Commitment to community part of ASU creative writing alums' continuing story
Any writer will tell you their craft is a mostly solitary one, requiring hours of time spent alone on reflection, execution and revision before a story finally emerges. But when your job is to share accounts of human life in the hopes of enriching others, a good understanding of people is clutch.
The people who founded ASU’s creative writing master’s program knew this, and made it an integral part of the philosophy behind the program, encouraging their students to be “artist-citizens” who are engaged in the community and committed to making good things happen in the world through their work.
“Writing is this solitary act, but ultimately it’s for this vast audience and it’s meant to give something to other people,” said Jenny Irish, assistant director of the program. “And [community engagement] is a wonderful opportunity for our students to think about all of the ways that the work that they’re doing is not about them but is about a world beyond them.”
Irish, herself a graduate of the program, exemplifies that sentiment through her involvement in a variety of ongoing community outreach projects, as do her fellow alumni. ASU Now tracked down a couple of them to find out what they’ve been up to since officially becoming masters of their craft — turns out, the artist-citizen thing is sticking.
Video by Deanna Dent/ASU Now
On a recent Friday evening in downtown Phoenix, Venita Blackburn stood at a microphone in a coffee shop on Fillmore Street and introduced a handful of writers from her Live Right workshop, a cross-genre workshop for writers of color, before they took the mic themselves to read pieces of their work aloud to an audience for the first time.
“I wrote this because I felt like it needed to be written,” workshop member Jen Vargas said before launching into a story titled “Carmen,” in which she recounted attending her mother’s funeral and being stared down by a trio of older women asking each other in Spanish, “Who’s that white girl?”
The reading was sponsored by the Phoenix Poetry Series and included a brief introduction by Phoenix Poet Laureate and ASU lecturer Rosemarie Dombrowski.
Blackburn, an instructor on ASU’s Downtown Phoenix campus, graduated from the creative writing MFA program in 2008. As a student, the Compton, California, native craved more exposure to contemporary voices of color. She found what she was looking for partly by attending workshops like VONA, founded in 1999 by Dominican American writer Junot Diaz.
VONA, Blackburn said, was “designed to sort of fill that gap, that need, in MFA programs, where [people of color] could feel a little bit drowned out.”
She described her experience at that conference as “powerful” and was determined to bring something similar to Phoenix and ASU. For two years now, she has been facilitating the Live Right workshop as a place for writers of color to come together and develop their craft in an environment that is supportive of diverse perspectives.
Vargas, the author of “Carmen,” said, “The workshop Venita has put together allows writers of color the opportunity to take their stories into the community, empowering the writer to find value in their work.”
This fall, Blackburn will be teaching a course at ASU modeled off her workshop. It’s open to everyone, but the writing samples and discussions will focus on contemporary writers of color.
Around the same time, she’ll be celebrating the release of her first book, a collection of short stories titled “Black Jesus and Other Superheroes,” for which she received the Prairie Schooner Book Prize.
“It has a central theme around people with the worst superpowers that you can imagine, and looks at how they not only cope with life but how they live under these kinds of — well, they seem to be sort of restrictions rather than gifts at that point,” Blackburn said.
Living in the world as a member of a marginalized group, she added, can feel like “there are forces working against you in a way. And that whole superpower thing gives you an idea [of what it would be like to] have a secret exemption that can kind of launch you forward. So it’s a fun idea. And I’ve always been an X-Men fan.”
Blackburn is already at work on her next book, a novel titled “Guts,” which she said will have a similar magical-realism feel.
About 115 miles southeast of Phoenix, fellow program alum Adrienne Celt is fresh off her year as Pima County Library's writer-in-residence. The position was part of a new statewide initiative to make professional writers available to the public for guidance in reading and writing.
During those 12 months, Celt held office hours two times a week at various Tucson library locations, talking with whoever was interested about their latest projects, difficulties they were having with the process or even what they were reading at the time.
“It was just incredible, the degree to which I felt like I was tapped into the spirit of the community and had something to give back to it,” Celt said. She also held a free monthly workshop and spent time at the libraries working on some writing of her own.
Now settled in Tucson, Celt originally hails from Seattle but lived a somewhat nomadic lifestyle in the meantime. A “non-exhaustive list” on her website’s “about” page lists Iowa, California, Chicago and St. Petersburg, Russia, as previous places of residence. During her time as a creative writing master’s student at ASU, she also visited and taught in Singapore and Montreal, thanks to grants from the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing, which has a close working relationship with the MFA program.
Her debut novel, “The Daughters,” was a winner of the 2015 PEN Southwest Book Award, followed shortly after by “Apocalypse How?,” a collection drawn from her long-running web comic “Love Among the Lampreys.”
Celt is at work on her second novel, slated for release in 2018. She describes it as “a sexy Nabokov murder mystery.” And although her tenure as Pima County Library’s writer-in-residence has expired, she said she’s not opposed to another go-round.
“Writers are so hermit-like by nature,” Celt said. “[The writer-in-residence position] was something I could do that was a wonderful way to connect with the people I lived around but didn’t get the chance to talk to all the time. It gave me a chance to know who they were and give something to them directly instead of just hoping that they might read my book one day.”
Back in the Valley of the Sun, on the third floor of the Language and Literature building on ASU’s Tempe campus, Irish is furiously jotting notes on a blackboard. It’s a muggy June afternoon, but the turnout for her casual summer writing workshop is robust. She has been facilitating it for the past few years as a way to extend the benefits of workshopping to everyone interested, not just creative writing students.
“We want to support as much as we can anyone’s interest, whether ultimately they’re one of our students within our program or not,” Irish said. “And it has been very fun and rewarding.”
This is the first year Irish is co-facilitating the workshop; her counterpart is current creative writing master’s student Kalani Pickhart, who began attending the workshop the summer before starting the MFA program. She liked that it provided a casual, social environment while still encouraging accountability as a writer.
“The students that participate in the summer workshops have been some of the most invested: not only in their art, but in building this program and community up,” she said.
On this day, the story being workshopped was written by fellow creative writing master’s student Charlee Moseley. Incidentally, both Moseley and Pickhart also were heavily involved in a community art project over the past year called Story Days.
Along with ASU Regents' Professor and Arizona Poet Laureate Alberto Rios, Irish helmed the project from the beginning, enlisting the help of her students as it progressed. Funded by the National Endowment for the Arts Our Town Grant and coordinated by the City of Phoenix Office of Arts and Culture Public Art Program, the goal of Story Days was to explore the connections of Phoenix residents to the places in which they live through art, music and poetry.
In particular, they worked with a group of students at Dunbar Elementary on Seventh Avenue and Grant Street to turn photos into pieces of music.
“I saw a really amazing growth in the children at the Dunbar School,” Moseley said. That, along with Irish’s enthusiasm, inspired her to do more. This fall, she will serve as the MFA program’s first-ever community outreach fellow through a partnership with the Piper Center, which will provide funding.
“I'm just so thrilled that I came to ASU, where community is so important to the work we're doing,” Moseley said. Irish is equally thrilled at the prospect and hopes the new position will allow the program to establish some consistent outreach programming.
Another tangential outcome of the Story Days project was the first-ever MFA student-led ASU Writer's Conference, which Pickhart co-directed and Irish helped facilitate. The conference welcomed students and members of the community to the university for a day of writing lectures and workshops, free of charge.
Even with all she has going on, Irish still finds time to be a writer. Her first book, “Common Ancestor,” a collection of prose poems, was published in January of this year. Former program director Cynthia Hogue wrote that it “looks at all the havoc humans wreak and does not blink … in lines laced with brilliant figure and sly internal rhyme.”
Despite her burgeoning authorship, Irish said she will always make time for the program and the people it serves.
“The program means a lot to me, our students mean a lot to me,” she said. “The amount of support — both in the positon that I have now and [when I was a student] — that they gave me to be able to do things for students and the community has always been really amazing and means the world to me.”
Top photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now