Now in its third year, Thinking Its Presence is a conference dedicated to explorations of race, creative writing, and art. The 2017 conference will be held at the UA Poetry Center in Tucson, Arizona, from October 19-21. Founded in 2014, the event takes its name from Dorothy Wang’s book Thinking Its Presence: Form, Race, and Subjectivity in Contemporary Asian American Poetry.
Submittable was thrilled to support the conference’s first years in Missoula, MT, and also to help facilitate registration for the 2017 event. I recently spoke with Founder and Board President of Thinking Its Presence, Prageeta Sharma, my former poetry professor and a remarkable human being.
What should people know about Thinking Its Presence?
This conference was developed to deeply consider visibility for POC and indigenous writers, artists, scholars, and thinkers. Our communities have been engaged in exciting work that wasn’t necessarily being represented (in MFA programs, in academic institutions, at professional conferences). Thinking Its Presence is truly about celebrating scholarship, art, and creative writing that connects, empowers, and delves into work by POC and indigenous practitioners. We’re focused on that visibility and solidarity and awareness.
We welcome everyone who is interested in these conversations, who wants to really witness extraordinary work, both intellectual and performative. I’ve also found that many white allies want to support the conference, to become more acquainted and engage with the conversation and the innovation of this work. I like the idea that my colleagues around the country are really interested in listening. Not only are people listening to each other, but they’re also attentive to conversations that may not happen at AWP—the kind of conversations that happen in the hallways of AWP.
How did Thinking Its Presence begin and how has it evolved?
Thinking Its Presence was held at University of Montana in 2014 and 2015. It seemed really important to initiate a conversation around the idea that innovative work by POCs and indigenous artists, writers, performers, and scholars was not necessarily being taught as innovative. And many of us were kind of having the same discussion about minorities being taught just as minorities with grievances in their work, not as innovative in their own right.
While there are certainly legitimate grievances, a lot of POC and indigenous work was also not continuously being included as canonical work. This conference really wanted to reframe some of those conversations, as well as ground us in visibility as a large group of artists, writers, scholars, and performers. I’m really trying to make Thinking Its Presence multi-genre and cross-disciplinary—that’s a way in which it’s evolved and expanded.
The conference is very large this year, partly because I wanted people to feel like they could be part of things, that if they were working on race and identity politics and innovation that they had a place. I just couldn’t bear the hierarchical exclusions, of people not feeling welcomed, that can happen at events like AWP.
How did you come to partner with the University of Arizona?
The board and I put together a proposal. We believed this work needed to be done in other places, outside of Montana, and we also needed appropriate resources. Part of the great work that was done at Montana was to engage that community (in Missoula) with a new community. So certainly, the vision and the mission of Thinking Its Presence is to travel and to also perform the solidarity in environments that need to have this kind of encounter. We were thrilled that the UA Poetry Center wanted to support this and their team is doing great work to put everything together.
Tell me about this year’s theme.
I love that we could explore José Esteban Muñoz’ idea of the ‘ephemeral archive,’ and think about the value of what is happening in queer theory and critical race theory. Specifically, Muñoz’ work speaks to the ephemeral nature of performance.
Thinking Its Presence wants to honor not only creative writers, but also scholarship as grounding where we are and how we are experiencing literature today. That’s why we went into the idea of the ephemera to frame the 2017 conference. All three years we’ve taken a lens of literary theory, critical race theory, or queer studies to try to remind our community that our work is rich with intersectionality. It’s cross-disciplinary.
What do you hope people will take away from the conference?
I hope this serves as space where what’s on people’s minds (and in their writing practices and their reading practices and their intellectual engagement) is supported and safe. And I want people to make friends. I love that people get to know each other at Thinking Its Presence and they really connect.
The other thing is that Thinking Its Presence is not a conference about educating an audience. It’s a conference about people’s interests being supported in a way that promotes solidarity.
How does technology influence these outcomes?
More than ever, audio visual technology is crucial to how people are presenting their pieces. That has definitely evolved in the last five years so I’m really grateful we can accommodate AV needs to the best of our ability. Douglas Kearny and Val Jeanty are going to do this incredible performance with laptops and video and poetry and percussion that exemplifies just how important technology is.
Also, I couldn’t have done this conference without a number of platforms, like Sched and social media. Plus, Submittable sponsored the conference for two years in Montana and I am so grateful to Submittable for everything. I know that for conference registration this year, that software has also been really helpful.
Anything else people should know?
I think the conference is really about making sure everybody feels welcome, that our writers and presenters and their performances are regarded as both accessible and truly innovative. We will be honoring the work of so many important people. That’s what we really try to do as board: bring everybody into the room that needs to be discussed, experienced, and celebrated.
Although conference registration has closed, all evening keynote events for Thinking Its Presence 2017 will be free and open to the public. Helpful FAQs are available here, as well as a full attendee/registrant guide. Follow the #TIP2017 hashtag, as well as the UA Poetry Center to stay tuned in.
**Note: The opinions expressed by interviewees of the Submittable blog are theirs alone and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Submittable.
Prageeta Sharma was born in Framingham, Massachusetts. Her collections of poetry include Bliss to Fill (2000), The Opening Question (2004), which won the Fence Modern Poets Prize, Infamous Landscapes (2007), and Undergloom (2013). Sharma’s honors and awards include a Howard Foundation Grant. She has taught at the New School and Goddard College and is currently a professor in the MFA program in creative writing at the University of Montana-Missoula, of which she has also served as director. She is the founder and president of the conference/board Thinking Its Presence.
#TIP2017: An Interview with Prageeta Sharma