New Officers for ICOA’s Board

Ithaca City of Asylum (ICOA) has elected four new officers for its board of directors. For the 2012-2013 year Dan Renfrow will serve as chair of the board, with Bridget Meeds as vice chair, Kathleen Gemmell as secretary, and David Guaspari as treasurer. “Ithaca City of Asylum provides sanctuary for writers who are persecuted because of their writing and activism. While our focus is supporting writers, our work is fundamentally a social justice project.” said Renfrow, the new chair of ICOA’s board and a professor of sociology at Wells College. “As a sociologist, I believe this is important work.”

ICOA is a local organization that provides sanctuary to writers whose works are suppressed, whole lives are threatened, whose cultures are vanishing, or whose languages are endangered. Part of its purpose is to serve as a bridge to the community, assisting writers in residence and their families in meeting the challenges of a new environment while encouraging their creative output. ICOA welcomed its first writer in 2001 and is about to introduce a fifth writer to the Ithaca community.

Part of an international network of cities of refuge, ICOA is one of only four cities of asylum in the United States. ICOA is a project of the Center for Transformative Action, a non-profit organization affiliated with Cornell University, and works in partnership with Cornell University, Ithaca College, and Wells College.

ICOA Participated in Arcades Project’s “The Poem of Display”

ICOA participated in the Arcades Project on Friday, May 4, in the Historic McCormick-Cowdry House at 408 E. State Street in downtown Ithaca. The biannual Arcades Project is a curated event featuring artists, designers, and independent presses. The event coincided with the annual regional literary festival Spring (W)rites, and its aesthetic goal was to highlight the intersection between dreaming and consumer consciousness.

Irakli Kakabadze, ICOA’s writer in residence from 2008-2011, was a special guest of literary journal Essays and Fictions. He read a poem he wrote in English and his native Georgian specifically for the event titled “Decolonizing Self.” The following is an excerpt from his poem:

Irakli Kakabadze reading his poem during the 2012 Arcades Project in Ithaca

I talked to my friend today:
He has peed with Salman Rushdie and got to know him in Toilet.
It has made his day – to pee with the classic of post-post-post colonial literature.
They have exchanged few words while peeing:
Discussed Puchini at Metropolitan Opera, Mayor Bloomberg’s Presidential aspirations,
Wall Street and Morgan Stanley, and having all vegetable diet.
My friend was so happy that I was happy for him.
I could sum it up like this.
Ever since 1989 – whole generations grew up in Georgia
Dreaming to pee with Salman Rushdie.
And write at least one scandalous work
With commercial success
America the land of the dream
And Europe was a paradise.
We were colonized by our own dreams.
We have colonized ourselves
And helped to colonize others.
We came out of former Soviet Union and
We have declared:
Liberal Democracy is great!
Without knowing anything about it.
We have screamed:
Capitalism is the only way to
Without knowing anything about Capitalism!
We were sick post-Soviet generation
Of McDonald Diet and Coca Cola dreams,
Of Freud’s materialism!

ICOA also helped to transform the Historic McCormick-Cowdry House into an experimental marketplace of literature, art, and design that night by manning a table displaying books for sale from previous writers in residence. Other Arcades Project participants included local and regional independent presses, makers of art books and editions, conceptual artists, and indie craft vendors. The founders of the Arcades Project drew inspiration for the event’s theme from Balzac’s quote: “The great poem of display chants its stanzas of color from the Church of the Madeleine to the Porte Saint-Denis.” The arcades are a center of commerce in luxury items. In fitting them out, art enters the service of the merchant. With this concept in mind, the Ithaca Arcades Project provided gallery visitors and shoppers with a chance to purchase affordable and original works of art and literature.

The event was sponsored by Spring Writes and The Community Arts Partnership. For more details visit the Project’s web page at

ICOA Board Member Publishes Book About South Africa

ICOA Board member Catherine Taylor has a new book being published on May 1. Taylor’s book, entitled Apart, grew out of Taylor’s memories of visiting her family in South Africa as a child and her later curiosity about her (white) mother’s involvement in early anti-apartheid women’s groups. Mixing narrative prose, poems, social and political theory, and found texts culled from years of visiting South African archives and libraries, Apart navigates the difficult landscapes of history, shame, privilege, and grief.

Nonfiction writer Maggie Nelson, author of The Art of Cruelty, writes, “Catherine Taylor’s Apart offers an intimate and sweeping look at the legacy of apartheid, while performing an altogether rare balance of “lyric seduction” against “the ugliness of corpses.” Taylor refreshingly treats white guilt and the self-conscious recognition of privilege as starting points rather than conclusions, as she plumbs the depths of history, from which, as she reminds us, “no one is excused.” The result is edifying, original, and critically rigorous — a poetic and political vibration between “ecstasy, shame, ecstasy, shame.”

Poet Brian Teare says, “Catherine Taylor’s Apart is neither journalism nor memoir nor documentary poem nor lyric essay nor jeremiad—though it contains elements of them all—but a brilliant and relentless examination of conscience always in search of a literary form adequate to its mission. Embarked on the “search for a common name” in the aftermath of South African Apartheid, Taylor’s takes care on her way to gather an archive of feelings, “signs of struggle, boredom, hope, effort, fatigue, tedium, privilege, its lack, brutality, tyranny, complicity, despair, and resistance.” If Apart renders in language the affect of having an ethics, what makes Taylor’s writing ultimately so persuasive as a politics is its portrait of the private citizen as “at once ineffectual and humane, complicit and resistant, irrelevant and necessary.”

Apart is being published by Ugly Duckling Presse and is on sale for a special price of $12 until May 1  through their website:

ICOA board member and author, Catherine Taylor

ICOA Celebrates the Life and Work of Polish Poet, Czeslaw Milosz

Ithaca City of Asylum recently co-sponsored two events characterized as “Memories of Milosz” to celebrate the life and work of the Nobel Prize winning poet, Czeslaw Milosz. Milosz lived for many years in the United States while he was in exile from Poland. His work is a powerful example of what would be lost to the world if there were no places of refuge for writers unable to work freely in their native countries—the kind of refuge provided by ICOA.

Czeslaw Milosz in 1986

The first event, which runs from March 2 through April 15, is a photographic exhibit at the Tompkins County Public Library. The exhibit is a photographic record of Nobel poet laureate Czeslaw Milosz’s historic return to Poland in 1981 after 30 years of exile in the United States.

The second event was a reading of selected poems written by Milosz, presented by members of the local Polish and poetry communities in the Borg Warner Community Room of TCPL on Sunday, April 1. The reading inaugurated Tompkins County’s observation of National Poetry Month.  During this event, hosted by the library and ICOA, David Ost, Professor of Political Science at Hobart and William Smith Colleges spoke briefly about the importance of Milosz in Polish politics and society, and Pawel Bakowski, owner of the photos and books on display at the library, gave a short account of the story behind his collection. There was an opportunity after the event  for attendees to silkscreen and take home a copy of one of Milosz’s poems.

Milosz’s work was banned in Poland until 1980 when he was awarded the Nobel Prize.  During that time,  Bakowski and other friends in the underground publishing business, known as NOWA, began printing and distributing his work.  NOWA members faced political persecution for their actions, but kept Milosz’s work available throughout the country. The library exhibit includes some of the books published by the press during those years, on loan from Bakowski, who is currently employed by the Cornell Institute for European Studies through a community outreach grant funded by the European Union.

Both events are co-sponsored by Ithaca City of Asylum, the Tompkins County Public Library, the Cornell Institute for European Studies, Biblioteka Narodowa (National Library of Poland in Warsaw), and with funding from the European Union Commission to the USA, through the Getting to Know the New Europe outreach project.

New Video Offers Portraits of ICOA Writers

In September 2008, Shaun Poust, then a freshman at Ithaca College, volunteered to help out with ICOA’s Voices of Freedom event, which that year welcomed the group’s new writer-in-residence, Irakli Kakabadze.   Something about the work of ICOA and Irakli Kakabadze’s story caught Shaun’s imagination, and three years later, in October 2011, he was back at Voices of Freedom.  This time he brought with him Thad Komorowski, another IC journalism major, and a full complement of video equipment.  Their goal was a short documentary that would examine the mission of ICOA and convey the spirit of the writers the group brings to Ithaca.

Shaun delivered the finished product, a video co-produced with Thad, on a DVD to Barbara Adams, associate professor in the Ithaca College Department of Writing and a member of the IOCA board of directors.  Barbara was the students’ liaison with ICOA and helped them coordinate their work with ICOA activities. What Barbara and ICOA can now share with the Ithaca community is a polished eleven-minute production that offers interviews of three of the writers ICOA has supported––Yi Ping, Sarah Mkhonza, and Irakli Kakabadze.  They talk about their lives, their work, and the experience of coming to Ithaca from places where they were not welcome, where they were threatened and harassed and their work was thwarted.

Even those who are very familiar with or involved in ICOA will gain surprising insight from the Poust-Komorowski  documentary.  Shaun Poust said himself, “The whole process was very surprising.  I knew these writers had dynamic personalities and compelling stories, but the video turned out to be more visually interesting than I expected.”   One of the things he discovered is how much of a documentary happens on the fly. “You learn things interviewing people that you didn’t expect to learn.  What you thought wasn’t going to be interesting turns out to be very interesting.  After the fact, you look at your material and you say, ‘Here is where our story is.'”

The ICOA board of directors invites you to share in our story that is so well captured by Shaun and Thad. You can view it online at

Far From Home

Both Sarah Mkhonza (Swaziland), ICOA’s resident writer from 2006-08, and Irakli Kakabadze (Republic of Georgia), our resident writer from 2008-2011, participated in the December 8 book launch for Far From Home,  an anthology of poetry by some of Ithaca’s resident immigrants from several countries.  Tompkins County Poet Laureate Gail Holst-Warhaft produced the anthology, with assistance from Ithaca City of Asylum, to commemorate a reading co-sponsored in May 2011, during Ithaca’s Spring Writes festival.

The theme of the December evening was reflected in the anthology’s title.  Sarah read a poem about America, “America, I Saw You,” written by ICOA co-founder Bridget Meeds. Sarah then read a second poem of her own, “Swaziland, I Witnessed You,” responding to Bridget’s poem.  Irakli read a new prose piece of his own that reflected on the condition of being in exile.  The new anthology and a variety of chapbooks by the writers sponsored by ICOA are for sale at Buffalo Street Books.

Sarah Mkhonza reading her poem “America, I Saw You” (©William J. Phelan)

Celebrating with Center for Transformative Action

On Oct. 23, ICOA joined other partners in helping to celebrate the Center for Transformative Action’s 40th anniversary. The event, which took place at the Greater Ithaca Activies Center, included a talk by Anke Wessels, executive director of CTA, and a fascinating presentation by Dorothy Cotton, a renowned civil rights activist who worked alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

At the event, ICOA also had the opportunity to interact with members of the community and discuss our mission. The Durland Alternatives Library, Veterans Sanctuary and the Tompkins County Workers Center were among the many other CTA partners also represented at the event. It was interesting to see the wide range of partners supported by CTA. ICOA was proud to be included in their number and was happy to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Center, with appreciation for its continued support of our organization.

ICOA’s “Voices of Freedom” Featured Exiled Burmese Writer Khet Mar

This year Ithaca City of Asylum’s “Voices of Freedom” event, held annually to observe Banned books/Freedom to Read Week, featured exiled Burmese writer and activist Khet Mar. The program was co-sponsored and hosted by the Tompkins County Public Library.

Khet Mar read from her work Sunday, October 2 at 2:00 p.m. to a full audience in the BorgWarner Community Room at the Tompkins County Public Library.

Khet Mar, Pittsburgh City of Asylum exiled writer in residence

Founded in 2001, Ithaca City of Asylum (ICOA) is part of a worldwide network that supports writers whose works are suppressed, whose lives are threatened, whose cultures are vanishing, or whose languages are endangered. ICOA is a project of the Center for Transformative Action, Cornell University.

Khet Mar has been persecuted by the Burmese government for her political activism since she was 19. In 1991 she was sentenced to ten years in prison for protesting the house arrest of pro-democracy leader Aung Sun Suu Kyi, which prevented the leader from accepting the Nobel Peace Prize. After one year, Khet Mar was released during a period of national amnesty, but future threats of imprisonment led her to seek refuge in the United States in 2007.

After fleeing Burma, Khet Mar became a visiting fellow at the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa, and in 2010 she participated in the Pen World Voices Festival of International Literature. She is currently writer-in-residence for the City of Asylum/Pittsburgh. She is the author of a novel, “Wild Snowy Night,” several collections of short stories, essays and poems. Her work has been translated into English and Japanese, has been broadcast on radio and has been made into a film.

This event was funded in part by Poets & Writers, Inc. with public funds from New York State Council on the Arts, a state agency. Additional support was provided by the Creative Writing Program, the Rose Goldsen Lecture Series, and the Flora Rose House at Cornell University; the Ithaca College Department of Writing; Wells College; Buffalo Street Books; Mia Restaurant; Za-Za’s Cucina; Gimme! Coffee; and an anonymous donor.

Khet Mar’s October 2 reading and the reception following it were free and open to the public.

ICOA Elects New Officers, 2011-2012

Ithaca City of Asylum (ICOA) board of directors has elected new  officers for 2011-2012.  ICOA is a community organization that provides sanctuary to writers whose works are suppressed, whose lives are threatened, whose cultures are vanishing, or whose languages are endangered.  The group serves as a bridge into the community, assisting visiting writers and their families in meeting the challenges of a new environment.

For the period 2011-2012, Kathleen Rourke will serve as chair of the board; Dan Renfrow as vice chair; Kathleen Gemmell as secretary; and Mark Temelko as treasurer.

ICOA was formed as a part of an international network of cities of refuge under the auspices of CRESP Center for Transformative Action, a non-profit organization affiliated with Cornell University.  The group works in partnership with Cornell University, Ithaca College, Wells College and several community organizations.

This year ICOA celebrates its tenth year working in the Ithaca community.  A brochure detailing the group’s work over the past decade and the writers it has supported is available below.

Commemorating Ten Years of Giving Voice to Freedom

On the occasion of its tenth anniversary, Ithaca City of Asylum (ICOA) has published the brochure Ithaca City of Asylum: Celebrating Ten Years of Giving Voice to Freedom. The brochure is a retrospective of ICOA’s work supporting writers who face political repression and offers detailed profiles of the writers who have come to Ithaca with the group’s support.

Cover, Ten Year Report

ICOA makes Ithaca one of four U.S. cities networked to support writers whose lives and creativity are at risk. Ithaca’s sister cities in this network are Pittsburgh, Miami, and Las Vegas. In the past ten years, the writers supported by ICOA include Yi Ping from China, Reza Daneshvar from Iran, Sarah Mkhonza from Swaziland, and Irakli Kakabadze from Georgia. While highlighting these four writers, the brochure also provides basic information about the organization, its funding partners, and the volunteers who work on its behalf. ICOA looks forward to continuing its work providing asylum in Ithaca.

Read about the first ten years of our history by clicking here.