” she said.

Stephanie went to graduate school at Vanderbilt University in 2008 and studied creative writing. She said she wanted to give herself permission to focus on what she loves.

POETRY and the ARTS

“I’m a poet primarily, I think, but that’s constantly morphing. I tend to follow my curiosity.”

As a social practice artist, Stephanie said she’s interested in how art lives in the world, how it operates socially, how people consume it, and how it hopefully connects with their internal and external world.

She called art a medium or a conduit where people can be actively engaged in themselves and the world around them

“I like to play around with people’s expectations,” she said. “When I tell people I’m a poet and I want to share a poem with them, they expect to get a piece of paper or see me on stage performing it. But I want people to smell the poetry, taste, it and touch it. I’m interested in making poetry a sensory experience.”

Last year at OZ Arts Nashville, Stephanie curated an experienced called Embodiment.

She wrote a single poem and distributed it to 25 different collaborates including a chef, an architect, an aromatherapist, musicians and visual artist who each made something in their given discipline inspired by the poem.

“The aromatherapist made a unique blend for every two lines of the poem so you could go by and smell the poem. The chef created an amazing wall of food. No one knew what it was so you had to taste it and experience it. Some of them were sweet, and some were sour and savory,” she said.

Stephanie compared it to jumping into a poem and feeling a way through it. She said one must experience a poem and digest it to fully understood.

She said in other cities, there’s more of a competitive tone to people’s creative work, but the collaboration aspect of the Embodiment experience was very “Nashville.”

“Here, I think people understand that more really can be more in terms of collaborators, partners, and teams,” she said.

Stephanie said art goes through cycles and sometimes one could visibly see the popularity of a certain art form and poetry is one that hasn’t had a significant surge since Def Poetry Jam.

“Poets are always doing the work. We’re writing, and we’re in the world, and I think this is one way to make it visible – working with the other sense, but poetry is not going anywhere.”

Stephanie said relationships were a big theme in her work and not necessarily in the most traditional way of love relationships or familial relationships.

Drawn to complexity, some of the types of relationships often in her work involve those of a relationship between the past and the present, expectations versus reality and things that occupy similar space but don’t seem to touch like neighborhoods.

“There’s something intriguing about creativity. It seems that creativity and art make connections between two things that are seemingly disconnected. The use of metaphors, similes, and symbols help connect those dots.”

NASHVILLE RIGHT NOW

“I love Nashville right now,” she said. “It’s exciting and scary. I like the energy. There’s this energy of possibility everywhere you go in this city.”

Stephanie said a lot of new people are bringing ideas and experiences from other places that’s starting to meld with a lot of the traditions and things already here. She said there are a lot of organizations that support ideas and innovation such as the Nashville Entrepreneur Center and other startup hubs.

Along with new things coming into the city, Stephanie said, “There seems to be a slight clash between people who have been here for a long time and are accustomed to the way things have been and people who are bringing in this new energy of what can be.”

She said she liked having to stay on her toes and learn new things about a place she thought she knew. She called it “actively living” and said it’s healthy for the growth of any area.

“I think the rub is progress for some is in turn the cost of a quality of life for others,” she said. “Where Nashville used to be an easy place for creative people to live and financially be able to eat and get out and live, that’s becoming increasingly difficult. Part of the core culture of our city is creativity. Music City isn’t just music city, it’s visual arts city, and it’s writing city.”

Stepanie said any culture, community or city that made a significant impression on our civilization has had a culture of patronage. She pointed to the Harlem Renaissance, ancient Greek and Roman cultures and Egyptian masterpieces.

“Within artistic circles, we’ve been talking a long time about supporting artists and what that means,” she said. “I hope we get to a point where it means we move far beyond just hitting “like” on social media and turns into deep curiosity for people who want to talk to artists and understand where they’re coming from and support that work. At the end of the day, we know that’s like the underpinning of innovation and invention.”

Stephanie said truly supporting an artist is encouraging their creative freedom in ways that do not seem to tie them down or harness them.

COMMUNITY and CONCERNS

“A community is a space, a group of people that are so interrelated that their present and their future are braided together. Community is the truth and the fact that we are all related.”

She said what one person does affects the others, and those connections could be visible or invisible based on geography and identity.

“Community is a lovely relief to me. We form communities around some common interests. Maybe it’s geographic, or professional, or a hobby, or belief – whatever it is, there is a shared goal or investment in an idea,” she said. “I know that other corners of local art sphere are being handled by an engaged colleague. My responsibility is to show fully up in my purpose, and hopefully, the space I’m covering provides relief to the rest of my community.”

With some ideas up her sleeve, Stephanie said Nashville is almost always the first place she thinks about doing everything.

“I want to create a big community dinner like a festival in the middle of the street but with a table that’s ornately set and with poetry as the backdrop of every course,” she said. “A lot of artists I’ve talked to have very Nashville-specific creative goals, and I think that’s unique. Artists are often nomads, but there’s something about this city that is rooting a lot of creatives.”

Stephanie is also in the process of creating a series of courses and workshops for artists dealing with business practices and managing the “art-prenuerial” work in a way that feels authentic and genuine.

“I see people with energy and an idea making amazing things happen here. There are a lot of pathways for how we motivate people to do that but even as a highly motivated artist, myself, I think there’s been a challenge in how you create your work and still pay for your kid’s braces,” she said. “I feel like that’s part of my creative work also, and Nashville feels like the perfect space for that.”

Along with some of her goals, Stephanie also shared some of her concerns. She said one of her biggest concerns is how people define profit.

“It’s much more than a dollar sign and a bottom line. It’s much more than a GDP and all of those other things. I hope we’re also growing wealthy with a diversity of people and thought. I’m concerned that the gap between the-haves and the-have-nots is becoming a gulf.”

She said she believes in prosperity and said it’s a great thing that a lot of people are making money in Nashville from the recent developments, but also stated it’s a narrow pocket of people.

“While the opportunity is there and we can see it, there’s often this thin wall that’s keeping a lot of people behind the curve.”

She shared her thoughts on recent local laws to tax AirBnb participators similarly to hotels.

“Hotel developers are getting huge tax breaks while the average individuals are taxed a hotel tax for rental services like AirBnb,” she said. “Entrepreneurs are a vast pool of people, and I think we’re only looking at the high end when there are everyday people trying to do great things but have a harder road.”

Another concern of hers is the representation of Nashville to the world. She said some industries have “white-out” all over their eyes.

Stephanie said when she looks at tourism and the way Nashville is sometimes marketed, she doesn’t see any brown, yellow or black faces, even though statistics say the city is becoming more diverse. She said the images being put out there don’t accurately represent the city and are a great disservice culturally, economically, educationally and in other ways.

“It’s a horrible disservice to think we are any one thing of people. My people, my community, my circle and the people I see in my mind when I think of Nashville is such a gorgeous rainbow – all ages, religions, sexual orientations, and gender. I think we gain so much when we see that and show that.”

TEDxNashville

Much like the rest of us, Stephanie admits she’s been addicted to TED Talks for years.

Stephanie said when she taught creative writing and arts education at Vanderbilt University she would often use TED Talks as a live production in class creating a live panel in class. She would have her student watch several talks on similar subjects and debate issues.

“I considered them my personal development and continuing education. I used to watch one a day,” she said.

She said when TedxNashville started she kept it on her radar. She said she was curious to see the ideas and the innovative thought that would come from the city.

Two years ago, at TedxCreo Stephanie was invited to speak.

“It was an amazing experience to create an 18-minute talk on something that I was deeply passionate about,” she said. “It went well. Myself and some of the organizers developed a relationship and then I was invited to emcee last year’s TedxCreo at Belmont.”

Stephanie, the emcee of this year’s conference on the second day, said emceeing is a lot like connecting dots as well.

“I look at TED as this amazing picture with each speaker being a gorgeous big dot, and the emcee is the one that starts to draw the line between them so that hopefully the audience sees the bigger picture,” she said.

Stephanie said she’s never seen herself as a comedian, but evidently her social awkwardness is a little humorous. She said over the years she has decided to allow herself to be herself wherever she is.

“I think ideas are better digested in the moment and right there with the people you’re sharing the space with,” she said. “With social media, a lot of experiences are mitigated through a screen and of course, it’s recorded, but the energy there is just amazing. I feel like the day will be a success if we are all present and engaged, and hopefully, I’ll help facilitate that in some way.”

To download Stephanie’s latest ebook of poems and to see what else she does, click here!

Thanks for reading Nashville!

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