In Class with Professor Rachelle Linda Escamilla
A primary mission of Frontier is to provide high quality resources and practical help for serious poets—so we’ve been reaching out to poetry professors to help give clarity to this strange journey and stranger craft. This month, we got the chance to hear from Rachelle Linda Escamilla, Professor at CSU Monterey.
Who were your early influences/role models (if any) in terms of teaching creative writing?
Rachelle Linda Escamilla: When I think about influences for creative writing, I don’t really think about professors or scholars or even poets — I think of my mother, her mother, my tías and cousins in the kitchen eating or making tamales. How their laughter fills up the room when they tell the same story they’ve always told; or how my mom will lean into her sister and bump when she says something she doesn’t like; or how my cousins will roll their eyes as they walk by. Creative Writing to me is just a colonized version of that table — it requires alterations of language and ideas for the sake of genre and publications. Creative Writing rarely speaks to its history, or its stolen aesthetic: orality. I learned to write poetry while my mom and I cleaned houses; I learned illocution through the speaking in tongues of the Evangelical church; I learned sonics from the sound of the straw broom on our linoleum floors while mom brushed the dirt from our shack at the end of an alley in a rural town in California.
What is the most common piece of writing advice you find yourself giving your students?
If you want to write about your toes in the sand, you best have your toes in the sand. If you want to write about the story of a culture, you best be from that culture. If you want to have any kind of voice, you have to find your voice. If you want to write among the writers you admire, you must emulate their writing. Writing isn’t merely a flow of ideas, it’s a meticulous gathering and a translation from reality to words.
What are some of the unique benefits and challenges of teaching creative writing at the undergraduate level?
Students of color or students from poverty do not have the luxury of writing for themselves. I find that one of the biggest challenges is that the academic world kills the true voice of these students for the sake of grades and proper grammar. It eschews their unique perspective, their phonetic spelling, their cultural dialects, their experiences, all to produce a uniformed language that is dealt down from a system of white supremacy. The challenges of the students I teach is that they do not have proper access to basic needs like housing, food and health care. They lack stability, so their work must be rushed or they find themselves choosing the path of academia in hopes that they can secure a future, which is, ultimately, a lie. The benefits of teaching in this neoliberal system is that the students I do teach are beautiful and talented and have so much life and story despite our collapsing world. And that gives me hope.
What advice do you have for poets who plan to pursue teaching creative writing?
If you’re a poet of color or a poet from poverty the world of academic creative writing will force you to become something that you are not and when you do not comply, you will be punished by having gates shut. If you’re a poet, just be a poet. Do I sound jaded? Lol.
What’s the best thing about teaching poetry and creative writing?
The paycheck. But it’s not much and it’s not very stable. When I graduated with my degree, my dad said “this is why I worked jobs I hated, so you don’t have to” — I don’t hate my job, thank you dad. I just wish it wasn’t so riddled with landmines.
Rachelle Linda Escamilla is a Chicana poet, playwright, and PR manager from the Central Coast of California. Her first collection of poems, Imaginary Animal won the Willow Books Literature Prize in Poetry and is slated to become an off Broadway play. She teaches Chicanx/Latinx Poetry and Creative Writing Courses at CSUMB, SJSU, and Gavilan College.
Jose Hernandez Diaz
Jose Hernandez Diaz is a 2017 NEA Poetry Fellow. He is from Southern California. He is the author of The Fire Eater (Texas Review Press, 2020). His work appears in The American Poetry Review, Boulevard, The Cincinnati Review, Georgia Review, Iowa Review, The Nation, Poetry and in The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2011. Currently, he is an Associate Editor at Frontier and Guest Editor at Palette Poetry.