This is one of a series of interviews with students participating in the upcoming conference, Thinking its Presence: Race and Creative Writing. CutBank asked some questions of Alicia Mountain about her experience with race in academia, creative writing programs, her own writing, and what she reads. The conference will push literary institutions—from MFAs to journals, we hope—to engage in conversation about race in writing. Alicia will be on the panel “Pedagogy, Innovation, and Solidarity” at 3:40 on Saturday, April 12.
CUTBANK: What are you doing for the conference?
Alicia Mountain: I am speaking on a panel, “Pedagogy, Innovation, and Solidarity”.
Is the panel about teaching? How are those topics related?
Good question-- I think this should be an interesting discussion because the speakers seem to be approaching the topics through a number of different avenues. I think that pedagogy and solidarity are closely linked in terms of actually enacting justice through writing. Innovation is involved in terms of HOW some of this teaching and justice work is done.
How are you approaching the topic? Since you teach undergrads, what do you think are relevant questions to be asking about race in regards to an undergaduate writing class?
I am approaching the topic by looking at my own experience as a new teacher within the context of how we read each other's identities through language. I approach my work as an undergrad educator with the same philosophical ideas that exist beneath all (or most) of my political/creative/social/personal thinking: that binary power structures perpetuate oppression. Of course that means that I try to create lesson plans and syllabi that deconstruct some of those power structures. And then somedays I totally fail, and don't get those underlying points across. But what I'm curious about (and haven't at all figured out) is how the dynamics shift in a mostly white-presenting classroom. How should I best educate folks about racialized experiences when most of us are coming from similar racial backgrounds.
What are some ways that you can create (have created) a syllabus that diverges from the traditional or dominant narrative?
I've tried to incorporate readings speak to non-dominant experiences of identity. So I'm including bell hooks, Staceyann Chin, Marcus Samuelsson, Amy Poehler. Where I'm struggling is to apply this diversity of voices to the non-narrative, less touchy feely units. That just requires some more effort on my part to find strong radical research essays and op-eds that are level-appropriate for my students.
What's challenging about trying to create a syllabus that goes outside of the stock writing 101?
The tough part for me has been finding texts that help me accomplish all of the day-to-day goals I need to meet so that my students are learning necessary rhetorical skills, while also working to educate my students about privilege and oppression (or even alternative perspectives). This means that I'm looking for texts that are rhetorically digestible enough for first-year undergrads. Often the conflict is that the texts that make easy teaching examples in terms of integrating research or using academic tone or proper MLA citations are also speaking to or working within the patriarchal canon. And I know the exceptions to that generalization are out there! I just need to track them down.
It's awesome that you're paying so much attention to this in your teaching. As a student, how do you experience this problem? Why do you think the question of race in cw is an important conversation for MFA programs to be having?
Such an important conversation! I mean, as creative writers we are trying to build the new canon, perhaps we are hoping to be in it, so I think it's hugely important that we are aware of how our creative work functions in the larger literary context. That isn't to say that we should change our voices because people with similar identities to our own have already written things that we might identify with (i.e. I'm not going to quit writing poetry because we already have other white queer women poets out there). But I think I have an obligation to know that there ARE white queer women poets out there and to consider whose other voices I want and need to have included in the canon that I want to be a part of.
I think that's a really important point--MFA students are some of the emerging writers who will make up the future literary canon, so even though they feel constricted or inspired by it, it's also their job to create it. It's really exciting that we are holding the first conference on this topic a UM--what's something you'd hope for in terms of how the conference can open conversations in that context?
Hmmm. In the most economic and bureaucratic (therefore perhaps capitalist) sense, we have to look at what faculty are being hired, what students are being funded, and what sorts of work is being put forward -- and I'm actually less interested in what demographic boxes are being checked and more interested in whether or not those positions of power are being used in radical ways. I remember taking a pedagogy class as an undergrad at Barnard and we discussed how there is this very particular ivory-tower rhetoric that is powerful, divisive, oppressive, useful, and hugely performative. So I'm still interested in that. I'm also hoping that the conference can address some sentence-level ideas on language.
There are a lot of interesting panels that don't explicitly deal with race. That's one of the things that I'm excited about in the conference. In her book, Dorothy Wang, the keynote speaker, talks about the ways that writing by minorities—she's talking about Asian poets—get categorized by their ethnicity and read for content, and what they're doing that's innovative, their craft gets overlooked sometimes.
I think your summary of Wang makes so much sense, and that's kind of what I was getting at with the personal narrative unit that I teach-- I don't want to be relegating non-white writing to storytelling exclusively. Radical (or just non-normative) experience is often reflective in innovative forms that aren't as embraced by the institution. But that's something to push for. Or at least pay attention to.