Sean Hill: Writing Communities

A little over week ago I was in Bemidji, Minnesota wrapping up the 2015 Minnesota Northwoods Writers Conference. It had been a magical week—restorative, emotionally and spiritually, while being exhausting—perhaps this is the experience of new parents. I mean, as director, I worked with my coordinator and administrator and our student interns to create a space for the faculty to make the magical week possible for the attendees and everyone involved; it was joyous labor. My dear former professor Mark Doty was our keynote speaker (hosting someone so generous and brilliant had me in a state of nervous excitement; I think the word is twitterpated). My dear friend and former classmate Joni Tevis was part of the teaching faculty. I got to meet or get to know better Mat Johnson, Matt de la Peña, Aimee Nezhukumatathil, and David Gessner, all of whom are fantastic writers and teachers and very interesting people. I really like hanging out with writers—people engaged deeply with words, language, story, metaphor and imagery and sounds. After the last of them was on a plane and the conference high started to wear off, I began wondering what I might write as this month’s guest blogger for 49 Writers. I was also looking forward to my Alaska engagements this coming week. I’ll be a part of the creative writing teaching cohort for the first week of the Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival. I get to do it all over again, but I won’t be in charge this time. I’ll be teaching with and learning from three other writers whom I’ve not really spent any time with: Jeanne Clark, Sarah Pape, and Don Reardon. Brenda Miller will join them in the second week of the festival because that week I head down to Anchorage for the UAA Low Res MFA Residency; I get the privilege of joining in with that transient community as a guest poet this year. And there too I’m looking forward to spending time with my dear old friend Elizabeth Bradfield as well as new friends. 

With all of this in mind, it occurred to me that I should write about community. That’s what I have been and will be and am currently part of as I type—various learning communities. I thought I might mention my first creative writing teacher, Judith Ortiz Cofer, and her instructions to the class (as I remember them) that we find our tribes—always be on the lookout for our tribes. She also said we only got to use three exclamation points for the entirety of our writing careers (this hasn’t been a problem for me, her “strong quiet poet”). She was much more generous when she gave us license to belong to as many tribes as we need to in order to be the writers we have to be. Our tribes were the writers we bonded with in her class—both classmates and those we met on the pages of the readings she assigned. That is community. And though many of us, myself included, enjoy the solitude necessary for the creative work we do, we also desire companionship in our pursuit of the craft, the work, the writing. 

I got a text this past weekend telling me that the author and poet Susan Carol Hauser had died suddenly. When I met her over a decade ago, Susan, a tall woman, thirty years my senior, with long silver hair down her back and an engaging benevolently devilish glow, was impressive. She was the chair of the English department at Bemidji State University. Susan was one of my friends and mentors, and she was a community builder. Getting that text left no doubt that I would be writing about her and writing communities. Susan started up the Minnesota Northwoods Writers Conference along with Rosalie Weaver at Bemidji State University in 2003. She invited me aboard in 2004, and she proved to be a more than capable captain. We worked together on the conference until it went on indefinite hiatus in 2009 due to her impending retirement. When I was asked to take the lead and revive the conference in 2013, I turned to Susan as an indispensible resource in that revivification. She’s always been the guiding spirit of the conference—the community we create for that week in June. And she will continue to be so. 

Minnesota like Alaska has thriving writing communities. They are important for us solitary practitioners engaging in this craft.  Find them, be they community creative writing classes, MFA programs, retreats and residencies, online communities, or writers’ conferences. Good communities change our writing lives—our lives—for the better. Find them and value them dearly. 

Sean Hill is the author of Dangerous Goods (Milkweed Editions, 2014) and Blood Ties & Brown Liquor (UGA Press, 2008). His poems have appeared in Callaloo, Harvard Review, Poetry, Tin House, and numerous other journals and anthologies. He’s currently a visiting professor in the creative writing program at UA-Fairbanks. More information can be found at 

2 thoughts on “Sean Hill: Writing Communities”

  1. Love this post, Sean – a gentle yet powerful reminder of why community matters.

  2. Thank you, Sean. Community is what sustains writers. We labor in what is essentially a solitary process of creation that blossoms into the communal. So glad that one of the communities you claim is Alaska.

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