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Community Conversations: University of Georgia

In our newest NEA Big Read blog series, Community Conversations, we’re handing over the microphone to the people who know our grantees best: their partners. To kick things off, Naomi Rhiannon Thomas (a writer for the State Botanical Garden of Georgia) interviews Misha Cahnmann-Taylor about the University of Georgia, the origin of the NEA Big Read in Athens, and the importance of literature in the outdoors.

A completed dragon head at the NEA Big Read table. Photo by Shannon Montgomery.

I’m curious. How did you first get involved with the NEA Big Read program?

It’s actually a funny story. I was invited to the University President Jere Morehead’s house a few years ago—during the fall of 2014—to celebrate the opening of the University of Georgia (UGA)’s annual November Spotlight on the Arts festival. I met a long time donor to Georgia Museum of Art there and we talked about poetry; specifically how the poetry of Robinson Jeffers that had profoundly influenced him in his life and work. Later that evening I started to read more about Robinson Jeffers online—it had been awhile since I’d lived in California and thought of his work. It was that evening when I found the NEA Big Read grant and Jeffers was one of the selected works of “literary merit” then. Almost no one had ever selected his book at all, let alone outside of California! So I felt lucky to bring the conversation to Georgia and work with the State Gardens and The Georgia Review for that Earth Day, during the April of 2015. Then I got hooked and kept applying for literature I love and wanted to share!

Directions for making your own dragon. Photo by Shannon Montgomery.

Copies of the NEA Big Read reading selection and a children’s companion book at the NEA Big Read kickoff. Photo by Shannon Montgomery.

Yes! Speaking of sharing—how did the Botanical Garden partnership start?

I have always admired Cora Keber, the Education Coordinator at the State Botanical Garden. She is an incredible public speaker and educator, always so positive and responsible. She knows how to hold a space and make all feel welcome and included. So when I received this grant I knew that I wanted to partner with many organizations and the Garden was perfect fit for the Robinson Jeffers programming we were running, especially for Earth Day. But aside from all of that, I also have a background in theatre and performance studies and I was so thrilled when the Garden’s Children’s Theatre in the Woods opened. I have two courses I teach that utilize improvisational theatre as a tool for language education so my students and I have performed for families a few times on that lovely stage.

A student working on crafting a dragon for the Lunar Year Parade. Photo by Shannon Montgomery.

And what is the more general aim of your NEA Big Read events? What are you hoping to achieve with that programming?

The aim of the NEA Big Read is to encourage more citizens to read great literature together in community, celebrating books of noted, literary merit. For me, reading literature is an indication of community health—a community that reads great fiction and poetry together can fill our imaginations not just with what “is” but with what “might be” as guided by talented authors who give us language for new ways of seeing. I love the ways that books help me access perspectives and experiences that are outside of my own, yet resonate with what I know. It offers us clarity on what it means to be human and sometimes what it means to be non-human too.

“For me, reading literature is an indication of community health—a community that reads great fiction and poetry together can fill our imaginations not just with what is but with what might be.”

So the University of Georgia is a three-time recipient of the grant, including this year’s programming with To Live. Can you talk about some of those past NEA Big Read programs that UGA has done?

We started with Robinson Jeffers in a spring feature focused on Poetry & Ecology; that’s when our partnership with the State Garden was first established.

Right—the Botanical Garden was kind of the perfect fit for that first grant you received, for the book of Jeffers poetry.

One of those first events at the Garden was a guided walk, where pieces of Jeffers’ poetry were placed in different areas; and those who went on the walk were then given a chance to read the poetry in its selected location, and to hear why the plant was chosen for that specific piece of poetry. For example, one of Jeffers’ pieces, which was about conservation, was put in the rare and endangered area of the international garden.

NEA Big Read international vegetable and plant exhibit at the State Botanical Garden. Photo by Shannon Montgomery.

And that relationship between your NEA Big Read programming and the Botanical Garden has just continued to grow after that first year! How do you get ideas for these events?

I always think to myself: What gets people interested in a book? Often it’s a friend telling me, “You have to read this!” Or sometimes it’s a compelling note at the Avid Bookshop, or an Oprah shout out. And what about books from different time periods or languages and cultures? I think often, that kind of literature only seems compelling to an already devoted, hardcore reader. So I like to find a hook like making dumplings or dragons, playing mah jong or making music—and then when I place a book in their hands and tell them, “this connects to YOU” the connection is already there. The book seems more approachable and more like a new friend, because it can help build on the excitement of being together and experiencing new things and encountering new cultures.

Learning mah-jong at the NEA Big Read kickoff Lunar New Year celebration. Photo by Shannon Montgomery.

Crowds gathered in the State Botanical Garden atrium for the NEA Big Read kickoff. Photo by Shannon Montgomery.

There’s also the name. I didn’t have a catchy “month” name until we did Edgar Allan “Poe-Tober” last fall, in 2016, which was such a hit. So this year, “Year of the Dawg” was a perfect connection both to Yu Hua’s novel from China, To Live, and the zodiac calendar animal for 2018, as well as our own UGA Dawg mascot.

UGA students wearing UGA’s 2018 NEA Big Read t-shirts for the “Year of the Dawg.” Photo by Shannon Montgomery.

What are some of the events happening at other locations in Athens this year?

So we had the big Lunar New Year parade at the State Botanical Gardens in mid-February, and that was followed by free Mandarin classes at the library. We have a talk on language methods and teaching practices coming up, and two book discussions at the Terry College of Business as well as at the local public library. Finally, we have the BFE play by Julia Cho, who is Korean American, and a guest YA and children’s author and illustrator, Grace Lin, who will be speaking at the Athens Public Library. It will be a superb finish! You can see our site for a full listing.

NEA Big Read events for 2018. PDF courtesy of the University of Georgia.

See Event Guide

Lastly, how do you think your partnership with the State Botanical Gardens relates to the larger community in Athens?

When I visit the garden, my lungs always feel free: refreshed and full of oxygen and clean air. Now that the theatre and so many other artful activities are there, I feel my body, mind, and heart are engaged. The State Botanical Gardens are one of Athens most precious gems—we are so very lucky. I feel incredibly privileged to work with so many good people like Cora at the Garden. And on a personal note, she and Berkeley run my kids’ favorite camp and my husband and I got married at the Gardens! So it is a very special place to me, as it is for so many of us in Athens and in the region.

A dragon dance at the NEA Big Read kickoff. Photo by Shannon Montgomery.