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StartingBlock’s new artist in residence finds poetry in eavesdropping on everyday language

By Luis Acosta, Jr, for Madison365

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    MADISON, WI (365 Media Foundation, Inc) — The art and start-up universes may be beginning to collide, thanks to the initiatives at Madison start-up nest StartingBlock. 

Located in American Family Insurance’s “Spark” Building on East Washington Avenue, the non-profit organization specializes in assisting young entrepreneurs to accomplish their business goals within a single space, where companies can “grow businesses, create jobs, and stimulate the regional economy.” Companies from many different backgrounds and practices are able to interact on a daily basis within its tight ecosystem, which now houses over a dozen businesses and counting. And now, with their recent partnership with local arts planning commission Dane Arts, artists could have a say within local commerce by framing their work around a business mindset. 

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

Her poetry is real and low-brow. It’s her way of allowing readers into her manner of thinking and speaking, which ranges from meditations on her reality of being a woman of color in the Midwest; the humor that lies within food, and nostalgia; the existentialism within bad posture and yoga; and essays on the stories and perspectives she’s uncovered while on her warpaths around Madison.     

Originally from Windsor, Connecticut, her journey 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 upon graduation in 2013, made her way up to Madison, where she began to draw up her artistic networking skills and observations while working for local co-ops and butcheries. 

One of these connections happened to be Mark Fraire, director of Dane Arts and long-time facilitator and supporter of the Madison arts community. After completing her three-year Masters in Fine Arts program at New York University in 2020, she moved back to the Madison area for a writing fellowship with the University of Wisconsin. Fraire’s guidance and support helped broker her involvement with StartingBlock, and her staying in the Madison area in general. 

“We sat down and talked about me finishing my poetry and nonfiction projects, and how I’m trying to take myself seriously as a writer,” Debevec-McKenney says. “Mark noticed that I needed a bit of a push and a place that would support my writing. He made it known to me that my art has value being here. Madison needs people making art. It helps attract new people to the city.”

Her involvement with StartingBlock is rightfully earned. Debevec-McKenney has some distinguished publications to her name – her work has appeared in The Yale Review, Peach Magazine, TriQuarterly, and most recently The New Yorker. 

“It’s the biggest thing that’s happened to me, so far,” Debevec-McKenney says about her poem Kaepernick – an examination of race, gender norms, and the background buzz of football being offered as a soundtrack to her wandering mind – which appeared in The New Yorker’s Nov 22, 2021 issue.

The opportunity to get out and use her observational talents during a global pandemic came at the perfect time as well. Having graduated from her MFA degree in the thick of the pandemic, she found herself stuck in her apartment in a deep, unstable loneliness. As a person who enjoys using everyday language and eavesdropping to bolster her poetic ideas, being sequestered from her source material was beginning to show up in her poetry. That love for the hustle-and-bustle lifestyle is why she’s stayed a restaurant worker, despite her success as a poet. 

“I don’t ever want to get too far away from the real world,” Debevec-McKenney says. “There were a lot of people in my MFA who had just graduated from college and had never had a real job. Working in restaurants shows me how precious it is to interact with new people.

“There’s something about putting all the books in my backpack, writing down a list of all the things I need to complete, and then completing that list at StartingBlock that makes me feel really professional,” Debevec-McKenney continues, with the peace of having her own space being only one of the many perks. “Sometimes I’ll go across the street and go to Festival Foods and grab myself a lunch, which makes me think ‘wow I’m just like the nine-to-fivers who go out and get lunch.’”

Marc Yarmoff, Community Manager for Starting Block, also specializes in being observational. His work within the organization involves customer service, programming, and interacting with social cohorts and diverse representations within Madison’s chamber of commerce. StartingBlocks initiatives within the art world are beginning to take hold thanks to his efforts in helping bridge the gap between arts and entrepreneurial support.

“Our partnership with Dane Arts is of great help, since we don’t consider ourselves to be specialists in the world of art,” Yarmoff says. The idea is to try out these prototypes, working primarily with artists through Dane Arts who are the most enthusiastic, while making it more so about including artistic minds within their workspace who are eager to learn about the business side of their work, rather than being selective about the sorts of people they offer residencies. “Which fits how we typically work here,” Yarmoff says. “We like to trust our partners in the areas outside of our expertise. … I’d say that working with artists is something I’ve never done in any other coworking startup space before.” 

Yarmoff has a fairly extensive history working with the start-up world, one of which being the successful Boston-based entrepreneurial hub Masschallenge. “It fits into our broader effort in including more diverse backgrounds. If you only work with tech and high-growth entrepreneurs, then you are only working with a very small part of the population,” he says.

A recent project for Yarmoff was helping organize an art showcase in the main lobby within StartingBlock’s HQ. The showcase offered up art from five artists involved in Dane Arts to be sold and admired by the public, a “pop-up” of sorts that helps vary the kinds of events and programming that StartingBlock has to offer the public. This particular showcase displayed artists such as Rodrigo Carapia’s depiction of traditional Mexican images, and Jennika Bastian’s lucid, humanistic take on mythology. 

“We believe that Madison, Dane county, and Wisconsin, in general, can benefit from having a robust art community in many different ways,” Yarmoff says. “It will never be our core business, but it’s a collaboration that makes sense. We want to create more robust entrepreneurs, and artists, in general, fit the bill.” 

The possibility of including artists in these spaces is quite exciting for a city such as Madison. To have companies that were created by holding a finger towards the pulse that runs through Madison needs a voice to express to the community at large. And with Debevec-McKenney being an early representation of what is yet to come, it may mean representation of all kinds being involved within the art world thanks to the rightful support from those who are capable of upholding Madison’s talent.

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

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