celeste doaks | Guest Writer for MFA Program
Hood’s creative writing MFA program welcomes celeste doaks as guest writer for June 2024 residency.
- Creative Writing (MFA)
- English & Communication Arts
celeste doaks is the author of Cornrows and Cornfields (Wrecking Ball Press, 2015) and editor of the poetry anthology Not Without Our Laughter (Mason Jar Press, 2017). Her award-winning chapbook, American Herstory (Backbone Press, 2019), contains ekphrastic poems that have been featured at the Whitney Museum of American Art and Brooklyn Museum. doaks is a 2022 Yaddo fellow and has taught for more than a decade. Her work has appeared in Ms. Magazine, The Millions, Huffington Post, Chicago Quarterly Review, The Rumpus, The Hopkins Review and others. She received her MFA from North Carolina State University and has held teaching positions at East Carolina University, Morgan State University, Stevenson University, Fairfield University and the University of Delaware.
Starting in summer 2024, doaks will serve as a guest writer for the new low-residency MFA in creative writing at Hood College. In the conversation below, she discusses how politics and humor play a role in her writing and the wide range of professional opportunities available for students pursuing a degree in creative writing.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Tell us about your background. How did you come to writing life?
I never imagined that I would have this life. I came from a very working-class family, and I was always told to go to college and get a degree that would yield me a paying job, which I did. My first degree was in communications; and although I was writing the entire time, I worked in television production for some years before I ever started making the transition to creative writing and going back to school to become a professor. I love media, but writing has been the consistent thing in my life.
What eventually led me into writing (and getting my graduate degree) is that my friends would always look at my work, or I’d go to an open mic and read something, and they’d say, “That’s great. Did you send it out?” And I’d say, “Nah, that’s not really my thing.” Then, on a friend’s challenge, I applied to Atlantic Center of the Arts, which is a writing retreat in New Smyrna Beach, Florida. I didn’t think I was going to be accepted; they had around 80 applicants, and they were picking only six people to spend three weeks with Sharon Olds. Then I got the confirmation back that I’d been selected, and I think that was the beginning of the end.
Your work often deals with race, gender and politics. How do these urgent topics inform your writing?
For me, the personal is political, meaning that your everyday life is intertwined with politics. Everything from whether you get a stoplight put at the end of your street, access to clean water, and how resources are distributed—it’s all political—and it all has to do with your life. I’ve never directly thought of myself as a political writer; however, I do think politics is always intrinsic to my story and other people’s stories that I tell. You can’t separate them from what is going on in America—but you are right, race, gender, politics, all those things get wrapped into my work because writing about my story is going to involve some form of politics, whether people want to admit it or not.
You frequently bring a sense of humor to your writing. Why is it important to have a sense of humor, even when discussing heavy topics?
Humor has always been important to me. One of my collections, Not Without Our Laughter, which is a poetry collection featuring six Black women authors, was a labor of joy. It was fun to say, “There’s humor in things like sexuality or music. Why can’t we put all this into a collection?” I think people often assume that poetry has to be so dour, but I don’t look at it that way because that’s not who I am. Allen Ginsberg once said, “Your poetry should reflect how you would talk to your loved ones.” If I write like I talk, and I’m a humorous person when I talk to people in real life, why wouldn’t you see some of that in my poetry? The ability to laugh at oneself is what gets you through life, so why not put that in poetry?
What inspired your latest collection American Herstory, which is about Michelle Obama?
I have always been interested in Michelle’s upbringing from a fairly working-class family, all the way up to Ivy League schools and becoming the first African American First Lady of the country. I think that’s a very American story: a family raising a child and giving them everything they had and that child going on to do great things. That’s why the title is American Herstory because she’s not separate from the long lineage of First Ladies. I think sometimes people draw too many boundaries about race, gender or politics, when we’re all going through a very human experience, and the human experience is one that poets reflect in their work all the time.
Being African American, being female, identity politics are important to me, but I also think it’s important for people to not see themselves as separate. People in your family get sick, people die. If you’re human, you’re going to share these things like heartache, disappointment or discrimination. Even for those who are not African American, discrimination happens across socioeconomic lines, so these topics aren’t isolated to Michelle or to me.
What are your goals for your time as a guest writer at Hood?
A lot of American Herstory has ekphrastic work in it, which is poetry about visual art. I’m very much in a phase where that is a current topic of interest, so I’m hoping to explore that here. Being able to use visual art as a jumping off point or as inspiration can offer students a way to get outside of their own perspectives. When you’re looking at artwork, if you’re looking at Monet, for example, you’re forced to ask, “What was he interested in? What’s going on here?” as opposed to always turning the lens on yourself. You’re going to come into the conversation because there’s a reason why you’re drawn to the artwork. I’m also interested in speculative literature or Afrofuturism in contemporary poetry. I think some of that is showing up in my new collection that, hopefully, will be done by the end of this year.
What are the benefits of the low-res MFA model?
I come from a traditional brick and mortar MFA, and I have worked at traditional four-year colleges, but my recent teaching positions at Hood and Fairfield University are low-residency programs. I love the idea of students who have a deep interest in creative writing having the ability to learn the craft without the tether of needing to physically be there and go to classes all the time. I feel like it can provide a closer relationship between mentor and mentee. You’re getting to know this person one-on-one. You’re sending your work, you’re corresponding, and although it can be at a distance, you’re connecting.
I think it’s a wonderful model, especially for people who don’t have the resources to be able to leave their job. They are able to get this degree that they’re passionate about, but they don’t have to move across the country. Low-residency programs give those people a viable option. You can focus and hone your craft because the low-residency model is a more targeted and intimate experience, and it still gives you the same results as a traditional MFA. Having that flexibility adds to the richness of the MFA experience because you have people from different cultures, backgrounds and age groups. You have all of those layers of experiences coming together, and that definitely adds to a classroom; it adds to creative writing in general.
Do you have any advice on how students can leverage their creative talents toward careers?
English and creative writing are a base for a lot of things. You can take a degree in creative writing and go anywhere. For me, as I have developed over the years since getting my degree, I have started to look at myself as a Writer with a capital W. Yes, I’m a poet, and I will always think of myself as a poet first, but I’ve written all kinds of things, whether they be essays or academic articles or reviews.
When you get an MFA and realize you have the ability to bring an interesting perspective to anything you write, then you can get hired to do anything. Writing can be parlayed into many professions. For the past year and a half, I’ve been doing copywriting for a financial investment firm, but I also still hold positions in academia. There are so many possibilities—students could work in advertising, communications, newspapers or publishing. It’s so important for students to know that they have a wide range of options.
Learn more about celeste at her website.