A conversation about power, community, and art with CMarie Fuhrman and Bryan Fry
For years now, I’ve been going to the Port Townsend Writers’ Conference at Centrum. It’s a ferry ride and a scenic drive 60 miles from Seattle. Located on a peninsula on a larger peninsula, the surroundings are beautiful, the faculty stellar, and the participants fun to be around. Every year, I meet remarkable people. Though I’d met Bryan Fry, editor-in-chief of Blood Orange Review, a few years ago enroute to AWP, it was his first time at PTWC. On the first night of the conference, he introduced me to CMarie (Cindy) Fuhrman, co-editor with Dean Rader of the newly published anthology Native Voices: Indigenous American Poetry, Craft and Conversations. Good friends, Bryan and Cindy traveled together from Idaho to the conference. I had a chance to sit down with them to ask questions about their respective publications, which led to conversations about race, power, diversity, community, and, of course, art.
If you could use only one word or phrase to describe the reason for your publications’ existence, what would it be?
CMF: Unheard voices.
BF: I think that’s it. I mean, that’s what it is.
What prepared you to take on the task of your publications?
CMF: I felt called to do it because there was a gap. It had been 30 years since we’d had an anthology of Native American poetry. And it had been never since Native people had been asked about craft. I think what prepared me is I’ve always thought in terms of bridges. The work I did at the University of Idaho for Native students was creating a bridge between education and Native communities. Stories create those bridges that takes us from one place to another. But what I saw, and I don’t know that it prepared me as much as inspired me to do the anthology, was that there was a hole that really needed to be filled at a time when voices that were getting so much of the spotlight were doing nothing to help people who have historically been ignored.
Also, as a student getting syllabi that had no Native people in them, how was I supposed to be a Native writer when I had only one or two people to look up to, and one had recently been accused of some really awful things against women. Others are fantastic, and I’m thinking of Louise Erdrich and M. Scott Momaday and James Welch. But there weren’t any new voices getting out there. There wasn’t any new material being seen. And there wasn’t anyone in my age group that I could look up to and say, I could be her or I could write like her or I could write to her, meaning we could be on the same level together.
I saw my Native students not having those new voices and materials, trying to find themselves within voices that weren’t theirs within a context they couldn’t relate to. For a long time, Native poets and writers have been treated in a mystical, spiritual way when they are just as much genius at craft as any other poet and writer crafting art. They need to be seen as artists first. They belong with any of the artists we’ve revered in this place now called the United States.
I think my whole life has prepared me for this kind of work. Bryan and I got to know each other because we’re both really into collaboration, creating relationships, and bringing things together, and that was part of the initial attraction in our friendship. One of the things he first said to me was “You’re a collaborator. I love that!”
BF: I’d also say about Cindy is her anthology, with its craft essays and what she’s trying to do, showed me something that I feel is really important for curators. As someone who has been called a curator, I think about that word and about curation practices in America, not just in literature and writing, but historically what we choose to memorialize. Anybody who’s in a position to be a curator has to understand that long history of exclusion and how it lends itself to systematic structures keeping people out. I immediately respected Cindy because her anthology and her own writing resists those structures. But also, she’s my sister. We went to the same program at the University of Idaho. We were taught by teachers who were taught by teachers who were taught by teachers in the Pacific Northwest, so we carry something with us that is a kind of DNA.
CMF: Literary DNA.
BF: As soon as we met, we were like…we knew each other. Yeah, we have the same DNA. To answer your question about what prepared me for this project, I think it was working with students. A lot of communities have taught me how to not fuck up. My students are the people who mean the most to me and I feel honored to be able to work with them. They come from all different backgrounds, and I have the privilege to walk in the classroom and have all of the authority, all the answers, and I really try to break that down as quickly as I can. They educate me. And as they’re educating me, I know that they don’t see themselves standing in front of the classroom. So, I searched for writing examples from non-white writers, but I wasn’t finding a lot beyond the heavy-hitters, and I wasn’t seeing a variety in subject matter. And I’m like, “I have a journal. How do I get this right?” Well, maybe if I do the same thing with writers that I do with students. I can go out, find writers, talk to them, and let them know what I’m trying to do on a personal level. And good writers know other good writers.
CMF: The beautiful thing is that he’s publishing these voices talking about not just what the general public hopes to hear them talk about, which holds us in a place that perpetuates a kind of stereotype, showing people as one way instead of two-sided. But what Blood Orange Review does is give permission to writers to write about all of their life, all of their personal experiences. It doesn’t pigeonhole them to one topic. When they can get hold of Blood Orange Review and see that there are writers writing about something that has nothing to do with race, they have that permission to just write their life, which might just be about finding a dog. So, I think it’s important what Bryan said about bringing those stories out too, and then we all see these people as well-rounded, whole individuals instead of one-sided.
BF: I understand that mine is a power position. I think one of the things I do is try to strip down as much of that power as I can and say, “We’re all trying to do cool shit. Let’s do it together,” without trying to minimize their experiences. There are so many questions about how to get published and how those decisions get made. And those doors are hard to knock down. There are writers that send stuff to us through certain organizations that I care deeply about, and if we don’t accept their work, I’ll write a personal note to give them feedback. Those are people that I become friends with for life. It’s about understanding how much is given to you in being allowed to select from these thousands of submissions. Deciding which ones you’re going to publish is a huge job. What about all the people that are getting rejected? I care about all those other people. Every time they win an award, I hype them up on Twitter or Facebook. And I’m a fan for life.
CMF: I love a story that Bryan related to me recently. He got a submission from a well-known Pacific Northwest writer and chose not to publish it so they could have space for someone who wasn’t as well known. And that was fantastic – to be able to say, we love your writing, but you’re doing great, and we want to give the space to someone who needs it. It could have brought a lot of attention to the journal to have that particular writer in it, but the journal chose instead to put someone in who is not well known, which is a beautiful gesture.
BF: We certainly like to publish bigger names, but in this case the work wasn’t in conversation with the other submissions we had accepted. You have to honor your submissions. If a larger name fits and magnifies the collective body of work, we’ll go with it. But in this particular case, we made a tough decision—the right decision—and gently passed on it.
CMF: Some people think that the mission of a journal of any kind is to become the most popular journal in the area and get the highest readership based on whatever names we can put in it that are going to draw the most attention. I don’t see Bryan, at the helm of Blood Orange Review, trying to do that. I think Bryan’s heart is also felt by the people that work with him. But sometimes that goes against what we think of as American. We should be like, gosh, if you have 12 to 14 writers that you can publish in an issue, and you get all 12 to 14 that are hard-hitting writers, then everybody’s going to want to buy that issue. But those people have already had their say.
What are some of the obstacles you see in getting not just a readership but a recognition of the significance of your publications?
CMF: People say that if it’s Native poetry and they’re not Native, why should they read it? They’re, like, “How will I ever relate to Native poetry? I’m not Native American.” A lot of the point of Native Voices, particularly in the craft essays, is to show how human we all are, that we’re sharing a human experience that is vastly different for some people, that the human experience itself is worthwhile to explore. I think that the biggest obstacle is showing people that poetry is poetry. Art is art. We can look at it on that level, instead of trying to just stick it in a genre and say, “Well, I’m not Native American, so why would I care?” I think the craft essays in the book are doing a lot to level the playing field. People can say, “Oh, it has craft. Well, I’m also a poet, so surely this will help me.”
BF: It’s hard to keep track of audiences. We know our followers on Facebook and Twitter, and, of course, we read hundreds of bios on Submittable. But we’re about community, and we want the communities and organizations we network with to trust our journal. One interesting thing about audience is we still get a lot of work from white writers that is not in any way engaging socially or politically. And that’s an interesting thing to me. They’re not reading our journal, or they don’t care about what it is we’re doing. The space we’re creating isn’t just for non-white people. There’s a voice for everybody there. And we try to create a community of editors who are helping us make those selections and decisions. I’m the editor-in-chief, but I have a whole family of people that help me take care of this baby.
How does spending time putting together such publications affect your own work? Both in terms of available time and the content and style of your work.
CMF: I was a full-time grad student while I did this anthology, and I worked full-time at the university. Reading through submissions and craft essays, doing the research, and writing the introductions to the poets and their work truly helped the work that I was doing for my own thesis. Having all those voices with me and learning what I did from the craft essays definitely showed up in the writing I was doing. I think it also deepened the sense of the importance of the kind of work that had to be done. And working with my students always informs my writing. It did make for some long nights. But maybe that time crunch in grad school is a good thing. You had only so much time and had to use it really wisely.
BF: I’m not just doing the work on the journal. I’m also doing things on campus and with students outside of English classes. But I separate those things from my writing because what I do as an editor feeds my soul. I like to write, but when I see someone else in the spotlight, that makes me happy inside. I always have a hard time putting enough time in my writing. I’ve been publishing on average one to two essays a year. My goal has never been to have a book. People have asked, “What about a chapbook of essays?” Right now, it’s not my thing. I found something that I love. But it does affect my writing. I have to create a separate space for that to happen and then protect it.
There’s been a lot of talk about curating practices and the problems with them. And I think it’s really important to plug into that, to educate yourself, and listen to what people are saying. There’re a lot of people that are calling out white editors, but I never feel like they’re attacking me personally. If you feel that way, you got to check yourself. Because that’s where the humility comes in. It’s great to raise other people up. And the love that you get back? All of a sudden that work is not work.
CMF: Yeah, I think it’s important to clarify that, and Bryan and I’ve had this conversation, so I’m not trying to speak for him. When we say white, that doesn’t mean necessarily a skin color. So much is a certain mindset. It’s just a way of thinking. We see so much of it right now in our current administration – not listening to these other voices. White is not necessarily a skin color so much as a way of thinking that is colonial, that is outdated, outmoded, and that has forever kept other voices from being heard. And there are non-white people that can be accused of this as well.
So, what’s a good word for that – rather than white and non-white?
CMF: Perhaps, the people that are stuck in their colonial myth, regardless of their skin color – this idea of colonization, of needing to have power and using that power only to perpetuate themselves, only to gain for themselves or for a small number of people – is what I think of when I think of white. And I don’t want to say the powerful and the non-powerful. That’s not it, either. Maybe we’re pointing at something that yet doesn’t have a word. And we’ll find that together.
It’s pretty complex, but I think that saying they’re white helps us understand that that’s been a problem. People who could pass as a white person have always gotten a certain amount of privilege over others, even if they’re in the same socio-economic class. So, it is tricky. And I certainly don’t want to leave out people who have been fantastic allies who don’t see themselves as part of that colonial power structure. But I think it’s just an easy way to talk about the two groups – the ones in power and the ones not having that same power, that same voice.
BF: Would you say that all of us writers here (at this conference) have privilege.?Maybe some of us within this group have privilege over others, but we were all able to get here somehow, right? So, we recognize that privilege actually can go beyond even skin color. Right?
CMF: But how we came by that privilege might be completely different. We see that even though we’ve been asked to come, which looks really good for a particular group (look, diversity!), we’re still feeling the lack of the same privileges as someone who’s done nothing different and is enjoying what we are not. It’s great to promote diversity, but it can’t be just like buying a lawn ornament. It has to go further, like inviting someone into your house.
BF: One of the problems, and I don’t know if it’s similar to what happens here, is that the university I work for does a really good job of getting people here from across the United States and beyond. We have Saudi students and students from China. We have Black students. We have DACA students. I think the university wants to promote diversity. But they never really thought about creating space for these students. They didn’t do that second part. So the students don’t feel valued. I wonder if something similar is happening here, where people are coming here, but maybe they don’t feel valued. I think that second part is something that people always have to do, because if you don’t, then you’re just using people.
What does coming to a place like this conference do for you as a writer, teacher, and human being?
CMF: I was invited here as a fellow before, which was fantastic. I’m very fortunate that Debra Gwartney and I have developed a relationship. She allowed me to come in her classroom and assist her during the week. The stories that these women are trying to tell are so important. Being in that room has been very powerful. And anytime – and Brian and I have talked a little bit about this previously – that I can infiltrate a system, I open it up for others. This might sound awful, and please forgive me if it does, but if I can get a foot into Centrum, then maybe I can prop it open for other Native writers that would like to come here. If I can meet people like Debra, who might write a letter of recommendation for two or three Native writers at some conference, that’s fantastic. I feel like that does so much for me on so many levels as an educator and as a human being. Like Bryan says, it feeds my soul. For Native people, it’s reciprocation. I’ve been given this; I want to give it to somebody else. Or, if I’ve ever I’m lucky enough to be invited as a teacher, other Native students might see that and believe it’s possible for them, too.
I’m excited that George (the incoming program director) really wants to work with us to make sure we bring more diversity or equity to Centrum. Certainly, every time I’m given an inch, I take a mile. If I can get into places where we have not traditionally been, I’m going to find a way to bring other underrepresented people. And I’m huge on relationships, just like Bryan is. I love meeting new people here. I’ve met so many new and great friends. And Sam (Ligon) has been a big advocate for me and my work. And Kate (Lebo) made me a fantastic supper. In some ways, we’re also following our literary parents, Bob (Wrigley) and Kim (Barnes), who have been coming here, and my literary sister Sayantani Dasgupta, who was a little bit ahead of me (at UI).
BF: When I got a message asking if I wanted to be a resident at the Port Townsend Writers’ Conference, followed by an invitation to have two of my students come on full scholarship, I knew what I would’ve said if I hadn’t had that second thing offered. That’s what really got me excited about being here – those two students. One of them, Jem, sent me a message that said, “I want whatever this is. This is what I want to do for the rest of my life.”
And I am thinking about people we’ve published – Grace Prasad, who’s from Taiwan, and Khalypso, a transgender poet we published a couple of years ago, my good friend Desiree Cooper, and people I connected with through VONA – I’m thinking how do we get them here? So those are the things that I think about when I’m here – the community that’s being created and who’s being left out.
CMF: Right? And my god, it’s beautiful. It’s just lovely to be here among so many like-minded people. So that brings me joy in my heart that there are good people out there that are willing to listen. I’ve been to other conferences that are very ego driven. Here they do a good job, but I think that there can be more diversity.
You road-tripped together to this conference. What was that like?
BF: We love music. So, we started off immediately with music. Cindy is deeply romantic.
And she does this thing where she closes her eyes, and I don’t know if she puts her hand up to her heart, but I see it in my memory. And she tells me the words that are about to come. She feels it deeply. I’m just dancing.
CMF: When there’s a really good song on, Bryan’s turning it up and he keeps talking over it, and he’s saying “Oh, listen, listen, listen.” He’s got a lot of energy, and I’m more laid back. And when I’m closing my eyes, I’m trying to sleep.
But it was fun. We’d been looking forward to this mostly as a chance to talk. It was a long drive, but it went by really fast. And we were able to get out some ideas for some collaborations we can do in the future.
What’s the next big thing for each of you?
CMF: I’ve been really depressed with the climate crisis that is happening. And I’m really interested in language – particularly sleeping languages of indigenous people that haven’t quite woken up or languages that are just waking up – and how important they are to the environment and how much Native people already are scientists and knew so much about the land. There are just not a lot of Native people writing about the environment, yet we know so much – how it’s affecting tribes who are getting displaced and becoming environmental refugees. So I contacted Jeffrey Levine, who’s the publisher at Tupelo, and Pam Uschuk and Bill Root at Cutthroat, A Journal of the Arts, and other people and said, “Listen, we need to bring together some writers who are writing about the environment like Robin Wall Kimmerer and Linda Hogan and others that I know must be out there.” They were all very interested, and immediately Pam said they would dedicate an issue of Cutthroat to this, which we will start working on that this autumn.
I’m also working on a publication on the theme seen/unseen about people who are in places that are public but are never seen. And I’m the Translations editor for Broadsided Press. I love what they’re doing with language, doing a translation issue every year. We’re going to use pieces this year from a Nigerian poet, a Chamorro poet, and an Alaska Native poet, all writing in their Native languages. It brings to light that English is not the only language for poetry. Working with Liz Bradfield and Alexandra Teague on this project has been amazing.
I’m finishing up my own manuscript of nonfiction essays and I’m still poetry editor for Transmotion. It’s a journal that traditionally has had reviews of Native literature. But those reviews weren’t always by other Native people. So, James Mackay and David Stirrup were kind enough to get in touch with me and ask if I would find Native writers to start talking about each other’s work. In the last issue, everybody was so thrilled to have some of their peers or colleagues review their book. Meg Noodin reviewed Linda Rodriguez’s book, and Linda’s, like, finally someone gets me. And academics can refer to these Native people talking about other Native people’s work. How cool.
Wow, that’s a lot of work you’re doing!
CMF: It’s all good stuff. It talks to each other. It’s a lot, but we’re here for such a short time.
BF: At Blood Orange Review, we’re working on the judging for our inaugural contest. The judges are Jericho Brown for poetry, Aisha Sabatini Sloan for nonfiction, and Aimee Phan for fiction. And we’re redesigning the website, which is always nerve-wracking. We get a prototype in a couple of weeks. We have a big-name poet in the spring who also does art for social change. We’re trying to work it out for her to come to campus to work with our students on an art-for-social-change contest right before a major MLK event. And we want to use swatches of the art for social change work that our undergraduates are creating, and pull that into the journal. We’re really excited about using student art next to writers’ work, finding more ways to have community and just playing with what an online journal can do, how it can have a conversation with people in different ways.
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