Constance Collier-Mercado razes walls between literary and artistic genres

Now, South Arts has honored the Atlanta writer, poet and all-around creative for her independent vision.
Constance Collier-Mercado at the Hambidge Center in Northeast Georgia where she was selected for a residency as a Fulton County Distinguished Fellow.

Credit: Photo by Amanda Greene

Credit: Photo by Amanda Greene

Constance Collier-Mercado at the Hambidge Center in Northeast Georgia where she was selected for a residency as a Fulton County Distinguished Fellow.

This story was originally published by ArtsATL.

Constance Collier-Mercado introduces herself with many names: experimental writer, poet, visual artist and cultural worker. But these are not strict labels; instead, each practice expands into the other intuitively. Collier-Mercado’s work is multidisciplinary and explores the present cultural and political moment while looking back to roots and lineage.

Seated in her neighborhood library in Southwest Atlanta, surrounded by shelves of books, Collier-Mercado says the written word comes first to her but quickly bleeds into ideas for work in different genres.

“Once I’ve got some words on paper, it’ll start to buzz things for me. I’m like, oh, this could be a visual art thing, this could be a performance piece, this could be a short film — but usually I need the concreteness of the words first, and that’ll expand lots of different directions from there.”

Though a sense of ease surrounds her when she explains her process, it hasn’t always been easy working outside of category. Early on, Collier-Mercado was overlooked when pursuing opportunities that resisted the idea of working in multiple genres.

“For a long time, I felt like I was in a space where outside voices were telling me that I had to choose one or the other and make it very neat.”

Constance Collier-Mercado has been named the 2024 Georgia Fellow for Literary Arts as part of the Southern Prize and State Fellowship from South Arts.

Credit: Photo by Lauren Cross

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Credit: Photo by Lauren Cross

Collier-Mercado chose to go down a more unconventional path, finding resources to construct her own opportunities. Now she’s being recognized by South Arts for the very nature of her work.

In May, Collier-Mercado was named the 2024 Georgia Fellow for Literary Arts as part of The Southern Prize and State Fellowship from South Arts, the Atlanta-based, nonprofit arts organization working toward increasing access to arts and culture in the South. The Southern Prize for Literary Arts rewards high-quality literary work and artistic excellence that represent the American South, focusing on fiction in 2024.

This year marks the first year of the literary category, joining the existing visual arts category. The category will include other literary genres such as creative nonfiction, playwriting and poetry in the future. The award is accompanied by a $5,000 grant and publication in an anthology featuring work by the fellows, representing nine Southern states. The award culminates in a panel discussion at the Mississippi Book Festival, held in Jackson in September, where the winner of the Southern Prize — which comes with an additional $25,000 — will be announced.

For Collier-Mercado, the award cements her sense of belonging in the South. “This really gives me the affirmation that, if I felt like I didn’t belong here enough or I wasn’t true to this space enough, that something in that writing is ringing,” she said.

Having grown up in Chicago and the Bronx before moving to Georgia in 2007, Collier-Mercado is often thinking about the connections between her Northern upbringing and deep familial roots in the South. Moving to Atlanta was crucial in shaping her artistic identity and career. “I found my political and creative home here. I was able to grow up here in a way that’s served me really, really well,” she said.

Much of her early poetry was filled with an angst about identity — a feeling that settled into acceptance after her move.

“My poetry is my proving and testing ground for things that maybe in a larger scale can wind up in some other writing or visual art thing,” Collier-Mercado said. Her poems drew from the natural environment around her. ”Haiku for Georgia,” for example, draws upon ideas of transformation through the image of a flower, with “Objective: full BLOOM” as its stated goal.

These days, Collier-Mercado is thinking a lot about fiction. She is almost finished with a novel, an excerpt from which she was awarded by South Arts. Collier-Mercado describes the upcoming novel as an adult coming-of-age story following a Black girl with schizophrenia who hears voices — made up of family members from different generations — that call her to embark on a hero’s journey.

The work is Collier-Mercado’s response to the hero’s journey trope — usually featuring young, male protagonists — and rarely people of color. She challenges the traditional narrative by highlighting an underrepresented voice navigating issues of mental health and identity. Collier-Mercado’s protagonist faces a conflict between her Northern identity and a Southern call to action; the voices she is called by hold a distinctly Southern aesthetic and dialect.

“Ultimately, she must decide what’s more real: managing her schizophrenia, solving the mission that she’s been called to or both.”

Collier-Mercado describes her upcoming novel as an adult coming-of-age story following a Black girl with schizophrenia who hears voices — made up of family members from different generations — that call her to embark on a hero’s journey.

Credit: Courtesy of Constance Collier-Mercado

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Credit: Courtesy of Constance Collier-Mercado

In the past, Collier-Mercado has faced rejections from fellowships and grants that advised her that if she didn’t pick one genre she risked mediocrity, a notion she resisted. Unable to find an outlet aligned with her creative philosophy, she created one. In 2011, she founded a cultural arts organization, the CultSTATUS Arts Haven, to carve out a niche around ideas of multiculturalism and to elevate the African diaspora and communities of color. The organization draws from the idea that there is strength in diverse cultural backgrounds, which directly informs art making.

“We’re always pulling from multiple sources, and it doesn’t feel hectic or chaotic. And so how could I create a space that mimicked and re-created just the natural flow that exists within our personal cultural backgrounds,” Collier-Mercado said.

One project Collier-Mercado started through the organization was the Hoo-Doula/Voo-Doula Book Club, which began in 2016 as a one-night event and expanded into a monthly meeting. The discussions focused on texts surrounding global Black traditions and the Afrofuturist arts.

Collier-Mercado has also found alignment in fellowships, enriched by the physical place and metaphorical space they provide for artistic growth. It was during her first fellowship, the Jack Jones Literary Arts retreat in 2019, that she finally began her novel. And, during an independent poetry and art residency at the Stay at Nearview, in Columbia, South Carolina, Collier-Mercado found her grandmother’s old home address and spent time tracing family roots in the state.

Today, Collier-Mercado feels that multidisciplinary approaches are welcomed.

“I think it has a lot to do with the political climate that we’re in now, and folks needing to find ways to use their art, to make a statement in a way that’s not as under the control of institutions. When we’re very heavily controlled by institutional forces, then I feel like there’s a really strong pressure to make it fit in a single box. [Now] artists and writers and creators are pushing back a little bit more against those institutions and doing things more independently,” she said.

She attributes the resurgence to the cyclical nature of cultural movements, emphasizing that artists have been incorporating various artistic disciplines for decades. Her work draws from the Afro-surrealist tradition, which leans into Black cultural aesthetics and envisions a Black identity free from imposed structures.

“I think surrealism, especially as a visual art aesthetic, is really about a blurring of discordant things that wouldn’t normally go together in a way that gets out of strict form or function. And I think that’s the way I approach the different genres I work in. I’m melting them into each other,” Collier-Mercado said.

The objective, as she writes in “Haiku for Georgia,” is to achieve “full BLOOM.” The capitalization in the next line, “petals flung open WILDLY,” creates a forward momentum — a playful call to unfurl into multiple, overlapping directions.


Mitali Singh is a writer living in Atlanta.

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