Meet the Conference: Boldface Conference

Emerging doesn’t mean inexperienced — it means on the cusp of something great. All of our participants are on that cusp, and we do everything we can at Boldface to help give them that tiny push they need to really take their creative writing to the next level.”

– Cait Wess Orcutt

The Boldface Conference is a week-long convention held annually at the University of Houston for undergraduate and emerging writers both locally and nationwide. The conference itinerary is filled with writing workshops, craft talks, professional panels, readings, evening events around the city, and private consultations with the 2019 Visiting Writers: Jason Koo, Bryan Washington, and Jessica Willbanks. Boldface is open to any writers who have not yet published a book through a major publisher or enrolled in an MFA Creative Writing program. This year it falls from May 20th through May 24th, and we would like to share an interview with this year’s Boldface Conference Coordinator, Cait Weiss Orcutt, below.

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An Interview with Cait Weiss Orcutt

Scribe: What inspired your decision to coordinate the Boldface Conference?

Cait Wess Orcutt: As a current PhD Poetry student at the University of Houston, I was given the opportunity to learn the ropes of conference planning, not simply theoretically, but by actually being plunked right down into experience. I have admired Boldface ever since I first taught my own class at the conference. I’ve been floored by the students who attend, the great balance between community members and students, and the conference’s investment in providing all emerging writers with a sort of mini-MFA experience surrounded by big name authors, poets and essayists in one of the most dynamic cities in America.

Scribe: I see that there is a focus on craft, through workshops and master classes. What are the sorts of craft issues that past participants at the conference have gotten excited to work on and talk about?

CWO: “Craft” comes up quite a bit at Boldface, not only in our discussions about the tools we have to tell a story, to craft a memoir, or to create or poem, but also in the potential problems with any single, pervasive idea of “craft” itself. When we say “craft,” part of what we’re talking about is the how. How can you take your ideas and get them on the page. If the ideas are already on the page (and we hope you’re celebrating this if they are), how can you make them live us to your vision for the piece? “Craft” allows us to expand our ideas of what a story, poem, essay or book can be. Last year’s visiting writer craft talks were “Authenticity, Originality, and Ego: How to Navigate Culture & Lyric in Eurocentric Spaces” (presented by Analicia Sotelo), “Trauma and Radical Empathy: Painting Scenes through Narrative Gaze and Authorial Observation” (presented by Daniel Peña) and “Keeping It 100: Bringing Your Whole Self to the Page” (presented by Dickson Lam). We have had talks that investigate chronology in Science Fiction writing, topics in translation, the persona poem, code-switching as character development, the “rules” of setting and when/how to break them, building momentum in a novel, how to craft and support your own unique aesthetic… Really, our craft discussion center on anything that might get someone excited about their writing or prompt them to look at familiar territory in a new, electric way.

Scribe: Why focus on undergrads and emerging writers?

CWO: There are so many avenues open to students currently in an MFA or PhD program that we really wanted to focus on the writers who, though they may well be writing at or above that level, did not choose to attend a traditional creative writing graduate school program. I took almost a decade off between undergrad and graduate school myself, but I was still an emerging, hungry writer. I enrolled myself in workshops and conferences much like Boldface to keep my creative life vibrant and active, even while I was working a 9-to-5. Our participants at Boldface are newly graduated college students, young professionals who create on the side, parents who can’t take on the full-time financial and time commitment of a traditional writing program, career-driven STEM majors who just can’t not write even if it’s not their literal job to do so, retirees who have been holding onto their stories (imagined or not) for far too long… Emerging doesn’t mean inexperienced — it means on the cusp of something great. All of our  participants are on that cusp, and we do everything we can at Boldface to help give them that tiny push they need to really take their creative writing to the next level, no matter what they choose to do with their work in the long run.

Scribe: What do each of the visiting writers bring to the Boldface conference?

CWO: This year’s visiting writers are Bryan Washington, Jessica Wilbanks and Jason Koo. All three bring an outstanding level of insight, empathy, creative passion and pedagogical magic to Boldface. Every year, our visiting writers astonish us with their commitment to the mission of Boldface–to foster real, lasting connections between writers and help participants see their creative work in a fresh, inspiring light.

WLT: What sort of field trips do participants go on?

CWO: This year, we’ll be focusing on the Houston arts scene, specifically the world-renowned Menil Collection, including the Rothko Chapel, and the University of Houston’s own Blaffer Museum, which will be showcasing the work of Amie Siegel, whose multi-media art uses the associative structure of poetry and the dispassionate perspective of sociology to investigate complex systems of power and value.

As usual, we’ll also have two off-campus evening readings/Open Mics showcasing Houston’s literary scene. This year we’ll be gathering at Brasil Cafe in Montrose and Kaboom Books in the Heights.

Scribe: Two of the visiting writers live in Houston. One (Bryan Washington) has written a story collection set there, and the conference is hosted by the University of Houston, one of the most prestigious MFA programs in the country. What about Houston makes it a particularly fertile community for writers?

CWO: You’ve asked my favorite question! What about Houston creates writers? What doesn’t! Houston in the most diverse city in America, meaning we can’t foreground one version of the American story–we learn from our earliest moments here that every single narrative has complications, interactions, and counter-narratives. Houston is a polyphonic, multilingual city of a million recipes and family stories all put in a pressure cooker of voice-nurturing humidity, unparalleled arts funding, innovative scholarship, flourishing business, terrifying ecology, immense Texas sky, and flowers the size of your face. If you’re looking for a landscape full of mythic potential, full of expanse and minutiae, of hard work and big dreams, of political tension and ice house ease, you’d have a tough time finding one better than Houston.

Thank you, Cait!

To find more about the Boldface Conference registration, click here.

For a schedule of events, click here.

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