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Arts Eclectic turns the spotlight on happenings in the arts and culture scene in and around the Austin area. Through interviews with local musicians, dancers, singers, and artists, Arts Eclectic aims to bring locals to the forefront and highlight community cultural events.Support for Arts Eclectic comes from Broadway Bank.

'In those rooms': Torch Literary Arts highlights and celebrates Black women writers

Author Deborah D.E.E.P. Mouton at Torch Literary Art's Lit Crawl event at the 2023 Texas Book Festival
Erika Rich
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Bob Daemmrich Photography, Inc.
Author Deborah D.E.E.P. Mouton at Torch Literary Art's Lit Crawl event at the 2023 Texas Book Festival

Amanda Johnston is Texas’ 2024 Poet Laureate, and the first Black woman to hold that title. Long before earning that honor, she created Torch Literary Arts as a passion project 18 years ago. “As a Black woman writer,” she says, “I was realizing that most of my opportunities and invitations were coming from not just outside of Austin, but outside of the state. And a friend actually asked me why I was leaving all the time, and when was I going to do more stuff locally? And, you know, I said, ‘Well, I've got to be invited first.’ So I said, ‘Well, maybe it's up to me. What if I start an organization that would invite and celebrate Black women writers here in Central Texas and across the state as well as bringing notable authors to the state and to Austin to share their work?’”

Using her skills as both a writer and a freelance web designer, Johnston created the online literary journal herself, to highlight and celebrate other Black women writers. “We got submissions right away,” she says. But, after a decade and a half, with pandemic-era lockdowns making it harder to keep Torch going, Johnston (briefly) considered closing the operation. “But after talking with my incredible board of directors,” Johston says, “we decided no, what black women need now is not to lose a space but to keep the space. And so we relaunched with our 501(c)(3) in 2022 to build the organization to the institution it should be.”

Reconfiguring as a nonprofit allowed Torch Literary Arts to do some fundraising, hire some staff, and continue with their mission.

That mission includes the online publication Torch Magazine, which features work from Black women authors every Friday. Or most Fridays, Johnston amends herself. “Sometimes, you know, there's holidays and we're out of the office, but most Fridays there's a new feature,” she says. “And we publish Black women's writing across poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction and scripts, so plays and screenplays.” Monthly, they publish a larger feature with a more established writer, including some of their original work and an interview.

Torch Magazine makes it a policy to pay their contributors, Johnston says. “That was a big part of the relaunch, too. Seeing, during the lockdown, artists losing opportunities –paid opportunities – and having to make real life decisions about whether they could continue their art practice or, you know, struggle to survive. We all were in that really desperate and scary time when we were losing people… people were passing away, people were losing jobs. You know, there was so much loss. We didn't want Torch to be another place of loss and we didn't want to rebuild based on volunteer labor,” she says.

Another part of the relaunch of Torch Magazine is a commitment to nominate work by their authors for major literary awards. “We're making sure that Black women's voices are in those rooms for the Pushcart Prize, the O Henry Prize, [and] Best of the Net. You know, all of these major awards for literature, we guarantee that black women are going to be in those rooms,” Johnston says. “But now we're seeing that once they are in the rooms, the work speaks for itself and they are able to receive the recognition and awards that they are due.”

And the magazine is only one of the projects created by Torch Literary Arts. They also operate an annual writers’ retreat and hold a monthly salon at Antone’s nightclub. “It has an open mic for poets and songwriters to come and share,” Johnston says. “And anyone can sign up for that. And then the second half of the salon, we feature recordings from the Black arts movement. So recordings from incredible poets like Nikki Giovanni, Sonia Sanchez, Maya Angelou, so that we can keep their names in the room and their work alive with new generations hearing it for the first time, right?”

Though her literary work keeps Johnston busy, she also makes time to pursue some other artistic endeavors – she has a showing of her mixed media work called Boxes: a work in progress at the Museum of Human Achievement this month. The work in that show begain during the lockdown period of the pandemic. “As a poet, you know, images come to me and then they come out as writing, right? They come out as poems,” she says. “But for some reason, while I was sitting there during the lockdown – in that space and time and with not knowing how much time we had, truly thinking I could become sick, you know, my life could change drastically in the matter of weeks. So if there was something that I was feeling called or drawn to do, then why not do it? So the images that began coming to me were desperately calling to be made physical. So I started making these headpieces, [with] ski masks as the base of them and then they are multimedia, [with] different attachments. I do this finger weave technique that I actually learned in elementary school to make these ropes and chains that I incorporate into them. And then I photographed myself in the masks.”

Johston’s reign as the 2024 Texas Poet Laureate hasn’t technically begun just yet, she says. “It officially starts May 29th and then goes through May 28th of 2025 when the legislature is in session again,” she notes. But, though, as she says, “there's no official duties,” she’s not going to let her time in office go to waste.

“Yeah, there's actually not [any official duties],” she says, “but like many laureates, you know, I want to take the opportunity to do some good things in the state and amplify poetry.”

 

You can find Torch Magazine along with more information on all of Torch Literary Arts' programs and events at torchliteratyarts.org

and more about Amanda Johnston's poetry and art at her website.

Mike is the production director at KUT, where he’s been working since his days as an English major at the University of Texas. He produces Arts Eclectic, Get Involved, and the Sonic ID project, and also produces videos and cartoons for KUT.org. When pressed to do so, he’ll write short paragraphs about himself in the third person, but usually prefers not to.
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