MFA Students and Wood County Public Library Collaborate to Offer Writing Workshops
By Lena Ziegler
BGSU may be on summer break, but for graduate students Neeru Nagarajan (MFA ‘20, fiction) and Julie Webb (MFA ‘20, poetry) time out of the classroom leaves further time to engage with the Bowling Green community. Through a collaboration with the Wood County Library, Neeru and Julie will be offering creative writing workshops each Monday from June 6 - July 8 rotating between fiction and poetry, and inviting writers of all ages and experience levels to explore their own literary craft.
I recently had a chance to talk to both Neeru and Julie about what inspired them to spearhead these community workshops, what they love about writing and teaching, and how they are looking to the future (ie. writing a thesis) in the next year.
Q: What first made you interested in leading a creative writing workshop like this and working with community members?
Neeru: I've always been a big fan of the public library system in the US and how much they bring the community together. I wanted to be a part of that in any way I could, and when I talked about this interest with my friend and poet Julie Webb, we came up with a plan for a series of workshop sessions we could offer to the larger Bowling Green community.
Julie: Neeru approached me to see if we could start something to engage with the community. The Mid-American Review does Winter Wheat every year, which was my first taste of doing a creative writing workshop. I think though, that I’m interested in creative writing workshops for several reasons, not least of which is because when I was out of college I needed to find creative writing spaces, especially free ones, and things like this were very important to me. It was so important to find spaces, and people, who were just as into writing as I was, because I really had no one that I could talk to about this stuff. But I also think that there are people who just want to try things out, and who, like I mentioned in the workshop, have really never read any contemporary poetry. I think, to a lot of people, poetry seems inaccessible or… too academic? And in the first class we talked about humor, which is the way that I found poetry the most engaging at first.
Q: How would you describe your approach and/or philosophy when it comes to creative writing instruction? Does it differ with the community versus college students?
I identified as a "hobby writer" for many, many years. I hesitated to call myself a writer because that was not what I was doing full time. Now that I'm in an MFA program, I can see clearly that I was in no way less serious or ambitious than the professionals I work with every day.
While college students look at writing as a possible career as well as passion, the community comes to it only with passion, and they feel like they're looking in from the outside. They might not know the technical terms that are discussed in a graduate workshop, but they do know what they like or dislike when they read something, so my approach would be based on relating to them on that level. I don't see myself as an instructor in this context; I see myself as a fellow writer figuring things out with my own fiction.
Julie: I think that my engagement with community is first to get them interested (which perhaps should also be my interest with college students). In the broader community I’m more interested in generating new work, and dipping our toes in to the weird pool that is poetry. But I know that undergrads are already at least somewhat interested if they’ve signed up to be in my techniques of poetry class. My biggest goal with my college students is to get them to read widely, and a variety of poetry that pulls them in different directions, which just means a lot more reading. But I would like to think that for both groups I’m trying to get them interested in exploring a subject which is classically understudied in high school, and which they probably don’t have a lot of experience with.
Q: What are you most looking forward to in the coming weeks and the three sessions you will be leading?
Neeru: I'm thrilled that I could talk about books and writing with them as an excited fellow reader. While sometimes students take a writing class because they require the credits or because they need to advance their skills for a specific purpose, community writers come together voluntarily for the sheer joy of learning and meeting with writers like themselves. I'm looking forward to soaking in all the amazing and positive writer energy!
Julie: I hope that people keep coming back. I’m excited to see if the workshops help generate something for people, so that they begin to really explore poetry.
Art is a weird thing. It’s both immensely personal, and very public, so in a way it’s a performance.
But a performance that can’t feel like a farce - or if it does feel like a farce it has to be really silly. Sometimes we make art that other people don’t get or don’t understand. Sometimes it’s not there to be understood. But we keep doing it in a million little ways. And I can’t really explain this need. I’m excited for people to write something that they enjoy.
Q: What is the best and worst writing advice you have received regarding your own poetry/fiction?
Neeru: The best advice I've ever received is to read widely and aim high. The worst advice... Probably the one time I was told everything I write should have a deeper meaning — for instance, I can't just say that my character is afraid of spiders without it meaning something.
Julie: You know I can’t really remember the best writing advice I’ve ever gotten. I once got a handwritten note from Rae Gouirand after my first poetry class, and it was so personal and invested it made me feel like I was actually good at writing poetry. (I’m pretty sure that those poems were… very okay). She told me to submit somewhere, and I got published.
I also can’t remember the worst advice I’ve ever gotten, though almost any comment about grammatical issues are things that I disregard out of hand. I do remember one time in a workshop a girl was being criticized for the tone of voice in one of her characters (it felt robotic), and she said, as way of explanation, “it’s fiction.” I think about that sometimes. I know people who tell me they don’t read books because they’re “lies,” or “not real.” And it’s the strangest thing I’ve ever heard. No one gets up in front of a movie theater to scream “THIS IS A FARCE. IT ISN’T REAL!” I read someone a poem once and they said “Wow that’s really intense for a poem,” and I wonder sometimes what people think are in books.
Q: What do you personally value the most in a poem or piece of prose, on a craft level?
Neeru: Characters and character development mean everything to me. Everything to do with the characters, like motivation and voice, among others, is what helps me feel something, anything, for a piece of writing.
Julie: (rubs hands together maniacally) WELL.…
Of course I love a good pun or word play. You can’t not. But in poetry it’s easy to talk about craft, of enjambment, or zeugma, and that’s all great, but it’s a lot more difficult to talk about mood and tone, and what something evokes for you. Because the best poetry, to me, is really evocative - and sometimes inexplicable. Larrissa Szporluk’s poem “Vortex Street” ends with the line “and the heart just falls out of the wind.” How do you explain that? I love poetry for what it can’t explain, not what it can.
Q: As you enter the final year of your Masters of Fine Arts program, any plans or ideas for your thesis?
Neeru: I've been playing around with a bunch of ideas. I'm still not sure if I want to produce a collection of short fiction, or a novel, or a blend of both. I've got a whole lot of ideas floating in my head... I have a variety of summer projects lined up (including this workshop at the library!) and there's a lot to learn from all these opportunities, so I'm just going to keep writing and wait for that elusive light bulb to appear.
Julie: Such a tricky question. I’ve been working on poems that are witchy, but that are essentially about the relationship between mother and child, especially when that relationship is fraught and difficult. It’s been really hard, because leaning in to the emotional subject matter is always difficult (if it’s painful to read, you can be damn sure it’s painful to write), and also because it deals a lot with how people see themselves - who ‘saves’ whom, and what that means, or doesn’t mean. So I think these poems are going to make up the heart of my thesis.
I’ve also been working on some poems about sex-robots, after reading Franny Choi’s Death by Sex Machine.
I think the most generative places for me in terms of poetry are places that are difficult, and angry. When relationships are difficult to explain or hard to understand - more than one thing is working. But that requires understanding how to make those pieces and cogs fit together into a poem that goes “choo choo” and I’m not sure I’m really there yet.
Q: What is a book, whether that be a poetry collection or novel, that you recommend everyone read?
Neeru: Oh, gosh, so many. Off the top of my head — The Edible Woman by Margaret Atwood. I know it's not the first book by Atwood that comes to anyone's mind, but I'm sure it will be once you've read it!
Julie: Franny Choi’s Soft Science (poetry) which includes poems in Death by Sex Machine
Super super well known, but just because I know people who haven’t Autobiography of Red Anne Carson. Jayy dodd Black Condition ft. Narcissus
And of course a hundred more, but these are things that are the ones that are currently jangling in my head.
Neeru Nagarajan’s fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Forge Literary Magazine and Hypertext. Her story “Witch Hunt” received an honorary mention in the 2019 Norton Girault Literary Prize and will appear in the Fall issue of Barely South Review.
Julie Webb is the Managing Editor of the nationally-recognized literary journal Mid-American Review.