On the Books: Brian Dunlap

When did you attend the Fresno State MFA program, and what genre did you study?

I attended Fresno State from 2010-2013 to study fiction.

What were your first thoughts when you learned that your poetry chapbook, Concrete Paradise, would be published?

Surprise and disbelief, because I’d only sent my manuscript out to four or five publishers in the six months since I began the submissions process. Plus, I thought it was ironic that my first book was a book of poems, considering I always wrote fiction and dreamed of publishing novels, and for most of my life had avoided poetry altogether.

Any reasons why you “avoided poetry altogether” for most of your life? Did Fresno poetics seep into your prose anyway while you were in the MFA program?

I was introduced to poetry in grade school in the traditional way, with Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” and several other poems that felt, at least to me, like highly traditional academic poems. That initially turned me off of poetry because the themes and ideas the poets were talking about did not seem relevant or important to me.

No, I don’t think Fresno poetics seeped into my prose. However, when I started reading poetry, it was Fresno poetry I began with because so much of it is about place—who lives in the Central Valley, how do they live, and the importance place plays in these poets lives and in the lives of the people they write about—which was something I could relate to being a writer of place myself.

Did parts of your poetry chapbook grow out of your Fresno State MFA thesis manuscript, a novel called Amongst Waves? What does the future hold for Amongst Waves? 

My thesis was a novel I keep saying I’ll return to and finish. I do hope to publish it one day. So my thesis didn’t evolve into my chapbook. However, since Amongst Waves is set in Los Ángeles, it did give me plenty of practice with the language of L.A. and how to describe it—what it looks like, how it feels, how it shapes its residents’ lives—that helped me to write my chapbook. I began to hone how I understood L.A. and how my friends understood L.A., which I was able to borrow from and expand upon.

How did you land your publishing deal with Finishing Line Press, and what about their work is a good fit for your chapbook?

I submitted my chapbook to the Finishing Line Press chapbook contest. Going into the submissions process, they were the first press I knew that published chapbooks. Actually, their chapbook Bearing the Juice of It All, by Long Beach poet Nancy Lynée Woo, is the first chapbook I ever owned. And I knew they were a respected press by their reputation.

How did you decide on your chapbook’s title?

It took me a long time to come up with the title Concrete Paradise. I got completely stuck on Beyond Palm Fronds and Sunshine, then Beyond These Asphalt Streets. I wanted a title that illustrates that the chapbook is about L.A. and explores the city completely, beyond the stereotypes it’s famous for. I kept trying out different words, all titles seemingly starting with the word “beyond,” until I stumbled upon Concrete Paradise, which said my chapbook is exploring L.A. beyond the stereotypes without actually saying it. Without being obvious. Then I knew I couldn’t come up with a better title.

In the foreword to your MFA thesis, you described yourself as a writer of place, and your chapbook has been called “a love letter to Los Angeles.” How has L.A. shaped you as a writer, as you the writer have shaped L.A. in your writing?

L.A. has shaped me as a writer and a person in too many ways to count. Ironically, I’m currently working on an essay that explores a version of this question. I think about the life experiences I’ve had because I’ve lived nearly all my life (except college and grad school) in L.A. For example, how my first girlfriend was a Chicana from Inglewood, and how I entered and experienced her world. The friends I’ve made and the literary community I’m a part of, all stem from how incredibly diverse the city is: Taiwanese, black, Salvadoran, Filipino, Chicano, Armenian, Asian, etc. All this and more has shaped how I understand the world (I can’t forget L.A.’s history) and the themes, ideas, and stories that I write about.

That’s why my chapbook explores the intersection of race and place in L.A. As such, I try to capture L.A. as it is now, as real and as accurately as I can, through my understanding of the city and its residents and communities. Like the example I gave at the end of my poem “Shaped by Its Streets:”

            Born and raised in Los Ángeles,
            I’ve been shaped by its streets.
Its patchwork quilt
                        gifting me a night with friends,
            embarrassing ourselves
                        at Kelly’s house
                                    to the K-pop version
                                                Just Dance.


With so many diverse literary voices in L.A. what writing communities do you feel most comfortable in there?

I found it incredibly easy to become engaged with the L.A. poetry community in general because of the simple fact that I could attend open mics and connect with local poets. It was easier. Plus, I was already a person who supported writers of color with the literature I read. Since Luis J. Rodriguez is such an important L.A. literary figure, I wanted to support his bookstore and cultural center, Tia Chucha’s, and I found out they hosted an open mic every other Friday. After I began writing poetry that was the first open mic I read at.

Plus, when I was attending Fresno State I needed to read more writing about L.A. to expand my knowledge of how to write about the city. In doing so, I stumbled across L.A. author Mike ‘The Poet’ Sonksen’s KCET.org column about the L.A. literary community, with a focus on the poetry scene, where he discussed its history, its writers past and present, different open mics, etc., diving into the diverse sections of the community. He was my first introduction to any part of the L.A. literary community.

Outside of writing poetry, what work are you doing to earn a living?

Occasionally I run my workshop “Los Angeles: Your City,” at various venues around L.A. This workshop gets students to explore who and what L.A. is through its history, literature, and photos and films that depict L.A. Then students write their own L.A. stories.

Otherwise, I’m between jobs at the moment.

What kind of job would you like to have?

Ultimately I would love to teach creative writing and English at a community college, then go from there. For two years I worked at the Graduate Writing Institute for Excellence at Cal State Dominguez Hills as a writing coordinator, where I tutored grad students in academic writing, created and ran writing workshops on different elements of the academic writing process for students, and helped create their tutor training program.

So, I am passionate about education as it pertains to literature and writing. That is why I’ll continue to run my workshop “Los Angeles: Your City” and my related one on how to write the literature of place in general called “Your Place,” from time to time.

What about your MFA experience at Fresno State has stuck with you?

What has stuck with me about my MFA experience at Fresno State is that my two fiction professors, Alex Espinoza and Randa Jarrar, are writers of color, which is rare in the MFA world, as the vast majority of professors are white. Just that gift, of being exposed to the literary world and writing through the perspectives of writers of color, as well as the diversity of writers and literature I was exposed to, that I otherwise might not have known about or explored.

[Alex now directs the MFA creative writing program at Cal State L.A.]

Plus, Alex’s Other Writers class. It was a survey class on various literatures of color: Chicano, Asian American, Hawaiian, African American, Native American, etc. I already liked literature written by writers of color because their perspectives, and their themes and ideas are about the important subjects and stories we as a society never talk about or talk about openly and honestly—racism, African American history, Chicano history, etc.—but desperately need to do. In Alex’s class we explored the use of tropes, cultural markers, the danger of the Single Story, language, etc., enabling me to understand these stories and their importance much better. Because of that, the class helped shape what I write about and how I write about it. This experience helped shape me and my writing, and were influences on my work, that enabled me to write about the subjects, stories and issues (how people are attached to a place, etc.) found in all my writing.

I also can’t forget my peers in the program. Those who pushed me to be a better writer and allowed me to push them, and our entire time together, especially my friend Feroz Rather. I had so many good conversations with him about life and writing.

What’s your next writing project?

I told myself I’d return to my thesis/novel once I finished my chapbook. Instead, I’ve worked on poems, book reviews, a couple of essays I’m attempting to publish, and finished a short story set in South Central L.A. I’ve grown passionate about ideas that work better in the various short forms. And yet, I still plan to return to Amongst Waves.


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