How has your career changed through your work on a creative writing program?
The most intense part of my work as MFA director was coordinating admissions with an evaluating committee and ensuring there was funding so that all of our admitted students would have financial support through assistantships or scholarships. I often had to adapt the materials submitted by Ibero-American applicants to the U.S. system, to make sure they were competitive profiles that could be evaluated by external committees. Our MFA is in Spanish, but the university manages everything in English, so I spent many hours writing letters and reports in English. There was a great deal of technical work in those years in order to ensure the program would be consolidated.
Now that I devote my time to teaching Creative Writing and Research and to workshops, having passed the torch of the program’s management and direction, I’ve been able to get back to my creative profile and plunge fully into fiction. I’ve lived through many interesting processes over these eleven years, but many things had to happen in order for me to get to where I am. My first job as a professor was at Appalachian State University in North Carolina. I spent two and a half years there (from August 2001 to December 2003), and I learned a lot about the Latino communities that worked in the chicken farms and tobacco fields, and the everyday reality of the young children of many of those migrants. At the same time, in my department, we developed an academic curriculum to train teachers and we created a master’s program for educators.
In 2004, when I went to work at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, I had a world of academic possibilities before me and an almost volcanic amount of energy. At that time, I got together with comic creator James Sturm, who was living in the nearby town of White River Junction in the neighboring state of Vermont, to help him with his plan to create the Center for Cartoon Studies. In just a few years, James Sturm—with help from Michelle Ollie—got an MFA up and running out of nowhere, to train comic authors. My decade-long work (from 2004 to 2014) as a member of the steering committee of the Center, which operates through a nonprofit organization, allowed me to gain experience in the space of education management and creativity development. We were pioneers in what’s known as creative economy projects, which help to revitalize regions, cities, and towns that have lost their dynamism. The comic school at White River helped the area be reborn, and marked a wonderful phase of my professional career. Dartmouth College was relatively nearby, and while I carried on with my courses and research in Hanover, I was able to witness—across the Connecticut River—everything that was happening with the young people who wanted to become comic creators at White River Junction.
At that time, living in New England, two key things happened that molded my experience as a creative workshopper. In fall of 2007, my father, the writer José María Merino, was invited by Dartmouth College to give a seminar on short story writing in the Spanish Department. Sharing a semester with him was fantastic. I had the chance to see him in action with his students while I helped him with the logistics of the short story workshop he taught. He worked wonders with the students—he motivated them to a surprising extent and got them to write some amazing stories. They were not kids who branded themselves as writers; they were young college students who wanted to improve their Spanish through creative writing. Seeing how my father adapted his experience from workshops in literary programs in Spain to this sort of student helped me understand how the curriculum could be broadened, and how the field of literary creativity and the field of learning for specific ends could be brought into dialogue. I still keep a copy of the syllabus from that workshop, which my father titled “Aproximación al cuento literario” or “Approaches to the Literary Short Story,” and which has been the basis of the creative fiction workshops I have designed myself for the University of Iowa and the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland.
In fall of 2008, the Center for Cartoon Studies invited me to teach a reading and writing workshop for aspiring comic authors at the master’s program at White River. So, I had the chance to work with future comic creators, helping them to strengthen their narrative and literary dimension. A year later, the University of Iowa was hiring me to create and direct the MFA in Spanish Creative Writing they wanted to establish. Moving to the Midwest was an adventure in itself. What’s more, I had to learn to adapt to the timing and infrastructure of U.S. public research universities. Dartmouth College is private and belongs to the Ivy League, while the University of Iowa is public and forms part of the Big Ten. Besides any technical categories and circumstances, going to Iowa City—the cradle of the MFA and of English-language literary workshopping with its prestigious Writers’ Workshop—struck me as a unique opportunity. But it also meant giving up on something big. I left behind a fantastic job at Dartmouth College, where my career as a comic and childhood studies researcher was taking off and where I had been undertaking several projects linked to activism and social commitment as part of pedagogical training. Those years at Dartmouth and White River coincided with Hurricane Katrina. One of my projects involved going with a group of volunteers to Biloxi in June 2007, to the area struck by the eye of the hurricane, to work with “Hand On Gulf Coast,” supporting the recovery work. While I took charge of the everyday logistics of the volunteers, I offered classes to migrant children who were having trouble getting integrated. The next year, I went with a group of students to the Dominican Republic to help with some projects with the Hatian migrant community, which was working in appalling conditions in shanties, or batéis, around the sugarcane fields. Also at that time, I often went to Mexico to gather information about the experiences of at-risk and abandoned children who lived under the guardianship of the DIF (Centros de Desarrollo Integral de la Familia, or Centers for Comprehensive Family Development).
Tell us a little about the community work you all do through the MFA in Spanish Creative Writing at the University of Iowa. What does creative writing have to do with community work? How do the two processes feed into each other? How did this project emerge?
When they offered me the chance to develop the MFA program in Iowa, I thought it would be fundamental for the creative writing project to include a clear social activism component. The creativity and the workshops needed to touch the community around them, and the writers needed to share their passion for reading and writing with the kids and teenagers of the local Hispanic communities. After my arrival in Iowa City in August 2009, while I was creating the MFA’s academic curriculum, technical workshops, and study plan for approval by the university’s governing bodies (including the state regents), I also designed and founded the Spanish Creative Literacy Project. Kids and teenagers have been the top priority for this project’s workshops and other activities, which we have been putting on since 2010. I couldn’t understand creativity as a profession without that aspect of commitment, of social workshopping. I thought of the figure of the writer as an intellectual who has to enter into dialogue with their present and share their creative passion with the world around them. I wanted to distance myself from that idea of the deified writer in his ivory tower. Being a writer brought with it aspects of a lived commitment to the present. Not everyone agreed with my idea—I was really the only one of my writing colleagues in the Spanish MFA to throw herself into developing this “committed workshopping.” Luckily, the poet Dora Malech, who had come out of the Writers’ Workshop for poetry herself, thought the same way and was then creating a program called the Youth Writing Project, and she agreed to work on my project with me. In the years when Dora was living in Iowa City, she came with me to many of our children’s workshops at the Lemme school with Latino children. She didn’t know much about Spanish, but she believed in my project and she helped us develop materials together and dig deeper into creative possibilities, with kids using comics and taking on different activities.
Of course, we’re also interested to know more about your experience working with students in the process of building their own creative works. What do you see as the key points in this process? How have you changed as a workshopper—or how has your thinking about the workshop changed—over the years?
One of the challenges when putting together the MFA in Spanish Creative Writing was clearly defining the idea of “multiworkshopping.” On the one hand, as a university program, there was the institutional component of required coursework. The MFA forms part of the Spanish and Portuguese Department, and the students have to take four academic courses with research professors. Then there’s the fundamental component of the workshops, which have to be varied and allow the student to experience creative writing through different genres. Everyone takes poetry and fiction workshops, as well as nonfiction and theatre workshops, which we offer regularly. I’ve also offered comic workshops several times, and on one such occasion the Iowa students collaborated with students from the Center for Cartoon Studies. That wonderful experiment became a dossier on comics for the digital journal Iowa Literaria. There’s also an open workshop, to strengthen the development of a project of any genre. In the end, all our students take seven or eight workshops and graduate with a creative thesis. The thesis, which must contain materials workshopped during their two years in Iowa, is defended before a committee of at least three members: a director and two readers.
Since the University of Iowa is a very special place, with varied and prestigious creative programs in English, our students also have the opportunity to take four courses outside our department. They usually choose other writing workshops or nonfiction seminars, or workshops from the MFA in literary translation.
I like to teach workshops. Creating and designing our poetry workshop helped me to put my own perspective as a poet in order. I enjoy preparing activities for various sorts of writers who don’t necessarily want to be poets, or who haven’t read poetry, but thanks to our workshop are able to experience that possibility. The theatre workshop is also very special because I started writing theatre right in Iowa City. That was also where we held the premiere of La redención, my third stage play, with a cast that included community members and that continued the conversation with the idea of committed workshopping.
The university can be a very powerful literary space, and I’ve been lucky and privileged enough to live and participate fully in the intellectual feat achieved in Iowa City by the MFA in Spanish Creative Writing. It gives me hope to think that the writers who pass through here can experience the creative adventure of attending university in an open, committed way. That’s how I understand the idea of workshopping, at least, and what it means to be a writer who shares their creative process with others and hopes for literature to reach everywhere.
In conclusion, what can you tell us about your experience working alongside students as they write poetry and fiction?
I think it’s magical, because there is a great deal of beauty in the contemplation of talent. We’ve also had students who work on theatre. The creativity in our Spanish MFA goes in all directions. But it’s also a Herculean task for us professors, because we have to keep track of a great many details. The Spanish MFA is a very special project in a very complex region of the United States, and there are a lot of different aspects to keep balanced. For the students it’s a wonderful two-year adventure, but for us writing professors it represents a great emotional sacrifice, because we are far from our land and our people. It’s true that the isolation and the energy of Iowa City catalyze many creative dynamics that bear surprising fruits, but at the same time it’s an experience that demands a lot of willpower. As the years go by, the distance from Europe gets harder for me, but it’s worth it to see how the program I created in 2009 has grown, and all the brilliant books that have come out of it.
Translated by Arthur Malcolm Dixon
Interview carried out by LALT Colombia correspondents Óscar Daniel Campo and Alejandra Jaramillo.
Arthur Malcolm Dixon is co-founder, lead translator, and Managing Editor of Latin American Literature Today. He has translated the novels Immigration: The Contest by Carlos Gámez Pérez and There Are Not So Many Stars by Isaí Moreno (Katakana Editores), as well as the verse collection Intensive Care by Arturo Gutiérrez Plaza (Alliteratïon). He also works as a community interpreter in Tulsa, Oklahoma and is a Tulsa Artist Fellow.