Reflection: Rene Steinke
The students in the Riggio Program are unique and uniquely talented. Many of them have had unusual life experiences prior to coming to the New School, and they often express a kind of urgency and passion for their education—these students do not want to waste time.
I became a member of the Riggio Honors Program faculty in the Spring of 2007, and it has been one of the richest, most rewarding teaching experiences in my career. The students are devoted to writing, and their thinking about language on the larger political/social stage not only deepens classroom conversations, but it helps to form community among them.
As the Faculty Advisor for 12th Street, the Riggio Program’s award-winning literary journal and website, I have worked with the students to teach them hands-on editing and production skills, and the journal staff is an especially tight-knit group of students. Most recently, during Hurricane Sandy, the students sent dozens of concerned emails back and forth about the state of their homes, their friends’ and families’ homes, the city. As the time went on, there were questions about the use of the word “looting” and interrogations of the media’s coverage of the devastation, and wry notes about how no power encouraged them to read by flashlight and write. Now, several weeks later, there are a series of vignettes published on the website, which depict several different students’ experiences during the storm.
Creative Research, one of the writing workshops I’ve taught in the program, asks students to create a common historical archive around a New York City place and time. Then, as a class, we discuss the research and use various approaches to the material in fiction. I’ve always been impressed by how seriously the students take the research and the sharing of it, effectively helping each other to become experts within a few weeks on, say, the rock club, CBGB’s in the 70s, or a hotel in Harlem, during the 60s.
Students often continue conversations outside of class, going off together to have coffee or meals at local cafes. They are familiar with one another’s writing styles and subject matters; and their support for one another’s work is bolstered by the student reading series and by the publications of 12th Street. Even as undergraduates, they have a sense of themselves as serious writers, working alongside their peers. Because community is so crucial to the Riggio Honors Program, I’m including a brief, annotated list of some of the individual members of this community (past and present):
Mario Zambrano had a former, successful, international career as a ballet dancer, and he applied his deep understanding of one art form to his newly adopted one: writing. I was often astounded in class when he explicitly made a careful analogy between a choreographed movement and movement in prose. Mario also grew up in Houston, Texas, which became the setting for a novel, also his thesis, a story told through the Mexican Lotería, a card game about a troubled family in crisis. Mario was a student in my fiction workshop, and then worked on 12th Street for three years, first as a Reader, then as Fiction Editor, and finally as Editor-in-Chief. After he graduated, he was awarded one of two fully-funded fellowships to the prestigious Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa. HarperCollins recently bought the rights to his novel.
Zoe Miller was a kindergarten teacher for many years, and her gift for working with children was immediately apparent. (When I brought my five-year-old son to readings, he always wanted to sit next to her.) Zoe wrote both poems and fiction, and her lyrical, hard-edged vision of Los Angeles, where she had spent time earlier in her life, was often her subject matter. Zoe was a student in my workshops, and also worked on 12th Street for three years—first as a Reader, then Fiction Editor, then Editor-in-Chief. Zoe was quiet and thoughtful, a bit shy, but always struck me as particularly confident and independent. Zoe oversaw the event at Barnes & Noble that launched one of the journal issues. She gave a beautiful reading and helped usher the evening through its various presentations. Afterward, her father, who had been in the audience of nearly 100 people, told me that the Riggio Program had given Zoe a haven in which she’d been allowed to blossom, and he thanked me. Zoe went on to be awarded a prestigious fellowship in the Creative Writing program at the University of Michigan. She’s now teaching Freshman Writing there, while she completes her degree. After one of her students told her that her class was his favorite and thanked her for how much he’d learned from her, she posted a generous tribute to her teachers in the Riggio program on Facebook.
Jeff Vasishta, the son of parents who immigrated from India, grew up in England. After spending much of his life as a successful music journalist, and later, as a real estate entrepreneur, Jeff came to the Riggio Program. In addition to being a talented writer, Jeff is a songwriter (with a hit on the Billboard charts); a journalist publishing book reviews and profiles of writers; a nutrition consultant; a blogger on business and investments; and a father of two. His incredibly varied work experiences contribute to the subject matter for his writing. Currently, he’s at work on a novel (his thesis), which follows the compelling story of a music journalist who fakes the most important interview of the decade. It’s his best work yet.
Luke Sirinides, an Editor at 12th Street for two years, previously worked on a newspaper in Philadelphia. While studying in the Riggio Program, he supported himself as a New York City tour guide. If we coaxed him at meetings or readings, we could sometimes convince him to perform his impromptu talk on the Statue of Liberty or the Empire State Building. For his thesis, Luke wrote the beginning of a novel with a story grounded in an invented, closed religion, similar to that of the Mennonites, but completely his own. His storytelling instincts are impeccable, honed no doubt from his practice in keeping the attention of an audience. He is currently completing his MFA in Creative Writing at the University of New Orleans.
Rebecca Melnyk, a student from Canada, worked at the St. Mark’s Poetry project while a student in the program, and while she served as the Poetry Editor for 12th Street. Her access to the New York poetry scene offered insights to her fellow students, and also allowed the journal to interview Amiri Baraka, who gave an amazing reading at the Barnes & Noble launch.
Renè Steinke is the Faculty Advisor to 12th Street and has previously taught in the Riggio Honors Program: Writing and Democracy. Renè has recently been named the Director of the MFA program in Creative Writing, where she continues also her role as Professor of creative writing and literature. She is the author of the novels The Fires and Holy Skirts, which was a finalist for the 2005 National Book Award. Her writing has also appeared in Bookforum, Vogue, the New York Times, and TriQuarterly. She lives in Brooklyn.