Friday, March 18, 2011


My name is Mike Mlek* and I believe in miracles. Since I applied to MFA programs almost four months ago, I have been searching for signs that would tell me where I might get accepted or when I might hear back from particular programs.

If Colorado beat my current school, Kansas State University (where I am finishing my M.A. in English and Creative Writing), in basketball, that meant I'd be rejected there. (True.)

If I accidentally stumbled upon a book by a professor at Cornell while browsing at the library, that meant I'd get in there. (Nope.)

If a city that could be my future home popped up in the news, my head would explode in nikhedonia.

I've always been like this, I think. But my search for signs, coincidences, omens, spotlights coming out of nowhere and saying, "Look. Here," has become more intense as I've gotten older (and, maybe ironically, smarter). In my first semester of college, now seven years ago, I wrote a paper for philosophy class defending fatalism by examining the significance of coincidences. When my friends and I competed in the 2009 National Poetry Slam, we kept track of all the negative things that happened to us on the trip, insisting that each bad occurrence was an omen predicting our future success--and we went on to win the tournament. Now, I just have the general sense that my life has worked out so well thus far, whoever is in control of it (me, God, the Architect of the Matrix) must have it all planned out.

For the novelist Milan Kundera, motif and coincidence are governed by the laws of beauty, and they are to be found in real life the same as they are found in novels. “It is wrong, then,” he writes, “to chide the novel for being fascinated by mysterious coincidences, […] but it is right to chide man for being blind to such coincidences in his daily life. For he thereby deprives his life of a dimension of beauty.”

On February 23rd, I got into the MFA program at the University of Pittsburgh, and I was offered a Teaching Assistantship about three weeks later. Now I'm looking for signs that I should go there.

I. I've learned that August Wilson left his native Pittsburgh for St. Paul, Minnesota. Now I've been given the opportunity to leave my native St. Paul for Pittsburgh.

II. The other night, a performance poet named
Buddy Wakefield, who was one of my first favorite poets when I was coming up, performed at my school and I opened for him. He said something about a church bartender, which reminded me of a church in Pittsburgh that has been transformed into a brewery and restaurant.

III. Yesterday, there were some college kids playing beer pong in their front yard and listening to music. As I walked by on my way to the bar where I run a poetry reading series, the song
"Black and Yellow" came on.

I don't plan on actually basing my decision on coincidences and omens. Actually, I've yet to even receive another offer. I'm waitlisted at Minnesota (6th on the waitlist) and Indiana (no further info), and flat-out rejected at Iowa, Cornell, Colorado, and Missouri's PhD. I am assuming rejection from McNeese State University, and still waiting to hear back from Purdue.

Aesthetically, geographically, and in terms of motif-prophecy, Pitt is the perfect fit for me. I deeply admire the poetry and poets they produce; they have a new focus on genre crossing and hybrid forms, which I love; the city sounds amazing (and similar to my hometown, Minneapolis-St. Paul); they're one of the few MFA cities I applied to that are home to a poetry slam.

Pitt's big drawback, for me, is that I'd be teaching composition for the first two years (and possibly all three). I want badly to teach creative writing, and I want to be competitive for a tenure track position immediately after my MFA, which means, I think, I need creative writing teaching experience. And, while Indiana is a less attractive program to me in terms of aesthetics and geography, six of the nine courses I would teach there would be creative writing. (Ooh. One of my poetry slam teammates and best friends, Khary Jackson, uses the stage name "6 is 9." A coincidence in favor of Indiana.) Either program would leave me with a good narrative: my fiction professor (not my real genre, by the way) got her MFA at Pittsburgh, and my major professor/mentor got her MFA and PhD at Indiana. If I move off the waitlist at the latter program, I'm in for a difficult decision.

For now, though, I spend my free time Googling Pittsburgh, reading about the city and looking at its skyline, its bridges and rivers, its history rendered in black and white. They call it the Paris of Appalachia, equal parts mountain and midwest and east coast. If it were a text, it would be a hybrid form. I, not knowing why my great grandparents came here from Poland, Pittsburgh, having watched its steel mills close--we both know the breakdown of narrative and tradition; we both still believe in resurrections.

I don't yet know where I'll end up. I might blog some more, here, about the decision-making process, and I'll definitely be back when it comes time to move. Nice to meet you, MFA Chronicles.

*My name isn't really Mike Mlek, but I don't want this to be what pops up when my name is Googled. Here's me and my real name.


  1. Congrats on getting in (and getting funding)!

    Are you coming to the open house this week? Pittsburgh is an interesting, interesting place. It took a while for it to grow on me, but it's good now. And we have a couple Minnesotans here who seem to be surviving the transition.

    & those crazy poets. (;

  2. Hey Michael. Love the coincidence-safari, but the real reason I'm commenting is to plug another church-gone-bezerk in Pittsburgh , Altar Bar. Not sure what denomination it used to be, but now it's a bar/concert venue which brings in some mainstream and some 'weird'. Your post made me think of it.

  3. @Amy: I won't be attending the open house, unfortunately. Good to know that you and the Minnesotans are adjusting. How long have you been in the Program? Have you taken one of those CNF+Poetry Workshops yet?

    @Gena: Thanks for the heads up! I LOVE it!

  4. OMEN IV: I just read an article on The Onion that one of my writer friends posted. The character's name is Lundy, which is the middle name of the professor I've been in contact with at Pitt. Nice.

  5. Michael,

    I think everyone looks for signs, more or less. The trick is to stay true to yourself./fortune cookie. Congrats and I loved this post! Very well written :)

  6. good stuff! i'm looking forward to finding out where you end up!

  7. had pitt won the game tonight, they would have played k-state, according to this bracket thing i filled out [terribly incorrectly, i am finding.]

    come to pittsburgh!

  8. Great post, Michael--and great reading! Good luck wherEVER the signs and omens take you. It will be just the right place, I bet.

  9. Michael, I took the first one! Feel free to e-mail me ( with any and all questions. (=


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