Manuel Muñoz Directs Arizona MFA

Jessica Kashiwabara

This fall Manuel Muñoz will become the new director of the creative writing program at the University of Arizona in Tucson, succeeding writer Ander Monson. Established in 1972, the fully funded program recently switched to a three-year model and offers degrees in poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction, as well as opportunities to work with small presses, literary journals, and arts organizations. With more than ten years of experience on the faculty, Muñoz has a clear vision of how to create a collaborative and inclusive community at the program, which counts Francisco Cantú, Jos Charles, Antonya Nelson, Alberto Ríos, Agha Shahid Ali, Richard Siken, and David Foster Wallace among its graduates. Muñoz received an MFA in creative writing from Cornell University and has published a novel, What You See in the Dark (Algonquin Books, 2011), and two story collections. A few months before the start of his position, Muñoz discussed his new role and offered advice for prospective students.

What is an overlooked benefit of attending an MFA program?
Community connections—both within a supportive program and in the larger region in which it is situated—are crucial to how we shape ourselves as artists. Solitude at the desk is necessary, but collaboration is just as essential.

MFA programs have been criticized as spaces that are not safe or helpful for writers of color. How can programs create spaces that honor diversity of race and background?
In the past few years we’ve made strides in speaking about these issues as a program, rather than leaving it to the autonomy of the individual workshop. That’s the major difference between my MFA experience twenty years ago and the expectations now. As someone who is both queer and brown, I don’t know if safe is a word I will ever be comfortable using, but inclusivity, empathetic responsiveness, and deep engagement are all goals that we aim for. Every year a new cohort comes in, and it is our responsibility to set the expectations for the community we hope to create. This is hard work. Yet creating—and maintaining—spaces for all writers can’t always fall on faculty of color or queer professors or women. When it does, the resources need to be there. This year the directorship stipend was cut in half, which puts a damper on the pride of being one of the few writers of color to lead an MFA program. As more underrepresented groups enter the academy and assume administrative duties, university leadership will have to honor their stated goals in diversity hiring and retention efforts and commit the resources. Budgetary restrictions are real and dire at many universities, that’s true. But so is the importance of visibility when underrepresented writers see themselves reflected in leadership roles and that those faculty are respected by the institutions that ask them to do this work.

Why is full funding so important?
It alleviates some of the competitiveness or feelings of favoritism that can distract from the work. More important, it sends a strong message about a university’s values regarding literary activity and the place of writing, reading, and thinking in our larger culture. We need to find ways to ensure that students are not crushed by the staggering debt that is affecting this generation. 

The University of Arizona program must be a big part of the Tucson literary community. Do you want the program to focus on nurturing writers from the region or do you want to bring in students from all over?
Both! Writers from the Southwest certainly see how important it is to delve into history, current events, and environmental studies, but curiosity leads all of us to explore. We see undergraduates go to the coasts, and we get applicants from all over the country who are drawn to the special nature of the desert. We’ve also seen a strong interest from international students, who see Arizona as a unique window into U.S. culture and life.

How does the program’s location impact the focus or social awareness of your students? Does the city of Tucson influence your students’ work?
It’s been important for the University of Arizona to acknowledge that it is located on the original homelands of the Indigenous peoples of this area. It dispels the notion that the university or even the city itself is the center—we’re not. For some writers, that appreciation does change the dynamic of their work. Whether it’s an interest in border politics or queer archives, they soon discover that they are stepping midstream into work already in progress. The awareness that one is a contributor, not an originator, is humbling and important.

There are a number of journals and presses affiliated with the university, as well as the Poetry Center and the Institute of the Environment and more. Why is it important to make these kinds of publications and spaces available to graduate students?
Our students learn a lot from seeing how writing is shepherded into the world: how journals are produced, how editorial work relies on curiosity and networking, and how creative projects can by “read” by the university as important engines for grant writing and research activity. The Poetry Center provides students with direct access to understanding how a national treasure promotes literary access and outreach. The fantastic panoply of literary journals—from Ander Monson’s superbly designed DIAGRAM to Kate Bernheimer’s deeply rich Fairy Tale Review—inspires not only editorial participation but an opportunity for students to benefit from the curatorial expertise of these faculty. The students are eager to act on their knowledge for their own projects and the results are inspiring: witness the online literary project Territory, which program alums Nick Greer and Thomas Mira y Lopez started a few years ago.  

Any advice for MFA applicants?
In their artistic statements, many applicants comment on the time they need to write. That is certainly valuable, but our best writers have been the ones who can articulate how they are ready to transform and grow once they get here, rather than stick rigidly to their initial understandings. Can you take measure of all the resources available and find which will inspire a spirit of imagination and collaboration? Does a program provide a supportive atmosphere for you to experiment and try new things? One recent grad, Raquel Gutiérrez, came in with the poetry cohort, but has exited with “Brown Neon,” a nonfiction manuscript that has just been acquired by Coffee House Press. The project was informed by this terrain, by ongoing questions of artistic engagement, and by the urgent politics of the day. It’s a wonderful example of a writer who continues to work in one genre, but is inspired to read, explore, and create deeply in another.

What is a frequent mistake you see applicants making? 
I see two missteps frequently. The first is assuming that you can only work with someone who is in close aesthetic alignment.  I might be a “fuddy-duddy realist,” as I often call myself, but I read widely and with curiosity and engagement. I’ve worked with all manner of aesthetic approaches, and it’s fun to learn along with my students. All good faculty members are like this. They’re ready to help you in your development. They’re not seeking mirrors of themselves. Second, it’s easy to spot a statement that is written as what the applicant thinks we “might want to hear.” Authenticity comes from a writer’s genuine excitement in thinking about how they might proceed once they’ve considered place, resources, and faculty: They’ve got a plan and are not afraid to dream a little bit in their statements about why this particular program can make it come true.

Is there an element of the job of director of a creative writing program that gets overlooked? 
Though I am new to the position, I can see the ongoing need to communicate how vital the creative arts are to the health and integrity of a university. There is always dialogue about how we create and keep space open for creative endeavor to be an integral part in what the university calls “research.” Creativity and the arts must always be part of a shared mission, especially as a land-grant university and a Hispanic-Serving Institution. 

What are you excited about? What keeps you interested in the future of creative writing programs? 
I get most excited when I can speak about how our creative writing program has always been part of innovative campus and community dialogues, from medical humanities to ecological awareness. Our students keep showing us new ways in which creative writing is a natural foundation to innovative thinking, advocacy, and leadership.


Jessica Kashiwabara is the senior web editor of Poets & Writers, Inc.

Tucson, Arizona


Ander Monson


Ander Monson is the author of a number of paraphernalia including a website, a decoder wheel, several chapbooks, as well as six books, most recently Letter to a Future Lover (Graywolf Press, 2015). He lives in Tucson where he directs the MFA program at the University of Arizona and is the editor of the journal DIAGRAM, Essay Daily, and the New Michigan Press.

Hailing from the far northern part of Michigan (four hours farther north than so-called Northern Michigan), I was initially skeptical about Tucson and the flat, dry desert Southwest. Wasn’t it, you know, pretty much Phoenix—lawns and pools and Ikeas? The answer, as you’ll quickly see, is a resounding no. I moved here in 2008 for a job at the University of Arizona (UA), sight unseen except for a two-day whirlwind interview and tour, abbreviated due to yet another blizzard and series of canceled flights in my home state and the hell hub of Chicago’s O’Hare Airport. I’d lived with my family in Saudi Arabia for a couple years just before the first Iraq War and the desert there is a very different sort of desert than the Sonoran Desert that surrounds Tucson and extends into northern Sonora, Mexico. As Tucsonans will tell you, the area around Tucson isn’t technically desert at all: It’s semiarid. It gets about twelve inches of rain a year, is bordered on all sides by mountains, and is surprisingly green. Spend a week here and you’ll learn to love the ocotillo, the iconic saguaro, and the palo verde, Arizona’s alien-skinned state tree.

I found—and you’ll find—that Tucson is a lovely, and in many ways, still-undiscovered city, particularly spectacular at night, since the International Dark-Sky Association recommends limiting the number of streetlights to prevent light pollution in order to allow the astronomers at nearby observatories to do their work. And whether you’re here for the University of Arizona, one of the major hubs of literary culture in this city, or not, Tucson offers rich soil (metaphorically speaking, obviously; though there’s enough agriculture in the county—think Pima cotton, which is harvested from Tucson’s Pima County and other nearby counties—to make it a literal reference) for readers and writers of all sorts.

Public Habitats for Books
Despite the closing of independent bookstores, the digitizing of all media, and the ritual bemoaning of this by writers and readers, I’ve found reassurance by reading and writing in many of Tucson’s diverse libraries that physical books still serve a purpose. I often scour old books for odd and lovely schematics to reprint in the online magazine I run, DIAGRAM—which features reprinted and original diagrams along with original prose, poetry, and images. In doing so, I’ve also stumbled upon books I would have never discovered otherwise, and found objects and marginalia and images tucked into books that remind me books have histories; they’re made objects. From my time spent in libraries, I’ve finished a collection of essays written in response to these objects and texts, which I’ve tucked back where I found them as notes to future readers.

While the University of Arizona Main Library (1510 East University Boulevard) is certainly the best place to run across odd marginalia and old books—it houses a peculiar collection of so-called scientific texts on metaphysics, telekinesis, mediums, and the spirit world, and you can watch part of UA football games from the back side of the fifth floor that overlooks the stadium—there are more specialized branches on campus I’d encourage you to seek out. Special Collections (1510 East University Boulevard) houses the Art of the Book, one of the largest collections of artists books in the country, and includes limited editions by small presses, miniature books, special volumes created by notable binders, and pop-up books. For the possibility of discovering treasures such as books like the collected London and Edinburgh Philosophical Magazine and Journal of Science, I’m most partial to the Science-Engineering Library (744 North Highland Avenue) for its Spartan grandeur, the old engineering texts, and, amusingly, the intensely text-messaging students dutifully ignoring most of the books. The Center for Creative Photography (1030 North Olive Road), cofounded in 1975 by Ansel Adams and former university president John P. Schaefer, has world-class research archives and exhibitions and is the “largest institution in the world devoted to documenting the history of North American photography.” Here one can survey the complete archives of Adams, Edward Weston, Harry Callahan, Aaron Siskind, Frederick Sommer, W. Eugene Smith, Louise Dahl-Wolfe, and Garry Winogrand. It’s all housed in a fantastic building with enough space to get your head into the space for words.

A more esoteric experience can be had at the Peggy J. Slusser Memorial Philatelic Library. At 920 North First Avenue just north of University Boulevard, is a still-operating post office that houses Civil War memorabilia and western, particularly Arizona-related, postal history. Libraries like this are notable for their oddity and specificity. Their archives are far from digitized, so you’ll have to come in to browse. This is a good thing, particularly for the essayist (or any writer looking for interesting material), as you’re more likely to stumble on the thing you really need on the shelf or in the box next to the thing you thought you wanted. Googling is fine in a pinch, but it lacks the pleasure of peripheral discovery. While you’re there ask librarian Lisa Hodgkins about the history of camel mail in the Southwest, started by Jefferson Davis in 1855, and discontinued shortly after.

The Pima County Public Library system operates twenty branches in the metro area, but the one to go to, in Tucson’s increasingly happening downtown, is the Joel D. Valdez Mail Library (101 North Stone Avenue), particularly for its unique offering: a Seed Library that contains many varieties of vegetable plant seeds available for check out (and presumably to plant). Librarians ask you to donate seeds from the plants you grow, returning the book, so to speak. Because of its downtown location, this branch also collects the best weirdos—perfect for observation. It’s energizing to write in spaces like this, filled with live readers reading.

Commercial Habitats
When it comes to independent bookstores that carry new books, Antigone Books (411 North Fourth Avenue) is one of the few in town. A fairly small but busy store, the solar-powered, self-described “zany bookstore with a feminist slant” Antigone once hosted the Other Voices Women’s Reading Series, where I saw Alison Hawthorne Deming, Kathe Lison, Cybele Knowles, Fenton Johnson, Chris Cokinos, and many more read. Antigone also hosts book groups, and readings and author signings by touring and local authors, who usually but not exclusively have some local connection.

Across the street and two blocks south is the Book Stop (214 North Fourth Avenue), a used and antiquarian bookstore with a knowledgeable staff and an esoteric selection. It’s worth a visit for books containing strange and amusing marginalia. For instance, I found a copy of Gary Snyder’s Turtle Island with an epic inscription from one ex-lover to another. It stretched pages, detailing the drugs they took, the “friend with the nocturnal monkey-like animal,” and the spectacular metaphysical, metatextual sex they had, only to end in a sad but knowing acknowledgment that they would never see each other again. This, dear reader, is the sort of history that you won’t get buying e-books on your Kindle Fire.

The king of used books (and vinyl, CDs, video games, musical equipment, and really anything else that’s used and related to media) in Tucson is the most excellent Bookmans Entertainment Exchange, with three locations (6230 East Speedway Boulevard, 3733 West Ina Road, 1930 East Grant Road). Each has its own flavor. The Grant location is popular with students and features unusual wares, for instance rock collections; the Ina location is more upscale, since it’s closer to the Catalina Foothills, a ritzy area on the north side of Tucson; the Speedway location has the best selection of vinyl and board games, plus you can stop in next door to the local gem Beyond Bread and sandwich your day away. Though none of the locations host readings or signings, they do serve up coffee, a huge selection of books, and Wi-Fi—as do all the bigger bookstores, but this local chain is making book buying, selling, and browsing an experience again. The crowd knows this, which is why the parking lot is always mobbed. When was the last time you saw that at a bookstore?

Breeding Grounds for Books
Tucson is the home to a number of nationally known literary journals and presses that form the backbone of Tucson’s literary culture, including the increasingly influential Letter Machine Editions, a nonprofit publisher of prose and poetry founded in 2007 by Noah Eli Gordon and Joshua Marie Wilkinson the Volta­, an online poetry, poetics, and epic interview emporium; the Destroyer, edited by Drew Krewer and Maureen McHugh; and Fairy Tale Review and its accompanying press, edited by Kate Bernheimer.

My own magazine of lit, oddness, and esoterica, DIAGRAM, published by New Michigan Press, is in its sixteenth year and continues to publish six issues a year. Though primarily online, one might find us in print at times too. New Michigan also publishes a chapbook series and DIAGRAM anthologies, and, with other local presses and magazines like Spork and Kore, participates in readings and events such as the Lit Press Fest for Teens that takes place at the University of Arizona Poetry Center each spring, featuring readings and workshops for teens and adults on DIY publishing, book binding, and letterpress printing., the oldest literary magazine online, founded in 1997 and edited by Simmons Buntin, is a “journal of the built and natural environments” that publishes great work (particularly nonfiction), both lyric and technical, loosely organized around the ways in which we live in and with our environments, with an emphasis on the desert Southwest. Terrain hosts readings and conversations, typically at the UA Poetry Center, and workshops.

The flagship literary journal of Tucson, Sonora Review, is one of the oldest student-edited journals in America. Founded in 1980 as a biannual print journal, it’s still produced twice a year by students in UA’s MFA Program. A well-known special issue paid tribute to Arizona alum and former Sonora Review editor David Foster Wallace, and covers feature work from the extensive local art scene. Sonora Review curates a reading series with established authors such as Sean Lovelace and Mark Neely and upcoming talents at bars like Club Congress, sponsors literary events that raise awareness about border issues, and facilitates workshops in area schools.

Spork, a now-legendary literary magazine and press, run by Drew Burk, Andrew Shuta, Richard Siken, and a rotating cast of other editors who include poet Jake Levine and fiction writer Joel Smith, sponsors one-off readings at Club Congress and elsewhere that have featured authors such as fiction writers Colin Winnette and Amelia Gray. Their new storefront (2229 East Broadway Boulevard) carries Spork Press books and titles from other small presses, doubles as their production facility, and hosts readings and live music. is an awesomely messy art/writing/performance project founded by Noah Saterstrom that hosts an occasional reading/performance series, usually held at Casa Libre en La Solana, almost always pairing artists or performers with writers.

Unfairly, I always forget about the University of Arizona Press (1510 East University Boulevard), housed in the Main Library, when thinking of all the great literature being made and published in this city. Because the press primarily publishes academic and regional books, it’s easy to overlook their Southwest-themed poetry and prose series. It too hosts readings in the city and nationally. In fact, the press hosted poet Julie Paegle at a killer reading at the Small Press Lit Fest in 2011. I’ve since devoured her poetry collection torch song tango choir—a revelation and a reminder that UA Press deserves more of my attention.

If one of Tucson’s literary hearts is located at the University of Arizona (particularly in the UA Poetry Center—more to come on that later), the other might be POG, “a collective of poets, literary critics, and practitioners of other art forms” that runs many of the non-University poetry readings in Tucson. Recent events featured Bernadette Mayer, Eileen Myles, Julie Carr, and Fred at the Conrad Wilde Gallery (101 West Sixth Street #121), a performance space where many of the readings are held, or at Club Congress (311 East Congress Street), arguably the best bar in Tucson (and one of the classic American bars, as many national publications will remind you), where I saw poet Lisa Robertson a couple years ago. Club Congress is a rock club located in Hotel Congress, built in 1919 and largely unchanged since then, it’s a reminder of the history of Tucson’s Wild West. (If you’re interested in this stuff, check out Old Tucson Studios west of the city, where many classic westerns were filmed.) Congress also hosts the best list of smaller indie rock shows in the city: Okkervil River, the Pains of Being Pure at Heart, the Kills, just to name a few who’ve performed over the last few years. 

I like to drink at Congress (the bartenders there make most excellent cocktails and know their beer) and watch a show or a reading, but recently I’ve started attending the hypercompetitive Geeks Who Drink trivia nights there, and in spite of assembling a dream team of knowledgeable literati including Cybele Knowles, Jamison Crabtree, and Joshua Marie Wilkinson, we’ve only managed to win one so far, won in an impressive lightning round performance by Laura Owen.

Kore Press (240 North Court Avenue), led by Lisa Bowden, is another contender for Tucson’s literary heart, or at least one powerful ventricle. Devoted to publishing the work of women since 1993, Kore holds readings and performances throughout the city, including the Big Read project, supported by the National Science Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, which presented the work of Emily Dickinson in readings and performances at the UA Poetry Center, Pima Community College Center for the Arts, Tucson High Magnet School auditorium, Club Congress, and elsewhere. They also head up Grrrls Literary Activism Project, which encourages community involvement “through art activism, editorials, video and radio broadcasts, public readings, city council meetings, interviewing officials, journalists, artists, and more” through a series of workshops, internships, and much more. Did I mention they also publish some kickass writing? They do.

An Interlude
Before I get to the UA Poetry Center, which deserves and will receive its own paragraph, how about a break? With all the literary action—and I haven’t even touched on the mountains and the spectacular bike trails; Tucson has the most miles of bike trails, paths, and lanes per capita in the nation—you need to take breaks in Tucson. I recommend the chopped salad with a cup of Mexican organic blend, which inexplicably I cannot replicate at home, at Ike’s Place (100 North Stone Avenue #111), the local coffee chain. Coffee is essential for my process, maybe too for yours, as is the anonymity offered by such public spaces.

Given that we all start with the blank white page, I find myself craving input, like the conversations I overhear at the Cartel Coffee Lab (2516 North Campbell Avenue and downtown at 210 East Broadway), full-on hipstered up with a limited menu of varietals, Wi-Fi, indie rock, and dialogue straight out of the television show PortlandiaIt’s worth noting that many of my writer-friends, however, write in the more mellow atmosphere at Raging Sage Coffee Roasters (2458 North Campbell Avenue). They always recommend the scones, which though I have historically scoffed at because a scone is a terrible pastry, I finally tried last year and was blown away. So I also now recommend the scones.

Edward Abbey, Joseph Wood Krutch, and many of the authors associated with this sunburnt, unpretentious patch of Southwest would surely recommend you skip the coffee and head out of the city for a hike or a ramble. I say have the coffee and take on a trail run (hiking in less than half the time!), maybe to Seven Falls up in Sabino Canyon (technically Bear Canyon, but the easiest entrance point is through Sabino; it’s about a seven to eight mile round-trip from the entrance). Mountains are in every direction, so you can have your pick depending on how wuss or butch you imagine yourself to be. Mountains and desert lead to silence, self-reckoning, and sometimes to self-erasure, all of which are crucial for writing. Drink a lot of water and bring plenty more. Wear a hat and sunblock. This place will drain you if you’re not careful.

Many writers live in Tucson all or part of the year. Lydia Millet, author of Sweet Lamb of Heaven (Norton, 2016), haunts coffee shops and racquet clubs, but is not picky where she writes. You might find Kate Bernheimer, founder and editor of the Fairy Tale Review and author of How a Mother Weaned Her Girl From Fairy Tales (Coffee House Press, 2014) at the Red Garter Bar & Grill (3143 East Speedway Boulevard) or at Time Market (444 East University Boulevard). Joy Williams, author of The Visiting Privilege (Knopf, 2015), lives here part of the year in the foothills but would not appreciate your pilgrimage or intrusion to her property. Nature writer Gary Paul Nabhan and poets Luci Tapahonso and Jane Miller reside here too. You might well find my colleagues Beth Alvarado, Susan Briante, Chris Cokinos, Barbara Cully, Alison Hawthorne Deming, Elizabeth Evans, Julie Iromuanya, Fenton Johnson, Farid Matuk, Manuel Muñoz, Boyer Rickel, Aurelie Sheehan, and Joshua Marie Wilkinson haunting the Modern Languages building on the UA campus at night. I keep crossing paths with Sherwin Bitsui, author of Flood Song (Copper Canyon Press, 2009), in airports coming to or going away from Tucson. Also in the area are recent Yale Younger Poets Katherine Larson and Eduardo C. Corral (well, Corral hails from not far away in Casa Grande, but we would like to claim him as our own) and past Yale Younger Poet Richard Siken. Half the bars here are stocked with Yale Youngers, who would be happy to regale you with tales of squalor and glory. Leslie Marmon Silko, author of Garden in the Dunes (Simon & Schuster, 2000) and winner of the 1991 MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship, lives close too, as does the journalist Charles Bowden, at least part-time. I’ve run into Rick Moody a couple times at El Charro Café (311 North Court Avenue) and Casa Libre en La Solana, though he’s only an occasional visitor, not a resident. This is to say nothing of the younger phalanx of perhaps less-well known writers whose names, by the time you read this, may spark your interest more quickly than this laundry list.

The Big Yearly Rituals
The Tucson Poetry Festival, directed by Teré Fowler-Chapman, is a thirty-five-year-old celebration that has kept performance at the forefront of the art form by combining top-notch, cutting-edge writers (recent festivals included Eduardo C. Corral, Karyna McGlynn, Patricia Smith, Claudia Rankine, Xavier Cavazos, and your correspondent) with themes that encourage the poets to engage with the moment and create as they celebrate. The organizers have always included events that enact poetry in real-time, from improvisational concerts to theatrical collaborations. The festival is also the scene of Tucson’s annual Team Selection slam, which determines the group of slam poets who will represent Tucson at the national competition, and an effort is made every year to include at least one voice from this recent development in American poetry.

For those more interested in performance/slam work, you might try Words on the Avenue, also directed by Teré Fowler-Chapman, which runs a reading series on the last Sunday of every month at Caffé Passé (415 North Fourth Avenue), which has a devoted following. Their plan is “simple: to unify the writing world by creating a space where all genres can coexist. We have freestyles, slam poets, nonfiction/fiction writers, storytellers, and more.” It’s worth your time. 

For the seriously bookish visitor (which you, reader, doubtlessly are), the Tucson Festival of Books, held in March, is probably the ideal time for a literary visit to the city to experience workshops, readings, and panels of every sort held on the UA’s campus during students’ spring break. Though the festival is only three years old, it’s among the largest literary festivals in the country, with over a hundred thousand attendees and over four hundred fifty participating authors. Notable authors participating in recent years include Jim Harrison and J. A. Jance and many, many others. It’s the fourth-biggest book festival in the country. Hundreds of exhibitors, including many of the presses and journals mentioned above, have booths selling publications and books, lead workshops for adults and children, and sell local, delicious food. I go to see the names that I love, particularly poets and smaller press authors with lower profiles. You can wait in line to see the big names, too, but my strategy is to lay low and try to catch up to one or more of them at bars or restaurants after the events.

Feeding and Watering
In trying to catch up with those authors, I’d start with Club Congress, or perhaps Pasco (820 East University Boulevard), within walking distance from the campus, which serves sustainable, locally grown and ranched food and offers homemade herbal-infused cocktails. Being an Upper Michigan boy at heart, I prefer the less-esoteric, but still upscale and delicious, Wilko (943 East University Boulevard), just west of the university’s main drag, which has its own small library, if you’re looking for reading material while you people watch (I also set up shop here sometimes to write). It has good beer on tap and a craft-cocktail menu established by the same knowledgeable hipsters who did up the great 47 Scott (47 North Scott Avenue), which serves comfort food. I can speak for the BLT + T & A (the T and A being turkey and avocado) and the Sonoran Bratwurst, a play on local delicacy the Sonoran Hot Dog (featured on national food and cooking shows many times over), which is a hot dog typically wrapped in bacon, deep-fried, covered in beans, tomatoes, crema, and god knows what else. They are really, really good. But if you’d like to try a Sonoran Hot Dog, you’d best head down to one of the El Guero Canelo locations (2480 North Oracle Road, 5802 East 22nd Street, or 5201 South Twelfth Street), or just buy them at the taco carts that dot the Tucson streets, particularly in summer evenings. While eating, wipe your hands, and then take some notes on Tucson’s own cultural mix: We’re so close to the border that I think a lot about what it means to be right up against the margin of a country, and against the margin of another, in a sort of intermediary state. Like my homeland in Upper Michigan up against the Canadian border, the writer visiting the city would be well advised to allow herself to seep in the different languages heard here, particularly on Tucson’s south side, and the different sorts of conversational rhythms, and think for a moment about the upsides of immigration reform: More cultural input equals more interesting thinking equals more interesting writing. Perhaps this mix of influences has led to the upswell of all these interesting poetry and prose writers that live in or pass through Tucson—after all it’s a lot easier to write from the margin.

The tragedy of the January 8, 2011, shootings are still alive in the minds of Tucsonans, particularly true of the patrons of local favorite bar the Shanty (401 East Ninth Street), where Gabrielle Giffords was and is a regular, just a block south of the Book Stop. Mentioned in the Economist as the site of meetings for the Baja Arizona separatist movement (some left-leaning and libertarian southern Arizonans want to secede from the state), it’s also the oldest continually licensed bar in Arizona. The Daily Show once filmed an unaired segment in the excellent and overgrown patio—a New Orleans–style space, hidden away, conducive to reflection and observation, or perhaps a quiet, slightly drunken revision. Writers pool here, too, perhaps because it was a regular haunt of Tucson’s dear poet Steve Orlen, who died in 2010. Drink a toast to him. Owner and bartender Bill Nugent runs a great bar with an extensive international bottled beer list—I’d recommend any of the St. Bernardus Trappist brews from Belgium (amazingly, the Shanty usually serves at least three varieties)—but he only has six or so on tap at any given time, and doesn’t serve food. So don’t drink too hard while revising. Or maybe: Do.

A margarita and a book by the pool is a good decision in the summer months. Or stop in at my favorite bar in Tucson, 1702 (1702 East Speedway Boulevard). While it doesn’t perhaps have a lot of official literary merit (aside from being a watering hole for quite a few writers), the beer selection (just shy of fifty) on tap is easily the best in the city, and the best I’ve seen in the state. It specializes in Belgians and big American microbrews, and 1702 has started brewing and pouring its own beers, too, which is a very welcome addition to the still young brewing scene in Arizona. You will likely find me there sampling one of their many Belgians and increasingly aggressive American IPAs.

Everything Revolves Around the Poetry Center
A visit to Tucson must include the University of Arizona Poetry Center (1508 East Helen Street), one of the largest poetry centers in the country. Directed by Tyler Meier, it is certainly the center of the literary culture in the city, and though associated with the university, it has a lively schedule of programs, ranging from workshops and classes and discussion groups to poetry programs for children, open to everyone. Founded in 1960, the institution features a research archive of over seventy thousand items, including forty-seven thousand volumes of poetry and twenty-eight thousand issues of journals and periodicals. The reading series is robust, to say the least, with several readings a month, usually drawing audiences of more than two hundred. I could name names, but you can just think of your own list of best-known poets in the world, and you can bet that many, if not most, of them have appeared in the Poetry Center’s reading series. The center also maintains an impressive audiovisual library. Trying to lay hands on Charles Baxter’s very rare early poetry collections Chameleon and The South Dakota Guidebook for an essay I was working on, I was pleased to find them in the Poetry Center library. I should not have been surprised, since the collection is epic and renowned, and open to anyone interested. These convergences happen all the time and make me happy to be a writer in Tucson.

The Poetry Center also offers a residency each summer to a poet. And, as Joseph Wood Krutch wrote, Tucson is most itself in the summer, when the snowbirds are gone and the students have departed. You’re left to negotiate with the sheer blistering fact of the sun (and thankfully of Tucson’s fifth season, the rainy, volatile monsoon, which provides a break from the heat and also offers arguably the best lightning in the country in July and August each year).

Aiding and Abetting Writers and Writing
Casa Libre en La Solana 
(228 North Fourth Avenue), offers a semiannual writing residency—past writers-in-residence include Camille Dungy, Jena Osman, Rick Moody, Frederic Tuten—and fiction and poetry workshops, and also prides itself as being Tucson’s event base, hosting some of the best readings in town, including the UA’s MFA student reading series on many Friday nights, the Fair Weather Reading Series (for emerging visiting or local writers), and Trickhouse Live, “an art and performance series that brings together people working with words, images, sounds, videos and a variety of performances” curated by editors at the journal

I left the Pima Community College Writers’ Workshop (in May each year) off the previous edition of this guide, and regretted it, since it’s the best weekend workshop in town, and featured essayists Nicole Walker and Nancy Mairs and Tiphanie Yanique last time around, and we’re sorry we missed it. Check with the director, Meg Files, for this year’s lineup. It’s a great feature of the city that there is so much happening in any given month that I’m sure to have left something off, or something new sprang up without our noticing. Let me know and I’ll add it in for the next time around.

One could wander Tucson’s streets forever finding more great lit-related sites, groups, journals, and events, but I’ll end by wandering into the Book Art Collective and the Letterpress Lab (1035 North Mabel Street) to witness the printing and making of books. Though located at the University of Arizona, the lab has public access and offers five Vandercooks (Universal 1, Universal 1AB, SP-15, No. 2, and 219), a Pilot Press, and a Chandler Price 8 x 12 OS onsite along with a mass of type. If you know what those presses are, you’re probably salivating. If not, you should come by to experience literature literally in the making. You haven’t appreciated what it is to print a poem until you’ve had to painstakingly handset your own type and decide, “Oh, well, do I really need prognosticate when I could use foretell or augur’s shorter glory? Maybe I do, actually, for the line, but maybe not.” The collective also brings in notable makers of artist books, printers, and binders to lecture and hold workshops. In the age of the digitizing, e-booking, and Twitterization of everything, getting your hands dirty with the making of words, poems, stories, essays, and books feels suddenly very important, very timely, and very Tucson.

Degrees of Diversity: Talking Race and the MFA


Sonya Larson


It is no secret that MFA programs across the country have a way to go to ensure that their workshops are filled with racially and ethnically diverse faculty and students. Junot Díaz’s account of being a lone writer of color in his MFA program at Cornell University, “MFA vs. POC,” which appeared on the New Yorker’s Page-Turner blog in April 2014, drew a flood of stories from writers who face similar frustration. The recent deaths of unarmed African Americans in Charleston, South Carolina; Ferguson, Missouri; New York City; Sanford, Florida; and in communities throughout the United States have stirred in many writers an urgent desire to examine the ways in which a racialized culture informs our art—in the way we write, read, and respond to racial complexities observed in the world. 

MFA programs are uniquely positioned to address such topics. But for many the path forward—if pursued at all—remains murky, contested, and fraught. In “The Student of Color in the Typical MFA Program,” published this past April in Gulf Coast, David Mura writes, “The divide between the way whites and people of color see the social reality around them is always there in our society…. Creative writing involves the very description of that reality, and so the gulf between the vision of whites and people of color is very present right there on the page. And so, conflict ensues.”

One program currently exploring these questions is the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College, near Asheville, North Carolina. Founded in 1971 by poet Ellen Bryant Voigt, the country’s first low-residency program is known for its rigorous standards of textual examination and artistic integrity. Its pedagogical model, by now well refined, is nonetheless exercising its flexibility to welcome a more direct conversation among faculty and students about the intersection of culture and craft.

“The MFA landscape has altered considerably over the forty years of our existence,” says director Debra Allbery. “Our strategies must necessarily shift too—as literature changes, and as the culture changes.”

Voigt agrees. “We’ve certainly seen an increased urgency among individual student writers to locate themselves and their work within the evolving culture,” she says. For some, that urgency comes from self-identification with a particular ethnic or racial heritage. Others want to explore race as a means, as Voigt says, “to expand imaginative empathy without encroachment or appropriation.”

The program seeks to explore these questions the way it explores nearly all questions that arise for the writer: through rigorous study of craft. “Craft provides the language and tools through which we identify, articulate, and address all challenges we face in our poetry and fiction,” says Allbery. “As our program becomes more diverse, we’ve also been addressing these questions, during the residency when the community gathers, in multiple formats.”

During the program’s residency this past July, Warren Wilson MFA faculty members Lan Samantha Chang, David Haynes, A. Van Jordan, Monica Youn, and C. Dale Young presented “Shadowboxing: A Faculty Panel on the Intersections of Culture and Craft.” Chang, who is also the director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop; Haynes, the director of the creating writing program at Southern Methodist University in Dallas; Jordan, who teaches at Rutgers University in Newark, New Jersey; Youn, who teaches at Princeton University; and Young, who currently administers his own medical practice and practices medicine full-time, discussed their personal struggles regarding writing and identity, as well as the role of literary institutions in addressing (or perpetuating) these problems.

For many students, the mere occasion of the faculty panel sends a powerful message. “Knowing that we have the institutional support to engage with these thorny questions makes me feel that there is more possibility for dialogue, vulnerability, risk, and learning,” says poet and Warren Wilson student Sarah Pemberton Strong.

Fiction student Chantal Aida Gordon agrees. “The lack of diversity we see in MFA programs and in what gets published—and the often flat, cliché treatment of characters of color in contemporary literature—are truly scandalizing,” she says. “Student and faculty panels like the ones at Warren Wilson are a step in the right direction. But we have a long way to go.”

In a separate discussion led by students, writers were asked to speak frankly about their concerns, anxiety, or guilt. “I worry that my ignorance will get in the way of my intent to do no harm,” wrote one student in an anonymous prompt. Another wrote, “I worry that I don’t know how to write about my own people.” The message was clear. No one—faculty or students, white writers or writers of color—is immune to these struggles.

Meanwhile, recruiting more faculty and students of color to the program remains “a high priority,” says Allbery, who admits that that reality has been slow in coming. A reception sponsored by the Warren Wilson MFA program at the 2015 Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference in Minneapolis specifically sought prospective students of color (a reception it plans to repeat at the 2016 conference in Los Angeles), and the program’s Holden Fund for Diversity has recently expanded to offer more grants for admitted students of color who demonstrate financial need.

What advice does Allbery have for other programs wanting to address these questions? “Listen,” she says. “An MFA program is a living thing, and a constantly adaptive organism. We invite feedback from our students. We respond. Mutual respect and aligned aims fuel every conversation. An MFA program dedicated to its students’ development has to keep channels of communication open.”

With practice, many in the program hope that these conversations will become easier—both to engage in as a community and to apply to one’s own work. In the meantime, many welcome the necessary difficulty. “I want more conversations like this,” one student wrote following the panel. “I want discussions to be honest and truthful and hard.”

Shadowboxing: A Faculty Panel on the Intersections of Culture and Craft

What follows is a curated selection of the most salient topics of the discussion, organized by the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College, which took place on the campus near Asheville, North Carolina, on Friday, July 3, 2015.

POC in the MFA: Responding to Junot Díaz’s post

C. Dale Young: Nothing that Junot says in his post is remotely new to a writer of color—it is not, sadly, revolutionary; it is not shocking. For me, reading it, one thing that struck very close to home was how many things he brought up to which I could so easily say, “Well, yeah, of course.” And yet I had so many white friends who seemed completely shocked and flabbergasted by the article. I never read a writer of color in graduate school. And even now, when I open an anthology, I rarely ever find a Latino writer or an Asian American writer or an African American writer.

[The article] reinforced for a lot of writers of color this sensation that we live in two worlds: a world that we know, and a world where people have no concept of the actual things that we see all the time. It became very clear to me that the world writers of color live in is unseen.

Lan Samantha Chang: I think Junot and I are in almost the exact same generation. When we were kids, there weren’t many people of color in MFA programs. When I asked about it in my own program, someone said to me, “Oh, I don’t count these things.” But I counted.

A. Van Jordan: [As] you’re reading as a student you’re constantly trying to identify yourself…in terms of race, or just simply through experience…. If you don’t see yourself in the literature, you think, “Why am I here? Why am I trying to do this?” If you don’t see someone who’s had the same experience—whether it’s being an affluent African American, or from a poor rural Appalachian white community—you still want to see yourself.

Grappling With Craft and Culture

David Haynes: For me, it’s moments like Ferguson. People are being shot down in the street. I would describe what I do—for a long, long time—is write these comedies of manners that expose the foibles of daily lives of ordinary African Americans. Do I continue doing that when people are being shot down in the street?

Monica Youn: There’s this sense that if I mention kimchi in my poem, all of a sudden, I’m an ethnic writer. I myself have been trying to resist the impulse to “whitewash” my work. Do I take kimchi off the table? It’s hard for me to divorce form from subject matter, or at least image. The idea that there’s a refuge from politics in the poem is strange.

I’ve been thinking lately about what it means to “write Asian American.” If I don’t include markers, does it mean that I’m “writing white”? How do I write about Asian characters without specific markers? If I don’t do that, am I “writing white”?

Young: I get shoved into lots of boxes. I come from a very not-odd background if you’re from Latin America or the Caribbean: I’m part Indian (South Asian), part Chinese, and I’m also Hispanic. My mother’s English—as white as you can get. It’s hard for me to be against white people or reactive to anything, because then I’d feel reactive to some part of myself. There can be a sense that I’m not Asian enough, I’m not Latino enough.

This doesn’t come up much when I’m in the process of writing, when I’m actually drafting, but where it comes back up is in the revising. Do I want to highlight that, do I want to revise that?

Haynes: For me, it’s the “black enough” question. For the very first story I published, the editor…called me up on the phone and said, “I really like this story…but before I accept it I need to ask about your culture.” It was pretty clear in the conversation that if I gave the wrong answer, he wasn’t going to publish it. Because the characters in the story were African American, I think that if it [had been] written by a white writer, he wouldn’t have published it.

Everybody has an identity—we all have to think about it. But there’s this imposed voice up here, outside of me, that I have no control over, that’s doing this additional defining. How do I interact with it? Do I ignore it? Do I engage it? How do you do that and still get the work done?

Historical Origins of the “Identity vs. Text” Debate

Haynes: The whole idea of being cautious and careful about who you speak for, and not trespassing on other people’s cultural territories, comes out of [historical] changes in cultural anthropology. Simultaneously there were the influences of Marxist analysis in terms of capital and control of cultural products, in terms of who owns what story, and also the profits and cultural capital, and the idea that “since that belongs to that community, I can’t have a part of it. That’s their cultural capital, and it’s hands-off.”

These ideas became very deeply entrenched in literary studies. [Over] here we have writers who say it’s all about text and what’s on the page only. And writers over here saying that it’s all about identity and experience. That conversation has never been reconciled. So we see that tension present in how work is reviewed and discussed—“This isn’t poetry, it’s identity politics.” Or, “If I’m going to be taken seriously as a poet or a fiction writer, I’ve got to abandon identity and focus on other things.”

The “Closed Loop” of Publishing, Hiring, and Teaching

Young: In order to get a book published, you either have to embrace your diversity aspect or you have to go the complete opposite and write white. And then, once you publish, you must continue to publish the same kinds of books, over and over. So you can see how this ties in to the academic world. You need books to get hired, but if the same kinds of books are being published, then there can form a kind of closed loop.

Haynes: The issue for African American fiction writers is not the first book—it’s the second book. Because the first book, often, even if it’s well received, it rarely becomes a big best-seller. And that’s probably true of a lot of writers—it’s an impediment for literary fiction and, in particular, writers of color.

Writers of color often publish into a critical vacuum, meaning that the reviewers and the scholars have not been responding to the work. And in academia…you do not get promoted in African American Studies by writing about contemporary literature. And actually, you don’t get promoted in literary studies at all by writing about contemporary literature of any kind.

That’s a problem in terms of the ongoing development of the writer, because there’s no conversation being had about the aesthetic, about where the work is going. When that conversation becomes closed inside a community…it can be successful, but it can also become insular.

Navigating Identity In the Workshop

Young: There’s a word that I absolutely despise: universal. That almost invariably means “the majority culture.” It doesn’t mean “universal,” as in everyone. What it means is, “make it more like this, in order to be universal.” 

It’s a setup for students of color, who are also told to be authentic…you’re being told to be authentic, but if the detail you include is too specific, it’s not “universal.” So that sets up a weird binary that’s not useful.  If for me to be universal I have to be white, I can never be universal.

Haynes: [Let’s say] I’m the workshop leader, and I have a student who’s bringing very specific cultural material to the table. And the conversation comes up: “Well, I don’t understand what that means, so there needs to be a sentence in this story to explain it or to translate that.” Is it the institution’s job to have instructors in place who can help that student of color navigate that, or is that a personal problem?

The “given” response is, “Well, you’ve got to make that ‘accessible’ to ‘everybody.’” But should the institution be prepared to instead say, “Let’s talk about these broader issues of translation”? And if you do it, how to do it?

If the institution isn’t prepared to help that student navigate these questions of translation, the institution has not only failed that student but also all the other students in the program who they are supposedly preparing to go out and teach other students.

Jordan: I would want the institution to create a safe space for students to talk about whatever their subject is in their poem or story, and for them to be able to express their identity. Lorraine Hansberry talks about “the universality of specificity.” She’s saying that you don’t have to be poor, black, and on the South Side of Chicago in 1959 to experience what’s happening in Raisin in the Sun. When I read Chekhov, Joyce, Faulkner—people who have a very specific cultural identity in their work—that’s “the other” to me. [I’m] reading it through this lens of “the other,” but we’re considering it from the standpoint that it’s valid. That’s what’s important—that when [a student] brings work to the workshop, and it has that cultural identity within it, it still has to be seen as valid.  

Rage and Fear in Challenging Institutions

Haynes: One of the striking things about Junot’s post was the level of rage. The rage is about the difficulty of institutional change. Institutions—and particularly academic institutions—are by their nature conservative entities.

Youn: I think there is a space for rage in the wider culture that doesn’t necessarily translate into the academic culture. No one wants to be the “angry ethnic person.” It’s not going to help you get jobs and it’s not going to help you make friends. It takes writers with international stature or tenure in order to have the privilege to exert rage.

Haynes: My inner response to last summer’s student meeting was, “Be careful. Don’t get yourselves in trouble.”

Chang: Which is interesting, because there’s a huge emphasis on collegiality in academia. It’s a mentoring instinct. I’ve always felt that MFA programs are the opportunity to make representation more diverse. It’s a time in the life and artistic development of writers when these ideas are especially important. [The students] are sort of “fighting against the father,” and they’re going to “kill the father.” So it’s a great time to start these conversations. If it’s going to change, it’s going to change here.

Sonya Larson is a writer whose short fiction has appeared most recently in West Branch, Del Sol Review, the Red Mountain Review, and the Hub. She is at work on a novel about Chinese families living in the swamps of 1930s Mississippi. She is assistant director of the Muse and the Marketplace conference and is studying fiction at Warren Wilson College.




The Boat We Are Building: A New MFA Program Makes Diversity Its Mission


Rigoberto González


Two years ago, Gary Dop was about to enter his tenure year as a professor of English at Randolph College in Lynchburg, Virginia. His debut poetry collection, Father, Child, Water, had recently been published by Red Hen Press and would help him secure a comfortable future as an academic. Dop grew up in a conservative military family, bouncing from Tennessee to Germany to Texas, and his goal to provide a different kind of upbringing and stability for his three daughters was now close to reality. It helped that he enjoyed teaching and had fallen in love with the natural landscape of the region—the college sits along the James River, in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. And yet he felt incomplete. If he was going to stay in this location for years to come, he realized he needed to continue to enrich it by inviting an entire writing community to join him. So he decided to build a low-residency MFA program. 

The product of a low-residency graduate writing program himself (he received his MFA at the University of Nebraska in Omaha), Dop appreciated the flexibility that the low-residency model allowed—a community that came together in the spirit of mentorship but then dispersed, the writers pursuing their own individual, independent  journeys. Dop joined forces with Laura-Gray Street, the English department chair at Randolph, who  holds a degree from Warren Wilson College’s low-residency MFA program near Asheville, North Carolina. Street and Dop held initial conversations with Randolph president Bradley W. Bateman to get the new program off the ground.  

“We’re at a small college, so we were able to have all those conversations within a few days,” Dop says. “At every turn the idea was met with enthusiasm and support.” 

In many ways it made sense that Randolph College should spearhead Virginia’s first and only low-residency MFA program. Founded in 1891 as Randolph-Macon Woman’s College, the institution, with its hundred-acre campus, boasts Nobel laureate Pearl S. Buck as a notable alumna. In 1906 it became the first women’s college to be admitted to the Association of Colleges and Preparatory Schools of the Southern States, and in 1916 it became the first women’s college south of the Potomac River to receive a Phi Beta Kappa chapter. The college became coeducational in 2006 and was renamed a year later, though it has sustained its commitment to women and has been home to a strong undergraduate creative writing curriculum since the 1980s.

The Randolph MFA in Creative Writing—which held its first residency in July—is yet another watershed moment for the college, which has nearly doubled its graduate student population with the inauguration of the new program. But simply creating yet another low-residency MFA program (there are sixty-four included in this year’s MFA Index on page 94) was not enough for its creators. This one had to be different. 

“We wanted to put together a program that educates students for the current landscape of literature,” Dop says. “This begins with faculty who are shaping literary culture and challenging us to be a program willing to take risks and remain relevant to the social and political climates.” 

“We had an extraordinary opportunity with this new program, at this college, in this city,” Street adds, “to bring together an energetic and diverse faculty in a way never seen before.” 

To begin recruiting faculty, Dop sought the advice of a distinguished advisory board, which includes Jeff Shotts, the executive editor of Graywolf Press, as well as writers Julie Schumacher, Eduardo C. Corral, Erika Meitner, Stephanie Burt, and Gregory Pardlo, who was the Emerging Writer in Residence at Randolph-Macon Woman’s College in 2003. The advisory board made informed recommendations according to Dop’s wish list. In addition to faculty members who represented significant social diversity and literary excellence, he asked his advisers to consider one other stipulation: “Is this person kind?”

“This might seem like an odd question,” Dop says, “but when faculty spend ten days, twice a year, with students and you’re asking them to help shape the environment of a new program, you really want people who have a generous spirit.” So Dop and his colleagues did more than read each candidate’s work and assess résumés; they also scoured interviews, online and in print, and spoke to people who could provide meaningful insights into each candidate’s character. The reputation of the new program would be buoyed by the reputations of its faculty. 

And indeed the inaugural faculty is composed of early-career writers who are already reshaping the literary landscape. The impressive list includes poets Kaveh Akbar, Layli Long Soldier, and Phillip B. Williams; novelists and nonfiction writers Kaitlyn Greenidge, Mira Jacob, and Wayétu Moore; poet and novelist Erika L. Sánchez; and nonfiction writer Aviya Kushner. Street credits Camille T. Dungy, who held various faculty and administrative positions at Randolph College from 1999 to 2006, for demonstrating the level of creative energy that writers still early in their career were capable of bringing to a program. While she worked at Randolph, Dungy—who is now the author of four books of poetry and an essay collection, Guidebook to Relative Strangers (Norton, 2017)—was a Cave Canem fellow and had yet to release her first book. But through her planning of literary events and programming, she invited then-emerging writers such as Terrance Hayes, Tyehimba Jess, Tayari Jones, and A. Van Jordan to the college, impressing upon the department the benefits of a varied and inclusive literary education. 

“Camille brought a range of outstanding up-and-coming writers to the college,” Street says. “I feel this new MFA is Camille’s legacy or certainly a tribute to her presence and ongoing influence.”

That legacy can be clearly seen in the MFA program’s faculty—whose faces, when gathered together, make for a powerful image, providing an immediate understanding of Randolph College’s dedication to diversity. Williams, who is on the poetry faculty, is unequivocal about the new program’s mission. 

“We will be diverse in race, gender, sexuality, religion, and aesthetic interests,” he says, “and that diversity will be the foundational stone from which we build each other up in letters and in camaraderie.”

Randolph College in Lynchburg, Virginia. (Credit: Randolph College)

Other faculty members duly note the strategic selection of young, notable  literary figures. “The opportunity to get in on the ground floor of a singular new program, to be among this faculty, to help build something truly original with students who are as excited as I am—it’s a profound honor, a major occasion for gratitude,” says Akbar, who is also on the poetry faculty.  

“I’m so lucky to work with so many writers that I admire,” adds Sánchez, who will be teaching both fiction and poetry. “I expect that together we will foster a dynamic, compassionate, and rigorous writing community.” 

For Kushner, who is teaching fiction and nonfiction, joining the Randolph College faculty is also a bit personal. “I grew up in a Hebrew-speaking home in a Yiddish-speaking town in New York,” she says. “I often write about the experience of living between languages and crossing borders of faith, language, and culture. Low-residency programs offer essential access to writers who might otherwise not be able to earn an MFA, and increasing access is a key element of increasing diversity.” 

Dop understands that the culture and energy of a community has to take place organically, but he is also committed to guiding the tone of the program. He hopes to accomplish this through a series of talks, readings, and conversations about the complicated and troubling social and political climates that artists currently inhabit. “One of our panel discussions will be about the mental health of the artist,” he says. LuAnn Keener-Mikenas, a therapist and poet on staff at Randolph’s counseling center, will participate. 

“A writing program should not only invest in teaching students how to write better, but it must also provide guidance for the artist’s life, including and especially the mental and emotional health of artists,” Dop says. “It is a hollow reward to have a student who becomes an award-winning writer but feels alone and unable to find emotional and relational health. We can’t expect that we’ll be the source of a student’s holistic health, but we can expect that we’ll regularly create conversations within our community about belonging and psychological health and the way in which our program can do better to provide a safe space for all our students.”  

Dop doesn’t believe that creating a safe space means building a protective and insular bubble around the MFA community. On the contrary, it means coming to terms with one’s place in multiple environments, some of which are hostile. For such complexity of experience, Dop points out that the college’s location, in Lynchburg, might serve an asset. “Historically and presently, Virginia has been a space of conflict, embodying the worst and best of human choices,” he says. “Virginia knows democracy and genocide, slavery and freedom, racism and compassion, war and art. As we come together as writers, we won’t neglect what is still a very real part of life in the South. This is something our students can artfully engage with, if they so wish.”

Dop’s hope is that a diverse faculty will attract a diverse group of students and that a faculty of writers whose work is socially conscious will draw a particular type of student. “We want to welcome writers who are seeking to contribute meaningfully to our world,” Dop says. So far the applicant pool has yielded positive results, and the inaugural class of fourteen graduate students—among them poets, fiction writers, and nonfiction writers from throughout the United States—marks a promising beginning. Dop hopes the number of students will eventually grow to a robust community of forty-five to sixty writers across all three genres at each residency. “We can’t control all of the variables for who decides to attend Randolph,” Dop says. “But we can choose faculty who will signal the presence of a safe and productive environment for all writers—we want to be a community where all writers, including writers of color and LGBTQ writers, can thrive.”

Among the inaugural class is Jason Mendez, a nonfiction writer and interdisciplinary theater artist from the Bronx, New York. He was pleasantly surprised to find an MFA program with the kind of faculty he was looking for. “As a Puerto Rican writer, I need a community that I can fully trust with my work. I felt Randolph College’s faculty could resonate with my lived experiences and help me share my stories more creatively and effectively,” he says. 

For Amelia Harrington, a Georgia native raised in Virginia who is also a musician and a graduate of Randolph College’s undergraduate program, the new MFA program is exciting. “I want to be a part of its becoming,” she says. “I want to know and love and support the other writers who were chosen for this adventuresome undertaking.” As for Joseph Capehart, a Liberian American poet living in Brooklyn, New York, his interactions with both the faculty and administration have thus far been encouraging. “Their commitment to us promises to extend beyond the two-year program and into our futures as professionals and people,” he says. 

Apart from the obvious desire to mentor students who will go on to publish regularly and receive critical acclaim, Dop hopes this program will be known for nurturing literary citizenship. “I hope our faculty and students think of our program as belonging to them,” he says, “as one of the central communities of their lives.” 

Only time will tell whether the new program at Randolph College will live up to its creators’ hopes. If it succeeds it has the potential to offer a concrete solution to the perennial problem posed at institutions and academic conferences about achieving and sustaining diversity in the MFA classroom. What’s more, it could become a model for other programs—one that creates and sustains a community of writers that is truly representative of the myriad identities and voices of the United States. 

With the program’s inaugural year just under way, Dop is eager to assess the challenges and opportunities that present themselves and believes he can best serve the program by being its custodian. 

“I like that word,” he says. “It implies guardian, curator, caretaker of a vision to empower these talented, amazing writers to teach and write. I’ve learned enough now to know that belonging begins within and eventually grows to become a gift we give each other. I belong to this new community in as much as I care for myself and our students and faculty. What a joy this will be.” 

Part of that ongoing joy will be in selecting visiting writers to accompany the regular faculty during each residency (students attend five ten-day residencies, each held on the Lynchburg campus in the summer and winter throughout the two-year program, in addition to one-on-one faculty mentorship). Guest writers for upcoming residencies include advisory board members Stephanie Burt and Gregory Pardlo, as well as poet Tiana Clark, novelist and essayist Alexander Chee, novelist Nicole Dennis-Benn, and poet and essayist Hanif Abdurraqib. 

“It’s a thrilling time,” Dop says. “There’s a line at the end of Kaveh’s book that closes the last poem, and I’ve held on to it as it relates to our new program: ‘The boat [we are] building / will never be done.’ We’re just getting started!” 


Rigoberto González is a contributing editor of Poets & Writers Magazine.

Clockwise from far upper left: faculty members Kaitlyn Greenidge, Erika L. Sánchez, Kaveh Akbar, Mira Jacob, Layli Long Soldier, Philip B. Williams, and Wayétu Moore. (Credit: Sánchez: Robyn Lindemann; Williams: Rachel Eliza Griffiths; Akbar: Marlon James; Jacob: In Kim)

Manuel Muñoz  (Credit: Patri Hadad)

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  • August 13, 2019