Poetry, Prose and Poultry

Firefly Farms photo

Poetry, Prose and Poultry

Sundress Academy for the Arts runs a working farm in Karns that provides a retreat — and free eggs — for visiting writers.

by tracy haun owens • January 23, 2023
Firefly Farms photo
Firefly Farms. (Stephanie Phillips photo.)

For those who are serious about writing without distractions but still crave community, there may be few better spots than Sundress Academy for the Arts’ (SAFTA) Firefly Farms, a 45-acre working farm off Toby Hollow Lane just across the Anderson County line in Karns.

Sundress Academy for the Arts actively supports writers from marginalized segments of the population.

There’s room for two writers in residence at the two-bedroom 1960s rancher on the property, while a third writer stays in the “writers coop,” a converted chicken house that’s a short walk from the main house. There’s lush greenery, opportunity to foster connections with nature, and the peace needed to refill one’s creative well. 

Oh, and the resident may also get to cuddle some lambs and tend to the farm’s chickens and ducks.

“Bonus: You get free eggs,” SAFTA founder and executive director Erin Elizabeth Smith, says with a laugh.

SAFTA, the not-for-profit arm of local publisher Sundress Publications, hosts writers’ residencies spring, summer, and fall at the farm. Deadline for summer residency applications is Feb. 1. (www.sundresspublications.com/safta/residencies).

In addition to hosting writers, SAFTA leads writing workshops and reading series on the farm and at in-person events in the area and in online workshops. The next in-person event is a reading at Pretentious Beer Co. on Sunday, Feb. 26, from 1-3 p.m. 

The organization is also focused on social justice, helping writers make their work better and the world better.

Smith is a distinguished lecturer in the English department at University of Tennessee-Knoxville and the poet laureate of Oak Ridge. What is now Sundress Publications started when she founded a literary journal from a boyfriend’s dorm room in 1999, when she was 19. That publication, Stirring, is one of the oldest online literary journals. 

Sundress Publications now curates and hosts several literary journals from its website and publishes 12-14 titles (print and ebooks) a year. 

Erin Elizabeth Smith Photo.

Erin Elizabeth Smith

At first the publishing company was just Smith; today, between Sundress and SAFTA, there are 65 volunteers on the staff and related boards of directors.

Smith says that her original vision was to have a dedicated site to host literary journals. Much poetry in the late 1990s was hosted on free sites with cluttered graphics and unreliable URLs. She wanted to build something that could sustain an online community and become a hub for online publishing. 

Smith’s own entry into the literary world, as a young teenager, was through poetry slams in AOL chat rooms. She saw how important online community could be to help people in marginalized communities, including the LGBTQIA+ community, find kindred souls.

By the time Smith landed at UTK in 2009, she had moved 29 times in her life and was pretty sure her peripatetic lifestyle would continue as she built her academic career. But then she found herself completely enchanted by East Tennessee.

“I love this area,” Smith says. “It feels good to be here. The longer I lived here the more I felt it was my forever place.”

She also had a feeling that other writers would be inspired and nurtured by the area’s incredible beauty. In 2013, she and her partner, Joe Minarick, went looking for property for a writers’ retreat. The original parcel of land near Karns was 29 acres (they added more land later) and had been abandoned for years.

The landscape was overgrown, and the house was in rough shape, with wild animals living inside. Smith, Minarick, and their friends began transforming the place. They bush-hogged the land and taught themselves how to install tile and cabinetry.

“There were a lot of poets with chainsaws and sledgehammers,” Smith says.

The first residents arrived in fall 2014 and the three-season occupation has been continuous since. Writers pay $300 a week for the residency. A limited number of scholarships are available for writers in need, and a couple of fellowships and support grants are available to Black and indigenous writers this summer. Fees also operate on a reparations-based payment model, and writers of color pay no application fee.

Pennsylvania writer Marah Hoffman lived at Firefly Farms for several months last year as a writer in residence and considers the experience magical. As she worked on her applications to several masters in fine arts programs, she benefited from the advice and community of the visiting writers that she met.

She was also surprised by how much she enjoyed the “caretaking” aspects of the residency, clearing her head by going out to feed the chickens and pet the sheep.

During the early days of the pandemic in 2020, the SAFTA board decided to limit the residency to just one person in the house and one person in the writer’s coop. Smith had to call on friends and neighbors to help with the farm chores.

“It was tight, but we made it work,” she says.

The organization expanded its online events. Smith says these are now an important part of their “new normal.”

One of these online events is a monthly Poetry Xfit, where writers come together to write with guided timed prompts. This event is free, but donations are encouraged. These benefit a different local harm reduction or social justice organization each month.

Having online events “increases accessibility in general,” Smith says. People in rural areas, people who have home responsibilities, and people who are disabled or immunocompromised are able to participate.

SAFTA is planning to build a second dedicated residency and workshop space, designed with maximum accessibility for those with physical disabilities.

The organization has obtained a couple of important grants recently, including one from the Poetry Foundation that allows SAFTA to pay poets an honorarium for the monthly “Poets in Pajamas” series. A recent grant from Knoxville’s Arts & Culture Alliance will support SAFTA’s reading and workshop series.

Smith and the SAFTA volunteers hope to continue their service to writers from all walks of life, from published writers in academia to writers who have grass-roots followings. Like the volunteers involved with Sundress and SAFTA, the residents are diverse in age, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identification, and life experience.

“That’s super-important, to think of writing as something that doesn’t exist solely in the ivory tower,” Smith says.