Shenk Ascends Black Mountain

by
Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum
8.19.15

In August Joshua Wolf Shenk started work as director of the Black Mountain Institute (BMI), an international literary center founded in 2006 at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas (UNLV). Alongside the university’s creative writing program, BMI supports writers and scholars whose work addresses political and cultural issues through a variety of programs including fellowships, prizes, and the literary magazine Witness. As he settled into his new position, Shenk discussed the center’s role in the culture of creative writing and what he plans to bring to the organization.

Tell me about BMI. What’s it about?
Nine years ago the outgoing president of UNLV, Carol Harter, brought together some faculty and donors and started a program to advance literature and the humanities. It’s a really unusual mix: part community center [based] on the model of the Loft in Minneapolis; part international literary activist [organization] like PEN; part booster to an academic creative writing culture like the Kelly Writers House [in Philadelphia]; and part incubator, offering shelter and support to writers and scholars. The programs are really eclectic and rich. We’ve had everyone from Leslie Jamison to George Packer to Wole Soyinka as guests. We created the first City of Asylum for writers in peril. And we funded a translation series with Archipelago Books that included the English editions of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle.

What’s on your agenda as the new executive director?
To steward these programs and—with my colleagues—to articulate the next stage of BMI’s mission. And all this is undergirded by a recent commitment of thirty million dollars from the Rogers Foundation, led by our board member, Beverly Rogers.

You are a founding adviser of the storytelling series the Moth, and your second book, Powers of Two: How Relationships Drive Creativity, explores the power of what you call “creative intimacy” in the arts and sciences. How does your sense of storytelling and your research on collaboration influence your vision for BMI?
Well, I’m a big believer in institutional collaboration. Within UNLV, BMI works with students and faculty. In Las Vegas, we serve the community alongside key players like the Writer’s Block, a new independent bookstore and literary center founded by Scott Seeley, who is the former director of 826NYC, and his partner, Drew Cohen. And on the national and international scene, I’d like to explore alliances where we can do more together than alone—like with the Moth, or McSweeney’s Publishing, or the Los Angeles Review of Books, or PEN Center USA, where I’m a new board member. It’s funny, because I didn’t think about this when I was writing my book. But the story of how organizations work together has rich parallels with how people work together well. And of course it starts with the people in these organizations. So I’m thinking a lot these days about chemistry.

How does BMI determine what issues and projects to support? Given the current political climate, it must be tricky.
Social concern is a critical part of our mission. We care about what’s happening in the world and we want to play a part in advancing free, honest, artful expression. But I don’t think we’re political in the ordinary sense of the word—we’re not sectarian. We’re not trying to answer questions so much as raise them, or, maybe, to clarify the critical questions in ways that promote cross-cultural conversation. This goes back to your question about storytelling. I do believe that we tell stories to live, but that line from Joan Didion is often quoted in a superficial way. What she’s saying is there’s a constant danger of entropy, of the center not holding. And I think writers have a critical role in finding the meaning and the underlying structures—the basic human truths that we can organize ourselves around.

Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum is a poet, an editor, and a lecturer at the University of Colorado in Boulder. He is the author of a poetry collection, Ghost Gear, published by the University of Arkansas Press in 2014. His website is andrewmk.com.