Crystal C. Mercer photo by Crystal C. Mercer

Faced with a calendar full of cancelations and scarce federal resources, creators in Central Arkansas are finding new ways to piece together the financial puzzle, and to find funding where and when they can. Poet, author and fiber artist Crystal C. Mercer — who lost her job at Esse Purse Museum on March 16 — secured a $1,000 award from PEN America’s Writers Emergency Fund earlier this month, news that made her “jump with excitement,” she wrote on her website. 

“My immediate reaction was to call my late father,” Mercer said. “That happens from time to time. I forget that my father has passed away, and I want to share my joy with him. My beautiful father, the late Attorney Christopher C. Mercer, Jr., was one of my biggest supporters. He encouraged every dream I had, and he invested in my happiness. He passed on the best of himself to me and my siblings. I know that being a recipient of this award would make him proud. I feel like that’s what he worked for in his life, my continued success. I blew him a kiss in the cosmos, and I called a few friends … I still want to pass the joy on. The application process was a finite examination of how writing is a part of an individual’s creative practice. A friend passed the application information on to me and now I am passing it on to others.” 

We talked with Mercer Tuesday afternoon. 

How did you hear about the PEN America funding?

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Someone from the ArtsSpace organization had sent me a link, and they’ve maintained a relationship with the core group [in Arkansas], which I was a part of in partnership with the Windgate Foundation, and they were fully funded to begin pre-development for an ArtSpace project here in Little Rock. After volunteering with them here, I just stayed connected to people, and someone at their office said, “Hey, you might be interested in this,” and I said, “I’m glad to apply.” And I did. 

I also received from Erin Wood — owner and publisher at Et Alia Press — a link from Woven Tale, and it was a list of resources, and I wicked out things that I qualify for. Some are, you know, for women writers over 40, or they were state-specific, and on that list that Erin sent me, of the funds that weren’t exhausted, I found a Dramatists Guild Foundation Grant, and applied for that and learned that I received that. … I put the PEN America link on my website, if people are interested in applying. I think there’s room for everybody to win.

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photo by Crystal C. Mercer
Crystal C. Mercer

So, this PEN grant gives you $1,000, and the award from The Dramatists Guild Foundation gives you $2,500. What kind of piece of the greater financial puzzle are these awards for you?

Oh my gosh, well, I’m fresh off of grad school, and I was working at Esse — and really, you know, limited hours, because [owner] Anita [Davis] is supporting a huge staff of creatives and people she cares about in the community. And at the end of February, I had surgery, so even though I was working from home, I was not in the office. So I’ve kind of been at home since before the shelter-in-place began. But not knowing that I would be getting a check every week for food, not being able to pay for basic utilities, water and gas to cook and have light at night, It’s really just been able to help me maintain a very strained financial situation.

And it’s not the end-all, be-all. I still don’t have a regular job. I’m hoping that my books, my work, the things that I make, that I have opportunities at least through that and through my contract work, like the work I do with Winthrop-Rockefeller, to just make ends shake hands. They don’t even have to meet. They can wave at each other from across the street. [Laughs.] My ends are practicing social distancing, so I’m just trying to keep them close enough together. Maybe they’ll meet one day. 

What other projects are you working on that you might want our readers to know about?

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So, for the next month I’m participating as a story consultant with the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation for the #SeeAlice contest, which is really hoping to change the narrative around myths about people who experience poverty. The working poor. And there are cash prizes for those who participate and are selected to be a part of it. I’m also still planning to publish my children’s book this fall with Et Alia Press, “From Cotton to Silk: The Magic of Black Hair.” I’m very happy that Erin Wood is still committed to helping see this vision through. And then on my website, I have copies of my first book of poetry, “A Love Story Waiting To Happen.” … I know other folks’ finances are strained. I’m just trying to use my art to bring joy into the world.