Hope to see lovers of words & stories at SMC’s Alumni Reading on Wednesday, April 27, 7:30pm

Please spread the word to literastes and avid readers!

Saint Mary’s College of California’s Creative Writing Reading Series



1928 Saint Mary’s Road, Moraga, CA.



Rosemary Graham holds a Ph.D. in American literature
from the University of Virginia. She is the author of Thou
Shalt Not Dump the Skater Dude
and My Not-So-Terrible
Time at the Hippie Hotel
. Her third novel, Stalker Girl, was
published in August of 2010. She is a professor of English at Saint Mary’s College.

Rashaan Alexis Meneses earned her MFA from Saint
Mary’s College, where she was named a 2005-06 Jacob K.
Javits Fellow and awarded the Sor Juana Ines de La Cruz
Scholarship for Excellence in Fiction. She has recently
published in UC Riverside’s Coachella Review, Pembroke Magazine and Growing Up Filipino
II: More Stories for Young Adults.


Better-Late-Than-Never University of San Francisco Fiction Workshop Write-up

church bridge
Image from USF

A better-late-than-never write up on the past fiction workshop held Friday, February 26, 2010 at the beautiful campus of University of San Francisco where your Salonniere visited Poet and Professor Barbara Jane Reyes and her undergraduate section “Filipino American Arts,” part of the Philippine Studies Program. With eight engaged and insightful students, we talked fiction, community, and childhood marvels. Not all of the students were Filipino, and each came from different disciplines and studies, which added to our conversation. They were  exceptionally astute, each armed with provocative questions. For our session, students read works from Gayle Romasanta, “The Bridge” in Field of Mirrors, edited by Edwin Lozado, Lysley Tenorio’s, “Save the I-Hotel” and two stories from the anthology Growing Up Filipino II, edited by Cecilia Manguerra Brainard, Amalia Bueno’s, “Perla and Her Lovely Barbie” and your Salonniere’s “Here in the States.” Reyes is committed to curating work from local Fil-Am writers with the intention to bring artists into the classroom, both exposing artists to academia and introducing students to working artists. Her mission cannot be praised nor emulated enough. Reyes’ dedication is really quite extraordinary as she encourages readers and writers alike to build and fortify community, raise consciousness, and push the envelope in terms of widening perspectives and making connections across borders and boundaries. Our class workshop was nothing less than the embodiment of her work. The students were finishing up their talk on Tenorio’s story when I arrived after which I was given a chance to relay a brief overview of the story behind my story. The students soon dived into the discussion with probing inquiries:

What happens when story gets misinterpreted?

I recently taught The Tempest, and, after reviewing notes from my UCLA undergraduate classes and taking a peek at a few critical pieces, I was forced to come to the conclusion that it’s pretty safe to say no one really knows what that play is about. We’ve got the general gist, but its hazy, and the interpretations keep rolling in. So misinterpretations, re-interpretations, all of them, hit or miss is what keeps us in the business of writing. People draw different meanings and the responses are infinitely different. That’s what makes writing thrive and audiences craving more.

How is it to tell stories to mainstream and general audiences? When do you know what to translate and how explain to audiences who aren’t familiar with the themes or content?

I also just covered Gloria Anzaldúa’s La Frontera, and some of the students in my class wanted to throw the book out the window when they first read her because she uses Spanish, English, and Calo, which can be off-putting to anyone who is not familiar with these languages. Many of my students read the text as exclusionary, but the other half of the class understood that’s precisely what Anzaldúa intended. These students explained to the others that Anzaldúa purposefully reflected the experiences all immigrants share, no matter where they come from, when they arrive in the U.S. and are confronted by Anglo America. In many of my stories, some words don’t translate, and, if the reader wants to know what those phrases and ideas mean, then they need to look it up, such as merienda, we don’t have that here in the U.S. but most Spanish-speaking countries know what this is and what it means. To stop the flow of the narrative and explain doesn’t seem necessary in the context of the story, so readers, if they’re curious enough, will have to research on their own to get the full gist of what that cultural aspect.

What does your family think of your writing?

Overall incredibly supportive. Both my parents work in education and the arts, and they’ve dedicated their lives to these disciplines, so they understand, to a point, what I’m doing and how I’m driven though my father read this story and could only say that there was a typo. That hurt, but, for the most part, they’ve encouraged me and got me started on this path.

How close does this story come to your family?

This story is in no way auto-biographical but was definitely written out of admiration for the women in my life. My aunts, my mother, my grandmothers each have sacrificed for our family. Every member has worked hard to get where we are today, and I keep that very close to heart with each story I write.

How do you know who is going to tell the story?

Through a lot of painful drafts. Try to keep an open mind and remember that revision really is 90% of the work.

L.A. vs. Bay Area?
Both cities are spatially and culturally completely different. Los Angeles is horizontal, the original urban-sprawl, and San Francisco is incredibly condensed and vertical, so the two landscapes lend to completely different social and environmental experiences. You have the quintessential car culture versus walking. The song is true, “nobody walks in L.A.” I have yet to write about the Bay Area. For now I can’t get Los Angeles out of my creative system, so I’ll stick with my homeland for now until I can let go.

Do you write with an agenda?
Of course! I know my method is backwards and that most writers begin with a character, a story-line, a scene or a snippet of dialogue, and I can’t help but start with that over-arching concept, which makes it difficult because then I have to build the character, the action, the conflict around these lofty ideas, when really the lofty ideas should come last. After writing for over a decade, I’ve had to just accept that this is how I work.

What kind of research do you do?

Tons! Endless, really. So much that it often takes a life of its own.

Do you always work with younger voices?

Not really. I find I’m always stretching my ability to ventriloquize so to speak. The story dictates who the main character is, and my job is working to find the voice and heart of the story. Its like sculpting with a piece or marble. You keep cutting, hacking, shaping, and molding, looking for those true veins in the work.

How was it in your MFA classes working with students in different backgrounds?
Thankfully, our fiction class was small, about 12-15 students depending on the year. We were a very diverse group, which I really am grateful for because most programs aren’t. I found that I had to do very little explaining of cultural contexts and meanings with my work, which is great, because having to explain the cultural mores and background identities is like picking apart a joke. The whole spirit of the work falls a part.


After the talk, we turned to a quick writing exercise, included below, in which the students ran with the prompt. Each came up with wonderfully vivid details and memories about Mighty Max, Grandma’s cooking, purple ice cream, cartoons of Calvin and Hobbes leading to majoring in graphic design in college, and playing with Legos and clay in kindergarten. We lamented about how we’re not encouraged to play with Popsicle sticks, Elmer’s glue, and construction paper as adults. We all agreed adults should have free time to create wacky and zany projects regularly, no bars held.

Reactions to the workshop include a post on the blog Filipino American Community Arts by one of the students:

Additionally, I believe that Rashaan Alexis Meneses was a great addition to our class, as I found her descriptions of her writing process and the development of her style quite interesting. I enjoyed listening to her discuss on how her own cultural experiences and identity have found a place in her work. In my own experience, I’ve always felt that as much as I want to delve into cultural topics and exploration, my Fil-am experience is not a distinct quality in much of my creative work, despite the large role it plays in my life.

Read more here

And a brief write-up from Professor Reyes in her post “Random: Culture, Commodity, Performance, Production”:

…I am also thinking of Rashaan Alexis Meneses’s visit to my class, also last week. She discussed how she came to her story, “Here in the States,” from the anthology Growing Up Filipino II, and her series of stories about immigrant workers in our urban areas (specifically, Los Angeles), what things about their American lives we never know because even though they’re omnipresent, we never ask them to tell us their life stories. She talked about the process of writing these stories and considering an audience who may not have the same cultural knowledge, how much to explain and translate, and how to explain and translate, while balancing what the story needs, at what pace it needs to move, from whose point of view it must be told…

Read entire post here.

After the discussion, we turned to a quick and fun writing exercise that should be a part of any writer’s toolbox:

Getting Reacquainted With Your Own Marvelousness

Trees, red dwarf stars, books about pirates and elves, giant wooden spoons and forks that hang on the dining room walls, these childhood sources of wonder inspired flights of fantasy and ignited life long fancies that have sustained the spirit in the most trying times, reminded sad souls how to smile, and lit paths for journeys well traveled and still yet to be taken. In her article about genre narratives, “Stranger Things” by Debra Spark, published in The Writer’s Chronicle, Volume 42 Number 1, September 2009, Spark speaks of childhood awe:

[M]y inquiry has made me think about a writer’s “source of wonder.” If your “source of wonder” as a child (or perhaps even as an adult) comes from genre narratives, is there a way to recombine those narratives into the fiction you are writing now? If, like me, you aren’t drawn into such narratives, what is your “source of wonder”? Can you locate it–not find it on a map but haul it up our of your unconscious–and incorporate its pleasures into your own fiction?…Why not remember what it was that so charmed you about the stories of your youth and incorporate that delight into your fiction?

Why not indeed? Urging us to dust off our innocence, Spark asks us to rekindle what may be a long spent fire of optimism and curiosity. Our task now is to create a list of seven items, including objects, memories, images, songs, movies, dances, books, characters, and art pieces that conjured wonder when we were young. Just list, for the moment. Don’t edit or over-think the list or any one item but try to keep memories of your childhood and adolescence.

Then chose one for today, and consider the what, when, where, why and how which rises from this source of wonder. Examine your chosen item as if it were a precious stone or a sacred relic from your past, which it is. Describe the item in action. Who is using it? Use only verbs and nouns. Be as concrete as possible. Avoid adjectives and adverbs. Make every word, phrase, and image tactile by evoking all six senses: taste, smell, touch, sight, sound, and, yes, psychic travel. The sixth sense is where you and your reader can have a little fun. Try forecasting the future, what will happen to the item? What did it mean in the past and how has its value changed over time?

Wrapping Up – read only after completing the exercise

That blanket you couldn’t sleep without, the song your mother sang when doing the dishes, as she reminisced when she thought no one else was watching her, or the strange portrait your grandfather nailed to the living room wall that was never explained to you perhaps because you never bothered to ask, these are the stuff of marvel, the magic talismans that can unlock characters you’re struggling with, resurrect seemingly dead-ended plot lines, and jump start essays or provide a missing thread to a braided narrative. Keep this list close at hand and you should be able to draw from it. Add to it regularly, referring to your list as a source of inspiration and wonder, allowing you to reaffirm your roots, and, at the same time usher you into the marvelous.

“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:

To MFA or Not To MFA?: Hear writers dish about jumping the graduate school ropes and share about various community programs

PAWA (Philippine American Writers and Artists) & Achiote Press Presents: Community & Academic Writing Programs: A Panel for Emerging Writers

When: 12/06/2009, 2 pm
Where: San Francisco Public Library, Latino Room B (lower level), 100 Larkin at Grove
Free and Open to the public, refreshments will be provided

The California Bay Area houses a diverse array of writing programs, both community-based and academic. For this event, an exciting panel of writers will provide information to emerging writers of color who are thinking of applying to various writing programs and need some guidance. We believe it’s so valuable for writers of color who have gone through community based writing programs and MFA (Masters of Fine Arts) programs to share their knowledge and experiences with others. A question and answer session will follow.

Some questions that will be discussed: Why did you decide to attend a community based writing workshop and/or an MFA program? How did you decide on where to apply? Why did you attend the program you attended? What was the structure of your program? What were the positive and negative aspects of your program?

Panelists include:
Rashaan Alexis Meneses (St Mary’s, Fiction MFA)
Claire Light (San Francisco State University, Fiction MFA)
Vickie Vertiz (VONA, KSW IWL)
Craig Santos Perez (University of San Francisco, Poetry MFA)
Oscar Bermeo (VONA, KSW IWL, louderArts)
Vanessa Huang (VONA, KSW, Kundiman)