The College of Arts and Humanities at Fresno State is the largest college on campus, encompassing nine departments, and the Armenian Studies Program.

Each year, new faculty are brought on to elevate the academic offerings here at Fresno State. These new faculty members bring innovative research, diverse fields of study and technical expertise to our college, inspiring new ways of thinking throughout our many disciplines.

Over the next few weeks, we will introduce you to these new faces, by department.

Department of English

Venita Blackburn

Venita Blackburn joins us as an author and Assistant Professor of English with an emphasis in fiction writing.

Question: What are you most looking forward to, teaching at Fresno State?

Answer: I’m looking forward to getting back in the classroom. It’s strange to non-teaching folks in my circles, but I actually really enjoy teaching. All of my aptitude tests have told me so. The graduate classes are really exciting, too. It’s fun to see progression of interest and skill in the students.

Q: Your debut story collection, Black Jesus and Other Superheroes, was published in September 2017 by the University of Nebraska Press, after winning the Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Fiction. What’s your collection about, and what about the book makes you the most proud?

A: Yup, that’s my book, and it’s really about people that have subtle and sometimes startling powers that prove more troubling than super. There are themes of family, sexuality, religion, and such, but it is really about coping with talents in a world that has lost the way to measure those skills, and in many ways invokes suffering where there is misunderstanding.

I’m really proud and amazed at how well the book has been received on the prize circuit. I did almost no publicity after publication, and it still made it to the PEN and Young Lions finalist stage.

Q: What are your teaching specialties? How did you become involved with those areas?

A: I’m very much a sentence writer. That sounds obvious, ha! But there are distinctions between lyrical and narrative work. I care about plot and structure and momentum, but I care more about language and voice and syntax that can evoke emotion. That, along with the flash fiction form, are my specialties, I suppose.

Flash fiction is fun because it is timely with our civilization of reduced attention spans. That’s my TV answer. Lovers of literature recognize how challenging the form is and how some people make it look so easy when fitting a lifetime of human insight into 500 words is pretty spectacular.

Q: How do you hope your background will elevate the English Department’s offerings at Fresno State?

A: I didn’t grow up in Fresno, but I did grow up in California. I lived in Compton up until I moved to Arizona for grad school. I’d love to say being a person of color is going to offer me a lot of license to interpret the souls of my students based on the demographics, but truthfully that only goes so far.

I have this problem I’ve had my whole life—it’s an honesty reflex. I tell people what I see. In workshops, honesty is really all we can offer each other of value as long (as it comes in context, of course).

Q: What are you reading right now?

A: I just read the novel Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera, and loved it. I kept flipping back to the author’s name expecting to read a different age or gender or nationality because the accuracy of perspective is so precise yet vast.

Q: What is a book you think everyone should read, and why?

A: Read Signs right now, for sure.

Q: What’s a fun fact people may not know about you?

A: I studied martial arts as a kid, and I recently took courses on yoga instruction. Writers need to take care of our bodies.

Q: What are your fall 2018 office hours?

A: Tuesdays and Thursdays, 1 to 1:50 p.m., and Mondays and Wednesdays, 3 to 3:50 p.m., in PB 439.


Brynn Saito

Brynn Saito joins us as an author and an Assistant Professor in English with an emphasis in poetry writing.

Question: What are you most looking forward to, teaching at Fresno State?

Answer: The students, most definitely. In 2015, I had an opportunity to visit Fresno State for WordFest, and I had a wonderful time with the inquisitive, diverse, and incredibly fierce student community of writers. I’m excited to be back.

I grew up in Fresno, and I graduated from Buchanan High School in Clovis. My parents met at Fresno State, my grandmother finished her degree here, and my grandfather worked in the library—what a family legacy! I always envisioned one day returning here—after nearly two decades away—to be a part of the Central Valley’s rich literary ecosystem. Fresno State has made that a possibility, and I’m honored to be joining the teaching and learning community this fall.

Q: Your second poetry collection, Power Made Us Swoon, was published in April 2016 by Red Hen Press. What are the themes of your collection, and what about the book makes you the most proud?

A: This second book, more so than my first, reckons with the landscapes and histories that made me, and made my family. The story of the WWII-era Japanese American incarceration figures prominently in the collection, as the speakers attempt to understand that event and its afterlife. A woman warrior appears throughout the book, practicing her bravery in mundane spaces like bars and bedrooms and traffic jams. I suppose the book is interested in the powerful myths and historical energies that weave through the fabric of our everyday lives. We forget about those forces so easily, but they’re as present as the air we breathe.

Q: What are your teaching specialties? How did you become involved with those areas?

A: Besides teaching the art and craft of poetry writing, I also have an interest in poetics, literary theory, community-based poetry and art-making, poetry and politics, and ecopoetry.

I have an interdisciplinary background: My first teaching assistant job was in an introductory Buddhism class in NYU’s religious studies department (many years ago!). I was—and continue to be—interested in the social forces that shape us (religion, politics, power), as well as how we make sense of our worlds (I studied philosophy in college). I often bring that critical, interdisciplinary lens to the teaching and writing of poetry.

For many years, I taught in a Bachelor of Arts completion program with a pedagogy inspired by teachers like Paolo Freire and bell hooks. For me, education is the practice of freedom (in hooks’ words) and poetry-writing is an alchemical art that liberates, expands thoughts and hearts. Potentially! And, my recent work with Central Valley farmer and artist, Nikiko Masumoto, and the Yonsei Memory Project—as well as recent teaching-and-learning intensives in Chiapas, Mexico—has shown me the transformative power of community-based, arts-inspired education in spaces outside of the formal academy.

Q: How do you hope your background will elevate the English Department’s offerings at Fresno State?

A: Growing up in Fresno, I turned, again and again, to the poets and writers hailing from our region—Sherley Anne Williams, Philip Levine, Lawson Inada, Juan Felipe Herrera—in order to make sense of my life, my family, our struggles and joys. I hope to do all I can to champion the English Department—and the larger University—as a place that’s actively nurturing the ecosystem of Valley writers and artists.

I suppose I’ve considered myself—and have become, over the years—someone who builds bridges: between communities, within the classroom space, within disciplines, and between the community and the academy. I hope to bring that collaborative, experimental, community-building spirit to Fresno State’s Creative Writing Program. And, I greatly look forward to learning from the English Department’s students, staff, and faculty, as I deepen my own practices as a writer, teacher, and leader.

Q: What are you reading right now?

A: A few books and journals are stacked on my bedside table at the moment: Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants; Professionals of Hope: The Selected Writings of Subcomandante Marcos; and Danez Smith’s new book of poems, Don’t Call Us Dead.

Q: What is a book you think everyone should read, and why?

A: Adrienne Rich’s What is Found There: Notebooks on Politics and Poetry transformed how I think about poetry’s place in the social world. Her essays gave me a new understanding of what a poem is doing—its power, possibilities.

A poem isn’t a philosophical blueprint, Rich says. It’s “an instrument for embodied experience” that can “uncover desires and appetites buried under the accumulating emergencies of our lives.” I love that! A poem isn’t a dead thing; it’s an experience. It’s alive. It can reveal and uncover in us—in our culture—truths that need to be surfaced, heard.

Q: What’s a fun fact people may not know about you?

A: I’ve been skydiving! I can’t believe I actually jumped out of a plane hovering at 13,000 feet—over two miles—above land. Remembering that fact confounds me now. I’ve also learned martial arts from Korean mountain monks in the dead of winter. That fact also confounds me.

Q: What are your fall 2018 office hours?

A: My office hours will be held on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 11:15 a.m. to 1:45 p.m., and by appointment, in PB 447.


Joseph Cassara

Joseph Cassara joins as an author and an Assistant Professor in English with an emphasis in fiction writing.

Question: What are you most looking forward to, teaching at Fresno State?

Answer: I am really looking forward to meeting my students this semester and discussing the state of contemporary fiction. I’ve added quite a few short stories to my syllabus that have been published within the past year, so I’m excited to hear how my students respond to these new texts. It’s always refreshing to pair established and canonical works with new voices, and I want to show my students the types of conversations that are taking place in the world of literary fiction.

Q: Your debut novel, The House of Impossible Beauties, was published in February 2018 by Ecco Press, an imprint of HarperCollins. What’s your book about, and what about the book makes you the most proud?

A: If I had to deliver a one-line elevator pitch for the book, I’d say it’s about a group of queer Latinx teens in the New York City ball scene of the 1980s and ’90s. It’s similar to the television show “Pose” that just recently aired. I wanted to write a book that fused the traditions of the American Family Novel with a queer and Nuyorican aesthetic sensibility.

I’m really happy when I see people engaging with the book, whether that be a book critic, a young queer person, or someone on Instagram. I’m most proud when individual readers send me messages on social media about their experience reading the book. I spent a couple of years of my life working on it alone, so now that it is out in the world, it’s always surreal and exciting to see people engaging with it.

Q: What are your teaching specialties? How did you become involved with those areas?

A: I teach creative writing, and my specialty is fiction. While I do enjoy teaching short stories, my main specialty as a novelist is in long-form fiction. I’m interested in the ways that book-length projects are structured, whether it be a novel or a collection of stories that are joined by a shared set of characters or themes. I have also taught courses on contemporary LGBT novels and the literary output associated with the Nuyorican Poets Cafe.

Q: How do you hope your background will elevate the English Department’s offerings at Fresno State?

A: I’m really interested in the ways that diverse voices are changing the landscape of contemporary American letters, and I hope that the texts I assign on my syllabi reflect that diversity. Fresno State is such a diverse campus in one of the most culturally rich regions of the entire country, and I hope that I can use my training as a fiction writer to help students become stronger writers so they can bring to life the stories they feel are vital and integral lenses into contemporary American life.

I’m also excited to join the department at the same time with Venita Blackburn, who is a fabulous short-fiction writer. I think that my focus on the long form and her focus on short stories will allow students to study the full range of possibilities in fiction.

Q: What are you reading right now?

A: I usually read multiple books at once, so here are the three books on my nightstand right now: “How to Love a Jamaican” by Alexia Arthurs, “A Place For Us” by Fatima Farheen Mirza, and “There There” by Tommy Orange. All three of them are debuts that were published this summer, and they’re all fantastic.

Q: What is a book you think everyone should read, and why?

A: “A Brief History of Seven Killings” by Marlon James. Don’t let the title mislead you: This Booker Prize-winning novel is anything but brief. It’s about 700 pages long, if I recall correctly, and it alternates between about 70 first-person narrators. It’s a page-turner that is also a master class in voice and narration. I couldn’t put it down when I first read it a couple of years ago.

Q: What’s a fun fact people may not know about you?

A: I love to collect old records and I practice hot yoga—though it’s been so hot here this summer, I haven’t had a chance to visit the local studio yet!

Q: What are your fall 2018 office hours?

A: I’ll be in my office on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 1:30 to 3:30 p.m., or by appointment. If any student can’t come to campus during those hours, I plan on holding video conferences via Zoom as well.