Voices, No Boundaries Conversation with Bill Berry- aaduna in exile spring 2021 issue, Vol. 10 No. 1
Voices, No Boundaries
(This category is a new feature for aaduna)
bill berry's conversation:
a chat with
Linda Gonzalez, MSW, MFA
Nagueyalti Warren, Ph.D.
October 2020 – March 2021
bill berry, jr. (bb:)
To start, I appreciate the time each of you will take to chat with me and one another. I trust we will have a lively and intriguing chat. So, let’s get started.
When Nagueyalti’s submitted work to aaduna, Linda, as a contributing editor, was tasked with editing that submission. Needless to say, I had no idea that your stars had aligned previously.
Can you describe that initial meeting (and any impressions?) More so, what was your sense of the ambiance, nuances, subtleties of the environment you were in and your expectations?
If I remember correctly, Linda came to Goddard as I was leaving. I do recall being delighted to see more people of color entering when I left in 2005. Goddard was interesting but isolating. In my two years of being in Vermont, I saw a total of 1, one, single, solitary Black man in the town of Plainfield. Campus was not greatly different, however, the people there, instructors included, were welcoming. I was surprised when Linda remembered me. As an alumna I had met only one other person, she might also recall, Gloria Lawson, who attended Goddard.
Linda, I think you were working on memoir and another woman, Julia whose last name escapes me, was also working in the same area. I worked with Mariana Romo-Carmona on my yet to be published novel. I enjoyed my time at Goddard but wish they could have been more helpful in terms of publications.
Nagueyalti is speaking of our first meeting at Goddard’s MFA program. I was in my first year and so grateful for the POC table and second year students like Nagueyalti in the dining room where we met three times daily, as it was a residency program where we came together every 6 months. It was my lifeline in the sea of white students, teachers, and state. We were both in Mariana’s cohort, which was more diverse than any other. Fun fact, Matthew Quick, who wrote the Silver Lining Playbook that was a successful movie, was also in our group the one year we studied together. Yes, I remember Julia as a no-nonsense woman – just called out what was going on! I remembered Nagueyalti immediately upon seeing her name on the fiction submission – first it is a memorable name, and secondly because the POC cohort at Goddard was small and mighty. I have pictures I can dig up of Nagueyalti at Goddard!
In the early Eighties as I administered Antioch University’s degree programs throughout Maryland, Dr. Jackson Kytle was my graduate program studies administrator. After Antioch, Jackson was deputy provost at The New School in NYC and eventually became Goddard’s president in the early Nineties. Jackson was a “progressive,” activist, research scholar and teacher. Within that overarching narrative milieu that has also been Goddard’s historical tradition of innovative, experimental, “progressive” thinking, I wonder was the MFS program geared to really embrace the thinking of POC students or was that liberal tradition no different than what other elitist institutions publicly cast as their institutional profile?
More importantly, how did that academic experience while you pursued a creative degree and your individual studies impact who you were as a person at that time? I trust you were intrinsically driven to seek out and exist within a safe, nurturing POC cohort but still, admittedly, you remained under the aura of a dominate institutional culture that may not have necessarily represented you, your thinking, and possibly your writings. And just as importantly, how did that Goddard experience affect your sensibilities as a writer, as a cultural worker as defined by Amiri Baraka, as well as the original leadership of the Black Panther Party? And if I am off base in my “Monday morning quarterbacking” after the fact assessments, please take me to task.
You raise many issues experience by many students in MFA programs, including me. Like all “progressive” institutions, Goddard felt itself above self-examination unless pushed. I proactively asked for Mariana Romo-Cardona as my advisor so I could make sure I received feedback that was culturally relevant. She had the most racially diverse cohort and the largest. Like many faculty of color, she took on extra work and left for a sabbatical after my first semester when Nagueyalti graduated. I asked her to keep me and she agreed so I was her only student for a semester. I also made sure to request that my second-year advisor be another woman of color, as I knew the importance of having my voice both acknowledged and appropriately critiqued. I facilitated a gathering at the end of my first residency with students and faculty of color and the white MFA administration about equity issues and then focused on my education and that of the small cohort of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) students. My experience of Goddard was no different than in any majority white space, whether writing or otherwise. We have to set our terms of engagement and never presume progressive white people will set the table with us in mind. I will share one major victory. My second semester, a white professor and I spoke about their “diversity” efforts. She claimed what so many institutions claim – the inability to find people of color for faculty. I named all the other ways they could amplify our voices. She took it on, and for my last 3 residency weeks, every visiting writer who gave a talk and interacted with students was not white. I had the joy of hearing and meeting Walter Mosley, Claudia Rankine, Patricia Powell, and Nilo Cruz over my last 3 residency weeks. (can’t find my pics of them so far – do have the Nagueyalti pics!) I would prefer we now turn our attention to the work Nagueyalti, and I did together so the focus is on our writing rather than on the white institutions that still harm us.
What I will add is not much different from Linda’s comments, but as a student at Goddard I was juggling my job as Associate Dean of Emory College, a mother-in-law with failing health, a grandmother who passed away; so, going through the program you could say I was somewhat distracted. As a person of color, Mariana was the only instructor that “got” my meanings without any questions asked. Others were well meaning but needed guidance when I was there for them to guide me! Glad to move on as Linda suggests.
All points are well taken. So, how did the Goddard residency experience shape your subsequent writing and what was the first work that you produced after that activity? In retrospect, how would you change that piece of writing now or does it continue to stand on its own merits? And is there value to BIPOC aspiring writers to seek writing residencies or is there an alternative platform to grasp and embrace the value of a mentor/coach’s guidance that will strengthen and embolden one’s writing career?
The good part of the Goddard curriculum is a finished, technically publishable product, so I left with a solid manuscript of my memoir. I then, through more feedback, stripped the structure down twice and ultimately published it 10 years later so it did stand well, mostly due to my two wonderful WOC advisors, Mariana Romo-Carmona, and Rahna Reiko Rizzuto. I have no absolute answer as to the value of MFAs and residencies for BIPOC. They bring much value and they also bring significant harm, steeped in whiteness as they almost all are. I do absolutely embrace, encourage, provide, and receive guidance – it is essential to writers who are contributing to a new and significant canon of literature. There are more and more BIPOC-led courses, coaches, and consultants and they are worth finding and supporting. There are many paths to writing excellence but working without feedback and support is not one of them. I have used writing groups, consultants, courses, conferences, and books (both about writing and those that are beautifully written) to keep me moving forward and will continue to do so.
Goddard and the MFA helped me most with the poetry project that I had begun before coming to Goddard. I completed it at Goddard, and it was published in 2008 and won the Naomi Long Madgett Poetry Prize. Regarding the novel, it has been far more difficult to find a publisher. The wonderful thing about my poetry is that at the time that I enrolled in Goddard, I was also accepted into Cave Canem, a home for black poets. Being a Cave Canem fellow was indeed life changing. The support that is missing in white dominated groups is found in abundance at Cave Canem. In terms of my fiction, the feedback from Linda on my story was a godsend. Feedback for writers, functions as air. As soon as I am able, I intend focus singularly on my novel languishing while I have continued to publish poetry. Lodestar, New and Selected Poems was published in July. In terms of the degree, I think it depends on what a person intends to do. The MFA is a terminal degree and can enable its holder to teach in creative writing programs in colleges and universities. On the other hand, I wanted the opportunity for a sustained period of time to study the craft of writing. The program provided it. As Linda points out, reading, a large aspect of the Goddard program, and writing groups are key. For some reason I find myself in poetry writing groups far more frequently than for fiction. This summer I had planned to attend the Hurston-Wright Fiction Writers workshop, but Covid 19 upended those plans.
I appreciate the insights on the Goddard program, MFAs, and the process of collaboration with other writers/poets. In the realm of collaboration, exactly how did you specifically further empower each other’s work. And is the length of time to progress from a “finished” manuscript to publication routinely that long of a journey and how difficult is it to move forward as a writer if there are other life responsibilities? How did being of the same gender amplify or emboldened the colleagueship and how different is the dynamic working with a male collaborator of the same culture and race versus someone whose experiences are inherently different? And many blessings to Cave Canem, an organization that has been and continues to be pivotal in the development of our literary champions.
I think the length of time from completion to publication is pretty much individual. The more distractions one deals with affect the amount of time needed for revision and polishing and even finding an agent. Same gender collaborators have not mattered to me in poetry. I was fortunate to have studied with Sam Allen at BU, with Gwen Brooks, and Cornelius Eady. All were extremely helpful to me. On the other hand, writing fiction has been different. There are nuances men seem not to understand. One example in my novel where some editor misunderstood a male character to be the central character. Mariana Romo-Carmona advised me to just kill the dude off, the character, not the editor. It was a perfect solution. There have been other issues that women seemed to resonate with that escape men. One problem I believe is that few men read women writers, whereas women tend to read both men and women authors. Working with male writers from totally different cultures has been interesting. All but Euro/American encounters have been enriching. There is an exchange of ideas, but with the latter I have run up against such startling arrogance it is disgusting. Anything that does not fit into their paradigm they either dismiss or try to correct. There is a section in my novel where I have the central character, a young-coming-to-adulthood black student stopping by a Nubian Notion in Roxbury to get her first Afro. The barber likes her, thinks she is beautiful and is excited to clip off her pressed hair and style her Afro. He doesn’t charge her for his services, instead telling her she will be his walking ad. Aside from not understanding the significance of the Afro in 1968, one white man told me the scene was unbelievable. When I asked what he didn’t believe, he said that she wasn’t charged. In capitalist America, I suppose I should have expected his answer. When Hi Jen was at Emory, I was able to see how working with someone from a totally different culture enhances. Interestingly, he introduced me to the works of Amy Tan. I love her works and have read all her books. I don’t want to end by generalizing about all same gender collaborations. I am sure they don’t all work out and neither do all male collaborators miss important elements, even white ones. It’s just that I, as yet, have not had the pleasure of working with a white man who does not push cultural and sexual hegemony.
I definitely resonate with much of what Nagueyalti wrote. I cannot underestimate the empowerment of being with other BIPOC folks who struggle to be valued in a white, male canon. My writing group of many years was women of color and so have been my writing accountability partners. I am overly exposed to and influenced by white writers without even reading them, so I practice affirmative action in all my writing endeavors. I have sought out teachers, editors, and consultants of color not only for their cultural expertise, but also to do my part to dismantle the economic and cultural grip of the white, predominantly male writing industry. That is very empowering to me and others. I would agree with Nagueyalti that completion to publication is very individual. My memoir was thirteen years in the making and my most recently published book about the same. I was heartened to hear of other writers taking ten years or so, and of Jane Austen writing multiple books at the same time! Life circumstances are key, but more key is economic privilege and access to decision-makers. Poorly written books by people with power are published all the time. I remember a white publisher saying my memoir would only be of interest to my family as it contained genealogical information. It was not the “single story” trope of Latinx families and culture. THAT Latinx trope book whose name I will not repeat was sold for a huge advance and published early last year to first positive and then very negative acclaim! I have had fruitful experiences with male writing teachers of color. I have not thrived in all white workshops so am proactive to seek out either teachers of color and/or colleagues so I am not the only one. I specifically submitted to aaduna quite a while ago now because I saw that diverse voices clearly mattered and have been a contributing editor to specifically work with people of color, which brought me back in touch with Nagueyalti!
I am reminded of Tulsa’s Black Wall Street area during the pre-massacre of Black men, women, and children. We now know the story of a white lawless and armed mobs that burnt down, bombed, and devastated a community that commercially and professionally prospered far beyond the economic potential of white residents. Of course, local law enforcement did not intervene but that is another story.
As a youngster, visiting family in Tampa, Florida I experienced the Black only water fountains and segregated (i.e., sit in the back pews) Catholic Church Sunday service, but also the richness and vitality of the Black community. Is it the time for BIPOC to galvanize our own avenues to promote our creativity? To consciously self-segregate? There are a variety of independent “of color” bookstores and publishers that can prosper and grow if creative folks were to re-position their thinking of “achievement” and there are the theater, dance, and music venues. Or is this approach anti-inclusionary?
I continue to marvel at our homegrown creative idioms (think rap, break dancing, graffiti, fashion, language etc.) that other cultures appropriate all too often without the economic reimbursements. So, what do we do? And how does a medium like aaduna, that is multi-cultural, global and “ally” conscious in its scope, further the aspirations of members of the BIPOC communities worldwide?
“Hamilton” rocked the world of theatre driven by the inherent extraordinary thinking and mindset of its creative geniuses, and “Hadestown” explored a specific regional sensibility grounded in African American generational culture. What should grassroots organizations aspire to do? And how may these possible developments take root in your present or future writings?
Well, I sure do not know the cure for racism, prejudice, or all the isms that result in hatred and oppression. I think as a writer I am responsible for exposing injustices. I have been intentional in seeking out grassroots and BIPOC organizations and publishers. Like Linda, I submitted to aaduna because of the ethnic voices it presents. aaduna has been helpful by providing an outlet for a variety of voices. I wish I could say the same for others. I published an anthology with a black publisher in 2008. To date I have not received any royalties, nor have I been given an account of the number books sold. In lieu of payment for their poems we also promised contributors copies of the published book. It took a year to get the publisher to actually live up to the agreement and send the books to contributors. Another black book publisher is just notorious for delaying publication. After having a manuscript accepted for publication, it may take three or four years before it is published, if ever. Still, I know at least one, Lotus Press, now Lotus-Broadside Press, that has done a wonderful job in promoting BIPOC writers. There is just so much work to be done. How we treat each other, how we critique each other and the commitments that we make to each other all need to be honored. Sometimes self-hatred disempowers us in ways that make us less helpful that we could and should be. I guess what I am saying is that it’s complicated. We must insist on inclusion while at the same time we must support and surround ourselves with people and institutions that support us, understand, and appreciate what we do. We must insist on gaining NEH grants because it is funded by money from our taxes. We deserve and must insist upon all the perks that other writers enjoy, even when it’s easier to just say “to hell with it.” We must keep pushing and when we do, who knows who will pop up, like Linda doing a hard read of my story and offering excellent suggestions.
You have raised large questions that have no “right” answer. For myself, I have always self-consciously self-segregated as a powerful means to affirm and elevate my voice and that of other BIPOC writers and people. I do not want to spend my precious time having to explain my voice and the importance of what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls the “danger of a single story” – one way to see people who do not dominate the publishing industry. We did not create nor can we dismantle the white, privileged system alone. We can only fight for our inclusion and hold sacred space for our safety and creativity. As Nagueyalti said, BIPOC groups can fail us as well since they always have less access to resources, resulting in promises are made that are not completed.
Nagueyalti and I first connected as the result of the institutional failure to make a program relevant and support to BIPOC students – you could say we self-segregated or you could say we created the system necessary to get the most out of the program geared toward white students as the status quo.
We each do this liberation work in different ways and together we chip away at the glass ceilings inside our heads and in every industry, even those dedicated to social justice. One of my writing teachers said that as BIPOC we don’t need to worry about having our writing be political. It is by its content and our voice rooted in making the “other” visible, deeply human, and complex. This frees me to write what is mine to write from my unique perspective. It is what will make the writing universal and inspires others to abandon clichés and find that way to their own creative expression. aaduna’s and your efforts bill created the opportunity for Nagueyalti and I to re-connect and I am grateful.
Both of you have given me pause to reflect and dig deeper as to what our individual and collective roles are to not only empower the so-called “canon” but where our work needs to reside to embolden a readership that is all too often neglected by the “mainstream.” It is a challenge to consciously support creative voices and writers of color and find a comfortable equitable platform where there is integrity, fairness, and a collaborative spirit. I always drift back to the spirit of the Harlem Renaissance and the Black Power movement and those writers, essayists and poets and other creatives who charted a path for enhanced self-dignity and a feeling of worth.
I have let too much valuable time go adrift with my response but before I start to bring closure to our joint conversation, I have two simple yet possibly complex questions.
January 6, 2021 will always be marked in the consciousness of Americans, the national character and the reckoning of racial preference and different treatment under a law enforcement system that continues to favor non-BIPOC people. As creatives, especially writers, have the recent events in Washington, DC framed a creative idea that you will pursue or have started?
I have been watching the “Jazz” series on PBS (the last episode I saw was centered on Armstrong and Ellington, the Great Migration, and its impact on jazz by Black musicians/composers and eventually white musicians.) And in light of the DC insurrection, I wonder where our creative folks will (or should) take this recent divisive moment, and it is an opportunity to reframe, at least artistically, the intellectual, creative, and political mindset of Americans?
January 6 was not a surprise but a conformation of what is well known in communities of color. There are two justice systems in the United States, one for whites and the other for non-whites. The KKK, the original home-grown terrorist group in the United States, existed unabated well into the 20th century. The Proud Boys is a 21st century clone. Their terrorist behavior does not excite my imagination. I probably will not write about it. It disgusts me. For me there is nothing to reframe because glaring injustice has been part of the non-white experience since 1492. The mindset of Americans will not be changed until more white people look at each other and say, “We have to own this behavior because this is who we are and who we have been from the beginning of this nation.” BIPOC poets, writers, and artist have been telling the same story for centuries and whites have been in denial. They must own it and fix it. Will the terrorist be held to account? Will Trump? If they are not, then we are far from becoming a democratic example for anyone to emulate. Personally, I believe all persons involved in the insurrection should be tried and WHEN found guilty should be deported and imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay.
I resonate with Nagueyalti’s response to your question. Not much to re-frame. I will not remember January 6th in any more significant way than the thousands of other demonstrations of inequitable justice, health, housing, and work systems, to name the big ones. My work always includes these realities and will continue to do so to expand the white-dominated narratives and give BIPOC sustenance and models for how to not write to the white gaze. Danielle Evans, an African American author, acknowledges the challenge in this stance, stating that BIPOC writing with “greater proximity to whiteness—tend to be more likely to get mainstream success, because they are presenting a version of the world that is recognizable to people making most of the decisions.” The writing system is inequitable as well. Nevertheless, we persevere!
In March, as PBS explored the intricacies and societal/racial issues confronting African Americans from violent discrimination and white fueled riots against Blacks to the significance of the Black Church as pivotal pillars to its ongoing “Jazz” series, I am reminded that there are creative contemporaries, literary giants who maintain the light that guides our aspirations and grassroots movements. You two are warriors in this ongoing battle for equity and constructing a paradigm that is essentially ours, with our intellectual and creative philosophies that embolden our progressive, grassroots actions. Thank you for taking the time to chat with me. I am humbled by your wisdom, grace, and creativity. Through your strength, the public is invigorated with the righteous truth that you bring to many.
Nagueyalti Warren, Ph.D., Professor of Pedagogy Emerita in African American Studies at Emory University, is author of four collections of poetry, Lodestar and Other Night Lights; Margaret: circa 1834-1858, the winner of the Naomi Long Madgett Poetry Award, Braided Memory, which won the Violet Reed Haas Poetry Award and Lodestar: New and Collected Poems. A children’s book, Good Gracious Granny is forthcoming. Professor Warren is editor of Temba Tupu! (Walking Naked) The Africana Women’s Poetic Self-Portrait. Her poems have appeared in Essence Magazine, Cave Canem Anthology, The Ringing Ear, Obsession, 44 on 44 and elsewhere. A Cave Canem graduate fellow, Dr. Warren also is author of W.E.B. Du Bois: Grandfather of Black Studies, Alice Walker’s Metaphysics: Literature of Spirit, and editor of Critical Insights: Alice Walker. She received her undergraduate degree from Fisk University, a Master of Arts in Afro-American Studies from Boston University, a master’s degree in English from Simmons College, a PhD from the University of Mississippi and an MFA from Goddard College. Warren resides outside of Atlanta with her husband. They have three adult children.
bill berry, jr. is the publisher of aaduna and the CEO of aaduna, Inc., Auburn, NY. In Auburn, he serves as chair of the Harriet Tubman Center for Justice and Peace, Inc. and has had his social essays and commentaries published by The Citizen newspaper. Every so often, bill reads his work at public venues most notably The Cayuga Museum of History and Art and The Seward House Museum, both institutions located in Auburn. In 2020, he inaugurated a print publication with the limited, signed, and dated chapbook, The Death of Compassion authored by Rochester poet, writer, and visual artist Karen Faris.
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