“Whether you MFA or not, you still have to do the work of writing”: Reflections on the PAWA Panel for Emerging Writers

PAWA and Achiote Press sponsored the recent literary event at the San Francisco Main Public Library “Community and Academic Writing Programs” on Sunday, December 6, 2009. The panel was borne out of poet blogosphere discussions when the writers and organizers Barbara Jane Reyes, Oscar Bermeo, and Craig Santos Perez learned of services that charged prospective MFA applicants $300 to read manuscripts and assist in the application process. PAWA board member and poet Barbara Jane Reyes introduced the panelists, Claire Light (Fiction, SFSU), your Salonniere, Vickie Vertiz (VONA, KSW, IWL), Vanessa Huang (Poet, VONA, Kundiman, KSW), Craig Santos Perez (Poet, USF), and Oscar Bermeo (VONA, KSW IWL, louderArts). Each writer discussed their MFA experience or the non-MFA route through community programs such as Intergenerational Workshop Lab (IWL), Voices of Our Nation Art Foundtion (VONA), and Kearny Street Workshop. (Links are listed at the bottom).

Claire Light kicked off the discussion and shared her history and experience in her MFA program, San Francisco State University, and her work as a writer thus far. She had a community of writers before applying to MFAs but came to a crossroads, like many writers, after living abroad and working in the arts. She had been telling her friends and colleagues for years, “yes, you are an artist, call yourself an artist” and do the work. And all that time, she realized she had been hypocritical by not following her own creed. “Graduate school was a good way to declare yourself to the world, a way to put a boundary and say, I’m now doing ‘this’, whatever ‘this’ might be. She added, “being accepted to a reputable program is an unanswerable argument to your family.” Light found that her MFA program gave license for the time to focus and write. In her truth-telling, she flatly laid it out that “SFSU is a cash cow.” Students receive very little personal attention because the program is so big in numbers. MFA’ers will struggle for classes and struggle to get into their area of interest. She joked that her program started out bad and got worse, but also was quick to add that it was a bit of an exaggeration since she was able to form communities of writers who were exactly in the same boat, dealing with the same experience as herself, and she was able to get lots of work done, which is most important.

Your Salonniere shared her experience at Saint Mary’s College of California and remembered if it wasn’t for an initial email correspondence almost six years ago when I had emailed Barbara asking for suggestions about Bay Area MFA programs, I might not be where I am today. I wanted to be immersed in an community of writers who ate and drank words and stories like I do. I looked for schools that seemed dedicated to supporting and enforcing different voices, meaning schools that had writers of color on their full time faculty. So I researched and found Lysley Tenorio and knew the school that had him on their roster had to be good. Tenorio’s writing embodies what I was and very much still am striving for with my own. He puts story, character, and craft first and is keenly adept at it. Despite the faculty research, I was still extremely tentative about SMC because I had never really heard of it, and I was hoping to live and write in San Francisco. I’ll never forget driving to Saint Mary’s. I had lived in L.A. for ten years and considered myself an Angelena through and through. I was used to ghetto birds and gridlock. If anyone remembers the Hidden Valley Ranch commercials in the nineties, Moraga must have been the inspiration. The area around the campus is sunshine and green rolling hills with cows almost everywhere. But when I met with the current students, they were just as passionate and enthusiastic as I was. And what really was the clincher was meeting with Chris Sindt, the Director of the program at the time.  I asked him what he thought SMC offered that other schools didn’t, and he said, “well, what you put into this program is what you’ll get out of it.” He just hit me in the psychic gut. He challenged me, and I’ve been trying to live up to that challenge ever since.

Conversely, Vickie Vertiz really urged the audience to think outside of the box. At VONA, where she’s attended for several years, Vertiz worked and studied with Cherrie Moraga and Willie Perdomo to name just a couple literary luminaries. At this point, she seriously poses the idea of paying writers of this calibre $2,000 to read manuscripts and work with emerging writers directly. She considers her time at VONA and the relationships fostered with fellow writers and colleauges at Kearny Street Workshops her MFA. “Writing is best when its at its deepest and most honest. I’m not saying you couldn’t get feedback from white male authors, but not everyone’s going to understand your experiences and therefore understand your writing,” she asserts. Vertiz has done two weeks back to back at VONA, which is very intense, “students are asked to work really hard.” Now she notes, she finds more and more MFA’ers are attending VONA. Vertiz concluded, “whether you MFA or not, you still have to do the work of writing.”

Vanessa Huang also worked in community programs rather than taking the graduate school route. She worked with KSW, IWL, and VONA. Her first experience as a poet was at Brown where she explored the writing reading correspondences from prisoners in a program against prisons. She hadn’t started out as a poet but worked as a letter reader and writer and was prompted to journalism when she freelanced until she later moved to poetry and activism. VONA is a multi-genre space where writers get to work in different disciplines. She lamented that she wasn’t local in the city. She hadn’t stayed as a resident but commuted from the East Bay, which prevented her, in some ways, from having an immersive experience. She wasn’t as fully present as she would have liked to have been. She also participated in Kundiman, which rotates its location, primarily hosted on the East Coast. For Kundiman, like many programs, especially MFAs you have to budget for the time and travel. Kundiman is 3-5 days of students working with 6-10 peers, reading each other’s work every day. KSW is $200-300 with no scholarships available. Students meet weekly at night for eight weeks, so its easy to attend after work and is BART accessible, which is a huge plus for attendees.

Craig Santos Perez went to the University of San Francisco, which unfortunately, is not BART accessible. At the time he was attending graduate school he was also working and commuting to Fremont but he had a passion for poetry and teaching. The classes are typically 6-9 students, so you’re guaranteed classes, and they’re held the same day and same time each semester, Tuesdays 6-9pm and Wednesday’s Literature class, 6-9pm. The stable schedule really helped with his full time job. He appreciated being able to think about poetry all the time and the individual attention each student received. However, one of the drawbacks of such a small program is that, despite getting lots of attention, the classes weren’t very ethnically diverse or varied in gender. Many of the students are more mature in age who provided lots of experience and excellent perspectives though “grad school wasn’t the party its expected to be.” But the classmates were “mentors.” USF organizes three-hour conferences that review life after the MFA when faculty and staff bring in agents for the fiction writers. Panelists discuss applying for teaching gigs and how to jump the publishing ropes. The major sticking point is the funding because USF is expensive, but with his MFA Santos has been able to pursue his passion for teaching and poetry.

Oscar Bermeo came into poetry in his early thirties and never had formal training before, nor had he thought of the possibility of poetry. He jumped right into the thick of the art by attending the open mikes in New York. Reading Neruda and Eliot, he listened to the poetry of open mikes and tried to emulate the different influences, and his first attempts at writing were “horrific” because he didn’t have his own voice yet. At A Little Bit Louder, an open mike space that is no longer running, the organizers kept encouraging him and would hold spots, or sign him up early. At the time, he didn’t know this was a special honor, Bermeo believed all open mike spaces gave suggestions to everyone. This was his community workshop, his graduate school to speak. In New York, there are many different venues that offer free writing workshops: “If you offer me a free class, I’m in there.” Though he cautioned that these workshops were usuallly packed pretty tight. Some nights there could be two to three people and other nights twenty, and the volunteer instructor has to do their best to serve everybody. He advises that students go in knowing what they “want out of a workshop and really trying to work it. Take something good out of everything.” Bermeo concluded that MFAs and graduate school are often considered “the enemy” to his camp, “but the real enemy is boring poetry.”

PAWA will be organizing future events, so please be sure to stay tuned to their blog. Thanks to everyone who attended and thanks to the organizers and co-panelists for a wonderful lit event!

More info provided from PAWA Blog:

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