Faces of SAL: Alicia Craven, Director of Education
August 30, 2021
by Gabriela Denise Frank
“If you’re going to have to figure out new things, artists are a good group to be with,” Alicia Craven, SAL’s Director of Education, noted. “They’re inventive, creative, and open to seeing possibilities that a more linear thinking pattern might not allow for.”
Alicia was speaking about her colleagues—the cohort of WITS Writers-in-Residence, classroom teachers, SAL colleagues, and WITS teammates Piper Daugherty and Bre’Anna Girdy—but the same can surely be said for Alicia herself.
A lover of goats and The Godfather, boxing and backpacking and Yo-Yo Ma—in addition to books, writing, and teaching—Alicia is as resourceful a human as her interests are varied. For the past six years, she’s directed SAL’s education programs—Writers in the Schools (WITS) and the Seattle Youth Poet Laureate Program (YPL)—serving as both touchstone and booster for the close-knit community she tends.
Like the WITS and YPL programs themselves, the director of education at SAL is a position that shifts with the talents of the person who fills it. The director’s vision is likewise shaped by the changing needs of students, writers, classroom teachers, schools, and—as we’ve witnessed in the last eighteen months—the tumultuous state of the world.
Each party is interdependent with the others; together, they form a dynamic ecosystem. It takes a systems-level thinker, and an empathetic one at that, to balance these ever-shifting opportunities and challenges with SAL’s overarching mission: to cultivate literacy and a life-long love for writing in young people.
Simply put, the director of education role is the essence of creative practice in action: it’s ideation, experimentation, collaboration, ritual, craft, self-knowledge, performance, community—and, when radical times come calling, a little duct tape.
“I feel so lucky because this job is the one job in the city that combines all the things I’m passionate about—writing, reading, working in public schools—but at a different angle,” Alicia said. “To be able to help teachers execute their vision is a privilege. That they trust us to come into the classroom in the relatively small amounts of valuable time they have with students—I feel very humbled and honored by teachers trusting us with that.”
Alicia spoke about how WITS has served students and teachers in an even deeper way during the pandemic. WITS time presents an opportunity for students to be creative—to be joyful and have fun—but it also gives them tools, an outlet, and time to process and express what troubles them. This came through in the poems, prose, and comics included in this year’s WITS Anthology, which includes student work from 2019 through 2021.
“You see this enormous spectrum of experiences, voices, humor, grief: what happened on the daily, what they’re dreaming of, where they are, where they wish they were,” Alicia said. “I think that’s going to be an important and sacred archive of what it meant to be alive in this era: a kindergartener dreaming about zombies, and a twelfth grader wondering what the heck comes next.”
The classroom teachers were right there next to their students.
“When teachers do the writing prompts and share, there’s a potential for intimacy,” Alicia said. “The teacher putting themselves in the same position the students are in, it’s a dance together.”
The idea behind WITS is that everyone benefits. WITS Writers-in-Residence collaborate with classroom teachers and gain inspiration from students; teachers come away with new teaching tools and students feel more connected to the art of writing and its potential.
“That’s a really important part of the ethos or philosophy of WITS,” Alicia said, “that it can serve as professional inspiration for teachers who work so hard. For them to have a person to exchange ideas with and debrief with after the lesson—a collaborator makes everything much more possible.”
The same is true of the Youth Poet Laureate program, which has expanded from a single poet each year to a cohort of poets working together. Today, YPL creates space for students who self-identify as writers to build community with fellow creators—in addition to mentoring one young writer over the course of a year to develop a manuscript of poems.
“This year will be the seventh release of the Youth Poet Laureate books—there’s a whole series available now,” Alicia said. “Different poets, different styles and experiences, but all have powerfully clear voices. Bitanya Giday’s book Motherland is a distillation of that vision and her experiences as an Ethiopian American. Her voice is so strong and powerful. And I’m excited for Zinnia Hansen, who hails from Port Townsend, to take on the mantle of YPL this year.”
Readings and performance—the embodied experience of poetry and story sharing—are part of both WITS and YPL. Some young writers are even invited to read their writing at SAL events, an honor they may never have envisioned when they sat down to write.
“You could have shuffled into class half-groggy after lunch, written a piece—and then you’re on stage reading it in front of 2,500 people at Benaroya Hall as the opener for Ta-Nehisi Coates,” Alicia said.
The possibilities that come from WITS and YPL aren’t restricted to external validation or fanfare in front of a famous person, Alicia noted; they’re intended to help students develop sensitivity—ways of noticing—in their daily lives. To be sure, the work of WITS Writers-in-Residence is celebrated, too, through a series of readings called Local Voices, which SAL hosts.
“We have four readings throughout the year, which are free and open to the public. We feature a selection of WITS writers at each reading who try out new material and works in progress. Writers have gone on to publish things they first read in Local Voices,” she said.
Some write in response to what their students produce in class, and sometimes students come to the readings to see what their Writer-in-Residence is going to read. Writers, classroom teachers, students: “It’s a really powerful feedback cycle,” Alicia said.
This past spring was a time of limited reunions; some teachers saw their students for the first time in a year. While schools prepare for in-person classes this fall, the watchwords continue to be flexibility, adaptation, and change. One thing’s for sure: no matter what, WITS writers will be working to bring the kind of creative thinking people depend on—a spirit to keep going, to thrive in companionship, and to stay true. And Alicia will be there to offer her irrepressible and tender wit, her heartfelt sense of noticing, and her deep recall of Godfather quotes, an inspiration we can all use from time to time.
This interview has been edited for clarity and flow.
Gabriela Frank: Let’s start with your role at SAL. How would you describe what you do?
Alicia Craven: I’m the Director of Education, so I have the privilege of running the Writers in the Schools (WITS) Program and the overseeing our Youth Poet Laureate (YPL) program. I get to be a part of all aspects of Seattle Arts & Lectures’ work that falls under the education umbrella.
WITS is a cohort of professional writers in the Puget Sound region that we hire to go out into the public schools, kindergarten through twelfth grade, to do extended creative writing residencies in the classroom. With the WITS team, these people form a cohort of learners that work together throughout the year. We have prose writers, poets, and comics writers. Each residency looks different depending on the age range, the genre, where it is in the city, who the writer is, and who’s at the helm.
It’s an incredibly exciting and varied position because we’re working with many kinds of people. We get to be matchmakers and creativity insiders—like, okay, this is what you need at your school, and this is a writer who is working in that genre, or who can help these educators who are doing amazing work. [WITS Writers] help classroom teachers execute their vision for the excitement they want students to feel around the writing process in a different yet complementary way.
No two days are exactly the same, and each part of the school year is very different. I really like that variability. It’s extra special for WITS to be part of Seattle Arts & Lectures. We believe that writing is a lifelong journey that starts in early literacy—in enjoying stories and narrative forms and books—then in your writing journey, all the way from kindergarten up to the New York Times bestselling authors that we have on the SAL stages. To connect those—to have students featured on the stages, and to invite teachers to see the writers they’re teaching in their classrooms—it’s an incredible cross-pollination that creates different nexus points for inspiration. These very famous writers are so encouraging and inspired by the young students who are on the stages. They also sometimes come to the public school classrooms, and give talks at the schools. There’s all these different ways we get to have connection.
Alicia: That’s such a special part of the program. We call them our Spotlight Author Visits. To do those during remote times was some of the most intimate visits I’ve ever gotten to see. The students are putting questions into the chat and they’re hearing these incredible writers take their question and respond to them directly in that moment. It was such real conversation about what it means to be a writer, but also what it means to be human in these anomalous times. To have that skill of chronicling—how important that is for one’s own mental processing and for community posterity.
Gabriela: You couldn’t have picked two more wise, thoughtful, heartfelt individuals.
Alicia: In addition to being accomplished writers, they’re both such committed educators. That was a really beautiful thing to witness, how they show up for students.
Gabriela: Were you an educator before you came to direct WITS? Is that what led you to SAL?
Alicia: I feel so lucky because this job is the one job in the city that combines all the things I’m passionate about—writing, reading, working in public schools—but at a different angle. I worked in a variety of educational spaces before coming to SAL. I worked in a developmental psychology lab in college, and I also studied Spanish and political science. I lived abroad for a couple years and taught English and elementary school science in Thailand and Ecuador.
When I moved back to the States, I was working for the organization called 826 Seattle—it has a different name now [The Bureau of Fearless Ideas]—that’s part of a national network of tutoring, creative writing, and publishing. It supports kids with their schoolwork and offers creative writing classes and publishing opportunities. It’s very community-based. Then I came to SAL in 2015.
Gabriela: You’re bringing the perspective of a classroom teacher but also a creative writing instructor in a different kind of role. This must help you understand the challenges and see the opportunities made possible when bringing people together through WITS.
Alicia: Totally. I think classroom teachers are such heroic people. They’re trying to do so many things within certain structures, and just want students to see so many big and beautiful things out in the world. To be able to help teachers execute their vision is such a privilege. That they trust us to come into the classroom in the relatively small amounts of valuable time that they have with their students—to be in partnership with the writers and trust the writers to come in and give their students these additional windows of opportunity into writing—I feel very humbled and honored by teachers trusting us with that. It’s a great, sacred responsibility.
Gabriela: How many schools are a part of the program in the 2021/2022 school year?
Alicia: We are planning to serve twenty-three schools and Seattle Children’s Hospital. We have two writers that work in Seattle Children’s Hospital.
Gabriela: Two wonderful writers.
Alicia: Yes! Shout out to Sierra Nelson and Ann Teplick.
Gabriela: So, writers are going back on site, then?
Alicia: The plan for schools this fall is that everything is going to be in person. All adults participating in school will be mandatorily vaccinated and everyone will be wearing masks, regardless of vaccination status. So, you know, we continue to follow closely.
Gabriela: I imagine. Can any school in the greater Puget Sound region participate in WITS?
Alicia: Yes! The majority of schools we serve are in districts around Seattle and in surrounding areas. We’ve had a long-term partnership with the schools in Port Townsend; a group of writers has been hosted by Centrum, the arts organization, to stay there for two weeks and do an intensive unit with elementary, middle, and high schoolers. That’s been a beautiful part of the program and a way for our state to feel more connected. To have students from the Port Townsend district featured in our books, and to come on stages for SAL events—in fact, our new Youth Poet Laureate, Zinnia Hansen, is from Port Townsend—it’s exciting to get to work with with writers from elementary all through high school, and cultivate a culture of writing in community.
Gabriela: Let’s talk about the program! Are there students you’ve grown up with over the years?
Alicia: It’s an honor to get to be with SAL and WITS for these past six years. It’s really cool. Because we work with elementary, middle, and high school students, a student could, for example, start at Leschi [Elementary School], then have WITS in their middle school at Washington [Middle School], and then again in high school. We do have moments where you go, Why does that name sound familiar? Oh, okay, that student—or a sibling!—was in a WITS anthology four years ago.
WITS as a program has been around since 1992. We even have teachers who were in WITS when they were in school—like Mr. Jacobson at Nathan Hale. He still has his chapbook where he was published. That sort of intergenerational aspect of teachers who were in WITS as kids, and now they’re gonna go be teachers—I love thinking about the ways in which SAL as an organization can touch people at different points in their lives. That is exciting.
We have so much collective wisdom in the WITS writer cohort, too. We have people who have been with the program for one year all the way through our senior writers who are at ten-plus years. We have a sizable number of senior writers, so there’s a mentorship of writers with other writers. New writers that come in the program get paired with a junior or senior writer so that they have somebody to learn from. When they’re doing their own teaching, they can be like, What about this lesson plan? Come observe my class—and can I observe your class? There’s a lot of opportunities for cross-pollination of ideas in the cohort.
Gabriela: WITS sounds so malleable—or maybe polymorphic is the right word. The program shifts and changes to fit longer or shorter durations, a range of ages, and a variety of teaching styles and personalities. What one classroom teacher or WITS Writer-in-Residence—or school—might do is distinct from what others do, yet they all work.
Alicia: It is incredibly varied, and I really love that element of it. It has to be customized because each school, each student population is different. Each teacher’s goals are different. Doing comics with English language learner elementary schoolers is going to look really different than personal narrative or playwriting with a comprehensive high school in a totally different part of town. We come into it with the goal that it will be another invitation into writing for students, a way for students to have opportunities for self-expression and contemplation.
It all starts with meeting the teacher and the writer, and asking the teacher, What are you doing in your class? What excites you about what you’re doing? What are your dreams for how students will feel about writing when they’re done with this? The goal is never that every student is a professional writer by the end. The goal is that when students hear writing, the needle moves towards the positive.
The potential is for them to see their own stories or experiences or identities reflected in the mentor texts that are brought into the classroom, and that their humanity is acknowledged during this time. We can be part of the vision that the teacher has for what is possible in their classrooms. It’s a very special partnership, and—to your point—it can look like so many different things and be successful as long as we’re leaving the teacher and students with a space of increased possibility.
Gabriela: What makes that flexibility possible? How do you do it?
Alicia: Incredibly gracious and eager-to-adapt writers. And, to be honest, my incredible coworkers in the WITS department: Piper Daugherty and Bre’Anna Girdy are such amazing teammates. They recognize and value the relationships that need to be made with writers to understand their talents, vision, and expertise; they invest time in relationships with teachers to understand what they need and what they’re looking for. As a team, we try to be matchmakers, and available to help [with] anything that comes up along the way. We also want to be very open to feedback from teachers about how we can make WITS even more customizable for their students. Time, attention, and relationship building make a pairing successful—and being willing to adjust and pivot along the way.
Gabriela: Especially in a year where teaching and learning changed radically for everyone.
Alicia: Even though we were separated by computers and technology, it was also deeply personal and intimate. We met with teachers who were trying to parent their own young children and infants, or caretake for their families [while] pets were running in the side panels. The teachers and educators were absorbing—always with professionalism, but they were the recipients of many stories of what their students were experiencing—and balancing their own experience of moving through a global pandemic. Multiplied by however many students they see in a day.
We only have this tiny aperture even in normal school days of what a student is experiencing, and what they want to share. The time you have with them is a percentage of their entire day. In remote times, it’s even smaller. Oftentimes, you’re not even seeing them. Teachers described the experience of going back to the classroom in a hybrid fashion in April, and seeing their students for the first time because many students didn’t have their cameras on for all kinds of reasons.
I definitely couldn’t plan or control what was going to happen during the year, but if I had to be in any kind of ship navigating those waters I was really grateful to be in it with my SAL coworkers—and writers specifically. If you’re going to have to figure out new things, artists are a really good group to be with. They’re inventive, creative, and often open to seeing possibilities that a more linear thinking pattern might not allow for. They’re very in touch with the experience of being human and sharing tools for how to [connect] with students even in remote times. I was humbled to get to observe that.
Gabriela: I imagine an outlet in creative writing was probably needed by all parties—students, classroom teachers, WITS Writers-in-Residence?
Alicia: That was something we heard from teachers over and over again. We always ask, What do you want to get out of this unit, and what do you want students to leave with by the end of their WITS time? There’s always the social and emotional components to that and the specific elements of craft. Many teachers expressed a desire that WITS time would be time to have something joyful and fun and novel, but also to give students tools and space and time to [say], This is not normal. It’s not okay.
We need to reflect on this as human creatures. The power of practicing your writing skills gives you so much more capacity to describe things, render things, and remember things with care and detail. This showed up in the pieces of writing the students did. They will be published in the upcoming anthology which has pieces from the 2019/20 year, which was truncated, and this previous 2020/21 year.
You see this enormous spectrum of experiences, voices, humor, grief: what happened on the daily, what they’re dreaming of, where they are, where they wish they were. I think that’s going to be an important and sacred archive of what it meant to be alive in this era: a kindergartener dreaming about zombies and a twelfth grader wondering what the heck comes next. WITS lessons were a tool for reflection and empathy and visionary thinking, which I found hopeful. Based on the students’ writing, they were doing really powerful work.
Gabriela: What is a classroom teacher’s role when the WITS writer is there? How do they work together?
Alicia: The teachers are active presences in the WITS lesson. The WITS writer comes fully prepared and provides the entire lesson, but it’s still very much a partnership. What’s gone into the preparation of that lesson is collaborative behind the scenes in terms of the goals and missions of the residency.
The teacher, of course, knows the students very well, so they are actively circulating. They know what success looks like for different students. They have much more context of who’s going through what, so, you know, this student might be writing two sentences, but actually that’s really successful today. This other student, maybe they need a little check-in. [The classroom teachers are] such an important presence.
We love when teachers write alongside their students. That can be the most powerful sort of indicator. Students are always getting messages from their teachers as to what’s important. What do I pay attention to? When teachers do the writing prompt and share, that’s a potential for intimacy. The teacher putting themselves in the same position the students are in, it’s a dance together. When teachers write to the WITS prompt of the day and share alongside their students, that’s one of my favorite things.
Gabriela: Last year, WITS Writer-in-Residence Arianne True described some fun poetry dance moves that she encouraged students in John McCartney’s class to try. Do any particular exercises stand out in your mind?
Alicia: Oh my goodness, so many. And I love that Arianne and John’s relationship is so special. Like, when writers and teachers meet, and they’re like, You love this? I love this, too! That enthusiasm can be so contagious.
I think about Naa Akua and her partner teachers at Franklin starting out classes with meditation and breathing exercises, and having that be a ritual. And how teachers tell us they bring elements of ritual or routine that they observed during WITS lessons back into [the classroom] after the WITS writer is gone. That’s a really important part of the ethos or philosophy of WITS: that it can serve as professional inspiration for teachers who work so hard, but are by nature of how classrooms are set up generally by themselves.
For them to have a person to exchange ideas with and debrief with after the lesson—How do you think that went? What do we want to keep doing? Should we change anything?—a collaborator makes everything much more possible. Then they can take the lessons they observed during WITS and be like, I’m going to use this part for this other class. I’ll mash together this lesson I saw with this writer this year and one from two years ago. The more enthusiasm and ideas around writing and the teaching of writing that can be sparked during WITS time, the better.
Gabriela: And you’ve added a new role this summer: the WITS Apprentice.
Alicia: Yeah! We’re really excited for this possibility. The idea of the apprentice program is to foster new opportunities for future WITS writers, and to provide a paid professional development opportunity for emerging writers in the community doing incredible work in their writing lives [who] have passion and interest for working in public schools. Maybe they haven’t had the chance to go into public school settings, or have worked in teaching capacities where people are signing up for a class, but that’s very different than coming into a regular school day. Students don’t elect to be in WITS, it’s just in the course of a typical school day. So we really have to make it feel relevant and alive.
Gabriela: [Laughs] That makes adult education seem almost easy.
Alicia: There’s a level of buy-in if you’re paying for a class. To come in and be like, Alright, the thing that’s going to unite us is my excitement for this and my genuine desire to share it with you in a way that works for you. And the idea with the WITS apprentice position is the apprentice will get to learn this by working with an experienced WITS writer and be one of those presences in the classroom that’s circulating to help students [while observing] the entire arc of a residency. The classroom experience is really hard to get until you have it; the commitment we’re making to teachers is that we’re bringing in people who have experience with teaching.
Gabriela: Are there other programs like WITS out there?
Alicia: We’re lucky to be part of a nationwide network. There’s a WITS Alliance of programs across the country doing similar work in a wide variety of settings. Some programs are out of an MFA program; they might have WITS writers with MFAs that go into public schools. Some are nonprofits that only do writing classes. Some might [hold classes] in schools, and some do them on the weekends. Some [work] in social service settings and in community centers. There’s a lot of different ways WITS can take shape.
The WITS program in Houston is the largest in the country, and their nonprofit is fully for the Writers in the Schools program. The program most similar to what we have in Seattle is Literary Arts in Portland. They also hire local writers to work in public school classrooms, and sometimes with SAL we have partnerships where a SAL speaker comes to Portland then Seattle.
Gabriela: So you have a network of colleagues who can come together and share best practices, challenges, and successes.
Alicia: Yes. We’ve actually met a couple times over Zoom this summer. It’s been interesting to hear how the pandemic and different policies are playing out across the country. Of course, it varies incredibly state by state. Sometimes it’s just about sharing, Oh my gosh, you’re going through that? Me, too. Sometimes there are more pragmatic [exchanges]. In our most recent meeting, I heard about this great new resource from an organization in New York that specializes in differentiated education and disability justice. A lot of helpful tools come out of that.
A real mission point for Seattle Arts & Lectures is to create more inclusive opportunities for everyone in our community and our region to get access to the literary arts in all its forms. It’s exciting that our city has invested in opportunities for arts and literary arts funding for schools that are independent from PTSA funding. This will help more schools access creative programs for students in the years to come. Our goal is to focus on schools that have been historically underfunded, that don’t have existing arts and literary arts opportunities within the school.
It’s very important that we are representative in our writer corps, and that we’re bringing in writers that reflect students’ lived experiences. Ongoing, in-depth conversations about race and power have been essential to the work we do as a writing cohort over the past years; [we do this] with the support of experts throughout the community and within the WITS writer ranks. It has and will continue to be essential that we bring a racial equity lens to the classroom and to writing curriculum. It’s core to our mission at SAL as a whole, and will continue to be for WITS as well.
Gabriela: There’s such range in the voices in this year’s WITS Anthology. How do the annual compendia of student work—the WITS Anthology and the Seattle Children’s Broadsides Project—come together?
Alicia: With the Seattle Children’s Broadsides Project we get together and Ann [Teplick] and Sierra [Nelson] read out all the poems from the students at Children’s, and each letterpress printer gets assigned one poem. There’s often multiple languages represented. We work with an incredibly talented team of volunteer letterpress artists [who] take the student poems and transfer them into these gorgeous, handmade visual representations of the poem alongside the text. Our friends, Partners In Print, coordinate all the volunteers in the letterpress community. They go off to their studios and, even in these anomalous COVID times, find a way to make hand-printed letterpress broadsides, and then we have folios [of all the] broadsides.
Each Seattle Children’s student and their family get copies, and [the folios] go out to the community. We have a framed set that’s kind of a traveling art gallery that tours through libraries—that’s exciting. We always hear from librarians how much interest and engagement there are from families reading them. Now, people can see the galleries from all the previous years at the Partners In Print website—it’s incredible to have that archive [accessible to everyone].
The WITS Anthology is a special product of some 150 students out of 5,000 [who] worked with WITS during an academic year. It’s an incredible representation of all these little windows into lives, experiences, tones, and genres across our whole city. When you read it, you feel there’s this chorus of insightful, hilarious, touching, and strange pieces you’re in conversation with that students get to be in conversation with, too. We live in a very segregated city, and for students to be able to say, Oh, okay, another second grader on the other side of town is thinking like me, or I know that person or sibling—or, That’s the school that I’m going to go to down the line—they all get to be in this one beautiful [volume] together.
We always feature local Northwest artists [on] the cover. Mita Mahato’s beautiful artwork is going to be on the cover of this year’s [anthology]. And generally, we do a big public reading together to launch it into the world. This year being what it is, we’ll mail out copies to the students and give all of the teachers copies—and the school librarians. We’re getting requests from public libraries to have copies of the book, too. Of course, we’ll have it available on the Seattle Arts & Lectures website, and we’ll bring them to all of our public events.
It’s a powerful physical reminder of all this magic happening throughout the community every day. You don’t always see classes happening, but you get to see some of this incredible writing that the WITS writers have inspired. It’s a fun challenge to cover the author’s name and age on a page, and then read the title, read the piece—and then be like, What?! A fifth grader wrote that?
Gabriela: That always takes my breath away, that these young, creative people can write such advanced work.
Alicia: That’s such a lovely part of it. And, again, these students just show up for school because that’s what [they] have to do, you know? [They] are in their typical daily English class. Maybe [they] write this piece because there’s a writer there inviting them to, and [they] get a chance to revise it and read it in their classroom. Oftentimes, there’s quite a lag before they get a letter in the mail saying, Hey, remember that thing you wrote seven months ago? It’s going to be in a book!
We also invite students to come on the stage. You could have shuffled into class half-groggy after lunch, written a piece—and then you’re on stage reading it in front of 2,500 people at Benaroya Hall as the opener for Ta-Nehisi Coates. The idea that there are all these possibilities that come out of writing is something we really believe in. Those possibilities don’t have to be external validation or fanfare in front of a famous person, but ways [in which] students gain patterns of noticing in [their] own life. [Ways they] can be opened up through this invitation to write and reflect.
Gabriela: To have working writers come into the classroom must be so powerful for students.
Alicia: Yeah—and somebody you don’t know saying, Your story matters—you matter—what you said matters, and I love the way that you said it. Here, let me give you more tools in your tool belt for doing this in further ways that excite you.
[Growing up] I felt like books were these hollow objects that came from the skies fully formed. [I] never thought that the corporeal human behind them could ever be someone that one could meet, much less that could give you personal affirmations about your capacity to do the same—or to do anything else that you loved. It doesn’t have to be just writing on the page. It can be any kind of artistic expression that excites students. That’s also a success coming out of WITS.
Gabriela: That’s a great segue from WITS to the Youth Poet Laureate program. Last summer I was blown away by Bitaniya Giday’s poise, thoughtfulness, and humor when I interviewed her. Her book Motherland—the product of her YPL year—is out now. As you mentioned, there is a new YPL for the 2021/22 year, Zinnia Hansen, who hails from Port Townsend. The YPL program also lives under the WITS umbrella.
Alicia: I love that component of the program—the Youth Poet Laureate gets a book contract with Poetry Northwest editions. YPL was started in 2015 with Aaron Counts and Matt Gano [who] had been really active in spoken word work throughout the city. They were connected with folks at Urban Word in New York, and they were willing to help us launch it [at] Seattle Arts & Lectures under the banner of WITS. [Read about the history of YPL in this interview with Aaron Counts and Matt Gano; the conversation continues with Laura Da’ and Arianne True, co-mentors of the current program.]
Students apply to be part of the Youth Poet Laureate [program], and subsequently we’ve developed this Youth Poet Laureate cohort model. It’s not [only] one student [who] has that title, but a group of students writing together throughout the year. They meet once a month [with] Laura Da’ and Arianne True, our current Youth Poet Laureate co-mentors [who are] incredible writers from our community. [The program] holds space for students who self-identify as writers [doing] something they love via through WITS; [they get] to have a sense of community and fellowship with fellow creators.
In addition to mentoring that cohort, [Laura and Arianne] also work with one writer throughout the entire year who is developing a manuscript. The YPL goes through the process of generation and then editing poems, thinking about how they go together as a cohesive manuscript, figuring out their title and cover art and the tone they want to have with this book, and what they want to say. They do [this] process [over] a year, and then Poetry Northwest publishes it.
This year will be the seventh YPL book —there’s a whole series available now, an incredible archive of very different poets. [They] have different styles and experiences, but all have powerfully clear voices. Bitanya Giday’s book Motherland is a distillation of that vision and her experiences as an Ethiopian American. Her voice is so strong and powerful in that book. I encourage everybody to buy a copy through Poetry Northwest or your local independent bookstore.
I’m excited for Zinnia Hansen to take on the mantle this year. It’s a powerful opportunity for youth to have their voice featured in the community. So many people across the country saw Amanda Gorman speaking at the inauguration this year. It was such a statement of the voices we should be looking to and listening to [and] feeling inspired by for the future. Zinnia’s work has such a sense of place—and a sense of emotion and tenderness. I can’t wait to read her book as well.
Gabriela: Voices are shared through WITS in many ways: books and readings by the YPL cohort. Writers in the Schools whose student work is featured in anthologies, broadsides, and readings—and, of course, the Local Voices Series. Let’s not forget the Writers-in-Residence themselves!
Alicia: I was just gonna say that! These WITS writers are doing many incredible things in their own work throughout the community. That is a huge part of the WITS model: the WITS writers care deeply about teaching, and they’re also people actively engaging in craft, working on the exact same skills they’re asking their students to try. What do you do if you’re stuck? How do you work through writer’s block? How do you revise and edit your work? How do you share your work with the community, whether in written form or speaking it out loud? It’s a very embodied experience that the writers are modeling.
Through the Local Voices Series, we have four readings throughout the year where we feature a selection of WITS writers. [Note: the first Local Voices event this year will take place on November 8.] Everybody reads throughout the year. Those are free and open to the public. It’s a way that writers try out new material and works in progress. Writers have gone on to publish things they first read in Local Voices. Some write in response to things they see their students writing, and we’ve had students come who [want to] know, What is my writer going to be reading? It’s a really powerful feedback cycle. Like, Oh, I did this lesson in class!
It is a total gift to see how students are writing in response to what the WITS writer brings, then the WITS writer gets ideas for their own creations based on what their students present to them. I love that element. I’m always furiously writing down lines the WITS writers are reading, and I always leave with such indelible images and admiration for them as creators in addition to their teaching. During COVID we also started “Launched,” a reading series [for] WITS Writers-in-Residence who had books come out, like Corinne Manning and Kathleen Flenniken. We’ve had wonderful events [come] out of that, too.
Gabriela: What you said about a cross-pollination of ideas between students and WITS writers brought to mind something Laura and Arianne said about how they work with the YPL cohort. I asked them how they guided a group of young writers, and they said, What we do together is an act of co-creation. We’re here to support and uplift what’s already working. It occurs to me that this is how WITS Writers-in-Residence work with students, classroom teachers, and the SAL team: in a web of co-creation.
Alicia: That’s a beautiful way to phrase it. It’s truly an iterative thing. There’s co-creation amongst students working together in their writing on the page, and the out loud collaboration. Oftentimes writers will have lessons where [students] write something together. WITS time can also be an exercise in listening [and] practicing how to be in the world.
The relationships between WITS writers and classroom teachers, and WITS writers and students are acts of co-creation, too. The WITS writers create these beautiful containers [that] are invitations, and then the students make it their own. The WITS writers really excel at [providing] thoughtful support [and] opportunities to engage in writing.
Gabriela: How about you? How is your writing life these days?
Alicia: I am not an adamant publisher, but I write quite a bit. I do love writing. I’ve had periods of my life where I do more of my own [writing], especially during more traveled times. I love narrative nonfiction as a reader, and I like to write in that genre, too. I try to chronicle moments that I know will pass me by.
I think about that old idea that whatever you pay attention to, that’s what you worship. Writing helps us think about what we want to pay attention to, and then pay better attention to it through careful, thoughtful, and humorous specificity. I like to do that in writing as an act of love with people in my life. To figure out what I think about something, I generally need to write about it.
Gabriela: And, of course, I must ask: what are you reading?
Alicia: In my Icelandic book club, we are just finishing A Fist or a Heart by Kristín Eiríksdóttir, which is this delightfully strange novel about a woman in her 70s who’s a props master and makes weird limbs and stuff for movies and her relationship with a young woman playwright—their history and unlikely friendship.
As a SAL staff, we just read [the graphic memoir] Good Talk by Mira Jacob who will be coming to SAL this spring. I love graphic genres and comics. I just finished Children and Other Wild Animals, a beautiful and totally wonder-filled collection of short essays by Northwest writer Brian Doyle who passed away in 2017. I couldn’t recommend it more highly. It is an observant, thoughtful, weirdo, playful [collection] centered in the natural world and all the animals—including humans—that live in it. I have some fairly dark nonfiction reading habits, too.
Gabriela: Are we talking Elizabeth Kolbert climate disaster?
Alicia: Similar. I mean, not exactly climate disaster, but the New York Times journalist Nicole Perlroth is incredible. She wrote this book, This Is How They Tell Me the World Ends, [about] the cyber weapons arm race. It’s super fascinating in our increasingly technological world. I have not yet read but I have on request—and I’m very excited to read—We Are Each Other’s Harvest by Natalie Baszile who’s coming up in our SAL season. It’s an anthology of essays, poems, photographs, and quotes by Black farmers in the United States today. I love this sort of multi-genre work. And what else…? Exit West by Mohsin Hamid. I don’t often read fiction that has a fantastical element to it, like slipping through geographical time as the characters do, but it’s played so realistically that you’re completely bought in.
Gabriela: That’s a lot! Did you go for blackout on Summer Book Bingo?
Alicia: Ah, no. I never do. [Laughs] I also read a lot of younger kids’ books because I have a lot of friends who have young kids. I gave this book to many adults in my life—and it might be my most gifted book in the past two years—The Rabbit Listened by Cory Doerrfeld. It’s about this little kid who is going about building this beautiful tower, and then everything comes crashing down. A flock of crows comes through and all these animals come and have different suggestions about how [he] should react to this, except for this rabbit who doesn’t say anything. [It] just kind of like hops up beside him. You know, the metaphor is right there. It’s so good for adults. I keep a copy for myself.
Gabriela: In addition to books, you’re a fan of The Godfather films. Word is, you know the lines by heart? How did that come about?
Alicia: Because it’s, like, the most seminal text of fiction? [Laughs] I don’t know. Maybe twenty-seven percent of my working memory is reserved for the entire script. There’s something that relates to every situation that you can track back to The Godfather trilogy. The quotes aren’t necessarily going to sound great alongside a program about student writing, but I think there are a few I can share: Leave the gun, take the cannoli—you could do worse than that as a motto.
Take the Cannoli also happens to be the title of a collection of essays by Sarah Vowell. She’s one of my favorite writers of the narrative essay form. The titular essay in that collection is about growing up in Montana and what those movies meant to her—what they can mean to anyone. Who do you tell your stories to? Do you keep it all in the family? How do you even define that? Certainty and uncertainty in this world, like moral certainty, how do you find that? Where does it come from?
She touches on so many things, and then there’s a scene where she is in Italy, contemplating going to Sicily. I made a post-college pilgrimage to Corleone, Sicily, too. It was an homage to The Godfather, but also to Sarah Vowell’s book about The Godfather, which both mean a lot to me. [There’s] also: Eschew violence and go towards delights. That’s a pretty good motto, too, though in the movie that quote comes after a very violent scene. So, it’s also about the complexities and contradictions of life and our intentions.
Gabriela: That is a pretty good motto. What else do you enjoy outside of books, The Godfather, and your work at SAL?
Alicia: I like doing things that make me feel like a mammal, like being outside. I just got back from a mind-blowing backpacking trip in the Alpine Lakes wilderness. I enjoy the company of goats, and I enjoy volunteering at Puget Sound Goat Rescue. I like going to live music—hip hop, or tonight I’m going to gonna see (outside!) Goat Rodeo with Yo-Yo Ma and his quartet. And it’s not just because it says goat in it. I’m a Yo-Yo Ma fan forever, you know. Pre-pandemic, I also really enjoyed boxing. I have not gotten back into it quite yet, but I’m looking forward to when that is a thing again.
Gabriela: Those are lovely activities. May we all seek to be such well-rounded mammals!
Gabriela Denise Frank is a writer, editor, and creative writing instructor. Her essays and fiction have been published in True Story, Hunger Mountain, Bayou, Baltimore Review, Crab Creek Review, Pembroke, The Normal School, and The Rumpus. A Jack Straw Writer and Artist Trust EDGE alumna, Gabriela’s work is supported by 4Culture, Centrum, Mineral School, Vermont Studio Center, Invoking the Pause, and the Civita Institute. www.gabrieladenisefrank.com.