UCLA’s third-ever winner will study creative writing at Trinity College Dublin in 2022
By Jonathan Riggs
Rhiannon McGavin ’20 was watching the 1984 cult classic Repo Man at the Los Feliz 3 theater when she got the call.
“They have such a strict no-phone policy,” she laughs, “so I tore outside the theater as soon as I felt that ring.”
The news was worth missing a movie for — McGavin discovered she earned a slot as one of the 12 members of the George J. Mitchell Scholar Class of 2023, one of Ireland’s most prestigious scholarship programs. The 2016 Youth Poet Laureate of Los Angeles, author of Grocery List Poems and only the third UCLA grad to win the honor in the past 20 years, McGavin will spend her scholarship year studying creative writing at Trinity College.
“It’s completely incredible to have received this award. I can’t wait to meet the other finalists,” she says. “I’ll be working on my third book, Computer Room, and it’s such a privilege to focus on nothing but my writing and research for a full year. I’ve wanted to study at Trinity College since I first visited Dublin at the age of 18, and I’m so excited to get back there.”
When did you first discover your desire to write?
I always made little picture books as a kid and spent a lot of time in the school library, but I had this massive crush on a boy when I was 10 or 11. I figured the best way to woo him was to write a ton of love poems and then never show them to him. This did not work, but I kept writing, and eventually expanded my subject matter beyond a boy’s green eyes.
For the last five years, you have served as your neighborhood’s polling clerk for every city, state and federal election. You also volunteer as a district leader for National Nurses United, working to urge California to pass universal healthcare, and for Alexandria House, a transitional shelter for women and children. How does your community service and political activism influence your work?
My hope for all the work that I do, in writing or community organizing, is to be part of the antidote for the isolation that grids our lives. I always go back to how Ursula K. Le Guin talks about orienting toward the collective in her essay “Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction.” She writes, “A novel is a medicine bundle, holding things in a particular, powerful relation to one another and to us.”
I think so many of the issues in America are rooted in taking people away from their contexts, away from history and any sense of connection to the world around us: convincing people that any problem they suffer came from their own lack of hard work, and concurrently, that we’re not responsible for anyone but ourselves. Helping to undo that thinking is why I’m so excited to be part of the campaign to pass AB1400 for universal healthcare in California. Working with the California Nurses’ Association has taught me so much about community care, and I hope our state assembly members understand their constituents’ needs and pass the bill in January.
Which UCLA faculty members had a special impact on you?
I’m so grateful to my thesis advisor Daniel Snelson! Computer Room would not be the same without his reading recommendations, and I still think of his advice constantly even when I’m writing something outside the sci-fi bend of that project. Reed Wilson, Harryette Mullen and Fred D’Aguiar were all fantastic teachers in workshop; I still have all the poems they printed out and passed on to us.
As your honors thesis, Computer Room was awarded the UCLA English Department’s Thompson Prize, the highest award possible for undergraduate thesis research. How did your time at UCLA shape you and your writing?
I miss [the writing] workshop so much! It’s really so generative, passing drafts back and forth with people. I remember my first ever workshop: Harryette Mullen took us all into the campus botanical garden and had us write tankas [a form of poetry originating in Japan] on what we saw. My writing from that day actually ended up in my last book, Grocery List Poems. For my current manuscript Computer Room, it was so cool to study under Leonard Kleinrock in the Internet Research Initiative. Learning about the internet a few floors up from where it was invented was quite an experience.
UCLA is just such a beautiful campus too, I can’t even say how many jacarandas I’ve got in my poems now. I actually learned how to swim as a baby in the big pool there. Throughout my time as an undergraduate, if I was stuck on a line, I’d swim laps until I thought of something better.
Why is an education in the humanities important for anyone, regardless of what career they pursue?
I think creativity is one of the most basic human traits; it’s such a natural impulse for us, regardless of whether its outcome could ever be monetized. I’m not a great singer, I’d never make a career out of it, but it still feels good to yell along to Paul Simon while I’m cooking. We all deserve those soft corners, and the space for emotional logic that art provides.
Who are some of your favorite writers?
I’ve been reading more of Eavan Boland’s work to prepare for next year; her book Domestic Violence was a revelation. Look by Solmaz Sharif similarly discusses state and intimate histories at the same tenor. Diane di Prima’s collected Revolutionary Letters just came out, and they’re so vibrant to read a few at a time. I reread June Jordan the most. Her essays and poems and interviews are such touchstones. I can always tell when a writer began as a poet before moving onto other genres — their sentences are so lucid.
How do you hope your experience in Ireland will shape you as a writer and a person?
Ireland has such a fantastic literary history, one that’s kept burning by its writers today. I can’t wait to get back to the poetry scene in Dublin. The shows I had there when I was 18 are still some of my favorite nights. None of us come to language alone, and I’m so excited to see how the work of others influences mine. This will be the longest I’ve been outside of Los Angeles my whole life, and I know this will bring so much new insight. Also, people will say my name right all the time, which is exciting.
Explore more of Rihannon McGavin’s work here and learn more about the George J. Mitchell Scholarship here. To learn more about UCLA’s Scholarship Resource Center (which coordinates UCLA’s institutional endorsement/nomination process for nationally competitive scholarships), click here.