Mile High Achievers

While the rest of us were bingeing Ted Lasso, baking sourdough and collecting Amazon boxes last year, Regis’ storied group of writers and instructors with Regis’ Mile-High MFA program must have been busy creating, editing and generally adding to their already stellar list of accomplishments. This year, they are reaping the rewards of their hard work with books coming out, and awards coming in.

Here’s a brief look at a few of their accomplishments.

Steven Dunn

Steven Dunn’s career as a writer started at an art show. Originally a visual artist, he was showing his work in downtown Denver when his wife commented on how many words were in his paintings. He realized she had a point. “So, that’s when I started writing,” Dunn said.

The career change has paid off. The author of two novels this year became one of 10 writers to win the 2021 Whiting Award in fiction. The award, which carries a $50,000 prize, recognizes “excellence and promise” in emerging talent. According to the Whiting Foundation. Dunn’s fiction, “has no varnish, only the reporting of life in its dizzying plenitude.” Both of his novels draw on Dunn’s life growing up in West Virginia and serving in the Navy. In Potted Meat, “I wanted to write about poverty from the inside of it, instead of being this person who has transcended poverty and is now writing about it condescendingly,” he said. “I wanted to write about full Black lives in West Virginia the best I could.”

In water & power, he drew from his experiences in the military. “Most narratives you see from the military are from straight white men,” he said. “Their narratives are more valued than anybody’s. And it’s also a singular heroic narrative. So, I wanted to bring more voices in that aren’t usually represented in literature.”

Suzi Q. Smith

Suzi Q. Smith has built a career, and a national reputation, on using words to deliver sometimes uncomfortable truths.

In the course of that career, Smith has compiled an impressive resume: published poet, activist, community organizer, lecturer, artist. She was the founding “slammaster” of Slam Nuba, Denver’s now-famous poetry slam. As one of Mile-High MFA program’s newest affiliate faculty, she now also helps others find their words.

To her, poetry is an act of spirituality as much as it is reflection and care for the soul. “Writing helps us with what we’ve inherited. What we were given. What we have chosen. What we were chosen to do,” Smith notes.

She describes her own creative process as a balance between the excess and void, “Poems come from the excess of emotion. Emotions are heavy. Artists make something or explode.”

Mario Acevedo

Mario Acevedo may be best known for his five-book series chronicling the adventures of Iraq war veteran and vampire private investigator Felix Gomez. As if that weren’t proof enough of his active imagination, he also has authored a graphic novel, short fiction and a young adult novel.

This year, two books Acevedo co-authored hit the shelves: Luther, Wyoming, a novel of the West co-authored with Tomas Alamilla, and Broken Destiny, co-authored with Mark Verwiel. Broken Destiny is not a novel but a historical account of Sgt. William M. O’Loughlin, a tail gunner in World War II who was killed when his airplane was shot down over Italy. On his website, Acevedo notes that Catch-22 author Joseph Heller served as a bombardier in that war, and that “in the book I mused that had O’Loughlin survived the war, perhaps he, too, might’ve penned a literary classic.”

On the other hand, Acevedo calls Luther, Wyoming, “a gritty blend of Frontier drama and pulp fiction.” The plot revolves around a sheriff, a Civil War veteran, stolen loot, murderous bandits and, of course, violent revenge.

Luckily for readers everywhere, Smith chose to create, not explode. Her newest collection, Poems for the End of the World, examines beginnings and endings, and the ways transitions can both damage and save us.

Janna Goodwin

Janna Goodwin’s collection of essays, The End of the World Notwithstanding: Stories I Lived to Tell, might signal the close of her first career. It definitely has raised the curtain on her next. After three decades writing and performing onstage, Goodwin’s interest shifted toward writing. But she wrote one last piece before retiring from theater. The resulting hour-long solo comedy piece was a success from New York to Denver, and the pieces she published based on the show eventually became The End of the World.

In the book, Goodwin details anxiety about the possibility of encountering a tsunami in the Pacific Northwest, a near-encounter with a tornado and delves into deeper topics, including one chapter about sexual assault that never made it into the live performance. “I wanted to tell these stories in the show, (but) my director and some preview audiences said it changed it from a kind of lively and light-hearted comedy,” she said. “‘I took it out of the show. The whole chapter was put back in when I realized that it might fly in a literary collection a little bit better. And I think it does.”

David Heska Wanbli Weiden

David Heska Wanbli Weiden has had a busy year, keeping track of all the honors, awards and nominations that have piled on his first novel, Winter Counts. The novel by Weiden, an enrolled member of the Sicangu Lakota nation, has been described as “a Native thriller, an examination of the broken criminal justice system on reservations, and a meditation on Native identity.” Weiden’s flawed hero, Virgil Wounded Horse, is a sort of vigilante on South Dakota’s Rosebud Reservation, where the author spent time during his childhood. Wounded Horse is the guy crime victims turn to for the “justice” they can’t get from federal officials and tribal police. But the story apparently resonated with readers, reviewers and award-givers far beyond the reservation. Winter Counts won the 2021 Barry Award for best first novel, was nominated for the prestigious 2021 Edgar Award for Best First Novel, the Spur Awards for Best Contemporary Novel and Best First Novel and the Macavity Award, the Barry Award and the Thriller Award, all for best first novel. And, it won the High Plains Book Award for Indigenous Writer. There are more, but you get the idea.

Jenny Shank

Jenny Shank grew up in Denver, and her hometown is the setting for several stories in her latest collection, Mixed Company. The stories, which examine the ways people forge connections, or fail to, often against a backdrop of racial tension, won the 2020 George Garrett Fiction Prize. In stories that name drop Denver locations, Shank takes us back to school. Lightest Lights Against Darkest Darks follows a white student who is bused to a majority Black middle school, where she navigates relationships in unfamiliar territory and becomes enchanted by a charismatic and racially ambiguous art teacher.

In Hurts, a scrappy, majority-Black girls’ basketball team fights prejudice and the benefits of wealth as they take on the girls of an affluent mountain-town school.

The characters are fictional, but the experiences Shank bases them on are real. As a child, she was bused from her southeast Denver neighborhood to schools across town. Busing to promote integration and greater equity in schools was a controversial practice that prompted many white families to run for the suburbs. But Shank said she’s thankful for the experience. “It shaped my whole life. I met so many people I would never have met otherwise, who are still my friends.”

Those friends from different parts of town, different backgrounds, different races, no doubt provided Shank the writer with not only rich material to draw from, but broader empathy and understanding.

Take your writing to new heights

Regis University’s Mile-High MFA is a low-residency creative writing program that provides one-on-one instruction in poetry, fiction or creative nonfiction. Our unique focus on both the craft and business of writing prepares you to launch your career as a professional writer.

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