I was lucky enough to become a Stegner fellow in fiction a number of years ago, and then became a lecturer in Continuing Studies at Stanford.
It was a dream job (it was in fact a surreal dream job—this hillbilly girl getting to be in charge of a classroom at Stanford? Surely they’d catch on and kick me out at some point). I loved teaching there—the students had incredible stories to tell, and they all taught me so much while being consistently grateful for the chance to learn and to create. The only trouble was that living in the Bay Area was expensive and my lectureship was a two-year position.
So I took a job with a different Continuing Studies program and moved back to Madison, a city I love. But it wasn’t at all the same. At Stanford, I’d been able to recruit local writers to teach—a financial and CV-building opportunity for them, and a boon for local students. The program in Madison wouldn’t do that and I became increasingly frustrated at the gap between my vision and reality, so I quit. I was lucky enough to teach some courses online for Stanford and at the local public libraries. (Libraries are such a great place for writing classes, btw. Contact your library and ask if you could teach one; often the Friends programs of libraries can underwrite the cost.)
Still, I wanted Madison to have more writing opportunities. I couldn’t let go of the dream of having a place where emerging and established writers share their knowledge with beginning writers. With a few friends (notably Angela Voras-Hills, Bridget Birdsall, and Genia Daniels), I helped form a group called The Watershed: A Place for Writers. When we were just a couple of months old, we met Jolynne Roorda, the founder of Arts + Literature Laboratory (ALL). ALL is a non-profit organization that encourages visual, literary, and performing artists to explore and develop their craft. It encourages the exchange of ideas and support and fosters collaboration. Jolynne had been looking for someone to start a reading series at ALL when it opened, but we quickly realized that our two organizations were much stronger together, and we merged.
Since then, we’ve offered monthly craft talks that are open to the public, a reading series, a handful of workshops, and monthly write-ins. It’s so gratifying to be part of this writing community.
When I was mired in and then giving up on my university position, I thought of dynamic movements of writers such as the Harlem Renaissance, which was more than writers—it was a community of writers, artists, thinkers, activists; and many of these artists were without institutional support. I did wish that the vision I had was just there waiting for me to participate in it, but it wasn’t. But I started saying out loud what I wanted and figuring out a way to make it happen. I hope anyone out there frustrated in their search for a teaching position, or disappointed with the one they have (or even those fairly content in those positions), to dream big and look beyond the university to other models of creating writing communities. Look around, see what your community has and what it’s missing, and start reaching out. You can’t build it alone, but you can build it.
Rita Mae Reese is a recipient of a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award, a Stegner fellowship in fiction, a “Discovery”/The Nation award, and a Pamaunok Poetry Prize, among other awards. Her second book, The Book of Hulga, was selected by Denise Duhamel for the Felix Pollak Prize in 2016. She designs lesbian poet trading cards and is the Co-director of Literary Arts at Arts + Literature Laboratory in Madison, WI.
BMP Celebrates National Poetry Month
The theme of teaching and learning poetry, and our emphasis on student poets, speaks directly to the action of poetry in our country and global community. Never has the education of our students been so threatened, and never has truth been more challenged than in the current political climate. The truth emerges through education and the resistance and questions of our youngest generation, and it is their lead we absolutely must follow if they are to live in a society that fosters their achievements, liberation, and justice. Truth emerges through poetry as well — poetry bears witness to what truths seem impossible to speak any other way. Its constraints limit the temptation to misconstrue, obscure, and bury.