Kristen Nelson is the co-founder and director of Casa Libre en la Solana, a writers' community she started about eight years ago when she moved to Tucson after working as a newspaper reporter. Casa Libre started as a writers' residency program at 228 N. Fourth Ave. However, due to the economy, Nelson—along with assistant director TC Tolbert and the board of directors—decided to stop focusing on residencies and instead do book-release events, workshops and other activities aimed at building a community of local writers. For more information, go to casalibre.org, or email her.
Where are you from, and how did you get to Tucson?
I was born and raised in Mount Vernon, N.Y. I've been living in Tucson for eight years now. I came to Tucson to start Casa Libre. I was living back in New York and taking care of my grandparents. I was working as a newspaper reporter, but always knew New York wasn't where I wanted to stay.
Did you study writing?
I started my undergraduate degree as a scientist and wanted to be a marine biologist when I grew up. I did that for almost three years, and then I had this crisis moment: "This isn't what I want to do with my life." I finished up my degree in English and dedicated myself to writing. But I think I was always a little afraid of the writing life, so the way I chose to approach it was to create a writing life for myself—very selfishly motivated, but I also cared about creating a community center and place for writers to share common dreams and follow their passions. That was the basic concept, and it wasn't until finding the (Fourth Avenue) building that it sort of started to take shape.
How did you find the space on Fourth Avenue?
The organization started about a year before we had a physical space. We had a website, but I started looking for the space when I was living in New York. I was young and ignorant and had a big ol' dream and, you know, a tiny down payment. I found myself getting outbid by very, very wealthy cash buyers from California. I feel like fate stepped in right after I had given up hope: I got a call from our real estate agent's business partner about a space. ... I felt so dejected at that point. But I came in and knew this was the place. The previous owner cared what happened to the property, and what was going to happen with it. They ended up not listing it and ended up working with me. I got really lucky. The universe stepped in and said, "You've got good intentions. We're going to help."
You no longer do the residencies. What are you doing?
It's changed the last couple of years. The program as it used to exist doesn't (exist) anymore. I have long-term tenants now who are all writers and artists. We're focusing now on the community programming, like Trickhouse Live that TC is spearheading, and we do what I've started to refer to as hybrid poetry weekends. Recently, we did collaborations with (poets) Sam Ace and Maureen Seaton. We bring these fantastic writers into town. Hotel Congress gives us generous discounts to house our out-of-town students.
What's coming up next?
Rebecca Brown: She's amazing, and one of my grad-school mentors. I am really excited to bring her to Tucson. She's so brilliant, kind, human and generous. We're trying to organize a weekend where she will be co-teaching with Kate Bernheimer, a local fiction writer.
What does the future look like?
Since Casa Libre has really expanded, and now there is this whole group of people who are really involved—my board of directors, myself, my assistant director—one of the things I'd like to do is start a program where we can bring all of our mentors into town to work with the community here: people who've inspired us to be writers and can inspire Tucson in different ways. This residency with Rebecca is going to be the beginning of that.
Have you always had a board of directors?
Yes, I had a board of directors, and we've had our nonprofit status now for six years. But (at first), it was just me involved in the daily activities. TC came in, and then our board of directors shifted from more of a sort of advisory capacity to a working board. Right now, every single one of my board members is involved in a program. They are passionate and care. ... Great things are happening, because for everyone involved, this is a labor of love.