(Marcelo Hernandez Castillo, Tonya Hegamin, Patrick Rosal, Joanna Sit, Leah Vernon) Writers of various ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds discuss their experience in MFA programs as students and teachers of creative writing. The panel will share their experiences, discuss coping mechanisms and insights they learned about themselves as writers and finally how those experiences influence their teaching pedagogy.

Published Date: July 8, 2015


Speaker 1 (00:00:03):

Welcome to the A W P podcast series. This event was recorded at the 2015 A W P conference in Minneapolis. The recording features Marcelo Hernandez, Castillo, Patrick Al, Joanna, sit, and Leah Vernon. You'll now hear Tanya Heman provide introductions.

Speaker 2 (00:00:33):

Hi everybody. The way I sort of envisioned this happening was that I wanted each of our panelists who are absolutely stunning and amazing in their own right to introduce themselves and speak on their experience in an M F A program, and also to speak about their experiences because some of them are educators as well. And then have a sort of talk back with our audience. We're a little small, so I think we're going to sort of let it happen organically. And if you guys have questions in between different panelists, maybe we'll have some time for that so that you can address each panelist and what they're saying and what they're bringing to the table. And I'd love to hear from you also, what are some of your strategies when you have students of color in your classrooms? What are some stories that you have encountered? What are questions that you want to know? And I don't want us to feel like, I think sometimes we feel like we can't talk about things because it's not our place or that other people should be the voice, but each one of us has a singular voice and a singular experience, and it's valid. And that's a part of why this panel is so important to acknowledge that. So first of all, my name is Tanya Hegemann.

Speaker 2 (00:02:01):

Thank you all for coming again. Also, I'll start off by talking about my experience in the academy. I have a bachelor's degree from the University of Pittsburgh in poetry. I learned from the amazing Toy deco, which was probably her tutelage, was probably the reason why I'm standing here today, the author of four books and winner of awards because if I had not had her, I probably would've given up. I probably would not have seen my voice as valuable. And just her presence alone was bolstering and she was starting Kave KA at that time. So it was a really sort of transformative space in the poetry M F A academic criticism world, university of Pittsburgh, I was the only black woman getting a bachelor's degree. There was one woman of color in the graduate program, and we also had one male who had just graduated. So there was just us and Toy and that experience was important and she allowed me to focus on craft rather than content. And she made sure that I understood that my content was what bolstered my craft. But when she invited me to come to, I was incredibly afraid. I was almost mortified because I had never been in a classroom or in a learning experience or in a workshop with all people of color. And that's what's really what resonated with me was that I was afraid to be able to be myself amongst my own people because I had been only sharing my work with people who were different. And that creates a space of defense.

Speaker 2 (00:04:07):

I had a great group of people in my classes, but it also put me on a margin. And when I was faced with coming to the page with other people who were also having unique experiences as people of color, as writers, it was very fearful because I didn't know how they would receive me. The night before I left for Cave Kah, I had a panic attack. I cried my eyes out. My sister was like, I don't understand. This is what you've wanted your whole life. Why are you crying? But I was so afraid because I was afraid of my own voice in a non marginalized space. So going to Cave Khanh obviously was absolutely magical. Got to my hero, Kate Rush, who wrote the bridge poem from this bridge called my Back. She was there. I got to knock on her door at 7:00 AM and be like, please come be poets with me.

Speaker 2 (00:05:06):

And I was able to not just have mentors, but to just broaden my sense of identity and to solidify my sense of identity as a poet, as an author. Fast forward about five years later, I went to the new school for my M F A. When I got there, I knew exactly what I wanted. I knew I was ready to write a novel. I knew what I wanted to do. I had already had a very solid background in craft. But when I got there, the teacher who was an author, not necessarily, it was his first time being an instructor. He had no writers of color on the reading list. And I don't know if any of you know this writer, Virginia Hamilton, who is one of the first writers of young adult and children's literature to ever win a MacArthur. So she's internationally known. She went to the new school and this guy didn't even know about it, and neither did some of the other people in the program who were running it.

Speaker 2 (00:06:11):

They didn't even know. And when I asked my professor about it, I said, I just took him aside and I just said, you don't have any writers of color. He said, I didn't know people were interested in diversity. And then he told me I had to bring in books to talk about it with my classmates. Now, I was paying out of my pocket for this experience, yet I had to teach other people. I had to teach him. And I understand if he was not familiar, but I think that there are better practices in how you approach these instances. I think that if I had been perhaps in his situation, I would have said, well, let me go do some research myself as your instructor. Let me go look and see what I can find. Because fast forwarding and being a teacher and coordinating a creative writing program, I know that it's my job to be the one to open the door for my students.

Speaker 2 (00:07:17):

And as much as they obviously feed me intellectually and they feed me and they teach me, I'm here to be the leader. And so I think that that experience truly shaped how I became a teacher. So now I work at Medgars College, which is an all black institution, not necessarily all black. We're African American, Caribbean, American, African, everything, people from all over the world. So our focus in creative writing, or at least my focus as the coordinator of creative writing, is to be able to give them the magic that Toy Kott gave me as a student. It was very much about the conjuring of the word in her classes, and that in itself was very sustaining, but it was also about making sure that my students understood what they would be up against if they did decide to go to an M F A program.

Speaker 2 (00:08:22):

And when we talk about M F A programs, we have to be clear that MFAs are a privileged space and generally a white space. And I know all of us have probably seen the articles and read them and have commentary on them, but we have to identify the M F A as a privileged space that's being broken down in many ways in our sort of post kave, Kum post, Kon post, all these things. We have a greater awareness, I think, and I think a lot of people are trying to open their worldview, but not everybody, and it's not mandatory. But if we see the M F A program as a privileged space, then we have to make sure that when we are educating, we're not just trying to feed the rich. We have to make sure that everyone in those spaces is nourished. We have to make sure that each identity is allowed to be as multifaceted as it can be because we are not all one fixed identity.

Speaker 2 (00:09:27):

Right. And even if I look at a white student, he's not just a white student, he's a person. He's a human with multiple experiences that I don't understand and I don't want to shut him out because I do have occasionally white students in my class and it's great for me because I'm then challenged in that way to bring them into the conversation and to make sure that they are feeling included. I wrote an article recently for the Children's Book Council about, and it's called Diversity versus Inclusion. I spoke about how inclusion, I believe is the future of diversity. I believe that diversity is a esoteric sort of thought process. It's great on paper, but we can have a diverse classroom. There can be many colors of people, but if only one type of person is catered to or identified as important, then what's the point?

Speaker 2 (00:10:26):

We have to include everyone. We as teachers have to work hard at that because once we start looking at our students as a conglomerate, then they are robots and we are robots. Creative writing sometimes can be a little bit of a triage practice. You can sort of get into a space where you're dealing with people's very personal issues, their very deep seated problems or a multitude of things. If we are looking at it from this emergency room like we're just trying to fix or attend to certain aspects of people, then we're not being creative and we're creative writers. So I just wanted to read a quick quote. I've been reading a identity-based English language learners reader, identity focused English language programs, and it says, if we imagine each of our students as having just one true fixed identity, then we are unlikely to pay much attention to the ways in which classroom school community and other social cultural context shape who students are in our classrooms.

Speaker 2 (00:11:47):

We might conclude, for instance, that a student lacks motivation simply because of her own internal attitudes, applying deficit thinking to fail to notice how cultural expectations have shaped how that student came to see herself at school. And the M F A process is just as much about the writing of the craft as it is about creating an identity and putting it on the page. It is about taking risks. It's about being fearless. And I think that if we approach students of color as specialized, marginalized, exoticized people, then we're not doing our job and we're not servicing them for all of their needs. So I'm going to, who should we start with? Leah, you want to go first? Our little baby, Patrick will go first. So he's going to introduce himself and talk a little bit about his experience and we can pause for questions after he's finished speaking. Thank you.

Speaker 3 (00:13:02):

Morning. Thank you. The thing that being a writer has taught me the best and most thoroughly is how to teach myself. And what that means is that there's a poetics to nearly everything I do. And I imagine all those poetics belong to one another. They move in tandem. I write to figure shit out. I teach to figure shit out. I play piano or guitar, I learn conga so I can figure out my trouble more accurately. I do these things so I can stay inside my trouble long enough that it becomes bearable, maybe even danceable. When rigor, Roberto Gonzalez came last summer to our writer's conference. He said, despite feeling somewhat rootless or without a home as a writer, language was his home. This is important to remember. If you're a writer about to enter graduate school and or planned on entering academia, your home institution is not. Your home language is your home.

Speaker 3 (00:14:08):

My poetics requires me to look back to mind memory, to figure out what my parents immigrants from the Philippines did to make life that make a life that wasn't prescribed or plan for them or even likely for that matter. And that it isn't very different from the way I think about thriving in an M F A program. So I'll tell you a little bit about my folks. My father is an ex-Catholic priest. My mother was a dietician. They met and fell in love in Chicago. This is what I tell myself. If you think academia is a tyrannical system of institutions, try being the son of an ordained Catholic pre-Vatican two theologian or try being the himself. Try being the woman he loves. Try to mend the chasm between your faith, the very thing that is supposed to save you and your desire to be with the person you love in a strange country, one of the few who speaks your native tongue and who knows the roads between your barrios.

Speaker 3 (00:15:09):

Imagine feeling like you have to choose between salvation and love. Imagine being that alone. So one of the things I ask myself is what was that era like? What did my parents do to make it through and what can I learn from what they did? You're talking about the early sixties. My mom arrived actually in 1958, the same year that sugar Ray Robinson would win his last belt in Chicago. And my dad, 1962, a whole narcissistic generation of Americans is going to reject the cleaver family's pearls and forget Senator McCarthy and take acid. They're going to find an excuse to grow their hair along and roll around naked in the grass, which for the record I've never done, but sounds like a ton of fun. And here were two Filipinos ardent Catholics. One a priest in the American Midwest. We're talking about radical transformations of not just the personal and political self, but the ontological self.

Speaker 3 (00:16:05):

They were trying to put meals on the table and they were trying to save their lives if nothing else. My parents' story gives me a concrete example of strategies and survival that we often talk about in the abstract. So let me be more specific in terms of my parents' courtship. There were sanctioned spaces and unsanctioned spaces. There were places, formal and informal gatherings, weddings that were sanctioned, that is they were allowed to be in the same space, but there were rules that restricted what they could do and say. So they had to find other places where it was safe to be with one another, to say things to one another, to love and argue. They had to make those places themselves or more accurately, they had to reinvent already existing spaces. My mom snuck my dad into a room mostly they hid in the public parks of Chicago at night after hours.

Speaker 3 (00:17:07):

It makes me think of June Jordan's, the things I do in the dark. You can see that the metaphors abound here. Official space and unsanctioned space, desire, argument, love. So while my story is most probably unlike anybody else's story in this room, the story of my story is not dissimilar to perhaps the vast majority of people of color embedded in the narratives of our parents or ancestors. If you're lucky enough to be able to draw from them are lessons about how to live. Despite all the very powerful messages which insist that the poems, stories, gatherings, solitudes, people of color live for is silly, redundant, unsophisticated, and sometimes uncivilized. I don't have a methodology exactly. I have questions, which is the method of the method of my madness. Mining your memory, mining your past is a way of confronting the treachery of a single story. You're doing this for yourself, but you're also doing this so you have something to pass on to those who come after you.

Speaker 3 (00:18:21):

So those are my prepared comments. But I also wanted to respond to a couple of things that Tanya said, which is amazing. And I also wanted to say something about the first time, and it's sort of when you talked about Ka khanh, I felt this really deep emotion. I was really moved. I remembered the first time that I was in a room full of Asian American writers and I was the one standing in front of the room. And it was a very similar experience to think that I had gone 35 years, I already published my books and not once been able to look in a room full of people who loved language and writing who looked kind of like me.

Speaker 3 (00:19:06):

White folks probably want to know what happens, what happens in Kave Ka and Mundo and Kon. That's so special a lot. And it's the very thing that we have a hard time we putting into language. We're all writers. That liminal space between what we can actually articulate in words and the thing that we can't articulate in words, that's the experience that people of color find when they're in the company of one another. It's hard for us to convey that, but it's real. It's really, really real. And I think the only other thing that I wanted to say if this allegory of mine wasn't clear was that our pedagogies and the way that we teach writing in M F A programs largely comes from white traditions. You are bringing in now some faculty and increasingly more students into graduate writing programs. What does that mean? That means all of us have modes of speech and storytelling and gathering and lying and preaching that are not yet sanctioned by the official institution. Those modes have to be honored to. And so when white folks sort of ask, well, what can I do? It's like open your mind to other possibilities of language. Just open your mind to the possibility that everybody in your room brings in modes of speech and storytelling that can transform the way that we think about literature. That's what we all can do. Thank you.

Speaker 2 (00:21:00):

Does anyone have any questions for Patrick they'd like to ask right now? Okay, we'll move on to Marcelo. Thank you.

Speaker 4 (00:21:11):

Hey everybody. Thank you so much, Tanya for organizing this. It's such a great space to speak about some of the things that writers of color go through in academic programs in academia in general, and a w P. It's a testament to how many panels of this nature there are at a w p. And I was just that one yesterday. And I do think that we need to pay more attention. Sorry, I just wanted to hit a few points that I wanted to touch on. But first of all, I wanted to talk maybe a little bit about myself very briefly. My family crossed the border in 1993, undocumented and have been undocumented since then. So for 21 years. And my father and mother have been coming back and forth in the states for my father at least since the late seventies, my mother since the eighties.

Speaker 4 (00:22:11):

And it's always been the immigrant struggle, finding the jobs that no one else would want to take. Field work, canneries. My mom never worked in restaurants, but it's mostly agriculture. So that's the kind of family that I grew up into and the kind of family that never spoke about on our undocumented status because that was never allowed. You're never allowed to talk about that. You're never allowed to say, mention that to anybody. And there's a lot of other issues that go along with that. And when it comes to school, it's a big hurdle. Before DACA passed, it was nearly impossible. There was a lot of people who were undocumented going to school, but you basically had to pay for all of it by yourself, which with increasing tuition rates was just impossible. You can't take out a loan, you can't apply for financial aid. So it was very difficult.

Speaker 4 (00:23:03):

I went to community college because that's all I could afford. When it was time to transfer, because I knew I wanted to go to a four year, I transferred to the cheapest closest state school that I could find where I could still live at home and commute back and forth and work full-time to pay it off. So I graduated from Sacramento State and since high school I was interested in poetry. I was interested, not like my experience with it wasn't at first, at least something that needed to go to in order to save me or anything. It was more of I want to prove that I have the chops that I can speak your language, that I can do it better than you. I applied to two M F A programs and I got into Michigan and I actually had no idea how I was going to do it because I dunno if they were going to accept me with my undocumented status, how I was going to pay for it or whatnot.

Speaker 4 (00:24:05):

But I just went where I thought they would be cool with it, where they would have some kind of funding, which they did and they didn't. Had DACA not passed right at that exact moment, I would've had to defer until I adjusted my status. So the fact that DACA passed, everybody know what DACA is, deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which is like a simplified version of the DREAM Act given to students. So because it passed, I was able to stay and teach for the remainder of my program and then continue on to my third year fellowship. But that's basically where I'm coming from. And up to that point, I had never been in a space with only Latinos because unfortunately, my undergrad experience, we read nothing but straight white male poets, dead straight, well dead poets exclusively. I think the only, the first writer of color that we read in that class was Yusef, aka who I lived for.

Speaker 4 (00:25:10):

But it wasn't until I entered the space of Mundo that I had that first experience of being in a space with writers of color, and that's really important. So I wanted to talk about just three points. Some of them admitted what it has to do with the institution of academia, academia, and then some not solutions, but points to address. So some of the obstacles that I've noticed after finishing grad school, me and my friend who was in the audience, Derek at University of Michigan, we started a racial diversity initiative because we saw there was absolutely no diversity. I mean, speaking about the reading list, there were in the poet reading list, there was one woman of color and the second year they had to replace that woman of color with another woman of color because I mean, you just can't have two women of color in the same reading list.

Speaker 4 (00:26:09):

They had to replace Gwendolyn Brooks with Lucille Clifton because my God, you can't have them both. And they replaced James Baldwin with Richard Wright in the following year. So there's a few obstacles that began. First of all, applicant pools for M F A programs in and of themselves aren't diverse enough. I think the statistics that I have that I got from Michigan is it's about 10 to 15% every year. So how do we reach young students, writers of color in undergraduate programs who graduate school is not the norm, but it's the exception for me, it was the exception. Nobody in my family has ever gone to college. So I didn't have any kinds of resources or even people to go to because I still didn't have that community in undergrad. I didn't have kund have people who I know in the poetry world. So how do we increase those numbers?

Speaker 4 (00:27:08):

And one of the things that happened to me was I was just fortunate enough that a good friend of mine now, Eduardo Ral, just reached out to me on Facebook and said, Hey, you're a Latino poet. What are you doing? What are you thinking about? And he's the one who really guided me and told me about MFA programs and read my sample and whatnot. So it's just reaching out first and foremost to those students or those individuals who aren't going to have those kinds of resources, who aren't expected to even then even then in a lot of programs, the Slush PAL readers is another thing. If your slush pal readers are all straight white males, you're not going to get a lot of diversity to begin with. So those are some of the things that we addressed in my program, including recruitment efforts during, we have a welcome weekend where we just want one space for writers of color to meet just with current and perspective.

Speaker 4 (00:28:05):

That didn't happen. There was a lot of bureaucracy, but it's like that in academia. And I wanted to mention one thing is that there's this, it's called, I've read it, it's called White Fragility, that we as writers of color are always catering to make white people comfortable and speaking about race and speaking about diversity and speaking about anything that will benefit us, which is why speaking about race is almost a taboo in workshops. It's almost as if we're writing in a vacuum and our work exists in a vacuum. They're trying to say that you can't speak about craft and race at the same time, which is ridiculous because even if you're white, whiteness is a race. You, you're writing a white experience,

Speaker 5 (00:28:52):

You're whiting a white experience,

Speaker 4 (00:28:54):

You're writing a white experience. So this idea of white comfort is prevalent in academia and it's something that I butted against every single time. I mean since day one is that the priority is white comfort. Whereas what if I don't want to make white people comfortable in regards to teaching? I guess as a teacher and as a teacher of color teaching to mostly white students, it can be sometimes very difficult. But I wanted them to know that discomfort is okay, that the end goal isn't to get rid of discomfort. The end goal might be discomfort to understand your own privilege as a teacher. That's one of the things that I wanted to mention. And I guess going forward with maybe solutions or thoughts for it, I've mentioned race is seen as a taboo in class in writing workshops, in programs in general. But like I said, we're not writing in a vacuum.

Speaker 4 (00:30:03):

And I also wanted to mention this thing about the norm, like the default, which I've been reading in some articles that deal with that is that whenever we're writing or reading, I mean I might be guilty, I'm guilty of it myself at times is when you're reading the person in your head who you're reading with, if race isn't mentioned, it's always automatically assumed to be white. So there are different ways that I think in academia we can disrupt these things and make things uncomfortable. And that's part of it is eliminating this idea of the default, eliminating this need to always want to make people comfortable when talking about race is not always comfortable. So those are the things that coming into grad program I was dealing with. And for those of you in the audience considering grad school now, I would love to talk to you afterwards because I want to reach out to people.

Speaker 4 (00:30:57):

I want to provide any kind of resources that I have, how to apply to grad school, how to write your letters of rec, how to write your statement, and so on and so forth. Because academia reproduces the same power dynamics of race as anywhere else, as a coffee shop, as politics, it reproduces it. There are different masks that racism take on. Nobody wants to be called a racism, but at the same time, people benefit from racist, institutionalized racism. But also at the same time, like I said, nobody wants to be called a racist, but we're all living in the system and academia is no different. I mean, I genuinely very naively thought that it would be different, but it's not. I think mostly faculty and administration almost tend to not want to believe you. You must be making this up. There's no way that this is going on. And it's that same tendency of an institution of authority to not give credit or not believe the experiences that I'm going through that my friends are going through not validate those experiences which are valid. So I will end just with saying it's really important to find your group of people that you can talk these things about. And I think that's all that I had to say about that. If you guys have any questions.

Speaker 6 (00:32:37):

So I

Speaker 7 (00:32:39):

Black woman in my entire graduate department and I write my work is concerned with political social issues as related to black folks. And being the only black woman in my workshops, I get a lot of silence. So this is nice,

Speaker 2 (00:33:03):

The deafening silence.

Speaker 7 (00:33:05):

And so I wondered if you have experienced that or how you sort of make these spaces where people definitely feel that discomfort that you

Speaker 4 (00:33:14):

Were talking about

Speaker 7 (00:33:15):

Productive. Because I often feel like not only am I feeling marginalized because I'm the token, I'm the only one there, but also because I'm not getting the same sort of academic critical feedback as the rest of my white

Speaker 4 (00:33:31):

Peers. And silence is one of those ways in which that reproduces those dynamics of power and race outside of the workshop. It reproduces it. And if you're not talking about it, it's just as bad, almost as bad as somebody saying a hostile comment or anything like that. That happens a lot. And we want to have a writing race interest group in which we're going to talk about specifically about that. And it's really difficult because I guess in my cohort we had, it was the most diverse itself not being that diverse, but it's the most diverse in comparison. So we were able to establish a space in which we can invite everybody and talk about it. But I mean in the actual workshop, if you're just confronted with that silence again time and time again, it's just numbing. It can be disastrous for a writer and it can lead you to think that

Speaker 2 (00:34:34):

I often talk to my students about, and in fact I require my students to have questions prepared when they are going into workshop so that when there is that silence, you provide the voice, you know what you need to hear or what questions you need to ask and what needs to be addressed. And so you have to empower yourself by constructing, and it's terrible to say, I hate saying this, but you often have to teach them how to understand you. And that might not be your place and you might feel a little confused about that. But see your work as you would ask questions of other people, have them answer specific questions because that's the only way to eradicate silence is by using your own voice up in the back.

Speaker 7 (00:35:31):

Why is it that people of color, especially in we white and black, no, no Latino, nothing, which sort of bothered me as a Californian. So how is it that we validate people of color as actual writers of literature?

Speaker 4 (00:35:51):

I mean there's three things that I read this earlier. There's three things that you can do if they're living is buy their work, share it with others. But going to professors and telling them, asking them very frankly, why is there only this many people of color on your reading list asking those kinds of questions? I mean, you'd be surprised where people would say, people have the luxury and the privilege of saying, gee, I've never thought of that. How comfortable going to them and telling them why is there is this split dynamic? Why is there a dichotomy of between just black and white? And I guess if you guys want to talk to that.

Speaker 2 (00:36:40):

Well, I mean for myself, I feel like because I also am a literary writer and in my M F A space, I write about mostly black girls in rural settings in 1848. Nobody wants to hear that, really. And that's what people tell me. People have told me that all the time. And I'll see my colleagues who are writing solely urban fiction, commercial fiction, they're bought and sold very rapidly and easily. But you have to maintain your conviction in what literature is. You cannot rely on Claude McKay alone to be your nourishment in poetry. And you have to also be the one to go out and buy Patrick's books and to go see Marcelo when he is doing these readings and to invite your, is exactly what he said, to invite your teachers, invite your other students. And I had to speak to, after I spoke to my professor about diversity, I then went to the chair of the department and said, I want to put together a celebration of multicultural children's literature.

Speaker 2 (00:37:52):

And that was how I met my agent and that was how I sold my first books in my first year of school. And I think this is something that happens a lot, I think as writers of color become defensive and we've been taught to use that defense as it's possible to use that as empowerment. You know what I'm saying? There are ways to use it so that it bogs you down and there are ways to use it so that it empowers you. I went and found all of these diverse writers who I hadn't even heard of and I had to shame myself for not knowing these people. So when you are in that space, you cannot think of the M F A, as Patrick was saying, as your home language literature is your home. You build that house. So wherever it is that you go, you have to be very clear that you will be building your house from scratch. And if you embrace that and then let it be an empowering thing, then you will succeed in any M F A program no matter where you are.

Speaker 8 (00:38:55):


Speaker 2 (00:38:55):

Guys. Thank you. Marcella. There was one question front. One more question. I

Speaker 8 (00:38:59):

Have one sort of related to that, and I guess I feel kind of weird asking because

Speaker 2 (00:39:03):

Has don't

Speaker 8 (00:39:04):

Everything to do with catering white, but I guess is there a way, because I feel like I've encountered this as a student of color in MYFA program, Asian American in my M program, whether there's a way to approach your professors about introducing more brightness of color.

Speaker 2 (00:39:28):

Yeah, you just have to be bold like, and this is what my, I'm a very introverted person generally, I'm very shy. And to ask this person that and then to open myself up to the repercussions of that, he suddenly started using the word nely all the time and I was like, seriously? He was like, but it's just a word. I was like, but I had to deal with that because if you're going to approach any publisher, you're also going to come across mainly white people who don't have any clue. I was speaking to a friend who was in a reading workshop with editors and agents. It was an entirely white group and my friend is white. And when they spoke about they did not want to, like Marcella was saying, they didn't want to talk about race at all. They said content, we just want to talk about the craft.

Speaker 2 (00:40:24):

But that's like looking at a bridge and only wanting to know how many screws are used to build it. That's not the bridge. We have to be willing to take that risk because in order to be published, in order to do what you want to do, but you're there to do, you got to go get it. And unfortunately, that's the sort of problem here is that students of color, queer students, religiously minority students, we have to work harder. And we've heard this so often and a lot of times writing is the space where we go to not feel that. But you have to understand that these are just people and if you approach them in an angry way, you're going to get that anger back. If you approach them with question in an open sort of way, whatever, it's they come back with, you can always say that you did your best.

Speaker 2 (00:41:22):

And I know that that's not exactly an answer for you, but I do really think that you have to be, you got to get those breast ovaries shined up and asked the questions you need answered because he's not going to know what you need. It's like in a relationship, you have to tell people what you need in order to get what you want. So I really want this space to be an empowering space. Never let people silence. You never think your questions are not valuable. And if you are met with defense, then you take it to the next level. You can talk to the chair. And if that chair doesn't listen to you, you take it to the provost. And if those people are not interested, then you know that the institution itself is the problem. And then I say, go to the news. But you have to, in a way, shame people into recognizing who you are, shame them not in a way to call them out. I mean, obviously you probably want to take that person to the side after class, but you have to say, I need this and I need you to understand what I need and I need you to, because I am paying for you to teach me. So this is what I need out of for my education. Why don't we hold, and I'm sorry to do this, but why don't we hold off because we've not going to a whole lot of time. Lets left. So let's let Joanna speak and then Leah Vernon. So Joanna, sit.

Speaker 9 (00:43:02):

Hi everyone. Thank you.

Speaker 9 (00:43:08):

I'm going to make mine short and sweet, I think, and actually coming after this conversation, I think is a good kind of transition in terms of the discussion between race and craft. And so I think that what I'll do is, I'll start with an anecdote. When I was in my M F A program at Brooklyn College, I studied with Allen Ginsburg and Susan Schafer, and they have, the two of them have very different styles. And I was the only Asian American in that program, in the poetry program. I had two completely different approaches to my work. And Alan would talk about the economy of language, and he was very concerned with my overuse of articles and prepositions, but he never talked about the content of my work. So I went on, I think my first year kind of reading other people. And in my class mostly there was me, and then there was Paul Beatty, I dunno if you know him, but he was the only African-American there in poetry as well.

Speaker 9 (00:44:28):

So the two of us were kind of token people. And so one day when it was my turn to do a poem, I had been working on this poem called Cville. So my last name is S, and it's sort of like my little funny way of doing some memory things, stories that my mother told me over the years. And so I brought it to Alan and he took away all the ths and the ofs and all of that. And then I took it to the other workshop. And so I'm going to just read a poem. Well, the poem is kind of long because there are many different stories. So I'm going to just read a little segment of it in the interest of time and tell you what happened after. This is a third one. It's called Cville. And this is the third story. It wasn't famine so much as war, although I've heard they're the same.

Speaker 9 (00:45:25):

When she was born, her father said she was the moon that fell from the sky and hired two maids and a wet nurse just for her. We'd watch her play in the fields when we were tending the cows and were jealous of her fine silks and her little slippers. After he died, his second wife allowed her one meal a day. One night she stole a cake from the hidden jar, the stepmother counted the cakes and smashed her fingers with a hammer. So these are the, not the same story, but sort of the same trajectory. And so when I read the poem, everybody in my class, they clapped and they said more, more, more. And I didn't know at that time that they really wanted more stories. And so I was kind of like the Amy 10 of my class. It took me a long time.

Speaker 9 (00:46:24):

And so I went home because I've never been in a M F A program before. I've never had poetry workshops before. And so when I went home and I wrote all these memoir pieces thinking that, oh, this is what they like and this is what makes me special. And I did that for a while and I realized that some of the stories I was not really, if they weren't good, I mean they were good stories, but they were not good on the page, on the line. The lines were bad. And I start to realize that much later. And then so it took me a long time, that reaction gave me such a pure sense of pride that I just continue for a long time forgetting myself and forgetting my mission. And Dorothy Wang, in her book, Asian American Thinking is Presence. She says that the occlusion or ignoring of race by critics and poets is equally as disturbing as the fetishization of racial and ethnic content and identity.

Speaker 9 (00:47:32):

In my workshop experience, it's been tied up with the ladder. And it took a long time for me to realize that and to work around to the former. And then it took me even longer to create a synthesis of both things and to recognize that you can occupy two spaces at once. So now that I'm teaching at Medgar Evers with Tanya, the advice I would give to my poetry students is that be aware of what your readers are reading into writing, although you don't necessarily do anything about it that know that how other people read your work reveals as much about them as you, the poet. And that be sure that you're not undermining your own poetic integrity by telling stories that others want to hear, but you might not be ready to write or to tell. And be sure to always work towards occupying two spaces at once, mastery of your prosody and who you are, and that's nationally, racially, sexually, linguistically, religiously.

Speaker 9 (00:48:39):

And be sure to claim your story before you allow others to own it, because at the end, the fetishization of your stories and the exoticization of your stories become their property and become an act of appropriation. And that's okay. I mean, you put it out there that then you're offering it and that's okay. But I do think that you have to own it in the way that you want to put it out there before you allow that to happen and not let other people define it and then give it back to you. And then you lose control of who you are. And that's my experience, and this is what I do to help my students in terms of how they write and how they approach their work. Thank you.

Speaker 2 (00:49:40):

We're going to hold off from questions and let Leah speak. This is Leah Vernon.

Speaker 10 (00:49:51):

Good morning everybody. As everyone was talking, I was just looking at everybody in the audience. Thank you for coming out. Number one. I know it's early, and number two, I don't think I've ever been in a room where there was so much diversity. Usually it's one type of person in the room, so that's nice. That's really nice. I'm going to start off with a short bio. Well, not with short a little bio. I think it's important that you understand how I got to the M F A program before I start to actually talk about that. So I am a fashion blogger, fashionist style blogger, but before that I was a writer. Well am a writer now. So basically I love young adult dystopian novels, light fantasy novels, sci-fi, stuff like that. That's what I read. I also teach foreign children from Yemen, Bangladesh, India. So that's kind of what I teach.

Speaker 10 (00:50:57):

So basically this is my little story before I start. Okay. So growing up, basically I was obsessed with young adult literature authors like CS Lewis and RL Stein, JK Rowling, those are the books that I grew up reading. All those people that I just named were white. So these are the books that I grew up reading. I never knew that there were African-American writers that just in my world, it didn't exist, which is at the time I didn't know the implications of it. Now, looking back on it, I definitely can see that that's a problem for an African-American girl to not know that these books exist. I'm sure they did, but it wasn't an abundance in the library because that's where I got my books from the library. What's the other place? Walden books. These are the places I frequented. That wasn't what was in the young adult section.

Speaker 10 (00:51:52):

There was white authors. So one day I was like, let me just write a story and just authors that I love write kind of how they were writing. So I did it. So I wrote my little first book at seven years old. Well, it wasn't a book, it was like four pages. It was called The Prince and the Princess, which I sent to the Reading Rainbow Contest. Didn't win, but it was my first dose of writing my little book. So basically as I grew up, I basically did a lot, a little poetry, mostly short stories, like young adult stuff. I did that. So I was homeschooled. I graduated at 16 and I went straight to college after that. So when I was 17, I was like, you know what? I'm going to actually write a book because I want to be a novelist. I don't really want to do the whole school thing. I was going to write a book. So during my business classes, I would write my book. It was so stupid, it was so embarrassing. I'm not going to tell you what it was about. Super, okay, it was a plus-sized superhero.

Speaker 10 (00:52:52):

So I wrote this book and soon as I finished it, I sent it off to the agents in New York. I'm going to get it. I'm going to, I'm going to be top. I'm going to be up there. So I sent it out. Some people, some agents actually wanted to see the whole manuscript, sent it out. She sent me the letter back saying that it wasn't polished enough. I'm like, what? This is a bestselling novel. What are you talking about? I'm 17, I'm a genius. So basically she sent it back and it was like, no, all the rejection letters piled up. And I'm like, I don't think this is for me. And I was like, I looked at the people that I enjoyed reading, and I'm like, none of them look like me. None of them are me. So basically, who are you to do it?

Speaker 10 (00:53:35):

So that's what I stopped writing for. Maybe throughout college I stopped writing. So from 17, 18, 19, 20, graduated at 20, I stopped writing until about 21. So there's a four or five year gap where I never wrote a thing. So basically after that, I started questioning what was going on, how you're in your early twenties and you start questioning life, that yada, yada, yada. So basically it was a question of where do I go from here? After I graduated, worked a bull crap job in the business industry, hated it. It's too cutthroat for me. I'm not that type of person. I'm already antisocial. So I'm like, this is definitely not for me. Quit that job. So then deep depression, blah, blah, blah. And I'm like, what? So basically this depression took me into what do you really want to do with your life? What have you always loved to do?

Speaker 10 (00:54:22):

And I'm like writing. So I think I was 22 when I wrote my second book. And this time I edited. I did edit it this time. I was going to send it out to agents without editing. So I did that. Again, it was denied. I rejected. I got some interest, but they were all rejected. I'm like, okay, this is not cool. I'm like, okay, keep trying, keep trying. So I order all these craft books, yada, yada. Got into some online workshops, third book, done, again, rejected. I'm like, this is a problem for me. I'm not quite sure why this is happening to me in my head, I see these visions and these dreams, but it's not happening for me. So that's where the MA came from. I took a couple of creative writing classes. One of my teachers, he was very eclectic, a little angry in class, but I enjoyed the fact that he had an M F A and that he was teaching and he was writing on the side.

Speaker 10 (00:55:15):

He did screen, I think he did plays and stuff like that. He also wrote short fiction. So I'm like, what degree do you have? He's like, oh, I have an M f A from Goddard College. I'm like, Goddard, that's interesting. I'm like, how long did it take to get this? And I'm asking all the questions. He's like, yeah, I would definitely write a recommendation letter to get in Goddard College for the M F A program. So I'm like, okay, cool. So basically I did some research with some other MA programs. So basically there was three. There was Wilkes University, Goddard College, and a third one. So the entire day, I'm calling these colleges and trying to see which one will fit me. I live in Michigan, and these are all out of state, which was also scary. It's another story. I called two of the colleges, got her in the other college.

Speaker 10 (00:56:00):

They did not return my phone call. They did not call me back. Wilkes, she did answer the phone. I don't know who I spoke to. I don't know who it was, but she was so welcoming over the phone, and I'm very thorough and very direct, and I asked her for a thousand questions. She stayed on the phone with me for at least an hour while I asked her these questions. The last question I had in Wilkes Bury, Pennsylvania, I'm from Detroit. I have no idea where that is or where it was. I asked her, I'm like, okay, so this is Wilkes Bury. What's the diversity here? She's like, this is what you did. I'm going to tell you the truth. There's diversity, but not that kind. I'm like, please tell me more. And she's like, well, I mean we have people from all different walks of life, but not color diversity. I said, thank you for telling me the truth, because this is what I need to know. Coming to a situation that I don't know anything about. I've been in classes for the white people and stuff like that already, so I know how they roll.

Speaker 10 (00:57:08):

African Americans. I've been with Middle Easterns, I've been in with all different types of people, but just let me know upfront. They accepted me. Shockingly dunno why they accepted me. And then I went there and my cohort, which is some of them are sitting up there or a couple of them, it was a class full of white people. All of them were white. And I walked in like oh, oh, oh, retreat to back. I was afraid initially. And that was my own reverse racism is that I felt like they were not going to accept me for whatever reason. So I was intimidated by them. So I was like, they're not going to understand what I'm writing, yada, yada, yada. They're just not going to get it. So I was very withdrawn for the first I, I would say high or whatever, but I was very withdrawn, which is my own fault because I missed out on some great people in the class.

Speaker 10 (00:57:59):

So what I would say about the MA program, and I'm currently in the M F A program now. I should be getting it in June. I have my already in fiction. I finished my thesis. So basically what I would say about the MA program and the M F A program at Wilkes, and I don't know about the other schools, that's the only I went to. But I love the fact that they're very cool. You know what I mean? It's like, I know Wilkes is really cool. You would think majority are Caucasians, which I definitely think that it needs to be up in diversity in that area. And also teachers too. I feel like they need to be more teachers of diversity because a lot of students of color, they need that to see this mixture. They don't need to see just one type of person while they're in the academic field or academia.

Speaker 10 (