Mirna: Hello, hello and welcome to MFAngle! I'm your host, Mirna. We are currently students at an MFA program and in this podcast we're going to talk about the logistics of being in an MFA program. Most of us are women of color, so we'll be able to speak to those experiences. And because we're still in our program, we’ll be able to give you some fresh takes.
Bessie: It's actually all women of color today.
Mirna: It is all women of color today, and I love it. I am here for it.
So today, again, we're talking about horror stories and it's important—I want to phrase this well: these are some of the worst of the worst that we have experienced. And, again, these are our experiences; we can't really say we speak for anybody else—because we don't. This is just what has happened to us, what we've had to go through, and hopefully not something y'all will have to go through, because I don't wish this on anybody. But I know for a fact that if I had heard some of these stories from peers, from women of color, from people of color, from queer identities, I would have felt a little more prepared. Right? [MUMBLES OF AGREEMENT] It would have caught me off guard when these things happened to me, as they actually did—
Bessie: —and it's always great to know that you're not the only person going through this and like you're not crazy for thinking like this white person was very low key racist when they said this
Bessie: It's really great to know.
Mirna: Microaggression is a real, kids!
Bessie: Yeah, microaggressions are real. It’s great to know that you're not exaggerating; it's not a you thing, it's a them thing.
[INTRO MUSIC JINGLE]
Mirna: So, what's the worst thing a peer has said to you during a workshop?.
Bessie: So, I had turned in a short story about gay women and their relationship. Sort of like, like their romance or something, and it was, like, very sexual. And this White cis hetero girl said “I just don't think the romance is believable, and the characters are just not likable at all, and I just didn't care about anything in the story.”
Bessie: Right? Now, mind you, she was the only one who felt like this. She was the only person who expressed this. I remember writing down my notes, because you're supposed to be writing down what people tell you, right? [MUMBLES] “Straight people just don't get it,” or something less nice but, yeah, something along those lines. So, that's my story.
Mirna: I love that when it's a romance story the “the romance wasn’t believable.”
Bessie: right? I'm sorry White cis girl I wasn't appealing to your romance. [MIRNA LAUGHS]
Mirna: What about you Honora?
Honora: I don't know if this is the best thing or the worst thing but… LAUGH a guy in my undergraduate workshop told me that my poems made him feel uncomfortable.
Honora: But in a good way. And, I mean, I think he was talking about the way my poetry, like, tackles issues about people and their biases. But I'm still, like, meditating on that comment, ‘cause I'm like “I don't know how I feel about that”.
Mirna: I feel like there's a lot to unpack in that single phrase, right?
Honora: Yes... yes.
Mirna: For me it was “I don't get it”.
And—I feel like you guys might hear this too, but—I hear that so much from my white peers and it's usually followed by “I don't like it” so it's “I don't get it, I don't like it”. And there's so many times that abstract to work has been defended with “you don't need to get it to appreciate the craft”. Mind you, this is, like, white avant garde bullshit, right? When avant garde was super white. We don’t need to get into that, but that is defended with that line, right? But then, as soon as something unfamiliar is presented to our peers, that goes out the window. [YEAH FROM BACKGROUND] It doesn't matter anymore because they don't “get it,” right? Like I wrote this poem—I feel like I've talked about this before—but I wrote this poem about the kidnapped student protesters from Iguala and my peers immediately shut it down. There was like “I don't get it, I don't understand what's happening. Make this more Mexican so I can understand it better.” So that “I don't get it, I don't like it” combination? I'm not here for it.
Mirna: No, not at all.
Bessie: It’s always white people.
Mirna: It is!
[JINGLE PLAYS AGAIN]
Bessie: So, Let's go for professors first, right?
Bessie: So in workshop—maybe you've been in a workshop before and not. So usually, or the way it goes, the model is that the writer doesn't get to talk.
Bessie: Other people talk and you're supposed to stay silent.
Mirna: Which is bullshit!
Bessie: It's bullshit but it has some benefits. Especially with young writers; I feel like they might feel like they have to defend their work or respond to everything that's being said. And the professor is more there to mediate than to lead. the idea is that we're all having a conversation and the professor is there to make sure we're having it I guess and that goes wrong
Mirna: Yes. So, there are times when professors just stop mediating. That was one of mine, right? They literally just sit there as one peer opens a door for the rest to bash on your piece. Like, hopefully you won’t have to deal with this, but I can definitely say it's happened to me—repeatedly. It's like one student creeps into the space of saying a pretty White comment about the work—
Bessie: “I don’t get it”.
Mirna: Yeah “I don’t get it,” right? And then the rest of them take it as an okay and continue down that path. That's how we got to the “make it more Mexican” bit, and the professor didn't say anything in this situation. Some professors will say “well, I want the class to rule itself. I'm gonna hold back my power.”
Bessie: “I don't want to interfere, you learn better this way.”
Mirna: Exactly! They don't think about the vulnerable bodies in the room or the power dynamics. I had trust fund babies in this particular workshop, so it just, like, fuckin’ went completely off the rails. I was having to explain absolutely everything to them, like, “Okay, All right, you don't know the situation? That's fine, we can talk a little bit about it” but we're not talking about the actual poem anymore.
Bessie: Right. And also, like, part of your work as a peer who's providing feedback is to Google and sometimes it's so easy.
Bessie: It’s like, if you don't know something, you don't have to become an expert on whatever the poem is about. But you can get some background just by Googling. It's so easy to do. It's part of the work you're required to do because obviously people are writing about their own experiences, which you might not be familiar with. So, Google! It’s your friend.
Mirna: So you’re gonna have to Google! We're going to come back to Google ‘cause I got a lot to say about Googling for workshop.
Honora: One feedback I got from one of my peers in workshop on was, she's a black girl, at school, and she told me this thing and I keep it with me to this day and that’s: “don't do emotional labor for white people”.
Honora: Like, your art is not a way for you to explain yourself, it’s not the way for you to, you know, explain to them what your experience is. If they don't understand, they do the work to understand. You don't have to do that work for them.
Mirna: Don’t do that work for them.
Bessie: I think that's true for like... Minorities shouldn't be doing the work, you know. You shouldn't put it on them [minorities].
Mirna and Bessie: It’s not your job.
Honora: Talking about mediating, what about professors that over-mediate in workshops? And they’ll say things like “I think what so-and-so was trying to say was…” to try to soften the blow after something completely racist has been said.
I’m like, if someone fixes their mouth to say something, they have to own it. Like, you know, however insensitive it is. And I understand that the professor sometimes is trying to do their job and guide a workshop and protect the energy in the space, but sometimes people need to be held accountable for what they say.
Bessie: I agree, yeah.
Honora: If someone says something that is off the rails, like, I think the professor should let the student who the thing was said to, respond to it, without just like you know [saying] “well let's just forget about it, keep moving” because like…
Bessie: You don't move on, yeah. Like the student who received it? You don't. You carry it with you.
Mirna: And that's a moment where like for example, you're saying that the professors are like trying to soften it, right? but that's a moment for the professor to be like “all right kid you said this one awful thing what exactly do you mean by it like what are you trying to get at?”
Honora: Instead of saying something like “Oh, this is, I think this is what they were trying to say” professors say that, or like “I think what you're trying to say is…” No! they know what they’re saying so let's just take a moment to acknowledge what was said.
Honora: That can do a lot for, you know, for a writer.
Mirna: Yeah! Because I know, like, in my experiences when I've been attacked in this way or a professor has tried to soften it this way, I walk out— not only, like, doubly hurt, but it stays with me.
Mirna: This is actually traumatizing to the marginalized bodies in workshop.
Honora: you feel even more crazy ‘cause it’s like, my professor didn't catch that so I must be crazy you know
Mirna: Yeah, like I'm imagining it, right? Or I'm “reading too much into it”.
Bessie: Right. Because you trust the person who's in charge in the room to make sure you're not attacked, to make sure that you're safe. So, if this person is not addressing it or addressing it in a way that is somehow, you know, diminishing the experience for you, makes you feel like “oh, then I must have been the person who misread this thing” or misread what the comment meant.
Mirna: And then will also get when...
Mirna: Yes, right, exactly. So, let's say this moment has happened and this moment has happened to me, right? Either the professor just brushed it off or didn't say anything. I left. I left the class super upset, I'm crying, I'm feeling a lot of things. I'm worried I'm making shit up in my head and then I try to put it away for just my own sanity.
Mirna: Right? And then, like, a couple days later or, like, a week later, the professor reaches out and they're like “oh, hey I wanted to talk about what happened in class the other day” and it turns into, not so much a moment of checking in with you to be “okay, are you okay?” because you always want to check on the person that has been attacked, right? And I can say this as an instructor because I'm also teaching here. You always want to follow up with the student that was hurt, make sure that they are okay. But that didn't happen. It turns into “oh, well, you know” basically, “not everybody is like that, you know, you're doing your thing and they're doing their thing, and I'm sure they didn't mean it that way.” So it's that doubling down of over-mediating.
And also in terms of workshop what to look out for! Because we're talking pretty messy stuff…
Mirna: Those key segments, right?
Bessie: So, if English is not your first language and your creative work will incorporate bits of other languages, be ready to, like, face some sort of resistance at some point from your only-English-speaking peers. I'm not saying it always happens, but occasionally you have someone who can't be bothered to Google Translate 5 words or 2 words or will be, you know, put off by finding one word that is not in English. [NOISES OF AGREEMENT]
And even though what you're saying might be perfectly clear through context, you might not require any sort of translation and, you know, it's like you can tell what you're trying to say even if it's in another language, people will want translations because people sometimes are that lazy. That's how it goes. Sometimes people just want the whole piece to be in English and what helps me, when this happens, is to remember that a room of only-English-speaking white people is just not my audience.
Mirna: No, it's not!
Bessie: Right, I'm bilingual and I write for Spanish and English speaking folks and, to be honest, I've never turned in a piece that has so much Spanish that people who don't speak it wouldn't understand it. Of course I understand that studying in the United States where English is the primary language so I wouldn't come in with a, I don't know, a 3,000 page story that's all in Spanish; that wouldn’t make sense for me. But I will incorporate Spanish in my work and will continue to do it and people can either do the work to Google Translate 5 words or, you know…
Mirna: Yes, you know I one hundred percent feel that. Honestly, at this point I'm like “I am tempted to write a piece in all Spanish and make them do the work,” right? Because not only am I doing my own work and I'm continuing to do what it is I already do, but then... There's a whole like, [MIRNA SIGHS] we’re in 2019. Y’all have literal computers in your fuckin’ pockets. [NOISES OF AGREEMENT] Your phone is a tiny computer that you can ask anything and some answer will appear. It's minimum effort, right? [NOISES OF AGREEMENT]
But in terms of this translation, I feel that because when I was a wee baby poet, [LAUGHTER IN BACKGROUND] right? When I was trying to figure out what the fuck I was doing, I would provide translations.
Bessie: That’s like... thinking about it now, when you say this, it's so hard in poetry because you have such a short amount of space. You have to provide translations to say what you're trying to say in your language and then provide translations. That's a lot.
Mirna: It's tedious.
Bessie: Yeah, I feel like prose allows for it a little more.
Mirna: You know, we... It's different because, again, shape, form... It is, it’s just different, right? [BESSIE AGREES]
But I would provide these translation nonetheless and then I realized that that wasn’t work that I had to do. Like you said, Honora. That wasn’t work for me. It was work for them. So when you're putting things in that are in a different language you know why you're doing it. Yeah, you have intent. You have a purpose. The addition of the other language is a part of the experience that you want to create, right?
Mirna: So let them fucking struggle. [NOISES OF AGREEMENT] Right? I'm just saying…
Mirna: I do it purposefully because I want you. in some of my pieces—I'm like “I want you to feel how uncomfortable I was when I was learning English for the first time” I didn’t understand shit. Like, I'm trying to recreate this experience for you. I'm not going to spell it out for you. [NOISES OF AGREEMENT]
Bessie: I mean white people can’t be bothered looking for translations unless it's one of them putting, like, a whole fucking page in Latin in their vampire story and that's…
Mirna: Oh my god.
Bessie: They're going to be going to Google it. They’ll know for sure what that is
Mirna: They’ll be like “oh my god, Latin! That’s so cool!” [LAUGHTER]
Bessie: Yeah, or German. But, yeah. That's obviously up to you to include translations or not. I used to do it, like Mirna, when I was a baby writer. I would translate everything and then I was like “no, fuck it”. Like, these 5 words—you can get them from context or you could Google them. It's really easy and that's not on me to do; that's on you. The reader should do some of the work, especially if it's a White reader reading women of color.
Honora: And sometimes things get lost in translation.
Mirna: They do!
Honora: Sometimes they're just meant to stay in the language that we're reading it in because there are some things that you try to express and it's like it only makes sense in the language that you’re expressing it in. [NOISES OF AGREEMENT] Like, there's some words that don't translate directly or there’s words that carry certain feelings—[NOISES OF AGREEMENT]—that you know who's going to read it and resonate with them. And sometimes it's not for everyone. Everything you write is not for everyone. If it's something that has to be expressed in the language, it’s going to come out in that language. And sometimes it has to just stay that way. [NOISES OF AGREEMENT] And those who can't understand? They don't have to understand.
Bessie: Yeah, it comes back to audience, really.
Bessie: Audience, audience, audience.
Mirna: Yeah. If monolinguistic people are not your audience? They're not your audience. You have to be mindful of that, like, when you bring in a piece to workshop. You still have to, you know, have intent and purpose. And, again, that is entirely up to you what that intent and purpose is, but it's something to keep in mind, right?
Bessie: Things to be aware of.
Bessie: So along the same vein, I think you have to be aware of is—that you don't have to make any changes you don't want to.
Mirna: Completely true! Yes!
Bessie: So, of course, when you sign up for a workshop, the expectation is that you'll get something amazing and beautiful; a group of writers who care about your work, who have talent and have fresh eyes, and can provide beautiful feedback on your work.
Mirna: I care about your work and you have talent.
Bessie: Oh…. My god [LAUGHTER] So that—that’s the expectatoin, right? And, I have to say in this program, I've been very lucky. [NOISES OF AGREEMENT] I get to workshop my pieces with a group of fantastic writers whose work I admire and I'm invested in. And sometimes that just doesn't happen.
Bessie: I think especially when you're, like, an undergrad, you tend to not get this, right?
Bessie: And, so, sometimes you get comments that are not helpful or that are coming from a personal place, and, I think that as you have more experience with workshop, you'll be able to tell when a comment is about your work and when a comment is about you.
Bessie: So, and sometimes people just come in to get their participation points. [AGREEMENT] Especially in undergrad. They're like “oh, I really like your title.” And you’re like “I don’t care!” [LAUGHTER]
Mirna: Just get those participation points. Like “I said one thing. I was there in class…. I like your title”
Bessie: Right. Or they're taking it because it's an art requirement and they don't really care about creative writing and they're done with writing the moment they step out of that classroom. Which is fine, you know, we all got our things. So, ideally, you go in with the mindset of these comments are going to be helpful and they're going to make me improve my work in some form or way. But sometimes they're not and it's okay. Like, remember you're the boss of your work. You're the one who gets to decide “this was helpful for me and I can incorporate it” or “this doesn't do it for me and it was not what I was going for and you're completely wrong, white person, so I'm not going to incorporate it.”
Mirna: Yeah. I completely agree. And that's not to say that you don't need feedback, right?
Mirna: You're in an MFA program because you want it.
Mirna: And you want to further develop your writing. But, at the end of the day, it's still your writing. It is yours. [NOISES OF AGREEMENT] Don't let anyone suggest otherwise. Don't let people change your pieces or your poems to fit their aesthetic because that's what sometimes you get, right?
Bessie: Right. They're like “if this was my poem I would blah blah blah” and it’s like “cool, it’s not your poem”.
Mirna: It’s not your fucking poem. It's not.
Honora: Have y’all experienced, like, workshop scenarios where people were not engaging with work at all because it's, like, a difficult talk?
Mirna and Bessie: Yes!
Honora: I got that a lot in undergrad. It’s like…. And I was a new baby writer and so I had a lot of like, just like a lot of charisma about things. So I wanted to write about all the hard things.
Mirna: All that enthusiasm and energy? Yeah!
Honora: Yes! And then, like, I'll come to workshop and, like, my white peers to like “okay, this is making me uncomfortable so I'm just not going to say anything.”
Honora: or like, “I'm just not going to give you anything constructive because I don't... I'm scared to engage in the work ‘cause I don't want to say the wrong thing”. Which is fine, but it's like “this is my reality”. [NOISES OF AGREEMENT] These things that I'm writing are my reality. So, like... I need to continue growing, so... When you don't engage in my work because it's... because you are worried about saying the wrong or the right thing, how does that benefit me?
Mirna: can you imagine, like, how fuckin nice that must be to be able to just, like, [NOISES OF AGREEMENT] just tap out. It's like “oh, I don't want to have to deal with this”. [NOISES OF AGREEMENT]
Bessie: Yeah, there's so much privilege and, like, if you're afraid of saying the wrong thing, you're also... by staying silent, you're also doing the wrong thing.
Mirna: You're complicit!
Bessie: You’re complicit, yeah. You are exercising your privilege to tap out, to log off these difficult situations that are the realities of people of color who are writing. [NOISES OF AGREEMENT]
Honora: And workshop can be a place to learn how to give feedback. So if you feel like you're not comfortable with what someone is writing, that is a place where you learn how to give people feedback. The purpose is to be open about this and be like, “this is not a comfortable topic to me. How do I learn how to give feedback when I approach stuff like this?” instead of just being quiet.
Bessie: I think that sometimes the writer will tell you what they're looking for in terms of feedback. [NOISES OF AGREEMENT] Some people are like “Don't give me any prescriptive advice because this is my piece”. So don't give them any prescriptive advice. Some people are like “I'm really interested in, like, the line level of how this is working” or, like, “the overall level of how this is working,” or, like, “I'm looking for the characters or the setting or whatever”. So, listen to the writer. I think that you shouldn't be afraid to ask the writer what do they want?
Mirna: What are they really specifically, like... “Do you have questions that you want me to address ?”
Bessie: Right, no one wants you to talk about their the title of their piece for 20 minutes, like… [LAUGHTER]
Mirna: No, god.
Bessie: Absolutely no one is interested in that. [NOISES OF AGREEMENT] One thing I do want to say is, like, there's nothing that sucks more than when you comment on a person's work and you're there for them and you show up and whatever, and then when it's your time to get to a workshop this person is, like, sitting back...
Mirna: Yes! This is exactly what I was going to say!
Bessie: Or like “I have nothing to say” or just quiet because—
Bessie: That hurts. And that... that is to an extent very personal, because when you sign up for a workshopping class, you're like sort of getting into this deal, right? You're going to give and you're going to receive. If you're only receiving and sitting back and not reading your peers work, not saying anything helpful—
Mirna: Don't be a workshop pillow princess. [LAUGHTER]
Bessie: Yeah! You’re a workshop pillow princess! Yeah this was coined today by Mirna Palacio… [LAUGHTER] At Virginia Tech... What day is today?
Mirna: Uh… The 22nd of October.
Bessie: It’s the 22nd of October of the year of Our Lord, 2019.
Mirna: “The year of our lord...” okay, girl.
Honora: At 11:26 A.M.
Mirna: Oh shit, alright.
Bessie: Workshop pillow princess. You heard it here first.
[JINGLE JANGLE PLAYS AGAIN]
Mirna: All right it is time for our contemporary work suggestions, which, as you know, we have at the end of every episode. This is because we're writers and readers and hopefully you are too and that's part of why you're here. So, we want to keep those gears churning.
Bessie: Rainbow Rowell’s Pumpkinhead. it's a new book it came out last month, I believe. It's a graphic novel, really, and it's so pretty. It's very short and very fast to read.Ttakes less than an hour and it's this love story, sort of love story, happening in a pumpkin patch and it has queer characters, it has characters of color, it's just beautiful.
Honora: Morgan Parker’s Magical Negro is a book that I don't—I haven’t been able to put down. I always go back to it. It talks about Blackness as a collective, about the Black experience, but also the very personal. And, yes, there are, in fact, a lot of magical negroes in this book; one of them being Nikki Giovanni. [CHEERS] Yes, it's great.
Bessie: I love you, Nikki.
Mirna: I technically cheated because this actually comes out in 2020. But it is Marcelo Hernandez Castillo’s Children of the Land.
Bessie: Yes! Marcelo!
Mirna: Marcelo is amazing! If you haven’t read Cenzontle yet, you should do that; it is amazing. He's a Canto Muncho fellow; he's a very lyric poet, for very specific reasons that he actually talks about very openly in interviews. But this book is coming out next year, 2020, so be on the lookout for that.
Mirna: So, for the generative thought to leave you with today we've got something very physical, in a way. [NOISES OF AGREEMENT] I know, right?
So, for today, choose any object. Unravel it. What lives in its layers? Write these layers.
So, the thought behind that is to get you thinking about extended metaphors and how we can see images all the way through metaphors. And also to investigate what they turn into. [NOISES OF AGREEMENT] Deep right? [MORE NOISES OF AGREEMENT]
Honora: I don’t know why but I’m thinking about onions.
Honora: ‘Cause they have layers!
Mirna: So, thank you one more time to Bessie and Honora for accompanying me today in what was fun but also kinda, like, reliving the trauma, right? Of these horror stories. so thank you for your time and for your stories and we love you and appreciate you.
[OUTRO JINGLE PLAYS]
Sarah: The MFAngle was produced as a part of Dr. Tyechia Thompson’s Intro to Digital Humanities class.
We would like to thank Mirna Palacio Ornelas, our host.
Blessing Christopher, Bessie Flores Zalvidar, Honora Ankong, our contributors.
Joe Forte, our audio engineer.
The University Libraries at Virginia Tech for giving us space.
Dash Elhauge for editing all of this and creating our fantastic theme music.
And we would like to thank the listeners, for being listeners.