In conversation: Brynn Saito


As part of the College of Arts and Humanities blog series on new faces in the college, we will introduce you to three accomplished professors and authors who are joining the Department of English and the Master of Fine Arts Program in Creative Writing for academic year 2018-19.

First up: Brynn Saito, poetry, in conversation with MFA communication specialist Jefferson Beavers.

What are you most looking forward to, teaching at Fresno State?

The students, most definitely. In 2015, I had an opportunity to visit Fresno State for WordFest, and I had a wonderful time with the inquisitive, diverse, and incredibly fierce student community of writers. I’m excited to be back.

I grew up in Fresno, and I graduated from Buchanan High School in Clovis. My parents met at Fresno State, my grandmother finished her degree here, and my grandfather worked in the library—what a family legacy! I always envisioned one day returning here—after nearly two decades away—to be a part of the Central Valley’s rich literary ecosystem. Fresno State has made that a possibility, and I’m honored to be joining the teaching and learning community this fall.

Your second poetry collection, Power Made Us Swoon, was published in April 2016 by Red Hen Press. What are the themes of your collection, and what about the book makes you the most proud?

This second book, more so than my first, reckons with the landscapes and histories that made me, and made my family. The story of the WWII-era Japanese American incarceration figures prominently in the collection, as the speakers attempt to understand that event and its afterlife. A woman warrior appears throughout the book, practicing her bravery in mundane spaces like bars and bedrooms and traffic jams. I suppose the book is interested in the powerful myths and historical energies that weave through the fabric of our everyday lives. We forget about those forces so easily, but they’re as present as the air we breathe.

What are your teaching specialties? How did you become involved with those areas?

Besides teaching the art and craft of poetry writing, I also have an interest in poetics, literary theory, community-based poetry and art-making, poetry and politics, and ecopoetry.

I have an interdisciplinary background: My first teaching assistant job was in an introductory Buddhism class in NYU’s religious studies department (many years ago!). I was—and continue to be—interested in the social forces that shape us (religion, politics, power), as well as how we make sense of our worlds (I studied philosophy in college). I often bring that critical, interdisciplinary lens to the teaching and writing of poetry.

For many years, I taught in a Bachelor of Arts completion program with a pedagogy inspired by teachers like Paolo Freire and bell hooks. For me, education is the practice of freedom (in hooks’ words) and poetry-writing is an alchemical art that liberates, expands thoughts and hearts. Potentially! And, my recent work with Central Valley farmer and artist, Nikiko Masumoto, and the Yonsei Memory Project—as well as recent teaching-and-learning intensives in Chiapas, Mexico—has shown me the transformative power of community-based, arts-inspired education in spaces outside of the formal academy.

How do you hope your background will elevate the English Department’s offerings at Fresno State?

Growing up in Fresno, I turned, again and again, to the poets and writers hailing from our region—Sherley Anne Williams, Philip Levine, Lawson Inada, Juan Felipe Herrera—in order to make sense of my life, my family, our struggles and joys. I hope to do all I can to champion the English Department—and the larger University—as a place that’s actively nurturing the ecosystem of Valley writers and artists.

I suppose I’ve considered myself—and have become, over the years—someone who builds bridges: between communities, within the classroom space, within disciplines, and between the community and the academy. I hope to bring that collaborative, experimental, community-building spirit to Fresno State’s Creative Writing Program. And, I greatly look forward to learning from the English Department’s students, staff, and faculty, as I deepen my own practices as a writer, teacher, and leader.

What are you reading right now?

A few books and journals are stacked on my bedside table at the moment: Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of PlantsProfessionals of Hope: The Selected Writings of Subcomandante Marcos; and Danez Smith’s new book of poems, Don’t Call Us Dead.

What is a book you think everyone should read, and why?

Adrienne Rich’s What is Found There: Notebooks on Politics and Poetry transformed how I think about poetry’s place in the social world. Her essays gave me a new understanding of what a poem is doing—its power, possibilities.

A poem isn’t a philosophical blueprint, Rich says. It’s “an instrument for embodied experience” that can “uncover desires and appetites buried under the accumulating emergencies of our lives.” I love that! A poem isn’t a dead thing; it’s an experience. It’s alive. It can reveal and uncover in us—in our culture—truths that need to be surfaced, heard.

What’s a fun fact people may not know about you?

I’ve been skydiving! I can’t believe I actually jumped out of a plane hovering at 13,000 feet—over two miles—above land. Remembering that fact confounds me now. I’ve also learned martial arts from Korean mountain monks in the dead of winter. That fact also confounds me.

What are your fall 2018 office hours?

My office hours will be held on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 11:15 a.m. to 1:45 p.m., and by appointment, in PB 447.

In this series:
Aug. 20—Brynn Saito
Aug. 27—Venita Blackburn
Sept. 4—Joseph Cassara
Joining us Fall 2019—Mai Der Vang

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