Dan Portincaso

Dan Portincaso Talks about his writing process, and projects he’s working on.


Interview by Sabrina Clarke

I met Dan Portincaso my first year of community college. Throughout the years at Waubonsee, he shaped me into the writer I am today and inspired me to follow my path into publishing, creative writing, and to attend Columbia College Chicago. The experience I gained from working as the president of the Creative Writing Club is invaluable. Through his inspiration and guidance, we put together a small group of people who were interested in writing as a hobby and became a recognized institution of the college. 

Dan Portincaso primarily writes short stories, flash fiction, and “sometimes poetry,” with upcoming novels on the horizon. Among several other publications, his work has been featured in F(r)iction, the Hoot Review, and Pank. His passion in writing and teaching, and his interest in history and social justice inspires students and writers alike. He has worked in museums, as a fiction reader for PostRoad magazine, and Chicago Quarterly Review, as well as serving as managing editor of the Chicago Quarterly Review. He was also a panelist at the Association of Writers & Writing Programs conference in Portland, Oregon, in 2019 speaking about his experiences as a professor of creative writing at a community college, and discussing the benefits of giving overlooked people a voice. His website can be found here: 

I met you through the Waubonsee Community College Creative Writing Club. Can you tell me a bit about that organization? 

The Creative Writing Club is a student-run organization at the college. Every year a vibrant and growing number of students work to build a community of writers. They hold open mics, write-ins, writing contests, publish zines, attend AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference), and publish the college’s literary magazine, Horizons. I am the faculty advisor for the club, and I assist them in any way I can to make their events and publications a success. I also travel with them to AWP and ensure that the publication process of Horizons meets professional standards, so the students come out of the experience ready for the publishing world. 

Can you talk about the literary magazine, Horizons

Over the years, I have worked to make Horizons a real training ground for students. The staff usually comes from the membership of the Creative Writing Club. Our masthead usually has anywhere from 15-20 students on staff in positions from editors-in-chief to selection editors. Each year we collaborate with a student graphic designer to build a unique vision, with about 130 pages of student writing and artwork. Students have gone on from the magazine to create and publish their own journals, succeed as professional graphic designers, and have even started careers as printers. We are currently working on building our web presence with a minimal website ( and expect to expand that footprint in the future with a Creative Writing Club website that includes a regular student blog in the near future. 

How did your experience at Columbia College Chicago influence your writing and teaching? 

The moment I first sat in the semi-circle of a fiction workshop changed me forever. The approach to learning and encountering the world that I learned at Columbia, opened my eyes to the possibilities in myself and in others. Through the Story Workshop method, I learned to understand my creativity and writing process so I could harness it to write fiction. At Columbia, I learned to really listen to words and to people. I can think of no greater skill for a writer than that of listening. It also happens to be a necessary skill for teaching. I have directly incorporated some teaching elements from Columbia into my own classroom. But I have also incorporated the spirit of free thought, expression, and creativity into all aspects of my life. 

I know that your degree was focused in creative writing, not teaching. Has this influenced your teaching style? 

It has. I approach every lesson I create like a workshop. My job as a professor is to stimulate students’ thinking and to start conversations and critical thought using words. If I had gone to school for teaching, my head would have been filled with pedagogical approaches which tend to have limited success in the college classroom. Instead, I see students as fellow writers who are simply less experienced. I teach using andragogy, which is about incorporating the student into the teaching process by telling them why they are learning what they are learning, and then provide them with a series of problems that they must creatively solve to receive a grade. 

Do you ever struggle with writer’s block? Do you think it’s a myth? 

I think every writer struggles with this. I don’t think it’s a myth, but I do think it is often mischaracterized. Writer’s block isn’t a tangible thing. It is a mental state. For a writer it can almost function like a disorder. It is a psychological hurdle where the writer has doubts, and their fears about writing consume them. Of course, the solution is to simply write through it. But, it’s not always that simple because that is like telling a person who is depressed to just be happy. So, the trick is to figure out how you can convince yourself to write through it. One strategy is writing as regularly as possible so that it feels as habitual as brushing your teeth or making dinner, so you don’t really think about writing, you simply do it. I find writer’s block hits me the most when I’m writing new work. So, a strategy I have developed is to switch to revision of other stories until I am in the right mental state to push through new work. After a while you will also develop concrete successes in your writing that you can look back on as evidence that all is not hopeless, the work will come, and it will be good. 

What is your writing process? Is there a ritual you follow when you know it’s time to write? 

Before I had a family, I used to write almost exclusively through the night. Now that I have a family and more demands on my time, I write whenever I can. During the summer, this means waking up very early and writing on my back porch. During the regular school year, I will often make time in the evenings. I don’t have any rituals other than I find music by Phillip Glass to be very stimulating, so I will often listen to it to flip on my writing switch. 

Who are some of your favorite writers? Which have been inspirational to you? 

These questions are so hard. I will inevitably forget writers that I should have remembered to list here. I love the inventiveness and brilliant worlds of Octavia Butler. I aspire to the depth of humanity in Toni Morrison’s work. I dream of writing like Kafka, whose voice and abstract characterization seem permanent and inevitable. Tomas Rivera’s directness with emotional, magical reality has inspired me for many years. One day, I hope to write prose that embodies the intensity of Bruno Shulz’s work. George Saunders, Hubert Selby Jr., Michael Cunningham, Sandra Cisneros, Dorothy Allison, and many others are huge influences and inspire me continually. 

Is there anything that you otherwise pull inspiration from? 

People. I love to listen to people talk about their lives. Most of my inspiration comes from listening to others. I don’t usually take the stories of their lives and fictionalize them, but I try to understand what it is like to be them, what it’s like to live their life every day. It’s research for my imagination that sets a scene, and then I start playing with that scene until I get something that resonates with my mind’s eye. 

Do you have any tips for writers trying to get their work published? 

The first is to take your work seriously and really revise it. The second is to volunteer to read the slush pile of a literary magazine so you can get a sense of how that process works, then start to understand what it takes for stories to get noticed and published. The last would be to be present in the local writing scene. Go to readings, talk to people there. And then search the book fair at AWP and talk to as many editors as you can while taking notes. 

Are you working on any new projects that you can share with our readers? 

I had been writing almost exclusively flash fiction, but recently I have gone back to more traditional-length fiction stories. I’ve also been working on heightening the metaphoric possibilities of some of my stories by experimenting with science fiction. I also have a couple of novels that are in the initial drafting stage, which is new for me since I have almost always worked with short story forms. 

Teaching writing and writing yourself are very different things. How do you manage to balance them? 

The great thing about teaching writing is that it forces to you hone your own skills because you have to think deeply about the elements of craft. And then, you must articulate your conclusions to your students in a way that will be understood and helpful to them. This takes time. And, it does take away time from writing your own work. But I often find that while I am crafting lessons and giving feedback to students, I am also stimulated to create new work, and my mind is full of new possibilities because I make fresh connections to how narrative functions. There are times during a semester where the teaching load is so great that it is nearly impossible to write my own work, but then I also try to make up for this by being very protective and disciplined with my time when a semester is in a slow period, and in-between semesters.

Tags: Dan Portincaso, interview, flash-fiction, Waubonsee Community College, writing process, writer’s block


CM Burroughs

CM Burroughs, Associate Professor of Poetry in the English and Creative Writing Department at Columbia College Chicago speaks of the art of teaching writers how to write. CM explains process as well as the soul of learning to write as a student.


Interview by Kaitlyn Palmer

CM, thank you for the opportunity to engage and learn from you within the framework of this interview. Upon taking and completing your class in spring 2019, I experienced a very rare feeling regarding my work as well as my identification with being, a writer. I continued to hear your words; the poem does not always have to be poetic. Sometimes, the poem is in the telling of the story. I ask, how should we, as writers who are learning, tell the story?

CM is the author of The Vital System. As written by Douglas Kearney, “with gorgeous horror, Burroughs’s debut thrusts the body forward as an intelligence, a syntax, a theater. The narrator of these poems seems to come apart before my eyes; yet she never disintegrates—she teems. Here is vivid grief, livid vulnerability and bristling sensuality. Here is terrible resilience and dangerous vitality.”

I experienced The Vital System summer of 2019 after being taught by CM Burroughs. I was stunned by the emotion I was able to gather from the body being depicted in a way I’d never encountered prior to this collection. I continue to process the images and voice. It is now fall of 2019. CM’s poems caused me to travel to an unfamiliar — intimidating at times — pleasurable space.

At the time, my engagement with poetry was one that relied heavily on surrealism. As a writer and instructor of writing, what exists within the space of teaching writers to write? Let’s begin here.

How would you describe the art of teaching writers to write? Considering the complexities, the stories, and multiple dimensions that arrive in class with the students.

Each student comes to me at a different level in their development as a writer. My goal is to teach the writers toward their potential, toward the poetics that are just out of reach—I teach them through challenging their reading knowledge and their writing innovation. Beyond the platform of teaching toward potential, empathy and compassion are the most important tools I take into the classroom. These tools are part of what allow me to meet each writer at their current level of ability and discover how best to challenge their thinking and writing.

Toni Morrison alluded “if there’s a book that you want to read, and it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” When teaching writing, how much or how little do Morrison’s words resonate within the art of teaching readers and writers how to write?

Morrison’s words are true to me, but I don’t believe in asking students to achieve what they cannot yet imagine. A great amount of study and devotion is needed to know what 1) has not been written, and 2) what one wants to, or, better, needs to read. Any writer would do well to study widely and carefully, and to write to her most true and urgent subjects.

If you could tell your younger writing – self anything, what would it be? You may consider your undergraduate or graduate years as a writer.

I would tell her to practice reading daily, to develop reading as meditation, and to practice writing as she practices all daily to-do’s. I suppose I knew those things as an undergraduate—writing was vital to me years prior to my college career—but these are the mantras that one must repeat to herself, mantras that one must ever bear in mind.

When teaching, is there an idea of literary success that is needed for writers to create a vision for themselves, post formal education.

I am a writer who participates in the business of writing, but I do not interest myself in notions of success and failure—that is better left for Hollywood. When you say “literary success,” I think of New Yorker darlings and Times Best-Seller lists. These are wonderful modes of impressing literature upon larger audiences, readers and would-be readers alike. However, I do not think that any writer should be concerned with the idea of fame. It has nothing to do with the honest work of being a writer—there are no flashbulbs when a writer toils at her desk. For example, a writer may greatly admire Toni Morrison and want to emulate her, but one must work toward her own individual potential. To be plain, one’s duty is to be a writer, which requires study, writing well, publishing widely, publishing books, and trying to articulate something urgent for herself and others. A writer’s vision of herself ought to begin in whatever it is that she is writing, and that writing will help her to form her self.

What is the most challenging component when teaching writing to students who desire their version of success, to be birthed from their art?

I believe I touched upon this in the last answer—couldn’t help myself!

Would you consider writing to be a learned skill or an intrinsic gift? Why?

Both. I believe there is a natural inclination in writers to write! Following that, “talent” is a measure of how well one uses the tools of writing in unison with her subjects. Those tools are learned and refined, of course, but there is intuition that results in the illuminating concert of expression.

Can writing bring forth a sense of order to one’s life? There is a sense of solitude that may accompany writing as an art form.

Do you mean a “sense of order” or “sense order”? The latter phrase is attracting, but I’ll answer the former. Order is a term that resonates for me. I absolutely apply it to my mental and corporeal lives—my home, my mind; I thrive on clarity and order, organization. It is how I function. Writing must be a part of that, because writing is a vast part of me. Order, and writing, does require some solitude–there is beauty to creating my own noise and the perfect conditions *for* free thought.

When teaching writing, what is necessary for you as the professor, and what is unnecessary?

This is a bit vague, so I’ll answer for what I need from students. Professionalism. I am old-school, so I appreciate the common manners of centuries past; the decorum of letter-writing has especially been lost to the culture of emailing and texting. Once, I received an email from a student who I did not know that read, “Hey Prof, can I get added to your class?” Well, no. I’d much prefer,

“Hello Professor Burroughs, my name is ____, and I am a _____ major in need of joining your [course title for class] to fulfill credits for graduation. I understand that this may not be possible, but I appreciate any consideration you can give to my case. I have attached a writing sample to aid in your decision-making. Thank you. Sincerely, Student Who Impresses Professor with Etiquette.”


Melissa Lozada-Oliva

Lozada-Oliva Discusses her Projects and Survival Methods of Being a Young, Productive, Artist in our World’s Current Society.


Interview by Tracie Taylor

I came across the wonderfully funny, online presence of Melissa about two years ago on Instagram. I, an aspiring poet, was on the hunt for voices that were out in the poet community creating a life for themselves in any and all creative ways possible. Throughout these years of following her, I discovered she was in a band, created a podcast with a fellow poet, and still travelled to perform spoken word, all while pursuing her MFA.

 Melissa Lozada-Oliva is the author of Peluda (Button Poetry 2017) & the co-host of podcast Say More with Olivia Gatwood. Her work appears or is forthcoming in the Adroit JournalREMEZCLA, Kenyon Review, BBC Mundo, PAPER, Redivider, Huffington Post & more. You can follow her everywhere except in real life at @ellomelissa. 



My first question for you is: how do you keep up with it all? The constant (in my experience) pressure to create and make money for yourself. And if you find yourself not keeping up, how do you put yourself back on track?

 It’s hard! It’s very hard and I am historically horrible with money. I think I just developed a very ridiculous and objectively stupid life stance that “Everything Would Be Fine.” So far, it has been. But before it becomes fine, I have to work hard. In dire moments, I print out chapbooks and sell them via Instagram. Those help me buy groceries and make it until the next freelance check from a college comes in.  It can be awful but it has always been better than having a boss and pretending to have goals for “the good of the company” and being apart of a “family” & other ways that guilt you into ignoring your art & laboring for the Man. I’m a bad employee because I don’t believe in rules. They seem like a suggestion to me. When I am not keeping up, I usually break down, honestly. But those are also good moments because they help me reassess what I need to do. 


 Who/what are some of your creative inspirations? 

 I love ghost stories. I love horror. I hate how they make me feel but I respect them for doing that.

What is the process of publishing physical books like?

 It differs from publisher to publisher! In terms of chapbooks like Rude Girl is Lonely Girl or Plastic Pajaros that I did with Pizza Pi Press, I came to Jess Rizkallah and Cassandra de Alba with an idea and they were like, let’s do it! I am teaching myself indesign currently to release some spooky stories that I worked on with Jess. I’m having a lot of tantrums because I’m twelve and this shit is hard, but if you’re a poet or an artist of some type my advice is LEARN INDESIGN and then you will always have merchandise. I wouldn’t have been able to put those books together without Pizza Pi and their graphic design expertise and diligence. Also, with the chapbooks I’ve often collaborated with my friend Tiffany Mallery who is a prolific artist. I trust her with everything. Publishing hardback books the traditional way is a bit different. With Peluda, Button approached me after I had been on their channel for a while and they wanted to become a publishing house. That’s pretty rare & not how it usually is! I’ve been working on a new book (that I am going to keep top secret just for the case of appeal) for about two years and decided to try to find a different press. But in order to find a different press I had to go about finding an agent. It’s been difficult, honestly! I pitched to so many agents and got politely rejected a ton. One agent was like “these are love poems and I thought it would be more political and aggressive like Morgan Parker.” I was like . . . what? It’s been hard negotiating my “brand” with the sort of art I want to make. Love poems are political! Any way I ended up meeting my amazing agent at a party where we bonded over a cat, and now we’ve been working together and I am so so excited about what’s coming next. I guess my advice is always pet cats. 


Regarding your poetry, I know your book Peluda, published in 2017, was one of your first full publications, correct? How has that set forth your career as a spoken-word poet? Do you still feel a connection to your first publication or do you feel chained to it at all?

I still feel so proud of my book. I was working forty hours a week at a book store and writing that book on my days off. It has so much heart in it and so much need for perfection to not let a reader down. It’s also two years old and sometimes I look at that and I’m like “Okay . . . that’s corny.” I don’t feel chained to it, but I am definitely ready to show the world my new stuff. I also don’t think publishing Peluda was very traditional. Button Poetry approached me when they first became a publishing house after I had a bunch of videos on their Youtube channel. That’s not usually how it works, which is what I’m realizing now, trying to shop my new stuff around.



Your recently released chapbook, I’m Scared But I’ve Been Here Before, are poems about your dreams. Dreams are a piece of art within themselves, what inspired you to make them into concrete poems? 

All the dreams you see in the chapbook are basically as they were recorded in my iPhone notes. I think just writing them down changes their initial form. Like, once I write them down they’re poems. They looked so specifically bare and vulnerable on the iPhone lay out that I felt like . . . moved? So moved that I posted it to my Instagram page. I also had this weird constraint where I had to fit it into the Instagram box, so that involved a lot of cutting and rearranging of the dreams. Maybe I’m fucking with the cosmos by sharing my brain clouds, but it’s very fun for me.


I notice you incorporate humor into a lot of your projects, how has your niche for humor shaped you as an artist?

I think humor is always in conversation with any other mood. It can provide a sense of relief but it can also open a reader up to hearing something more intense/serious later on. My friend Hieu Minh Nguyen wrote a thesis called “Trust Me, I’m Funny” where he talks about how using humor in poetry is away of establishing intimacy with the reader. So, like, later on when you’re getting in the feels the reader is like, “Oh my god . . . My friend . . .  the buddy who just made me laugh . . . .”


I moved to Chicago for the exposure in poetry and opportunities in general, it’s been an overwhelming transition. As a young creative in NYC, how has living in a big city shaped you as a writer?

It’s shaped me a bunch! I feel forever grateful toward the community I came up in, in Boston, and also knew that at some point it wasn’t helping me grow anymore. When I moved to New York, I knew a lot would change in the way I did everything and that scared me. Not to be that bitch who is like, “The thing about New York is” but the thing about New York is that everybody is hungry to show you what they’ve got. I started doing more shows here in general. I’m on comedy or variety shows a lot more now and it pushes me to do new stuff. I’ve just had so many more opportunities here and a lot of that involves being exposed to outta control art that I wouldn’t have before. The other thing about New York is I’m taking up space here while following my artistic heart. I’m responsible for changing the neighborhood even if I’m a person of color. So I guess I’m still figuring out what it means for me to love it here, you know ? I also feel lucky that I can pay the rent with this job I have that makes no sense, and also feel lucky that I’m stupid enough to pretend my student loans aren’t real.

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Do you plan to stick to writing just poems? 

 Hell no! I’m working on a YA novel and a pilot and some other stuff. What I’ve learned, however, is poetry has absolutely destroyed any sense I’ve ever had on using punctuation. Like how do you write a sentence like ??


You too are an MFA student, and I feel like in this day and age, there’s a lot of skepticism in pursuing an MFA. What are you studying and how do you feel it benefits you or hinders you (if it does) as a writer?

 So, yeah! I’m getting my MFA in poetry at NYU. I definitely wouldn’t have written this current book I’m working on without my MFA, but maybe, also, without New York. But maybe, also, without growing older and reading more and more life experience? MFA is cool when you’re fully funded (I’m not) and MFA is cool when your famous teachers have time to actually, like, give you an assignment. I guess it’s taught me discipline, but I also read and write all the time by myself because I am mortally taxed. Anyway, I went part time so that I wouldn’t have to take out any more loans (I literally exceeded my limit, O.K.) and so I could have health insurance. What I’ve loved the most out of it are the people I’ve met. They’re incredible and sensitive and funny and laugh easily. When I wasn’t in a workshop last semester, some fellow students (specifically of color) and I got together once a week and read poems to each other while drinking wine and eating dinner. It was perfect. It was like, oh, right, we are all friends who love words this much. It was like, oh, actually, maybe it’s all about trying your best to impress your friends in one room for as long as you’ve got.

Paperback: 60 pages
Publisher: Button Poetry (September 26, 2017)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 9781943735242
ISBN-13: 978-1943735242

Tags: Melissa Lozada-Oliva, interview, poet, podcast, artist, lifestyle, NYC, peluda, writer, humor


Kendra Allen

Kendra Allen, author of When You Learn the Alphabet talks about her experience as a student of color attending Columbia College Chicago as well as her evolution as a writer.


Interview by Kaitlyn Palmer

I first discovered Kendra Allen at a Columbia Chicago reading in spring, 2019. I was blown away by her voice, style, the color and shapes she evoked through her writing, her accent, the way she seemed to tell a story that was necessary to the future of literature. I purchased her collection of essays following her reading.

After reading, I wanted more. I was impressed by the vulnerability intertwined with Kendra’s ability to tell stories. Her stories were relevant. She was the kind of writer I wanted to know.

Kendra Allen is the author of essay collection When You Learn The Alphabet and winner of the 2018 Iowa Prize for Literary Nonfiction for University of Iowa Press. Born and raised in Dallas, TX, Kendra exists as an MFA candidate at the University of Alabama where she is working on her thesis and leading students astray. You can find other works from her in brevity, december, and The Rumpus among others and her tweets @KendraCanYou

Columbia College Chicago? Columbia may be seen as diverse in ideologies and student body, however, I am interested in your experience as well as the way in which you navigated such a space. 

Columbia is only diverse on paper but really it’s a bunch of white folks who think they’re good white folks because their favorite word is “liberal” when in reality they’re just leading each other astray. And like most spaces in the academic world, they tend to think diversity only means black yet I have been the only black person in a few of my classes there.

I think the only way I could navigate the space without combusting was going to campus for class and taking my black ass home to sit in my room. I would be so emotionally exhausted leaving campus and didn’t really understand why. I was young and Columbia really was my first experience being in close proximity to so many white people. So it was a constant lesson on things I didn’t know of the name of at the time, such as code-switching, micro-aggressions, or even living with white people— all these things just slapping me upside the head all day. I really had to force feed myself that it’s not my job to correct the blind spots and, like all things, this is temporary and I didn’t need to romanticize it in order to finish. For most of my time there, I isolated myself. I knew if I got too involved, I wouldn’t have made it through, so I didn’t join any clubs, teams, etc. And what I did do (Habitat) I didn’t really have to talk to anyone face to face. Columbia worked for the kind of person I am and also taught me a lot about intention but even more than that, about silence.

On becoming a writer at Columbia, can you recall pivotal moments in which you were supported or encouraged to visualize beyond your own expectations? This encouragement may have been by teachers, peers, or supporting administration. 

I think it’s when I kept meeting writers who made me jealous of how well they wrote. I’m a competitive person and it’s been put in check, but when I first started going to these workshops, I would always try to identify the best writer (to me) in the room and try to keep up with them through metaphor, scene building, etc. Me being in admiration of them is what made me write so much during my time there. I was never doing it thinking this is gonna be a book, I was doing it thinking I want Meg in my poetry workshop to think I’m good or I want them to like my work as much as I like theirs, etc. I just love words and I can always tell when someone else loves words, so my visualization was all about how I can transform words into feelings and luckily I was placed in rooms where teachers, peers, and supporting administration always told me to keep going, that I was good, that I could be better, that they wanted to read more. And people wanting to read more is THE quintessential pivotal moment. So I’m real grateful for the creative writing department at Columbia. I can’t really say my time was wasted anytime I was in those rooms.

If you could speak to a group of girls, girls of color, entering Columbia College, what would you offer them? This may be in terms of a “survival kit” for being successful throughout one’s college career. You may direct your audience as you see fit with this question. 

Black girls across intersections entering Columbia College: you’ll thrive, because you’re a black girl. You’ll survive, because you’re a black girl. These are things you’ve just always had to do. Find at least one other black girl to complain with or you’ll drive yourself crazy doing it alone. Y’all won’t know how important that comradery is until it’s over. Take advantage of the few people you have there, take the classes with the professors who will nurture you without pandering to you. When whiteness is running rapid, remember that you black, not a martyr. Read. Write. But most importantly, don’t internalize the dumb shit that is guaranteed to happen. It’s gone be hard but ain’t it always. Get a therapist as soon as possible. I also heard marijuana is about to be legal there, so ya know, do you boo.

Would you say, you, as a writer, was represented on a cultural level by faculty during your college career? Were there professors who taught in a manner that was culturally responsive? 

Not at all. Of course there’s CM Burroughs and Eric May, but I didn’t get the opportunity to take any of their classes or even know them while I was a student. And even if I did, I doubt that’d be enough. But I did get to know Jenny Boully who is amazing and fearless at her job, and the other professors I did have were culturally responsive and responsible for the most part. Or I should say, as much as they could be. I think around my second year of undergrad I stopped looking to be represented and just started trying to find spaces where listening and application were important factors in the classroom. I’d take Kathie Bergquist whenever I could, ReLynn Hansen helped tremendously as well, and then there were those who weren’t so responsible. Which is how we get “How to Workshop N-Words” written or realizing a class you loved had a sexual predator as an instructor and no one talks about any of it.

I don’t know the aesthetics of the faculty now, but it could have 1000% been better when I was there, but that also applies to almost every school, especially where I am now where we have no black faculty at all in the graduate department, or even a faculty member who’s a person of color. I think we’d all benefit more if we stopped trying to teach and appease blackness and just hire some black people, but whatever.

What inspired you the most during your college career at Columbia? What activities or engagements allowed you to remain inspired when creating and writing? 

Honestly, I think reassurance inspired me most during my time there, whether that was from classmates or instructors, I always felt guided and supported in what I would put on the page, even if it was trash. But also the state of our society during that time played a prominent role in my work. A lot of WYTLA discusses current racial events and tragedy. I was at Columbia during Mike Brown and Sandra Bland and all the many other black people murdered by police, and even the election of Trump. So that urgency to say something always revealed itself whenever I would sit down and do my workshop assignments, so the biggest inspiration was constantly knowing things were happening and me trying to find an understanding of why we love to live in a cycle.

College, as you know, entails so much reading. Were you able to see yourself in the required reading as a whole? Are there any readings that continue to resonate with you? 

I think the worst thing about Columbia is also the best thing about Columbia: how liberal it perceives itself to be, and we all know that’s a very slippery slope. I would be lying if I said I didn’t see myself in the reading material. I read a lot growing up but I didn’t really read widely and Columbia introduced me to writers I should have known all my life. Reading at Columbia introduced me to books I’ll obsess over for the rest life. From Kiese Laymon’s How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America, Bell Hook’s Bone Black, James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, Hilton Als’ White Girls. I read The Bluest Eye for the first time at Columbia, so I’m really thankful for being exposed to myself in that way even if the intention of those inclusions is kinda tricky to fully navigate.

What would you like the legacy of When You Learn the Alphabet, to be? 

This is a great question and the answer(s) to it probably conflicts with one another, but if you asked me this at the start of the year I’d say I’d want WYLTA to be a undeniable piece of work that is widely read and love me love me love me immediately, but I’ve spent time reevaluating what success and even legacy means to me. I feel like a lot of times black folks talk about creating legacies and how it is a burden when you don’t have a blueprint in front of you—and when I wanted those validations in those perimeters, it most definitely felt like a burden. But now, I’m hoping when I look back on WYLTA I can see it as the beginning of me freeing myself from my own expectations and that I did the best I could with words at that time in my life.

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If you could describe your mission as a writer and an author, what would it be and how do plan to accomplish your unique vision or mission? 

In the past, I think my curse as both a writer and a person has been sacrificing myself in search of absolute truth. Thinking that the only way I could feel like a writer, especially through personal narrative, that there was only one answer to every question I had about myself and this world. Now, I think my mission in my work is clarity. I’m writing for clarity, and that goal opens up the page in a way it hadn’t beforehand. I haven’t mastered it, but I think I’m in the process of figuring out how to execute it. When I was searching for unaltered, absolute truth, I never felt fulfilled with the finished product because it never was about me, it was about what was done through me, for me, and against me. And if I’m working so hard, I want to feel fulfilled. I remember in one of her notes on a piece I submitted for workshop, Jenny Boully wrote to me, “It seems like every time you begin to reveal yourself, you hide behind abstractions.” She was completely right, because the truth is always cloudy and I was living in the sky. I wanna be clear from now on.

When You Learn the Alphabet
University of Iowa Press
ISBN: 978-160-938-6306
160 pages