Kundiman 10 Years Later: Reflections on Writing Faculty, Workshops, and Telling Our Collective Truths
A conversation between April Naoko Heck, author of A Nuclear Family, and Purvi Shah, author of Terrain Tracks
ANH: Let’s start with numbers. How many creative instructors did you have and what was their racial and gender makeup?
PS: As an undergraduate at the University of Michigan, I had the incredible opportunity to study with three provocative women writers. Marge Piercy, the fierce Jewish feminist poet, made my introduction to the writing workshop – a whirl of passion and fervor. J. Allyn Rosser brought me the current of seemingly-quiet questioning. And the visionary Thylias Moss, a fierce writer of color, opened up a cosmos of poetry rooted in troubling race and racism, class and classism, sex and sexism. Working with Thylias made all the difference for my quest to write as a form of knowledge and resistance.
ANH: That’s amazing– in nine years of higher education I had eight white creative writing professors, one female and the rest male. My first Kundiman retreat in 2010 marked the first time I studied with writers of color – Jon Pineda, Tan Lin, and Paisley Rekdal.
What do you mean when you say that working with Thylias made all the difference? I know what you mean intuitively, but I would love to hear you talk about the exact reasons.
PS: Sure. We all struggle to write about who we are, how we are treated in the world, and our social context. So working with a poet who is writing about American racism, women workers, the repercussions of slavery, explicitly gave all of us permission to write about our social context, and that it was not only okay, but that it made for great poetry. Thylias was a force herself, an imaginative poet with incredible writing techniques. I remember her once showing a re-vision she had done of a poem where she had catalyzed a long, lyric piece into a paragraph prose poem. Amazing!
ANH: I’m interested in the idea of permission–did you ever feel in a workshop that certain topics were off limits?
PS: Honestly, I never had to think about permission in this way. I hear new Kundiman poets talking about the need for it to write about what matters to them, what really matters to them. As the first artist in my immigrant family, I needed a different permission – the fundamental permission to say, “Yes, I am a writer, poetry matters” – not permission about the content of my work. In college I had read Li-Young Lee and Cathy Song. In high school, I’d already read and loved Audre Lorde and Adrienne Rich. So I knew that I could write about family, politics, justice, and that all of it was fair ground – all of it the fabric of resonant lines.
ANH: I picked up on the word “permission” because when I was visiting an undergraduate creative writing class at my alma mater [the College of Wooster] this September, I talked about my experiences working with my first-ever female professor in University of Maryland’s MFA Creative Writing Program and with writers of color at the Kundiman retreat, and how I felt that they had given me permission to explore the subject matter of my book. The students responded to the notion of different kinds of permission-granting in different spaces, and they weren’t necessarily referring to permission to talk about race like I was. I had the sense that the students were feeling otherwise inhibited – perhaps within the context of a writing workshop, or as you say, of being young writers not yet fearless about unleashing their voices. I’m glad that students were reflecting back to me that the longing for permission to speak one’s truth is not just about being female or a person of color. I recently heard Prageeta Sharma say in a craft talk that poets can struggle with playing a persona as a poet versus being genuine and free.
PS: So many people struggle with sharing their voices – and on top of this, being a woman, person of color, or part of a marginalized group can make your experience that much harder to claim because it’s not the mainstream narrative or necessarily a moment of triumph. When you speak your story, you have to be brave and resilient. You have to have the courage to know and accept yourself – even before others do.
ANH: Sharma also talked about the “well-behaved poem” and I have a feeling that’s what those students at Wooster were concerned with – how either consciously or subconsciously, we may have notions of what a poem is supposed to perform. The students just wanted their poems to be liked. I understand – I want people to like my poems. But likability can’t be your primary concern when it’s just you and the blank page. Maybe we’re talking about something broader culturally – young poets worrying that poets don’t seem to matter very much. But also, is there something happening at a workshop level that’s inhibiting, constricting?
PS: For me, different models of creation have been liberating, like working through collaboration. I’ve had my undergraduate writing workshops and Kundiman retreats which have been fabulous, but I was also really grateful for two amazing poet friends who truly enabled me to generate writing both in my undergraduate workshops and out of it. And I’m grateful for the project we worked on together, Together We Are New York: Asian Americans Remember and Re-Vision 9/11 (TWANY), which enabled creating art by working as a part of team of nine writers and additional community members. I have this whole other model of writing that is generated in the world, about the world, with people – and so even in that context it’s not so much about having permission but having the space for conversation, for community storytelling, for co-creation. How did it feel for you to work in that collaborative context for TWANY after the other workshop experiences?
ANH: My workshops taught me craft and technique and definitely expanded my knowledge of contemporary poetry. And there’s something valuable about the ego development that happens. You have to grow up to be able to listen to peer critique and learn to determine for yourself what feedback is valuable and what isn’t. I think the TWANY project was the first creative endeavor that made me feel like my work could have an immediate impact and connection with my community. I felt part of something larger that’s happening in New York City which is in this slow process of healing – no, not healing, just processing 9/11. We will be processing it for decades still.
To circle back to my experience, studying with mainly white male writing faculty, I realize now that I didn’t even know what the possibilities for poetry were, and that may not have to do with my instructors’ gender or race, but the nature of writing programs themselves. Many creative writing workshops were based on a particular model, one that can be very productive. But the creation you talk about… I don’t recall studying artists undertaking collaborative or community-oriented work. And honestly, in many classrooms political poetry was like a bad word, whatever “political” means. Few students wanted to see a political agenda in a poem, not transparently. In hindsight I can see that I didn’t know what to want, what poetry could do. I couldn’t seek because I had no idea of what could be found. That’s why Kundiman was a revelation.
PS: I hear that because one of the points of profound growth I had as a writer happened in the process of creating TWANY by just realizing how all of us had different styles and voices and concerns about language, but we could use common tools like repetition, metaphor, and the line to come together. It’s one thing to study other poets, but another to actually work with poets and create language. That process helped me to live in other people’s language. It wasn’t just reading someone’s work on the page, but inhabiting their voices. That meeting when you brought in those drawings and visual brainstorming for how you were going to get to a poem – that was a revelation to me, how you could create language from a visual mapping. Perhaps in a workshop context you might try to mimic or copy or model other people, but within the TWANY team, it was far more than copying. It was working in harmony and expanding our own reaches of language simultaneously. There was something magical about witnessing how our borders of language can increase and come together with purpose.
ANH: I agree, collaborating, especially with a group as large as ours – nine poets meeting weekly over a course of six months – was a magical experience. At NYU, Anne Carson teaches a workshop on collaboration and there are two immediate reactions among students– they love it or they drop the class. There’s an immense amount of creative freedom. You’re not restricted by medium – you don’t even have to use language – but you have to work with other people. I had audited some of her classes and her instruction had a direct impact on my ability to collaborate in the TWANY project. I’d already had the experience of putting your ego aside when you work with others and having flexibility in your vision. You have to make space for other people’s ideas and in fact your idea may never reach fruition. I also had a taste of the excitement of collaboration because there’s new unpredictability in the creative process and the messiness or lack of control over the outcome is instructive in a way that working singularly just can’t be. It’s character-building. If I had not come to New York City and discovered Kundiman, I don’t know that I would have discovered other possibilities beyond the lonely, Emily Dickinson model of writing. The poet working in isolation.
PS: I believe that to think about community as part of the poetic process fundamentally shifts not just who you are writing for but why you write. We often think about our own ars poetica and I wonder about a community ars poetica – how do we situate our work not only in the context of the history of poetry but in the history of our communities? So I think about how poetry appears in South Asian communities as part of song or everyday banter or just the fabric of everyday life, and I feel that for poetry to occupy a living, breathing space we need to see it as an ecosystem that both helps us show who we are but also is who we are.
ANH: I think that’s part of what Cave Canem, Kundiman, and CantoMundo are doing. I attended the MFA Program at UNC Greensboro from 1993-95 and a lot has changed in terms of the number of MFA programs increasing, the diversification of faculty and students, and the relatively recent founding of groups supporting writers of color. Many writers and artists are having conversations like ours and asking questions about traditional workshop models. I think 10 years from now, again, we will see communities like Kundiman grow. More new writers may step into a writing or academic environment seeing the kind of possibilities that I couldn’t envision as a young writer. People are speaking up and putting in the hard work now that will bear fruition in years to come.
PS: I love this idea of fruition even in years to come, because when I think back to my Terrain Tracks book launch, one of my college poet friends, Gabrielle Civil, an amazing performance artist, read as well as Kundiman co-founder, Sarah Gambito. Similarly, you had an amazing book launch for A Nuclear Family with so many voices of people who had influenced you or whose writing you admired, and I love that sense that poetry is not just a home for us individually, but is a shared, collective home. And if we can see our writing as a small way of saying, “We have voice, we have stories to tell, we take up space in this world,” we can also feel how powerful it is to do so in camaraderie. I think about how our writing pulls in our ancestors, these lineages, and simultaneously we are creating the next lineages for people to branch off from.
ANH: That’s part of what Kundiman taught me – there’s a level of book-learning that is simply limited and you have to experience a creative life viscerally and exchange energy with people who are living their poetry in a way you realize you want to and can. Kundiman validated that for me. Any form of creative learning has always been inextricably connected to my identity, the hardships and triumphs of my community, as someone of mixed race, a woman, descendent of war victims and survivors. And that’s not true for every Asian American female writer. That’s just my truth.
April Naoko Heck was born in Tokyo and moved to the U.S. with her family when she was seven. A Kundiman Fellow, she has been awarded residencies from the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and Vermont Studio Center. A Nuclear Family, her first collection of poems, was released by UpSet Press in spring 2014.
Purvi Shah inspires change through her work as a non-profit consultant, anti-violence advocate, and writer. In 2008, she won the inaugural SONY South Asian Social Service Excellence Award for her leadership fighting violence against women. During the 10th anniversary of 9/11, she directed Together We Are New York, a community-based poetry project to highlight Asian American voices. In 2013, she was selected as a Poets House Emerging Poets Fellow and her work was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Terrain Tracks is her award-winning book of poetry. Discover her work at purvipoets.net or @PurviPoets.