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Why I Stay: Sustaining an Artist’s Life in Pittsburgh

1839 staff writer Tameka Cage Conley reflects on Pittsburgh as the birthplace of her writing life.

“When I get big, I’m moving to Paris,” I announced to my family at five years old. I had no idea where Paris was, exactly. But I imagined it was a beautiful, fancy place, far from my hometown, Shreveport, Louisiana. Paris was a magical land where people did important things and lived important lives. There was never a dull day in Paris. There was always movement, not the lull of small town living or the boredom of a window with the same view, day after day. In my Paris, dreams came true. And I believed at five the same as I do now: What good is a life without dreams?

The pulse of the fine and performing arts pumps blood into Pittsburgh as much as its sports.
Three decades and a passport later, I still haven’t been to Paris, though it remains at the top of my list. I’ve traveled internationally and still recall the moment in the Milan airport when blood orange juice came out of a drink dispenser. I make my home in Pittsburgh, dubbed “the Paris of Appalachia,” with my husband and toddler, a beautiful boy whose name is inspired by the word “amazing.” I had no intention of living in Pittsburgh, but when I arrived here, more than eight years ago, I was pleasantly surprised that the city offered more than football. Soon, I learned that the pulse of the fine and performing arts pumps blood into the city as much as its sports, which is why I’m still here.



Tameka and son Maze attend the Cave Canem poetry retreat at the University of Pittsburgh-Greensburg.

I moved to Pittsburgh after a two-year appointment as Visiting Professor of English at a prominent, private liberal arts university in rural, central Pennsylvania. I’d hoped to move to New York, but cold calls and submissions of my CV to universities had yielded only one adjunct course at a school in Manhattan, which would not be nearly enough to make a living in the city. A new relationship with the man who is now my life partner led me to submit my CV to schools in Pittsburgh. Soon, I had two adjunct instructor offers and began to teach at Duquesne and the University of Pittsburgh. After two years of adjunct and visiting positions, I decided to pursue a career doing what I love: writing.

I can’t remember when I wrote my first poem, but I know that, like prayers, books have anchored me for most of my life, while writing provided sanctuary from intense boredom, being bullied at school, and feeling that there had to be—had to be—a bigger life for me outside Louisiana. I had no idea Pittsburgh would be the launching ground for my dreams of being a professional writer, or that my work as a scholar and academic would be part of the journey.

Since living here, I’ve been awarded writing fellowships from national foundations and residencies like Cave Canem, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and the Vermont Studio Center. At Cave Canem, the greatest poets in the world, including co-founders Toi Derricotte and Cornelius Eady, as well as National Book Award and MacArthur Fellow, Terrance Hayes, Lyrae Van-Clief Stefanon, Chris Abani, and Nikky Finney, taught me. In 2013, a fellowship from the Squaw Valley Community of Writers Workshop enabled me to meet my brilliant, dedicated agent, Miriam Altshuler.

I’ve had several plays produced here, and an excerpt of my first play, Testimony, was performed at the Darlinghurst Theatre Company in Sydney, Australia. I was recently commissioned to write my first opera, and a collaboration with composer Judah Adashi on a cantanta acknowledging fifty years of the Civil Rights movement led me to the US Congress, where I read a poem dedicated to John Lewis, to him.

Tameka Cage Conley and Gwen Ifill

Tameka with Gwen Ifill at the Metropolitan AME Church in Washington, DC for the premiere of RISE.

From publications to performances, the arts community in Pittsburgh has held me up in a way that continues to surprise and astound me, even as it blesses me beyond measure. I am not a wealthy person, but I have made a living as an artist due to grants, commissions, and artist residencies. There are few places in the US or the world where a writing life can begin, be sustained, and flourish.

I’m still that little girl who craves adventure and excitement. I love bustling streets and the intense noise of a metropolis. I love huge museums and decadence. I love the spontaneity of a man on a scooter, “walking” his little dog on a leash at a busy four-way intersection in Manhattan—a site that made my husband and I burst into simultaneous laughter without any commentary. Though racist policies and practices make me question Pittsburgh as the country’s “most livable” city for many, if not most, people of color, the city has enabled me to start someplace as an artist and see the platform I’ve worked hard to create grow wider and wider.

About the Author

Tameka Cage Conley, PhD is a literary artist who writes poetry, fiction, plays, and essays. She has received writing fellowships from the Cave Canem Foundation, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, the Vermont Studio Center, the Squaw Valley Community of Writers Workshop, and the August Wilson Center. Her work has appeared in a number of literary journals and magazines. She is at work on a first novel and poetry collection.


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