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Artist Profile: Luis Galindo

Name: Luis Galindoluis-galindo

Hometown: Alvin, TX

Residence: Houston, TX

What is your earliest memory of writing?

My earliest memory of writing would be writing a letter to Santa Claus in the first grade, I think, and asking him how the reindeer and Mrs. Claus were doing and then launching right into my wish list of Star Wars action figures and skateboards and footballs and the like.

How did you become a writer?

I became a writer when the stage became too small. I am an actor by training and trade and the need to seek out new avenues of self-expression became overpowering. I can’t paint worth a damn and my musicianship has remained at novice level for decades, so I picked up a pen, instead.

I was a member of a popular Shakespeare company in Los Angeles and I did Shakespeare plays almost exclusively for years, and then one day, even the bard’s words weren’t enough for me anymore, I wanted to say what was on my mind, I needed to, so I started writing down ideas. The words came out with melodies, initially and I thought, “ Oh, I am supposed to write songs.” but then the melodies went away but the words kept coming, so I became a poet instead due to the thoughts learning to take the path of least resistance from mind to page.

Tell us about your writing process.

The writing process is tricky. I sit down with every intention of writing a poem and I will just start. Writing freely and trying not to think too much. Then the idea will present itself, maybe in a phrase or a pair of words and that will lead me to the shape of what it is that is trying to get out, or an idea that I am trying to make, make sense. Other times the poems won’t let me sleep at night and I have to get them out or I know they will be gone forever. Also, if I let them linger too long I will lose interest or they will transform into something less powerful to me. Sometimes I just have to stop for a while and let the ideas percolate. Other times I will hear a word or a phrase in a conversation or on the news that will send me down a poem rabbit hole and I just follow it, hoping to find something worthwhile.

What are you working on now?

Right now I am working on a new collection of poems. It will be released in the next few months.

A very good friend of mine who lives in Los Angeles is editing it for me. (He also edited the first collection I wrote) We are almost done now. It is called Grace and Fury and right now is at about 60 pieces and I have no doubt that number will decrease in the next few weeks.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?

I suffer from writer’s block a lot and it is no fun. I try to be patient and keep at it but sometimes the sense of defeat is so much that I just want to quit all together. Other times, I am able to write my way out.

Which writers and teachers have most influenced you as a writer?

The writers and teachers that have influenced me the most have been Juan Felipe Herrera, Dylan Thomas, Bukowski (I know, I know, but I believe he is truly great). Right now Matthew Dickman is what I am reading. I am really into his work right now.

I’ve never taken a writing class before. I think I probably should.

What books have had the biggest impact on your trajectory?

I would say the books that have had the biggest impact on me have been Book of Lives by Juan Felipe Herrera, I was blown away from the first page and immediately re-read the whole thing as soon as I finished it.

Burning in Water, Drowning in Flame by Charles Bukowski—This one was a game changer. I was young and confused and dark and sad and this book made so much sense to me that it has remained one of my all-time favorites. It is very special to me.

Two books that are not poetry, yet I cannot escape from are Sexus by Henry Miller and Blood Meridian (Or the Evening Redness in the West) by Cormac McCarthy

Miller shook me up in a way that made me question everything I believed and made me laugh and cry while doing it. Truly magnificent.

As for Blood Meridian, well, it is a book that is so terrifying, so horribly powerful that I have to put it down after just a few pages of reading. I re visit it from time to time, but, only in small doses. Downright Biblical. These two books have impacted me as greatly as any music, painting or poem anytime anywhere.

What’s your advice to aspiring writers?

My advice to aspiring writers is, try to stop sounding like your influences as soon as possible. You have a voice and it’s the one we need right now.

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Luis Galindo in “The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity” at Stages Rep in 2015

Artist Profile: Hugo Esteban Rodríguez

Name: Hugo Esteban Rodríguez Castañeda

Hometown: Heroica Matamoros, Tamaulipas, Mexico; and Brownsville, Texas, U.S.A. To clarify, I was born and raised in Matamoros but came to adulthood in Brownsville, so I’m both from Mexico and the Rio Grande Valley.

Residence: Houston, Texas.

What is your earliest memory of writing? I want to say writing bad fan-fiction when I was 12, but I also have vague memories of the year before, being in the fifth grade and writing my own “school newspaper” and reporting on elementary school drama.

How did you become a writer?

I grew up surrounded by books and learned to love them because of my father and grandfather. It was only a natural jump to go from seeing how much books could do for people to wanting to evoke that same kind of feeling myself. I think the best way I can explain this is when I was reading the Harry Potter series as a kid, I felt actual regret that I couldn’t go to Hogwarts. I’ve always been enthralled by superheroes and supervillains, so I believe that being able to create those emotions with just your words is as close as I’ll get to actual superpowers. Plus, if videogames have taught me anything, it’s that getting bombarded with heavy doses of radiation isn’t exactly healthy.

Tell us about your writing process.

It’s a two-part process given that I am both a poet and a writer. For my poetry, I write out my poems in a journal I carry with me most of the time. Then I let them sit there for a week, then once the week passes, I take a look at the poem again and type it up. If I like it, I’ll save it in a ‘holding’ folder on my computer, then revisit it in a week and if it is good enough, I add it to my collection. If it at any point in the process I don’t like it, I’ll salvage what I can and then I start over.

For my fiction, I have a much more simpler approach. I just channel the inner voice that goes, “Wow! Wouldn’t it be cool if…” and write stories on that without placing limits on how weird, boring, or strange something is. I have a piece out that’s based on a time-traveling swimming pool. I have another that’s an ode to alienation featuring a man that is also a car, and I recently wrote a story about skin cells in a mattress. Hell, sometimes I’ll just stack up two poems together and make a story out of it.

What are you working on now?

A lot! My main focus right now is seeking representation for my first manuscript, a collection of short stories with the common theme of mental illness. My other projects include writing more flash fiction in the hopes of creating a second short story collection. I’m also planning on finishing the edits to my poetry manuscript. And ALSO I just added a vlog component to my website, so I’ve been pretty busy outside my day job.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?

There are two kinds of writers: Those who have struggled with writer’s block; and damn liars.

Which writers and teachers have most influenced you as a writer?

I’m blessed that every teacher I’ve had has influenced me in one way or another. But I’d like to take some time to honor them. In elementary school, my teacher Ms. Diaz really emphasized the importance of reading and writing. In high school, Mrs. Saenz really reinforced the importance of having discipline, which is absolutely instrumental for any writer. In college, Azenett Cornejo was the program coordinator for the student newspaper where I worked throughout my undergraduate career. There’s a lot of lessons I learned from her that I still employ in my day-to-day life as both a writer and as a grown adult, but if there’s one trait she nurtured in me, was the importance of having an eye for detail and thinking on my feet. Finally, in my MFA program, I had the privilege and opportunity of learning under the tutelage of established poets and writers. If I’m picking two, I’m picking Sasha Pimentel and Daniel Chacón. Professor Pimentel taught me to love poetry, and Professor Chacón, was instrumental in placing me on the short story track I’m in.

What books have had the biggest impact on your trajectory?

  • Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States
  • JK Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
  • William King’s Trollslayer (from the Gotrek and Felix series)
  • Stephen King’s On Writing
  • Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front
  • Benjamin Alire Saenz’s Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club

What’s your advice to aspiring writers?

There’s a lot of hard work involved in this field. There’s going to be some nights you’re going to pass out at your desk. There’s going to be times when you forget to eat. This field is going to take your blood, sweat, tears and time and…it’s going to be worth it. You are going to come up with something that’s going to make people feel and it is such a rewarding feeling when you see that. Another thing I’d advice is take on day jobs if you have to. There’s no shame in wanting to be gainfully employed while you work on a writing career. Some people glorify the “starving” part of “starving artist” and it’s a bit nonsensical. You don’t have to be homeless or unemployed to have the kind of hustle, hunger, and chip on shoulder necessary to thrive in this field.

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***For more on Hugo Esteban Rodríguez, see:

Daily Cougar Profile

Profile Friday: Hispanic studies professor elevates Latinx playwrights

By: Doug Van

September 23, 2016

If ever there was proof that you don’t need to choose between work and love of the arts, you can find it in Trevor Boffone.

As a lecturer in both the Hispanic Studies and the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Departments, Boffone has found a way to also make theater an important part of what he does. While his paid work at UH does not necessarily dovetail with his dramaturgical endeavors, he has become a passionate advocate.

To continue reading, click here.

Thoughts on Theatre Under The Stars’ IN THE HEIGHTS

After I saw In the Heights on Broadway in 2008, I left the Richard Rodgers, went to my hotel room, and immediately tried to break dance. Hilarity ensued. Graffiti Pete I was not. Fast forward 8 years to Theatre Under The Stars’ (TUTS) production of Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes’ hit musical, and I am still trying to move like the fictional residents of Washington Heights.

Dear reader, I have never and likely will never be able to break dance, pop-n-lock, or anything in between. No amount of In the Heights will fix that. But that doesn’t change my relationship with the show. As a musical theatre-phile and Spanish-speaker, seeing the show in 2008 was the first time that I felt these two worlds collide. Even though I am not Latino and don’t necessarily relate to the characters in the show, I felt represented in some odd way.  And, as a Latin@ theatre scholar, I’m invested in the skyrocketing careers of both Miranda and Hudes, two of only three Latin@ playwrights to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama (the other is Nilo Cruz).

In many ways, I feel like In the Heights always keeps coming back to me. And then one night you are scrolling through your Facebook news feed and there is In the Heights embroiled in controversy over the casting and hiring of artistic staff at Chicago’s Porchlight Music Theatre. Enraged, I checked my facts, and wrote a blog, thinking that no one would read it (See: “Casting an ‘Authentic’ In the Heights”). The next day it quickly went viral (well, viral for trevorboffone.com). All of a sudden, people were citing me and interviewing me about my thoughts on race, ethnicity, and casting in the show. Soon thereafter, I started writing an article about race, ethnicity, power, whitewashing, and representation in post-Hamilton productions of the show to submit to a peer-reviewed academic journal. And all the while, I was keeping my eyes on TUTS’ 2016-17 season opening performance of the show.

While I won’t formally review the show here and will save my detailed thoughts for later, I do want to take some time to address several thoughts about TUTS’ production of In the Heights.

Usnavi is everything—When Usnavi makes his entrance at the top of the show, he introduces the audience to the familia to which we are about to bear witness. He is the show’s narrator and, therefore, we enter the community through him. Given this, the actor must be able to carry the show, not in the same way as Mamma Rose or Tevye, but Usnavi must make the audience fall for him. We need to not only want to visit his bodega, but we need to feel like we already frequent it and take our coffee light and sweet. This is to say that casting this character is pivotal to a successful production that speaks with the Latin@ community. As such, Usnavi is a beloved musical theatre character and one of the few Latin@ characters to lead a Broadway musical. TUTS made a great choice in casting Anthony Lee Medina as Usnavi. Medina’s tweet below just shows how much this role means to him and the Latin@ community. Not to mention it reiterates the importance of casting this role with a Latino actor. How often do Latin@s get to play dream roles that are roles specifically written for them?

Stepping into a role so closely associated with Lin-Manuel Miranda surely must have been daunting, but Medina delivers as the man in the Kangol hat. Medina is charismatic, funny, and engaging. In addition to being a first-class actor, he raps with ease and dances like a drunk Chita Rivera. Medina is ready for the spotlight and there is no reason he shouldn’t play Curly, Pippin, or Bobby (give him a few years!).

Jonathan Arana as Piragua Guy & Anthony Lee Medina as Usnavi. Photo by Os Galindo

Jonathan Arana as Piragua Guy & Anthony Lee Medina as Usnavi. Photo by Os Galindo

Sheldon Epps—Last week, I told The Houston Chronicle’s Theatre Critic Wei-Huan Chen that Sheldon Epps leadership as Artistic Advisor at TUTS was a big move in a city whose major arts organizations are so heavily run by Anglos. Given the fact that Houston is the nation’s most racially diverse city, a black person in such a high leadership position shouldn’t be surprising nor should we consider it a “big move,” but here, in 2016, it is. That Epps came in and replaced Shrek, Jesus Christ Superstar, and Grease with In the Heights, Into the Woods, and Dreamgirls just demonstrates that he is looking to center TUTS as one of the leading producers of musical theatre in the country and produce work that speaks to Houston in 2016. While In the Heights and Dreamgirls offer a rare opportunity for local audiences to see people of color on a major stage (How many times have you seen two dozen people of color on stage at the Hobby Center?), Into the Woods also offers the opportunity to cast people of color in leading roles. Why not a black Baker? Or a Latina Baker’s Wife? An Indian-American Jack? Simple casting choices could potentially have a significant ripple effect in Houston. Just look at the new layers that The Catastrophic Theatre added to their 2016 production of Buried Child by casting a black woman as Shelly. To put it simply, it was a revelation and shed new light on a show that has been around for almost 40 years. We need more of this work and TUTS can be be a leader in providing access for actors of color in Houston.

Hopefully, programming diversity on stage will bring more diverse crowds into the Hobby Center. However, if TUTS really wants to build audiences and draw new people to the theatre, then it absolutely must address the high cost of tickets. The cheapest seats for In the Heights are $46.50 including fees, not to mention parking which is $12 in the Hobby Center garage. Why not offer discounted tickets for veterans and people under 35, rush seats, etc? TUTS does have a Student & Senior Rush Policy (Student and Senior (65+) rush is available starting one hour before curtain with valid id. Tickets are 50% off in price levels 2-5). However, this information is not easily accessible on their website, leading many to believe that they don’t offer such discounts. I recognize that with touring shows discounted tickets might not be possible, but for TUTS-produced shows such as In the Heights, discounted tickets have the potential to be a game changer. In the Heights should not be a luxury. People should not be turned off from seeing this important show based on ticket prices alone.

The Cast of In The Heights. Photo by Os Galindo

The Cast of In The Heights. Photo by Os Galindo

Artist Profile: Sarah Rafael García

Name: Sarah Rafael Garcíasarah-rafael-garcia

Hometown: Born in Brownsville, Texas and raised in Santa Ana, California, I claim both.

Residence: Austin, Texas and Santa Ana, California: one a residence with my life partner as he completes his PhD at UT at Austin and currently an artist in residence at Grand Central Art Center in Santa Ana.

What is your earliest memory of writing?

I started writing after the unexpected death of my father in 1988, I was thirteen. A bereavement social worker, at the hospital where my father passed away, handed me my first journal and advice to use writing as a source of consolation.

How did you become a writer?

In 2004, I ran away from Corporate America and the “American Dream” to live in Beijing as an English teacher and write my first book for 18 months. At the time, I was stressed and disillusioned about many expectations in my life—becoming financially successful, getting married, having children and supporting my sisters and mother. I have been writing since 1988 but never shared my work with anyone outside of my immediate family. I was waiting to retire (with tons a money) and spend beach vacations writing my childhood stories. Yeah I know, not realistic, but since I didn’t grow up with any mentors or support to be a writer that’s all I could imagine for myself, since I had to have a “real” career.

Tell us about your writing process.

I started writing by journaling, with the occasional poem sneaking onto the page. Then I moved on to writing memories, which led me to deconstruct my identity as a first generation college student, Chicana and woman of color—who never married nor has children. But of course that came after I completed a degree in Sociology. After my first book was published in 2008, I recognized I needed to learn more and wanted to offer more to my community. In 2009, I founded Barrio Writers. By leading writing workshops for youth, I broadened my writing interests as well as my style. I began to use more code-switching, experimental format as well as spoken word. Then in 2012, Barrio Writers led me to seek a M.F.A in Creative Writing. I had not written fiction until I submitted a writing sample for M.F.A. applications. Now, I write a lot of hybrid stories—a cross between fiction and non-fiction, contemporary narratives of women and my community. I select a gender role imposed on women or cultural community issue and find a way to tell a story through fiction—sometimes it’s like an ethnographic description, other times it transforms into a parallel world through the lens of magical realism. As far as the process, once I’ve done research into the theme and written 2-3 pages into a story, I become a weaver. I write, go back to the beginning and edit, write 2-4 more pages, maybe do some more research (read literature, look up relevant stuff), go back to the beginning and edit, and the cycle continues until I get to the ending. It’s a love-hate relationship, I love how it all turns out in the end, but some days I lose my patience with editing from the beginning over and over again. I’ve learned to see it as weaving—something that needs to be done to hold it all together, to create details at a micro level but eventually create a pattern only visible at a macro level. I would have laughed aloud and walked back into my 10×10 corporate America cubicle if I was told this had to be my writing process back in 2004. But here I am…

What are you working on now?  

I focus on contemporary female narratives, which include identity, gender and cultural themes. Currently, I am seeking to publish a travel memoir that shares my adventures as a Xicana crossing, literal and figurative, borders. Along with this, I also wrote a collection of feminist short stories as my MFA thesis. The short stories are inspired by news headlines or a quote that typecast female narratives. I use magical realism and play with point of view to deconstruct the role and stereotypes of women in our society.

As part of my artist in residence, I’m working on a special project from March 2016-2017. SanTana’s Fairy Tales is an oral history, storytelling project, which integrates community-based narratives to create contemporary fairy tales and fables that represent the history and stories of Mexican/Mexican-American residents of Santa Ana (inspired by the Grimms’ Fairy Tales).

The forthcoming exhibit at Grand Central Art Center in Santa Ana, California will present a multi-media installation, curated in collaboration with local visual, musical, and performance artists. The exhibit will showcase bilingual, single-story zines, a fully illustrated published book, an ebook, a large format classical book, graphic art by Sol Art Radio‘s Carla Zarate, an “open book” performance, along with composed music by Viento Callejero‘s Gloria Estrada, who is supported by local singer/songwriter Ruby Castellanos and members of the Pacific Symphony. The entire collection will be translated by poet Julieta Corpus and published by Raspa Press. The ebook will be produced by Digitus Indie Publishers.

SanTana’s Fairy Tales is supported in part by The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, through a grant supporting the Artist-in-Residence initiative at Grand Central Art Center. The exhibit is scheduled for March 2017.

Through Santana’s Fairy Tales, I hope to give back to the community, which instilled culture, pride and perseverance in my daily life as an artist. I returned to Santa Ana not as a writer, but as a storyteller/artivist who invokes real stories from real community members in order to offer a counter-narrative for the stereotypes and media headlines that feature Mexicans/Mexican-Americans from Santa Ana, California. By using multi-media, I want to initiate a literary discussion and preserve local culture through revitalization in the form of art versus the recent change Santa Ana faces through the influx of gentrification.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?

Yes, and I’m not a big fan of folks who say it doesn’t exist. I think it does for some of us. There are many complex situations in life that keep some of us from creating. Although I recognize I’m in a privileged position as an artist in residence, my journey and sacrifices are not so easily forgotten, nor is my cost of living. Sometimes I can’t write because I’m trying to budget my money for next month and also my time to do community work. Other times, I’m busy chasing deadlines and I forget that I haven’t seen or spoken to my loved ones in weeks. Then there are those days that I question everything, I question if I’d be happier if I didn’t have to worry how I was going to pay bills next month or where I’m going to live next year. I question if I should go back to a “real” job and get rid of some of these tedious tasks of choosing between healthy food verses cheap food or a new pair of comfortable shoes, since I walk and commute via bike because it’s cheaper than maintaining a car. I question if having no health insurance is actually sane or humane. I question if I’m “academic” enough to land a job as an adjunct professor (even though the pay sucks), because I haven’t yet and I’m 42 years old. Then I’m told I don’t have enough experience on a campus, but folks admire that I’ve maintained Barrio Writers for the last eight years with little to no budget on various campuses in Texas and Southern California. So yes, in these moments I can’t write, all of such thoughts block my process—and they come often. Some days I have to convince myself to just breathe rather than write.

Which writers and teachers have most influenced you as a writer?

I can’t say I have a go-to list of writers, because I’m a big fan of contemporary writers. So those who influence me change on a daily bases—most recently I’ve been enjoying poetry by Macondista Ching-In Chen and Juan Felipe Herrera’s latest collection. For fiction, I‘m currently dissecting Emma Donoghue and Etgar Keret. If I have to resort to those who made me feel like I wanted be like them or just escape this world by flipping a few pages, it all started with Judy Blume and Louisa May Alcott. Then as for the maestra/os, I admire Gabo, Allende, Esquivel, and Castillo. For descriptions, wit and male narratives, I bury my nose in works by Joe Jimenez, Junot Diaz, and Dagoberto Gilb. But at my bedside I have Texas Poet Laureate Laurie Ann Guerrero, Leslie Marmon Silko and Toni Morrison—and tomorrow I will add more to each section.

What books have had the biggest impact on your trajectory?

Top 5 List + 1:

  1. All by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (Gabo)
  2. Aphrodite by Isabel Allende
  3. Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
  4. Law of Love by Laura Esquivel
  5. Flesh to Bone by ire’ne lara silva

Plus 1, the latest read: The Woman Who Gave Birth To Rabbits by Emma Donoghue

What’s your advice to aspiring writers?

As writers who have to challenge stereotypes daily, I advise youth (as well as new older writers of color) to be their own mentors and rise above the microaggressions and dismissals from any part of society that seems to be an obstacle to reaching life goals—as so many have done before them. I tell all writers to push through, to write in any shape or form they desire, to adapt critical-thinking in daily life, to share their culture whether it be based on race or just your love for a particular type of music, to speak assertively, “Your voice is your weapon!” Don’t just be the bigger person, role model to those younger and older than you. I also remind all writers to find their support in their community. And if they can’t find it, then create it—begin your own community to empower others like you.

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Artist Profile: Raina León

Name: Raina Juanita LeónRaina Leon 1

Hometown: Philadelphia, PA

Residence: Berkeley, CA

What is your earliest memory of writing?  I remember writing, really before I could write, criticism for a dance production my mother took me to see. She tells the story that it was an Alvin Ailey performance.  I remember giving the pieces letter grades, A through C, and telling my mother why the performance merited one review or another.  Considering that I had only ever watched dance performances on PBS before that, had just started dance lessons at 6, and definitely knew next to nothing about the craft, there’s something to be said about my perception of the value of my eye and regard. 

How did you become a writer?  Life made me a writer.  I instinctually was pushing back against institutional, systemic, and internalized oppressions from an early age.  Writing helped me to find my path within the insanity.

My mother is also a poet and brought all of the arts into my life at an early age.  If it was a choice between paying the light bill or for Scholastic books, she was paying for books, and she read all of my very sad poems and stories.  I wrote mostly stories as a child with very sad endings, nothing like the Scholastics books or Highlights stories.

My father made time to take us to the library and talk to us about what we were reading.

Life made me a writer but my parents; the librarians of elementary school and high school; Sr. Ave from West Catholic High; and countless other teachers and friends over the years who read and challenged and questioned and gave me more ideas and resources, they are the folks who helped me speak back to the calling that life gave me.

Tell us about your writing process.

I write generally between 10pm and 6am, and mostly during the summer or on long breaks.  As an educator, during the academic year, my creativity goes mostly into my work with students.  I teach evening classes, too, so I find that I need a few hours to shake loose of my teacherly commitments (this person needs clarification on this assignment; remind the students of this due date; etc).  Once I am home and after my husband has gone to bed, in the silence of a Berkeley night, I can get some writing done.  Even in the day, when I might have lots of time, my mind needs to decompress with court shows or walking the dog or something like that.  I can do academic tasks but rarely creative work.  Even if it means being sleep-deprived and cranky the next day, if I want to write something, it has to be at night, in anticipation of the dawn.

What are you working on now?

I’m working on a full-length manuscript, which has become my way of exploring blackness as an identity in and out of time; generational trauma; ecopoetics that is connected to mythologies, spiritualities and communities; explorations of the lyric; transnational and translanguaging work; and Afro-futurism with a contemporary lens of tragedy and the inevitability of trauma within the conspiracy of control by hegemonic powers.  You know, nothing too deep.  As I’m going into this next step with the work, I am really interested in African deities, diaspora studies, myth and history around blood, water, and crossroads, and an Afro-futurist eco-poetics.  I am also very interested in crafting the character of Elisha, an Afro-Latino immortal, husband to the god in this world I’ve created.  He’s this complex guy who, despite having been a slave and suffered firsthand being dehumanized in multiple horrific ways, manages to nurture hope and light, laughter and love.  He’s chosen for the gift of immortality, because his strength is built on an internal light that never dies.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?

I suffered deeply from writer’s block in late 2014/early 2015.  With the inundation (that continues) of images of Black peoples murdered and violated through state-sanctioned violence and the lack of justice for the perpetrators of that violence (those stories that we do get), I found myself unable to write, unable to push through the horrors.  I became paralyzed by fear and mourning.  What does one do when you are trying to convince yourself that your Afro-Latina life matters in a time when Black Lives Matter emerges as a movement because the world would say we don’t?  I didn’t want to leave my house, let alone write a word.  I still have moments when fear and anger rise suddenly within me.  It’s in those small moments like seeing a police car in my neighborhood and then seeing it on the highway on the way to work.  Writing, for a long while, took a backseat to paranoia and mourning, and I’ve been in mourning for the last four years already for other familial losses.  That familial sorrow extended into sorrow for the world, which was massive and overcame any joy.

Of course, this block that I suffered came after I had just entered into a MFA in Poetry program.  I was supposed to be writing things, and when I began in the program, I had written a great number of poems, all the time, widely experimental, but soon enough I found myself staring into dark when I wrote and the dark staring back, baring its bloodied teeth. The only thing I was good for was reading the work of others and discussing.  Very little writing was happening.

I got into an online discussion with Teri Cross Davis about vampires, the hair of Black vampires, actually.  In some mythologies, a vampire has to be perfectly groomed upon being made, because that’s how they stay forever.  Sure, their hair may become lush and seductive, but the transformation builds on what is already there.   But what about slaves and those who became vampires while in that state?  They certainly weren’t going to be looking their best, stripped of their humanity.  Somehow Teri and I extended that Facebook conversation into a consideration of doing a collaborative piece, a crown of sonnets with an ancient woman vampire and her newly created male vampire.  Possibilities for plays on the Lilith myth, an homage to Octavia Butler.  Sonnets that shifted from Elizabethan iambic pentameter in the female voice to more experimental sonnets in the male voice.  It was all there.  Trying to get myself hyped up for the collaboration, I started imagining a world.  I didn’t want to work with the typical vampire myths so then I started thinking of elemental connection and causation of drought through the drinking of blood (a cosmic transference that allows both spirit through blood and body through water to persist over thousands of years), generational trauma and transference of memories, the possibilities that these “vampires” were really (nearly) immortals with the ability to have human children.  These immortals, in taking life, also drank souls and so carried and were influenced by those souls.  I started to think about how one would gift another with this immortality, what was the creation story of these people, and what was it like to be the human child and recipient of thousands of years of memory of an “immortal”, particularly one who has been marginalized, brutalized, dehumanized and still survived for the crime of being woman and of African descent.  I even had my partner create an algorithm to account for the population of immortals given certain scenarios.  Faced with the horrors of our reality I created characters who had dealt with worse, survived, and had something to teach through their lives.  I faced writer’s block through dissociation with reality and the revelation of a surreality, and in the oddest of ways, that is how I came back into encountering reality and writing about it head on as activism.  I had to create a world to enable me to encounter and deal with the world.

Which writers and teachers have most influenced you as a writer?

My mother was the first writer that I studied consciously wanting to understand what she had done.  One of her poems was published in an anthology, I believe it was called Generations, and I was fascinated by the idea that my mother had written something in a book.  I never thought about it until this interview, but that may have been the birth of me thinking that I could write books, too.

As for teachers, Mrs. Burgess, Mrs. Tulba, and Dr. Steven Herb were the greatest.  They were the librarians of my life.  Mrs. Burgess allowed a little girl of 7 or 8 to convince her that she could read the books the big kids read AND that she should be allowed to take out more than 2 books at a time.  She let me take out up to 8 at a time, and I devoured them within a week or two each time.  She maintained the connection with me and my brother.  She came to my grandmother’s wake and to my wedding, two of the most difficult and most revelatory times for me.

In high school, my locker in my first year was literally right next to the library, and I took it as a sign.  I ended up the editor-in-chief of the newspaper, that Mrs. Tulba supervised, and I worked in the library all the time.  I would sit outside the library in the morning until she arrived, return during lunch to do work, and then spend time there in the afternoons for newspaper or just to work on school.  The library was a refuge then.

In college, my first honors seminar was lead by Dr. Steven Herb; it focused on folklore and storytelling.  For years, that group of students met with him over lunch in State College, CA.  He put his whole self into the class, and we responded in turn.  I’m still good friends with many from that time.  Many of us even worked in the library on fellowships because of his influence.  One became a librarian.  He ran the Pennsylvania Center for the Book, which contacted me a few years ago to do a bio on me.  It’s actually one of the most complete biographies that has ever been done, mostly through research from the Center for the Book.

What books have had the biggest impact on your trajectory?

This is a trick question for me, because I’m discovering and rediscovering books all the time.

  • Wisteria by Kwame Dawes
  • The Fields of Praise by Marilyn Nelson
  • Alabanza:  New and Selected Poems by Martín Espada
  • Arcade by Erica Hunt with prints from Alison Saar
  • The new black by Evie Shockley
  • Black Swan by Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon

What’s your advice to aspiring writers?

I don’t have any tattoos, but if I did, I would have these:  the ankh on my left wrist and “defy, defy, defy” on my right wrist.  The ankh would remind me of the eternal quality of the soul, that one must be true to the higher purpose, seek justice, and connection as the world beyond is watching and waiting.  The words would remind me to persist.  I’ve had many times in my life as a writer when I did not write, because I believed a critic that I was not worthy, as woman, as scholar, as poet.  Eventually, that need to write for my own sanity would win; I would write, because I believe that my voice means something.  It doesn’t come easy.  And when I found that much of none of my work that blended English and Spanish was getting published, I founded (with Eliel Lucero) The Acentos Review for the many I knew like me who were facing the same walls.  If they can’t understand the majesty of our tongues, then why not create a place that honors what we do, see, feel, breathe, are?

So my advice to writers is 1) to seek justice in one’s work, because writing is political activism, too and 2) be defiant and create.

Raina Leon 2

Artist Profile: Icess Fernandez Rojas

Name:  Icess Fernandez RojasIcess Fernandez Pic 1

Hometown:  Houston, TX – baby!

Residence:  North Shore

What is your earliest memory of writing? 

The womb, as I was writing my grievances for the tiny room of which I was assigned. I’ve been giving my mom headaches ever since. Ha! It’s part of my charm, she says.

How did you become a writer?

That’s a really hard question. I wrote short stories and things in school and as a hobby (it is no longer a hobby). I always knew I’d write books but I believe that I began learning some of the fundamentals of writing as a journalist. It’s a great training ground for the nitty gritty like writing to a length or word count, writing on deadline, keeping the reader in mind, asking questions of characters (sources). However, I think what launched my writing ahead, really solidified it in my head and brought me closer to my path was getting the MFA. My program was set up with the writer’s life in mind which is perfect. Writers write and they read and they do that with full-time jobs. That’s amazing. There was none of the romantic notion in my program and they very much taught me that this is a writing life not just a thing I do.

Tell us about your writing process.

Procrastination. HA! I’m a fiction writer so it starts with a character and their voice in my head. That sounds crazy but that’s how it happens. And because I write in the long form, there’s always a danger of my short stories becoming my next novel project. I have a couple like that now, so I work really hard at the short form to keep my character to short form while I finish longer forms. I’m working on my first book in a mystery series now which really should have been done a while ago but that’s another conversation for another day. That has been on my front burner for awhile. However, sometimes I need a break so I’ll do something else for a bit – short stories, a poem (written badly but written) or creative non-fiction, which is fascinating me at the moment. What’s interesting though is my revision process, THAT is a process. And one I’m learning to appreciate each time I do it.

What are you working on now?

JENNIE MANNING! I feel like I’m always working on her because I am. Even though there’s a version of the book that I would say is complete, she’s not done. Because it’s the first in a series, there are decisions I have to make with tone and character background and motivation I need to feel comfortable with so it’s taking longer. However, she’s coming along swimmingly. This is the book I’ve wanted to write since I was 13 and it has Houston as the setting. It’s important to me that Houston is portrayed not only as a character (it’s written in noir) but also that we see the real deal. I have seen books set in Houston that take place in River Oaks or other places of affluence. That’s not the Houston I know. Houston is wonderful but hot and grimy. It’s rock hard but has pockets of southern traditions. Houston is business and society. There are rules and regulations in Houston that make it function – a code. That’s the world of Detective Jennie Manning.

On the non-writing, yet writing related front, I’m working on turning my writing into a business by teaching classes. I’m teaching a fiction writing class that I am so loving. I’m developing a non-fiction class that focuses on publishing and a blogging course.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?

Writer’s block doesn’t exist! That’s the wonderful part about being a reporter for so many years, you don’t have that luxury. When there’s a deadline, you turn something in. You made that happen!  In grad school, my fellow writers were kind shocked at how I could get so many pages written while they were “blocked.”  Literally it’s that deadline on the calendar. Stuff just has to be done.

I also try to read as much as I can and try new techniques with my writing so if something isn’t working, I try one of those. Or a writing prompt. Or I Netflix. Yes, Netflixing is part of the process.

Which writers and teachers have most influenced you as a writer?

My 8th grade English teacher was the first one who said that maybe I should pursue this writing thing. I laughed and said, yeah, but I wanna make money. HA!!! Then my senior AP teacher, Mrs. Landry was amazing and tough. She taught me to read deeper and to not take things at face value. She also taught me to come correct. DO NOT go in Mrs. Landry’s class without being prepared…unless you want to die.

And then later on, the writers come in – Garcia Marquez is my dude, my teacher. Isabel Allende is magical. Clarice Lispector is my spirit animal, Junot Diaz is the realest dude, he’s air. Edwidge Danticat is life; Cristina Garcia taught me that it was possible to be nostalgic for an island that I hadn’t visited; Ana Menendez taught me you could be a journalist and still write amazing prose; Carolina Garcia-Aguilera who’s Lupe Solano series inspired the world of Jennie Manning; Walter Mosley who taught me it was possible to write noir AND be a person of color; Raymond Chandler, like why aren’t more people reading his books! I don’t understand. That dude is a genius, no debate.

What books have had the biggest impact on your trajectory?

The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao – gave me air. Dreaming in Cuban, The Hour of the Star, Chronicle of a Death Foretold, Devil in a Blue Dress. Old school: The Babysitter’s Club series, The Box Car Children, Encyclopedia Brown, Whispers From the Dark (Joan L Nixon, yo from that H-town!) Judy Blume anything. Where the Wild Things Are.

What’s your advice to aspiring writers? Write poorly. Write absolute crap. That’s how you get to the good stuff. Read and write. That’s all you have to do.

Tintero Projects: Writing/Righting Houston

Even though people from outside of Houston continue to think the city has no culture, H-Town is full of life and it’s “the literary world’s best-kept secret.” Besides being home to Arte Público Press, the University of Houston’s high-ranking MFA in Creative Writing, WITS, Inprint, Nuestra Palabra, WriteSpace, and Literal, Houston is now home to Tintero Projects. Founded by the visionary duo of Lupe and Jasminne Mendez, Tintero’s mission is to create a space to nurture the future Latin@ storytellers of the United States, with Houston as its main hub.

In March 2016, I interviewed Lupe about his activism, writing, and founding Tintero Projects:

For brown writers in the Houston-Galveston area, there aren’t any Latino-centric places to write from. There is no place to call home for Latino writing—no venues that host workshops or open mic nights for emerging Latinx writers. I want to change that. (…) I want to be able to help polish up new writers, set them up for success, get them ready for the time when they will get a bigger spotlight on the NP [Nuestra Palabra] stage, get them ready for the next platform.

If you haven’t read Lupe’s “Open Letter to the Houston Poetry Scene,” then open the link in a new tab and read it when you finish this blog.

Earlier this month, Tintero formally began with readings at Casa Ramirez and the Inprint House featuring powerhouse poets Yesenia Montilla, Denice Frohman, Malcolm Friend, and Raina León, with Lupe and Jasminne warming up the standing room only crowds. To bring these West and East Coast writers to the Gulf Coast was a powerful way to launch Tintero. As in many cases, the coastal bias tends to disregard the center of the country and the Gulf Coast especially. With Lupe and Jasminne at the helm, Tintero is bridging east and west and centering Houston as the epicenter in a literary movement that will see emerging Latin@ writers becoming the future of this nation’s literary arts scene (See: “Houston and Texas, the inkwells of poetry for Latino writers” by Olivia P. Tallet). The next phases of Tintero’s strategic plan will involve workshops and open mic nights for emerging writers.

Tintero launched with Latin@ fierceness that would ignite any community. Here, you had four knockout poets, three of which are Afro-Latin@ (not to mention Lupe and Jasminne who are knockouts in their own right). While this shouldn’t feel like a statement, it was. As Jasminne Mendez and Houston-based writer Icess Fernandez-Rojas have written about extensively, Afro-Latin@s still face issues of invisibility and identity policing even within their own communities (while I have you here, check out #TeatroLatinegro and Houston playwright Jelisa Jay Robinson’s work). I asked Icess to share some thoughts about Tintero:

For the first time in recent memory, there was more than one Afro-Latino writer reading in Houston at one time. See, Houston is one of the most literary cities in America but one thing it doesn’t have is a lot of Afro Latino writers.

The latest Tintero Reading was amazing. As an Afro Latino writer, it was air. The experiences of being in between two worlds – black and Latino – and existing in spaces where we have to choose, was apparent in their writing. From music to love, existing in this skin was painted their words and it was everything. I was seen that night and all my experiences were validated. This is what art does.

To use Tintero as a space to begin a dialogue about the intersections between Blackness and Latinidad in our community demonstrates the type of work that the project will undertake. Perhaps more now than ever, we need to be having nuanced conversations about Afro-Latinidad and multicultural identities.  And why shouldn’t the arts be the vehicle to ignite this conversation, to ignite social change?

5 Highlights from Tintero’s Launch:

  • Yesenia Montilla’s ode to rapper Notorious B.I.G., “Notorious.” You can read two of her poems here.
  • Denice Frohman’s poem that troubled the idea of “home.” Houston-based performer and playwright Josh Inocéncio was particularly inspired by Frohman’s poem about genocide: “Denice’s eloquent takedown of schools that ignore teaching genocide–creating a society with cultural amnesia–has inspired me to get into the classroom, the streets, the local newspaper (anywhere I can!) to educate students from all walks of life.”
  • Malcolm Friend’s poem about white people mistaking him for other black men who look absolutely nothing like him (even Philly’s Mayor Nutter!). I am waiting impatiently for Malcolm to finish his MFA and publish his book.
  • And Raina León’s, well, pretty much everything about her was perfection to me, but, if I had to choose, then the moment that touched me the most was the poem that began with her singing “Maybe” from Cabaret. Yes to an Afro-Latina Sally Bowles. Yes to Raina León. Yes to all of it!
  • Jasminne Mendez and Lupe Méndez both performed, warming up the crowd. Even though I could likely recite many of their poems from memory, I will never grow tired of hearing them both. They are familia to me and I will unwaveringly support them for as long as I can and you should, too.

While the poets (including Lupe and Jasminne) came from distinct cultural backgrounds and brought different life experiences to Tintero, all touched on the intricacies of identity in 2016 América. More so, all spoke to the power of art, poetry, and creative writing to heal both individual and community. Art is powerful. Art heals. Art saves. Art builds community. And as art does all of these things, so will Tintero Projects in Houston, Tejas, and across the Gulf Coast. I’ve known Lupe and Jasminne for years. They are change-makers. When they have a vision, they make it a reality. Houston is in for something special. Stay tuned.

Raina León reading at Tintero Projects

Raina León reading at Tintero Projects

Casting an “Authentic” IN THE HEIGHTS

In July 2015, I spent four days experiencing Chicago’s robust Latin@ theatre scene as a participant in the Latina/o Theatre Commons’ Carnaval of New Latina/o Work hosted by the Theatre School at DePaul University. Aside from Latin@ theatre companies such as Aguijón Theater, Teatro Luna, Teatro Vista, and Visión Latino; Chicago is home to a rich talent pool of directors, producers, designers, dramaturgs, and playwrights that were on display at Carnaval. But above all, my biggest takeaway from the weekend was the amount of talented Latin@ actors that performed in the 12 play readings at Carnaval. I simply couldn’t believe that Chicago had so many high-quality Latin@ actors. It blew me away. Many people commented on this. On Café Onda, Tiffany Ana López noted, “Nearly all of the presented work was distinguished by strong dramatic writing that, without exception, was well directed and superbly acted. The consistent strength, sophistication, and nuance of the performances made Chicago appear a veritable mecca for Latina/o actors.” By any measure, we all can agree that Chicago has a talented and deep acting pool. Yet, the recent casting announcements of Evita and In the Heights in Chicago have been met with resistance due to the lack of Latin@ talent on and off stage. So what’s going on in the Windy City? Let’s look at the two instances.

First, in March 2016 the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire, Illinois (just north of Chicago) announced a cast for the musical Evita that included only one Latin@ actor. This outraged the Latin@ and allied theatre community, not only locally but nationally, as well. Chicago actor Bear Bellinger spoke out against the casting announcement, “Using only one actor of Latin descent is irresponsible to that truth and a lost opportunity to feature a group of people who are regularly ignored on our stages.” Marriott Theatre soon responded. In an interview with the Chicago Tribune, executive producer Terry James claimed, “If we had our choice, the entire cast would be Latino. It’s not a conscious choice. We can only cast the actors that audition for us.” Director and choreographer Alex Sanchez reiterated this point,

We obviously were looking for Latin American actors. There weren’t very many, like a handful, that we had seen. (…) It think if there was a gripe about it, what I have to say is then to come out and audition. Put yourself out there. Take the risk and audition for these shows. We can only hire the people that come.

Yes, it is true that you can only hire the people who come. But, what kind of outreach was done to the Latin@ acting community to ensure that information was widely distributed and accessible? Did Marriot Theatre reach out to the Alliance of Latino Theatre Artists in Chicago?

On the Chicago Inclusion Project, director-playwright Tlaloc Rivas even saw this moment as a tipping point.

This Hemisphere of the Americas—that includes North, South, and Central territories—is not the same one that allowed Evita to emerge in the 80’s. The world is much more fluid, dynamic, multiethnic – and to ignore that in 21st century is akin to claiming men should only perform the works of Shakespeare.

Has Evita, along with West Side Story, reached its Mikado moment? Has those musical’s origins—with its inauthentic portrayal of ethnic or foreign life, written by white men and originally played by a predominantly white casts—to be done today? Or should it not be done if it can’t be cast authentically?

Musicals that take place within a Hispanic/Latino culture but that have historically excluded any creative or artistic input from Hispanic/Latino artists and performers haven’t necessarily had to face such a measurement in any significant way. Until today. Because today, there are no excuses, and to claim that all efforts were made for diversity in casting falls rings false. I’m surprised that the producers didn’t cite the recent casting call of Hamilton in Chicago as the reason they couldn’t find any performers of color.

After all, Evita was originally done with few Latin@s and featured Anglo actors Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin as Eva Perón and Che Guevera, respectively. But as Rivas notes, in 2016 there are no excuses. This is not the 1970s in which Evita premiered. Casting an inclusive Evita shouldn’t be an option, but should be a requirement of producing the show.

Carnaval 3

The Latina/o Theatre Commons Carnaval of New Latina/o Work at The Theatre School at DePaul University

Fast forward to July 18, 2016. Porchlight Music Theatre proudly announced the cast for Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes’ 2008 Tony Award winning musical In the Heights which featured a white actor playing Miranda’s theatrical doppelganger Usnavi, the musical’s main character. Additionally, as many social media users have pointed out, the creative team is predominately non-Latin@. While we cannot determine if someone is or isn’t Latin@ based on name and appearance alone, casting a white actor as Usnavi is egregious enough. Nevertheless, there are still obvious missteps on Porchlight’s part. Artistic director Michael Weber noted:

After an exhaustive audition process, during which we saw hundreds of the Chicago-area’s diverse music theater talent—both established and new—and even reached out to our city’s vast hip-hop dance community, we are excited to introduce the cast…We have made every effort to present a company that reflects the true spirit of this story of community…

Every effort? While Evita is a British musical written by white men telling an Argentine story, In the Heights is a Latin@ musical in every regard and, as such, has been well-received by the Latin@ community. This is to say that to miscast Evita is one thing, but to whitewash In the Heights takes the issues of race, ethnicity, and casting to a new level. By all means and purposes, casting white actors in roles written for Latin@s in professional theatre is unacceptable (See: Should Latina/o Roles Be Cast with Non-Latina/o Actors?). Moreover, as arts advocate Howard Sherman notes, “Without ever using the word Latino (let alone Latino/a, Latinao or Latinx), this statement comes off as Weber patting his own theatre on the back for working so very hard to meet the basic requirements of the musical he chose.”

As some have pointed out (on Facebook), this casting decision gentrifies a show that is about a community fighting against gentrification. Evidently, Porchlight fails to comprehend the lived realities of Latin@s all across the nation who face many of the issues seen in Miranda and Hudes’ musical. This especially rings true when a white man is cast as Usnavi. These roles were written by Latin@s for Latin@ actors. The Latin@ community wants their stories told, but in an ethical way that speaks with the community in question. To gentrify In the Heights is to completely miss the point of the musical.

Furthermore, the casting announcement by Hedy Weiss of Sun-Times refers to the cast as “unusually ‘authentic.’” Aside from the use of the word “unusually” here, I am left questioning authenticity. How do we measure authenticity? While I am certainly not the judge of this, I would argue that, given the In the Heights casting, Porchlight Music Theatre is surely not the best judge of authenticity and Latinidad. What is more, much of the creative team is not Latin@, including the director and designers. Weighing in on the discussion of authenticity, Howard Sherman also wonders about the use of the word “authentic”: “Aren’t all casts authentic, in that the actors are who they say they are and will be playing the roles they’re announced to play?”

Meanwhile, in Atlanta, Georgia, Aurora Theatre and Theatrical Outfit are mounting a co-production of In the Heights with that features Latin@s in the principal roles (and much of the ensemble), with Diego Klock-Perez as Usnavi, Courtney Flores as costume designer, María Cristina Fusté as lighting designer, etc. That in the Atlanta metropolitan area these two companies can produce the show as Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes intended and a theatre company in Chicago cannot is mystifying.

While there are certainly many factors at play, perhaps this is a testament to Anthony Rodriguez’s leadership at Aurora. Nevertheless, a theatre company need not have a Latin@ artistic director to produce a Latin@ play. But the company does need to do the community outreach to ethically produce shows such as In the Heights, Anna in the Tropics, and Zoot Suit. If you can’t field a majority Latin@ cast and hire a predominately Latin@ creative team, then perhaps do a different show. While non-Latin@ theatre companies should be encouraged to produce Latin@ work, this goes beyond simply mounting a show. If theatres truly want to engage in conversations of equity, diversity, and inclusion, then they first need to look at how their company is run from top-to-bottom. For starters, what is the racial and gendered make-up of your staff? What are your audience demographics? What stories are being told on your stage? In the end, being an ally isn’t about patting yourself on the back. It’s about recognizing your privilege and how you can use it to enact change. It’s about listening and putting your own self-interests aside. Be committed, hire a more diverse staff, do the outreach to actors of color, and engage with the local community. Then mount In the Heights when you can ethically do so, in a way that truly connects with the community by speaking with the community and not for it.


***For more on this conversion, please see:

***Update, 8:06 pm, July 20, 2016*** The original version of this blog said that few Latin@ actors were cast in principal roles for In the Heights. As more information has become available, this has been redacted.

Carnaval 2

The Latina/o Theatre Commons Carnaval of New Latina/o Work at The Theatre School at DePaul University

4 Takeaways from Creative Writing Camp

Right out of undergrad I had a gig teaching middle school, however after teaching at the college level for the last seven years it feels like a lifetime ago. Before my experience with Writers in the Schools’ (WITS) Creative Writing Camp (CWC) the thought of teaching middle schoolers made me a bit nervous. And to tell the truth, I’m not even sure why. I really loved the year I taught middle school. I only left because I wanted to pursue my Ph.D. full-time.

Looking back, it was easily one of the most positive teaching experiences I’ve ever had and here are my four takeaways:

  1. 10 year olds can do as much as 13 year olds, if not more

When I first looked at the class roster and saw the age range I thought it would be difficult to teach 10 and 13 year olds at the same time. It wasn’t. In fact, while teaching I barely thought of age differences in the classroom. I looked at them all equally as writers and taught in the normal way I always teach. I spoke to them as if they were adults. Now, that doesn’t mean I didn’t get (really) goofy at times, dancing, singing, etc., but as my college students will attest, that’s how I teach. It’s just who I am.

  1. They were obsessed with the rules and with labels

On the third day, I went to begin my lesson based on Lupe Méndez’s “A Poem About My Name” when one particularly inquisitive young writer asked me:

Her: Are you an author?
Me: We are all authors! All of us in this room!
Her: No, but are you a published author?
Me: Yes, I’ve published a lot of things and so have some of you in this room. And we are going to publish an anthology at the end of camp!
Her: I know, but are you an author?
Me: Yes.

All of this is to say that I spent two weeks trying to inspire these kids to recognize that they can be writers and whatever else they want to be. The possibilities are endless.

As far as the rules, blame it on testing or the age, but one of the biggest struggles of camp was to empower our young writers to not worry so much about the rules. Many of them were overly concerned with structure and style, but we continually told them that this was an opportunity to hone their individual writing style and not worry about forcing rhyme schemes or a certain number of lines or syllables. My co-teacher and I worked to privilege the individual and help each of them reach a positive space with their creativity and writing.

  1. Having a co-teacher was transformative

One of the best parts about CWC is having a co-teacher in the room. And did I have a good one! I was lucky enough to be paired with Sarah Jerasa and, within a few days, our students were asking us if we had been friends for years. Nope. We met not even two weeks prior at Rice University during CWC orientation. That Sarah and I clicked on so many levels from the first minute is really a testament to WITS’ match.com-esque “formula” for pairing co-teachers.

I’m sure the fact that Sarah and I gelled so well aided in this, but not having to stretch myself thin across 21 students was a game-changer in every way. We were able to team teach nearly all of our lessons, jumping back-and-forth between the both of us every step of the process. We could give each writer personalized attention during “office hours” and writing workshops. For the anthology and end-of-camp celebration poems, many writers benefited from having both Sarah and I offer feedback. Not to mention, I learned tons from Sarah—new lessons, new methods, new jokes (there were a lot of laughs!). Simply put, Sarah inspired me to become a better educator.

  1. I wrote every day, but not what I expected to write

In May, I hit a writing plateau while finishing my book manuscript. I hoped that being around so much creative energy would help me to push through. For the most part it did. I wrote everyday (both at camp and when I got home), but not what I expected to write. Instead of a finished book manuscript, I now have a series of poems about my name, growing up in New Orleans, gumbo, my family, and other tidbits from my life so far. During our 15-20 minute free-writes to start the day throughout the second week, I journaled—something I hadn’t done in about 8 years. All of this is to say that prioritizing writing and making time to write everyday (however you define that) is an important step in my process as a writer. While each writer should find their own process, writing everyday works for me. It makes it a habit. On days when I don’t write, everything feels off-balanced. Moreover, I find that writing everyday helps me to push through writer’s block. When I prioritize my writing, I never have trouble putting words on the page. Admittedly, this involves learning what works best for you, creating an optimal writing environment, and being in control of things you can actually control.