The Interview

Brian Connell

Executive Director

Desert Island Supply Company

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Q/What is the mission of DISCO?

A/DISCO’s mission is to work alongside students as they develop the creative tools they need to explore and document their worlds. We do this through writing workshops held in schools and in our exploration-themed headquarters in Woodlawn.

Q/Why are you located in Woodlawn?

A/Woodlawn is our community. DISCO founders Chip Brantley and Elizabeth Hughey started volunteering at Woodlawn High School in 2010, preparing students for a writing assessment. Working alongside students continued from there, and when it came time to open a space, there was no question that it would be in Woodlawn. We have been so grateful for the relationships that we have formed over the years.

Q/What activities are carried out at DISCO towards this mission? How many children go through the program?

A/Our main in-school program is the Woodlawn Writers Corps, which brings standards-based poetry workshops to students in Oliver Elementary, Avondale Elementary, and Putnam Middle School. Our teachers and volunteers work with over 700 students each week in this program, and each student builds an impressive portfolio of original poetry over the course of the year. At the end of the year, DISCO publishes a professionally bound anthology of our students’ poems, and we host a public reading and book launch for students and their families. In addition, we host Comic Club at our headquarters every Wednesday. This is a very fun-filled art club, where kids draw together, learn new techniques, and talk about comics.

Q/What makes writing so important?

A/ On one level, writing is about appearance and presentation. So much of our communication today exists in writing, and the words we choose give others a sense of who we are. When I edit essays or stories with high school students and point out something wrong, they often say, “You know what I meant, Mr. Connell!” My response is always, yes, I knew what they meant, but their misspelling or clunky sentence structure made me stop and wonder if they knew what they meant. If I accidentally put my belt where my tie should be and my tie where my belt should be, you’d know what I meant, but I’d look pretty stupid, and no matter how amazing my ideas were, you’d be totally distracted by my appearance and you’d question my credibility. Bad writing is like that.

Writing is also a very personal thing. When we create something, whether it’s a poem, story, song, essay, or article, we enter into relationship with that work. In this way, the writing process is personal development—we explore our ideas; we question the world around us, and we question ourselves. As we name our experiences and perspectives, we lay claim to who we are. In an act of parent-like symbiosis, we shape the work and the work shapes us. Students are shaped by all sorts of relationships and experiences, good and bad. At DISCO we believe that creative writing offers a combination of intellectual, emotional, and social development that is vital to the growth of children.

Q/What is happening in the literary community right now? What do you foresee in the near/far future?

A/You can find a number of great events and supportive communities for writing in Birmingham. The Treehouse Reading Series at Vestavia Hills Library and the Magic City Poetry Festival are great places to encounter good art/artists. DISCO is hosting the Alabama State Poetry Society’s Fall Conference on October 27th, and then on November 9-11 the poetry workshop Ten Poets Leaping by Laura Secord. It’s looking like 2019 will also see the opening of a new independent bookstore in Birmingham by author Kristen Iskandrian (full disclosure: Kristen is my wife). Regular events at the bookstore, including readings by authors from around the country, will offer a place for the literary community of Birmingham to come together.

Q/ What are some plans/what would you like to see happen at DISCO?

A. .We want to continue offering the Woodlawn Writers Corps to as many students in Woodlawn as possible. We currently work with 2nd-8th graders, and would like to eventually expand to work with more students at the high school level. High school students are exploring complex life experiences and relationships, and they are also moving into more advanced concepts of language, symbolism, personal perspective, and voice. We see a great opportunity to make programming at the high school level the capstone of the Woodlawn Writers Corps.

I would also like to see DISCO become a regular venue for music, poetry, and other artistic events in Birmingham. We are getting ready to build a new stage in our space, which will be a nice feature for our performers and audiences. We also just launched a Patreon page, which allows people to become members of DISCO and engage directly with our student work, such as student poems, books, and products from our store. You can learn more about that here:

Q/ What are some challenges of running a nonprofit with a focus on writing for children?

A/People can be tempted to think of creative writing as a cute extra-curricular idea for kids. Like, after the “real subjects” are taught, maybe we’ll have time to write some poetry. The challenge is helping people see that creative writing instruction flows through all subjects. It is critical thinking, problem solving, and processing. One of our DISCO poetry lessons begins with a science experiment on buoyancy. Students place different items in a tub of water to see if they float or sink. Using items like a penny, a popsicle stick, a pebble, or a ribbon, students write down their observations and discuss why and how things float and sink. From this space of learning, students write verses like this:

When my grandmother died

I was sinking,

My heart just floated away

I was never the same again.

Kayliyha, a 3rd grader at Oliver Elementary School, wrote those lines. For her, and for so many students like her, having the opportunity to explore and explain life experiences through writing is absolutely essential to their development not only as students, but also as compassionate, intelligent people. 

Thank you, Brian. 

You're welcome.