Conversations | Doing the Work: Writers Coming Together in Times of Crisis

Conversations | Doing the Work: Writers Coming Together in Times of Crisis
Image Detail: Jim Osman (Fellow in Craft/Sculpture '17); "Curtain;" 2016; wood, paper, paint, Photo Credit: Jeffrey Sturges

Writers Ariana Brown, Francisco Gutierrez, and Marwa Helal define what it means to “do the work” and why it’s especially important now.

As part of its ongoing effort to engage with literary artist communities in exciting new ways, NYFA Learning recently collaborated with PEN America to present “Doing the Work: Writers Coming Together in Times of Crisis.” The event was an online discussion with writers Ariana Brown, Francisco Gutierrez, and Marwa Helal, all of whom have done critical work throughout the pandemic to engage and bring together other writers, that was moderated by Alejandro Heredia, Community Outreach Manager at PEN America. Below are a few highlights from the conversation, divided into three topic questions.

For writers, what is “doing the work?”

To Helal, part of “the work” is the work of seeing each other beyond what the world wants us to see—and beyond an artist’s own self perception. For example, as a participant in NYFA’s 2014 Immigrant Artist Mentoring Program, Helal’s mentor Ricardo Maldonado encouraged her to see her work as poetry after she originally only thought of it as prose.

Brown spoke about how 2020 was very different for her writing life, having recently published the chapbook Sana Sana (Game Over Books, 2020) after learning about poetry mainly through her experiences in spoken word. For Brown, part of “the work” is understanding how her own work, and how poetry and literature in general, is produced and distributed. She recommends reading Jamie Berrout’s Essays Against Publishing and looking into the Amazon Literary Partnership as well as Amazon’s ties to the U.S. military and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) for a better understanding of how elitism and corporate interests inform the landscape of literary publishing. 

Gutierrez emphasized sharing potential opportunities with other writers as much as possible and engaging with the work that other writers put out. Taking the time to read and share others’ writing helps you build community.

How has 2020 changed the way you build community with other writers?

Brown discussed having nearly all of her shows canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, she partnered with Alan Pelaez Lopez to develop and offer free, 90-minute workshops via Streamyard, which were then streamed live on YouTube. For Brown, it was important that these workshops be low-stakes and not too heavy in terms of workload, since the strains of the pandemic were already so demanding.

Helal talked about starting the School of the Vernacular Future, an online space dedicated to education on poetics that is still in its early stages. She sees it as part of a larger project of creating one’s own language as a writer, which also played into her teaching work following the publication of her Invasive species (Nightboat Books, 2019) collection.

Gutierrez spoke about his group, Writers Club, and its transition from a new, small club that met in person into an entirely online initiative in the pandemic, with writers joining from South Africa to Peru to the Dominican Republic and beyond. The process has shown him that there is a great hunger for spaces where people can share stories and writing.

What does “the work” look like moving forward into 2021?

Gutierrez explained how 2021 marks one year for Writers Club, which will be launching an effort to raise $20,000 in order to have a reliable programming and operational budget. They added that the mission of Writers Club is to democratize writing, having started it as someone who loves creative writing but did not receive a formal education in it.

Helal will be working toward completion of her next book in the spring and continuing to teach. She hopes to see literary and other arts institutions with harmful business practices gradually fall apart, and urges writers with a foot in the door of these institutions to continue to challenge them.

Brown discussed continuing to develop her Patreon in order to continue moving away from relying on institutions for money as a writer. Additionally, she aims to reinvest in self-publishing in order not to compromise herself by working with publishing companies engaged in unethical practices. 

About the Panelists

Ariana Brown is a queer Black Mexican American poet from San Antonio, TX. She is the author of Sana Sana, a poetry chapbook with Game Over Books (2020), and a 2014 national collegiate poetry slam champion. Brown’s work investigates queer Black personhood in Mexican American spaces, spirituality, and care. She is currently studying to be a librarian. You can find her poems and rants @ArianaThePoet on Instagram and Twitter.

Francisco Gutierrez is a writer and poet from México; born in Lázaro Cárdenas, Michoacán, and raised in Brooklyn, NY. They are the Founder and Director of Writers Club NY, a community-led writing and creative studio that has welcomed over 1,000+ writers in their first year as an organization, with members joining from cities like San Jose, CA to Kolkata, India. Gutierrez has similarly built with other online communities like Ethel’s Club, where they led their first writing group. Gutierrez holds a B.S. degree in Marketing from Georgetown University and is a former staff member and alumnus of the online learning school General Assembly.

Marwa Helal is the author of Invasive species (Nightboat Books, 2019) and winner of BOMB Magazine’s Biennial 2016 Poetry Contest. She has been awarded fellowships from Poets House, Brooklyn Poets, Jerome Foundation, and Cave Canem, among others. She is an alumna of NYFA’s Immigrant Artist Mentoring Program and a 2020 NYSCA/NYFA Artist Fellow in Poetry. Born in Al Mansurah, Egypt, she currently lives in Brooklyn, NY.

About the Moderator

Alejandro Heredia is a queer Afro Dominican writer and community organizer born in Santo Domingo and raised in The Bronx. At PEN America, he is the community outreach manager, where he oversees the Literary Action Coalition, a network of writers and literary groups/organizations which aims to mobilize the New York City literary community into social justice action.

– Kyle Lopez, REDC Fellow

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Amy Aronoff
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