An interview with Professor Ray Gonzalez, new director of the Creative Writing Program
Professor Ray Gonzalez will publish three books in the next six months: a September volume of poetry Faith Run (his seventh with University of Arizona Press), a November collection of adventurous prose poetry Cool Auditor (BOA Editions), and the flash fiction anthology Sudden Fiction Latino that he co-edited, due next spring with W. W. Norton. Adding to an already impressive publication record seems like an appropriate response to starting a two-year tenure as director of the Creative Writing Program, given that the ever-increasing total of both faculty and alumni publications is a prominent reason Minnesota has been vaulting up ranked lists of the nation's top MFA programs. English@Minnesota found Professor Gonzalez in the director's breezeway office on a summery September day.
What are your goals for the MFA program in the next few years?
We are trying to find more summer support, more fellowships for students in the summer, to be able to have more time to write. As everybody knows, of course, the resources are limited right now. Also, so many of the students are from different parts of the country, trying to help them to feel part of the literary community--that they're not just enclosed within this giant University landscape, but can be part of the Twin Cities literary community and work with different programs, be a mentor, or intern, things like that. Finally, keeping the curriculum active and making sure that the courses that the students are required to take are available on a timely basis--while finding ways to offer different courses around the three main genres.
Can you be more specific about the latter?
Well, we've always had very successful Readers as Writers classes. I always have a good reading list in my classes, always enjoy discussing a lot of books. The more the writer is aware of what came before in the tradition of the genre, it makes him a stronger writer. So we could emphasize more courses where you get a wide range of approaches to the craft--from a literary point of view, a writer's point of view, an editor's point of view, a historical view--that's really going to help the students. Even though workshops are still the backbone of an MFA program, I think there have to be different ways to balance or to offset the workshop environment.
Why do you think that the Creative Writing Program is attracting so many more applications (350 last year for 12 spots) and achieving national stature?
I think that the commitment that the faculty has made to the program over the years has been very important. Also when a potential student is looking at different programs, again you're going to see the record of what alumni have done in their fields. Books are being published by a lot of our alumni, more and more each year. So there's that track record. The faculty give something that helps the writers on that path toward publication, even though I think in the end it comes down to your own individual commitment. I also think the possibility of being part of the Twin Cities literary community is very attractive to potential students.
Are there any drawbacks to this growth in interest?
The recent success of the program, with more students getting published . . . in a way we have to show students that those things can happen, but you have to be prepared not to get there. The literary world pushes a lot of young writers to grow really fast and to try to get your book published right away. So we really focus on those three years to really be for your writing--and all the other stuff will fall into place.
You have written fiction, poetry, and your last book of essays was nominated for a Minnesota Book Award. What's with the genre-jumping?
I'll always be a poet. That's the foundation. If there's such a thing as thinking in poetry, I'll always think in poetry. But over the decades, I've realized that there are many things I want to write about that lend themselves to stories and essays. It took me years to find the courage to work more with narrative and also with essays. . . . Quite often I find myself writing about the same topic, but I'm doing it in different forms. Working in different genres allows a writer to discover deeper elements in what they've been working on for a long time. If you're patient you're going to rediscover who you are as a writer.
You're a native of El Paso, Texas, and you still spend a lot of time there in the summers. Minnesota in winter, and the Southwest in summer--that's the worst of both worlds.
You get used to the winter--and to the heat. One time I went down to El Paso to see my family in November, so I'm all bundled up with a Minnesota parka. My sister and her son pick me up, and they're dressed in t-shirts and shorts. It's early November, so it's probably in the eighties there. We're walking to the car, and people are just staring at me, and I can't figure it out. It takes a while to get your coat off--and then your body starts to e-x-p-a-n-d. And you realize that up here you're like this [makes a tight fist], like this for months.
You've got two poetry collections out this fall and an anthology this spring--that's busy!
You're under contract to these presses, and you wait and you wait and you wait and then by coincidence they come out at the same time. Written at totally different periods. By the time they come out you're not even that writer any more, you're somebody else.
Could you describe Cool Auditor?
They're very unusual surreal prose poems based on a lot of scientific data and fact. For me the prose poem is the ideal form to do that--to combine scientific data with human emotion and literary concerns.
And Faith Run?
More traditional free verse poems about the U.S.-Mexican border, about my family, about the history of the area. I guess the idea is with all the political things going on down there, how long does your faith in your origins, and familial traditions and customs, how long can you hang on to those? Because things are constantly changing.
Sudden Fiction Latino: Short Short Stories from the U.S. and Latin America is the first anthology you've done with co-editors.
I first met the two editors Robert Shapard and James Thomas at [the Associated Writers and Writing Program Conference] in Austin, Texas, a few years ago. I've used their books in different courses, because they've done a whole series of sudden fiction, flash fiction anthologies for Norton. They published one of my short short stories. I was on a sudden fiction panel at that AWP, and we started talking ideas. Later we came up with the idea of combining U.S. Hispanic writers with some of the top Latin American fiction writers, because the short short form has a long tradition in Latin American literature. So the anthology features some key U.S. writers like Sandra Cisneros, Junot Díaz, with Latin American writers like Gabriel García Márquez, Borges.
It's a lot easier with co-editors. We read hundreds of stories and searched thousands of journals and books by individual writers, kept sending packets of stories back and forth, and finally narrowed it down to about 60 stories. It'll debut at AWP.