"There is a Hunger for Stories in Our City": Why Grub is Holding Classes Write Down the Street
This fall, GrubStreet is thrilled to announce a new neighborhood initiative, Write Down the Street/Autores de la Vuelta, which brings free creative writing sessions to branches of the Boston Public Library in Dorchester and Roxbury. Marketing and Community Engagement Manager Sarah Colwill-Brown sat down with Jennifer De Leon and Denise Delgado, Grub instructors and Neighborhood Program Fellows, to chat about the future of the program and why it matters.
We’re really proud to announce that you’re joining the Grub staff as Neighborhood Program Fellows. Can you tell us more about this new role, and what you’ll be doing?
JDL: Thank you! I’m thrilled to continue my creative work with GrubStreet, especially during what makes my tenth year as a GrubStreet member. I’ll be designing curriculum for the Write Down the Street program, teaching classes at the Boston Public Library (Grove Hall branch in Dorchester), recruiting participants, and working within communities to create opportunities to share work—readings, anthologies, blog posts, etc. Basically, we’re bringing Grub “down the street” into different pockets of Boston. I’m really excited.
DD: And I'm so proud to be joining Grub staff as a Neighborhood Program Fellow! I’m really excited to be working closely with Jenn, and with Jonathan Escoffery, Grub’s Programs and Advocacy Manager, who are both fabulous, to develop infrastructure for the program. I'm also helping build relationships with library staff, neighboring community organizations and schools, and aspiring writers. Starting very soon I'll be teaching one-off and multi-week bilingual (English/Spanish) creative writing workshops at Egleston Square Branch Library. I’ll be giving feedback, offering suggestions, and helping connect new writers to scholarships and other opportunities at GrubStreet.
What experience are you bringing to the role, and to the classroom?
JDL: For over ten years I have worked as an author, a teacher in Boston Public Schools, a public speaker, a college access counselor in Roxbury, a GrubStreet Memoir Project instructor in Jamaica Plain (in English and Spanish), and most recently, as the Boston Public Library’s Writer-in-Residence. Last year my short story, “Home Movie,” was selected as the Boston Book Festival’s One City, One Story and distributed to 30,000 city residents. I have also published an award-winning anthology, Wise Latinas: Writers on Higher Education, which shares the untold stories of our community in order to inspire social change. It would be a great honor to continue my work as a writer and educator determined to build empathy through storytelling.
DD: This work is really close to my heart. I have been doing community-based work as a teaching artist/writer, arts administrator and curator for most of the last eighteen years. For six years I worked for the Miami-Dade Public Library System running a program (for forty nine library branches!) a bit like Write Down the Street, but with neighborhood-based exhibitions and art installations. I love public libraries. Even the barest branches can be mythologically magical places for writers. And I've taught writing and literature for Miami-Dade College, Florida International University, YoungArts, Emerson College, and GrubStreet.
Last year I started an ongoing public art and oral history project, Bodega Signs + Wonders, with Egleston Square Main Street. As part of this project I facilitated a series of free, bilingual creative writing workshops at the Egleston Square Branch Library. A lot of writers of color and Spanish speakers in particular came out. That experience showed me there was a real need in Boston for more writing spaces geared towards people who are underrepresented in traditional writing workshops.
I am also a first-generation college graduate. I spend most of my time around people who are not part of a literary community. I get it when people come into a writing workshop unsure of whether it’s legit for them to be there or not. I’m pretty obsessed with removing or challenging those aspects of lit culture and education that can make it exclusive. I feel obligated to!
What's your vision for the future of this program?
JDL: Short(ish) term? I would love to see Grub stretch beyond its current borders. To have people walking through the elevator doors on the 5th floor of 162 Boylston Street represent all Boston neighborhoods. Long term? To see more diversity in publishing.
DD: My vision comes out, in part, of conversations that were happening here at Grub before I even joined in. But I would love to see more creative writing communities grow up around public libraries not only in Roxbury and Dorchester but also East Boston, Brighton, Mattapan, Roslindale, Hyde Park—each with their own particular vibe and sensibility. Bilingual workshops in multiple languages, depending on the community. There are already thriving, inclusive literary and spoken word communities in parts of Boston. I’d love to see us joining forces with them more for readings and projects. I’m also aware of how isolating it can be as a writer to be a parent of small children or to take care of family members who are elderly or have disabilities. We’re not there yet, but I would love to see us experiment with the workshop format to make it possible for more caregivers and working people to participate. Childcare is expensive and a lot of folks just can’t do it. And finally, this program is a pathway for Grub itself to grow and change.
Why does it matter?
JDL: There is a hunger for stories in our city. I have witnessed this at the readings and workshops I have given at numerous area universities, including UMASS Boston, where I earned my MFA. I have seen it among the youth I helped develop a book project with at 826 Boston, when leading poetry workshops at the Boston Public Library, and when helping senior citizens tell their stories for Grub Street’s Memoir Project. These experiences testify to the power of storytelling as a vehicle for promoting social justice. Through stories, we are able to access multiple points of view, experiences, and ideas. I would love to weave my interests—writing, teaching, editing, and performing—in order to help Boston share our diverse voices in a transformative way.
DD: There is nothing new about neighborhood writing workshops from the perspective that art is transformative for people and communities. We will always need more spaces where ordinary people can come together to make meaning of what is happening in the world and in their lives. But it is also a two-way process of change and growth. Literary culture as a whole needs to change. Creative writing pedagogy needs to change. I had amazing teachers in my MFA program, but as a Latina writer I’ve really missed guidance or mentorship relevant to the places where the cultural stuff I’m writing about intersects with craft. Or publishing. And this experience is common among writers of color. It’s getting better, but there are still too many voices being excluded from the literary conversation and our culture is poorer for it. Even at GrubStreet, which is this incredibly thoughtful, intentional place created as a warm, welcoming, rigorous alternative to the university, we suffer from this condition: most writing workshops do not reflect the cultural or class makeup of Boston. And that is symptomatic of a problem with U.S. literary culture as a whole. This program is a step toward changing that by knocking down some barriers. We acknowledge that we need to transform ourselves. Our literature needs it!
Jennifer De Leon is the winner of the 2011 Fourth Genre Michael Steinberg Essay Prize. Her stories and essays have appeared in Ploughshares, Brevity, Ms., Briar Cliff Review, Poets & Writers, Guernica, The Best Women’s Travel Writing 2010, and elsewhere. She has published author interviews in Granta and Agni, and she has been awarded scholarships and residencies from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Hedgebrook, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Vermont Studio Center, Blue Mountain Center, and the Sandra Cisneros Macondo Writers’ Workshop. The editor of the anthology, Wise Latina: Writers on Higher Education, she is also working on a memoir and a novel.
Denise Delgado is a writer, artist and curator. Her fiction and critical work have appeared in Inch, Hinchas de Poesía, Jai-Alai Magazine, Fiction Writers Review, the monograph for Frances Trombly: Paintings; and Tigertail, A South Florida Annual: Florida Flash, among others. Since 2010 she has organized the Free School for Writing, a modular, itinerant classroom for literary craft talks and workshops. She was a Fellow of the Honors College of Florida International University and Writer-in-Residence for Girls’ Club, a South Florida exhibition space and private foundation dedicated to women in contemporary art. She is the recipient of grants from New England Foundation for the Arts, Alternate ROOTS/The Ford Foundation, and Tigertail Productions’ Artist Access Program. Delgado received an MA in Media Studies from The New School and an MFA in fiction from Warren Wilson College. She is currently at work on A Wig in the Duplex, a collection of short stories set in Florida.
Colwill is an instructor and manuscript consultant at GrubStreet, an associate editor at Bat City Review, and an MFA candidate at the University of Texas at Austin. After graduating a scholarship awardee of GrubStreet’s Novel Incubator program, Colwill found representation for her first novel, Before We Tear Our Selves Apart, with Robert Guinsler of Sterling Lord Literistic, which is currently on submission to publishing houses. She is the recipient of the Wellspring House Emerging Writer Fellowship, the Henry Blackwell Essay Prize, and a Crawley-Garwood Research Grant, and has received fellowships and support from Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, The University of Texas at Austin, Boston College, Kansas State University, the Anderson Center for Disciplinary Studies, and GrubStreet. She was a finalist for the 2019 Tennessee Williams Fiction Prize, the 2019 Reynolds Price Award, the 2019 Far Horizons Fiction Award, the 2019 Disquiet International Literary Prize, and the 2019 Lit Fest Emerging Writer Fellowship. Colwill’s fiction is forthcoming in Granta and is anthologized in Everywhere Stories: Short Fiction from a Small Planet (Press 53). She has served on the editorial team for Post Road magazine, The Conium Review, Solstice Literary Magazine, and Pangyrus magazine. Colwill is a founding member of the Back Porch Collective, a Boston-based group of writers. With members connected to Cuba, India, Albania, Atlanta, Bosnia, Miami, Jamaica, and the UK, they bonded over a common passion for global narratives and literature’s potential to create empathy and understanding across all geographical, political, and cultural borders. Hailing from Yorkshire, in the north of England, Colwill is determined to introduce the word “sozzard” to the American vernacular. For a full list of publications, projects, and services, please visit colwillbrown.com.See other articles by Colwill Brown