'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
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.