Marvin Bell gives the commencement address
On the final full day of the June Pacific University MFA residency
, faculty and staff, new and returning students, and family and friends of all gathered for the commencement ceremony recognizing the achievements of the Class of 2011.
I felt a little ridiculous for tearing up at this graduation. After all, I’d only just met these folks who were graduating. I haven’t gotten a chance to work with them in workshops or to watch the progression of their writing, but as I listened to Jan Bottiglieri deliver the student address, and to Marvin Bell sending them off with words of hope and wisdom, my heart swelled with pride.
I know, I’m a sap. While I’m sure that part of what moved me was pride in the accomplishments of the graduates, I know that part of it, too, was pride in myself. Though I haven’t yet put in nearly as much work as the graduates have, I’m proud of myself for even beginning the process, and the glimpse of where I’ll stand in two years gave me chills. Wow, if I’m tearing up now, I’m going to be a wreck by the time I get to my own graduation.
Here’s why I’m so proud of myself and my fellow brave first semester souls – we’re saying yes, diving on after plunging head-first into something unfamiliar. Some of us had never been through a workshop before holding up our work for critique. Some of us, hardly used to coming across anyone but family and friends on a daily basis, suddenly found enthusiastic smiles and warm introductions in every direction.
By the end we’d understand the attention. At the beginning
of the residency, I was excited, but I didn’t yet know how eager a returning student would be to come back to this community of passionate, hard-working writers. They were thrilled to welcome me to their world, in on the secret of all that I was in for. By the end, I also understood the frequent check-ins – at some point, each first semester student would realize just how much work this program would be, possibly around the same time each of us realize we’re relying on far more caffeine than we’re used to, and our own enthusiastic smiles might disappear.
It’s true, I was worn out by the time I watched the graduates celebrate their degrees. But I’m looking forward, happy to take on the challenges ahead, glad to know they're only just beginning.
I feel so lucky for the chance to work with Kwame Dawes
at Pacific University. He's one of my wonderful workshop leaders at this residency
(along with Ellen Bass
), and I'm also going to get to work with him one-on-one throughout the semester as he serves as my faculty advisor. I am, to say the least, thrilled. He gave an incredibly moving reading last night, and after hearing him and the amazing Patricia Smith, I spent the evening in a giddy poetry nerd trance. It was almost too much. What's a girl supposed to do with all that inspiration?
I'm working hard on the answer. But my time here at the residency isn't nearly the extent of my admiration for Kwame Dawes. Earlier this month was Caribbean American HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, and as you may know, both the Caribbean and HIV prevention are passionate topics for me.
This is why I adore Dawes' Emmy awarding-winning website, LiveHopeLove.com
, which draws attention
to the HIV/AIDS crisis in Dawes' home country of Jamaica. Kwame Dawes' remarkable poetry sheds light on the lives of those who are living in Jamaica with hope, love and HIV. Visit the website for the full experience of LiveHopeLove. Here's a glimpse of it, with Kwame reading his words among images of Joshua Cogan's photography. Also, this Monday, June 27th, is National HIV Testing Day. Will you participate?
Here are videos of some of the performances at Sheena Johnson's First Friday Performance Salon
earlier this month. Awe-inspiring music, dance and poetry... and I shared some words, too. Learn more about the event here
, and more about the exciting work of Sheena Johnson/REBEL HOME, using dance as a tool for social change, on Sheena's website
Vocalist Valerie Troutt
Sheila Coleman and Sheena Johnson dancing,
with Chris Evans on cello
More Sheena Johnson, with Chris Evans on cello
Oluyemi & Ijeoma Thomas of Positive Knowledge
More Oluyemi & Ijeoma Thomas of Positive Knowledge,
with Sheena Johnson dancing
Poetry by Indira Allegra
Erotic poetry by Aqueila Lewis, aka Sexy Love
And my poetry
Wine and words awaited us here
Ah, the life of a writer.
Mornings spent listening to the masters of craft spread their words of wisdom, putting the life you've dreamed of within your grasp. Afternoon workshops, finding that one of the best ways to learn and grow is to grow in community. Evenings, drinking wine and listening to the masters read their breath-taking work. Nights connecting with those who are as passionate about the written word as you. And early mornings - real early mornings - curled up with a notebook, furiously scribbling the ideas that have roused you from sleep after the previous day's inspiration.
A girl could forget this is some fantasy writing camp, and not really everyday life.
Of course now, more than halfway through my first Pacific University residency
(already?), I'm trying to figure out how to continue as much of this life
as possible once I return home. Some of what I've heard has been helpful in the practical sense. Marvin Bell gave a talk titled "How to be a Writer Every Day," calling us to be writers by setting and meeting writing challenges, each and every day. Today's talk was an interview, Heather Sappenfield leading a discussion with Bonnie Jo Campbell about how even someone who hears early in her career that she is "everything wrong with writing today" can go on to find her voice as a writer, and become a very successful one at that. Mostly, though, I know
that I'll continue life as a writer not simply because I'll have advice to follow or assignments to turn in, but because this experience is reminding me of how I long to write, and to write better each day. For me, growing as a writer means growing as a person, because for me, writing is a daily reminder of my reason for being. It's all so easy to remember in the moment, of course, and I can only hope that after this experience is over,
I won't forget the invaluable lessons I've learned here. I get the feeling, though, that even if my conscious mind forgets, my writing reflexes will always remember. So long as I continue to be a writer every day.
Black Father/Daughter by Chiu
Happy Father's Day!
I'm feeling immensely grateful for my dad, without whom I'd never be here in Oregon, having this amazing experience
of my first MFA residency.
So here's a poem for you, Dad, and for all of the fathers whose gifts emerge when their children dare to follow their dreams.
my father says
he once wrote, too
and this isn’t another effort to
grasp at some way to relate
when he grew up on an island
that feels many moons away
from this land on which he raised me
this, i know, is truth
i can see it now
though i’ve never seen it before--
my father, younger even
than i am now,
still breathing gingerly
this new land’s air,
skin with a dark glow,
freshly plucked from
beneath the caribbean sun
before the scrubs of medical school,
before the touch of my mother,
whispering words in an accent
still thick with memory
before placing them on the page
and this is how i know
his words were never buried
this is now i know
those stories aren’t lost--
when i finish writing a poem
and look to see that it’s finished
i find a voice there that isn’t my own
a voice thick with memory
whispering all that i’d rather not remember
but mustn’t forget
-Maisha Z. Johnson
I'm here in the adorable town of Forest Grove, Oregon for my MFA residency at Pacific University
. It's my first residency, my first visit to Oregon. Actually, it's a lot of firsts for me, and it's every bit as exciting as I anticipated. A few highlights of my reflections after the first few days:
The campus is lovely - I'll have more photos later.
- I just got back from a really great reading by Ann Hood, Dorianne Laux and Craig Lesley. I spent the first half listening with tears in my eyes, the second half laughing the tears away, and the walk back to my room thinking about how lucky I am to be studying with these insanely talented people.
Our spirit animal, the fierce boxer/dragon monster. Rawr.
- Today I survived my first poetry workshop, and without any tears! Workshops continue over the next few days, though, so we'll see if that "no tears" thing holds. Just kidding - it's going to be fine, my workshop members and leaders are fabulous and we're all supporting each other through it.
I'm learning a lot from this guy.
- I definitely feel like I made the right choice in the Poetry program. With faculty like Kwame Dawes, Dorianne Laux and Marvin Bell, how can I go wrong? My workshop leaders are Kwame and Ellen Bass, and I'm eagerly awaiting word about who my advisor will be for the semester. I'm also glad to be able to sit in on enlightening craft talks with the fiction and nonfiction faculty.
- Everyone, including faculty, staff and returning students, has been wonderful about welcoming me and the other first semester students. Today I listened to two graduating students present their theses and describe their journey through the program, from the moment I'm experiencing now to this summer's final residency. It was all incredibly inspiring, and I have a whole lot to look forward to.
I'll have more soon, including reflections on what I'm learning and more photos of the beautiful campus. For now, I'm heading to bed early to rest up for another long day tomorrow. Whew!
I’m back! I’ve been busy preparing for my first MFA residency, which begins this week. And in the process, two stories from the media have been swirling around in my belly like a badly digested meal.
The first, a follow-up from two blog posts
last week, about the “A Gay Girl in Damascus” blogger who allegedly disappeared
. It turns out I was wrong on all counts – Amina Abdallah does not exist, nor was her blog written by somebody whose story is similar to Amina’s. The entire blog was made up and written by Tom MacMaster, a married white guy who decided to take on the role of the oppressed and call it a favor to those who really are. He issued an “apology” for this, one that reads to me more as “I’m sorry you all took me so seriously” than “I’m sorry for what I did.” I’m sorry, too. The blog seems to have been taken down, but on its latest post MacMaster stood by what he did: “I do not believe that I have harmed anyone — I feel that I have created an important voice for issues that I feel strongly about.” Those who are actually being affected
by those issues may disagree
The other story is about comedian Tracy Morgan’s rant, the one about how gay people should stop whining about something as “insignificant” as bullying, and how he would stab his own son to death if he were gay. Morgan has also apologized
, but still the debate
follows – should he be allowed
to say such things for the sake of comedy? At least one comedian
This all has me thinking about the possibility of setting the truth aside. For each of these men’s actions to be considered justifiable, we would have to suspend reality. To temporarily forget one man’s privilege
, as he tries to identify with the oppressed. To temporarily forget that we live in a world where our words have tragic consequences
, so that we can all laugh and have a good time.
I don’t think it’s possible for me to set my truth aside. And I’m kind of fed up with the idea that I should try. Why can’t we hold both our truths, and the possibility for change? Why can’t we have a good time, and keep our truths in mind?
Here’s my pledge, as I begin this grad school residency, and offer my work to be judged on somebody else’s terms: I will not set aside my truth. I may set aside the media, and its idea that social responsibility can take a back seat to entertainment. I may set aside my preconceptions about what I can or should write, and how I can or should write it. I may set aside those occasional desires to be or write like someone else, in favor of the acceptance of the fact that I can be nobody but myself.
But I will not set aside my truth. What rings true to me will not be buried beneath popular opinion or proper technique, nor will it be brushed away by potential prestige or the perceived value of entertainment. My truth, that ever present, always living truth, will always be mine. And I will not set it aside.
And now, I’m off to begin my residency. I’ll update about it as soon as I get a chance. Thanks for sticking around!
Looking for ways to have fun and help create change in the Bay Area this weekend? There's been so much going on that I haven't even been able to keep up. So here are my tips for today:
Yesterday, I had a conversation and writing session surrounding the question of memories in error. What does it mean to look back in time, memories in mind, only to find that the truth was not as we remember it? And is each person's memory just one version of the truth? How do we construct our truths - is it some combination of memory, filled in with fiction, overlayed with what some may call lies?
I'm finding these questions especially intriguing now in light of the developments since my last blog post
about Syrian "A Gay Girl in Damascus" blogger Amina Adballah. To fill you in: Amina, called a hero
for her courageous blog chronicling her life as an out lesbian under the oppressive regime of Syria, was allegedly abducted
by armed gunmen earlier this week.
Amina's story has spread, just as those of us supporting her had hoped, with major news outlets
covering her abduction and the following campaign to release her. The result is that, even in her absence, Amina has continued to raise awareness around the world of those who are suffering, their human rights violated as they struggle for the freedom to simply be who they are.
And now, a new layer
to the story - apparently, photos of Amina that have been circulating may be photos of someone else entirely. The media has had a difficult time finding anyone who has actually met Amina, and now people are wondering
whether the Amina we are rallying for even exists at all.
And what would it mean if she didn't? There are some who say that it doesn't matter, because whatever the truth of her identity, the author of the blog has raised awareness, telling some part of the truth of LGBTQ Syrians who are suffering. They also remind us that focusing on whether or not Amina exists may distract from the possibility that there is somebody, still, being detained against her will. Others would say that such a revelation would take away from everything "Amina" has done,
with the truth that rallied us to action revealed as nothing more than a lie. Part of the argument against Amina's existence is an old blog post explaining that some of what she writes will be autobiographical, while some will be fiction, and she won't always say which is which. Does this mean we've been swallowing lies?Well, regardless of who it is who wrote those blog posts, I believe I can relate to her. Not only as a queer woman of color, but also as a writer caught somewhere between fact and fiction
in storytelling. I know that I've written fiction some have read as truth, and told truths read as fiction. What does it mean when I don't take the time to clarify which is which? Am I telling lies? Or exploring just another way of illuminating the truth? What do you believe is true?From yesterday's writing: shipwrecks on the water's surfacesailing with wind blown from boneslong buried in an ocean grave
I've written before
about how some stories remind me of how safe and comfortable I am, even while addressing those issues involving violence. Even blogging about the most controversial of subjects, I remain here in the comfort of my own home, rather than being persecuted for my words. Another of those stories has jarred me into recognition of the risks some people take just to write like I do. "A Gay Girl in Damascus" blogger and poet Amina Abdallah has reportedly been abducted by armed men in Syria. Like many others, I became aware of Amina's blog after her eye-opening post calling her dad a "hero" for standing up to officials who showed up to threaten her.
International attention followed, and Amina herself was proclaimed a hero
for her unbelievable courage in speaking out as an out lesbian in a country ruled by an oppressive regime. Amina was speaking out to help others find their freedom, and now we can her fight for hers. Everything I've read said that the more media coverage, the better, as Syrian officials may cave to international pressure to release her.
So if we all take a moment to spread the word in any way we can, we might make a difference. Did I mention that Amina is also a U.S. citizen? Not that that should make a difference in how much we care about her civil rights being violated. But perhaps it should make those of us in the U.S. take a moment to consider the risks that we take for our freedom. In a blog post about her multi-layered identity, Amina writes of being both a Syrian and a Virginian, raised on Civil War battlefields.
She says, "I do not hate people nor do I encroach but if I become hungry the usurper's flesh will be my food. Beware.. Beware of my hunger and my anger!" We know what happens when Amina becomes angry - she speaks up, and clearly people hear her. What will we do, with our anger for Amina?