By Jefferson Beavers
Communication Specialist, Department of English
Fresno State English major Rodolfo Avelar never imagined himself sitting on a balcony overlooking downtown Minneapolis for his work, reading poetry manuscripts and thinking about graphic design.
This past summer, with help from the College of Arts and Humanities, he didn’t have to imagine it; he was living it.
Thanks to support from gifts made to the Dean’s Council Annual Fund, Avelar was able to focus on a 10-week internship with Milkweed Editions, a highly regarded nonprofit indie press that publishes poetry and literature for both adults and young adults.
Milkweed makes books for such award-winning contemporary authors as Ada Limón, Jake Skeets, Analicia Sotelo, Fady Joudah, and many more.
For Avelar, who has just begun to imagine a professional future for himself in the field of creative writing, the Dean’s Council support lifted a huge weight off his shoulders as he dove into his big-time internship.
“I had decided to somehow go to Minneapolis before I’d heard if I was awarded the support,” Avelar says, “so there was a lot of doubt and worry about whether or not I was making a mistake, if I was going to be able to enjoy my time without the added stress of money.”
When he learned of the college’s support, he felt thankful and proud.
“I know we don’t like to talk about it, but I’ve worried about money my entire life,” Avelar says. “It was so nice to not have to do that while I was in Minneapolis. I was ready to tackle the summer with everything I had.”
Steven Church, a professor of English who coordinates the Master of Fine Arts Program in Creative Writing, says Avelar, as an undergraduate student, has blended seamlessly into the greater community of Fresno writers, especially in his roles as an editorial intern for The Normal School literary magazine and as a student assistant in the Creative Writing office.
“I’ve watched Rudy quietly and quickly master skills and work that many students can’t,” Church says, “and I’ve seen him apply the things he’s learned here toward the professional world of publishing in incredibly mature and sophisticated ways.”
Avelar’s student assistant work in his first year was truly outstanding, Church says.
For The Normal School, Avelar read submissions for the magazine and helped manage and produce dozens of posts for the magazine’s website. For the Philip Levine Prize for Poetry contest, he managed 800-plus submissions. For the MFA program, he produced 10 original pieces of artwork for a social media series on Fresno writers, he started an Instagram channel from scratch and attracted nearly 300 followers in less than a year, and he produced original cover art for the program’s annual Young Writers’ Conference journal — all of this, in addition to the day-to-day office work that supports the program’s many projects and events.
And then came news of the internship.
Church says he was especially impressed when Avelar scored the Milkweed internship, and he’s not sure people understand how coveted those kinds of opportunities can be.
“Most likely, Rudy as an undergrad was competing against MFA graduates with years of experience to land one of those prestigious spots,” Church says. “I’m confident that he will translate that internship into future professional opportunities with other presses.”
Avelar says the internship was very hands-on. He worked closely with Mary Austin Speaker, Milkweed’s art director, on typesetting and copy editing four full-length poetry books. This involved developing a visual style for each manuscript, which he would then make into a book using Adobe InDesign.
“I learned how to plan and format a book so that it’s consistent with both the publisher’s aesthetic and the aesthetic of the author’s manuscript,” Avelar says. “I enjoyed designing the books the most, to be able to work with words in a way that is both literary and visual, and to be able to think about the way text interacts with a page.”
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Avelar designed advertisements for multiple Milkweed titles, which were placed in email newsletters and in national print magazines and publishing websites. He also joined his intern peers in reading book-length manuscript submissions with Milkweed’s publisher and CEO, Daniel Slager.
“I’ve been part of the reading process before, for The Normal School and for campus journals, and reading for Milkweed was a dream,” Avelar says. “It was exciting to be part of the process for such a large publisher. The stuff I read wasn’t always my cup of tea, but I felt supported in the validity of my opinions and ideas. Whenever the interns would meet with Slager, it was a great conversation. He was genuinely interested in our thoughts and whether or not we thought the manuscripts were worth consideration.”
Avelar transferred to Fresno State as a junior in the spring of 2018. At age 22, he’d done the three-and-a-half-year plan at Fresno City College, initially failing his poetry writing and literature classes. At nearly the four-year mark, the time traditionally associated with finishing a bachelor’s degree, Avelar says he felt ashamed of his slow progress.
But with the transfer, he felt like he’d done the impossible, and he finally felt ready to learn and pursue his studies seriously.
“My first semester at Fresno State, I took a poetry writing workshop,” Avelar says. “That class gave me the space to write the first poem that surprised me, that hurt me in a way that healed, and made me feel like this was something I could do.”
The poem was called “I Had a Dream My Dad Died Before I Could Tell Him I’m Gay.” It won the English Department’s Mireyda Barraza Martinez Prize for Social Justice Writing, and it was published in the literary journal Flies, Cockroaches & Poets.
Growing up queer and Latinx “did a number on me,” Avelar says. His low level of self-confidence and security impacted his mental health for years, as his personal struggles with identity manifested themselves as poor grades.
“It was scary,” Avelar says. “I’m glad I’m not in that place anymore.”
Avelar is also making his mark on campus as a scholar, and he’s exploring his identity in the process.
His confidence was so high after earning the Dean’s Council support for the Milkweed internship, he applied for a research grant from Associated Students, Inc. for this fall — and he got that, too. He is currently working with Dr. Melanie Hernandez, an assistant professor of English, on an “auto-ethnographic, illustrated essay that touches on my gender and sexuality, Chicanismo, and my love for ‘The House on Mango Street’ by Sandra Cisneros.”
Avelar first read and wrote about the widely loved Cisneros book in Hernandez’s course on Chicanx literature. He’s taking the work he did in that class and expanding it into something that incorporates essays, poetry, and digital art.
Hernandez says when Avelar combines traditional scholarship with elements of creative writing and graphic art, he’s closely mirroring the ways in which we interact with culture and writing in our everyday lives.
“Rudy experiments with hybrid forms, pushing the boundaries of traditional scholarship,” Hernandez says. “His work challenges notions of what ‘counts’ in the academic world, and it calls out academia for limiting the voices heard in these spaces. His work is profound and personal, but also accessible to many audiences.”
Being able to work in the Creative Writing office, do the Milkweed internship, and now take advantage of the ASI research grant have all made it clear to Avelar that graduate school in creative writing will be in his future.
“I’m thankful for everyone who has not only believed in me but encouraged me, told me I can do it, helped me figure out a way to do it financially,” Avelar says. “The support I’ve gotten from Fresno State in only three semesters has changed everything. When I was ready for that change, Fresno State was ready to help me make it real.”