Thursday, December 31, 2009

How many credits is your program?

After reading your posts wrapping up the first semester (YAY!), I realized that some of you don't seem to have the same course load as me! I thought that most MFA students would be required to take between 12-18 credits a semester. In any case, my first semester, I was required to take 18 credits. GTAs in other departments are required to take 12. But first-semester English GTAs are required to take 18 in order to teach second semester.

In any case, my program is 48 credits and 3 years long. How many credits is your program? How long is your program? How many credits do you take a semester? Or see yourself taking a semester? Do you feel the course load is too heavy? Too light? Or in the words of Goldilocks, "just right?"

I know it may be a little early to tell, but I'm interested in your first impressions. :)

Ciao! And Happy New Year!

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Google wave workshop

People seem interested, so I'm going to try to start up the Google Wave workshop--looks like it will be pretty laid back and across all genres...

If you're interested, just send me your e-mail address at jsgottliebmiller at gmail dot com. Looking forward to reading everybody's new work...

Any exciting winter plans?

Looking forward to reading more semester wrap-ups, as well...

UPDATE! The GoogleWave workshop has started (I think). So, if you asked to be included and have either sent me your e-mail or have your e-mail on your profile, you should have received a Wave (or an invitation to use GoogleWave--after you sign up we can add you to the Wave). Let me know if you didn't get anything even though I would have tried to tag you.

If you haven't sent me your e-mail and you want to be included, please do send your e-mail...

Monday, December 28, 2009

Wrapping Up My First Quarter at OSU

I meant to write this ages ago, but since it is still a little more than a week before the next quarter, I don't feel like a complete lame-o writing my wrap up now. So let's see, where to start, where to start...

I enjoyed workshop for the most part...We had a class of thirteen, including one fiction writer moonlighting as a poet, and it was for the most part very free form: no assignments, no mandated types of poems, etc. Basically we were told write what we wanted to write. Kathy Fagan, who ran the workshop in the fall, was very accommodating and friendly, and always let me come to her office to freak out, complain, or just palpitate wildly, which I was glad for. The workshop was actually a little more genial than I'm used to, and there were times where I was people bared their teeth a little more, but I did find the support encouraging just as I found several good, productive readers of my work who were unafraid or unwilling to tell me where I needed improvement. Next quarter will be different, I'm certain, but fall was nice and the workshop was a good place for adjustment. I wrote maybe three poems I still currently like, so that's something. We'll see how it goes from here.

The reading series we have at OSU is pretty awesome. We have three really, a visiting writer series, a student-faculty reading series, featuring second years reading with the faculty, and Mother Tongue, a much less formal student-run reading series held at the bottom of a rather overpriced bar. We had Linda Bierds come and dazzle us with her work (we read her Selected Poems in workshop) as well as a host of others including Amit Majmudar and Dan Anderson. The student-faculty readings were great because I was introduced to Andrew Hudgins' work (I hadn't really read him before) and got to here the second year's work which, in the case of the prose writers, I wouldn't have heard much of otherwise. Mother Tongue was always a blast because of the hilarious introductions and light atmosphere that characterize the events.

Additionally we held Writer's Harvest where we beat out the MA's and PhD's in a canned food drive for the Mid-Ohio Food Bank. At the event some fellow writers performed stand-up, sang music in tandem with faculty, raffled off dinners to be made by fellow MFA'ers and all kinds of other fun stuff. It was a gala event in my estimation.

I also read slush for The Journal and for the OSU Wheeler Poetry Prize, which publishes the winning manuscript. It was an eye-opening experience and an unplanned confidence booster considering how much bad poetry came through my desk while I was deciding what to send forward to Andrew (who was the judge this year). I read 50 manuscripts with a partner, and we had a few standouts, but most of them were varying degrees of awful. Yes it's all subjective, but if you have your physician writing the forward to your book of poetry, and he ends the two page preface by saying "hello," you probably need to reevaluate things a bit. Slush reading was much the same, some good stuff, a lot of bad stuff. I tend to think I have a broad range in my tastes, but I surprised myself with how much I was left wanting more from the stuff I read.

The other class I took (GTA's only need to take 9 credit hours and most grad lit/workshop classes are 5 each) was a graduate level intro to film theory and film criticism. I just loved this class. I felt prepared since the required critical theory class I took at UCLA for my major was a special topics class taught by the dean of the film school, maddeningly subtitled The Regime of the Visual and the Hermeneutics of Suspicion. Many of the texts I read for that class (Eisenstein, Saussure, Mulvey) reappeared in my film class, and many of the films we analyzed were ones I hadn't really seen before. It was a lot of work (two short papers, one 15 page final paper) but I found it more enjoyable than vexing. In a way, it confirmed the suspicion I've had that a critical path of study could work me too if I go down that road at some later date. Now I am happy just being an erstwhile MFA taking glee in the fact that he wrote his final film paper on WALL-E.

Teaching was by far the most exhausting and difficult part of my adjustment, but now I feel more than prepared to tackle it next quarter. I've gone through the curriculum now and have a stronger handle on it, and I know some of my weaknesses as a teacher and feel I can account for them. Aside from one minor kerfuffle with a student, last quarter I had a wonderful, patient, and understanding group of students, and I do think they learned from me. However I think I may have been to colloquial with them from the outset, and not as much of a taskmaster and school marm as I should have been. I had a good relationship with a number of my students but I am not sure I had as much respect as I would have liked. My theme next quarter will be more conducive to handling things a little more professionally, but at the same time, part of my persona is being relaxed and somewhat casual. It's a balancing act. Hopefully I can keep on the wire the entire next quarter and not err to far on one side or the other.

Well there you have it. My life as an MFA'er this past fall. Stay tuned for more details!

Obligatory Winter Break/Semester Wrap-Up Post

I'm all Hokie'd out!

Hi Dudes and Dudettes,

Well I must admit it's been quite a while since I last updated, but I'd like to let you all know how things are going at Virginia Tech.

First, I must say this was a hard semester. I didn't think that an MFA program or grad school, in general, would be a breeze, but it was tougher than I expected. I think the hardest thing was the ever-present time management skills...or rather, lack of. Trying to balance social life with school and other commitments was rough. I didn't want to be viewed as anti-social, nor did I want people to stop extending their warm invitations to hang out, so I did sometimes neglect my work.

In addition, I forgot what it was like to just...write! I know it sounds a little silly, but I wasn't writing or concentrating on the things I wanted to do with my writing this semester. My two poetry classes - one a workshop and the other a form class, both focused on forms. I don't really get down with forms, but working with them this semester has been helpful. I just wish I was able to workshop what I wanted to, instead of focusing on villanelles and ghazals that are god-awful and will never see the light of day.

I ended up getting a 20-page teaching portfolio out of my "how to teach composition" course. Wrote a syllabus, three major assignments, as well as other classroom documents for my class that I'll be teaching in the Spring. In addition, I spent half of the semester, observing a PhD student teach the class I'll be teaching next Fall. Also, wrapped up a semester working at the Writing Center. Surprisingly, I felt that throughout the semester, I had an equal number of undergraduate and graduate students. I'm still playing with the idea of returning as a consultant next semester, even though it's not required.

My other classes went okay this semester. There were a few research classes and a New Media creative writing course where strangely, the work I was doing was prose. Ugh. <- Not to all you prose people out there, but why can't I do what I need to be doing!?! lol

In addition to all the classes and social stuff, I survived another few months of the dreaded long distance relationship with my boyfriend. He sent his MFA applications in [again :(] a little over a month ago. He's applying to schools near me, including WVU and UNC, so we'll see how it goes. I'm keeping my fingers, toes, hell, even my eyebrows crossed for him. He's an excellent poet and deserves some good news about school!

I am most excited about the classes I'm taking next semester:

Black American Literature
Editing a Literary Journal [VT has recently acquired the Minnesota Review and the students will oversee the submissions].
Fiction Workshop
Poetry Workshop

I am also toying with the idea of adding another course. Possibly in another department. I am seriously considering working towards a certification in Nonprofit and Nongovernmental Management, as I see it as another option when I finish the MFA. I have a background in nonprofit management, working for several arts organizations and I can see myself returning if the teaching thang doesn't take off right away. The only disappointment in this certification is that it seems Virginia Tech has dissolved their Arts Management program, which upon many searches was active until a few years ago. Yet depending on who I contact, no one has information about it. This is what I was really interested in as a secondary study. And right now, there's only one course being offered in arts and cultural/nonprofit/policy studies. Maybe I'll create my own courses and do independent studies.

In addition to that, I am trying to figure out what I'm doing for the summer and am currently looking at various job opportunities. I am also thinking about what I was my commitments to be for the following semesters. I NEED TO FOCUS MORE ON WRITING. Obviously, that's what I'm in the program for. I just find it hard to focus when I have so many other interests and aspirations. I can't knock those important things out of my head, but I am seeing that it's all about balance.

Well, 2010 will bring a lot of exciting opportunities. I'm going to London and Paris [my first abroad trip] for Spring Break with the BF. I'm presenting at AWP in Denver. And I'm praying for great poetry and many acceptances to lit mags. I'll also be hoping the same for you! We gotta hang in there!

Thanks for reading. I hope you all had a wonderful semester. I'll try checking in a little more often next time!


Monday, December 21, 2009

Is that Google Wave thing happening?

Did I miss the boat? If we haven't decided yet on any google-wave workshopping (or perhaps collaborating?) over the course of the winter break, I'd suggest we get a move-on...

So, are people still interested?

Friday, December 18, 2009

One Semester Down, Five to Go!

By Jennifer Brown

One semester down, 5 more to go!  I hope I keep learning as much as I did this semester.  Over the past four months my writing improved even more than I thought it would over the course of my entire program.  Most of this is thanks to a professor who got on me about my verbs in our first assignment:  I had used the passive voice in just about every other sentence without even thinking about it.  Now, whenever I’m working on something not only do I go back over the piece and re-write every sentence with a “to be” verb, I go back over most of the verbs and make sure that they are the strongest and most precise available.   Strong verbs, strong verbs, strong verbs!  Strong nouns are important too, but I come by those a little more naturally (in other words without the constant help of the thesaurus).

There are many interesting classes to take at George Mason—the list of available classes for each semester always makes me feel like I’ve picked the right place do my MFA.  This past semester I took a required Forms of Fiction class, where we read and wrote each week; a Setting class, where we read and wrote each week; and a literature class.  I am really tied to place in my work, so the Setting class was perfect for me.  And speaking of perfect—I couldn’t believe it when I saw the list of classes for next semester.  There is a “War Writing” class offered—and I’m thinking of doing a war novel for my thesis!  I take that as a sign from the gods that I’m on the right track with my thoughts about my thesis.   In addition to War Writing, I have Fiction Workshop and Forms of Nonfiction next semester.  I’m taking Forms of Nonfiction because at GMU we must take a cross-genre class (which is something I really like about the program). 

I also became involved with our program’s lit mag: Phoebe.  We are required to do an MFA project before graduation and I intend for this to be it.   I am a reader for the journal and I’ve done some admin work as well.  I enjoy reading the submissions—the bad ones make me feel so much better about my own writing, and the good ones are such a joy to read.  It’s like panning for gold—every once in a while you find a nice nugget.  Also this kind of thing is right up my alley having been a magazine editor in my most recent pre-MFA life.  

Finally, I’ve done something I couldn’t manage to do while I was practicing law or while I was running a national magazine—I’ve taken advantage of the fitness facilities on campus (mainly the pool) and lost about 20 lbs.  The moral of that story is: try to take advantage of all of the free resources available to you on campus.  At GMU there are so many; for example we have a performing arts center that brings in everything from opera to the circus and we get free tickets.   

So to my fellow MFAers, congrats on finishing your first semester, and to all of you out there who are applying right now—going to George Mason to study creative writing is one of the smartest things I’ve ever done.  Can you become a great writer outside of an MFA program?  Yes, of course.  But probably not anywhere near as fast as you can inside of a program. 

Happy Holidays!


Wednesday, December 16, 2009

End of semester/New Year's resolutions

I've been intrigued by a few of the recent semester recaps (and look forward to more of them!), but on subjects like these (personal, even brief autobiographical narratives) I unfortunately get a bit long-winded. Especially in prose. So instead, I'm going to make a resolution, based on what I've learned this first semester. (And probably still be too long-winded...)

People often say the best thing about the MFA is having time to write. I'd like to kind of tweak that: the best thing about the MFA is having time to spend with your writing. What started for me as simple productivity has lately morphed from "what subjects do I want to pursue" to "how do I want to pursue them?" Trying to get at some of my underlying patterns and intentions, in ways that I haven't before (while working and at colonies, even in college, times when I've been writing more piece-meal) has been a real boon.

Since before the MFA I've been (and continue to be) a pretty firm believer in our work being shaped by the motivating identities of our ideas. I don't just mean identity politics in terms of religion, ethnicity or gender (although I think that our backgrounds can be wellsprings of information and context), I mean identity politics as in philosophy, the physical sciences, history, linguistics, music, painting, etc. I think these perspectives can inform poems consciously and unconsciously. For my part, I sometimes come from a philosophical background in my poems, in ways that I can not predict until reading the poems much later.

I know I will never be able to learn all of the secrets of rhythm and language, syntax and diction, music and blank page, and those are aspects of poetry which I think we must all constantly learn and re-learn. But I think I can more easily try on some simpler hats: Can I write like a biologist? A chemist? A historian? A playwright? A sculptor? What does it mean to take on that discipline? (A rhetorician? A geologist? A rabbi? The list goes on...)

So I'm thankful for the space to recognize some of my more cumbersome philosophy-writing habits (they're already a little too internalized, not that I don't like them), and I look forward to the time and space to experiment with science-poetry, history-poetry, mathematics-poetry. Who knows how successful this will be? (Probably more successful than my plan to write the great superheroes meeting philosophers long poem...)

So now my question to you: What's one thing you are thankful for from your first semester (Or the last year, if you're not currently in an MFA program)? (Or what's more than one thing...)

What's one place you want to take your work? (Or again, more than one place...)

Sunday, December 13, 2009

First Semester Wrap-Up

by Emily May Anderson

While I still have 24 freshman research papers to read and final grades to calculate, my first semester as an MFA student is pretty much over. I’ve been pretty absent from this blog recently, but let me try to recap the semester.

Since I’ve already mentioned teaching, I’ll start there. I taught one section of freshman composition, and I loved it. I enjoyed teaching, I felt like I was able to present the material in ways that made sense to them, and their writing did, in most cases, improve throughout the semester. I also really liked my group of students. I taught at 4:40-5:30pm MWF this semester; I thought I would hate the time slot, but I got used to it and really didn’t mind the lateness at all. My students were very active and energetic and talkative and informal – in both constructive and distracted ways – so I had to try to harness and direct their energy by being equally energetic and sometimes irreverent. It’s not at all how I planned or expected to approach the classroom; I thought I would be much more formal, but I realized very quickly that if I wanted to connect with this group, I’d have to sort of meet them where they were. There were a few days where I felt like I had very little control over them, but in general, they were good and they were invested in the class; they came to office hours, they submitted rough drafts early, they even brought me apples on the day my teaching mentor came to observe the class! She (my mentor) commented to me after class that I’ll probably never have another group of students this active, which is okay with me – they were exhausting sometimes – but they were really fun, and I’m really happy with my first teaching experience. I want to tweak the departmentally-provided syllabus a little bit before next semester, but overall, teaching was a success.

In addition to teaching, I also took three grad classes. The first was the infamous English 501: Intro to Graduate Study. It was, if nothing else, a bonding experience for all the first year students, MFAs and MAs together. We read a lot of critical theory and a lot of articles about the professions of both writing and academia. We also did a wide range of assignments, from textual analysis to writing abstracts for papers to researching potential publication venues (the most useful assignment by far!)

I also took The Writer in the Community, a hands-on “service learning” type of course. In addition to weekly class meetings with reading assignments, presentations, journals, etc, I also with two of my classmates started a creative writing group for international women in the community. Other groups of students in the class worked with middle school students in an afterschool program at a local youth center and with high school aged students at a youth shelter in town. This was a really great experience, and I learned a lot about teaching, writing, communication, and what it means to build community in a classroom-like setting. I wrote my term paper on the role of personal narrative writing, in terms of identity formation, building community, and literacy development. Even writing the 15 page paper was a really good experience. We (my two classmates and I) opted to continue running the group next semester, even though we won’t be getting course credit for it, but we’ve really grown to enjoy the company of the women who attend the group, and we see a very real benefit to what we’re doing.

And finally, my poetry workshop! Robin Becker conducted this fall’s workshop with a chapbook focus. I read, over the course of the semester, twenty-five chapbooks. Some I loved (Charles Wright’s The Wrong End of the Rainbow and Richard McCann’s Nights of 1990, though very different, both completely rocked my world and had me in tears), some I didn’t; but it was interesting to see the different ways people approached the short chapbook form. In addition to reading and commenting on chapbooks, I also wrote a poem a week for workshop, commented on my peer’s poems, drafted and revised a proposal for my own chapbook, researched and presented on a chapbook contest, and at the end of the semester submitted to Robin a preliminary sequence of fifteen revised poems that could potentially comprise a chapbook. Ten of the poems were from this semester; the other five predated grad school but fit the theme and arc of my collection. Visiting poets who read this semester were Elizabeth Alexander, Dawn Lundy Martin, and Kathleen Sheeder Bonanno. The first two I only met after their readings, but Bonanno sat in on our class and we had lunch with her the next day. We also had three newer poets who’ve recently published chapbooks visit our class: Rebecca Foust and Penn State MFA alums Shanna Powlus Wheeler and Katherine Bode-Lang. Katherine, in particular, is really amazing!

I also attended events with fiction writer Rick Bass (who has a very dry sense of humor), nonfiction writer David Quammen (a very smart, very nice guy) – other fiction and NF writers were on campus, but I skipped some of those events. George Saunders is our Writer in Residence in the spring.

So, what else? I wrote a lot, I made friends, I fell in love (much to my surprise), and I know with every ounce of certainty that coming here was the right decision and that I want to write and teach for the rest of my life! (Sappy? Perhaps, but that’s me.) Oh, and this past Friday was the traditional end of semester MFA Variety Show – a very casual, humorous “reading” at which a group of us first-years performed a skit about writing an MFA Manifesto. Other people read found poems composed entirely of English department member’s facebook status updates, fake letters requesting advice, bitter MFA bumper sticker slogans, one-man plays, and much other craziness. 

Saturday, December 12, 2009

End of the Semester

By Casey Tolfree

I've been thinking about what to say for a few days. I had a lot of adjustments to make this semester, a lot to get used to, a lot to take it. It wasn't easy and it was often frustrating but as the semester draws to a close, all I can think is I loved it. Issues with genre and teacher aside; I loved this semester. I made friends, I wrote a lot, I improved my writing a lot. I am sad that I have to wait another month for next semester. I miss my classmates already.

I don't have a lot to say except that. I just loved it. There is a great group of people at Adelphi, all very different and it is an experience I wouldn't trade for anything else.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Wayward Child: End of Semester Recap

Hey guys! First, sorry it's been eight years since I've posted. I apologize for not keeping posted all through the semester. I'm not sure I've written a blog post in the last year where I haven't apologized for my absence at the beginning, so this is kind of par for the course from me.

To recap: Hi, I'm Katie. I'm a fiction writer at Southern Illinois in Carbondale. And an hour from now, I'm going to walk into my afternoon class and finish teaching my first semester of grad school. It's insane. While I was congratulating and praising my first class for their awesomeness this morning, I kind of unexpectedly choked up a little, and got the slow-clap thing from them-- it was nice. I've really enjoyed teaching. This semester, I taught composition, which presented a lot of challenges; however, it was on a department wide syllabus, which is a wonderful thing SIU does that helps.

But I got my teaching assignment yesterday: I'm moving up to 102, which is still Composition, but I'll be writing my own syllabus and making my own assignments. I'm excited, I'm scared, but more than anything, after this semester, I'm ready.

My workshop-- my first fiction workshop of all time-- wrapped on Monday, and was great. I'd say all three of the stories I turned in had major failings in them, but I can see each time some improvement. I'm starting to publish-- poetry at a journal called "Big Lucks" and fiction at a journal called "The Meadowland Review"-- and next semester, because I'm a glutton for punishment, I'm signing up for a poetry workshop and a fiction workshop. Yikes! So again: I'm excited, I'm scared, I'm ready.

This semester has been exciting in other ways, too, though: I've continued writing for the Evansville Courier and Press, even though I moved away, and that granted me the ability to do some really cool music interviews. This semester, I interviewed everyone from Uncle Kracker to Loretta Lynn-- in fact, a few minutes ago, I got off the phone with the singer from the Oak Ridge Boys (they sing "Elvira"). Just a huge, huge semester for me.

But what blows my mind is that it's almost over. Sure, I've got some grading to do, but not much else. So my question to you guys is this: Now that it's winding down, what are you doing over break to prepare? I'm going to try and get a working syllabus for 102, write a few stories for workshop in the fall (Pinckney Benedict!) and some poems ready for my poetry workshop (ALLISON JOSEPH). Also, I'm having my family up from Texas to celebrate Christmas in Illinois and Indiana with my boyfriend and me this year-- so I've got to go Christmas shopping on a grad student salary! Double yikes. (Suggestions for gifting are also welcome. :) )

I basically just wanted to check in, promise I'll do better at updating next semester, and say that I've genuinely enjoyed reading everyone's updates and getting to know them this year. You guys have really helped me feel like I've got a community. Thanks to Jonterri for setting this up and letting me participate.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Visiting Writer Thing

by Jonterri Gadson

My visiting writer experience started off when I met with Tony Hoagland, 2 of my classmates, and Greg Orr for lunch yesterday. Hoagland started off his day by having conferences with each of the other two students and then my conference was scheduled for after lunch. The best part about lunch was hearing them both talk about when they were interviewing and getting hired for teaching positions. Funny story:

Hoagland: I fell flat on my face in that interview.
Me: Literally?
Everyone else: No. (laughing)
Greg: Metaphors, Jonterri.
Me: Oh! (laughing)
Greg: Geez, you narrative poets... (shakes his head)


So my conference with Hoagland was great. It was 50 minutes of him talking about the packet of poems I submitted to him about a month ago. I think the best thing about having these new eyes on my work is that he was able to see where my poetry was going or at least the direction I was trying to take it. That was nice. I think when people are presented with one poem at a time like in workshop, they can only focus on where your poetry is right now. Which is totally fine and as it should be, it's just nice to also have that other perspective. He gave me plenty of people whose work represents the unchartered (by me) territory I'm headed in. I'm very excited about moving forward with my writing and reading. If I can get that feeling from an interaction, then it's a success.

Last night he gave a craft talk which was really informative and engaging. It was about the spectrum from associative to disassociative poetry. Very enlightening.

Tonight he'll give a reading then finish off the rest of the week with conferences and lunches with students every day.

I hope everyone's semesters are winding down nicely. Next week is my last week of classes until like January 20!

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

What counts as a new poem?

After reading the comments on Monica's excellent post, I wanted to chime in with my own number of new poems. The problem is, I'm not sure what counts. (That and it sounds like sharing with a date how many people you've slept with--too few and you come off as a prude, too many and perhaps a bit diseased...)

Don't get me wrong, I'm a very productive person (sometimes too productive, I hear you, Tory, when you comment that revision is a tricky bastard). And I think its awesome that Monica has 17 and Tory 30 and JayTee 11. Each of those numbers of new poems is excellent. (I'm leaving my own disgusting, unsatisfying number of new poems in the comments section...)

I guess beyond the problem of "is this (new) poem good enough," I really want to ask, is it even a new poem? For me there are the new poems I like and want to keep. New poems that have received multiple drafts (multiple drafts that are, sometimes, their own poems). New poems that have received multiple drafts and show promise but still kind of suck. Poems I like but that I don't think count as successful poems (and in that case I'm not sure I want to count them as poems at all, though surely by most metrics they are).

As someone who keeps a ton of notes and is constantly revising old work (or mashing old work together in the interests of generation), I also am unsure which of my old work turned new counts as new poems. Is it the number of lines that change, the words, the addition of a focus or a metaphor? A new last line? Or title? (Heck, what about poems you find discarded that it turns out were good all along?)

I was at VSC when Eric Pankey was a guest poet there (very good poet and very good reader of poems, by the way) and he told a story about how Donald Justice used to have fun little competitions between students at ruin great poems. The point was to ruin the great poem with the fewest moves possible. For instance, the insertion of a comma, or the change of a period to a --. Of course, someone else could ruin the poem better, so merely changing one semi-colon into a colon wasn't all it took. You had to be select in your ruinings.

I'm not sure why I add that, except that I find it to be a fascinating exercise, and I think it sheds a little light on all of our poems as evolving artifacts.

But that doesn't mean we can't try to answer the question (or don't already have an answer for it): what counts as a new poem?

Monday, November 30, 2009

Signs of Application Season

So this is going to be a short post, because, amazingly, it's the final week of the term before exams / portfolios are due. I've got work to do!

I had to take a moment though to reflect on this time last year -- a reflection prompted by the terrifying sight of file boxes in the conference room of the Alder Building (U Oregon Creative Writing HQ) labeled "MFA APPLICATIONS." These four, terrifying boxes prompted in me a quick memory of the preparation, the worry, the sweat, the heartache and uncertainty surrounding application season for me last year.

Seeing them, I also felt a bit of awe at how much work goes into choosing each class (two student aids have been assisting our department business manager with organizing / preparing for the influx of materials...) Last, I felt the warm flush of gratitude -- that last year I was one of the ones who made it in, that despite the hard work and occasional frustrations that have cropped up this first term, I'm so happy to be a poet in U Oregon's Program. I'm exhausted. But I love my teaching placement. I have 17 new poems (in ten weeks), new amazing people in my life to share this strange journey with, and most importantly - for me, I'm beginning to feel my soul thrive. My writing's on track; I'm chasing elusive happiness. I made it out of the application box and all the chaos was worth it.

First years, I hope you're able to look back with awe, too. Applicants, best of luck to each of you.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Obligatory application season post

Any applicants out there considering applying to the University of Houston for either the MFA or PhD track, I just thought I would put my e-mail out here in case you have any questions (jsgottliebmiller at gmail dot com).

I especially recommend our program if you are interested in wonderfully stimulating academic coursework, having a fantastic dual MFA-PhD cohort, great funding, and an awesome post-graduate success rate (in job placement, fellowships and books).

I could go on and on and it would be really annoying and way too long, so really, just feel free to e-mail me.

No offense intended to anyone on this blog with the short program boosterism--I think everyone here could talk for hours on end about the strengths of their programs, and all with good reason.

Good luck to everyone in your applications!

PS. I hope there are actual non first-years reading this blog! Again, apologies to all of the first-years who aren't applying to anything because they are already in programs they love.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Google Wave

by Christopher Cocca

Do you any of you have a Google Wave account? If so, how do you envision using this tool for workshopping? Are any contributors to this blog interested in workshopping pieces over Google Wave during the upcoming semester break?

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

What Are You Thankful For?

by Christopher Cocca

Nathan Bransford has nice Thanksgiving meme up at his blog today: What are you thankful for in the writing/publishing world?

Nathan is an agent at Curtis Brown and a soon-to-be published author himself. His blog and twitter feed are worth following.

Call for Submissions (Poetry): Love Rise Up Anthology

Here's a solicitation letter from Steve Fellner to all of us unpublished and emerging poets out there:



Because a number of potential contributors have asked for more time, we thought it was only fair to extend the deadline until after the holidays.

Phil Young and I have been asked to co-edit an anthology for Benu Press; its working title is Love Rise Up.

We both have been invested in the literary world for some time. I wrote and published a book of poems entitled Blind Date with Cavafy (Marsh Hawk Press, 2007) and a memoir entitled All Screwed Up (Benu Press, 2009); Phil has published in literary magazines such as Antioch Review.

The editor who commissioned this project asked that we focus on contemporary poets and poems that succeed on the following levels:

1.) The poem deals with social justice, not simply a social issue. In other words there has to be some action or suggestion of resistance or dealing with a social issue, not just having a social issue somewhere in the background.

2.) The poem offers an element of hope. This hope can be somewhat ambiguous, but at least some level of hope has to be detectable to the average reader. Think “Daybreak in Alabama” by Langston Hughes.

3.) The poem is an “accessible narrative or lyric that contains elements of genuine drama or comedy.”

4.) If the poem were a movie, it would have to receive somewhere between a G and PG-13 rating.

We would really like to include a poem of yours in Love Rise Up. If interested, please send us a poem(s) for us to look at as a Word document. We would like it emailed it to us at or

How do you balance your ruthlessness?

Composition theorist Peter Elbow has this theory about pedagogy: that helping students write is about liking their writing. Actively liking it. He points out that most of us are best able to make progress in our own writing when we start from a point of liking what we are doing.

At the same time, I've noticed that in some of my more successful poems I've been able to make giant changes from the original draft, changes that came from places the original draft did not even indicate. (One fun project is taking poems that don't seem to have similarities and seeing what they do when formed together--but that's a digression). One of the ways I do this is by keeping a copious pile of notes and constantly applying them, another is by consciously taking the risks that aren't yet working if I think there's something there, past those failures. Another still is in cutting everything that doesn't for sure belong in the poem.

So I like my poems, but when I'm really ruthless with them, I get to a point sometimes where no matter where I take the poem it's a failure (even if it's a pretty failure), and at those times I've tried to be even more ruthless--to discard the poem until a much later date.

Today was one of those days when I went mining old drafts for notes, and found some poems were in better shape than I thought (or only needed a few shots in the arm), and I realized that I liked these poems again. I spent a good amount of time fixing these up and then I realized, they're still not very good, I'm just being more honest with myself about the fact that I do like them, even though they are not really successful.

I am of course assuming that most poets aren't writing with an eye to future publications (seeing as how there's no money in it), but that doesn't mean we're not interested in how people receive our work (even if its not so many people). Fictioners, you might have a slightly different view, although I doubt its philosophically removed...

But what I'm really wondering about is: how do you balance your liking and your ruthlessness?

Friday, November 20, 2009

What Are You Reading?

by Jennifer Brown

Writers read.  A lot.  At least they should.  And they learn from it. 

My semester has been about reading at least as much as it has been about writing.  I’ve read (or reread) Countless short stories by the likes of Lorrie Moore, Flannery O’Connor, Tim O’Brien and Stuart Dybek; The Odyssey; Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man; Hamlet; Eliot’s Wasteland and The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock; The Crucible; Huck Finn; Tom Sawyer; Roughing It; Life on the Mississippi; A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court; Pudd’nhead Wilson; The Conjure Woman; Moby Dick; Country of the Pointed Firs; St. Mawr; Hemingway Stories; Faulkner Stories; Death Comes for the Archbishop; Under the Volcano; East of Eden; Wolf Willow; The Sheltering Sky; Light Years; Far Tortuga; Legends of the Fall; The Crossing; and a lot of Chekov.  

That is quite a list.  And I’ve learned from all of it and grateful for having been introduced to it all. 

But what I really want to tell you about is this:  This week I have fallen in love with Ambrose Bierce. I think my writing life has changed forever.  A friend of mine sent me a link to a story of his called “Chickamauga,” and I will never be the same.  When I proclaimed my love for it, she said “It’s so you” and I was overjoyed—because I hope it is.  Oh, how I hope it is. I sit here now next to a copy of The Complete Stories of Ambrose Bierce. 

Y’all know how it is right? When you find that special writer, the one that really speaks to you and you just fall hard?  This has happened to me before, with Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Faulkner, John Irving, Salmon Rushdie, and most recently with Cormac McCarthy.  But this Ambrose Bierce thing—this is serious!

So what have you read this semester, and have you fallen in love with any writer in particular?

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Links of Interest

Hey all,

Nancy Rawlinson (of Embracing the Suck fame lol) compiled a list of links that MFA students and applicants would find pretty useful. Even with all the googling I've done to find MFA info, there were still links I'd never been to. Definitely worth a look-see. Oh, and I just noticed we're linked too!

Check it out!

Thanks Nancy!

Monday, November 16, 2009

What I Didn't Know About My Program....

by Jonterri Gadson

...or what I thought I knew and now realize I was wrong.

1. You can take cross-genre workshops. It's Spring registration time and I've thought all along that it wouldn't be possible to take a fiction workshop. Well, I was wrong. They offer workshops apart from the regular MFA workshops that we can take outside of our genre. Only in poetry & fiction because that's all that's offered here at UVA.

2. Because of the fellowship, should you desire federal student loans for any reason, you will not be able to get them. So it's wonderful to receive so much aid and all of that but it hurt to find out that I couldn't get additional loan support to offset my moving costs as I expected. Unless I took out a private loan (I chose not to). This is something I think all future applicants should be aware of, just in case. Sometimes your funding can put you so close to the school's expected cost of attendance (which is what they base your federal financial aid off of) that you will not qualify for federal aid.

3. There's not really much pressure to write. I felt like part of the reason I wanted to go to an MFA program was so someone would be breathing down my neck for a poem each week. Yeah, that's not so much happening. Turning in a poem to workshop is totally optional. So the discipline still has to be there which I'm okay with. Plus, with additional unexpected stress outside of the program, I might have cracked under this type of pressure this semester. So, everything worked toward the good.

4. I wouldn't have time to spend with classmates. Uh, yeah. Not true. There's at least one day every week that I see people from the program outside of workshop and that's nice. Having a weekly MFA reading at a bar helps a lot with that. I don't know a ton of single parents who feel like their social lives aren't lacking, so this is kinda big.

The only big question that remains unanswered is who will be the new hire to replace Charles Wright.

What about you guys-- any surprises, wrongs righted, myths demythified about your programs?

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Strange seeds

Anyone taking any literature classes that are expanding your writing in surprising ways?

I've been taking an Old English literature and translation class, and while the history/culture is fascinating, as are the crazy old poems, I've mostly been affected by this new way of looking at sentence structure, grammar laws and--really cool (I'm a dork)--word compounding. How strange where some words have come from, and how easy it is to make fabulous new meanings just by putting words together. Contemporary poet Chelsey Minnis does this, actually in one poem, with the fabulous "cry-hustling" (awesome poem, by the way, out of "Poemland." Thanks to Karie B. for bringing it in to share with the workshop).

It's a fun exercise, and can be applied easily (my decoy-heart being a contemporary one, grief-before-dawn being an Old English one).

Anyway, fun with language!

What kind of weird academic things have been affecting your writing, folks?

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Literary vs. Commercial

By Casey Tolfree

How do you differentiate between literary and commercial fiction and what authors do you consider literary?


By Casey Tolfree

So, awhile back one of you asked me what Adelphi's stance on commercial fiction is. I didn't have an answer then but I have one now. As I was so kindly informed yesterday in a meeting with my professor, genre fiction is just unacceptable and will not be tolerated in the program. She actually suggested that I not stay in the program if I was unwilling to write literary fiction. I apparently use cliches unapologeticly. I thought we were never supposed to apologize for our writing.

Anyway, I told her that it's not that I'm not willing to write literary fiction but that I am not going to go back to my old stories and try to change them to make them literary. I would start new work for the program that fit the bill. I can do that. I can use big words and flowery sentences I just prefer not to.

So, yeah, that's Adelphi's stance on commercial fiction.

Another topic that came up - that apparently has been brought to the director of the program's attention is my "work life". They are concerned that I work two jobs. Do these people think I work two jobs for my health? I work two jobs because I need to pay my bills. I need to have health insurance. I'm not working at least 50 hours a week and going to school just for the fun of it. Obviously if I am working two jobs I need to. I'm trying to keep my cool but it's getting harder and harder. This professor is meddling in stuff that has nothing to do with her and it is unacceptable. I am in class, I participate, I do my work on time.... that's what should matter to her. How I live my life outside the program is none of her business.

Writing is supposed to be fun. This lady is killing any fun I got out of writing. I write well, I have great command of prose but it's unacceptable, it's not good enough. How do you tell a person that?

Monday, November 9, 2009

Better Late than Never

So I am one of the last people to get my copy of Poets & Writers Magazine. Of course, the first thing I do when I get it is flip to the Top Fifty MFA Rankings for 2010. Georgia College & State University is not on it…and I don’t care ONE BIT.

My thoughts on the list over at Here's the linky.

Spring Classes!

By Casey Tolfree

I can't believe I'm registering for semester two! So, I'm a little sad because I can't take one of the classes I wanted because of scheduling (I have to have class only twice a week).

So I'm taking my fiction workshop with Victor LaValle, our visiting professor at Adelphi. I wanted to take the novel development class with my current workshop professor, Vince Passaro but I can't because that would mean having class three nights, so I'm taking a dramatic writing development class on African American women playwrights. It should be interesting. It's taught by the end of our English department.

Then there is the practicum, which is required the spring of the first year. We have class Friday in the city and meet with professionals for an hour. Hopefully I can get hooked up with a J-O-B. lol.

That's all for now because I have mucho writing to do.

So long, farewell

by Whitney Gray

Seth Abramson is stepping out of the MFA-spotlight. In a post over at the MFA Blog, Seth writes:

With Thanks

I appreciate how supportive everyone's been over the past three years. I've decided to end my work on MFA programs. That means a number of things, including removing myself as an administrator (or having any special posting privileges whatsoever) for this blog. It's Tom's blog, in any case, and I know he'll continue to offer this blog as a service to all of you, so there shouldn't be any significant effect to this. I wish all of you the very best in the future. I apologize for the briefness of this message; I imagine anything I would have said I've said elsewhere here, or simply elsewhere, and better. I hope I've helped some of you, at least a little, over the years. And I hope I get to meet some of you in the months and years ahead. Be well everyone.

I, for one, found the MFA Blog to be very helpful. I turned to Seth's site (The Suburban Ecstasies) often last year during application season. I was a big fan/tortured soul of the notifications page (and as I went to link to it, I see that Seth's site is completely gone!). I can't say I blame him for leaving the online world of anonymity and haterade. I'm sad to see him go, as he and his resources were very helpful to me last season.

Semester's coming to an end!

by Whitney Gray

I have 4 weeks left in my semester and I am anxiously awaiting Thanksgiving. What about you? How has your workload been thus far?

Friday, November 6, 2009

Spring Classes

by Christopher Cocca

Found out today what my spring classes will be and thought I would share.

Workshop: Jeffrey Renard Allen
Lit Seminar: Robert Antoni (a close look at writing in vernaculars).

Looking forward to it. We had so many good courses to choose from, and I'm very pleased with these.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Reading Styles

by Jonterri Gadson

A couple of posts ago, Joshua started a good discussion about how our writing has changed since being in an MFA. Well, I've noticed a significant change in my reading as well. Doing close readings of my classmates work that is extremely different than mine has given me a new appreciation for different types of poems. There are about 3 people in my workshop of 10 people that I would consider to be doing more experimental/innovative type of work. Initially, I was intimidated and didn't think I could offer any useful feedback because I tended to turn the page when I came across those types of pieces in journals because they would make my brain ache (just being honest. Hoping to show some sort of progression here lol). Now, I'm getting it, understanding different ways that a poem can achieve clarity other than through clarity of meaning. I'm wanting to incorporate some of their techniques in my own work, hoping to get away from the totally linear thinking that's been plaguing my work since I got to the program.

How is reading the other writers in your program affecting your work?

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Memorizing Poems & Stuff!

I know it's been a while, and I really did mean to post on here from the beginning of the semester about my poetry workshopping experiences, but that is something I would be more comfortable discussing via email, if you are interested. In terms of my other classes, I'm taking a Teaching Comp. & Lit course (sort of a revamp of the exact same class I took during my MA work) and thesis hours--the one on one thesis hours spent with Martin Lammon are by far the moments when I feel like I REALLY belong here in this program.

Still, as a workshop related thing, I am required to memorize and recite two poems for the course. Here's the linky to my post on this: Memorization followup

I look forward to seeing your thoughts on this requirement.

(Oh, and hope you all had a happy halloween weekend!)

Monday, November 2, 2009

Missing Class?

By Casey Tolfree

Hey guys, have any of you had to miss a class for any reason?

I e-mailed my teacher to ask if it would be okay for me to miss class next week because I have to cover an event for the paper I work for and she totally flipped out on me. She told me that my priorities were wrong. Shouldn't work be a top priority? It's what allows me to go to class.

I don't know but it was completely strange and infuriating. She basically said my job was unimportant and made me justify my reason for missing class and explain why it was important.

I thought as a grad student we were treated like adults? Why should I even have to explain to my professor why I need to miss class. If I'm an adult I shouldn't need to justify my actions, should I?

Has this happened to any of you because I was so confused and annoyed this morning by her.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Old methods and new methods

I hope everyone has been having success producing new work this first semester.

I don't know how many have run into a problem I just realized I was having, so I'm throwing this question out there:

Did y'all keep using the same writing methods that brought you to an MFA? Or has the focus been on finding new ways of poeming?

I just realized that with most of my new work I've been starting from scratch, and I have always been much more successful when keeping a copious notepad and repeatedly referring to those old notes for new inspirations within a poem. It keeps the poem from being too simple or didactic or static (a few problems I sometimes run into). It also makes it easier to find oppositions and other tensions without consciously manufacturing them.

It seems strange that I would forget my old methods now (kind of like, to use a tired old cliche, throwing the baby out with the bath water).

Just wondering if y'all have run into similar problems...

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Seth Abramson's Open Letter to AWP

I find this to be an extremely well-reasoned response to the recent controversy surrounding the rankings published in Poets & Writer's Magazine. In particular, he does a good job taking AWP to task for not being upfront with their lack of viable information, despite their insistence that they do possess some of this data. (Since my last post on this subject I found out that I am indeed a member of AWP. Yet as far as I can tell, the data on program acceptance rates and funding Matt Burriesci talked about in his letter on the AWP website is nowhere to be found) As always, read and discuss!

Friday, October 30, 2009

Having a Hard TIme Growing Up Response

By Casey Tolfree

Thanks for all the comments guys. I felt that it would be a good idea to post my answers here to make sure everyone sees them and because it might be helpful to someone else.

First off, I wanted to define what I mean when I say I write commercial fiction - which to me means that it's not literary. I generally write what would be considered the contemporary romance genre and a dabble a bit into Chick Lit. I throw out pop culture references with ease.

This is why I call my work commercial. I write about relationships and broken hearts, falling in and out of love, etc, etc. I write about finding yourself as you are doing all these things.

Anyway, APT 509 in a nutshell. It's a novella - about 97 pages and I workshop it in 25-30 pages segments.

APT 509 is about a 24-year old woman, Riley Anderson. She is a music critic for a low-budget, low circulation weekly magazine. She writes weekly reviews for it. She lives and works in NYC.
(This is the part my classmates and teacher found unrealistic that she would have this job).

She is 24 but she still watches cheesy teen soaps and SoapNet. She listens to punk rock/pop music and finds herself in a love triangle. (This is where my classmates and teacher are uncertain if she is really 24 and not 20ish. This is what I meant by they think she is silly. I don't know that silly is the right word though. They think she doesn't act her age but I'm not sure how a 24-year old is supposed to act. I find characters in adult fiction so "adult-like" and Riley is meant to be a real person with her one likes and dislikes regardless of her age. She has some of the same pop culture likes I do. She uses them as vernacular. I'm not sure how this defines her age though. I think at 24 most people are still just trying to figure it out.)

The general plot of the story is that after attending college in LA and staying there for a year, Riley moves home to New York for a reason the reader isn't sure of - though it is revealed later to be family related. She has two friends from high school who live in the area still (one lives down stairs from her) but they aren't getting along very well and Riley feels alone. She runs into an ex and they spark of a friendship just as she finally starts to date another guy. A love triangle of sorts ensues.

Riley's life is nothing like mine. Yes, we are both writers but for the most part she is very different from me, she has different problems. She reacts in different ways.

As for YA fiction - someone mentioned Prep which I read and loved. Prep is actually a general fiction novel with a YA crossover. It's similar to the Jessica Darling series by Megan McCafferty in that crossover genre. I think APT 509 would be in a similar genre to the Myth of You and Me by Leah Stewart.

I hope this answers all the questions in the comments.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Having a Hard TIme Growing Up

By Casey Tolfree

I know I've been absent but I've been working a lot and had a lot of homework, excuses, excuses. I had my second fiction workshop today and I'm discouraged. Not because my classmates didn't like my piece but because I feel like they are clinging for dear life onto what our teacher thinks. I also feel like my piece isn't receiving the criticism it should be getting.

First off, my teacher sort of pigeon-holed my piece as YA - and I've written YA before, I'm good at it but APT 509 isn't YA fiction. I read YA and no offense but I've never seen a YA piece about a twenty-four year old - ever. My narrator Riley is 24. She's falling in love, learning the ropes, writing a whole lot ... the things I am doing and then people tell me she's unrealistic and I think wait a second - do I exist because I'm doing these things. I'm 23.

The view of adulthood my classmates are holding onto is so rigid. Riley has a job, pays her bills, supports herself, makes her own decision - I think that qualifies her as an adult whether she watches teen soaps or speaks commonly. Being an adult doesn't qualify you as smart. I mean Riley is smart but like me she talks like a normal person and then I am told she doesn't sound like a 24-year old. I don't understand. What is a 24-year old supposed to be like. Am I going to "grow up" in March when I turn 24? Are my teen soap opera collections going to get sold on eBay? Unlikely, so why can't my character be these things?

I wanted criticism on the plot moves and a few people gave me vague answers but generally I got stuff that really isn't relevant to my revisions. APT 509 is in it's 5th revision - it's not a first draft. Riley is not going to change. She's a person, she has flaws, she makes mistakes and I like her how she is. To me (and my friends) she is real. To my classmates she seems silly.

If I get an opportunity this semester to workshop a third time, I'm not going to finish workshopping APT 509. I almost feel like it's futile. I'm going to introduce my novel - though God knows they are going to call that YA too, when it's nowhere close to YA.

In other news, I just finished my first graduate school essay (not very exciting) and started my full-length play for class (very exciting). Both are coming a long nicely.

Victor LaValle is coming to Adelphi in the Spring. I'm taking his workshop. I'm excited he sounds like an interesting writer.

I'm enjoying my program but I feel like it's not okay to write fun, commercial work and that's what I do. I like happy endings and I want them. Why is that so wrong?

Visiting Writers

by Jonterri Gadson

In the last week or so a lot of the poets in the MFA program have been stressing about putting together 10-18 page manuscripts to submit for our visiting writer, Tony Hoagland. As an applicant, I never fully understood how visiting writers worked when they came to programs. Here, at UVA, we had to submit packets of our writing this week so that Hoagland can review them before he comes to the university the first week of December. We each signed up to meet with him for an hour during the few days that he will be here. So in this time he is going to discuss his thoughts on our work. He will also give a public reading on campus while he's here. I'm pretty excited to have his eyes on my work.

On the fiction side, they've got Claire Messud coming. Same deal: submit their work, individual conferences, and then a reading. She'll be here mid-November. I'm definitely going to check out the reading.

So, what's the deal? Do you guys have visiting writers? Who are they? How does your program handle them?

How does your sense of your medium shape your writing?

Just a general question for all of you poets and fiction writers out there (and I am especially interested in fiction writers also working with text in a kind of sculptural way):

How does your sense of your medium shape your writing?

I was in a workshop where we were throwing around our ideas about how each unique sense of what poetry is supposed to do shapes our writing. To badly paraphrase: One person mentioned the use of language as a way to surprise itself. Another mentioned being acutely interested in the gaps both between the stanzas and between the words (and beyond that, between the poet and the reader). For my part, I've been trying to work out some ideas about context--how a poem creates its own universe, but is also informed by the larger universe, and how to exploit that balance. I found the discussion pretty generative, though, and liked everyone's ideas--especially because people had so much conviction behind those ideas.

Just wondering if y'all have specific conceptions of what poetry is/does that informs your writing, and how...


Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Navigating The MFA Rankings Throwdown

by Tory Adkisson

Here is AWP's response to Seth Abramson's article on MFA rankings that appeared in the last issue of Poets and Writers. I am not completely sold on Matt Burriesci's response, particularly his assertion that "statistically significant information culled from a major, comprehensive survey of these programs––including admissions statistics, program size, tuition information, and many other important facts and figures" are made readily available by AWP. He notes that such information, if it does exist, is available to AWP's members. Currently, I am not a member of AWP, and my sense is that most of us on this blog, and indeed most current and especially prospective MFA students are not members of the Association of Writing Programs. It seems to me that this type of information, if it is being contested, should be made available to the general public, especially given that (until recently) all of Abramson's data on MFA programs was on his blog, and had been for a few years.

That issue aside, I do think Mr. Burriesci is on to something when he mentions the "other stakeholders" left out of Seth's survey, people who are important in the development and maintenance of any MFA program. I don't mean to downplay your role (yes yours!) as applicants, but certainly applicants have their own particular biases. I realize that by publicly disagreeing with Seth Abramson I risk a rhetorical onslaught of epic proportions, but I do think that the inclusion of other groups related to MFA programs, as well as the addition of other important factors (salient data on alumni publication records would be at the top of my list) in the survey would have made it much more persuasive. The methodology does not bother me so much, it's more of an issue of variables than anything else.

I do think that AWP's database of MFA programs is woefully lacking in some vital data that would be useful to applicants, data that Burriesci insists exists somewhere. Information on program size, stipend amounts, acceptance rates, and other figures are of vital importance to anyone considering writing as more than just a hobby. I agree with Burriesci that selecting a writing program is a "complex and serious business," but it's not one that any amount of hard and fast data can elucidate or simplify. The responsibility rests on the applicant's willingness to do the research and consider what they want out of a certain model (full vs low-res), location, aesthetic, legacy, and whatever else you like. I disagree with both camps (AWP vs Abramson) for different reasons: AWP is clearly not doing enough to present alternative data to counteract Abramson's work--if they had the data and made it accessible, Abramson's work would be (potentially) rendered moot. As for Abramson, the holy father of MFA program data, his biases are clear and, as discussed in a post (which I don't wholly agree with) from the Best American Poetry blog, Abramson's poll "reflects only the responses of self-selected readers of his blog" that is, people who agree with him. This point may not be wholly true, but given that the poll was conducted on the MFA blog, the biases seem likely, despite Seth's assertion (in the comments) that the blog is an unbiased he has no ideological control over. He is the most prominent poster on the blog (or was until he started his own MFA blog) and has even advertised his own debut poetry collection on it.

That's really all I have to say about this for now. I am interested to hear what other people think about this whole MFA ranking hoopla given the new parties that have entered into the fray. Please discuss!

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Questions and Answers

Current and future applicants, we at the MFA Chronicles know you've got a lot of questions. We all did a year ago when we were in your shoes. Thus have I decided to post this thread as a place for you to ask those questions you dare not utter anywhere else. Have a specific question about one of our schools? Want to know how we came up with our lists of where to apply? Want to know how we kept from losing our minds during the maddening masochism that is the MFA application process?

Please feel free to post any and all of those questions here and we, being your (yes your) chroniclers, will do our best to give you the information you need to keep you from massacring those closest to you. Good luck applicants!

Friday, October 23, 2009

P&W Ranks High Residency Programs

by Christopher Cocca

Poets & Writers magazine has published their MFA rankings. Check out the context here.

Spring Courses

by Christopher Cocca

Next week, we'll be getting a list of classes and seminars for the spring semester. It's hard to believe the fall is half over. What are some metrics you've used for picking what to study and with whom? I based my fall selections on the teachers that seemed likely to lead the kind of class that would help me in the areas I felt I most needed, and, of course, the curriculum. I ended up with two outstanding teachers and two exceptional groups of classmates and classes.

What are your methods for class selection?

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

How was the economy impacted your program?

by Whitney Gray

It's no secret that the economy has effected colleges and universities. For awhile, I was able to ignore it because it didn't directly effect me. It wasn't until I was accepted to the schools that I realized how serious the financial crisis was. Thankfully, I was able to pick up some federal funding that doesn't have to be paid back (whew!), but I've noticed other things happening with my program.

Our budget for readings has been cut dramatically, and at one point, I was preparing myself for a year without readings. Thanks to some generous donations (mostly provided by staff members!), we have been able to hold several readings, including one by Tracy Kidder. While we haven't been able to have extravagant receptions, we at UNCG have made due with homemade chocolate covered strawberries and the occasional pot-luck supper.

On the business-end of things, UNCG's program has been dealing with the loss of two poets. One moved on, and the other is taking leave for this semester. This has left our only poet to carry the weight of workshop, teaching undergraduate courses and holding tutorials with the second year students. As of now, we are searching for a replacement, which is quite obviously a delight and a relief.

Things seem to be on the upswing. If UNCG can continue to support the MFA program, our budget for recruiting may once again flourish. I'm hoping for the sake of new applicants that the financial troubles schools face don't result in hiking up application fees. (I think I read somewhere that Columbia's fee is $100+?!) I do want to say that I don't feel like I've been missing out on anything so far. I was worried that lack of teachers and lack of money would result in a dull semester, but it has been anything but.

So, what about you? Have your programs been faced with tough decisions or sacrifices because of loss of funding? Are you turning to fund-raising to help support the "extra-curricular" activities of your programs?

Quality of work

Right now the prevailing wisdom for getting an MFA is "time to write." When most people talk about time to write, they don't just mean that if you write a million poems a few of them will stick. The idea, generally, is that if you keep working and experimenting, while spurred on by your talented workshop buddies, you will better learn the craft of writing. This is what I think people mean when they say time to write--that it is actually time to improve as a writer, and that the production of work in a workshop environment will facilitate that. Which leads me to my point: I just got hammered in workshop.

I write too many poems. Not that that's a bad thing, I like writing lots of poems. I like writing down everything interesting I hear at a lecture or see on an advertisement. I enjoy having a large amount of mediocre work that I can toy with for craft purposes, and in which to find the occasional good poem. (Which is really a way of rationalizing the fact that I just can't not write.)

Sometimes it's easy to lose track of the difference between a good poem and a good poem I want people to read. So when I turn a poem in for workshop that I think is doing some interesting things with surprise and tone, and it gets hammered for not doing anything else, what do I do? I go write some more poems.

It seems like a vicious cycle, doesn't it?

There's a delicate balance between writing, writing, writing and identifying when that writing is finally paying off in that one bad-ass poem that finally just happened.

As brutal as it can't be, sometimes it's nice to know that other people will hold my poetry accountable, too.

My First Reading

by Jonterri Gadson
So I found my new drug...reading! I loved it. It went over very well. At UVA, one fiction writer and one poet read each week in our MFA reading series. We get up to 30 minutes to present our work. I did mine as an intro to me and took them from how I started writing poetry seriously (on internet poetry forums), through my writing sample, and on to what I'm working on now.
I tried a call and response with a poem for the first time (When I say "binge" say "love." When I say "purge" say "pain"). The crowd was down for it so that felt great. I'm very thankful. If you happen to be in central Virginia on a Tuesday night, you should stop by the UVA MFA reading.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Victor LaValle Fiction Forum

by Christopher Cocca

Victor LaValle was at The New School last night. He read from The Big Machine and answered questions about his work, influences, and life. This was one of the best sessions I've been to so far. LaValle was engaging, funny, candid, insightful, and incredibly open in the kind of way I find extremely helpful for an audience of writers and thinkers, not in a self-important or creepy way. This was a fun reading and forum that made you think. These aims, speaking with insight about serious things and doing it with humor, are at the heart of LaValle's goals for The Big Machine. I ordered a copy, along with his short story collection (Slapboxing With Jesus) today.

Victor LaValle teaches in the Columbia MFA program.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009


by Christopher Cocca

I’m workshopping the first parts of Milton County Power & Light this week.

Did you know that there’s a Willa Cather Memorial Prairie in Nebraska? I didn’t know they named prairies after anyone.

“As I looked about me I felt that the grass was the country, as the water is the sea. The red of the grass made all the great prairie the colour of wine-stains, or of certain seaweeds when they are first washed up. And there was so much motion in it; the whole country seemed, somehow, to be running.” – Willa Cather, My Antonia

Is your work tied to place? Mine is. Mountains, rust-belt ruins, green and yellow fields in alternating bands, small cities, little towns, Cold War suburbs. A valley. Some rivers. A beach and a sound.

One of my earliest literary memories is of my grandmother reading the Little House on the Prairie books by Laura Ingalls Wilder to me when I was as young as 3. I remember one scene specifically about a lost doll partially frozen to the ground in a fallow cornfield puddle. I hadn’t connected these early experiences to my own vocation before, but this image, 27 years later, is vivid, and our own setting, the bi-level in Whitehall near the old cement plant.

What are your places?

Saturday, October 10, 2009

I've been lacking...

By Casey Tolfree

So I know I've been lacking on the posting about my program but I guess that's because I've been spending so much of my time reading. The writing is coming. I'm workshopping a complete piece in need of revising so I'm writing there but I am finding that more and more I turn back to my novel. Even if I only have 10 minutes. I'm forcing myself to find time to write: if I finish the chapter than I can write. It's like a prize.

This past week was difficult. My fiction workshop gave me critiques and advice that I needed the other week. My newest revision of APT 509 is awesomeness. This week I had my first playwriting workshop. It was different for starters.

In fiction when our piece is being workshopped - we don't talk. We sit and listen and take notes. We apply what is said as we chose. In playwriting I was expected to talk, I was expected to answer question that I honestly didn't have answers too. It was a harsh workshop. I felt badly afterwards. I'm not a playwright and this assignment in particular was based on a hero's journey. I had a hard time writing it to begin with. It was a hard week.

I've since talked to my professor though and he was encouraging, explaining to me what was meant by comments he said and how I could work on my piece. It made a lot more sense when not in the spotlight of 15 people.

Another disheartening comment was made on Thursday but this time by a classmate. We were talking about "Something that Needs Nothing" by Miranda July. We were talking about just how Pip and the protagonist feel about the real world and working. One of my classmates actually said something that was really discouraging. About how certain jobs are undistinguished - ie food service, retail, etc. Wow. Hello, I'm a Starbucks barista. I don't think that working at Starbucks is undistinguished. If we weren't there how would you get a latte? How would we buy groceries without people working at supermarkets?
Bottom line is that in an economy like ours today, people who were top executives are now getting laid off and coming to work for retail stores to make money to support themselves and families. They are doing what they need to do to keep food on the table. I am doing what I need to do to pay my bills. I just hate when people say things like that as if it's so easy to just find something in our field or in the "real" work force. It's not easy. If it was easy I wouldn't be working part-time at newspaper covering high school sports.

Sigh, people worry me.

When And Where Do You Write?

by Jennifer Brown

I get up around 5a.m. and write.  Or try to write.  Sometimes I just sit there and look at a work in progress and hate it.  Sometimes something really takes off and the morning flies by.  Regular mornings are spent at my desk—the one in the picture.  Special writing mornings are spent on the deck of my boyfriend’s cabin in the Shenandoah Valley (the other pic).  I am hoping that I can get to where I’m able to write anywhere and everywhere at anytime of day or night, but I’m not there yet. 

How about you? Where and when do you write?  Do you have an office?  A kitchen table? A corner of the library?  A coffeeshop table?  Does it matter to you—or can you write anywhere and everywhere?  Can you post a pic of your special place?

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Embracing the Suck

by Jonterri Gadson

I assure you this is not a whining post. I read a great article last night that really speaks to my feeling about some of my most recent work. The article is by Nancy Rawlinson and it's called "Writing Advice: How to Embrace the Suck". Here's the part that really got to me:

So what I’m saying here is: a succession of sucky writing days can be a signal that you are not acknowledging some truth about your work. If you stop banging your head against the keyboard for a minute and instead think about what that truth might be, you’ll probably be able to get yourself going again.

I totally get this. I've been feeling like my daily writing has been sentimental crap that I can't really use. The piece I had workshopped this week was noted as being borderline sentimental. I'm cool with acknowledging the suck but I'm not sure how to make the leap from this acknowledgement to knowing what to do to fix it. Maybe I should ask Nancy? lol

So what I'm doing is showing up at the page every day anyway. I'm trying to use more concrete details to convey my message. I'm hoping to get away from personal narrative/confessional stuff for awhile because that just brings out the sentimental in me. I'm also studying the mess out of people who do what I'm trying to do well (Sharon Olds & Jericho Brown for example).

Hmmmm...maybe if I journal more, like a diary type thing, I can have a place to get out the sentimental stuff so it won't feel the need to come out in my poems. Gonna try that. I'll let you all know how it goes. See, maybe embracing the suck really does work.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

It's mid-term at UNCG, can you believe it?

by Whitney Gray

If I were to shoot a TV pilot for the comedy of my life, it would go something like this. "Man!" exclaims the cheerful, female narrator, "grad school sure is easy!" We would see a young, beautiful, impossibly brilliant woman sitting on the couch, flipping through her planner, doodling pictures in all the blank dates. (I believe Rachael McAdams would be a suitable actress to play me.) Then, we would hear a booming voice interrupt her doodling and humming by saying, "Not so fast, missy!" Cue the goofy sitcom music and credits, and then you would have the beginning of "My So-Called Easy Life at Grad School." (Sarcasm, anyone?)

So what would happen in this sitcom? Well, for one, it would be more "sit" than "com" if ya know what I'm sayin'. Head over to my blog to read more!

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Strange Reactions

by Jonterri Gadson
I've begun bracing myself a little bit when people ask me what I do or what I'm studying. I can't believe how shocked people are to find out that I'm in grad school studying creative writing. I get a lot of "Wow! I never heard of doing that before"'s or they like to tell me what they expected me to study, "I thought maybe you were in the sciences," or "I thought they only give fellowships out for research." It's really weird! lol

Do you all get weird reactions from people? Maybe it's the way I'm explaining it. How do you explain what you're doing?

Friday, October 2, 2009

Has It Really Been Six Weeks?

by Emily May Anderson

On one hand, it feels like time has flown by, like just a few days ago I was moving into this apartment and meeting my peers for the first time. On the other hand, it also feels like I’ve been here forever, like I can’t remember being anywhere else and not knowing these people that I’ve come to know so intimately.

I just got back from an MFA party at a professor’s house. Her home was lovely, and all the MFAs, and their assorted hangers-on, are so nice! There were kids at the party, and cats, and husbands and sisters and boyfriends. And there was rather a lot of food, all of it very good. Those creative types can cook! I made an apple crisp and brought a bottle of Spanish Quarter red. It was actually rather funny – I stopped at the wine shop on the way to the party, got my bottle and got in line and noticed one of my professors in line a couple people ahead of me. As I was chatting with her, a guy from workshop came in, all of us buying wine for the party.

It was a nice time, and now I am home, and planning to do some work. Tomorrow I need to go for a long run, do some work, clean my apartment, and I’m trying to organize some of the first years into meeting for a few drinks tomorrow night.

I have been through six weeks of classes and am rapidly approaching the halfway point on this first semester. Each week is so busy that it seems to fly by. I know it will be November before I realize it, then Thanksgiving, then the end of the semester and Christmas. I can hardly believe my first semester is going so fast.
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