Monday, May 24, 2010

First Year Wrap Up!! (UVA)

I, too, made it through the first year of my MFA program. Let's get straight to the highlights:

Fall Semester

-getting to work with Greg Orr. The weekly one-on-one's were like therapy. I was able to comfortably explore topics in my poetry that I wasn't ready to share with the workshop yet in these meetings.

-MFA Reading Series. I loved hearing my cohort's work and I loved getting the opportunity to share my work. I got such great feedback from everyone. I discovered how much I actually like reading.

-started developing close friendships with two people in my program in particular. Our weekly coffee dates live on!

-the first two poems I workshopped were accepted and published!

-taking a literary journal editing class and getting a behind the scenes look at how Best New Poets is put together at the printing press.

Spring Semester

-workshop at Rita Dove's house. Weekly one-on-one's with Rita. Rita's thorough feedback. In the last meeting she kicked her feet up on her desk and kept saying, "This is so fun!" lol I mention this because people might assume that celebrity poets can't teach and won't be accessible. She is not that poet. I believe we actually formed relationships with her that will last.

-The Virginia Festival of the Book. Falling in love with Kevin Young and Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon's poetry after their readings was a welcome surprise. I can already see the effects on my own writing.

-wrote and revised the longest paper I've ever written for a graduate level lit class.

-decided for sure that I'm not going to pursue a CW PhD at this time. Now I can execute my post-mfa plan of attack on my future with more focus.

I know I'm leaving a ton of stuff out. I'm happy to be here. Happy to be in an MFA program. I promise to do a post on tips for surviving grad school as a single parent. There are a few of us out there! I can't believe the plan I had when I went back for my undergrad degree at 29 yrs old came together more perfectly than I dreamed it.


  1. Great post, JayTee! What made you decide against the Phd? I'm still wavering. . .

  2. Jennifer- a few things. I was pretty sure before I took the lit class that I would do a phd. But in the process of actually being in that level of class and doing the paper, I realized how that's really not my passion. I talked to Rita about my concerns and she pointed out that writing is the goal and teaching is something that I want to do in order to support myself so I can write. With that in mind I realized that I could support myself quicker and better by just getting a job PhD programs will be there if I should change my mind in the future.

  3. Oh...and I hope that I can rack up some good publications or awards/fellowships or something that will open the door to a university creative writing position in the future.

  4. Awesome! It all sounds amazing, and I'm glad we all got to follow along in this blog.

  5. JayTee,

    Glad you had such a good first year!

    It sounds like you're making a right decision with the CW PhD, too.

  6. You forgot to add (the awesome part of) being accepted into Cave Canem. :-)

  7. Nice wrap up JT! It has been such a pleasure watching your progress :)

  8. Thanks everyone! I didn't forget Evelyn, I just figured I'd spare one website from hearing me talk about it lol

  9. Congratulations, Jaytee! As a fellow older-than-average (soon to be)MFA student, I've always appreciated your posts. Thanks for sharing your experiences (and that goes for Jennifer, Emily and everybody else here.) I just arrived in Wilmington, NC on Tuesday! I'm sweating, thrift store shopping and settling into my new place. I've been totally absent online, but hope to be more active soon. Have a great summer, y'all!

  10. Hi Jaytee! Thanks so much for all the insightful commentary on the CW MFA.

    I don't know if this is the best place to post this question, but I was wondering a bit about your background and what kinds of experiences you had that may have appealed to UVA in the application process.

    I was an English major there and graduated in '06, and then made the rash decision to go to law school... Four years later, I have realized that I was wasting my life in a career that didn't involve creative writing.

    After obsessing about this quandry for hours on end and researching the CW MFA rather extensively, I realized that I want to do everything in my power to get in a good program. UVA would be my dream school...and almost impossible to get in I'm sure.

    My plan is to take at least 1-2 years (or longer if rejected, which is probably likely!) to get my applications as perfect as they can be, because I will be writing anyway and want to become the best possible writer I can be.

    I realize the application process is, in a word, hellish (from reading a number of blogs and posts on this site and others), and at the end of the day, getting accepted comes down to good writing.

    I am currently enrolled in some fiction courses with Writer House in Charlottesville (I live in Richmond, but will commute once a week to continue the classes). It looks like a great way to write some new material and get constructive feedback (if you have heard anything about Writer House, I would be interested to hear your opinions).

    At this point in the game, I have had little experience with fiction and still am not sure whether to go the fiction or poetry route... I was lucky enough to do a number of poetry workshops with Greg Orr and Debra Nystrom as an undergrad, and was working with Greg outside of class for a short stint.

    Unfortunately, I had a rather bad experience in one of my other workshops, and I let it totally defeat my belief in my ability. I pretty much gave up on writing for a couple of years as a result. This may have been due to my being too thin-skinned or my lack of confidence or maturity, but it really crushed me.

    I don't mean to speak ill of UVA or the writing program there because I think that for the most part it is amazing, and I desperately want to return to give it another shot.

    Getting more to the point, I guess I was curious about what worked with you? How did you find time to write before the MFA and make your writing the best it could possibly be? I know that the writing sample is the most important, along with a strong personal statement and recs (and to a lesser degree, GPA and GRE scores).

    I will continue to educate myself as best as I can with Tom Kealey's book and all the great MFA blogs out there (like this one!), which have been invaluable resources thus far.

    But since we had somewhat similar backgrounds- we both took time off from undergrad to work and we both have families (I don't have children, but I am married)- and you were accepted into my school of choice (understatement), your perspective would be awesome.

    Sorry this is post has gotten ridiculously long and confessional! I just feel like I am in a crazy tailspin right now because all of this is a tad overwhelming to me....


  11. Meghan - I wanted to leave you a comment because I worked for 9 years before going back for my MFA. I ended up going the low-res route because I wasn't mobile at the time but I can relate to your situation. I didn't write for a good 5 years because I didn't think I could do it anymore. When I started writing again I also started reading more to really get a feel for what I loved about writing. That helped a lot.

    As I was putting my writing sample together I sent it to a few trusted friends to make sure I had a good sample to send in. That was probably the best thing I did.

    Good luck on your journey!

  12. Hey Meghan,

    Cool question! I'll try my best to answer, just let me know if I leave anything out. I feel a long answer coming on lol. As far as my background and what may have appealed to UVA in the application process, though it's impossible to know exactly what it was, there were a few things they (Greg & Rita) mentioned in the acceptance call and in my first meetings with them. I was told that I have an interesting narrative in my poems. My writing sample had a few poems about growing up black in Idaho, so that's my guess on what the interesting stuff might be. The variety of poem structures was mentioned (it may not have been UVA that mentioned this now that I think about it, but an acceptance call for an MFA program mentioned it). I had a crown of sonnets, a prose poem, a spoken wordish piece...just a variety of poems. The poets in my program seem to be split down the middle on whether they have a more narrative or lyrical style of writing. I realized here that I lean heavily toward the narrative. There are a few people who tend toward more experimental stuff. I'm not sure how the new 1st years will be though.

    I wrote all of the poems in my writing sample in the undergrad writing workshops I took at Florida International University. I was a non-traditional undergrad just before coming to UVA where I was able to take a lot of fiction and poetry workshops. I only think this was an advantage to me in that it made me take those workshops very seriously. I wasn't afraid to share my MFA goal with the professor and discuss revisions of poems that I used for my writing sample. So that's some advice I'd give to you as you go into your Writer's House workshops. I've heard about Writer's House. I think the whole concept of the place is great and I'd looked over the workshop leaders' bios and I think they look like good people to work with. Let them know your goal, that you're unsure whether to go fiction or poetry, and exactly what you're hoping to get out of taking the workshop.

    Prior to the MFA, I went to nearly every poetry reading the MFA program at FIU offered. I went to poetry festivals in my area and sat in on all of the readings, including those of the participants who were everyday poets like me. My sonnet crown was actually sparked from my thoughts on the poems I heard participants read at a poetry festival. Immerse yourself in poetry (or fiction) as much as possible as you prepare your sample. Don't consider any of your ideas bad ideas until you try them out. Which I know is hard to do when your confidence in your writing has been shaken. I hate that you had that experience. Disregard it if you can because you have a goal that requires you to write! Here's what I used and still use to quiet those voices that keep me from writing. This quote was the background on my laptop. I'd read it and calm myself to write.

    There is a vitality, a life force, a quickening that is translated through you into action and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique.
    And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable it is nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open.
    You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep open and aware directly to the urges that motivate you.

    Keep the channel open. No artist is pleased. There is no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer, divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive.

    ~Martha Graham to Agnes de Mille
    I'll continue on a separate comment. It's too long to post.

  13. My personal statement started off really corny. It was something like: You have been brought to this moment by my relentless pursuit of poetry. Or something like that. But it was honest. I said I wanted to go to an MFA program because I feel most alive in workshops. I mentioned how I'd immersed myself in all of the programs and readings given by the MFA program at my undergrad university and that I no longer wanted to participate as an outsider, I wanted in.

    I know how overwhelming this all is. It's your life! You are changing the direction of your life. I totally get it. I've been there. And it's crazy to think that all you can do is write your best sample and someone else gets to decide what happens next for you. So it looks like you are off to a good start by being proactive in your preparation.

    There's a fiction writer on this blog that has a similar background to yours. Jennifer Brown. She actually went to law school too and was an editor of a law review, I believe, before leaving that behind to go for the MFA. She's entering her 2nd year at George Mason now.

    If you'd like another eye for your poems, send me a few (jkgadson at I'm no authority but I can give you constructive and gentle feedback on how I think your work compares to the poets I worked with in my program my first year. Though a lot can change for your writing in the next 1-2 years. My poetry went from the first poetry professor I had in my undergrad workshop in 2007 making a skeptical face and saying, "you have a long way to go with these," (and I really did, they were terrible) as far as making them acceptable poems to the poems that I submitted at the end of 2008 that got me into MFA programs. I don't know how helpful my looking at your poems will be, but it's something. :)

    Thank you for reaching out, Meghan. Any more questions, just or by email. I can't wait to hear your eventual success story!

  14. Wow, thanks for all the feedback and support. Jessie, I will heed your advice. I have been reading non-stop lately (I even listen to books on tape in my car during my commute). But you are totally right. The more I listen or read work that I can get into, the more I want to try to get better myself... and I just love reading generally, so it works out.

    Jaytee, wow, thanks for all your kind words. I got a little teary in my office :) Just having some of those questions addressed really made me feel more comfortable with this whole process, and not as alone. I really appreciate it. And you may be receiving some of my poems if you have time! That is above and beyond, and I totally understand if you can't get to them. But that means a ton. Thank you.


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