Q & A Dennis LawsonDec 23, 2014 10:20PM ● By Kerigan Butt
Dennis Lawson is the executive director of the Newark Arts Alliance.
Dennis Lawson is the executive director of the Newark Arts Alliance. Newark Life caught up with him in September to discuss the active arts community in Newark, upcoming exhibits at the Arts Alliance, and the challenges of running the organization. Lawson, who holds an MFA in Creative Writing, received a fellowship from the Delaware Division of the Arts as the 2014 Emerging Artist in Fiction so we also talked to him about his story “Fair Warning” that was published in an anthology of stories set in Rehoboth Beach and was turned into a radio drama by Delmarva Public Radio.
Q: Newark has an active arts community and the Newark Arts Alliance is right at the center of it all. What has the experience been like since you became the executive director in 2013?
A: It’s been great! I’ve been so happy to see the role that the Newark Arts Alliance plays in helping people in our area express their creativity, from visual artists to writers to musicians. It’s also really gratifying to see how much our community supports and values the arts alliance—not just individuals but local businesses, grant-giving organizations, and our city and state government as well.
Q: You're also a writer and very active with other writers in Delaware. Give us the back-story on your writing.
A. I’ve been a reader and a writer since I was a kid. A few things had a big impact on me. One was teaching writing—you really start to understand something better when you try to show someone else how to do it. Another was working at the Delaware Art Museum as the marketing and public relations manager—when you have a deadline, you realize that there’s just no time in life for writer’s block, or even getting something “perfect.” But it’s also hard to get any writing done unless you can carve out time for it. So I was very lucky that my wife supported me leaving the museum so I could pursue an MFA in Creative Writing, which I received from Rutgers-Camden in 2012.
Q: Your story “Fair Warning” was published in a collection called “The Beach House” and was recently made into a radio drama by Delmarva Public Radio. Can you tell us about “Fair Warning”?
A: That was a fun story to write! “The Beach House” is an anthology of stories set in Rehoboth Beach. To fit in with the theme, I imagined a group of gangsters getting together in Rehoboth for a card game at their boss’s beach house. The narrator recognizes his former flame down there, and finds out she’s on a mission to kill one of his fellow gangsters. The narrator has to decide who to betray—his boss or the woman who broke his heart.
Q: What other short stories have you been working on?
A: I’ve been really lucky this year, because I have a solid excuse to write as much as possible. I received a fellowship from the Delaware Division of the Arts as the 2014 Emerging Artist in Fiction, so I’m expected to produce! Right now I’m working on a short story about a loan rep whose job is to call people who are delinquent on their student loans. The loan rep’s life is falling apart and the only thing keeping him together is his affection for his drug dealer. I’ve also had several crime stories recently accepted for publication. The next “Rehoboth Beach Reads” anthology, called “The Boardwalk,” will include my story “No Business at the Beach.” A short piece called “Whiskey Sour,” which is partly set at Delaware Park, will be in the Autumn 2014 edition of the online journal “Fox Chase Review.” And finally, I just sold a piece to the anthology “Insidious Assassins,” which is being published by Smart Rhino Publications, based right here in Newark.
Q: You write a lot of crime fiction. Has that always been your favorite genre?
A: I’ve loved crime fiction since I was a kid reading reprints of Dick Tracy strips. When I was older, I discovered Raymond Chandler and his detective Philip Marlowe. Then, when I was a grad student at Rutgers-Camden, I taught a freshman composition class that I themed around crime writing. In order to teach that class, I had to read so much crime fiction that I couldn’t put it out of my head the next time I tried to write a story. I guess you read enough Chandler and Dashiell Hammett and James M. Cain and you can’t resist any more. They put the gun in my hand.
Q: The Arts Alliance is very supportive of writers, it seems. What other opportunities are there for writers at the Arts Alliance?
A: Very true! On the first Tuesday of every month, we offer a free Open Mic at 7 p.m.. We call it Open Mic Poetry/Prose/Performance because we welcome writers of all styles and literary stripes, and everybody who wants to read gets five minutes at the mic. Since this past summer, we have also been offering a free monthly writers workshop that I lead. Plus, we regularly bring authors in for readings and discussions. In November, we will have a reading featuring myself and two other Delaware Division of the Arts literary fellowship winners: Viet Dinh (creative non-fiction) and Jane Miller (poetry). That will be on Saturday, November 15, at 7 p.m.
Q: What is the biggest challenge of managing the Newark Arts Alliance?
A: There are always many more good ideas for programs than time and resources will allow. So it’s a matter of offering as many great arts programs that we can while still staying within a relatively small budget and ensuring that the arts alliance is still around tomorrow.
Q: How about the greatest reward? What about the job gives you the greatest satisfaction?
A: I love seeing people create stuff! We have a new exhibition every month, and most of those are themed shows that are open to submissions from any interested artist—and some of our local artists are constantly making new pieces to keep up with the exhibition schedule. I especially love to hear that the arts alliance has spurred someone on to make creativity a consistent part of their life. For instance, I’ve had artists tell me that they decided to make something for an exhibition, and that led them to put more pieces together so they could display them in our gallery shop. Or I’ve heard people in our writers workshop say that the monthly deadlines have caused them to write regularly. You can’t beat that!
Q: What are some of the events that the Arts Alliance has coming up?
A. I’m glad you asked! Our annual fall fundraiser this year is called “Bohemian Night: A Newark Arts Alliance Gala,” and I promise that it’s going to be a great time! We’ll have food, including vegetarian options, by Caffe Gelato, jazz music by the Ellen Lebowitz Quartet and dancing, a silent auction of art by local artists, plus lots of bohemian treats like a tarot card reader and a belly-dancer! That party is going to be Saturday, October 18, from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m, and we’re holding it at the Newark Senior Center’s Evergreen Banquet Room. Tickets are available on our website and they’re cheaper in advance! We also have some great exhibitions. Through October 25, we have “Monsters, Mayhem & Superstition,” which generated a lot of excitement before it even went up. And from November 25 to January 3, we use our whole exhibition space for our Holiday Art Market, featuring a variety of art and jewelry by local artists that’s perfect for holiday gifts.
Q: What is your favorite spot in Newark?
A: Main Street. My wife and I first moved to Newark in 2002 when I was earning my MA in English at the University of Delaware. We figured that when I finished, we would move again. But we loved going to Main Street so much that we didn’t want to leave. So we both found jobs and bought a house and we’re on Main Street all the time. And especially Rainbow Books & Music. I still love physical media, whether it’s books or CDs, and Rainbow can always find whatever I’m looking for!
Q: What three dinner guests, living or dead, would you invite to dine with you?
A: That’s a tough one. I guess I would ask the authors Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Ian Fleming to dinner and then encourage them to talk shop and I would just quietly listen.
Q: What food is always in your refrigerator?
A: Milk—because I’m a heavy coffee drinker. If there’s no milk in the fridge, then we’ve got trouble on our hands.