Person of interest: Tameka Cage Conley, poet and playwright

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Writer Tameka Cage Conley has had 20 or so poems accepted for publishing; her play "Testimony" was performed at the August Wilson Center for African American Culture and an excerpt of it was performed in Los Angeles and Sydney, Australia.

It's a novel, however, that she started years ago in graduate school, that has gnawed at her. She's put it aside time and time again as she's pursued a Ph.D., and teaching duties at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pa.; Duquesne University; University of Pittsburgh; the Community College of Allegheny County; and Chatham University. She also worked part time from fall 2012 until last spring at The Neighborhood Academy, a college prep school for low-income students in the East End.

But now the time has come. This past summer, her experience at a writing conference in California spurred her to stop teaching and write full time to complete her novel, "This Far, By Grace," which traces a black family over 60 years.

"I had an overwhelming response to my novel," she said of her trip to the Squaw Valley Community of Writers conference.

Then the Pittsburgh Foundation announced last month that she had received a $13,000 grant from the Eben Demarest Trust Fund, which is provided each year "to an artist or archaeologist to support creative and intellectual independence."

That will help Ms. Conley, 36, of East Liberty, to write full time this year.

"About a third of it's finished," she said about her novel.

"When I'm in a rhythm, I write anywhere from three to five hours a day," she said. "When I'm not, I'm always thinking of writing, so when I get to my computer, I know exactly what to do. ...

"Everything I do involves the act of writing, regardless of whether I have a pen in my hand or my laptop open."

She said that she already has two agents in New York who are interested in reading her novel when it's completed.

As a recipient of the Eben Demarest grant, she's in prestigious company: Past grantees include painter Jackson Pollock (1948), poet Robert Duncan (1975), sculptor Carol Rubenstein (1979), painter Brendan O'Connell (2003), painter Rebecca Campbell (2011), and dancer/choreographer Kyle Abraham (2012).

Ms. Conley still is writing poetry and plays, too.

Some of her poetry was published in the literary journals Fledgling Rag, Chapter & Verse and Callaloo. Other of her poems are forthcoming in Driftless Review, Portable Boog Reader, Huizache and African American Review.

A native of Louisiana, Ms. Conley graduated in 1999 from Dillard University in New Orleans with a bachelor of arts degree and then in 2006 completed her doctorate degree in English at Louisiana State University. At Louisiana State she was the recipient of the Huel Perkins Doctoral Fellowship and the Lewis Simpson Distinguished Dissertation Award.

She made the move to Lewisburg to teach literature at Bucknell when she learned of the opening from a professor at Louisiana State. But after two years, she was looking for a new challenge. "I thought Pittsburgh would be a good place to get a university job because of the number of colleges and universities here."

She married her husband, David D. Conley, a native Pittsburgher, whom she met while she was at Bucknell, in 2009. He is an actor here.

"I don't think any other city could have fostered my growth as an artist in quite the way Pittsburgh has. I've only lived here for six years, but I've found a great deal of generosity here, particularly from the arts community," she said. "There are so many great young artists here, and I sense there is a neo-renaissance for artists of color, which is exciting to be a part of."

Pohla Smith: psmith@post-gazette. com or 412-263-1228.

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