StartingBlock’s new artist in residence finds poetry in listening to everyday language


The worlds of art and start-ups may be starting to collide, thanks to the initiatives of Madison start-up nest StartingBlock.

Located in American Family Insurance’s “Spark” building on East Washington Avenue, the nonprofit specializes in helping young entrepreneurs achieve their business goals in a single space where businesses can “grow their business.” activities, create jobs and stimulate the regional economy. “Companies from very different backgrounds and practices are able to interact on a daily basis within its tight ecosystem, which is now home to more than a dozen companies and it is not over. And now, thanks to their Recent partnership with the local arts planning commission Dane Arts, artists could have a say in local commerce by framing their work around a commercial mindset.

StartingBlock recently appointed its first artist in residence: poet and restaurant worker Sasha Debevec-McKenney.

His poetry is real and discreet. It’s her way of introducing readers to her way of thinking and speaking, which ranges from meditations on her reality of being a woman of color in the Midwest; the humor that lurks in the food and the nostalgia; existentialism in bad posture and yoga; and essays on the stories and perspectives she discovered on her war trails around Madison.

A native of Windsor, Connecticut, her trip to the Midwest began as a dream involving working on dairy farms similar to the ones her mother grew up on. She attended Beloit College and, after graduating in 203, traveled to Madison, where she began to develop her artistic networking skills and observations while working for local co-ops and butcher shops.

One of those connections was Mark Fraire, director of Dane Arts and a longtime host and supporter of the Madison arts community. After completing her three-year Master of Fine Arts program at New York University in 2020, she returned to the Madison area for a writing fellowship with the University of Wisconsin. Fraire’s guidance and support helped negotiate her involvement with StartingBlock and her stay in the Madison area in general.

“We sat down and talked about me finishing my poetry and non-fiction projects, and how I try to take myself seriously as a writer,” Debevec-McKenney says. “Mark noticed that I needed a boost and a place that would support my writing. He let me know that my art has value being here. Madison needs people who make art. It helps attract new people to the city.

His involvement with StartingBlock is legitimately deserved. Debevec-McKenney has a few distinguished publications to her credit – her work has appeared in The Yale Review, Peach Magazine, TriQuarterly and most recently in The New Yorker.

“This is the most important thing that has happened to me so far,” Debevec-McKenney says of his poem. Kaepernick – an examination of race, gender norms and the underlying football buzz offered as a soundtrack to his wandering mind – which appeared in The New Yorker’s 22 November 2021 problem.

The opportunity to step out and use your observational skills during a global pandemic also came at the right time. Graduating from her MFA at the height of the pandemic, she found herself trapped in her apartment in deep and unstable solitude. As someone who enjoys using everyday language and listening at doors to reinforce their poetic ideas, being sequestered from their source material was starting to show up in his poetry. This love for the fast paced lifestyle is the reason she remained a restaurant worker, despite her success as a poet.

“I never want to stray too far from the real world,” says Debevec-McKenney. “There were a lot of people in my MFA who had just graduated from college and had never had a real job. Working in the restaurant business shows me how valuable it is to interact with new people.

“There’s something about putting all the books in my backpack, writing a list of all the things I need to finish, then completing that list at StartingBlock that makes me feel really professional,” continues Debevec-McKenney, with the peace of mind of having your own space being just one of the many advantages. “Sometimes I go across the street and go to Festival Foods and have lunch, which makes me think, wow, I’m like the nine-to-five that go out and have their lunch. “

Mark Yarmoff, Community Manager for Starting Block, also specializes in observation. His work within the organization involves customer service, programming and interacting with social cohorts and various representations within the Madison Chamber of Commerce. StartingBlocks initiatives in the art world are starting to take shape through its efforts to help bridge the gap between the arts and entrepreneurial support.

“Our partnership with Dane Arts is a big help because we don’t see ourselves as specialists in the art world,” says Yarmoff. The idea is to try out these prototypes, working primarily with the artists through Dane Arts who are the most enthusiastic, while also prioritizing the inclusion in their workspace of artistic minds keen to learn more about the look. commercial of their work, rather than being selective about the types of people they offer residences. “Which fits the way we generally work here,” says Yarmoff. “We like to trust our partners in areas that are beyond our expertise. … I would say working with artists is something I’ve never done in any other coworking startup space before.

Yarmoff has a long history of working with the start-up world, including the Boston-based Masschallenge Entrepreneurship Center. “This is part of our larger effort to include more diverse backgrounds. If you only work with tech and high growth entrepreneurs, then you only work with a very small portion of the population, ”he says.

A recent project for Yarmoff was helping to organize an art showcase in the main lobby of StartingBlock headquarters. The showcase featured works of art by five artists involved in Danish arts for sale and for the public to admire, a sort of ‘pop-up’ that allows for variation in the types of events and programs StartingBlock has to offer. to the public. This particular showcase featured artists such as Rodrigo Carapia’s portrayal of traditional Mexican images and Jennika Bastian’s lucid, humanistic view of mythology.

“We believe that Madison, Dane County, and Wisconsin in general can benefit from a strong arts community in a number of ways,” Yarmoff said. “It will never be our core business, but it is a collaboration that makes sense. We want to create stronger entrepreneurs, and artists, in general, do the trick. ”

The possibility of including artists in these spaces is quite exciting for a city like Madison. To have businesses that were created with a finger on the pulse running through Madison, it takes a voice to speak to the community at large. And with Debevec-McKenney being an early portrayal of what’s yet to come, it can mean portrayal of sorts involved in the art world thanks to the legitimate support of those who are able to support Madison’s talent.

“I feel very lucky to have this opportunity to work at StartingBlock,” says Debevec-McKenney. “I feel like giving money to artists is really important. More money should be given to artists, and I think being successful in this role and being productive with it will help other people have the same opportunity as me – maybe even people who don’t have MFA.


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