Nearly 10 years after the founding of UNLV’s Black Mountain Institute, it’s still a fair question to ask: What exactly is the Black Mountain Institute? The question is spurred not by a lack of mission, but by BMI’s multiplicity of missions. For aspiring creative writers, the now-named Beverly Rogers, Carol C. Harter Black Mountain Institute is a source of vital support for graduate studies at UNLV. For established authors, it is home to some of the nation’s most sought-after fellowships, allowing them the time and space to complete their projects. To international writers endangered in their home countries, it is a City of Asylum — a place to come and create without death threats and censorship. To literary-minded Southern Nevadans, it is a producer of provocative panels that scrutinize everything from the magic of jazz to the moral quandaries of modern medicine. To the casual reader of headlines, it’s the place that over the past three years has inspired donations and pledges of more than $35 million.
But when those out-of-town guests come and smirk and ask you about high culture in Vegas, how do you encapsulate BMI in a single elevator pitch?
“One of our core purposes,” says Joshua Wolf Shenk, the renowned author who has just begun his work as BMI’s executive director, “is to be a source of positive attention for UNLV as a hotbed of intellectual, literary, and artistic activity.”
But Shenk, like his predecessor, BMI founder and UNLV President Emerita Carol C. Harter, knows it’s more than that: Black Mountain, he says, is a portal, an organic network of relationships that ground our ever-changing city in an ageless literary tradition. It is an aspiration, a longing, a focal point for a community’s evolving efforts to find its place in the cultural cosmos. And most of all — as a new team including Shenk, artistic director Maile Chapman, and director of literary nonfiction Sally Denton settles into pristine offices in the Beverly Rogers Literature and Law Building — BMI is a field of possibility, the sum of the dreams of the people who work there.
This is a conversation about those dreams.
Carol C. Harter, BMI founder and executive director, 2006-2015; president of UNLV, 1995-2006. Harter is now the chair of the BMI Advisory Board. She is the co-author of two books, John Irving and E.L. Doctorow, and has published numerous articles on literary topics and higher education issues.
Joshua Wolf Shenk, executive director and writer-in-residence of the Black Mountain Institute and author of Lincoln’s Melancholy and Powers of Two: How Relationships Drive Creativity. Read the extended conversation about his background.
Maile Chapman, ’10 PhD Creative Writing, BMI artistic director, assistant professor of English, and author of the novel Your Presence Is Requested at Suvanto. She is the former facilitator for the literature and medicine program at University Medical Center. She’s also the Alumna of the Year for the College of Liberal Arts, read A Moment of Doubt.
Sally Denton, BMI director of literary nonfiction and community relations. Denton, an investigative reporter and Nevada native, is the author of eight nonfiction books including The Money and the Power: The Making of Las Vegas, American Massacre: The Tragedy at Mountain Meadows, and the forthcoming The Profiteers: Bechtel and the Men Who Built the World.
Literature and the Art of Open Eyes
Maile Chapman: I periodically reread a book, Wired for Story by Lisa Cron. It’s a neuroscientific look at why the brain is drawn to literature, to story, to narrative. The idea is that evolutionarily, stories have been our only way of finding out how to survive in a circumstance, literally or metaphorically, that we haven’t encountered — and maybe never will. Why would we take the time to become so engrossed in a story? There must be a benefit — and the benefit is that we learn about the world, and we learn about empathy, and we learn what’s possible, and we learn what kind of people we are by weighing what we might do in similar circumstances.
Joshua Shenk: Literature has this unusual ability to create connection and understanding and whatever the opposite of loneliness is. The irony is that it’s often created alone and received alone, but it creates this crackle of energy for those of us on either side of the divide to meet each other. And people who have that experience, they often want to be together, physically. BMI is that meeting place. We create experiences where readers and writers can sense the energy that is very often living in quieter places.
Chapman: That’s one of the reasons our events include writers from different backgrounds and different perspectives, people who sometimes don’t agree with each other.
Carol C. Harter: From the time we started [in 2006], we knew that it was important to establish with the community that literature and the study of literature are worthy activities. We created these events and made them free and open to everyone. And we brought in writers people would recognize and asked them to talk about subjects that were really important. Sometimes they were political, sometimes they were historical, sometimes they were aesthetic.
Chapman: The conversation always goes into places you don’t expect it to go. A good example was the first Jim Rogers Contrarian Lecture with Walter Mosley this last spring. The topic was higher education, but he spoke to a large extent about race — and it was fascinating. I haven’t spoken to anyone who had a neutral reaction to that. He really woke people up in their seats.
Harter: When we did the “Was Jesus Married?” panel in 2014, the Beam Music Center was packed — there were two rows of people sitting on the floor, up and down the aisles, outside. We had, thankfully, a TV outside, because everybody wanted to hear it. And at our 2008 panel on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I wound up playing this policewoman — because It. Was. Hot. But I think it’s good to get some creative friction.
Chapman: When things matter, feelings run high. You can’t have significance without emotional involvement. Forging a new way of looking at something can be uncomfortable. But when we study literature — and when we listen to the writers at our events — it helps us not only to see what’s going on in the world, but also in many cases to enjoy what’s going on. I think of it as the So You Think You Can Dance effect. I watch something and I think, “Wow, that was an amazing waltz.” Then I hear the judges say, “Well, this was working, this wasn’t.” Without my thought being guided a bit, I wouldn’t have recognized those nuances. We’re trying to offer people things that allow them to use their critical thinking faculties — we don’t get that all the time in everyday life.
Shenk: Literature is about emotional realities, it’s about vulnerability, it’s about yearning, it’s about heartbreak. Maile and I were reflecting today on the potency of our Emerging Writers Series. The MFA and PhD students select four writers a year to speak here, and it’s very telling that they’re catching people just before they become national sensations. It’s like an early-warning system. If you want to know what books will be featured in the New York Times Book Review podcast, that’s one thing. But I’d rather know what books are keeping a 24-year-old writer awake all night. These students aren’t thinking about the writer’s reputation; they’re thinking about the sentences that make it feel like there’s superglue in their eyelids, that feeling of being so wide-eyed that you see the world in a totally new way.
Harter: Of course, not every panel has been as successful as we had wished. We had one case where everybody, including the moderator, had had too much to drink at the reception. I was in the front row, and I thought, “I’m going to die. I’m going to jump up on that stage and take over!”
The Changing of the Guard
Harter: Literature is where I started out, so after 11 years as president at UNLV, coming back to my academic roots in 2005 to start the Black Mountain Institute was like returning home. Now, after I’ve worked for 51 years, I finally said, “It’s time.” It’s not easy to let go; when you retreat from something you love, it’s always a little painful. But I think this enterprise needs a constant infusion of younger people with new voices who see the world differently. When we were searching for my successor, I tried not to have a preconceived notion of who that person might be. Josh won out in his willingness, in front of a very large search committee, to think out loud and not to have a bunch of canned answers. He was so open to what could happen here that we felt that this is a person who’s going to have more ideas than we could possibly deal with — and that’s what’s so good. He’s like a lightning bug in a bottle.
Sally Denton: When we hired Josh, all of a sudden my agent and editor and everybody in New York were like, “So what is that Black Mountain that you work for?” As Black Mountain becomes better known, people who want to go into a writing program are going to ask themselves, “Where do I want to be? Let me see: Iowa? Vegas?” You know, that’s going to be kind of a no-brainer.
Chapman: All of the things that Carol and [cofounder and former BMI literary director] Richard Wiley have worked on are bearing fruit.
Denton: And the expansion of the literary nonfiction program through the English department [in the next few years] is really important to our growth. Any serious writer in America today, even if their passion is fiction, is going to have to write nonfiction if they want to make a living.
Shenk: If I was coming out of college today, I would almost certainly get an MFA in literary nonfiction. When I was graduating, I think there was one program in the country that offered an MFA in nonfiction. It was not part of the culture for nonfiction writers at all. And that has radically changed.
Denton: BMI has always been this insular jewel that nobody quite understands. But Beverly Rogers’ unbelievable $30 million pledge really has kind of catapulted us into the public eye.
Shenk: Beverly Rogers [’77 BA History and ’06 MA English] is coming from an ideal place: She wants to sustain, develop, and encourage the literary arts; she believes in BMI as a vehicle for that, and she’s entirely supportive without an egoistic agenda. If you were to survey directors of literary nonprofits and say, “OK, hypothetical: Someone comes to you with a $30 million gift,” people would be excited, for sure, but they’d also be wary. They would assume that the donor’s whims would suddenly dictate the agenda. But we have a very unusual donor.
Denton: There aren’t a lot of people who just generously and genuinely give their money to something and say, “You guys know what you’re doing, do it, do it right.” That’s so rare. It’s so authentic.
Chapman: We still can’t do everything, and we still very much need to cement our existence in other ways. This gift doesn’t solve every problem. Actually, it creates a bunch of really wonderful new problems.
Harter: This is not the end. Beverly built upon the more than $4 million we raised before her first $10 million pledge. And that led to another $1 million from another donor. She wants to leverage the money to get other people involved. She wants people to say, “I want to be in that club, too!”
Shenk: The donation puts us in a potent situation. It’s venture capital that allows us to create programs that really demonstrate their promise and that generate sustaining support.
The Institute, the City and the Future
Shenk: I want us to be anchored in the literary arts, in storytelling that’s compelling and maybe shocking, and ultimately transformative for both the person creating it and the person experiencing it. I also want us to work in a way that recognizes that we’re alive on this planet at a time when there are real needs: We’re not just closing our eyes and pretending we’re floating about the world without purpose. There is a role for the writer in the culture.
Harter: There’s a pent-up cultural demand in Las Vegas among intellectuals, businesspeople, lawyers. Folks want to avail themselves of these kinds of high-level conversations. They want to meet these writers and thinkers and listen to their viewpoints. We’ve been drawing different audiences, too, and that’s really important. When we did our jazz panel in 2011, probably half the audience was African-American. And when we did our medical ethics panel in 2012, we had two guys come in scrubs. I mean, they literally came off the operating room floor to hear the panel.
Chapman: If I could wave my magic wand and make it happen right now, I would like to be connected to the [Veterans Administration hospital], and in the future I’d like to be connected to the medical school UNLV is now creating. Humanities reading and discussion groups for doctors, patients, and veterans have real, measurable benefits. In my hometown, Tacoma, Washington, there’s a creative writing program at the hospital for kids who are patients or whose parents are patients and are gravely ill. That’s not an ivory tower pursuit. That’s the kind of benefit we can provide to the city.
Denton: I’m a fourth-generation Nevadan, born in Elko and raised in Boulder City, and I’d like to see us do more outreach to Nevada writers. I think there’s always been this kind of inferiority complex among native Nevadans: “If it’s here — if it’s ours — it’s probably no good.” And that’s really something to overcome.
Black Mountain and the World
Shenk: At my core, I’m an optimist for the enduring values of connection, of moral instruction, of entertaining the possibility of transcendence. In any age, there are overwhelming forces against these core values. In any age, it seems that they will be, could be, any day now, crushed and annihilated. And yet they persist and endure. There’s often a paradox at play that the more these values are threatened, the stronger they assert themselves.
Chapman: UNLV established the first City of Asylum in North America. That goes back to 2001, even before BMI was born. We bring writers here who are imperiled in their home countries, and we give them a $60,000 fellowship and housing. Right now, Hossein Abkenar, an Iranian writer renowned for the film No One Knows About Persian Cats, is here with his son — and he can’t go back. Last year, we tried very hard to help a writer out of Syria. [BMI Assistant Director] Joe Langdon corresponded with him extensively, but he just couldn’t get over the border. Joe has the last email, and we have no idea what has happened. That was really awful.
Denton: I made it my personal mission to find out what happened, and then I got a clear message from the State Department: Stop asking. The international authors who come here are seriously under threat. This isn’t just like, “I’m writing poetry and it ticked somebody off.” It’s really important to understand that this is still going on in the world, and for us to do something about it. But what happens is after they’re here a year or two, there’s often no place for them to go next, so we’d really like to find more money to keep them.
Shenk: I pitched PEN Center USA in Los Angeles, where I’m a board member, an idea for them to come on as a cosponsor and to integrate our City of Asylum fellows into the literary life of Los Angeles. It’s the nearest big literary city, a place with a lot of ethnic communities that would respond to our City of Asylum writers. The idea is that we go to PEN’s base of support and look for help sustaining the program in the future. But we get to drive that process, because we’re already running the program, and we’ve shown its power.
Denton: When you come here as a fellow — whether for City of Asylum or for an ordinary fellowship, which is what originally brought me back to Las Vegas — BMI provides you with everything that you need to do your work, and they take it very seriously. For me as a writer, being at BMI has been the most remarkable experience of anyplace I’ve ever been. I’ve had a Guggenheim Fellowship, and I’ve been at the Woodrow Wilson Center. But there’s nothing like this place for collegial support.
Shenk: We’re here to serve the community, and that’s a big reason they insisted on having a resident director. This job was appealing to a lot of people who wanted to spend a couple of days a week here, and that was a nonstarter. I’m here and committed to engaging the community and also connecting it with New York, Los Angeles, Berlin. At its heart, BMI is a portal — it’s welcoming the wider world into UNLV, and it is exposing what happens at UNLV to the wider world.
Denton: I feel like I’m in on the ground floor of something that’s just about to explode into something really wonderful, and my affection is that it’s in Nevada. You know, I wouldn’t be hanging around a literary institute in Iowa. My great hope is to enhance literature in the state of Nevada. If I were to write a national piece, I wouldn’t do the obvious lead: “Who thought it would be in Vegas?” Instead, I’d write a whole piece about this unbelievable literary institute in the desert and talk about the landscape and the caliber of writing and all of that, and then the last line: “By the way, it’s in Las Vegas.”
Just What Does BMI Do?
The Black Mountain Institute’s list of things — all of its public programs, innovative collaborations, publications, and fellowships — is long, but it all comes down to stimulating literary culture in Las Vegas and around the world in two key ways:
1. Provoking Discussion
Its events and fellowships for established writers bring top thinkers here to focus on issues that reveal timely and timeless truths. Past guests include Michael Chabon (top), Toni Morrison (bottom left, photo by Geri Kodey), Joyce Carol Oates, Cheryl Strayed (bottom center), Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Wole Soyinka, and many more. The Jim Rogers Contrarian Lecture, in particular, courts controversy to expand conversation. It features a person with provocative or dissenting views on a topic. The inaugural event featured novelist Walter Mosley (bottom right).
2. Nurturing Writers
Graduate students receive support via BMI’s fellowships and travel grants, as well as experience editing Witness, which blends the features of a literary and an issue--oriented magazine to draw out modern writers as witnesses to their times. In addition, UNLV students also curate the BMI’s Emerging Writers Series, which brings early-career writers from elsewhere to UNLV and UNR for public readings and craft talks.
And Coming Soon…
- This Piece Saved My Life: Original talks by writers on works of art that had such a seminal impact on their vision that they’d call them “life-saving.”
- The Believer @BMI: A multimedia festival in collaboration with The Believer, a leading literary magazine and part of the McSweeney’s publishing group.
- Vet Lit: A colloquy focusing on the creative writing of military veterans and the programs to facilitate literary education in their community.