Despite the challenges that have come with online learning and living through the COVID-19 pandemic for the past three semesters, New College has introduced a new Area of Concentration (AOC) to its academic arsenal. Due to the work put in by visiting assistant Professor of Creative Writing Dr. Emily Carr, the Creative Writing AOC became officially recognized in Fall 2020, and New College will be having its first ever creative writing graduates this spring. “Reconnecting with Our Roots: A Creative Writing Thesis Poetry Reading”—which will be hosted via Zoom on May 6 at 5 p.m.—aims to celebrate these graduates by sharing work from their theses and bringing together current and former students with an interest in creative writing.
“There have been students in the past who have incorporated some creative writing into their thesis or who have done an English creative plus, but they haven’t had sequential, intentional training in creative writing,” Carr elaborated. “I also wanted to, as I build the Creative Writing AOC, build alumni connections in a grassroots kind of way. That’s where the ‘reconnecting with our roots’ is coming from.”
The thesis poetry reading will feature work by Jo Nguyen and Sam Krell, who both wrote 30-page poetry collections for their theses. “Reconnecting with Our Roots” will also feature the work of a few current creative writing students and a handful of alumni who have incorporated creative writing elements into their theses in the past.
While the event provides the opportunity for current students interested in creative writing to connect with recent graduates, Carr said that she also wants to use it to commend 2020 graduates who “produced remarkable, brilliant theses under challenging circumstances,” and who could not participate in typical graduation celebrations due to campus shutting down in March 2020. Additionally, the poetry reading gives alumni the chance to be recognized for the work in creative writing they have done before the AOC was an option for New College students.
The Creative Writing AOC was officially approved in early Fall 2020 by former Provost Barbara Feldman and was spearheaded by Carr. In her previous position at Oregon State University, Carr was hired to build the creative writing masters program and came to New College to do the same thing.
“There was no curriculum, there was no department, there was no faculty—just this commitment to creative writing,” Carr said about her previous position. “Here at New College, there are a lot of constraints at a small liberal arts institution where I am effectively the only creative writing professor. But then there’s also a lot of opportunities for interdisciplinary connections, for building community [and] for doing public-facing work. You can be more nimble and there’s more leeway to experiment with these kinds of relationships.”
The Creative Writing AOC curriculum states that a creative writing thesis “incorporates a sustained piece of imaginative writing of literary merit,” which Carr said is intentionally open-ended. A “sustained piece of imaginative writing” can include fiction, poetry or any combination or hybrid between the two, and for the piece to have “literary merit,” it must be something that has been worked on for “at least a year or more.” Along with the creative work, there must also be a written critical component where the student discusses their choices, intention and how the work is put in conversation with other authors.
“We as artists are always engaging in pre-existing conversations,” Carr said. “You also demonstrate that you know what that conversation is and how your work is contributing to it.”
Before the Creative Writing AOC was an option, Nguyen had planned to study English. She took one class with Carr during her first semester teaching at New College and Nguyen said she “fell in love” with Carr’s classes and with the new creative opportunities it provided for her thesis. It was a similar story for Krell, who was also studying English until she met Carr.
“I started college and I was like, ‘[Poetry] is just a hobby and it’s not really something I’m going to focus on,’” Krell said. “Beginning of my third year, Professor Carr came to start our creative writing program, and I took a class with her and I was like, ‘I don’t know why I’ve been doing anything else.’”
Nguyen said that she first started brainstorming for her thesis by looking up Asian American poetry, after having learned predominantly white, African American, Latin American and Native American poets both at and before coming to New College.
“I felt like the one place I was really missing out on was Asian Americans which is ridiculous because I am Asian American,” Nguyen said. “So I started there, and around the same time Black Lives Matter was happening, the 2020 election, coronavirus, all of these things. I was like, ‘I need to find my own form of activism.’ Because me just sitting here, being super frustrated about all of these things but never doing anything is just not my duty as a citizen.”
Nguyen’s poetry collection, SIMPLY GROW ANGER ALONGSIDE THE LEMONGRASS & EUCALYPTUS, is about her experiences as a second-generation Vietnamese person and the specific tension between first- and second-generation racial minorities in America. On top of this, the collection is a letter to her hypothetical future daughter.
“I’m talking about all of the things I sort of know about my mom and about my grandma, and how I want things to be different for her,” Nguyen said. “But in an indirect way, using this hypothetical daughter gave me a way to communicate with my mom or tell her things I’ve never told her—may never tell her. That was an interesting way to also explore my experience more fully.”
Krell’s collection, For Justice I Would [Will] Not Cry, was inspired by letters, journal entries, photographs and other materials from her grandmother’s archive, who passed away before she was born.
“I created this collection of poetry discussing me, a woman in 2020 who is gay, versus my grandmother who was a woman in the 1960s married to a man,” Krell said. “And the different forms of oppression or the similar forms of oppression that have stayed consistent through the years. I talk about trauma, mental health issues and recovering from those things in my collection.”
Krell also said that while she considers the selection of poetry she read for her baccalaureate exam “done,” she plans to continue refining and adding to it for another year to hopefully be published.
According to Carr, this is the underlying importance of events like “Reconnecting with Our Roots: A Creative Writing Thesis Poetry Reading”: to foreground the “public facing component” of creative writing work.
“We have to create more opportunities for our students to go out into, say, the real world as artists,” Carr said. “And the importance of being public as an artist, of translating all of that private labor and passion into an actual act of communication that others can participate in.”