FIU is no stranger to the world of poetry.
Alumni of FIU’s Master of Fine Arts program have gone on to achieve greatness in the field, including Richard Blanco ’91, MFA ’97, who delivered his poem “One Today” at former President Barack Obama’s second inauguration, and O, Miami founder P. Scott Cunningham MFA ’08. Students learn from the best, including Pulitzer Prize finalist Campbell McGrath and National Endowment for the Arts Fellow Denise Duhamel, to name just a few faculty members.
“Students come to the MFA program at FIU bursting with energy, ideas, politics and personal experience,” said Duhamel. “I feel privileged that, as their professor, I am entrusted to help these poets shape and craft their considerable insights into stellar poetry.”
In celebration of National Poetry Month, the FIU Alumni Association sat down with three emerging alumni poets to learn about their latest published works:
Marci Calabretta Cancio-Bello MFA ’14
Born in South Korea and raised in Ithaca, NY, Calabretta Cancio-Bello draws inspiration from her heritage.
Her latest book, Hour of the Ox, is inspired by haenyeo, pearl-diving women from Jeju Island in South Korea who can free-dive for up to three minutes, even in their 60s and 70s. Haenyeo have become the breadwinners of their culture, but the tradition is dying out.
“My poems seek to highlight the island’s culture, these powerful women and a diminishing way of life,” she said. “I also wanted to incorporate Korean folklore as a backdrop for filial duty, expressions of grief over deep loss, perseverance and measurements of distance.”
Calabretta Cancio-Bello appreciates the MFA program’s holistic curriculum. In addition to cross-genre training in poetry, which encouraged her to explore both fiction and nonfiction craft, she learned how to place her work into historical context and about the professional side of being a writer. And her professors, including McGrath, Duhamel and Lynne Barrett, pushed her to develop her voice.
“Instead of trying to make carbon copies of their own style, they meet you where you are, help you figure out what you’re trying to do and work with you to hone your best style.”
Calabretta Cancio-Bello serves as program coordinator for the Miami Book Fair, overseeing all year-round creative writing programs and managing children’s and poetry programming during the fair each November. She is also working on a new manuscript examining the political history of neocolonialism between Korea and America, and she is helping to translate the work of feminist Korean poet Yi Won into English.
“My hope is to continue bringing poetry to the people, building community through creative opportunities and giving voice to the voiceless.”
Ashley M. Jones MFA ’15
Jones uses poetry to study her roots. Her latest book, Magic City Gospel, explores what it is like to grow up African-American in the South and draws on her own history as well as the history of Alabama and America.
Moving from Alabama to Miami in 2012 to study at FIU inspired Magic City Gospel. “Being so far away from home made me homesick in a way I had never felt, but that homesickness drove me to try to recreate my home on the page,” she said.
Her time at FIU helped her to develop a strong voice, and she took the opportunity to learn from her professors, including prolific poet and essayist Julie Marie Wade and Donna Aza Weir-Soley, who Jones says was instrumental in her feminist education.
“To see a Black woman teaching in higher education, and teaching Black literature as well, was very inspiring, and I keep that memory close to me as I embark on my own journey as an educator,” Jones said of Weir-Soley.
Jones is now a creative writing teacher at the Alabama School of Fine Arts, the school that helped her first understand her love for writing as an adolescent. She also teaches seminars at the University of Alabama at Birmingham that use film and literature to examine race and oppression in America. In addition to continuing to publish, she hopes to one day be a school administrator.
“I’m so lucky to be able to teach exactly what I love,” Jones said. “Creative writing and cultural studies have been my passion for as long as I can remember, and I’m grateful that I was able to graduate from FIU and get a full-time teaching job in the field I wanted.”
Ariel Francisco ’13, MFA ’17
Francisco’s latest book, All My Heroes Are Broke, explores his family history. It’s broken up into sections, the first taking place in the Bronx, where he lived until age 11, and the second in Miami. It focuses on what Francisco considers the shortcomings of the American dream, and what it’s like to work hard and still be broke.
“It’s just sort of looking around at this place we live in and seeing all its shortcomings manifested in real time – and being disappointed by that,” Francisco said.
Francisco was first inspired to write poetry when he read the works of Emily Dickenson and Sylvia Plath in high school.
“[Poetry is] a weird way to make sense of the world and my experiences. I take something that happened or a memory and try to dive into it and pick it apart and make connections to what I’m feeling and what’s going on in the world,” Francisco said.
By the time Francisco entered the MFA program, he had already gotten to know some of his professors, including McGrath and Duhamel, by taking their classes in undergrad. It made his transition to grad school easier because they were already familiar with his work.
“I was able to get started immediately with the things I was trying to accomplish, and I could ask them to hold me accountable and to a high standard with my work. They both are absolutely fantastic,” Francisco said.
In addition to writing, he translates Spanish poetry into English and teaches undergraduate level writing classes as an adjunct professor at FIU and Broward College. It’s an opportunity to impart his passion for writing to students.
“FIU is great, especially with the creative writing program,” Francisco said. “If people are interested in pursuing poetry or other writing, you can get a lot done here.”