Posted by: Viola | June 1, 2015

Saturday at the 2015 SummerWords Creative Writing Festival and meeting Carolyn Forché

Saturday was the second full day of the 2015 SummerWords Creative Writing Festival and it was a beautiful day. Gorgeous weather all around and a warm and joyous atmosphere at the Student Center on the American River College campus

10 am — The workshops began, after a complimentary, simple continental breakfast between 9:15 and 9:45 am. I arrived at 10 am for my first workshop. I was very excited about this workshop. It was with Nayomi Munaweera, a Sri Lankan American author of the novel Island of a Thousand Mirrors. Her workshop was titled “Writing Our Stories, Writing Ethnicity” and I was eager and ready to learn. She covered a lot of material for authors who write from positions in society that may not be mainstream. While alternative voices may not have the same spaces and opportunities to be heard in our society, these voices are critical and must shine forth. In our writing, we can use research and imagination and traveling to gain firsthand experiences in order to include these voices in our work and let these oftentimes marginalized voices/characters speak. We can trust ourselves to connect deeply to the humanity of those who seem different from us and include their perspectives and lives in our work. We must be humble. But we must be confident. Our humility and confidence work together to allow us to speak about others (perhaps even speak for them) but not be so arrogant as to think we can represent these diverse individuals fully. We can do our part and do our best, and we have to be respectful and work from the heart.

11:30 am — My next workshop I selected for the day was one by Traci Gourdine and Harold Schneider titled “A Place of Witness” (and let me just say that selecting what workshop to attend was hard because for every block of sessions or time slot, there were four or five other great choices available as panels/workshops/readings). This workshop gave us an introduction to the work of Carolyn Forche and covered what it means to view poetry writing and sharing as an act of witnessing. All poetry can be thought of as an act of witnessing, done not only by the poet writing the poem but by those who read it and participate in the experience of the poem. We bear witness to each other when we write about each other, or about our own lives. We witness moments, events, objects, places, times/eras, and so much more. We are essentially creatures of witness and our writing cannot be separate from this. Loved learning this from the workshop and grasping/understanding the power in what we do as writers and storytellers and poets–and witnesses!

12:45 pm — LUNCH 🙂

2:00 pm — I was torn between two workshops at this time slot, and honestly, during each time slot, I felt torn between workshops. This time, I went to one workshop, by novelist Keenan Norris, on writing and stereotypes, but decided to leave and attend another workshop, one poet Albert Garcia, on crafting the first lines of poems. I was a tough choice. Ultimately, I picked the workshop I thought would help me with my current poems and drafts of poems. Albert Garcia did a wonderful job of highlighting what makes the opening lines of a poem powerful, and gave us the opportunities to practice writing opening lines of a poem. I started a poem which sounds great and could be a short story, perhaps…but this activity got me thinking of novels and how important the first line and paragraph are when the novel (or even short story) opens.

After this workshop, I found Keenan Norris in the dining hall and apologized to him for walking out of his workshop, explaining that I was torn between which one to attend. I got to introduce myself and it was great talking with him.

3:30 pm — I attended the panel on writing ethnicity in fiction, with Nayomi Munaweera (Island of a Thousand Mirrors), Kirstin Chen (Soy Sauce for Beginners), and Keenan Norris (Brother and the Dancer). It was a great discussion on what it means to be viewed as an “ethnic” writer and also what it means to write a story about characters who are of various ethnic identities, the stereotypes and preconceived notions we write within but also write against. The author is not separate from the impact of writing about ethnic minorities or even majorities. The writer is often called into question, called to identify or to align in some way. But these things are not impossible to negotiate. One needs to be mindful of them and to speak up whenever possible as one navigates the publishing world which may seek to pigeonhole one’s work or one’s characters. Book covers are important to think about, since these often play into stereotypes.

The discussion touched on MFA programs and residencies for writers of color. Keenan Norris proposed that writers of color need to begin creating their own spaces and institutions or programs designed for writers of color. We cannot only rely on others to create spaces for us and listen to us. We have to be prepared to be the change we wish to see and pioneer the very opportunities we seek, making these available to other writers of color. It’s great to see retreats like VONA or Cave Canem and others supporting the work of writers of color.

After the panel discussion, I talked with the authors and showed the Eight New-Generation African Poets chapbook box set and shared with them the wonderful work the African Poetry Book Fund is doing to create a space for emerging poets from Africa.

These three authors inspired me. I am so grateful to SummerWords for bringing these authors to the campus and giving us a chance to learn from them. As a writer of color, this is so important. Writers of color have a wealth of stories to tell, whether our own biographies or from our rich imaginations. Seeing and listening to these authors motivates me to keep writing and to have faith, to not worry so much about publishing but to simply write and share my work and trust that it will be read, that it has a place in the world, and that it will make a difference in the lives of others.

5:15 pm — Keynote reading and book signing with Carolyn Forché. This was the highlight of the day. I was excited and could not wait. Her reading was extraordinary. She has a reading voice that is so melodious and reassuring yet deeply haunting and intimate/inviting at the same time. I was able to record some of her poems that she read and will be listening to them. At the book signing, I told her that I have been tweeting to her on Twitter. She said she will see my tweets. I got some great photos, thanks to my friend and fellow American River College writer Heather, who graciously took the photos while I got my book signed by Carolyn Forché. There was a line so I didn’t linger but I wanted to, just so I could look at her and absorb more of her light. She is a luminous person. If you ever meet her, you will see what I mean. She has a wonderful presence. I felt drawn to this presence. It inspires me to see a poet who is so grounded and so calm, so confident and bold without being intimidating. I know it’s natural to want to worship someone so well known and famous, but she made me feel that she is just an ordinary person, someone I might meet as I run errands or walk across campus. She made me feel at home. And that is something I will always remember.

6: 30 pm — There was an awesome barbecue next to the Student Center. We gathered there for food — yummy Ceasar salad, sweet rolls, delicious potato salad, baked beans and grilled meats. There was wine (and beer, I think), for those who drink alcohol. There was also soda and water for people like me who don’t do alcohol. 🙂 There was desert. Apple crumble with vanilla ice cream. Very yummy. We sat on tables set up outside. It was great to enjoy food outdoors, in the open, cool, and quiet evening air. I got to sit and talk with three other participants; we had a nice and engaging discussion about diversity; and I shared some of my poetry with them, reading one of my poems when one of them asked me to. I enjoyed being able to talk and share my poetry in this way. It was a beautiful way to close the day.

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