The inaugural Thinking its Presence: Race and Creative Writing Conference brought writers and scholars from around the country to the University of Montana April 10-12, 2014. A week before the conference, CutBank Special Projects Editor Sarah Kahn sat down with Prageeta Sharma at The Break Cafe to chat about the upcoming conference, which pushed literary institutions to engage in conversations about race in writing.  PrageetaSharmaphoto2webCutBank: This is going to be the first Race and Creative Writing Conference. What inspired you to create a forum for this conversation?

Prageeta Sharma: Joanna Klink introduced me to the work of Dorothy Wang on race in creative writing. I was intrigued by Wang’s readings on Asian American poetry and her close readings of a lot of contemporary American experimental and traditional poetry. Her work insists that we reexamine how minorities are getting read and how so often in those readings, content is getting priority over form and innovation. I was inspired by that work and by my students and my community to raise the question of when and how minorities get taught. I hope this conference will encourage this kind of engagement with exciting work.

CB: In terms of the question of when minorities get taught—what role do MFA programs play in teaching and re-imagining the literary canon?

PS: Chris Stroffolino—he's going to attend the conference next year—has asked, in MFAs, how do we accommodate diversity in relation to pedagogy and cultural experience? What is made central? He asks, what are people bringing in to the room that doesn’t get discussed?

My own MFA experience was wonderful, but I was always trying to translate my identity into one that could work with others' expectations. I like complicated spaces. Rather than deciding whether something is good or bad, I prefer looking at intersections and see what is written out of that.

Wang’s book Thinking Its Presence: Form, Race, and Subjectivity in Contemporary Asian American Poetry discusses that, often, minorities get read as “minorities with grievances.” With this conference, we want to play with that idea—we even have bags that claim that statement ironically—”minorities with grievances” bags. It gets back to Wang's argument about what Asian poets get rewarded for—the ways in which we read the work of minorities only through the a racialized lens, instead of looking at the many exciting things the work is achieving.

CB: In terms of developing emerging writers, how can MFAs foster divergent voices? 

PS: Different programs have different goals. I think programs foster what they want to foster.

At the &Now conference in Boulder, Colorado last year, I was struck by a panel on M NourbeSe Philip's book of poetry Zong! Philip is a Canadian writer who got her degree in law, gave up law for writing, and wrote this book of poetry based on legal decisions related to the murder of Africans on board a slave ship. This whole panel of Cal Arts professors were talking about teaching that same book. It didn't matter what genre they taught, they were all teaching this book, they were all excited about this book. That kind of energy is so important for a group. That's what is so exciting about MFA programs--what can happen in cross disciplinary teaching. At the conference, Brett Defries will be giving a talk on Zong!

Departments can be so insular and independent. I wanted to ask, how can we invite that interest and collaboration? Programs can define themselves however they like.

CB: What are your hopes and goals for the conference?

PS: I want to establish a community base for writers of color and allies. I want people to think about reading and writing practices and how we naturally connect them. With the TIP conference, we have people coming from all over, scholars from everywhere, to collaborate on these questions. I want the conference to celebrate work that's currently less visible; I want it to hold it all. And radical readings of texts. A space for that, and a supportive community that engages with work without labeling it good or bad.

CB: What are you especially excited about in the conference?

PS: Dorothy's keynote, which may not be about Asian American poetry as specifically as her book is, but will apply those ideas to promote a sense of how we are thinking about creative writing as it relates to race. Where it's not being talked about and the ways in which race is still not discussed.

Kate Shanley and Andrew Smith are going to be doing a talk on Jim Welch's work. Lois Welch will also be reading from her memoir on Jim. Locally, we have extraordinary panels representing Montana. The conference will be foregrounding our literary community outside of the dominant, white literary one.

CB: What about the future of the conference—it's going to become an annual event, held at Universities around the country?

PS: Yes, the conference will hopefully travel. At least five universities want to take it on already. It will be at University of Montana again next year, but then, yes, we want it to continue as a national conference with a board.

We plan to publish a book every two years of the collected essays and to put out a CD. Peter Gizzi told me to make sure to create a publication from this. He created Writing From the New Coast from his conference. A lot of those authors were just starting out. I loved that –it was a two volume publication-- the work and the poetics. Those authors are famous now, but at the time, he just trusted himself to do what he was interested in and that taught me a lot. He was my teacher at Brown and it came out when I was a grad student. Now I look at that and that was twenty years ago and I am so grateful for its existence.

CB: What or how might this conference have changed in twenty years?

PS: When Brown University implemented an activist in residence, it inspired me to think about the intersection of activism with the literary world. Maybe this conference will open up to more art forms eventually. We are just starting with creative writing.

There is a personal element to content and craft. People are ready to speak about what it signifies—students are eager to make connections. With media culture today, writers are trying to reckon with theory and reality. We have so much that we have access to, artistically and otherwise. A lot of the talks will negotiate theory and creative writing, some will be non traditional and experimental and some more academic. It's going to be a space that allows for lots of ways of living and learning. I was inspired by the &Now conference and how it was exploring new writing, new forms of creativity. The ways it turned classrooms into innovative, inviting, imaginative spaces. It was not hierarchical, the same way that media and culture today makes art and access democratic. I want this conference to provide a creative space—to be a non-traditional counterpart to AWP.

CB: Is the conversation about race in writing differently relevant at the undergrad level?

PS: I think undergraduate education is centrally important to creative writing. For young students, writing classes are a way to engage more with words; it can be a transformative moment. The conference is open to undergrads and many are registered. I found poetry as an undergrad and it changed my life. It wasn't a certain kind, I don't know that it needed to be a particular kind of poetry. My mentor introduced us to modern and contemporary poetry and the first poets I met were Jay Wright, John Edgar Wideman, Lucy Brock-Broido, as a junior and senior. If I hadn't met them, heard them, I wouldn't have become a poet. Undergraduate curriculum is vital to creating creative writers. If they can have meaningful experiences and get a sense of tradition. Traditions, if we can participate in them, are transformative, so it isn't that there's something wrong with the canon, with what's being taught. If a student feels excluded from a tradition, though, that's unfortunate. That cuts them off from meaningful connection.

Last night I was at a dinner party and I met a woman, a stranger, who was telling me she once met a poet she really liked, but whose name she couldn't remember. She said she'd seen his face on a stamp and that his work was dark—I guessed that it was Theodore Roethke. We read “Elegy for Jane” off the screen of my iPhone—that was one of the first poems I ever read—and we had this moment of connection. So tradition is important. It's important that I could connect with a stranger because we both knew the same poet. Your education should give you a foundation for participating in tradition. The canon is important. That being said, it shouldn't just be Langston Hughes. We need to expand the canon. It is expanding.

CB: I tutor high school kids, and all of them read the same three books: The Scarlett Letter, Huck Finn, and the Great Gatsby. It just seems like these books—the classes in which these books are taught—aren't raising very interesting questions for a 16-year-old. But it's an unwritten prerequisite for college. 

PS:16-year-olds are able to handle more theory now than before because they are getting theory through music videos and these powerful forms of art that everyone has access to now. They are being exposed to queer theory and inclusion. We need to make the novel or story resonate at those levels.

I teach a week long high school creative writing class. A lot of them ask me, wow there's a lot of writers of color. Is it a multicultural section? I just present it as works for reading, I don't give them a theme. I think that's what they're usually given. Black history month, then we'll return to what's good on it's own merit. It creates these tokenized spaces.

CB: Sometimes this happens in MFA programs, too. It seems like minorities are lumped together and taught under Critical Race Theory, which is important, but then they are ignored in craft and lit classes.

PS: Historically in creative writing programs it has been white men. MFA programs now are and should be trying to correct that. Students don't leave a program that's only teaching white male writers equipped to go to New York or anywhere else. And students are all coming from different spaces. They're hungry to figure out what their culture is and what it looks like. You're in charge. Publishing is always changing. We can no longer trust that the way we are mentoring you in relation to publishing will be the way that publishing works in twenty years. We have to keep trying to reevaluate what values around creative writing can be meaningful, applicable tools, that what we are teaching is relevant. Theory is really important to this generation in a way that it was optional in the past. It's not an option now. If a book is irresponsible about its politics it won't get published. Even what has changed between decades shows that we must be mindful of, we have to expect change and progress.

There are two groups of writers: people afraid of the future of creative writing and whether they can survive it and those who are excited about it.

I think of MFA programs as places where we are creating, witnessing the future. It's the most stunning thing about them to me. Each has its own world. And however many years later, 70% of the students leaving that world are contributing to the larger literary landscape.

CB: How might the conference open that question of how creative writing is changing as it relates to MFA programs?

PS: I remember going to an art performance in 96, a non-traditional performance and no one thought it was going to be important, and that artist in 2006 won a MacArthur. I want people to ask, do I have to wait for it to be acclaimed or can I identify what's exciting and what I like before that? Isn't that what an MFA does? You have to take risks to believe in your work before it gets recognized. We are supposed to teach you how to recognize things that are new.

There are two modes of pedagogy—one teaches the canon, and one teaches that it wasn't always canonical. People hated so much of what we accept as part of the canon now. 'Hate' might mean 'like' later. Hate and like rhetorics are more understood now than ever before. There's such an inner connectedness of what we're exposed to. Media culture exposes us to so much and it's not moderated or dictated in the same ways as it once was.

CB: That makes this an interesting moment for this conference to be inaugurated. How did the mission of the conference evolve?

PS: We had really limited funding—people are coming on their own dime, they're proposing their own panels. People have reached out to me to say, I wasn't invited, and I say, yes you were. Everyone who wants to talk about these things, who feels they are a racialized body or who are writing about that are invited. It isn't exclusive.

There were a few moments with potential contributors when I tried to engage them in a deeper question. I don't want to talk about universalizing or transcending race. I think we are ready to have a conversation about that idea, but not claim that it's happening. When we think we are transcending race and universalizing, we are claiming color-blindness, which is uninteresting. We are not a post-racial culture. It doesn't work, essentializing the desire for post-racial culture, which we aren't in. It is not a post-racial reading to talk about form in relation to race. I feel like I am opening a can of worms—but this it is the idea of valuing more than race-theory reading, of valuing the work’s craft and innovation.

CB: It's surprising in some ways that the first conference on this topic will be held in Montana—what is interesting about Missoula as its first location?

PS: When people come to visit they think Missoula is so great. We have this opportunity to be hosts. If Missoula can do this, it can do whatever it wants. If people are entrepreneurial they can do a lot here. There is a lot of possibility in Missoula.

People are coming from all over the country. A scholar from Portugal, a writer from the Middle East, so many universities and programs coming together, creating a place for students to connect with important writers and be exposed to people representing all these different places.

Harvard University's African diaspora journal, Transition, will be in the tote bag and we are excited to have CutBank in there too! There is a limited amount. So register!


Prageeta Sharma is the author of four poetry collections, Bliss to Fill, The Opening Question, Infamous Landscapes, and Undergloom. Her writing has appeared in journals and anthologies such as Boston Review, Agni, Fence, The Women's Review of Books and (among others) The Harper Collins Book of English Poetry and (BloodAxe/Penguin’s) 60 Indian Poets. Her recent awards are a Howard Foundation Grant and writing residencies at the Millay Colony, Headlands Center for the Arts, and Hotel Pupik (Austria). She teaches in the Creative Writing Program at The University of Montana.