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Q&A: Black Mountain Institute's New Director is Finding Paradise

Colette LaBouff, executive director of BMI
Colette LaBouff, executive director of BMI

Colette LaBouff talks poetry, painting, and the immediate future of BMI

The Black Mountain Institute, Southern Nevada’s literary anchor, has taken a public relations gut punch. The former director resigned after exposing himself during a Zoom meeting with staff, prompting employees to anonymously pen an open letter that detailed “a fractured workplace rife with pay and labor inequalities.” Not long after that scandal died down, UNLV, where BMI is nestled in the English department, soldThe Believer, the respected but financially insolvent literary magazine.

Whoever took on BMI had to be a Zen master. Colette LaBouff, the author of the 2008 poetry collection Mean and former director of the Taos Arts Center in New Mexico, says she’s up for the challenge. She believes in taking desert tortoise steps: small and steady. It's the best way she sees forward for BMI while attracting and developing staff.

On a recent afternoon over Zoom, LaBouff talked about what she hopes the next year looks like for BMI, her connection to the city, and how it’s the same as — but different from — Taos.

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You said in a press release that you’re ready to listen. What has the Las Vegas community been saying to you?
I really like to hinge on possibilities. I feel what I’ve heard since I’ve gotten here is that people are excited about BMI, and they’re excited about what could happen. I don’t have a lot of people knocking down my door and telling me what I should be doing.

What have you been doing?
Steering feels like a really good word for me because I’m not doing it alone. It’s meant working on the team here, hiring people, being a part of that process, and taking it slow. That has been a huge thing for me, and it goes back to listening. Steering in another respect is easier because BMI is well-supported. Being part of a larger institution is not like being a nonprofit. The steering is supported in many ways by a team, the staff, an institution, and the community. It’s totally different, but it’s still steering.

Las Vegas and Taos are similar in that they’re not necessarily associated with literary movements. How do the audience and artists show up in the two cities?
What feels similar to me is the small-town quality of Las Vegas. There are tons of people coming in and leaving. Then there are the people who live here. Taos is like that, though it’s semi-rural. Taos’ population booms in the summer and winter months because of skiing. There’s a real affinity for these two places that are highly reliant on a tourist industry — albeit very different.

There is a writing community in Taos, but there’s more visual art. My feeling is there’s a lot more openness to what makes a writing and artist community here (Las Vegas). There’s a lot more conversation between different kinds of artists and different kinds of writers. In a place like Taos, again, partly because it’s a small town, it’s harder, because there’s a small group living here not having the benefit of something like BMI. Las Vegas feels like there’s more possibility.

BMI is staffed with writers and artists like you. What inspires you to write as part of your day-to-day routine?
I’m always looking for something I could really sink my teeth into, like research. Or something I can get excited about and learn more about — a world I could understand that I don't know anything about. Most of my writing starts with something I do or that is experiential and not outside of my life. This essay I'm working on now is actually about looking for work. What that process is like, what it involves, what it means to find meaning in what you do and have that be what your job is.

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I’m also inspired by images and visual stuff. I take a lot of pictures. Part of my writing practice is to make pictures every day. I use my Instagram account to work through things by images, captioning them, and seeing if I can make some headway writing that way.

Is there a writing influence in your family?
My aunt Margie, my mom's youngest sister. She was a writer for Saturday Night Live in the early ’80s. One of my favorite memories of her was when she invited me to New York City. I think I was 15. I got to be with her and go around town to do these things that seemed like big city things with a writer, and it was just awesome.

When you move, is there something that helps you feel at home?
It’s my father’s paintings. When I put my dad’s paintings up, I know that I live somewhere. It’s one of the first things I do when I move. I put the paintings up on day one.

Las Vegas is not unfamiliar to me. I grew up visiting Las Vegas because my grandfather lived here from the 1960s until his death in 2007. People warned me about the heat. I was like, “I know.” Then people warned me that it’s not all the Strip and I was like, “Yeah, I know.”

In your poem, 1652 you write about John Milton’s life events that year. Milton lost his vision. His wife perished in childbirth, and six weeks later his only son died. During that time, Milton began working on some of his best poems, including the epic Paradise Lost. As you rebuild from BMI’s losses, what kind of year do you hope for in 2023?
My hope is that the year is spent on nurturing. That has to do with not only staffing, but (also) making a work situation, a team that feels excited about being a part of BMI and having them create energy here among us that can be supportive of UNLV and the community. This whole year is about doing the things we’ve always done but looking at how we grow next while taking the time for that. There’s a lot of deep work to be done for a literary organization. It’s not flashy. It’s not this amazing glitzy thing.

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Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for clarity and length.