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Celebrating 3 decades of artist-citizens

November 2, 2015

This year marks the 30th anniversary of ASU's distinguished MFA program in creative writing

Some of us are Type A people; we plan our days down to the minute and make decisions based on a practical system of weighing pros and cons.

And some of us are daydreamers.

Alberto Rios falls into the latter category.

“I got busted for daydreaming in elementary school. The egregious second-grader crime,” he said of the moment he knew he wanted to be a writer.

“I retreated to my imagination, and that was the beginning of my writing.”

Alberto Rios speaking at podium
Regents’ Professor and Katherine C. Turner Endowed Chair in English at ASU Alberto RiosAlberto Rios is a Regents’ Professor and the Katherine C. Turner Endowed Chair in English at ASU. speaks at an event celebrating the Creative Writing MFA Program. Photo by Bruce Matsunaga.

 

Fitting, then, that he should one day help found the Creative Writing MFA Program at Arizona State University. The program, which is part of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, celebrates its 30th anniversary this year.

“It’s a mark of some distinction,” said Rios, who in 2013 was named Arizona’s first poet laureate.

He began teaching at ASU in 1982, shortly after winning the Walt Whitman poetry award and being subsequently recruited to the university by ASU Regents’ Professor Norman Dubie, whose own poetry has appeared in The New Yorker and “The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry.”

Around that time, a crop of fresh, hungry English faculty was beginning to materialize on campus.

Current director of the program Cynthia HogueCynthia Hogue is a professor of poetry and the Maxine and Jonathan Marshall Chair in Modern and Contemporary Poetry at ASU. called their serendipitous congregation a “critical mass of talent” that soon attracted a wave of students — Hogue herself had come to ASU to study under Dubie in 1978.

Other members of that faculty group included the poet Rita Dove and the artist and former program manager Karla Elling.

man writing

ASU Regents’ Professor Norman Dubie. This photo (© Rebecca Ross)
is part of the "Write Now: Celebrating 30 Years of Creative Writing at ASU"
exhibit on display at Hayden Library through Nov. 14.

Recognizing the need to meet student demand and eager to foster the growing community of serious writers at ASU, they determined it was time to establish a bona fide MFA program in creative writing.

In the 30 years since, the program has stood witness to a faculty that has received national and international recognition, garnering Guggenheim fellowships, NEA fellowships and several Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award nominations. As well, its students have gone on to win multiple prizes, Guggenheim and Fulbright fellowships; publish books; and secure university teaching positions.

What sets it apart from other creative writing MFA programs, said Hogue, is “the element of the artist-citizen.”

“To be an artist is to be involved in the world in various ways. And we do that really consistently, and we also model a mentoring relationship,” she said, noting how each student in the program has the opportunity to work one-on-one with members of the faculty on their work.

Jennifer Irish, assistant director of the program, reiterated what she sees as the extraordinary nature of the program.

“I have the experience of having been part of several other programs and I have never been in a program or worked with a program that has such a true dedication to its students — at all levels," she said. “We have an amazingly committed faculty here who care about their students’ growth as artists and as people.

“And again, it goes back to that idea of the artist-citizen, that we are training artists who are going to go out and do good things in the world.”

One example of that intention realized is Poesía del Sol (Poetry of the Sun), an ASU Project Humanities partnership with the Mayo Clinic Center for Humanities in Medicine and the Creative Writing Program, led by Ríos.

Poesía del Sol pairs ASU MFA students with palliative-care patients at Mayo Clinic Hospital in Phoenix. The students interview the patients and their families, then create poems based on that interview. The poems are printed, framed and presented to the patients and their families as a gift and a celebration of life.

portrait of a woman
Cynthia Hogue, professor of poetry and Maxine and Jonathan Marshall Chair in Modern and Contemporary Poetry at ASU. Photo © Rebecca Ross

 

Another example of being involved in the world is ASU’s Prison English Program, which allows students to not only edit the writing of inmates but also to teach in person at prisons in Arizona, helping educate those members of society who might otherwise not have such an opportunity.

Third-year creative writing master’s student Jacqueline Balderrama is one of the students who has done so. Her focus is poetry because, she said, “It belongs to the moment and to the image. It is concise, purposeful, and having an eye for poetry, I think, allows writers to perceive the world with an openness that invites meaning into the ordinary.”

Balderrama also serves as a poetry editor for Hayden’s Ferry Review, a semiannual international literary journal that showcases emerging talents in the literary community.

A small portion of the publication is solicited from established authors, but the majority of contributors are chosen from the thousands of manuscripts received each year. Each issue includes poetry, prose, translations and visual art.

Hayden’s Ferry Review editor-in-chief Chelsea Hickok, who will graduate from the Creative Writing MFA Program in May 2016, relishes the position it has afforded her.

“I’m coming out of this program with three years' teaching experience, two years editing a literary journal, connections in the industry, publications and a confidence in my writing I didn’t have before,” she said.

Balderrama agreed about the importance of creative writing, saying, “Fine arts are critical to our humanity.”

Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Jane Smiley delivered a Marshall Lecture on Oct. 7 at ASU in which she spoke on the importance of art in teaching us empathy and helping us to understand what it is to be human.

Reflecting that is a favorite mantra of Rios’: “Say it, and I will understand it. Say it well, and I will feel it.”

ASU’s Creative Writing MFA Program 30th-anniversary celebration continues next with professor of English Melissa Pritchard’s telling of the story of the Afghan Women's Writing Project and the Ashton Goodman Fund from noon to 1:15 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 4, in the Memorial Union Gold Room on the Tempe campus.

For a full list of anniversary celebration events, visit http://english.clas.asu.edu/cwp-30th-anniversary.

 
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Finding redemption in education

October 21, 2015

ASU students, faculty teach behind bars for Prison Education Initiatives and benefit as much as the inmates

This summer President Barack Obama became the first sitting president of the United States to visit a federal prison, touring one in Oklahoma. He did so at a time when the country’s criminal justice system is under intense scrutiny for its number of incarcerated individuals — though the U.S. represents about 4.4 percent of the world's population, it houses around 22 percentAccording to the International Centre for Prison Studies. of the planet’s prisoners.

“Inmate populations have more than quadrupled since 1969 when the war on drugs began,” said Arizona State University English lecturer Corri Wells.

Considering the sheer number of people behind bars, one of the topics addressed by Obama during his prison visit was the importance of education for inmates.

“It’s a really practical concern, and I think it’s an important one,” agreed Wells.

This spring, Wells took over as director of ASU’s Prison Education Initiatives, members of which were honored Oct. 3 at the Arizona State Department of Corrections' fourth annual Volunteer Appreciation Dinner with awards presented by the Florence and Eyman state prisons.

Two men evaluate poems.The program got its start when ASU associate professor of English and former director Joe Lockard (left, with creative writing master’s student Bryan Asdel) began teaching at the Arizona State Prison Complex­–Florence in 2009 and realized it might be something his students could benefit from as well.

“Teaching in a prison brings you back to the basics of teaching. There’s no mediated classrooms, there’s no high-tech; it is you, the students and a blackboard, if you’re lucky,” Lockard said. “It is the fundamentals of teaching.”

Addressing a practical concern

The initiative started out as the ASU Prison English program, providing opportunities for mutual learning and engagement between ASU English students and prisoners at Florence.

Interested students would sign up, go through a lengthy and complicated process to be approved to teach in the prison and then head the nearly 60 miles southeast of Tempe to the state prison complex, where they would read stories, have discussions or write with convicted criminals.

Pretty soon, students started coming to Lockard asking about teaching subjects besides English.

A woman tutors a classroom of inmates
Janet Sipes, graduate student and teaching associate in ASU’s School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences, tutors a student in a prison class that teaches eighth-grade to GED-level math skills. Fall 2015 is the first semester that ASU-generated math help has been available to inmate learners. Before this, they struggled on their own to study for the GED and other tests. Four ASU math teachers visit Florence and Eyman state prisons every Friday for two hours at each prison. Photo courtesy Corri Wells

 

One student, Tina Cai, broached the idea of teaching Chinese. Admittedly, Lockard wasn’t sure how that would fly.

“The prison admin said ‘What? You want to give them a language they can speak and we can’t understand?’” he recalled.

Despite the chilly reception, Lockard pressed on.

“It’s very important to listen to students and their ideas,” he said.

The Chinese course was eventually approved and now maxes out at 29 students, roughly eight of whom have reached the intermediate level.

Cai, now a Columbia University grad student, reported in the 2014 ASU Prison English Project newsletter how even learning a subject as seemingly impractical as Chinese bolstered the inmates’ self-confidence.

“When asked to elaborate on the personal and intellectual rewards of learning Chinese, my students offered variations on a theme: the sense of achievement derived from overcoming intellectual obstacles,” she wrote.

Another student, Anika Larson, expressed interest in teaching biology.

“I asked [Joe Lockard] whether anyone was teaching biology in this particular program,” she said. “They weren’t, but he got the biology class approved and said, ‘If you want to do it, you’ll start in September.’ I panicked, to be honest.”

But with the help and support of School of Life Sciences professor Tsafrir Mor and several doctoral students, Larson got the biology class up and running for the fall 2014 semester.

By that time, the Prison English program had expanded to teaching classes at nearby Arizona State Prison Complex–Eyman as well as Florence. The addition of the Chinese and biology classes — along with others like philosophy and theater — prompted the collective rebranding of the programs as the ASU Prison Education Initiatives.

Two ASU students stand at the front of a classroom
Gary Garrison and Jacqueline Balderrama — third-year creative writing master’s students at ASU, concentrating in fiction and poetry, respectively — lead a creative writing class discussion at one of the state prison classes. Photo courtesy Corri Wells

 

The new biology class was to be taught in a supermax facility at Eyman, called the Browning Unit. All of the inmate students arrived in restraints and spent the entirety of the class in individual steel cages.

The conditions added a degree of difficulty for Larson and the other biology teachers, but in the end, the class was deemed a success and was renewed for the 2015-2016 academic year.

Larson called the experience “a highlight” of her time at ASU, and Mor expressed admiration for her “commitment and idealism.”

“I believe that education is a human right that people should not be deprived of, even at supermax security prisons,” Mor said. “Moreover, it is in society’s best interest because providing such opportunities to inmates carries societal dividends.”

Among the benefits to society, Lockard cites the fact that introducing education to inmates significantly reduces recidivism rates.

“There is a very strong bipartisan recognition … that the rate of recidivism is vastly high and needs to be lowered, and education is the answer. It’s unquestionable that education helps prevent recidivism,” he said.

Erasing the stigma

Wells also teaches the course English 484: The Pen Project, a Department of English writing internship and a facet of the ASU Prison Education Initiatives that got its start in 2010 after the initial success of the Prison English program.

The Pen Project remotely and anonymously pairs ASU student interns with inmates in maximum-security prisons in Arizona and New Mexico. The interns coach inmates wanting to improve their writing skills through a process that involves the handwritten work of inmates being collected by prison staff, mailed to ASU instructors, scanned into Blackboard and transcribed by the student interns.

The student interns then read and critically comment on the inmates’ writing. This individualized instruction is edited by instructors of the course, transferred through Blackboard back to the prisons, printed in hard copy and hand-delivered by prison staff directly to prisoners in their cells.

ASU writing interns currently coach about 150 inmates who, together with the interns, produce between 1,500 and 2,000 pages of writing and critique per semester.

“People are dedicated to it; they get a lot of satisfaction from it. It’s very gratifying to know you’re being of service to people who need it,” Wells said.

Two women hold certificates of appreciation.
Jessica Fletcher (left), ASU English undergrad and president of PEAC (Prison Education Awareness Club), and Corri Wells, who took over the Prison Education Initiatives Program this spring, are honored for their volunteerism by the Arizona State Department of Corrections on Oct. 3. Photo by David Wells

 

Emboldened by the experience, Pen Project student interns organized PEAC (Prison Education Awareness Club), a university club dedicated to teaching students and the community at large about the prison education system.

Wells serves as a faculty adviser for PEAC, which also raises funds for and develops programs to facilitate effective education in the prison system.

Eric Verska, a 2015 graduate of the W. P. Carey School of Business, found out about PEAC through his mother, a retired former employee of ASU’s Department of English.

His interest in the club went deeper than most. A former drug addict, Verska discovered PEAC during his second stint as an ASU student, his first attempt having ended in failure, followed shortly after by a seven-year, drug-related prison sentence.

While incarcerated, Verska found educational offerings to be invaluable.

“That was huge for me. It built my confidence and provided me with the opportunity to continue to pursue [a four-year degree],” he said.

ASU English undergrad and current club president Jessica Fletcher wants to change people’s minds about educating inmates.

“Many treat prison as ‘out of sight, out of mind.’ However … the men and women incarcerated are our neighbors and future coworkers; they are the sons and daughters of friends; they are the mothers and fathers to children in our communities. Just as traditional education is considered paramount to well-being, prison education is vital to the humanity and well-being of prison inmates,” she said.

As part of its awareness mission, PEAC facilitates the Prison Education Conference on campus each spring, with attendees from around the state and keynote speakers from around the country.

The fifth annual Prison Education Conference is set to take place March 19, 2016.

ASU teachers help an inmate with math homework

Brent Knutson, ASU School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences lecturer, and Janet Sipes, graduate student and teaching associate, help a student decipher a math problem. Most of their prison teaching is individualized tutoring like this since math skill levels vary dramatically from student to student. Photo courtesy Corri Wells

A chance at redemption

Former creative writing program manager Corey Campbell taught at the Florence state prison for three years and wrote about it in an introduction to the spring 2015 issue of Insiders, an online journal that features the writing of inmates.

During that time, she developed a bond with her inmate students that gave her a deeper appreciation for their experience.

“I think there’s an undercurrent of despair throughout the prison, throughout the yard, and anything that they can do to engage with the outside world is going to help them and remind them that they are human beings and they are part of the group; they’re not just thrown away somewhere,” she said.

Wells argued a similar point in her introduction to the summer 2015 Prison English newsletter, posturing that what the ASU Prison Education Initiatives and other programs like it offer is more than just a lesson on how to dissect a sentence or solve a math equation — what they offer is a chance at redemption.

“Anyone — even someone sentenced to die in prison for heinous acts like rape and murder, as well as someone convicted of much lesser, so-called ‘victimless’ crimes like drug possession — is capable of life-altering growth and transformation ... to their last breath.”

Emma Greguska

Reporter , ASU Now

(480) 965-9657