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Saturday, June 3, 2023

Faculty & Staff

UH-D professor helps further creative writing program’s legacy

Oscar Aguilar/The Cougar

The Great Recession and the consequential loss of 8.7 million jobs hindered the livelihood of many Americans and dampened their outlook on the future, but Daniel Peña’s career and confidence originated from the historic downturn, as it left him with only one option: to follow his dream of becoming a writer — a profession so unpredictable he took flying lessons as a backup plan.

“There weren’t any jobs for anyone in my generation, so I had to write,” said Daniel Peña, an assistant creative writing professor and adviser at UH-D. “I had nothing better to do.”

Peña published his first novel in January 2018 and shapes UH-D’s creative writing program through his lectures and the Bayou Review — the university’s literary magazine.

His novel and contributions to Ploughshares and the Guardian focus on the Latino community, their problems and the systems that tear their families apart, such as the U.S. immigration policy.

His book, “Bang,” took him multiple research trips to Mexico and seven years to complete. The book depicts how current legal systems make it impossible for families to reunite after being separated for legal reasons, he said.

Paul Kintzele, an assistant chair for the Department of English at UH-D, said Peña’s work helps students understand the process behind writing.

“He’s brought life and energy to the creative writing program,” Kintzele said. “He inspired students on the literary magazine to dream big and think of new, creative ways to make unheard voices heard.”

Under Peña’s guidance, the Bayou Review recently published a special edition on prison writing. Bayou Review members reached out to incarcerated writers across Texas and published their work, Kintzele said.

Peña does this while fulfilling the university’s teaching requirements: three classes in the fall and four in the spring. On top of his work for the university, Peña’s active role in publishing and writing makes him a valuable resource for students, Kintzele said.

Peña said he teaches creative writing classes and some freshman courses at UH-D.

“It feels good to be helping to cultivate the students there,” Peña said. “There’s also a lot of voices that I can help shape, put books in their hands.”

He loves UH-D because of the support and incredible spirit of creative writing in the UH system, he said.

The start of a dream

Peña’s passion for writing dates back to his teenage years.

Growing up in Austin in a STEM-heavy household, he lacked context on what it means to be a writer, Peña said. Because of this, it took 18 years for Peña to immerse himself in the discipline.

During his senior year of high school, faculty removed him from one of his classes and assigned him to library duty, he said. By his last semester he was spending entire days there, reading anything he could get his hands on, Peña said.

Peña then realized he could write sonnets, villanelles.

A villanelle is a difficult poem structure with specific rules. It is a 19 line poem containing five tercets — a rhyming three line stanza— with one alternate rhyming four line stanza, or quatrain, at the end. On top of abiding by the rules of tercets and quatrains, the villanelle itself only has two rhymes and the first and third lines of the opening tercet alternately repeat in the last lines of the succeeding stanzas. Finally, the ending lines of the last stanza are the two alternating lines throughout the poem.

Even being able to write villanelles, Peña still ruled out other options before declaring his college major.

In the months before starting his first semester at Texas A&M University, Peña interned for Texas Sen. Eddie Lucio.

“There was a part of me that wanted to go into government, and there was another part of me who really knew in my heart that I wanted to write,” Peña said.

He decided to major in English after his internship, opting to immerse himself in the world of his role models —  novelist Roberto Bolaño,  poet Nicanor Parra and fiction writer Colum McCann, he said.

Peña went on to win the Charles Gordone Award, which recognizes excellence in creative writing at A&M, for his short story “Shadow Workers” during his time as an undergraduate student.

He also completed a 150-hour program to get his pilot’s license while completing his English degree at A&M. But his backup plan of becoming a pilot fell through when Mexicana Airlines, the company Peña planed on working for, went under in 2010, he said.

With no options left, Peña focused on his writing — the excuse he needed all along.

First book

After receiving an MFA in creative writing from Cornell University, Peña devoted himself to his writing career while teaching to earn a steady income, he said. He went to Mexico for book research during the summer, eventually composing his first nationally-renowned piece.

He published “Safe Home” in 2015 and won a Pushcart Prize, an American literary award, the following year.

Peña began working as an assistant professor at UH-D in 2016, where he met people who helped further his career.

Marina Tristan, an assistant director at Arte Público Press, said the agency aims to promote talented Latino authors like Peña, who published his book with them.

Peña writes about topics important to current times, and he takes an active part in promoting his work, Tristan said. He even connected Arte Público Press with Editorial Argonáutica, a new publisher in Mexico, who will potentially translate and publish “Bang” and other Arte Público titles, she said.

“Bang” deals with issues such as the impact of international drug smuggling and living without documents in the U.S on people, she said.

Peña’s book took years of research, and he said he’ll return to Mexico this summer to continue looking for other stories.

His work also contains aspects of his personal experiences, like in the opening scene of “Bang.” The book starts out with a detailed plane crash that only more than 150 flight hours can do justice.

Peña took the first step to reach the legacy of his role models, and he wants even more.

“That’s the dream, man,” Peña said. “Get tenure, buy a plane.”

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