Master of Fine Arts students gather to share and connect with a unique literary community.
Rising from NAU’s Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program, the Cinder Skies Reading Series offers a forum where authors and audiences meet. Sponsored by the Northern Arizona Book Festival, the series has become a fixture in Flagstaff’s literary community and provides a meaningful opportunity for writers and listeners alike.
“I think a lot of time being a writer is a lonely experience,” says Megan Latin-DeBono, a 2022 MFA alumna and former Cinder Skies co-coordinator. “You are writing by yourself. You are reading by yourself. Being able to read the words out loud allows there to be discussion on them. It brings people together.”
For authors, Cinder Skies is a chance to try new ideas and see how they land with an audience. For listeners, it’s a chance to become inspired by others and engage authors directly, a chance that evades the solitary reader. The people brought together under Cinder Skies are primarily authors, but they come from various places. While the readings have traditionally been in-person, COVID demanded the format expand to include virtual events as well. Recent online forums showcased readers from California to Carolina. Still, Cinder Skies consistently draws on the inkwell of NAU talent. In 2021, the series featured readings from numerous NAU students as well as staff and faculty, including Lawrence Lenhart, Nicole Walker, and Sherwin Bitsui. In that respect, the series connects students to the larger NAU community and beyond.
Says Walker, “What I so admire about these grad students is that in the space of a month, they’re up and ready to go with a reading series that spans a whole year, drawing from their own cohort and then from writers they know across the country, to present their writing to an equally expansive audience. It’s a gift to work with these students and to help support Cinder Skies however I can.”
Persevering through the pandemic
It was through an online reading that Sarah Jablon first tuned in to Cinder Skies. As an MFA student attending class from Maryland because of COVID, she was thankful for the opportunity to remotely link to her peers.
“I think that other people who are potentially far away are getting that same understanding of what this community is like,” she says.
People were drinking and having a good time, but as soon as our first reader started to speak, there was just silence. Everyone was in rapture, and it stayed that way through the entire reading.
Eventually, Jablon moved to Arizona and co-coordinated an in-person Cinder Skies reading at a Flagstaff pub. There, she saw how Cinder Skies is defined by its solidarity and attentiveness.
“People were drinking and having a good time, but as soon as our first reader started to speak, there was just silence,” she says. “Everyone was in rapture, and it stayed that way through the entire reading.”
Reece Gritzmacher enrolled in the MFA program without a chance to visit the NAU campus.
“As soon as I attended a Cinder Skies reading, I knew that I made the right choice,” Gritzmacher says. “I thought, look how supportive, look how goofy they are. That’s the place.”
Much of the mutual support found in the Cinder Skies community is driven by the concept of “literary citizenship.” This is the idea that being a reader or writer grants you citizenship in a larger literary world and that this citizenship comes with responsibilities.
“To me it means thinking beyond yourself, thinking about how you can nurture and grow other writers, how you can support this craft, this art of writing in general,” Gritzmacher says.
Other students in the Cinder Skies Reading Series bring their own ideas on literary citizenship. Zach Semel, who expects to graduate in spring 2023, is concerned with accessibility and revels in the way Cinder Skies can expose authors to new audiences. He recalls an instance when a passerby became entranced, stayed for the duration of a reading, and said, “I love the idea that a reading is something you can kind of just stumble upon.”
For Laura Brady, class of 2022, the magic is in the place-making. “There’s a sacredness to a reading. To me, being a literary citizen is to create spaces where these words get to be spoken and experienced.” While Brady values the “special beauty” of in-person readings, she also recognizes the good that can come from virtual spaces. “There’s been an undeniable benefit to connecting our literary community in Flagstaff with the rest of the country through these online readings,” she says. “I’m really curious what we will choose to do in the future because there have been so many benefits to both.”
Regardless of the platform, Cinder Skies has become a vital part of Brady’s MFA experience. “Life is very busy and challenging,” she says. “This has been a respite that I get to spend with my cohort. It’s a nice, shared experience.”
Whether it’s a moment to rest, fresh inspiration, or a new connection, the Cinder Skies Reading Series showers participants with gifts that fit their purpose. Literary citizens who find their way to this community will experience a house of worship as well as a marketplace of ideas, a meditation as surely as a celebration. Online or in person, the doors are always open. In Gritzmacher’s words, “Wherever we are, it will be welcoming.”