Our blog’s new “On the Books” series introduces you to writers from our growing list of Fresno State MFA alumni who are getting their first books published. The first installment profiles Yinka Rose Reed-Nolan. Her nonfiction and poetry has appeared in the journals Bloom, Brickplight, Foliate Oak, Nice, The Dying Goose, and others. She is currently a doctoral student at Binghamton University (SUNY).
In an interview this past fall, MFA communication specialist Jefferson Beavers spoke with Yinka about generating poetry in the workshop, appreciating handmade zines and books, finding professional fulfillment outside of teaching after the MFA, and building a community of writers that will last.
Jefferson: When were you in the Fresno State MFA Program?
Yinka: I started in 2010, and I graduated in 2013 in creative nonfiction.
Jefferson: Your new chapbook is a collection of poetry. Were you writing poetry while you were studying creative nonfiction at Fresno State?
Yinka: I just discovered I was a poet recently, I guess. [Laughs.] I’m currently a Ph.D. student at Binghamton University. I’m doing a Ph.D. in creative writing, and I started taking poetry workshops as part of my program here. They were very generative workshops, and somehow my poetry was good enough that it has gotten published in a few places.
Yinka: Thank you! Yes, I’ve surprised myself. I have really great professors who have been really encouraging. The generative format got me writing poetry when I probably wouldn’t have, if it were just a bring-your-poem-in and get-workshopped kind of situation.
Jefferson: What do you mean, in this case, when you say generative?
Yinka: The poetry workshops [at Binghamton] are weekend intensive. We spend most of the weekend actually writing poems from a prompt. Then usually toward the end of the weekend, everybody workshops one poem that they’ve either written the week before or that they’ve written during the workshop. So, the workshop is really writing focused, and not just critique and feedback focused.
Jefferson: That’s interesting. So, it’s like you’re writing on the spot?
Yinka: Yes. It frees up your brain, in a way. I mean, there’s a little pressure to make something amazing in thirty minutes. But there’s also pressure that you just have to write, and there’s nothing that’s going to get in the way.
Jefferson: Have you written something you think is amazing, in thirty minutes?
Yinka: Probably not, actually. [Laughs.] But there’s always that thought that it could be. You listen to everyone else’s poetry. There are people who are amazing and wonderful, and you think anything they write is going to be amazing. And it’s like, oh, I’ve got to try and live up to that.
Jefferson: You are your own worst critic, I’m sure.
Yinka: Probably so.
Jefferson: I’d like to ask you about your forthcoming poetry chapbook, First Crush, from Hyacinth Girl Press. What were your first thoughts when you learned that the chapbook was going to be published?
Yinka: It was a little bit of disbelief. A few of the poems — maybe half of them — I just wrote in the past year or so. I’ve sent them out to publications, and some of them have been rejected like 20 times. I got a flood of rejection letters from different poems. And I thought, well, if I can’t get these poems published, there’s no way the chapbook is going to get published.
I actually submitted to [Hyacinth Girl Press] the year before and had gotten a rejection. Then I thought, I’m going to try again. So I was just really excited and in disbelief when I got the email that they wanted to publish my chapbook. It was very personal. The editor said, oh I love this, I love your work. And I just thought, oh my god, wow!
Jefferson: How did you find out about Hyacinth Girl Press? What about their work seemed like a good fit for your chapbook?
Yinka: I think I found out about them through the Creative Writing Opportunities listserv, on Yahoo. A couple of years ago on there, I saw the call for submissions for a chapbook, and I had just started writing poetry at that time.
What appealed to me about the press was that they have a feminist slant. The editors are female. So it seemed like it may be a good fit. A lot of my poetry deals with gender and sexuality and those kinds of issues. Also the body and what it means to be a female, in a female body. So I thought, hey, maybe my work would be a fit with this press. And it turned out that it was, the second time through.
Jefferson: One of the things that caught my eye about their mission, in addition to identifying as a feminist press, was that they specialize in producing handmade books. Have you seen any of the books they’ve made? What are you imagining your own handmade chapbook might look like?
Yinka: I haven’t actually seen any in print, in my hands. I’ve seen a couple images that they’ve put on the website, and they look gorgeous and beautiful. A good writer friend of mine, Joel James Davis, had a handmade book published, one he co-authored. It was from a different press but it was just gorgeous, very personalized, stitched together with thread. I absolutely loved it.
It seems so unique, the idea of having a handmade book, every one slightly different. I’ve done a few things with making zines, and I’ve made a few handmade zines myself before. You know, the fancy ones.
Jefferson: It’s like a fancy zine, but this one is from a legit press.
Yinka: Yeah, I guess it’s zine to the next level. [Laughs.]
Jefferson: As an aside, what was your last zine about?
Yinka: I co-authored one with my friend, Jennafur Parks. I think our zine was Fat. That was the title of it. It was on weight and body image. We combined our two perspectives into a flip zine, so one side was hers and one side was mine. We’ve been contemplating working on another issue on relationships for a long time, but I don’t think either one of us has had time.
We are working on a literary journal project together called If and Only If, a journal of body image and eating disorders. We just put out our second issue of that right now. We’re an online journal, a small journal, but we’ve got a lot of good submissions and a lot of good writing so far that we’re excited to get out there.
Jefferson: The DIY zine spirit comes through in other ways, right?
Yinka: Yes. I think the MFA Program at Fresno State really helped me, you know, go beyond zines. I worked on The Normal School literary magazine for a while. Also Spectrum, the youth journal for the Young Writers’ Conference. Kind of getting that inside knowledge about how publishing works, it inspired me to go and do my own thing. That really made it possible to make it bigger than just me and my friend writing our own stuff. Now I’m finding other writers to publish as well.
Jefferson: I’m always curious, as a fellow alumnus of an MFA program, about what work people are doing to make a living.
Yinka: That’s always the challenge, right?
Jefferson: Definitely. I know you’re doing the online journal. And you’re a Ph.D. student, so I imagine you have some support from that, yes?
Yinka: I was a funded Ph.D. student going in. I’ve spent the past two years teaching at Binghamton University as a TA, teaching composition and other literature classes. I recently decided to give up my funding to move back home to California. New York for me was a very cold and faraway place, and I wanted to be with my family. And coursework was complete.
So right now I actually have a job with an organization called East Bay Innovations. I’m an independent living skills instructor. So I work with about eight clients with developmental disabilities. We do independent living stuff. I teach them how to do grocery shopping, money management. We help with housing issues, those kinds of things. Just supporting them in everyday things that they might not be able to do on their own, but it will help them to be able to be independent in their own homes.
Jefferson: That’s different than doing the teaching writing thing.
Yinka: Yes, it’s teaching but in a different way. Less book work, more real-life experiences. But I’ve always wanted to make a different in people’s lives. Writing is one way for me to do that. But I realized that perhaps teaching isn’t quite as fulfilling as I’d hoped it would be. So I think this is kind of moving me in a different direction, more toward human services work. But I really enjoy it. I feel like I’m making a difference. And I’m getting a lot of great stories and ideas to maybe write about one day.
Jefferson: Would you mind saying a bit more about teaching not being as fulfilling as you’d hoped it would be?
Yinka: Sure. Maybe it’s just that I had some bad experiences teaching. But I feel like in higher education, especially as a graduate student, you can be kind of a grading monkey. You’ve got to do what everyone else is telling you to do. You can’t really deviate from the curriculum.
And, I mean, I feel personally that I am a fair grader, but what about effort? Someone comes into a class and they’re a horrible writer but they try super hard. They come see me for office hours, you know, show me multiple drafts. And at the end, they’re still not a great writer, but they’ve improved. I’m inclined to give them that B or that A because they’ve worked really hard, but I’ve been in some situations where I’ve actually been told to lower the grade. Because no, you can’t give this person that grade because their writing’s not good enough. But you know, they tried so hard, they came so far. Maybe it just never is going to be that good. So I found grading to be a struggle for me, fairness, and hearing what other people think I should do.
Jefferson: Yes, evaluation is often the hardest part of it, especially for grad student TAs or adjunct faculty.
Yinka: Yes. I love making connections with students. But sometimes you don’t get to make those connections as well as you’d like, because there’s so many students. Sometimes you do make great connections, and then it feels like you’re backstabbing the student at the end when they get that B or that C. …
And there’s even just the instability in the market [for getting teaching work]. I have so many amazing friends who have books and they have years of teaching experience but they just can’t get a job because there are so many people looking for teaching positions, the full-time ones. Everyone else is moving to get adjunct [work]. So it can be hard and frustrating. You’ve got to go work at like five different colleges just to, you know, pay your rent.
Jefferson: Getting back to your time at Fresno State, and the idea of getting a glimpse during your time in the MFA Program of what publishing work or other non-teaching work might be like. What about your experience here has stuck with you?
Yinka: Even beyond the publishing side of things that I got from Fresno State, I think the one thing that really sticks out to me the most about my experience is just the amazing people that I met. I’m still friends with so many people from the MFA, and I can’t say that about any other school or university or program that I’ve attended.
And now I’m trying to include my friends from the MFA into some of the projects that I’m working on. I have a couple of fellow MFA graduates who are helping me read for my own literary journal that I started. And I’ve published a couple of Fresno friends too. I love being able to do that and have that kind of ongoing relationship with writers.
My favorite thing was the Young Writers’ Conference. That was a great experience. I loved working with the high school students. It gave me more experience with that, allowing me to see that I’m actually passionate about that population, adolescents, and I’d like to work more with them in the future. And of course, [working on] The Normal School and the Philip Levine Prize in Poetry were good, getting the insight into publishing.
But yes, the big thing would be community, having a community of writers. I never felt like I really had that before. And I feel like I still have that, after the MFA.
Jefferson: What do you think makes that community at Fresno State? Or at least, what made it a community for you?
Yinka: This might sound a little cheesy, but one thing I feel like really makes it very different from the program I’m in now, for example, is actually the listserv. You know, when someone gets published, the news goes out there and everyone congratulates them. In the current program I’m in [at Binghamton] we send out publication notices but half the time people don’t even want to submit their publications because it feels like no one cares. And I felt like at Fresno State, people really cared. They supported each other, you know?
If I saw something on a listserv somewhere else, and I knew someone’s writing would fit this call for submissions, I’d be like, hey, I just saw this awesome call for submissions, you should really submit this essay you worked on in workshop. Or, you know, I know your writing deals with these issues, there’s a press out there looking for this stuff. Maybe you should send some of your work. I’ve definitely had people do that for me.
I just think that wanting everybody to get published and to succeed as much as possible is really what made the Fresno State community seem strong.
Jefferson: What about your time in the Fresno State MFA Program might you have done differently?
Yinka: I probably wish I would have gotten out of my own way a little more. I am my own worst critic, and probably every writer is. But sometimes that definitely got in the way of me writing things and sharing things in workshop. If I could have just taken down some of my own roadblocks and been like, I’m going to write my own honest truth and put it out there and not be so afraid. Even if it sucks, I’m going to get great feedback and make it better. I probably would have put out some genre writing, or maybe have even had more of a book by now.
Jefferson: Are there any specific examples of getting out of your own way that you’d be willing to share?
Yinka: I don’t know if I have any specific examples. But I will say that, although I really enjoyed workshop, I think every time it was time to workshop an essay, I would write three or four different pieces, get halfway through and then just throw them in the trash because I thought that they were so awful.
You know, Fresno State has a wonderful selection of writers, some of the best writers out there, really. So I was always kind of comparing myself to other people in the class and what they’ve written, and feeling like, oh, this person came up with an amazing essay last week and oh, mine is going to be so horrible. I did a lot of self comparison, and I think that’s bad. I got in my own way.
Jefferson: Do you think that you still do that?
Yinka: Not all the time! Only in workshops. [Laughs.] I love workshops, but I hate workshops.
Jefferson: Beyond the workshop, what is your next writing project, and what are you working on now?
Yinka: I’m trying to work on — I don’t know what to call it. Maybe I’ll leave that to the publisher, if it ever gets published. But I’m working on a bit of a family history. So I’m taking a look at my grandmother and her two sisters, and I’m trying to write their stories as a narrative. So it’s kind of true, but it’s also fiction because I’m writing from their perspectives. I guess it’s kind of a hybrid piece.
It’s basically about three young Black women, growing up in the 1940s and 1950s in a small Midwest town. And it’s about the things that affected their community, and also their own perspectives on family. There are a lot of issues surrounding men in the community, you know. Finding a good man. One sister is abused by her husband, and she’s actually having an affair. Another sister, she just really wants to be good, wants to be perfect, but she can’t get it together. So she actually turns toward drinking.
And then there’s my grandmother, who I kind of see everything through. She’s the one who feels like she’s committed to the family and she’s trying to make things work. So it’s about all of them are coming of age in their own way, and it’s how they leave and come back together to make a family.
Jefferson: Since your story is set in the 1940s and ’50s, right on the eve of the Civil Rights Movement but before it, is there a challenge in telling this story without sort of complicating it with what came afterward?
Yinka: I’ve really been asking my mom a lot of questions about what it was like to grow up in that time. And I’ve been surprised that she said that their town really wasn’t that bad. You know, it was segregated, Blacks lived on one side and Whites lived on the other. But she was just telling me about they would have festivals, like Festival of the Forks, and how everyone was together. It was a time when, you know, they tolerated each other. So, it was not as bad as it was in some other areas.
So, I was kind of going in expecting to write more about [racial] tensions, and it’s turning out not to have as many overtones and tension in there as I would have expected. I’m trying to keep it really true to their experiences. But you know, as I said, it’s fiction in a way, so I may try to add some other stuff in there. Do some research, perhaps, about how it was in some other Midwest towns, to give it even more of an air of the time.
I’m really glad that I have my mom to tell me about all this stuff. I love listening to her stories and just kind of filing them away. I’ve been doing that for a while, so now I’m trying to get those stories out.
Jefferson Beavers works as the communication specialist for the creative writing program. He is a former journalist, and he is an alumnus of the program in creative nonfiction.