Tell me a little bit about your background as a writer: how did you begin writing? What were some professional identities you’ve imagined for yourself over the years?
In the ninth grade I wrote a research paper about America’s prudish response to Sally Mann’s photographs of her naked children. I had recently gone to a public pool in Europe and had the image of a topless woman with a jungle print thong seared into my brain and I remember coming home feeling very aware of how Americans, including myself, are sort of dumb about nudity. I did poorly on that paper—and it’s just now occurring to me to wonder whether this was because of my writing or because of the topic—but I remember feeling so lit up by the prospect of using research to write about art and society even then. But I was and am equally inclined toward photography, printmaking and painting, and I’ve probably spent about as much time in undergraduate and graduate school pursuing studio art. I’ve had a harder time envisioning visual art as my professional identity, perhaps because I spent a year or so working in a gallery and felt pretty grossed out by the business side of art.
Why and at what point did you decide to pursue an MFA?
Before getting an MFA in creative writing I got an MA in cultural studies and studio art at NYU. It was an individualized study program brought to fame by the Olsen twins and for the thesis you could choose between writing a theoretical paper, doing a performance or making some sort of project. I put on an exhibit and wrote a theoretical paper about Adrian Piper, not realizing that I had gone a bit overboard. And I remember sitting in my thesis defense and the professors on my committee said, “I really enjoyed reading this. Have you ever considered writing?” I loved writing but this came as a bit of a surprise. It occurred to me that getting an MFA in creative writing was almost too exciting, I was somehow withholding this option from myself. But this moment gave me the permission to go for it.
Did you ever imagine yourself in academia, or do you still? What do you think is a healthy attitude for writers to have toward the academy when contingent labor is on the rise and full-time jobs are scarce?
After getting my MFA I ended up teaching composition as an adjunct for a several years and I promised myself that I would stop because it felt so disgusting to see how universities have shifted the burden of labor onto the most poorly paid instructors. But I have always adored teaching. It makes me exactly as fulfilled as writing does. I’ve been lucky enough to teach in some truly wonderful academic environments these past few years—at Carleton College, my alma mater, the New England Literature Program out of the University of Michigan, and OSU-Cascades’ Low-Residency MFA program. Even though I continue to be contingent in these contexts, and this is a problem for me financially speaking, I get so nourished by having the chance to teach, and I end up feeling so buoyed by my radical, hopeful, brilliant students that I end up feeling more empowered than disempowered. Or, in the worst of times, one cancels the other out. This might be an unhealthy attitude for a writer to have toward the academy. But I grew up with artistic parents who always had to stand up for themselves in all kinds of work environments so I don’t feel this problem is limited to academia. I think an important question to ask yourself is whether or not the student demographic that you are working with is composed of people you are happy to serve.
In addition to teaching, you work at the University of Arizona Poetry Center in their K-12 education program. What skills and experience do you feel you needed for that job, and what new skills have you learned while in the position? Have you discovered something you’re good at that you wouldn’t have identified before?
When I first interviewed for this job I realized that I’d done all sorts of things to prepare that I hadn’t originally realized were relevant. Like, a few years ago, I collaborated with some friends to put on a bunch of fundraisers and events for this initiative we called “Detroit Ho!” We did a reading and a silent art auction in Tucson then spent the summer in Detroit, fixing up my parents’ house and hosting literary and artistic events. I made a blog documenting the whole process. Another time, my friend Arianne Zwartjes and I went on a book tour and we put together our own tour dates and I made us a blog. Things like that—collaborative projects that you just dream up and start from scratch— end up feeling useful to me now as we are constantly brainstorming how to engage with our community and plan events, how to compile and present student work, who to work with and in what capacities. My colleague in education programming at the Poetry Center, Renee Angle, is so wonderful and encouraging, and she really built a lot of the infrastructure for this program by herself. So it’s been empowering to realize that if you want to do something, you should try it. And because Renee is so supportive I’ve discovered that I’m better at administrative things than I would have initially imagined. But I have a lot to learn.
How does academia feel different to you as a teacher and as a program administrator? Do you feel like you have more or less control over your work and its context? Are you treated the same or differently by the institution’s leadership?
In some ways things haven’t changed much, because I also teach as part of this job—we offer a course on how to teach residencies for undergraduate/graduate students. I feel very free in terms of curriculum design and all that. We have a good amount of creative control in terms of our programming. But funding is really tricky. And I was disheartened to realize that I am making a lot less money now than when I was an adjunct even though the work feels quite a bit more dynamic. I’ve felt supported, or at least heard, when I’ve articulated my frustration. Even though I don’t feel well compensated I do feel respected as an administrator and even as a writer and a teacher. I am really invested in the work that we do and in the fact that we’re serving these amazing children, but I feel that at this point in my life I have to get better at noticing when I’m working for free. Because it’s so normal to do this when you are a teacher or a writer. You don’t even realize this is what is happening it until somebody does offer to pay you and you think, “YOU’RE GOING TO GIVE ME WHAT?” So I’m having to draw boundaries that I don’t necessarily want to have to draw simply because I have to learn how to respect my creative energy and my time. But it becomes a bit of an acrobatic trick to figure out how to give the highest quality service to the most people with the fewest resources. Which is another way of saying: I work for a nonprofit.
Where does your own writing fit into a regular day or week? To what extent does being in a professional setting with other writers help create a supportive community for producing creative work?
I work part time, so I get time to work on my own projects. I am a person who needs a whole day to get down to business, creatively speaking, so I don’t think I could do a full on 9-5. And it is absolutely awesome to be surrounded by brilliant creative minds at work, too. One colleague just published a book of poems and writes these amazing essays about Jem and the Holograms. The librarians are superheroines. Three people who have worked at the Poetry Center in the last year have books that were just on Entropy’s “best of” lists for poetry and nonfiction. The teaching artists we hire to teach these residencies are phenomenal teachers and writers. I work with extraordinary badasses. And a huge work perk is getting to spend time with visiting authors like Aracelis Girmay, Claudia Rankine, Camille Dungy, Eileen Myles, Vickie Vertiz, etc. Hearing these folks speak and read supports my creative practice a lot. But some days I miss waitressing, actually, because when you aren’t surrounded by language and poetry and brilliance all the time you crave it in a way that can actually be quite motivating.
Your work is sometimes identified by other people as memoir, sometimes criticism, sometimes creative nonfiction. Do you identify with any of these genres? Do the connotations of any of those genres highlight or downplay elements of your work you consider essential?
This labeling thing in nonfiction just keeps moving, huh? Creative nonfiction, lyric essay, auto-theory. I just spoke with someone who offered the identifier critic-at-large, which I love. But yes all of these terms seem to leave something important out. The problem with the word memoir to me is that people expect super linear personal narratives so if you don’t explain a transition or if you refer to more than one artist or writer in the same essay readers might get annoyed… I may or may not be summarizing two Goodreads reviews that continue to stick in my craw after I published my first book. When you call it criticism you can go ahead and usher in the imposter syndrome. And when you call it creative nonfiction, I think you have to pay a fee to Lee Gutkind. I get the sense that you have to be white to call something a lyric essay. I’m being aggressive maybe because these labels bring up questions about capitalism, ownership, power and exclusivity. But then you go back and read Audre Lorde and James Baldwin and you figure: who cares what it’s called. I mean, a great thing about being queer and part of any minority group as a writer is that your approach to form will always feel problematic. If it felt right it would mean something impossible had happened to the machine of America.
In the wake of the election, especially, it’s struck me that what people write to convince one another on social media occupies a rhetorical space that might have only been found in newspapers or magazines a generation ago. (This isn’t a particularly new observation about social media, I realize). As an essayist, to what extent do you allow yourself to use social media as a proving ground for your ideas, and to what extent is it useful for you to keep some of that in reserve for more formal, solitary writing?
I remember a while ago the poet and essayist Wendy S. Walters posted something on Facebook about how she needed more time to process things than it seemed social media allowed for and I felt so relieved. I have something to say about Freddie Gray and I won’t know what it is until 2025. I find that if I write about something in a post that feels like it’s from my little jar full of fermenting ideas and images, I am letting go of whatever potential that this thing had to be art. Have you seen that TED talk where the guy says that if you say you’re going to do something you’re much less likely to do it? This is what I think is happening for me when it comes to writing projects and Facebook—posting on social media makes me feel like I’ve processed or internalized something that is still eons away from making sense. I honor writers who can, as you say, use social media as a proving ground. But my practice is so much more solitary and weird and time consuming than that. And predicated upon solitude and synchronicity and waiting in a very witchy way. I have the superstition that if I share something too early it will die from exposure.
What advice would you give to writers thinking of pursuing an MFA? Those interested in crafting a humanities career in general?
Now that they feel under threat I can’t think of a more beautiful word than “humanities.” I feel resistant to answering this for some reason. I really believe that we need to be better collaborators at this point in our history. I think art is essential but I think communication and brainstorming and problem solving with other people’s best interest at heart is much more important than pursuing our personal objectives any more. If getting an MFA is part of how you plan to get us out of this mess, go for it. If it’s part of the ego game you’re using to distract yourself from death, don’t. The humanities are an absolutely vital part of how we learn to think and communicate across difference. But the individualistic way we’re taught to envision our careers feels more and more corrupt to me. I hope that we can figure out how to be creative in ways that are essential. I say get an MFA or don’t get an MFA but please get to work.
Aisha Sabatini Sloan was born and raised in Los Angeles. Her writing about race and current events is often coupled with analysis of art, film and pop culture. Her essay collection, The Fluency of Light: Coming of Age in a Theater of Black and White was published by the University of Iowa Press in 2013. Her most recent essay collection, Dreaming of Ramadi in Detroit, was chosen by Maggie Nelson as the winner of the 1913 Open Prose Contest and will be published in 2017.