PEC

Introducing the TRAILOFF Writers!

Swim Pony friends and family!

Adrienne here, writing today to bring you exciting news about our latest creative undertaking, TrailOff, a mobile app we’ve been creating in partnership with the Pennsylvania Environmental Council, to bring original and underrepresented stories to the trails of the Philadelphia region.

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Photo: John Hawthorne

The name for our app says a lot about what I hope this project will be. It has allusions to writing, to thinking and meandering, to the promise of leaving the main road for the potential in trails less traveled. It’s about discovering something you never knew was hiding just beyond the obvious path. It makes me think of a favorite quote from Rebecca Solnit’s fantastic book Wanderlust: 

I suspect that the mind, like the feet, works at about three miles an hour. If this is so, then modern life is moving faster than the speed of thought, or thoughtfulness.

Together we have selected 10 amazing writers, after nearly a year of outreach and connection to artists all across the region. This process was incredibly competitive and we could have chosen almost any one of the creators that submitted applications for the project. Our ten final authors are a blend of rigorous artistry, thoughtful connection to the project’s values, and communities that will connect to their works:

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afaq is a philly based daughter, with grandmother tendencies. assembled in yemen (from sudanese parts) afaq considers herself a  global citizen of her own country. this international award winning poet, museum exhibiting photographer, activist, and educator seeks to love the world until it loves her back. she has collaborated with Netflix, Pen America, Beautycon Media, Poetry Out Loud, the Barnes Foundation, and several universities including NYU, Columbia, and UPenn. Continuously targeted and previously arrested for her activism, afaq uses her art, experiences, and the violence she has witnessed to combat injustice while spreading messages of empathy and change. She’s writing for Camden’s Gateway Park.

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Ari is an arts advocate and Latinx creative based in South Philadelphia, who began their career in Philadelphia’s spoken word scene. Her work focuses on the interesectionalities between queer identity, trauma, and the Latinx experience as an outsider. Ari is currently working as the coordinator for DELPHI programs at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Her works have been featured in Bedfellows, Drop The Mic, Magic Gardens, the Barnes Foundation, and the Cineteca Nacional de México. Ari is currently filming a documentary about Mexican cooks in Philadelphia and lives with an orange cat that smells like a wet rag. She is writing for the Chester Valley Trail.

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Carmen Maria Machado is the author of the bestselling memoir In the Dream House, the graphic novel The Low, Low Woods, and the award-winning short story collection Her Body and Other Parties. She has been a finalist for the National Book Award and the winner of the Bard Fiction Prize, the Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Fiction, the Lambda Literary Award for LGBTQ Nonfiction, the Brooklyn Public Library Literature Prize, the Shirley Jackson Award, and the National Book Critics Circle’s John Leonard Prize. In 2018, the New York Times listed Her Body and Other Parties as a member of “The New Vanguard,” one of “15 remarkable books by women that are shaping the way we read and write fiction in the 21st century.”

Her essays, fiction, and criticism have appeared in the New Yorker, the New York Times, Granta, Vogue, This American Life, Harper’s Bazaar, Tin House, McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, The Believer, Guernica, Best American Science Fiction & Fantasy, Best American Nonrequired Reading, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and has been awarded fellowships and residencies from the Guggenheim Foundation, Yaddo, Hedgebrook, and the Millay Colony for the Arts. She lives in Philadelphia and is the former Abrams Artist-in-Residence at the University of Pennsylvania.. She’s writing for the northern portion of the Schuylkill River Trail.

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Denise Valentine was a Master Storyteller, historical performer, consultant and founder of the Philadelphia Middle Passage Ceremony & Port Marker Project. Valentine was a storyteller of forgotten and neglected histories of the African Diaspora with special emphasis on the early history of Pennsylvania. Her workshop, Historytelling, integrated archival research, folk heritage and oral history to demonstrate the role of the expressive cultural arts in creating sustainable communities. Additionally, Denise worked as a program facilitator for the Museum of the American Revolution and served as advisor to the curatorial team of the new Early American Art Galleries of the Philadelphia Museum of Art opening in 2020. She wrote for the Tacony Creek Trail.

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donia salem harhoor (they/she) is an egyptian-american bibliophile and believer in game nights. Executive director of The Outlet Dance Project, founder of the Duniya Collective, vice-chair of the Odissi Alliance of North America, they are an alum of Community of Writers, Open Mouth Poetry Retreat, Urban Bush Women’s Summer Leadership Institute, Swim Pony’s Cross Pollination residency, and The Speakeasy Project. A 2022 Lambda Literary Retreat Fellow and finalist in Frontier Poetry’s New Voices Award, they were a 2021 runner-up for Spoon River Poetry Review’s Editor’s Prize and finalist for Palette Poetry’s Sappho Prize. donia’s work has appeared in Mizna/AAWW’s I WANT SKY, Swim Pony’s TrailOff project, Anomaly, Spoon River Poetry Review, and Sukoon magazine. harhoor was Ground For Sculptures’ inaugural Performing Artist in Residence. An herbalism apprentice of Karen Rose of Sacred Vibes Apothecary, their MFA in Interdisciplinary Art is from Goddard College. More on donia at doniasalemharhoor.com. She’s writing for the Perkiomen Trail. 

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Eppchez Yo-Sí Yes brings the fullness of eir musicianship, movement training, and designer’s mind to the urgent themes that imperil humanity. Eppchez is a gender-expansive, Cuban and Jewish Quaker troll with clowning tendencies. These liminal identities and discerning modalities bring integrity and open-hearted experimentation to eir calling as a writer for performance. In 2012 Eppchez started up Alma’s Engine; a process-focused production company/creative ministry developing eir new work across a variety of mediums—spreading whimsical and earnest dis-ease. Ey has self-produced 8 original plays through Alma’s Engine and collaborated as a writer, performer, and deviser with Philly companies such as Pig Iron, Simpatico, The Bearded Ladies Cabaret, Swim Pony, and Applied Mechanics among others. Eppchez’s has institutional connections to Wesleyan University (BA in theater & creative writing), Headlong Performance Institute, and Play Penn (where ey is currently a member of The Foundry). Ey is also a member of Azuka Theatre’s New Pages writer’s group.  To explore more of Eppchez’s work visit www.almasengine.com. Ey are writing for the southern section of the Delaware River Trail.

erin.png Erin T. McMillon is an urban horror and suspense author, blogger, and artist, from Trenton, N.J. Her work has been viewed and purchased by readers and curators from around the world. She is the author of several books (What’s Hiding in the Dark?: 10 Tales of Urban Lore, They Eat: An Episodic Zombie Thriller, and The Abducted), with a forthcoming release, Simone, to be released in the fourth quarter of 2019. Erin can be found on Facebook and Instagram @TheLadyWrites82 and on Amazon @erinmcmillon. She’s writing for the D & L Trail. 
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Born and raised in Guåhan, Islan Marianas, Jacob is a CHamoru writer, educator, and activist. He received his Creative Writing MFA from Rutgers University, Camden. He is an alum of The University of Guam and UCLA’s Extension Writers Program. Currently, he is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Stockton University. He is a co-founder of the nonprofit, the Move Mountains Project in San Luis, CO; previously a tutor for All Things Are Possible in Willingboro, New Jersey; former English Teacher at Philadelphia’s alternative high school, CADI, and NJ’s YMCA of Burlington & Camden Counties’ Academic Coach. His short story, “Proclamation,” appears in University of Guam’s Storyboard 18; short story “Half-Moon” in Philadelphia’s MadHouse Magazine Volume 4, and poem, “Kao sina hao fumino’ Chamoru?,” in University of Hawai’i Press’ Indigenous Literatures from Micronesia. He’s writing for the north Delaware River Trail. 

Jacob is working with Trinity Norwood, a citizen of the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Tribal Nation in South Jersey. She serves her people as an adviser to the tribal youth group as well as the head coordinator for the Tribal Royalty program. As an advocate for indigenous peoples, Trinity works to promote and educate about indigenous issues through multiple mediums including art, film, and literature. She is on the board for Philadelphia Indigenous People’s Day, has been featured on Comcast newsmakers, and interviewed by Kathy O’Connell for WXPN Kids Corner. As a writer, Trinity creates poetry and short stories that focus on her experience of being a Lenape woman. Some of her pieces have been published in the Voices poetry anthology collection and used for local art projects like the Ghost Ship exhibit at Race Street Pier. She has also appeared in local historical documentaries like the Philadelphia Experiment and the Kings Highway.

jacob w.png  Jacob Winterstein is an artist, event producer and educator from Philadelphia. Through performance art, poetry and events, Jacob’s work explores how we have been separated from and how we can joyfully connect with each other and our environments. Jacob is the co-founder of The Philly Pigeon collective which organizes poetry shows, multi-media productions, workshops and artists retreats. Jacob is currently parenting an awesome toddler. He’s writing for the Heinz Wildlife Refuge.
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Li Sumpter is a mythologist and multidisciplinary artist based in Philly. She employs strategies of world-building, D.I.Y. media, Afrofuturism and gameplay to cultivate eco-awareness and community action around the “art of survival.” Li’s artistic practice addresses existential threats to mind, body and spirit through speculative stories that illuminate patterns of resilience and possibilities for change. She has completed various residences for arts and technology, arts and ecology and the literary arts and participated in exhibitions nationwide. Li is a recipient of the 2018 Sundance Institute/Knight Alumni grant, a 3-time recipient of the Leeway Art and Change Grant and a 2020 recipient of the Leeway Transformation Award. She’s writing for the Schuylkill River Trail at Bartram’s Mile.

At the end of March we held a workshop to bring these ten amazing humans into the TrailOff fold and, wow, they did not disappoint. Swim Pony fans, you are in for what I know will be our most intimate and heart-filled project yet. This group is awe-inspiring in their sensitivity, capacity, and thoughtfulness. They are a group of deep and challenging makers that are more than I ever could have imagined when we began to dream of this project years ago.

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Photo: John Hawthorne

More to come in the coming months as their work begins to take form!

Be well. Be kind. Be curious.

Adrienne

A Peek Into TrailOff

Intrepid fans of Swim Pony, founder Adrienne Mackey here with some exciting updates!

You might have heard that we here at Swim Pony HQ have been busy with research for our newest project TrailOff, created in collaboration with the Pennsylvania Environmental Council (PEC) to bring original audio stories to nature trails throughout the Philadelphia region.

Since getting the funding go ahead earlier this year (Thanks NET, William Penn and Barra Foundations!) we’ve been delving deep into that funky space between digital and analog, between the mind’s imaginary space and the natural world. Some of the goals behind TrailOff are practical: for example, how we might offer experiences akin to immersive and site based theater to a wider network of audiences. However, on the macro-level we’re also looking at creative and philosophical questions that reimagine how we experience what form stories can take and who gets to tell them.

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Heinz Wildlife Refuge, Photo: John Hawthorne

Before we get into all that, let’s start with a few quick words we’ve been using to explain what the heck this thing will be:

TrailOff is a brand new mobile app, designed to re-imagine how people interact with recreational trails and, by extension, expand the diversity of users that seek them out. The core of this work lies in the creation of 10 unique narrative walks: intimate journeys that use GPS to link audio storytelling to physical attributes along a mapped route. Each selected path will feature text from a local writer along with underscored music and sound design, all tailored to sync to the movement of a listener as they travel along a trail.

TrailOff grows out of two lines of inquiry that have been simmering in Swim Pony’s pot over the past several years. If you’re even peripherally aware of what the company has been up, you know that we’ve been keen to explore how the design of games and other interactive media might teach theater makers something about how to structure immersive works. The lessons learned in works like WAR OF THE WORLDS have spurred us to dig deeper about what it means to place an audience in the center of an experience. Similarly, projects like WALK AROUND PHILADELPHIA  have spurred a curiosity about what it means to curiously explore the tangible world in relationship to one’s own personal narratives and experiences, with the moving body as the medium through which these two collide. In THE END we got a first chance at blending these impulses, and with TrailOff, we’re also aiming for the process and product to create space for a wider variety of Philadelphia’s voices. In short, this new work is a creative process that will examine the narratives of place – who dominates the meaning we make about the natural world and how we might re-imagining those stories from new perspectives – while simultaneously giving its eventual audiences a visceral experience of literally walking a mile in someone else’s shoes.

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Schuylkill Banks, Photo: John Hawthorne

While we can’t yet share the actual stories that will be part of the project but we can share some creative insight we’ve gained in exploring what aspects of a story best suit this particular format.

In July, Swim Pony and Toasterlab, our tech partners in the TrailOff app creation, undertook a narrative workshop, visiting potential trail sites across the area to explore writing specific to trails. In the same way a novel, screenplay, or standup comedy set all include language but utilize hugely different techniques to best serve their medium, we wanted to learn what kind of story is uniquely heard best while walking and listening through headphones.

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Swim Pony & Toasterlab near Bartram’s Garden,  Photo: John Hawthorne

We took away a LOT from that workshop but a few things stood out. The first lesson seems obvious in retrospect: when writing to place you have to spend LOTS of time there doing the same thing you expect the audience to do. When writing for a form that will eventually require you to move as you listen, it’s best to write in motion and on your feet as well. We spent tons of time walking trails and noticing the stories that made sense there and what we found is that there’s a balance between density of language and the ability to stay connected to what you see. Useful silence is key.

We also found that simple details that connect the listener to the world they are surrounded by are hugely powerful. One of the most effect pieces of language was also the most humble: standing in Heinz Wildlife refuge hearing someone talk about wind washing over reeds.

Our last big summer takeaway was that while this form is tricky on plot-heavy stories – relatively little happens or changes on a trail – it is uniquely well suited to putting you in another’s state of mind. We found language that traversed that space of internal thought or invited us as users into contemplative spaces of our own super exciting.

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Jenna Horton on the Delaware River Trail,  Photo: John Hawthorne

In November, we brought sound designer Mikaal Sulaiman into the mix to delve deeper into the aesthetics of sound as well as an overarching narrative structure for the app . We brainstormed and begin to define how sound will influence the user experience. We also strategized questions about how audio triggering might work. We shared research on other projects that felt inspirational to this one and finally started trying out ideas again in real space.

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Brainstorming notes, Photo: John Hawthorne

A few key takeaways from this workshop centered on the interface experience the user will have. We began wondering narratively who it is that the user is interacting with when they first download TrailOff. Some questions that guided that process:

  • Is there a guide that has put together the overall experience?
  • What is the aesthetic that one encounters as they interact with the app?
  • What is the journey from the first story to the last? What is gained? What is the narrative connection, if any, between each trail?

We began developing a character we’re currently calling The Ranger, a mysterious curator and guide who will over see the experience that each user will have. In tandem with this development we started thinking about the difference between a piece of immersive theater and a pre-recorded audio tour. What is it that makes “liveness” so palpable and special? Why does the story “being there” with the audience matter?

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Adrienne walking Gateway Park,  Photo: John Hawthorne

Finally, we began very functionally playing with ways that sound might overlay story content and actually began testing sound scores underneath previously generated text from our summer workshops. And if you’ve made it this far, I’m guessing you might even like to experience it yourself.

Below are three pieces of audio we experimented with. Stream or download one of files above and play it while you take a walk. Each of these files are an little tests in pairing different kinds of language, music and soundscape. To assess what “works” and doesn’t think about the following:

  • Is the experience you connect most to located in your ears, in the world, or somewhere in between?
  • Are there places where your thoughts are in conversation with what you hear?
  • How much (or little) does the language feel connected to the place you are in?
  • What about this experience feels uniquely suited to this format?
  • Is this even a “story” at all?

 

A Horror Inspired Creature Story

A Banal Convo About Appliances and the Future 

A Nostalgic Tale of Cicada Pee 

 

If you give it a try, we’d love, love, love to add your creative thoughts to our own. Just throw a few thoughts quickly into the box below!