Welcome to The Dean’s List! The Dean’s List will profile up-and-comers in Memphis who are certain to be the next group of leaders in the nonprofit, corporate, government, and faith communities. The Dean’s List is curated by Kevin Dean.
Ashley Roach-Frieman, 33, discovers her best lines of poetry while walking around Memphis. “My poems are very much in the Memphis landscape,” she says. Her work has appeared in Bone Bouquet, Tinderbox Poetry Journal, THRUSH Poetry Journal, Smartish Pace, The Literary Review, and Superstition Review, but she is also known for being the founder of Impossible Language, a reading and art series that features poets from around the country. Impossible Language is an important part of the literary culture in Memphis, allowing up-and-coming Mid-South poets to read to audiences alongside the established literary elite, promoting a culture that embraces the written word.
She moved to Memphis eight years ago after receiving her first master’s degree at Southern Miss in Hattiesburg and building a career working in coffee shops. “The small town taught me how to dance and drink,” she says, but “Memphis is where I learned to drink more responsibly.” Ashley is almost done with a second master’s degree in creative writing from the University of Memphis.
When she’s not writing poetry and coordinating the Impossible Language series, Ashley is a librarian at the University of Memphis. We chose Ashley because of her important role as an ambassador for the literary arts in Memphis. You can find out more about Ashley Roach-Frieman at her website.
If you could describe your feelings about Memphis in three words, what would they be?
verdant / bricolage / (of my) heart
As the founder of Impossible Language, why do you feel that poetry is important for the Memphis community?
As might be inferred by the series title, it’s hard for me to put into words. Which is perhaps why I’m a decent poet and not a good talker. But there is a stigma that poetry is boring, and I know that it is not, and I want to bring this very real truth to Memphis…poetry is musical, rich with emotion and revelation and humor and sometimes necessary oddity. When the audience connects with a poet, there is a tangible energy that is deeply moving. I’ve seen people cry at readings, but my friend and co-director Aaron Brame says there is always laughter at the readings as well. Poetry allows for catharsis and comedy, those ancient Greek traditions that we achieve through performance, but often the performance is very very personal in poems. I think our brains are wired to be turned on by branding, by talk, by news, by anxiety…we are a very anxious people. Poets have the tools to cut through this and reach for the complicated humanity under it, or to use the language of it and be critical, aware. The variety of poems I have heard through Impossible Language has been fundamental to my own growth, and perhaps survival, as a writer. There is a thriving, wonderful visual arts scene in Memphis. It only makes sense that a growing literary scene accompany and complement it. I also love that it gets more people in and around and aware of Story Booth, which I think is a fundamental part of that literary scene, not just as a great space for readings and literary events, but as a place where kids are actively involved in reading, writing, creating in this rich, interdisciplinary way….making movies, plays, songs, and books, from concept to completed project. It’s an amazing space.
Who are three local poets who you think have the most potential to become poet laureate one day?
Of course it is impossible for me to answer this. There are still poets I haven’t met yet, and poets who are developing into the writers they are going to be. And there’s me, still green and excited to meet and know more writers, but learning what good poetry is, biased as all hell. The best way to get to know the writers in Memphis is to go to the readings. Impossible Language of course is just one outlet for writing in the city.
If you could have dinner with three poets, living or dead, who would you choose?
CD Wright (the recent loss of her still stuns), Elizabeth Bishop, Aziza Barnes
What’s the one Memphis restaurant you couldn’t live without?
These questions are so hard! The Kwik Check, probably. There’s no place else like it. But I really love Bari and the Beauty Shop as well. And lately, I don’t know why, I’ve been on a massive barbecue kick. It only took eight years, but Memphis really got me. Also, the gyros at Luchessi’s Beer Garden? So good. I can’t stick to just one restaurant.
On any given Friday night, where would we most likely spot you?
Do I have money? If so, drinking a Manhattan at DKDC. They are SO good there. If not, hanging at the picnic table in my backyard with a cheap bottle of vinho verde…my husband, Will, is a wonderful gardener, so we got it set up back there. Once you have a nice home, it’s hard to leave. OR checking out a show at Crosstown Arts. I love the people and the art there.
What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever seen in Memphis?
I really don’t know, but I will say that I miss the Harlan T. Bobo shows. He is wonderful at cultivating atmospheres of strangeness and beauty (Puppets! Stilts! The mirror suit!) and I’m a huge fan of his music.
What’s the biggest issue facing Memphis, and how do we solve it?
Boy, do I not know how to answer this. I couldn’t begin to. But one thing I would love, love to see is increased support from the city and state government for the Memphis Public Library and Information Center. More for building maintenance, programming, computers, branches, librarians, services, all of it. There are so many people in this city struggling with literacy, with mobility, with job skills, and a fully functioning, thriving public library system could go a long way to supporting citizens. I love that Literacy Mid-South uses the library’s branches as satellite offices; this strikes me as an ideal partnership. I also love the beautiful Cloud901 teenspace at the Central location. The Friends of the Library bookstore is literally the best bookstore in the city, sorry/not sorry. There are good people doing good work at MPLIC and it seems like the library is in a growth period but I look at other libraries in comparable cities and I think…the communities in Memphis deserve the best. But I’m partial to this place.
What can Memphians do to help embrace creativity and develop a community embracing the arts?
Help each other. Collaborate. Being an artist can be so interior. The best thing to do is really to show up, be open-minded and supportive. And I know, I’m the worst about not going to events when I need people to come to mine. We are lucky to have so many wonderful things to choose from…but I am rarely sad that I went to a gallery or reading.
What is one thing you’re most excited about for Memphis?
The thing I always talk about with visitors is the Crosstown Concourse building. It’s just a stunning project and I can’t wait to see what happens with it.
Anything else you’d like to add?
Shout out to anyone who has ever come to a poetry reading and didn’t want to. You’re doing the lord’s work.