Poet and educator A. Van Jordan was at what he describes as a transitional point in his life when he began working toward an MFA in creative writing at Warren Wilson College. Then based in Washington, D.C., he was an environmental journalist — “at a time when people didn’t care as much about it,” he says with a laugh. “I was writing about the 1990 Clean Air Act … and it seemed like the least of our worries” — and he saw the MFA program as the last chance to do the thing he felt most passionate about.
He went on to complete that degree (as well as an MFA in film from the Vermont College of Fine Arts) and teach at the Warren Wilson MFA program (where he’s still on the faculty) as well as at UNC Asheville and UNC Greensboro. Jordan, who now directs the Helen Zell Writers’ Program at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, will take part in the annual Spring Literary Festival at Western Carolina University, which runs Thursday, March 21, to Thursday, March 28.
Now in its 17th iteration, the three-day event also brings novelists Marilynne Robinson, Silas House and Cristina Henriquez; nonfiction author Laurie Jean Cannady; creative nonfiction writer Jason Howard and others to the Cullowhee campus.
“It’s always a privilege to be in a classroom,” says Jordan, who will visit with students while at WCU. When teaching, he says, “I’m able to have discourse with some smart people about a text I’m reading or looking at or thinking about. Invariably … someone will be in that room who will have a fresh take on it, and they’ll say something that never occurred to me before.”
Jordan is the author of the poetry collections Rise, M-A-C-N-O-L-I-A, Quantum Lyrics and The Cineaste: Poems. And, although his career as a creative writer has spanned nearly 20 years, he does point to the current socio-political moment as especially in need of artistic insight. “I think we’re in desperate times right now,” he says. “[There are] politicians who are trying to thwart the progress we’d been making as a country. … The poet chronicles the culture and history of a people. That’s been so since the beginning of time. During these times, people will often turn to the highest form of language, which is poetry. It does serve its purpose.”
Ricardo Nazario y Colón, a founding member of The Affrilachian Poets — a multicultural collective based largely in Kentucky that seeks to elevate historically underrepresented voices among Appalachian writers — also recognizes a higher calling in his artwork. “A lot of the considerations I have on the subject of diversity and inclusion come from pondering big questions about who we are as human beings: How do we relate to the environment that we live in? How do we relate to one another?” Some of these ideas are addressed in his collection Of Jibaros and Hillbillies, which pairs a Puerto Rican word for country folk (“sometimes in a not-so-revered way,” he says with a laugh) with its Southern Appalachian counterpart.
“I was trying to make the connection that [for] people in rural areas, there’s a similar experience,” Nazario y Colón says. He relocated from Bowling Green, Ky., to Cullowhee three years ago to take the then-newly created position of chief diversity officer at WCU.
And, while his day job is not one of literary immersion, Nazario y Colón, was named to a one-year appointment as the Gilbert-Chappell Distinguished Poet for the western region of North Carolina. In that capacity, he mentors four writers of different ages and, with them, will present work during the Spring Literary Festival.
Mentorship is an important part of developing as a writer. So is community. Literary festivals, which bring readers, burgeoning artists and established writers together, offer inspiration and support. But the literary community needs to exist beyond the festival or conference, as well. Jordan mentions that, when he was first considering a career in creative writing, he attended open mics in D.C.
“In the poetry world, unlike a lot of the other arts, people who [go to] poetry readings are poets themselves,” he says. “Folks started asking me questions like, ‘Why are you here? Are you writing?’ So I got encouraged to start sharing my work, and that was a real turning point for me.”
Jordan also found support in his MFA program and speaks highly of the other writers he knew during his time in Asheville. But there wasn’t a visible multiethnic literary group and “I felt, in that way, a bit isolated,” he admits. “There wasn’t much of an African-American presence in the arts when I was there, and I was hungry for it. … I’d probably still be in Asheville if The Affrilachian Poets had been there.”
Though Nazario y Colón’s move to WNC took him away from his Affrilachian poet cohort, he still honors that collective’s mission in his work. “We have the aesthetic in the group of making the invisible visible and trying to tell stories you may not often hear in other literary works or in other regions like this,” he says of the WNC mountains. “Oftentimes, it gets narrowed down to the stereotypes — ‘The Beverly Hillbillies,’ Li’l Abner, ‘Dukes of Hazzard.’ … I like to challenge that.”
He adds, “I don’t write for awards, I write because I love it. … For me, the arts are very much a part of who I am.”