Low rez

Cre­ative Writ­ing

Pasatiempo - - CONTENTS - Jen­nifer Levin

Cre­ative writ­ing

AF­TER EARN­ING a bach­e­lor’s in English and Na­tive lit­er­a­ture from Dart­mouth Col­lege in 2007, Chee Brossy (Diné) took a job as a re­porter at the Navajo

Times in Win­dow Rock, Ari­zona. A few years later he felt the pull of his real pas­sion — fic­tion writ­ing. A co-worker told him about the cre­ative writ­ing pro­gram at the In­sti­tute of Amer­i­can In­dian Arts.

“Dart­mouth pre­pared me well aca­dem­i­cally, in re­search and crit­i­cal think­ing, but I knew in my first se­mes­ter at IAIA that this was what I’d wanted all that time,” Brossy told Pasatiempo. “I took Po­etry I with Jon Davis, and I was able to see and ask ques­tions about the way a writer writes a poem, fig­ure out the writ­ing from the in­side out, as op­posed to the out­side in, the way I’d been taught at Dart­mouth.” Brossy earned a BFA in cre­ative writ­ing to sup­ple­ment his ear­lier de­gree, and in 2013 took a po­si­tion in alumni re­la­tions at the in­sti­tute. He was ex­plor­ing grad­u­ate schools when Davis told him IAIA was about to launch a low-res­i­dency mas­ter of fine arts pro­gram in cre­ative writ­ing — the first mas­ter’s pro­gram in the school’s his­tory. Though he’d been con­sid­er­ing the Iowa Writ­ers’ Work­shop and Cor­nell Univer­sity, he chose to get his MFA at IAIA be­cause of the diver­sity of the fac­ulty — about half are Na­tive, and many are young — as well as the chance to fur­ther de­velop his writ­ing in an en­vi­ron­ment that pri­or­i­tizes Na­tive voices.

“And I could keep my job while go­ing to school,” he added. In the two-year low-res­i­dency pro­gram, stu­dents gather on cam­pus for one packed week of read­ings, meet­ings, and work­shops each se­mes­ter, and spend the rest of the time cor­re­spond­ing with a mem­ber of the fac­ulty. Brossy is tak­ing the op­tional third year of the pro­gram so that he still has ac­cess to fac­ulty while he com­pletes a col­lec­tion of short sto­ries.

“The first time I went out to IAIA, it felt like home in a way no place else ever had, just go­ing to the of­fices and see­ing all the in­dige­nous and brown­skinned peo­ple in lead­er­ship roles,” said Jamie Figueroa, who spent 15 years as a mas­sage ther­a­pist af­ter sev­eral un­suc­cess­ful at­tempts to earn an un­der­grad­u­ate de­gree in vis­ual arts — ex­pe­ri­ences that con­vinced her, for a time, that she didn’t want to study writ­ing in an aca­demic set­ting, for fear of squelch­ing her cre­ativ­ity. Orig­i­nally from ru­ral Ohio, Figueroa is of Span­ish and Afro-Caribbean de­scent, and is a mem­ber of the United Con­fed­er­a­tion of Taino Peo­ple, the in­dige­nous peo­ple of Puerto Rico. She moved to Santa Fe in 2005 af­ter trav­el­ing here over the years to take part in writ­ing work­shops with Natalie Gold­berg. She has now earned a BFA and MFA in cre­ative writ­ing from IAIA. “It’s un­like any other aca­demic in­sti­tu­tion I have ex­pe­ri­enced,” she said. “There is in­tense rigor within the arts; the stan­dards are very high. What’s dif­fer­ent for me is that this is a place where you bring your whole self — your past, your an­ces­try, your un­der­stand­ing of how this fits into your life at the present mo­ment. The most im­por­tant thing I learned was how cru­cial it is to bring my own au­thor­ity to the page, and how hon­est, vis­ceral, and au­then­tic I can be with that au­thor­ity.” Figueroa runs a cre­ative writ­ing con­sul­tant ser­vice, www.nextpage­con­sul­tancy.com, and is rep­re­sented by the same agent who rep­re­sents Sher­man Alexie, an au­thor who also hap­pens to be in­volved in the IAIA MFA pro­gram as a men­tor.

The BFA and MFA pro­grams pro­vide stu­dents am­ple ac­cess to ma­jor vis­it­ing writ­ers, and un­der­grad­u­ate stu­dents of­ten re­ceive fund­ing to at­tend sum­mer writ­ing con­fer­ences around the coun­try, con­nect­ing them to the larger lit­er­ary world. Col­le­giate cre­ative writ­ing pro­grams are big busi­ness,

with grad­u­ate and un­der­grad­u­ate pro­grams pro­lif­er­at­ing over the last 20 years, but cre­ative writ­ing has ex­isted at IAIA since its found­ing in 1962. Davis, au­thor of sev­eral books of po­etry in­clud­ing Scrim­mage of Ap­petite (Univer­sity of Akron Press, 1995) and Pre­lim­i­nary Report (Cop­per Canyon Press, 2010), has taught at IAIA since 1990. He re­called that the first book by a writer in the pro­gram was Mir­a­cle Hill: The Story of a Navaho Boy, by Emer­son Blackhorse Mitchell (with T.D. Allen), pub­lished by the Univer­sity of Ok­la­homa Press in 1967, and leg­end has it that it be­gan as an as­sign­ment for English class. In the early days, a num­ber of rather fa­mous fig­ures vis­ited the pro­gram, in­clud­ing Allen Gins­berg and Vin­cent Price; the lat­ter vis­ited sev­eral times and made a prac­tice of read­ing stu­dent po­ems aloud in his sig­na­ture voice, record­ings of which still ex­ist. To­day, en­roll­ment in the un­der­grad­u­ate pro­gram is a bit low, at 15, while en­roll­ment in the MFA pro­gram con­tin­ues to swell, and cur­rently holds at 72 stu­dents. At the un­der­grad­u­ate level, the ma­jor­ity of stu­dents are Na­tive, while the split is about 50-50 at the grad­u­ate level. “I’d like the pro­por­tions in the MFA pro­gram to shift, so that Na­tives re­main in charge in the class­room,” said Davis, who is non-Na­tive.

Stu­dents, fac­ulty, and alumni of both pro­grams ex­plain that par­tic­i­pat­ing in a work­shop where you are the only Na­tive per­son, and pos­si­bly the only per­son of color, is very dif­fer­ent from be­ing in one where you are part of the ma­jor­ity. Sher­win Bit­sui earned his as­so­ci­ate of fine arts in cre­ative writ­ing from IAIA in 1999 and went on to earn a BFA from the Univer­sity of Ari­zona. He is the re­cip­i­ent of a 2006 Whit­ing Writ­ers’ Award and has pub­lished two books of po­etry, Shapeshift (Univer­sity of Ari­zona Press, 2003) and Flood Song (Cop­per Canyon Press, 2009), and now teaches in the MFA pro­grams at IAIA and San Diego State Univer­sity. “A pro­gram that pri­or­i­tizes Na­tive voices gives Na­tive stu­dents a sense of cre­ative free­dom, be­cause their per­spec­tive is priv­i­leged and ac­knowl­edged and they don’t have to waste time and en­ergy try­ing to con­vince their peers of their own hu­man­ity,” Bit­sui said.

Joan Kane (Inu­piaq), au­thor of Due North (Columbia Univer­sity Press, 2006), Cor­morant Hunter’s Wife (Univer­sity of Alaska Press, 2012), and Hyper­bo­real (Univer­sity of Pitts­burgh Press, 2013) teaches in the MFA pro­gram, and says the Na­tive fo­cus isn’t about stay­ing in a com­fort zone — be­cause no sit­u­a­tion where rooms full of peo­ple are cri­tiquing your writ­ing could be con­sid­ered com­fort­able — but about grap­pling with the es­sen­tial ques­tions of cre­ativ­ity. “In previous gen­er­a­tions [of Na­tive writ­ing], there’s been this un­spo­ken is­sue of to­kenism in the lit­er­ary mar­ket,” she said. “It has made the text over-de­ter­mined and bur­dened with the need to pro­vide con­text with­out con­sid­er­ing the more press­ing is­sues.”

Non-Na­tive stu­dents can get caught up in the pos­si­ble cul­tural mean­ings of small plot turns in Na­tive writ­ing, Brossy ex­plained, which can dis­tract from se­ri­ous cri­tique of the writ­ing. “There are ref­er­ences through­out lit­er­a­ture to Bi­ble sto­ries, and it’s as­sumed ev­ery­one knows what those are about, but I don’t. If you’re non-Na­tive, you don’t need to un­der­stand ev­ery­thing about the cul­ture to un­der­stand a story about peo­ple.”

“I wanted to get a ter­mi­nal de­gree and fin­ish my book at an in­sti­tu­tion that would sup­port me as a writer, fem­i­nist, and woman of color,” said Terese Mailhot (Se­abird Is­land First Na­tions, Canada) a writer for In­dian Coun­try To­day whose work has also ap­peared on the web­sites The Toast and The Fem­i­nist Wire. “I felt like only IAIA would do. The fac­ulty has given me de­tailed feed­back in a multi-di­men­sional way. They make notes on me­chan­ics, sub­text, and they care to talk about In­dian rep­re­sen­ta­tion, cul­ture, and iden­tity. For too long Na­tive peo­ple have been shut out of the aca­demic com­mu­nity. I don’t know how many times I’ve been told at other in­sti­tu­tions that my work was not so­phis­ti­cated, or that it was so ‘sur­pris­ing’ that the main char­ac­ter was Na­tive on page two. I have a sparse style, my main char­ac­ters are brown, and some­times the lan­guage moves from rez di­alect to aca­demic speak. White is the de­fault in all lit­er­a­ture, and I’m not hav­ing that. I want to write my­self into the world.”

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