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Commitment to community part of ASU creative writing alums' continuing story

ASU creative writing MFA program emphasizes students who are "artist-citizens."
July 3, 2017

'Artist-citizen' MFA trio stay involved with variety of public workshops, outreach

Any writer will tell you their craft is a mostly solitary one, requiring hours of time spent alone on reflection, execution and revision before a story finally emerges. But when your job is to share accounts of human life in the hopes of enriching others, a good understanding of people is clutch.

The people who founded ASU’s creative writing master’s program knew this, and made it an integral part of the philosophy behind the program, encouraging their students to be “artist-citizens” who are engaged in the community and committed to making good things happen in the world through their work.

“Writing is this solitary act, but ultimately it’s for this vast audience and it’s meant to give something to other people,” said Jenny Irish, assistant director of the program. “And [community engagement] is a wonderful opportunity for our students to think about all of the ways that the work that they’re doing is not about them but is about a world beyond them.”

Irish, herself a graduate of the program, exemplifies that sentiment through her involvement in a variety of ongoing community outreach projects, as do her fellow alumni. ASU Now tracked down a couple of them to find out what they’ve been up to since officially becoming masters of their craft — turns out, the artist-citizen thing is sticking.

Video by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

Venita Blackburn

On a recent Friday evening in downtown Phoenix, Venita Blackburn stood at a microphone in a coffee shop on Fillmore Street and introduced a handful of writers from her Live Right workshop, a cross-genre workshop for writers of color, before they took the mic themselves to read pieces of their work aloud to an audience for the first time.

“I wrote this because I felt like it needed to be written,” workshop member Jen Vargas said before launching into a story titled “Carmen,” in which she recounted attending her mother’s funeral and being stared down by a trio of older women asking each other in Spanish, “Who’s that white girl?”

The reading was sponsored by the Phoenix Poetry Series and included a brief introduction by Phoenix Poet Laureate and ASU lecturer Rosemarie Dombrowski.

Blackburn, an instructor on ASU’s Downtown Phoenix campus, graduated from the creative writing MFA program in 2008. As a student, the Compton, California, native craved more exposure to contemporary voices of color. She found what she was looking for partly by attending workshops like VONA, founded in 1999 by Dominican American writer Junot Diaz.

VONA, Blackburn said, was “designed to sort of fill that gap, that need, in MFA programs, where [people of color] could feel a little bit drowned out.”

She described her experience at that conference as “powerful” and was determined to bring something similar to Phoenix and ASU. For two years now, she has been facilitating the Live Right workshop as a place for writers of color to come together and develop their craft in an environment that is supportive of diverse perspectives.

Vargas, the author of “Carmen,” said, “The workshop Venita has put together allows writers of color the opportunity to take their stories into the community, empowering the writer to find value in their work.”

This fall, Blackburn will be teaching a course at ASU modeled off her workshop. It’s open to everyone, but the writing samples and discussions will focus on contemporary writers of color.

Around the same time, she’ll be celebrating the release of her first book, a collection of short stories titled “Black Jesus and Other Superheroes,” for which she received the Prairie Schooner Book Prize.

“It has a central theme around people with the worst superpowers that you can imagine, and looks at how they not only cope with life but how they live under these kinds of — well, they seem to be sort of restrictions rather than gifts at that point,” Blackburn said.

Living in the world as a member of a marginalized group, she added, can feel like “there are forces working against you in a way. And that whole superpower thing gives you an idea [of what it would be like to] have a secret exemption that can kind of launch you forward. So it’s a fun idea. And I’ve always been an X-Men fan.”

Blackburn is already at work on her next book, a novel titled “Guts,” which she said will have a similar magical-realism feel.

Adrienne Celt

About 115 miles southeast of Phoenix, fellow program alum Adrienne Celt is fresh off her year as Pima County Library's writer-in-residence. The position was part of a new statewide initiative to make professional writers available to the public for guidance in reading and writing.

During those 12 months, Celt held office hours two times a week at various Tucson library locations, talking with whoever was interested about their latest projects, difficulties they were having with the process or even what they were reading at the time.

“It was just incredible, the degree to which I felt like I was tapped into the spirit of the community and had something to give back to it,” Celt said. She also held a free monthly workshop and spent time at the libraries working on some writing of her own.

Adrienne Celt

Adrienne Celt reads an excerpt from her debut novel "The Daughters" at Changing Hands Bookstore in Tempe. Photo courtesy Adrienne Celt

Now settled in Tucson, Celt originally hails from Seattle but lived a somewhat nomadic lifestyle in the meantime. A “non-exhaustive list” on her website’s “about” page lists Iowa, California, Chicago and St. Petersburg, Russia, as previous places of residence. During her time as a creative writing master’s student at ASU, she also visited and taught in Singapore and Montreal, thanks to grants from the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing, which has a close working relationship with the MFA program.

Her debut novel, “The Daughters,” was a winner of the 2015 PEN Southwest Book Award, followed shortly after by “Apocalypse How?,” a collection drawn from her long-running web comic “Love Among the Lampreys.”

Celt is at work on her second novel, slated for release in 2018. She describes it as “a sexy Nabokov murder mystery.” And although her tenure as Pima County Library’s writer-in-residence has expired, she said she’s not opposed to another go-round.

“Writers are so hermit-like by nature,” Celt said. “[The writer-in-residence position] was something I could do that was a wonderful way to connect with the people I lived around but didn’t get the chance to talk to all the time. It gave me a chance to know who they were and give something to them directly instead of just hoping that they might read my book one day.”

Jenny Irish

Back in the Valley of the Sun, on the third floor of the Language and Literature building on ASU’s Tempe campus, Irish is furiously jotting notes on a blackboard. It’s a muggy June afternoon, but the turnout for her casual summer writing workshop is robust. She has been facilitating it for the past few years as a way to extend the benefits of workshopping to everyone interested, not just creative writing students.

“We want to support as much as we can anyone’s interest, whether ultimately they’re one of our students within our program or not,” Irish said. “And it has been very fun and rewarding.”

This is the first year Irish is co-facilitating the workshop; her counterpart is current creative writing master’s student Kalani Pickhart, who began attending the workshop the summer before starting the MFA program. She liked that it provided a casual, social environment while still encouraging accountability as a writer.

“The students that participate in the summer workshops have been some of the most invested: not only in their art, but in building this program and community up,” she said.

On this day, the story being workshopped was written by fellow creative writing master’s student Charlee Moseley. Incidentally, both Moseley and Pickhart also were heavily involved in a community art project over the past year called Story Days.

Along with ASU Regents' Professor and Arizona Poet Laureate Alberto Rios, Irish helmed the project from the beginning, enlisting the help of her students as it progressed. Funded by the National Endowment for the Arts Our Town Grant and coordinated by the City of Phoenix Office of Arts and Culture Public Art Program, the goal of Story Days was to explore the connections of Phoenix residents to the places in which they live through art, music and poetry.

In particular, they worked with a group of students at Dunbar Elementary on Seventh Avenue and Grant Street to turn photos into pieces of music.

“I saw a really amazing growth in the children at the Dunbar School,” Moseley said. That, along with Irish’s enthusiasm, inspired her to do more. This fall, she will serve as the MFA program’s first-ever community outreach fellow through a partnership with the Piper Center, which will provide funding.

“I'm just so thrilled that I came to ASU, where community is so important to the work we're doing,” Moseley said. Irish is equally thrilled at the prospect and hopes the new position will allow the program to establish some consistent outreach programming.

Another tangential outcome of the Story Days project was the first-ever MFA student-led ASU Writer's Conference, which Pickhart co-directed and Irish helped facilitate. The conference welcomed students and members of the community to the university for a day of writing lectures and workshops, free of charge.

Even with all she has going on, Irish still finds time to be a writer. Her first book, “Common Ancestor,” a collection of prose poems, was published in January of this year. Former program director Cynthia Hogue wrote that it “looks at all the havoc humans wreak and does not blink … in lines laced with brilliant figure and sly internal rhyme.”

Despite her burgeoning authorship, Irish said she will always make time for the program and the people it serves.

“The program means a lot to me, our students mean a lot to me,” she said. “The amount of support — both in the positon that I have now and [when I was a student] — that they gave me to be able to do things for students and the community has always been really amazing and means the world to me.”

Top photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

Emma Greguska

Editor , ASU News

(480) 965-9657

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Native students experience week of college life in ASU’s Inspire camp

July 3, 2017

Nearly 100 high schoolers from tribal nations in Arizona work on research projects, live in the dorm and connect with ASU resources

It was day three of ASU’s 2017 Inspire program, the weeklong camp that offers high schoolers from tribal nations in Arizona a taste of college life, and the Arizona State University Memorial Union’s Changemaker space was abuzz.

The young scholars were working in 19 student teams, brainstorming and mapping out the action research plans they’d share with peers and families at the closing Capstone Project Showcase at week’s end. Their topic choices were informed by their own interests and the previous day’s panel presentations and discussions related to indigenous education; health; tribal sovereignty; and planning, architecture and construction in Indian Country. 

The team of Kristen Sanderson, Darian Wauneka, Mackyl Ortega and April Yazzie, all rising high school seniors, had decided to pursue a research action plan related to health and well-being. 

Sanderson’s career interests are nursing or dentistry. Wauneka leans toward optometry. Ortega is interested in working with pharmaceuticals, and Yazzie said she’d like to work for a company like Apple or Intel.

“Individually we suggested alcoholism, hospital misdiagnoses, heat-related deaths and elder neglect,” explained Sanderson. 

As a group, they eventually settled on elder neglect by deciding to draw one topic lottery-style, Wauneka said. 

Having done a lot of internet research in Inspire’s indigenous reading and writing workshop that morning, they worked quickly at the whiteboard, referring to the saved data on their phones and adding a few more ideas as they saw the flow of their research coming together.

A neighboring team had chosen to explore land conservation on tribal nations, and what can be done about the U.S. government’s pollution of the land. 

“Some of the land appears to be unused; there’s no homes or burial grounds, so the government thinks, ‘Why can’t we build out here?’ In reality, that land is used for grazing or for growing crops and the ecosystem is thrown off by it,” said Noah Anaya, a 12th-grade student.

Another group looked at the election of the Navajo Nation president and how during the race the candidates’ focus on tradition and government affect the outcome.

“If the value placed on government is too high, it’s seen as a conflict with traditional values. I would like to see these values balanced, rather than one taking precedent over the other,” senior Vanessa Lee said.

“Outstanding work!” English Professor Jim Blasingame encouragingly shouted to all, as he finished a first lap around the room offering feedback to teams. “These are topics doctoral students are doing dissertations on.

“You’re worldly and you have your heads in the right place. Remember, you are your best resource,” he continued, as he offered tips about how to discern solid, reputable research facts from opinion. “Be wary of sources that use words like would, should, could, might. That author just wants to sell you on their ideas.” 

Immersed in campus life

ASU’s college-readiness summer program Inspire, held June 18-24, saw nearly 100 American Indian students from tribal nations in Arizona participate in activities on ASU’s Tempe and Downtown Phoenix campuses and in the greater community.

Rising high school sophomores, juniors and seniors had the opportunity to practice and grow academic and personal success behaviors by integrating reading, writing and research skills in culturally relevant, project-based learning.

“You’re all capable and you’re going to learn new things and will grow,” said Jacob Moore, ASU assistant vice president for tribal relations, in his welcome to participants and their families on June 18. “Open your mind to possibilities and you may see some things differently than maybe what you’ve seen in high school. This is a chance for you to envision yourselves on campus and to see for yourself what being in college is like.” 

During Inspire, students experienced university life in a Tempe campus residence hall. They ate in dining halls and enjoyed free time and team-building sessions in the Sun Devil Fitness Center. They worked with their peers and instructors in different buildings on the Tempe campus. They also enjoyed sessions at the Desert Botanical Garden, the Heard Museum and the Indian Legal Program at ASU’s Beus Center for Law and Society on the Downtown Phoenix campus. 

Throughout the program the high schoolers were guided by 11 ASU indigenous students who served as team mentors, providing tips and advice that come best from near-peers. 

“Living on campus has been interesting. Sharing a room and talking with someone else who has similar interests in going to college is great,” said senior Tyler Salt.

During one of the sessions, the students used the me3 tool to explore majors and careers that interested them, providing a glimpse of their future after high school.

“The career exploration has been my favorite part. I’ve always wanted to be a business administrator, and this is giving me the motivation to pursue it when I come [to ASU] next year,” said senior Hailey Veltha.

“I wanted to be a lawyer, but this has showed me different opportunities that are available to me in the different programs,” Anaya said. 

By the end of the program, participants were connected with American Indian students, staff, faculty and support services at the university.

“Programs like Inspire are designed to motivate high school students to begin pursuing higher education, and so it’s important to connect them to the university in general,” said Lorenzo Chavez, director of family and student initiatives for Access ASU.

The program, now in its second year, emphasized the accessibility of the different resources at each of the ASU campuses with a resource fair representing ASU’s schools and colleges.

“We want Inspire participants to feel welcome and comfortable at ASU and understand the many opportunities they’ll find in terms of academics and support. Of course, we hope they will decide to apply to, enroll in and graduate from ASU in the future,” said Jeanne Hanrahan, director of community outreach for the College of Integrative Sciences and Arts, and University College.

“We received about 250 applications for this year’s program and could afford to offer places to 100 students. It's clear that interest in a program like this is strong,” she added. 

This year’s Inspire program was sponsored by a grant from the Tohono O'odham Nation to ASU's University College and the Office of American Indian Initiatives, with support from Access ASU.

Chavez and Annabell Bowen, director of American Indian initiatives in the ASU Office of the President, presented a session for parents and families on the opening morning of Inspire. Bowen spoke about the cultural environment at ASU, and Chavez shared information about applying to the university, financial aid and what families can do to help their students in their decision about college. 

“We have more than 2,800 American Indian students at ASU, making it one of the largest Native student bodies in the country,” Bowen told family members, “and enrollment numbers have been increasing every year.”

As part of her work in the Office of American Indian Initiatives, Bowen heads up the university’s Tribal Nations Tour program, in which current ASU students, faculty and staff travel to all of the tribal communities in Arizona in outreach to K-12 students.

“We even talk with kids in Head Start programs,” said Bowen. “It’s never too early to encourage children to start thinking about college and to have them get firsthand knowledge of the first steps they need to take to be ready.”

Will Argeros contributed to this story;

Top photo: Students make their way to the Indian Legal Program in the Beus Center for Law and Society at the ASU Downtown Phoenix campus during ASU's Inspire program for Native high school students. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

Maureen Roen

Director, Creative Services , College of Integrative Sciences and Arts