On the Record with Bad Writing Organizers Srijit Ghosh and Paris Gravely

Vida Weisblum, Arts Editor

College seniors Paris Gravely and Srijit Ghosh joined forces to organize a celebratory weekend of poetry titled Bad Writing, in which they brought poets Jaswinder Bolina, Tarfia Faizullah and Richard Siken to campus. The two Creative Writing majors shared their experiences in putting together the student-centric event.

So, what was the impetus for hosting the Bad Writing event this weekend? Were you urged by faculty to do this?

Srijit Ghosh: [Paris Gravely and I] wanted to bring some poets to campus because we really felt like there wasn’t enough programing coming from the students. Faculty bring poets; Kazim [Ali, Creative Writing department chair] brings a bunch of famous people [to Oberlin], but very infrequently do you see students bringing people that students want to come out and hear. And so that was one of the driving forces: to make this a very student centered event, organized by the students for the students. The other thing was we wanted to have a literary festival at Oberlin to promote more of a community within the Creative Writing student body here and the general student body, too. At least, I feel that ever since I came here the Creative Writing department has been very insular … in that once you’re a part of it … it’s hard to feel a sense of community. You see everyone in class, but after class everyone kind of disappears. And I think that’s because there aren’t many reasons for students to come together.

Paris Gravely: I think it also came out of a frustration with the ways that writing in general was being treated on this campus by the student organizations themselves, in particular the hit The Oberlin Review received. The Grape, Wilder Voice, Plum Creek Review, all these student-run publications were put in a vulnerable place because of [the Student Finance Committee], and I don’t know the politics behind it, but I do know that there was a pretty big backlash, it felt, against literary publications.

When did you start putting it together?

PG: The beginning of the semester. It’s been an ongoing process.

SG: It was an ongoing conversation.

So it wasn’t directly in response to the situation with SFC?

PG: Right, and I think it began in an alternative but also an influential form, as conversations about how the Creative Writing department can create an exclusive writing community, and yet there were all these alternative venues for writing to occur, and even those were being hit. So I think it was a dual response. And the thing about Bad Writing that I really love was that it was open to everyone, and I think that’s important in validating the writing of students who, for some reason or another, cannot participate in the Creative Writing department — and there are many, many different reasons.

SG: I think the main kind of reason behind Bad Writing was to promote a sense of community within the Creative Writing department and between the Creative Writing department and the rest of the student body, so it was to make the Creative Writing department in some ways accessible to people who are not involved in it.

How did you choose the poets who came, and how did you get them to come? Was it difficult?

PG: We met with Kazim Ali and [Assistant Professor of Creative Writing] Shane McCrae at the beginning of the semester when this was just a budding enterprise, and Srijit and I spent the entire lunch throwing out all of these names that we were super excited about, and through talking about who knew who, and who we were most excited about, and who we thought Oberlin students would be the most excited about, we came upon Jaswinder Bolina, Richard Siken and Tarfia Faizullah, and they became our dream team. We did the usual emailing and negotiating, and ultimately they were able to come.

Were there backup options?

PG: We had a few, but for the most part, the people who we wanted to come came.

SG: The way we went about it was from experience in Creative Writing workshops and with students within the Creative Writing program and also outside it — just kind of having conversations with them to see who they wanted to bring to the campus, who they’d want to see read or do workshops. That kind of helped us decide on those three names. And they were responsive, that’s the cool thing — these guys are famous writers, but they’re so humble, and they just got back to us and kept talking to us.

Do you think they’re relevant in the context of Oberlin?

PG: They do [relate].

SG: I think all of them are read by the student body. We got good attendance to their readings and their events — especially Siken.

PG: And not to narrow the wide scope of the wide topics they covered, but if you look at the buzzwords that they write about, it feels very Oberlin. So Richard Siken writes a lot about gay rights and, importantly, mental illness, love, which as Oberlin students we all love. And then you have Tarfia, who writes about sexualized violence, and being a woman and being —

SG: Being a POC.

PG: Yeah, the ethics of interviewing, which I think is at least interesting to Oberlin students if not relevant. Jaswinder writes about the South Asian immigrant experience, among a lot of other different topics.

SG: It’s about POC justice, you know? Experiences of POCs with law enforcement. They were all very pertinent. They were very pertinent poets in those kind of events. With those things being prime topics of discussion, it was a great opportunity and feeling to get them here.

Why did you choose poetry over fiction?

PG: There were a lot of different reasons. The biggest reason is [that] Srijit and I are pretty big poetry geeks.

SG: It’s a genre that we have so much experience in that it’s easier to decide, it’s easier to organize, it’s easier to have that culture and vocabulary to try and reach out to people. And I also just think that the way I envision this is that we wanted to have a united feeling for this festival other than “bad writing.” … We wanted to be focused on one genre, not multi-genre, because the way I see this going every year is that we’ll focus on one genre and explore it fully.

So are you hoping to create institutional memory of the event and pass it on in the future?

SG: We definitely want to make this a thing on campus, because we think it’s necessary to celebrate literature that promotes conversation … in a productive way.

Interview by Vida Weisblum, Arts editor