Among the new additions to this year’s Literary Arts programming at the Utah Arts Festival are the invited groups of student writers from various Utah colleges and universities, including Utah Valley University, Weber State University and the Brigham Young University’s master of fine arts program in creative writing. Also of note is that Salt Lake Community College is included in the schedule this year (Aug. 28, 1:40 p.m.), a move that delights Danielle Susi, a writer who teaches at the school and who also is set to perform her own work.
The student writers’ performances are significant because the students will be paid for their work, along with every other participant in the Literary arts venue. “Most of the students who are performing are still in the middle of their studies at SLCC,” Susi says, “and it gives them a wonderful opportunity to meet other writers at the festival.”
Susi also appreciates the festival staff’s acknowledgment that the playing field for creative expression treats the community college just as meritoriously as it does four-year universities. “It’s a wonderful opportunity for students to be considered for something like this,” Susi explains, adding that Kase Johnstun and Trish Hopkinson, who alternate between festival years as the Literary Arts coordinator, are “excellent stewards of a community of poets and writers of all ages.” SLCC’s resources and facilities for creative expression and production are on par with its four-year counterparts. For example, the festival’s Fear No Film program includes in its competition slate for Utah Made Film of the Year the short film Checkout, directed by SLCC film student Will Stamp, who also plays the lead actor in this delightfully understated yet slapstick comedy.
Susi says the student writers represent quite a mix of forms, including nonfiction, fiction and poetry. She adds that some student writers have shown how social media platforms have influenced literary forms. Susi, who remembers Tumblr poetry which became popular in the mid-2000s, appreciates how her students have introduced her to Instagram poetry. This is important for Susi, who says that when she was working on her master of fine arts degree, “I was encouraged to dismiss such forms.” Some students come into her course with a fairly extensive knowledge about modern and contemporary poetry. And, many seem to be quite familiar with the work of Sylvia Plath, who died nearly 60 years ago, which is intriguing and curious.
While many students who enroll in her writing courses have a direct interest in developing and honing their skills, the course also is offered as a general humanities requirement for students majoring in other areas. One student Susi remembers is an engineering student enrolled in her poetry workshop, “who really struggled with the open-ended concept of writing.” Susi says that initially the lessons and assignments are about formal approaches in writing poetry but with those in place, students are then encouraged to break the rules as they see fit. Her assignments start with a simple prompt or a few to give students some options. In the engineering student’s case, Susi noted that there were some good potential ideas in his work but he was articulating them through “surface level observations.” While the student hoped that Susi would map out for him how he should proceed, she told him to let himself go because he will have an easier and better time of expressing himself freely without worrying about the integrity of the structure of the piece. Eventually, the advice took hold and, as Susi explains, “it was incredible. He stopped being so rigid and started having fun with it.”
Susi says she loves students who discover a capacity they didn’t know they had. As a teacher, Susi adds that she now talks to the students in ways that will serve them in whatever career or program path they have chosen, including engineering and nursing. As students discover their creative freedom, they also learn about how to express themselves during particularly challenging moments of collective or global trauma, or through memories or experiences that cause hurt and anguish. Poetry is a truly inclusive form of writing, she says, and students begin to realize that it can be accessible to virtually every audience or readership.
In her own festival performance, Susi (Aug. 28, 3:20 p.m., Literary Arts Stage) says she will mix it up a bit. Her established body of work has emerged from various themes including generational trauma associated with mother-and-daughter relationships as well as instances of individual and collective grief concerning the loss of a loved one. But, her recent work has taken a different path centered on curious cultural observations. “I started down this path of writing poems about celebrities but they are not really about celebrities,” she explains. For example, she wrote about the weirdness of seeing rapper Post Malone at a Buffalo Wild Wings restaurant but the piece pivoted on an expression about gun control. In 2017, Post Malone in a Rolling Stone magazine interview talked about why he keeps such a large arsenal of guns. “I saw the excess in guns as indicative of the obliviousness of those who have excessive wealth,” Susi explains.
Another poem was sparked by a scene in the 2000 adaptation of the old Charlie’s Angels television series where actor Sam Rockwell dances to Simon Says by Pharoahe Monch and Susi writes about meeting him in a bar arcade.
Susi, who came to Salt Lake City from Chicago and is working on a doctoral degree at The University of Utah, is the author of the chapbook The Month in Which We Are Born (dancing girl press, 2015). Her debut full-length manuscript has been selected as a semi-finalist for both the Lexi Rudnitsky First Book Prize at Persea Books and the Hudson Prize at Black Lawrence Press. Susi, who has studied and performed improvisational comedy in Chicago, also is an award-winning journalist, having received an Excellence in Political Journalism Award from The Washington Center and a shared National Mark of Excellence Award from the Society of Professional Journalists.