Melissa Castillo-Garsow

Poet Melissa Castillo-Garsow Reads “El Barrio”

Melissa Castillo-Garsow

Melissa Castillo-Garsow

This week’s New York City Planning Commission’s approval of rezoning East Harlem is expected to usher in sweeping changes to the neighborhood known as El Barrio for its mostly Spanish-speaking residents. Poet Melissa Castillo-Garsow, Ph.D., GSAS ’11, foresaw the change and portrayed it in her poem “El Barrio,” which she performed at the Sept. 25 Poets Out Loud reading.

Castillo-Garsow said she wrote the poem while living in the area as a M.A. student in English at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and at the Latin American and Latino Studies Institute.

This story is reprinted from Fordham News, which also includes a recording of Castillo-Garsow's reading. 

Alum of English Department and LALSI to read in Poets Out Loud

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This year's inaugural event in Fordham’s poetry reading series, Poets Out Loud, features a poet with many connections to our university. Melissa Castillo-Garsow received her M.A. in English with a concentration in Creative Writing from Fordham. She was a graduate assistant for the American Studies Program and also holds an Advanced Certificate from LALSI, the Latin American and Latino Studies Institute. And a further connection:  her publications include a novel co-authored with Fordham University African and African American Studies Professor Mark Naison. On the occasion of that novel's publication, English Connect interviewed Castillo-Garsow.

 

In accepting the invitation, she let us know how pleased she is to be returning to Fordham for this reading—a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard, she is currently living in the Boston area--, and we are very pleased to welcome her back.

Castillo-Garsow's engagement with issues of immigration and Mexican culture runs throughout both her poems and the dissertation she wrote at Yale, entitled “A Mexican State of Mind: New York City and the New Borderlands of Culture.” And much of her work engages with connections between African-American and borderlands studies.  Writing about her poetry, recently published in Coatlicue Eats the Apple, the distinguished Latino poet Willie Perdomo (himself a former Fordham faculty member), observes that it “subvert[s]  sacred symbols with angsty, humorous rebellion.”  Both thatpowerful poetry and her wide ranging publications in other fields—they include  co-editing (with Jason Nichols) La Verdad: An International Dialogue on Hip Hop Latinidades, and editing  ¡Manteca!: An Anthology of Afro-Latino Poetry--demonstrate why we are proud to include her in our first reading.

This reading also includes another impressive poet and fiction writer,  Donna Masini, who teaches at Hunter College. Her third book of poems, 4:30 Movie, is forthcoming; she is also the author of two other collections of poetry, entitled Turning to Fiction and That Kind of Danger, and of the novel, About Yvonne.

This event will take place at our Lincoln Center campus, 12th floor lounge, on September 25 between 7 and 8:15 PM . Like all the readings in Poets Out Loud, this is free and open to the public. Refreshments are served, and all audience members have the opportunity to win a free inscribed book by one of the poets.

Fall 2014 Prose Reading

On November 5th, the Creative Writing Program's Prose Reading featured Fordham alumni  Chris Campanioni and Melissa Castillo-Garsow and Fordham Writer in Residence Amy Benson.

The three writers also spoke with students about the creative writing process.

"My stuff is self-reflexive and self-reflective," Campanioni said. He finds his inspiration in his surroundings, including his commute to the College of Staten Island. The Staten Island ferry, he said, is a source of inspiration as well as a way to and from work. Campanioni read from his new book, Going Down, which he called an exploration of the news industry and the fashion world. A former journalist and model, Campanioni explained that he feels all writing is, in essence, memoir.

Melissa Castillo-Garsow credits Fordham with a great deal of her life as a writer.

"I always tell people Fordham is my favorite school--and the other two are NYU and Yale, so that's some stiff competition," she said.

Castillo-Garsow's  connection to Fordham did not end when she began taking classes at other universities. Her new book, Pure Bronx, takes place in Fordham's own backyard, and was co-written with Fordham professor Mark Naison.

Amy Benson echoed Campanioni's sentiments about all writing having at least tinges of memoir within it. She hesitated to label her work as "fiction" or "nonfiction."

"I'll let you decide if it's fiction or nonfiction," she said.

Benson noted that much of her inspiration currently comes from themes of environmental distress as well as from artists, noting Phoebe Washburn in particular.

"We have caused disasters that only we can fix," Benson read.

After filling the room with prose, the three authors took questions from students.

Several students had questions about how the authors find inspiration.

"I find myself drawn to artists with an ecological bend," Benson said. When a student asked Benson how she avoided becoming overwhelmed by the plethora of potential environmental issues to writer about Benson chuckled. "Oh, it's overwhelming," Benson said.

When the authors were asked how they found their voice, all three had words of advice.

"I listen to a lot of music when I write," Campanioni said. "So those lyrics sometimes bleed into the writing."

Campanioni noted that he even acknowledges the bands that inspired him--including Joy Division, Talking Heads, and Nine Inch Nails--in the back of his books.

Castillo-Garsow credited her experience as a journalist as helping her to find her voice.

"I worked as a journalist," she said. "So I was drawn to two things: 1) dialogue and 2) place and setting. So I wander around where I think my characters are from and just listen."

Benson advised students to look within to find their own voice.

"Find the things in you that no one else has," she said.

Castillo-Garsow echoed this sentiment.

"Listen to the craziness in your head. It may not work [at first], but then it will."

Advice to Emerging Writers

Melissa Castillo-Garsow Publishes First Novel

Congratulations to Melissa Castillo-Garsow (GSAS, '11) who published her first novel Pure Bronx with Fordham University African and African American Studies Professor Mark Naison in November 2013.  A short interview with Melissa follows below.

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Pure Bronx is your first published novel. When writing Pure Bronx, did you have a general idea of where the story would take the reader, or did you work out the plot as it came to you? 

When I first started writing Pure Bronx, I had no idea where the plot would go. In fact, the character I wrote, Rasheeda, came as a response to a first chapter written by Dr. Naison in the voice of the other main character Khalil. The idea to write a novel came out of a provocation by Dr. Naison while I was in a class he taught titled "Hip Hop Street Narratives."  The class was to write our own version of street literature. At first I wasn't at all interested in either writing street literature or collaborating with the class, but then his first chapter peaked my interest. As an exercise, I wrote a second chapter, and he wrote back, and no one else joined in. After a few weeks we sat down and came up with a plot, but it was very organic. We really just followed the characters as we got more engrossed in their lives. 

Pure Bronx was co-authored by Fordham University African and African American Studies Professor Mark Naison. What was the collaborative creative process for this novel like? 

It was actually really straight forward and simple. He would write a chapter and I would respond with one. He wrote Khalil's voice and I wrote Rasheeda's. Every two weeks or so we would meet to discuss where the book was going, and about how the characters were developing. Collaboration was also easy because we're both insomniacs! I would write late into the night, and by the time I would wake up in the morning I would have more material from Dr. Naison or at least commentary on what he thought of my latest chapter!

What is your personal relationship to the Bronx, and what drew you to it as a source of inspiration? 

I have lived in New York City since 2003 and grew up coming here several times a year (I grew up upstate), but I never really spent much time in the Bronx until I came to Fordham. So I got to know the Bronx, especially the south Bronx where the book is mostly set, as I got to know Rasheeda and the other characters in the book. The inspiration really came from soaking up my new environment. Luckily, Dr. Naison is a 40 year veteran of the Bronx so I was also guided and inspired by him.

What social issues does Pure Bronx aim to address, and how? 

Pure Bronx addresses a lot of social issues - poverty, racism, wall street corruption, drug use, immigration, religious intolerance (towards muslims), the hyper-sexualization of women of color, etc. But the main thrust of the story is the tragedy of these two young, talented, bright people, Khalil and Rasheeda, and the limited options they face due to their family and home circumstances. In that way they reflect a larger story of social inequality, but also the tremendous talent that is being wasted in many inner city neighborhoods like the South Bronx.

Can you describe your research process for Pure Bronx? 

I tried to inhabit the areas that Rasheeda would frequent as much as possible - the Mitchell Houses, local restaurants, etc. Rasheeda works in a strip club and that material actually came out of research for a short story I had written previously which included frequenting and talking to young women who worked in these establishments. I was also lucky to have access to materials from the Bronx African American History Project which Dr. Naison runs, a project with a wealth of materials including oral history.

What was your goal when you set out to write this novel (in both form and content), and did you see this goal accomplished in the text by the time the book was complete? 

I wouldn't say I had a set goal. At first, I had no intention of even writing a novel. I was just following Rasheeda and responding to Dr. Naison's writing. So everything that has come out of this experience is completely unexpected and amazing! 

More information on Pure Bronx can be found here.