Transcripts for the MFA Application

I’ve reached Day 8 in Kenzie Allen’s 10-day course on applying for the MFA in creative writing, and she’s talking about the CV, transcripts, and the GRE. She has a lot of good advice, so if you haven’t taken her free course, you should. She even links to my blog a few times, so she must have done her research!

I agree with Allen about the CV — it should highlight your education and other experience, it should be professional and easy to read, and you’ll probably elaborate on most of those things in your letter or statement of purpose, but the CV brings them all together and is a place where you can list all of your publications (if you have them) without bogging down your SOP. At our program, it’s optional, so don’t stress about it, but do send one if it helps you make your case.

I also agree that the GRE has become less and less important. See if the schools you’re applying to require it, and don’t take it if you don’t need to. If you do need to report a score, remember that most MFA programs don’t care what your score is, but they may be required by their graduate school to use a minimum score as a requirement for admission. They may not publicize what that score is, and they may have some leeway in how they set that score (that will vary by university), but you’ll need to report it if they require it. Then the committee will likely ignore the score once they see you have met the minimum standard.

However, I realized that, though I agree with most of what Allen says regarding transcripts, I hadn’t written about those and there are a few things I can add from a program director’s perspective. For one, Allen says that in her experience it doesn’t matter if you have studied English as an undergraduate. While that’s true for many programs, I also know of some that require a certain number of prerequisite English or creative writing undergraduate courses. Usually, they don’t ask for specific ones, but a certain number of hours of literature. You might be admitted without these, but required to take them in addition to your regular degree requirements.

Our program doesn’t require any prerequisite English courses, and I’m happy with that. We’ve admitted a dancer and an accountant, among others. I’ve probably forgotten more of our students’ undergraduate majors than I remember, since once you’re in the program, it won’t really matter. But your transcript will still make a difference: it tells me things I want or need to know.

1) What you’ve studied

Naturally, we like to see that you’ve studied English, whether or not your major was in English. Many of my best creative writing students over the years have not been majors, so I’m open any major. If you never took an English class as an undergrad, that can be an issue (in terms of your preparedness for our degree), so I’ll want to see evidence elsewhere of your active reading life and of your sophistication as a scholar. After all, some of our classes demand that you do literary research, so you want to show you’re prepared. We also like to see undergraduate creative writing classes in the mix, but if you haven’t had that opportunity, we understand. Things like summer workshops or activity in local writing groups can help your application if you don’t have creative writing classes. So if your transcript has holes, you want to address them in your SOP by talking about what you’ve done since graduation. Most of the applicants to our low-res program have been out of school for many years, so their experience since undergrad should weigh much more heavily than their undergrade, except it does tell about your academic record.

2) How well you’ve performed in school

The one thing you can’t change is your undergraduate GPA, and that can be very important for admissions. Actually, you can change it by going back and taking some undergraduate classes or by enrolling in another graduate program. If your GPA is deficient and you’ve gained a lot of experience and motivation, you may be well-served by taking a semester or two, even part-time, to show that you can now do better than you did the first time.

For our program, you need a minimum overall GPA of 2.75 or a GPA of 3.0 in the last 60 hours of work in order to be fully admitted to our program. If you don’t have that, then taking additional credits might help you bring up those last 60 hours. We consider every semester in its entirety, so if your the 60th hour is in a semester with several other hours, I would have to consider the whole semester. Taking additional classes might even affect which semesters would be considered in your  last hours, which might help as much as earning higher grades.

(These requirements will likely be different for each university on your list.)

3) How you can be admitted

GPA makes a big difference in how we admit students. The choice of whether to admit someone hinges more on their overall academic record and what they’ve done since graduation. I’ve admitted students who were marginal at best during their undergraduate years, yet who had gone on to achieve remarkable things. I want to look at the whole picture, in other words, but I also have to consider your potential as a student and I have to live within the rules of my institution’s admissions policies. Check these out for any school you’re interested in, esp. if you’re worried about your previous record.

I can fully admit someone to our program if they meet our admissions standards or I can conditionally admit anyone to our program if I feel there are mitigating circumstances.

Conditional admission means that you are limited to taking two classes in your first semester (or three if you come to our 1-hour residency), and you must earn a B or higher in those classes to show you can handle graduate school. (You’re only allowed two Cs in your program, so to get one in your first semester would be a very bad sign. Why should we keep taking your money if you’re not going to succeed in our program?) Conditional students are also not eligible for federal loans, so you would need to pay for your first semester out of pocket or with private loans. But once you’ve proven yourself, you are then fully admitted and can study full-time and qualify for loans. I’ve had plenty of people do this and do very well in our program.

So, if you’ve had a rough patch in your academic career, know that we’ll understand. It’s probably something you want to address or even get your recommenders to address in their letters, but it shouldn’t be something that will stop you from earning your degree. You can tell us why you hit that rough patch, if you want to — sometimes it may now be exactly what inspires you to write — or you can simply acknowledge it and talk about the things you’ve done since then that show you can succeed.

If you’ve been a great student but in areas other than Engish, then acknowledge that as well and show us how you combine your other interests with your writing or tell how your journey took you to a love of writing.

Your transcripts are important documents that show your preparedness and your aptitude for scholarly work. They are not the end-all-be-all of your application, but they provide a unique window into who you are that is complemented by your writing sample, statement of purpose, and letters of recommendation.

We do need to see official transcripts from every post-secondary academic institution you have attended, whether you received your degree from there or not. (Some schools make exceptions for transcripts with fewer than a given number of hours, but many do not.) Go back over your transcripts (as I will) and look to see if you transferred any credits from another school. Make sure we have the transcript from that math class you took at community college, etc. Doing that on the front end will make things easier when it comes time for us to make our decision.

Revisiting the Statement of Purpose for the MFA

This week, I’ve been learning how to apply to MFA programs in creative writing: I decided to take a free course, even though I direct an MFA program. I’m taking the course to see what Kenzie Allen has to say about the process and to review what I think about it, since I’ve written a number of advice articles and our program’s Guide for Applicants. This morning’s ‘class’ (each morning for 10 days you get an email with advice on applying) was on the Statement of Purpose. It got me thinking about the importance of this part the application, which I’ve written about previously.

Allen has some good advice, and she links through to several articles by others about how to write a statement of purpose. They all pretty much agree, though each gives a slightly different take. There’s no one-size-fits-all advice for this, or the statement wouldnt’ be personal. Incidentally at my program, we call it a Letter of Intent. We do that in part to make it seem less daunting, in part to make it paradoxically seem more personal, and in part to emphasize your goals. You’re not selling me on who you are; you’re selling me on what you want to do in our program (and that you are the person who can do those things).

What I was struck by in my reading this morning is just how important this letter is. Everyone says the writing sample is the most important, and that can be true, but the statement of purpose or letter of intent is just as big a deal, and it’s probably harder to write.

I’ve seen letters of intent that definitely got an applicant into our program. Their writing sample was competent, but not terribly exciting, but their letter was moving and read like very good creative nonfiction. I could see the potential in this writer from their letter, even though I could tell from their writing sample that they were still struggling to find that voice in their fiction or poetry. The letter showed me that I had someone who was ready to make that leap in their creative writing.

I’ve also seen letters that swayed me the other way. I’ve seen many that used the clichés every advice article warns against: all the permutations of “I was born to write,” for instance.  A few have been accompanied by writing samples that made me overlook the naiveté of a poor letter (yes, I know how hard they are to write!) and others that led me to believe the writer simply wasn’t ready for an MFA program yet.

I’ve even turned down one applicant, who wrote back an impassioned response defending themselves and arguing why they were ready and didn’t want to wait another year to reapply. I told them that this should have been their letter in the first place, and I allowed them to send me more writing. Eventually they were admitted to our program and are doing quite well. However, I don’t recommend that strategy!

We’re a small , young program, and so far we’re not overrun with applications. I can take more time with every applicant than the programs whose admissions committees see hundreds of applicants each admission cycle. We can give more personal attention, and so far, we can accept nearly everyone who seems to be ready for an MFA and who seems like a good fit for our program. That may change, and we may be faced with more difficult decisions. Yet even now, the statement of purpose/letter of intent is a very important part of your application, along with your writing sample. Those are the first two things we’ll see, and they form the basis of our initial decision whether or not to encourage you to complete your application and pay the application fee, send transcripts, and get letters of recommendation.

We want to know who you are and how you got to where you are, and we want to know where you think you’re going and why our program is a place that can help you get there. We want you to be as specific and detailed as possible, and we want your letter to be well-written, somewhere between a personal letter and a creative nonfiction essay. If you can do that, and if you send us writing that you’re passionate about that shows your promise as a writer, then the odds are in your favor.

The rest of your application confirms that you are who you say you are. It’s important, don’t get me wrong. But your letter and writing sample will literally give the first impression, and therefore, they carry the most weight.

Remembering a Mentor

This weekend, I drove from Mississippi to western Illinois for the memorial gathering of one of my main college mentors, Robin Metz. The many hours by myself in the car on the the way there and back gave me lots of time to reflect, and seeing so many people come out for the memorial was gratifying. Robin taught for over 50 years and was still on the faculty of Knox when he died. Only in his final semester did he take medical leave and not teach a class. Until then, despite treatments for pancreatic cancer, he continued teaching until the end.

Many of us made it back, and many more sent their condolences and greetings. Former colleagues of his were there, as well as family and people from the community. I went to school with both of his daughters, so I was glad I could make it and have a chance to reconnect with them. I’d seen Robin and his wife, Liz, several times in recent years, but hadn’t seen Lisa and Ronnah in quite awhile.

Friends who gathered after the memorial to talk, eat, and yes, even dance to the one eighties song we could get the DJ to play (Prince), have gone on to do many things. Some of us are educators, some work in different fields. Most of us are writers, but we talked about the many English majors we knew who ended up in different fields. When we take a class or when those of us who are educators teach a class, we never know where the people around us will travel in their life’s journey. What made Robin Metz such a great mentor for so many people is that you always had the feeling that he cared. He was detailed in his comments on every story he ever critiqued for fiction workshop, but he also cared about you as a person, about your life and about the bigger questions in life. Robin never let you off the hook, and though sometimes we probably wished he would, it was also the part of him that made the most lasting impression.

I first met Robin when I hitch-hiked from St. Olaf College to Galesburg in what turned out to be a snowstorm. I had had come to check out the school I would transfer to. Meeting him, learning about the program he had started, meeting students, and seeing their active writing community sealed the deal. He was a huge presence in my remaining three years of college, and then when I moved to Chicago, he taught in the Urban Studies program, so we kept up our relationship for another semester. He was always there when I went back to visit, and he encouraged me to apply for a fellowship for grad school, which helped me to continue my work with translation. Then he asked me to come work at Knox for a couple of terms as his teaching assistant before I went to grad school. Over the years, he invited me back to Knox other times, and whenever I could, I would stop by and visit. I didn’t make that happen often enough.

For Robin, a class was never just about the class. It was an opportunity for meaningful discussion and was part of a conversation that had been ongoing all of his life and that you were invited into not just for the time you were in his class, but for the rest of his life and beyond. That is why so many of us made the journey back for his memorial celebration, and it is why all of us could share so many stories of the impact he made and is still making on our lives.

Why I Bailed on a Book Deal

There’s probably not a happier moment for a writer than the moment an email or letter comes in saying you’ve been accepted. (Excluding major life events such as your wedding or the birth of a child, of course.) Nonetheless, that excitement can quickly change to concern or even disappointment when the acceptance is for a book manuscript. Choosing a publisher is a big undertaking, and I’ve been writing and publishing poetry long enough to know that every acceptance is not equal, nor is every publisher acceptable. You do your due diligence before you submit to find out what you can, but everything becomes more real once a decision has to be made.

That was the case for me recently, when my fourth book manuscript was accepted for publication by Finishing Line Press. It was a nice surprise when the email came through Submittable that they wanted to publish.  Then I began to wonder, since they didn’t immediately spell out their terms. The email said another email would come within a month with those details. Fortunately, it came a day later, so I wasn’t in limbo for long. This did give me time to do a little more research, however, so I wasn’t terribly surprised when the terms were less than satisfactory.

Finishing Line Press appears to be legitimate. There is no indication on their website that they are anything other than the small poetry publisher they claim to be. Still, I might have been tipped off by the number of recent books they list in their online bookstore (though that could also be a good sign). They do publish chapbooks and full-length collections, and they have a couple of prizes. But many of their books appear to come from their general submissions, and they don’t charge a big reading fee to review a manuscript. Online submissions are a $3 fee, which is reasonable on Submittable; paper manuscripts can be sent by mail for free in November and would probably cost you more than $3 to print and mail. The other thing on the website that could be a tip-off is that there’s no mention of a book distributor, and they appear to be primarily focused on selling books online.

Book distribution is important to me, since I intend to schedule appearances at bookstores and book festivals, where books will be sold through the publisher. If I intended to sell most of my books myself at local events, then I wouldn’t be as concerned about it. Finishing Line says their books are available through Ingram, and they may well be, but searching around, I could find their titles at Amazon, but didn’t find them in local bookstores. That was one of the things I learned after the acceptance email that had me worried.

Then their email with the terms of their contracts came in, and I knew this press wasn’t for me. The deal breaker? Finishing Line said they do not pay royalties. I should qualify this. They say they won’t pay royalites unless pre-sales reach 500 copies. Only then, would you be considered for a royalty contract. Prior to this, your “payment” is in copies. Prepublication sales are the only factor in this. For the book to go to press, the author must pre-sell at least 75 copies. for 75-104 copies, the press run is 300 copies and the author receives 30 as payment. Pre-sales of 105-154, and the press run is 500 copies with 50 to the author. etc. Pre-sales of over 500 seems highly unlikely for a book of poems, so I suspect payment in copies is the only form of payment they do.

I’ve heard that pre-sales have become more and more important in the publishing industry and that they can influence the initial press run and even how much effort the publisher puts into marketing a book. So on one level, I get it. This doesn’t look all that unusual. The parts that I don’t get is that there are no royalties on any sales and that the publisher will accept a manuscript without committing to an initial press run regardless of prepublication sales.

Let’s think about that for a moment. The publisher is asking the author to go out and market the book before its published and before they have made a real investment. You’re expected to sell at least 75 copies, for which you receive no royalties. This gives you the right to sell 30 more copies and pocket the cash. If you sell them at the list price, you might earn close to $600. That sounds better than royalties, but let’s not forget that most book contracts include at least 20 author copies plus royalties, and often there is a provision to buy more copies before publication for a deep discount (and no royalties on these sales) of to buy additional copies at an author discount. Review copies or other complimentary copies could eat into that total.

I haven’t seen the actual contract, but the terms I was sent make no mention of an author discount. So the author has to hit up all of their friends and acquaintances to sell 105- 150 copies in order to guarantee a decent print run of 500 copies (this is poetry we’re talking about, so that amount is probably reasonable for a first run). By this point, the publisher has already gotten all the easy sales. At readings, if you work hard to line those up and pay your own transportation and lodging as needed, you might sell more copies, but you would only earn a profit if you sell the copies you were ‘paid.’ Bookstore sales would go to the publisher, and you would earn nothing for your efforts, not to mention the work put into your writing.

From what I’ve seen, it is unclear what if you discount the author receives when buying books after their initial ‘payment.’ But if there is not a significant discount for authors, you would be paying the publisher for your book, and it would be hard to earn a profit without charging more than the list price.

Then there is the question of customer service. I found several complaints by authors that those who preordered books did not receive them and had to complain to the publisher before they finally received books long after they were available online. To their credit, perhaps, Finishing Line has left these complaints on their Facebook page. Still, this does not bespeak a company that is committed to selling books.

On the other hand, the books they publish don’t look bad, judging by the covers. For a poet who thinks they can generate significant pre-sales and then still sell their ‘payment’ copies, it could be a good deal, though I would still argue that you should earn a royalty on every copy sold. I”m realistic. I know royalties from poetry will never be huge amounts. Nonetheless, that’s no reason to give up the royalties you deserve. Any publisher who doesn’t offer a standard royalty ought to be suspect. To me, it seems like they are trying to make money off the backs of poets who already face a difficult market. By basing their business model on pre-sales and no royalties, they encourage poets with acceptance, then get them to guarantee advance sales, but pay very little in return. I know there are much better options available, and I’m willing too keep looking.

Spring Break

Sweet AlmondIt’s spring in Mississippi, and at The W, we’re just coming off of Spring Break. Students may have been to the coast for spring break revelries or may have gone home to visit families. Some faculty may have done that, too, but many of us have been using our break from teaching class to catch up on grading or get ahead on projects that are hard to get to while classes are in session.

I’ve been working through my 38 faculty evaluations and am nearly finished — I didn’t quite reach my goal, but have only a couple more regular faculty to look at and then the dual-enrollment faculty, so the end is in sight.

For those who wonder what this is like: each faculty member sends me their self-evaluation of what they’ve done in teaching, scholarship, and university service for the past calendar year, then I review their course evaluations, syllabi, etc. and write a narrative on all three areas. For adjunct and part-time faculty this is primarily focused on teaching, but for tenure-track faculty scholarship and service are also important. This will be the basis of our conferences, where we discuss the past year and each faculty’s plans and goals for the future.

I’ve also been working on the Eudora Welty Writers’ Symposium, and now have a theme — “But Here I am, and Here I’ll Stay”: Claiming Our Place in the South” from “Why I Live at the P.O.” — and five confirmed authors with more invitations out and the start of contract talks for our keynote. I can’t name names until all the i’s are dotted and t’s are crossed, but the five who’ve committed so far are Mary Miller, Cary Holladay, Ann Fisher-Wirth, T. J. Anderson III, and Ashely M. Jones.

I’ve also been able to spend a little time outside working in the yard or just doing schoolwork on the back porch, so have been able to enjoy our sweet almond, quince, and other plants that are in bloom. And of course I cuaght up a little on my grading, though there’s always more of that to do! And I started my advising calendar for grad students. Advising will keep me busy for the next several weeks, and in the meantime, our son Aidan comes home on his spring break, and I’ll be getting ready for #AWP19. More on that soon…

Poetry as Creative Nonfiction

This past weekend, I had a wonderful opportunity to read poems as the keynote speaker at the Mississippi Philological Association annual conference held at Mississippi Valley State University. For those who are unfamiliar with this fine organization, it is a group of English and Languages faculty and students (graduates and undergraduates) from Mississippi, Alabama, and Arkansas, as well as a few who come from further afield (Illinois and Missouri were represented this year) to read creative work and scholarship on language and literature.

My talk was a reading from Barrier Island Suite and new poems from my fourth collection. It was fun to read what I’ve been working on recently with the poems on Walter Inglis Anderson from BIS and explore some of the cross-fertilization that went on. After all, while researching and writing the poems for BIS, I was also writing poems that would end up in Time Capsules and in my fourth book (title still to be determined, though I have a couple of working titles). The poems I read are newer, but I can still see the connections in theme that grew out of the work on Anderson.

That’s what got me thinking about poetry as creative nonfiction. Well, that did, along working on my creative writing textbook, A Writer’s CraftIn the textbook, the chapter on creative nonfiction was one of the harder ones to write until I realized that I write nonfiction all the time: I just format it as poetry. I discuss the fact that nonfiction is a misnomer; it could as easily been called non-poetry (thanks to Jocelyn Bartkevicius for making this argument in The Fourth Genre).

Barrier Island Suite is my book that is most obviously like creative nonfiction. I researched Walter Anderson’s life, read his Horn Island Logs, read his wife Agnes Grinstead Anderson’s Approaching the Magic Hour, viewed his art and read art criticism on his work. All of this informed the poems, which were definitely not poems about me, but  poems on a subject. They move away from biography by functioning as poems. Though the annotiations bring some of that biography back in, the poems focus on a moment, on an emotion, on one kernel of his life without attempting to put the whole picture together in a narrative. They function as lyric, though the collection as a whole provides glimpses into the narrative, and I hope it provides a deeper understanding than biography could.

Barrier Island Suite is also filled with references to me and my own concerns. As much as it is about Walter Anderson, I also weave in references from my experience, such as allusions to Sumerian and Chinese literature that I have no way of knowing whether Anderson was aware of, and others that he refers to in his logs that are also favorites of mine. In this way, and by incorporating some of Anderson’s language from the logs into the poems, I felt that the collection became a conversation with Anderson across distance and across time.

That conversation continues in the next collection, though there are no poems on Walter Anderson. Instead they are largely poems drawn from my own experience, meditative poems like the sequence “Tombigbee River Haiku” or observations like the poems about our family’s maple tree that had to be cut down after it lost some big branches in a storm. Hardly confessional, these are poems that are both personal and about something beyond the writer. I’m interested in the same relationships between the human and the natural world as I was in Barrier Island Suite, and I’m interested in the life cycle and the cycles of the seasons as metaphor. These themes could just as easily be worked out in an essay (or blog post), but my chosen form is poetry. If creative nonfiction can have the lyric essay, it is time to recognize that poetry can have the essay-poem. There are many ways that poetry and creative nonfiction overlap and cross-polinate, as there are many hypbrids between all the genres of creative writing.

I might have said more of this on Friday night, but dinner was ready and smelled delicious, so I mostly read poems and let them do the talking.

Simple White Sauce for Pizza

White sauce pizzaTonight, I wanted a change of pace for our weekly homemade pizza. I usually make the standard red sauce, though occasionally, I’ll make a white sauce with flour, but tonight, I wanted something easier and with less carbs.  Enter sun-dried tomatoes and buttermilk.

Followers of this blog probably know I love cooking with buttermilk. It’s one of my magic ingredients. This time, I sautéed onions, garlic and a little thinly sliced eggplant (about 1/4 cup of 1/8 inch slices cut into chunks), then added some capers, caper liquid and a little brine of green olives. To that I added quartered artichoke hearts, cut into smaller pieces, and sautéed a bit longer. Then I added some sun dried tomatoes with some of their oil and a few tablespoons of buttermilk.

The buttermilk will separate and become more liquid as soon as it gets hot, but that’s all right. The eggplant and sun dried tomatoes absorb most of the liquid, and I added a little more buttermilk before I was ready to spread the sauce on the pizza crust.

Then came my toppings of zuccini, mushroom, black and green olives, and spinach. Of course, any topings would do. Cover this with a liberal amount of mozerella cheese and bake until the cheese starts to brown.

Tonight’s pizza came out quite good, and this sauce seems a little lighter than some. I’ve made a white-sauce pizza with a flour and milk or buttermilk sauce, which is creamier, but a little heavier. And I’ve made a sauce with crushed tomato and a little buttermilk mixed in. With the sun dried tomatoes, this is somewhere between a white sauce and a red sauce, allowing the olives, capers, and other toppings to really stand out