McKenzie Toma, who will receive an MFA in creative writing (poetry) from the University of Iowa in May 2022, is the winner of a Fulbright Study/Research grant in Creative Writing to Romania for 2022-23.
Hometown: Detroit, Michigan
Award: 2022-23 Fulbright Study/Research grant in Creative Writing to Romania
Degree: MFA in Creative Writing, Poetry
Could you give us a brief synopsis of what you'll be doing with your Fulbright?
I’ll be researching the censorship of queer literature and art (and queer society in general) during the dictatorship of Nicolae Ceaușescu (1965-89) in Romania. The research will be used to write/compile a book consisting of archival documents, photos, ephemera, interviews, maps, etc. that gives a wholistic and poetic representation of the history of queerness under totalitarian communism.
What drew you to this field of study?
I’m queer and a poet, my great-grandparents were from Romania, and I think censorship is an interesting phenomena - just a natural progression and convergence of interests, I guess. Looking at the progression of fascism remains as relevant today as it was then. Censorship is one of the first materializations, albeit conceptual, of the destruction and damage they eventually inflict on a society. Being gay was very illegal at that point in Romania’s history, so queer works are so deeply buried and/or coded--they deserve to be unearthed and seen.
How do you envision this will influence your life/future career?
I think it will allow me to work across media using poetics which is something I am very interested in. Before I came to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, I made work using photo, film, and sculpture, in addition to writing poetry. Bringing my two years of focused poetry writing into other disciplines is really exciting to me. I think it will provide me with the resources to continue developing work in the overlap of visual art, research, and poetics. It will also give me the opportunity to publish a book I care about and illuminate a niche of historic queer culture that hasn’t really been illuminated yet.
What advice do you have for future students interested in applying for a Fulbright?
My advice would be to apply to a country that you are personally connected to and develop a project that is truly meaningful to you. I’m sure there are many ways to go about it, but those two things were important for me. There are so many resources at the University of Iowa to help. What inspired me to pursue a Fulbright was a desire to keep making work that felt important to make. Karen Wachsmuth also inspired me to apply!
Are there individuals you'd like to thank for their investment in this process?
Absolutely! I would love to thank Daniel Borzutzky, James Galvin, and Elizabeth Willis for writing my letters of recommendation and for being so encouraging. Elizabeth guided me through my project proposal as my main advisor and helped me really clarify my idea. Karen Wachsmuth taught me everything about applying for a grant- I had never done it before and knowing how was a huge insight that she is majorly responsible for. Thank you, everyone!
You were also the recipient of a Stanley Award for International Research, do you think that experience in any way contributed to your success as a Fulbright applicant?
I think it did. I think the Fulbright Committee likes to see that you have experience doing research and that was what the Stanley Award was for me. It was my first time doing formal academic research and I really enjoyed having the support to go through these digitized archives to find information about Romanian poet, Ion Negoitescu. Negoitescu was one of the only openly gay writers working during that time of heavy censorship. His works were often withdrawn from circulation upon publication and he was hounded by government officials and jailed. His work hasn't been translated into English--something I hope to do in the future.
Students are encouraged to begin their funding searches and applications at least six months to one year in advance. Schedule an advising appointment with Karen Wachsmuth to discuss your interest in an international fellowship or begin an application (as a UI undergraduate student, graduate student, or alumna/us).