Thursday, February 25, 2010

Turning to the Dark Side

A few weeks ago, my thesis advisor Marty sat me down. He said something along the lines of "You're a very pleasant person, but in order for these poems to get really great, you're going to have to go somewhere dark".

I guess I've always written about dark things, but especially since I've begun to work on my MFA. Some of that might be natural, because of what's been going on in my personal life (adjusting to life in Middle Georgia, the unexpected death of my uncle, etc.), but really I am the happiest I've ever been. And the idea that I can't just be dark, but I need to take it even darker..into that uncomfortable, horrifying place that no one really wants to go to... was advice that I think I needed to hear, but I never expected to hear.

Has anyone else gotten this unexpected but needed advice? Are there any other dark souls out there? ;)

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Decision Time: Discussion Question No. 3

I've always believed that, as an aspiring college professor, gaining college teaching experience would be one of the most important and valuable aspects of an MFA program. Very recently (as in, as of this morning), though, I have had reason to consider the possible benefits (and drawbacks) of funding packages that do not include teaching as a requirement. My thought process:

On the one hand, being funded but not required to teach would free up a lot of extra writing time, and would be a truly once-in-a-lifetime opportunity (because, I mean, how often does one get paid to write without anything asked for in return?). And if one were to plan on going to a PhD program anyway (as I am), one would inevitably gain teaching experience as part of the PhD study. Therefore, it might be a good idea to accept the non-teaching funding offer.

On the other hand, though, teaching experience is a lot more important for the aspiring professor than it is for people not interested in education as a profession, and perhaps one should take advantage of as many opportunities to get that experience as possible. Also, teaching is often said to energize the mind in ways conducive to writing, and so perhaps the extra time constraints dictated by a teaching position would not hinder writing very much if at all.

So, assuming the teaching and non-teaching offers are roughly comparable in monetary value, which would you recommend? Are there other factors not considered here that one should consider should one find him- or herself in this position? Thoughts?

Feminist Journal Contest

For those of you who enter contests, the feminist literary journal at my program, So to Speak, is having a contest.

Here is the info:

So to Speak, a feminist literary journal, announces its Fall 2010 Short Fiction Contest, judged by Maud Casey. The winner is awarded $500, 2 copies of the magazine, and publication
in the journal. Stories should not exceed 5,000 words. Deadline is March 15, 2009.

Mail entries to:
So to Speak (Fiction Contest),
George Mason University, MSN 2C5
4400 University Drive, Fairfax, VA 22030.
Please include $15 reading fee and SASE.
Full submission guidelines at
Please email with any questions.

Best of luck to anyone who decides to enter!

Tuesday, February 23, 2010


So, what's everyone thinking about doing for the summer? I'm thinking about working. A lot if I can. Of course, writing a lot. I've been good about writing the last few summers so I'm looking forward to that again. I am going to miss the structure of the program and wish I had something with a similar structure for the summer (like a conference or something) but that's not something I can financially do now.

Anyone have any interesting plans? Any ideas?

Sunday, February 21, 2010

I'm Following You

By Casey Tolfree

This is more of a request than a post. I was thinking that since we're all on this blog together we should support each other in following (if on blogger) each other blogs. Even if you don't read it religiously at least our blogs will all be linked.

Just a nice thought!

I'm following all of you :)


Friday, February 19, 2010

A Commuter's Journey

By Casey Tolfree

When I found out I had to go see two plays for my African American Women Playwrights class, I was at first a little flustered. Two more days I had to take off of work. Two more weeks that would be thrown completely out of wack. That feeling wore off though and I was excited. It's always great to see performances. On the upside I figured maybe I could use one of them as a cultural event for my practicum class blog.

I wasn't going to blog about the performance of Topdog/Underdog at Adelphi University on Feb. 18. I wasn't going to just take an easy path but as it turns out it was anything but easy.

I arrived on campus around 5:45 p.m., more than a little early but I didn't have to sit in any traffic and I ran into a friend so it worked out well.

The play Topdog/Underdog, written by Suzan-Lori Parks, was a reading experience from the first time I picked it up. The play itself was great. I understood why it received a Pultizer Prize for Drama in 2002. Parks has done an amazing thing in Topdog that allows us to reach out and understand the lives of brothers, Lincoln and Booth.

Seeing Parks words performed on stage though was something completely different. I laughed, a cried (not really but I felt for them), I was mesmorized by the rivalry presented to me on stage. Two of my classmates comprised the cast, Matthew Hancock and Patrick Johnson. Seeing them come to life on stage was an experience I won't soon forget. It's easy to see an actor on stage but to see someone you sit next to in class once a week come to life as another being and to completely embrace that character. It was definitely an experience.

After the play their was a brief talkback. I think it might have been longer but the play ended after 10 p.m. and everyone seemed tired. The actors spoke about the process they went through to even get Adelphi to allow them to put on the performance. We learned about the idea behind the set. It was in the round, with the audience on three sides and a small space in the middle as the stage. The set was a room at a boarding house where the brothers lived. The set designer used a fence and barbed wire to portray the room.

The set designer saw the rivalry between the brothers as a constant dog fight and tried to get the set to look like a dog fight arena of sorts.

Like I said the talkback was brief. But my trip home was anything but brief. I go to Adelphi University's MFA program. I commute from Westchester county. A 35 mile drive, about an hour trip, just to get there. It's a hike but I make it and most days I dont' mind it. It gives me time to think about my writing or work out revisions in my head.

However, walking out of the play last night at 10:40 p.m. I got in my car, pulled out of my spot, only to realize I had the flattest of flat tires. Yeah, great. I went to public safety who kindly informed me that they couldn't help me because of insurance issues, but the gentleman who I found was at least helpful. He made sure he found someone to come out and at least get my donut on my car so I could drive somewhere.

The process however was long. We didn't find someone willing to come out to Adelphi and change a tire for almost an hour. It then took the repair guy almost an hour to get out to Adelphi and about 40 minutes to change the tire. It was a process. I didn't get in my car until after 1 a.m.

I don't know what you know about donuts but let me tell you, you can't drive very fast or very far on them. Luckily, I have relatives in the Bronx who were nice enough to lodge me for the night. So I drove 30 mph up the Cross Island and over the Throgs Neck Bridge to my Uncle's. I didn't get there until after 1:30 a.m.

I had to call out of work too because even with the donut I still can't get all the way home until I get two new tires. Yes, two. Both front tires are shot. Thank God for tax refunds. I'm actually writing this from my Uncle's. He's playing Halo and I'm blogging. We talk every now and again but I guess that's how it is when you're 23. They don't have to entertain you. A place to sleep was more than enough for me though. I just wanted to not be stranded. And though I'm still stranded at least it's somewhere I am safe.

I feel like this was a cultural experience because I saw so many different sides to humanity out there stranded. The public safety officer was really nice to me. He helped me out. The rest of public safety kicked me out of their office and made me wait alone in the lobby of Levermore Hall for the mechanic. Nice, I know.

The mechanic was really nice. He called to check on me as I was driving home to make sure my donut was okay and everything.

My job on the other hand gave me a hard time about not coming in. I tried explaining how I was literally stranded. My car couldn't make it to Westchester and that Starbucks would have to go on without me but they didn't seem to want to hear it. (I found out later it was because my shift supervisor had to go to a funeral but I couldn't predict this was going to happen).

You learn a lot about people when you are stranded late at night. I learned a lot about myself. I don't handle stress well, not when it comes to my car, my job, my property (ie my Macbook). I usually cry and freak out. I remained calm the entire time. I dealt with everything as it came and figured it out.

So maybe I didn't have an indepth conversation with a writer about process or style but Topdog/Underdog isn't a performance I will soon forget and for that reason I'm putting it on here because it was an event for me. I saw a play about how people tear each other down and then I went outside and had to depend on the kindness of others to get me home (or close enough). I see a parallel. Maybe I'm wrong but it was an experience I won't soon forgot and I am absolutely going home and signing up for AAA.

Lit Woes

So the second semester of the first year is shaping up much differently than my first one. First, I love getting variety in workshop instruction, getting something different, coming to understand how another professor looks at poems and guides us to look at poems. Because of the weather we've only met at Rita's house once so far and that sucks, but that's not supposed to be the point of workshop lol.

This is a two year program so some of the second years have been submitting poems more frequently in preparation for their final thesis. Just when you think you've gotten to know their work...boom...some sort of crazy leap happens and a huge progression is obvious (not that they weren't already great). I feel this way about pretty much all of their poems lately. It's pretty amazing and inspiring. I'll take some progression please. Yes, one large lump of it would do. As far as my progress, I think the biggest thing that my professors and classmates have helped me to focus on with my work is an economy of words and really tightening my language. So we'll see where that takes me.

My first semester was very easy academically. Which was a nice break. Not that the writing was easy, it never really is. But this semester is a challenge so far with my lit class. I was an undergrad English major and I'm taking a graduate level lit seminar. A lot of the people in the class are first year PhD students whom I assume were also undergrad English majors. So to kill my intimidation I assured myself that only one semester separates our knowledge base. This would work for me if UVA wasn't apparently storing first year PhDs in pods their first semester, feeding them knowledge and the ability to speak intelligently, read quickly and still retain all the key points to discuss in class. I don't feel like I fit in my lit class, I almost feel like it's their class and not mine, kind of how I might feel if they were in the MFA workshop maybe. They don't make me feel this way. The professor doesn't necessarily make me feel this way. I do think the professor recognizes there are things I haven't learned as an MFA student that the Lit kids obviously picked up in their pod infusions. When I said I wasn't familiar with something, she said, "Well, you're creative writing." I made it clear that I was in the class for the opportunity to learn though. I don't know. It's seriously an internal struggle. Probably why I write poems in the margins of my notebook all during class.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Decision Time: Discussion Question No. 2

Hello again friends. Thanks for all the enthusiastic (and helpful) responses to the first discussion question. This next question is another one that has been covered at length, especially at the P&W Speakeasy, but one on which I would nonetheless appreciate your opinions.

Yes, it's the old MFA/PhD discussion again. Here's the scenario. Let's say that one receives offers with comparable funding to both MFAs and PhDs (with creative emphasis). No matter what, one's ultimate goal is the PhD, so MFA only is not an option. The options then become:

(a.) Go for the PhD. Some people spend as few as one or two years in MFA programs and still manage to find employment, finish manuscripts, etc. Spending five years in a PhD program, then, would just provide even more time to write and accumulate teaching experience, and afterward one would also still qualify for some of those jobs at small English departments out there that require a PhD for consideration. Oh, and one might hit the job market by the time he or she is 30.

(b.) Go for the MFA first, and then apply to PhD programs. This would maximize one's number of funded writing years as well as one's opportunities to acquire mentors and readers, etc., an added perk being that you end up with two terminal degrees after all is said and done. Of course, this significantly extends one's time in school, which means that one hits the job market later and with more gray hair and much more accrued interest on those unsubsidized government loans and (even worse) those ill-advised, vampiric Sallie Mae loans.

Those are the two sides as I see them anyway.

What do you all think? What would you advise, and why? Feel free to augment, complicate, or refocus the question as needed.

Very much looking forward to your perspectives.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Craziest Thing That's Happened in Workshop???

by Emily May Anderson

Hello, everyone! I apologize for my lack of posts this semester. I am meeting with the MFA director tomorrow to chat about next year and what on earth I should be doing afterward, and I promise to come back with a report. But in the meantime, I'd like to pose a question to you all...

What is the craziest thing that has ever happened in a workshop you've been in? Undergrad or graduate. Either one is fine. You don't have to name the professor, but have you ever had an instructor do or say anything completely off the wall, or inappropriate, or demeaning, or etc? I just re-read Louis Menand's New Yorker article on the history of creative writing programs, and he tells some pretty wild stories of goings-on in workshop. I don't think I've ever had a creative writing professor do anything all that crazy, but I'm curious if other people have.

Soooo, any good stories???

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Being an Engaged MFA student

I know most of you don't care about my love life, but I felt obligated to tell you--my MFA family--- that I am now engaged. (Well, officially since Feb. 5th). The past week has been a celebration all over--even Martin Lammon was nice enough to announce congratulations in front of our poetry workshop. My students have been excited too, noticing my ring without me even announcing anything, sending me emails and wanting to hear how it all happened. It just felt really great.

If you want the juicy engagement details, you can see them at

It seems really strange, but so much of the way I'm viewing my engagement does deal with my role as a graduate student. We've decided to set up the wedding during spring break of 2011...If we'd planned for after graduation in 2011, wedding stress would conflict with our move to wherever I'm going for PhD or job stuff. And now that we are engaged, I feel even more motivated to think about PhDs. I want to be as prepared as possible for any job opportunity that comes my way, and I want to be able to contribute to our family.

Hope you are all having a wonderful Valentines weekend. Wherever you are, whatever you are doing--know that you are loved!

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Decision Time: Discussion Question No. 1

Good morning all. Welcome to the realm of the hypothetical. This is the first of what will most likely be a series of discussion questions concerning the decision-making process.

This first question is an old one, and I know it has been covered ad nauseam in various media by Tom Kealey, Seth Abramson, and others, but I would very much like to get all of your opinions on it:

Let's say that one is accepted to multiple programs, each of which offers a funding package that is roughly comparable to the others and, therefore, the funding question becomes moot. That being so, what factor or factors would you then prioritize in making the decision? Faculty, location, reputation (or "prestige"), success of alumni, teaching load, editorial opportunities, etc.? Something else entirely?

I look forward to getting your perspectives on this. What better group could I possibly ask?

Monday, February 8, 2010

Greetings from Nick McRae (as yet uncommitted to a program)

Dear MFA Chronicles friends. You may be surprised to see me posting here and, honestly, I'm not unsurprised myself, but here we go nonetheless. I've been an avid reader of this blog since the beginning (though I only recently started commenting) and I've often wished I could join in on the conversation, so when Josh(ua Gottlieb-Miller) mentioned to me the other day that I might be able to join up as a contributor, I jumped at the idea. And, so, here I am. I look forward to interacting with you all!

As you can see from the title, I haven't decided on a program yet (and it is still early in the notification season), but I do have a few offers already, so I know I'll be going somewhere this Fall. I was originally worried about joining this blog without yet knowing where I'll end up, but I consulted Josh and Jaytee about it, and they thought it might interesting to have a contributor who's still in the decision-making process. I hope it will be. Let me know what you think in the comments.

Now, allow me to introduce myself. I'm Nick McRae (as you know), I'm 24 years old, and I'm from the tiny Northwest Georgia town of LaFayette. That's Luh-FAY-et, not La-fay-ET (there's a town legend behind this that I won't go into here!). I did my undergrad in English at the University of West Georgia, a truly great school for creative writing that no one really knows about. Being an ambitious student of poetry in a relatively unknown program, I got a lot of great opportunities, such as editing the undergrad literary journal, going to AWP on the university's dime, acting as a research assistant for my poetry professors' collaborative poetry writing text, and copyediting for the scholarly journals a/b: Auto/Biography Studies and Lifewriting Annual, among other things. A couple of summers ago I got a chance to attend the Bucknell Seminar for Younger Poets and spent three weeks in pastoral Central Pennsylvania writing poems with the good Mr. Gottlieb-Miller and others. I've had some poems published here and there, my most recent and favorite being this one at Linebreak.

Aside from poetry, I have a deep love for Central Europe that has determined a lot of my life over the past few years. When I was an undergrad, I spent a year as an exchange student at Masaryk University in Brno, Czech Republic, and I currently live and work in Slovakia as part of a Fulbright grant. Here, I teach anglophone literature and advanced English language at a gymnasium, or selective (in this case public) secondary school. This is a great gig, I love Slovakia and my school, but every day I feel more and more ready to get back stateside and start my grad program, wherever that might ultimately be!

So, friends, country(wo)men, I need guidance. I've been trying to decide how to approach blogging about the grad school waiting/decision-making process, and I'm honestly a little flummoxed. On the one hand, I would be very interested to have all of your input on the upcoming decision, the details of my offers, etc., and it might possibly be interesting to the MFA Chronicles' outside readership as well. But on the other hand, I know from spending a few years now hanging around the MFA Blog and the P&W Speakeasy that some people do not take kindly to folks making too big a deal about getting multiple acceptances and having a hard time making a choice, and that sort of thing can often lead to a lot of harsh words and hard feelings. And so I ask: what do you all suggest? Do you think it would be a bad idea to discuss these things publicly on the blog here, or should I not be so worried? What would you all be interested in reading? What guidance would you offer?

I'm so proud to be a part of this unique online collective. I look forward to hearing from each and every one of you. You're all rock stars.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Celebrating Literature, Writing and Friends

By Casey Tolfree

I was waiting until I had all my classes to post about them. So, Friday I officially had my last first class. It's a practicum class at Adelphi's NYC campus. It's actually pretty cool. We have to host closed blogs on our online portal where we review other blogs and cultural events. It's with all the first year students so I meant the remaining few I hadn't already met last semester. We all go out afterwards too so it's a lot of fun.

I'm reposting the blogs for class on my personal blog if you want to check it out.

My biggest problem in college I feel was that after I lost my housing I had to commute from Westchester to Queens. (There's a big bridge with a big toll in the middle) and it was just a lot of driving to go out and party then have to drive home. So I missed a lot of things senior year. I'm trying not to do that now. So I'm going out even if it's a bit of a hassle to get to the city.

My workshop with Victor LaValle is so great. He's a really great professor. It's very structured and we are working a lot on writing and not so much on reading. I was the first story workshopped and I got so much out of it. I learned what my classmates loved about my piece and what they thought needed work. I felt that I really understand the concerns of the audience.

It was my first attempt at a short story so I'm glad it went over well. I think that Victor is going to be a really productive teaching experience. He's so different from our other fiction professors in the program.

My last class (which was consequently my first class of the semester) is African American Women Playwrights. I was really concerned about this class. I wound up taking it because it paired on days with my workshop. I was worried that it wouldn't be interesting for me, but my professor, Kermit Frazier, is teaching it as a sort of history through plays type of class. I love learning about civil rights and integration and all the class/race warfare that went on in the early years of the country, so this class is really helping me to feed into that interest.

Anyways, I just wanted to post about the beginning of the semester and let you all know how it's going. Last semester was definitely a learning curve and I think this semester I'm ready to take it all head on. I'm more comfortable with my classmates and myself as well as with my professors. I think some of my best writing might come out of this semester. I'm inspired and I can't stop writing. Last semester I barely had time to write, now I'm finishing my work on the weekends so I can have Monday and Tuesday before class to write.

I hope everyone is having a great spring semester!

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Writing in weird places?

I'd been having trouble writing anything worth keeping these last few weeks when a good idea started trying to get my attention. I was walking to the gym, and in the past I would have stopped and written my idea down, but this time I started running, trying to keep track/develop the lines as I went around the track.

I've been "writing" at the gym for a month or two, now, and something I've noticed is that the words take on a different character (more sound-based, a little more patient) when I'm thinking them up (and having to half-memorize them) while running and hitting the weights, than when I'm not involved in some repetitive physical activity.

(Sadly, this is not my invention: one of the reasons I started composing while running was because I read that Sharon Olds used to compose while hitting the weights.)

But what I'm wondering is: Do you have any weird places/activities that both motivate and alter your writing habits in cool, unexpected ways?
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