Inner Loop’s free ‘Literary Cornucopia’ unleashes creative writing feast in DC

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews Inner Loop's 'Literary Cornucopia' (Jason Fraley)

WASHINGTON — Creative writing breaks our mental gridlock with a feast for the imagination.

For the past four years, local writers have shown their stuff at Inner Loop, which hosts a free “Literary Cornucopia” at the Colony Club on Tuesday night, its final monthly event of the year.

“We have nine [up-and-coming] writers at each event, plus a featured writer, someone a little more established,” co-founder Courtney Sexton told WTOP. “Even the featured writer, we try to stick to local or regional. That’s one of our goals: to highlight the active writing life in D.C.”

This month’s featured writer is Fulbright fellow and Howard University alum E. Ethelbert Miller, to whom Mayor Marion Barry proclaimed “E. Ethelbert Miller Day” on Sept. 28, 1979.

“He’s been living here and writing here [as] a major part of the arts community for decades,” Sexton said. “He just has this charisma. It’s so fun to talk to him about writing, but also about D.C., our history and our arts community because he knows it, he’s lived it, shepherded it.”

Miller will kick off Tuesday night’s event followed by a carefully curated blend of fiction, nonfiction and poetry readings by Nadia Prupis, Melissa Scholes Young, Rich Pilskin, John Kropf, Daniel McCarthy, Leeya Mehta, Thu Nguyen and Paul Fauteux and Sophie Jaff.

Jaff will read a piece of her novel, “Crown of Stars,” the sequel to her debut “Love is Red.”

“It’s a genre called ‘knife-edge reality,’ what reality might look like on the other side of the knife,” Jaff told WTOP. “It’s a combo of horror, thriller, paranormal, ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ meets ‘Game of Thrones.’ … I write serial killers in second-person narrative so that you, the reader, are the killer. There’s a real power and pleasure in stalking around the city as pure id.”

She says the audience will be gripped.

“You know what you wanna do on a Tuesday evening? You want to just sit back and let a story take you to another place and be on the edge of your seat,” Jaff said. “You find that your palms are sweating, your heart is racing [and] then you get a big drink afterward.”

Between readings, you’ll find plenty of time to relax, mingle and drink from the cash bar.

“We think alcohol helps,” co-founder Rachel Coonce said. “We leave 15-20 minutes at the beginning, a 10-minute intermission and 15-20 minutes at the end. That’s just as important for the writers to talk to each other, meet each other and get that community feeling.”

This community vibe is what Coonce and Sexton missed after their creative writing program at Sarah Lawrence College, where they studied under 2014 Pultizer Prize poet Vijay Seshadri. After grad school, they moved back to D.C. but felt the urge to scratch their creative itch. So, one cold February day, they hatched a plan while walking their dogs in Petworth.

“Rach was like, ‘Have you been writing?’ I was like, ‘No, have you been writing?’ She was like, ‘No,'” Sexton said. “We missed the community that was so tight-knit in that program. It’s inspirational to be around people who are doing what you’re doing. You feed off each other.”

So, Inner Loop was born with a name that’s more than a reference to the Capital Beltway.

“Everything has ‘District’ this or ‘Capital’ that,” Sexton said. “We wanted something to indicate it was a local thing, but I liked ‘Inner Loop’ because it’s like the inner loop of your mind as you’re going crazy, spiraling as you’re trying to write by yourself, so it played well on both.”

After finalizing the name, logo and brand, they set out to spread the word around town.

“Rachel made flyers, we went to coffee shops, a lot of hands and feet on the ground,” Sexton said. Coonce added, “We had a hard time accessing all the writers who lived here because it seemed really separated and disparate. There are a lot of M.F.A. programs in the area that have their own reading series, but there wasn’t one that brought everyone together.”

To their surprise, the first event saw a nice turnout at the Petworth Citizen & Reading Room.

“We thought it would be a slow build, but actually the very first event we had 75 people show up,” Coonce said. “We were like, ‘Whoa!’ They barely fit into the venue!”

Attendance has remained consistent each month over the past four years.

“I thought we were going to run out of writers [but they keep coming],” Coonce said. “It really is a smattering: D.C. locals, transplants, students, professional writers. We get a lot of lawyers who write in their spare time. The one that always jumps out to me [is] our first crossover lawyer writer. He did a noir piece that was just brilliant. … He really went for it and nailed it.”

You never know which unassuming author will step up to the mic with surprising work.

“James Merifield is an amazing poet, very very soft spoken, this tall, bearded, kind of burly guy, so you just didn’t know what to expect,” Sexton recalled. “He started reading the poem in this very soft voice that you didn’t expect from this large guy — and the audience was just captivated. The entire five minutes we were just jaws dropped.”

Many readers and audience members have since become regulars.

“We actually started getting people who aren’t writers at all,” Coonce said. “They come every month just because they love the vibe, they love hearing the creativity and what people are doing. I felt that was a huge milestone when people who didn’t even write started coming.”

If you can’t make it to the actual event, you can follow each reading on the monthly podcast.

“It just launched last month,” Coonce said. “Every month that our event happens, we also launch a podcast episode. It has readings from the live events, as well as in-depth interviews.”

Of course, you should come in person if possible, due to the joyous unpredictability of a live event. For example, we were mid-interview during this very Q&A when a window washer suddenly arrived Spidey-style on our window outside WTOP’s Glass Enclosed Nerve Center.

“We should see if he wants to read for us,” Sexton joked.

Listen to our full conversations below. Click here for more details. Email writing submissions here

WTOP's Jason Fraley chats with Courtney Sexton & Rachel Coonce (Jason Fraley)
WTOP's Jason Fraley chats with Sophie Jaff (Full Interview) (Jason Fraley)

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Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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