Low-Residency MFA Steps Closer To Reality

I’ve written a few posts about my ideas on a low-residency MFA in creative writing. Last week, those ideas became a lot closer to reality. You might say they,be been realized at Mississippi University for Women, when our governing board voted to approve our proposal. But I’ll really believe it’s real when we have students.

What is real is that there is lots of work to be done to put into practice the program that looked good on paper. And that work has begun in earnest. I’ve written a press release and put up our website http://www.muw.edu/mfacreativewriting with a description of the program and a list of the courses that have been approved. Still to come are admissions procedures, a breakdown of costs, and a list of faculty.

On the last front, I have contacted a number of writer friends about our new program, and the response has been phenomenal. I am very thankful for all the congratulations I’ve received, along with offers to end students our way and offers to teach for us. I will be taking people up on these offers, esp. for teaching, either as core faculty or as visiting writers. One of the best things about directing the new program will be the opportunity to work closely with so many other creative professionals — I want to bring in artists, musicians, chefs, historians, producers, publishers, museum directors grant writers, and many other members of he the creative economy in addition to writers.

I’ve already had some great conversations with people, and I’m well on the way to lining up some exciting new colleagues to work with as we take the. Program from the idea stage to the start of classes. And of course, the support of my department, my chair, Eden, provost, and president has been and will continue to be vital to our success. Check our website for updates! I hope to have more announcements soon and often in the coming months.

Book Review: Sympathetic Magic by Amy Fleury

Sympathetic MagicSympathetic Magic by Amy Fleury

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

As the title poem announces, “Sometimes what is needed comes to hand.” These poems are both needed and close at hand. Amy Fleury’s voice is never overly intellectual, never too familiar. These poems are calm and contemplative, yet they bring necessary images to life, whether it is through the exploration of minutiae from a Kansas landscape like the “First Morel” or the touching encounter between father and daughter in “Ablution” or the perception of nuns and saints in their “Niches.” It is great to see a poet who vacillates so dexterously between intensely personal poems and poems of complete objectivity. Read these poems whether you are in “the waters of loving” or “the sump of loss” or somewhere between. They will do you good.

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Eudora Welty Writers’ Symposium Wrap-Up

It is hard to believe that two weeks ago today we at Mississippi University for Women were in the throes of another fabulous Eudora Welty Writers’ Symposium. Hard to believe that two weeks have passed and hard to believe what a great weekend it was. Every year we say it was the best and couldn’t get better. Every year exceeds our expectations (or our memory), but this year truly was unique.

The Symposium began in earnest for me on Wednesday morning, Oct. 22, when I picked up the inimitable Carol Ruth Silver from GTR airport. A tour of the Tennessee Williams home and lunch on the Riverwalk. Conversations about San Francisco, Chinese dual-language education, recycling, and of course the Freedom Rides in Mississippi on a gorgeous fall day brought me out of the stress of planning the weekend and provided a bit of calm in the storm. In the evening, dinner with Tim Parrish at The Little Dooey followed by some conversation over beers at our house was another welcome island in the stream of tying up a few final details, putting out fires, and writing my introduction for the next night’s keynote session.

Thursday was busier than normal (so I’d been working ahead), since we have a grant to produce a half-hour video of interviews with four of the symposium authors. That meant getting pizza for lunch, meeting with the interviewees over lunch, and then taping interviews all afternoon. These went great, and actually provided an excellent kick-start to the symposium, since I got to know the authors and I felt the energy building as we talked. Tim and Carol Ruth were shuttled over to WCBI for interviews on the local station in the midst of all of this, and our other authors started to arrive, so things were really getting underway. I had brought my clothes for the evening down to campus and changed in my office, so I could pick everyone up in the university’s big van and bring them to dinner at 5:00, and then the real public part of the symposium began.

Tim Parrish’s reading at the keynote was inspired. He has been so gracious and enthusiastic throughout the symposium and the months leading up to it, that everything went off without a hitch. Maridith Geuder had suggested creating more of a set for the video production, so Tim read from a wing-back chair on stage. This arrangement made the readings much more casual and intimate. Tim dedicated his reading from Fear and What Follows to his dad who passed away this year, and he read passages that dealt with his father’s influence. He also read from his novel The Jumper — all I can say is get a copy of both of these books and read them. You won’t be disappointed! It was a fabulous reading with great Q&A after, and we hardly wanted to break for the book signing and reception (though the food was well worth it).

It’s hard to give highlights of Friday and Saturday, since everyone’s readings were great. I especially enjoyed Carol Ruth Silver’s reading and discussion of her time as one of the Freedom Riders in 1960s Mississippi and her days in Parchman prison as a result of that civil disobedience. The bravery of all the riders is almost impossible to fathom, especially when you hear of some of the prison episodes or think about the violence that they could have confronted with an angry mob.

I always love the poets, and John Bensko, Amy Fleury, Shayla Lawson, Derrick Harriell and Richard Boada were no exceptions. Each had their individual style and grabbed the audience in different way. This year was a nearly perfect mix of styles, yet each poet responded to the others and themes could be traced in all of their work, crossing over to the fiction as well. One of my favorite parts of the symposium was the Q&A, in part because the writers this year were so engaged with each other.

Friday afternoon featured our Common Reading Initiative author Deborah Johnson and the two judges of our inaugural high school writing contest, The Ephemera Prize. Derrick Harriell and Katy Simpson Smith gave great readings and then did double-duty introducing and commenting on the prize winners: 5 MSMS students. Three of the students were able to read their work in person; the other two who were on a music tour for their school, had recorded their reading, which we played for the audience. All five did a fantastic job and we were impressed with the quality of their work.

As usual, Friday evening we all were invited to the Welty Gala, and enjoyed the opportunity for a few more receptions, good food, and a fascinating speech by Robert Edsel on The Monuments Men and the work that is still ongoing to retrieve art and cultural artifacts stolen during World War II. And in the morning we met for four more readings.

Nearly everyone’s travel plans allowed them to stay for the full symposium this year, which was another great part of its success. Tim and Shayla originally had been scheduled to depart at noon and would have missed out on some of the morning session, but Delta kindly rescheduled their flights until 2:30 (I’m kidding, of course, though Delta did reschedule the noon flight for 2:30, we have no idea why, but we were glad!) After the last reading by David Armand, those of us who could stick around went out for lunch at Profitt’s Porch, a Welty tradition. Bright sun through the trees, good food, the view of Officer’s Lake, and even a bald eagle sighting made the perfect conclusion to the weekend. Steve Pieschel whisked our air travelers to GTR in time for their flight, and goodbyes were said to those driving home. Kim and I got back in time to catch Aidan’s soccer game that clinched their State rec-league championship, and then we all came home and collapsed.

Book Review: The Last Days of California

The Last Days of CaliforniaThe Last Days of California by Mary Miller
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I loved the narrative voice given to Jess, and the immediacy of her story, where every moment is painted with vivid detail. Miller’s dry, sometimes sardonic sense of humor gives the story just enough of an edge, and the four family members trapped in the sardine can car on a road trip to witness the Rapture in California, keep tensions simmering and nearly ready to boil. And yet the sisters’ conflicts are never predictable and the parents are never the cardboard antagonists they could easily have become. We develop sympathy for the mother and the father’s weaknesses and inconsistencies, even as we get to know the two sisters through their rebellions: arguments about wearing their King Jesus t-shirts and misadventures with the boys they meet along the road. If anything, I might like to see a little more resolution of the issues of underage drinking, date rape, and teen pregnancy. The issues are there and portrayed realistically, but never quite acknowledged by the characters or resolved, though a full resolution might be too much to ask of the 15-year-old narrator. We are left with haunting questions that make this so much more than the typical road-trip novel. The changing relationship between the two sisters, and their understanding of their parents’ humanity provide the heart of a story that will remain with you long after the road trip ends.

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Book Review: Fear and What Follows

Fear and What Follows: The Violent Education of a Christian Racist, A MemoirFear and What Follows: The Violent Education of a Christian Racist, A Memoir by Tim Parrish

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Fear and What Follows, takes a chilling and at times difficult, even challenging look at America of the 1970’s, specifically the city of Baton Rouge and the school and neighborhood where Parrish grew up. It was the time of the Vietnam War and Watergate. Tim’s brother was a Vietnam vet suffering from PTSD before it even had a name. It was a time of integration of schools and neighborhoods, and of the white flight that resulted. And it was time of racial violence and unrest, in which young Tim is willfully engulfed. The book is an attempt to understand the choices that were made and the forces that drove him to make those choices. Yet it is not an apologia where we end up feeling sorry for and defending the main character. Instead, I think we are asked to put ourselves in his place, but also in the places of the even tougher kids whose violence goes unchecked and the Black kids who are both victims and violent themselves. We are asked to understand and confront the causes of violence and racism in ourselves. I don’t think I have read a more brutally honest account that is so beautifully written. It has the credibility of lived truth, yet the narrative is as engaging as any thriller.

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Lessons from Hitting the Road

It’s hard to believe it’s been over a month since my last post! This is what happens once the semester gets going in earnest, and this semester I’ve been even busier. Besides working on various proposal documents for our MFA in Creative Writing (see recent posts), I’ve been hitting the road to promote the Eudora Welty Writers’ Symposium. The nice thing about this has been the chance to meet with so many alumni of Mississippi University for Women in Jackson, Meridian, Memphis, and this coming week, Columbus. The only downside has been the hours spent in a car driving from place to place, but at least on one of these drives, I got to go along with author Deborah Johnson, and we had good conversations about writing and teaching.

One of the things I’ve learned from seeing former students is that they do go out into the world, get good jobs (even if it sometimes takes awhile). We can’t always envision what they will end up doing for work (anymore than they can when they are in college), but we have to trust them to find their way. And they do that very well.

On some of the creative writing lists I belong to, there has been a fair amount of hand-wringing lately about whether to encourage students to go on to graduate school for writing. I sympathize, and I agree that students today need more debt counseling than we did when i was just getting out of my undergraduate program. An education has become more expensive and the rewards can be more elusive. But I also am reminded that our good students will find their way. The jobs they end up in may not be the ones they expected, but they will find fulfilling careers, and they will make use of the skills their education taught them.

It’s nice to get outside the university atmosphere now and then, both to connect with the ‘real world’ and also to be reminded that the ‘real world’ and the ‘ivory tower’ aren’t as disconnected as we sometimes are led to believe.

New Graduate Program Proposal: Nuts and Bolts

I’ve been writing the past few days about our new MFA proposal for a Low-Residency program in creative writing. You might think that sounds nice, and it is exciting to consider and put together a brand new academic program from the ground up. You get to rethink how you want to structure a program, what your goals might be, what the practical realities of implementing it might be. That’s been the fun work of the past several years — daydreaming or planning the program, depending on how close to reality you are. Even writing the initial Proposal to Plan was a lot of fun and fairly easy, since it was the big picture.

But now, even though the big picture is still on my mind, it’s a lot more work to get down to the details. I’ve been working on writing new course proposals: there will be almost 30 initially, including Special Topics, Internship, and the Thesis. It’s a wide variety, and I wouldn’t have to propose them all at once (and we likely will add some more later), but I want to show the range of courses we plan to offer, and I want to include a few ‘hooks’ to other programs. For instance, MUW has a new MA in Women’s Leadership, so I have included some courses already that focus on women writers. I’d like there to be a small concentration for the Women’s Leadership students who want to take literature as part of their degree. Our Education Masters programs may also be served by some of our literature classes. The writing classes will likely be reserved for our MFA students, but I wanted to make them open to other students who have the qualifications, so the prerequisite was permission of the director.

Each course proposal needs a rudimentary course outline and course objectives. I’m not being incredibly detailed in these (and was told this would be okay — I hope they remember that!) because I’m writing so many and I won’t teach all of these classes, but still it is both fun and very demanding to think about what could be taught in each of the areas I’m proposing.

Of course, all of this would be easier if I were proposing an MFA program where there was an existing MA in literature. But we don’t have that here, and we aren’t likely to get it unless we were to propose a Comparative Literature degree (I don’t believe there is one of those in the state, and we still have to worry about duplication of programs). Many of my course proposals include an international focus, both with that in mind and because I want our program to have a global vision both because I want our program to stand out, and I think American writers need to be less provincial.

I like thinking about the types of courses we could teach (workshops, residencies, and forms and literature classes) and the choices students might make. I like thinking about the writers who think they want to teach and the writers who want to enter the publishing business and what their needs are. And I like thinking about what I want to communicate to prospective students about our program by putting the program in place. But it does mean writing pages and pages of proposal documents and researching some of the classes I probably will never teach. Heck, I’ve had to look up some names of authors I might want to use in the classes I will teach. After writing this many course proposals, I feel lucky I can remember my own name some of the time!

I’m reminded of the wealth of great literature that’s out there, and it’s exciting to steer a course for a new program to study the things I would want to have in a program if I were a grad student today. Of course, the program will grow and change as we hire new faculty, and especially as we start teaching students and begin to assess their needs and expectations. For now, I’m suspended somewhere between the idea stages that I lived with for so long (our initial proposal didn’t get off the ground before the economy crashed in 2008, so I’ve been waiting until the time was right to try again) and the even trickier nuts and bolts that I’ll start dealing with when the proposal becomes a reality.

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