2020 Craziness Just Keeps Coming

As if COVID-19 wasn’t enough, this year is ending on a completely crazy note. Like many people, we stayed home over Thanksgiving and only visited family later, visiting my wife’s mother and not seeing anyone else. We did a Zoom call with my family on the big day and then ate dinner with our son at college (all of us on Zoom — he had cafeteria leftovers while we ate our fresh cooked vegetarian meal). But that wasn’t half the crazy 2020 had in store for us.

I’ve survived a semester teaching fully online and even directed a writers’ symposium that was fully online. All of that is starting to feel normal. But the craziest part was getting grades turned in while the campus where I work was dealing with a ransomware attack.

We’ve fared very well, with no loss to our major systems, which were back up and running within hours. PCs in offices were what was affected most, and though we hope we’ll be able to recover that data, offices were closed until hard drives could be replaced and computers disinfected. Faculty computers are still off limits, but I’m hopeful that mine will be okay, since I use a Mac and I’ve heard they weren’t infected and their files weren’t encrypted. If that’s wrong, I have most everything on my home computer or in the cloud, so I’ll be okay with minimal loss of data anyway, and since many of my colleagues were working remotely this semester, their PCs were off, so they are probably also in good shape.

It all happened at the very end of the semester, but we were able to get our grades in and communicate with students with very few hiccups. Our IT department has worked overtime to get us back up and running, and everything is going to be okay.

That’s what we keep saying about this crazy year. No matter what 2020 throws at us, somehow we’ll make it through, and there is light at the end of the tunnel. I know that’s not the case for everyone, and I feel very fortunate that I still have my job and my family, and it looks like we’ll make it to 2021 as long as we can stay healthy, wear our masks, avoid groups as much as possible, and keep dealing with everything this year sends our way.

Advice from the Editor’s Desk

This is the time of year I love — no, I’m not talking about preparations for Thanksgiving and Christmas or even about finals week. I’m talking about the time each year when I get to sit down, as I did this weekend, and put together the pages for Poetry South.

As always, there has been a lot of work that went into this weekend. My staff of four grad student writers had already read most of the submissions. (I usually get a head start and read the first six months worth or so before their class begins.) They had voted, and then I reviewed all of their votes and made the final selections, while also teaching my Fall classes, running the Eudora Welty Writers’ Symposium, etc. It usually takes me most of the semester to get through all the final decisions.

I will say, the students do a great job at reading and finding some fabulous poems, and our submissions are always stellar. Nonetheless, we occasionally disagree. I’ve rescued a few very fine poems from their reject pile, and I’ve ultimatley decided to return a few poems that they were enthused about, finding that they just didn’t fit the magazine’s tone or the way the issue was shaping up.

The lesson I take from this is that I know we always miss some very good poems. Maybe we read them at the wrong time of day or at the wrong point in our reading marathon. What I take from this is that no editor is perfect. We all do our best, but we will miss some poems, or we may get more excited about some other poems for some reason. I try to remember this whenever my poems come back to me from another journal.

Another lesson I always am reminded of in the decision-making process, is how important it is to keep good records when simultaneously submitting, and to immediately inform all other magazines when something is accepted elsewhere. You have no idea how annoying it is to accept a piece and then be told it’s no longer available. When that happens weeks after the acceptance, the anger is ten-fold. Don’t be that writer. Enough said.

Except that the third lesson should be that editors remember. And we remember the good as well as the not-so-good. There are plenty of names I’ve seen in a few rounds of submissions, who I notice when I see them again. Sending your work to a magazine more than once, even if it’s been returned to you multiple times, is often a good idea, especially if you’ve gotten some personalized encouragement.

But the joy this weekend was in taking all those accepted poems — 88 poems by 66 poets for Issue 12 of Poetry South — sorting them, shuffling them, and finding the ways they speak to one another. Laying them out in the magazine, seeing which will go well next to which, and watching as the themes of the issue ebb and flow, is a wonderful experience, even if I did feel glued to my office chair for a few days. It’s also great to start hearing from contributors as they proof their pages and catch a few errors — some we made copying into the magazine file and some that hadn’t been caught in their submissions. There’ll be at least one more round of proofing on our end as well, and then it will ready to off to the printer and then off to those who’ve subscribed.

Another fun part of the weekend was putting together the contributors’ notes and learning more about who is in the issue. Besides being impressed with people’s accomplishments, I always find out about who has books coming out, what presses their books are with, and what other journals they’re publishing in. So my last bit of advice is to read the contributor’s notes. It’s like a snapshot of who is publishing where right now. Make notes about the places you’d like to send your work. This is even more fruitful if you’ve also read the magazine, so you can judge whether your work is like theirs and might be a good fit for the places their work has appeared. Whether this is a way to find new outlets for your work or to be reminded of places you haven’t sent work to in a while, it’s all part of keeping up to date on the publishing world.

Want to see what we’ve been up to at Poetry South this year? You can buy a copy, subscribe, or submit for Issue 13 on Submittable.

Celebrate National Scholarships Month by Searching for One

I’ve recently received a notice about Sallie Mae’s scholarship search tool for graduate scholarships, so I wanted to mention it here. Finding funding for grad school can be a challenge, unless your program is fully funded. Having a search tool like this could be a game-changer for some. Their $20,000 Bridging the Dream Scholarship would virtually pay for our MFA program. This month, they are also offering a $10,000 scholarship:

This tool exclusively for graduate scholarships has 950,000 scholarships with up to $1 billion in resources available. Students that sign up for this free service are automatically entered into our $1,000 a month scholarship drawing, and for the month of November (national Scholarship month) this is a $10,000 award.

They also have good advice on searching for scholarships and ways to fund your graduate education. Sallie Mae is also one of the lending institutions that offer student loans, so they have information on those as well.

Those of you who are applying to graduate programs now (and those who are already in one) should take advantage of this service. I’ve known a grad student who received significant aid for being Polish-American; you may fit another criterion that a scholarship focuses on. You never know what you may qualify for until you search.

Three Questions for MFA Applicants

It is that time of year when those who are deciding whether and where to apply to an MFA program in cretive writing are busy preparing their applications or deciding where they will actually apply. Whether you’re in the final stages or just getting started, here are three questions I think you should ask yourself.

Why Do I Want an MFA?

If you’re writing your statement of purpose, one of the key questions you’ll need to answer is why you want an MFA, and if you’re just looking at MFA programs to see whether you should go down that path, then it is also important to know why. What do you write already, and in what ways do you want to write better? An MFA can jump-start your writing by introducing you to writers you likely wouldn’t find on your own. Contrary to what some people claim, I firmly believe that writing can be taught or I woudn’t be in the business of teaching creative writing. Knowing what you want to learn can help you choose the programs that are right for you.

An MFA also gives you a built-in community of writers, the faculty and fellow students, as well as visiting writers who come to give a reading or lead a seminar. These are connections that will stay with you throughout your lives, not just the few years you are in a program. An MFA can be the start of networking as a writer and can lead to professional connections down the road. And an MFA trains you to be a writing professional, to take your writing and yourself seriously (and how to do that). Knowing why you want an MFA can help you find the programs with the culture that will be right for you.

An MFA will also challenge you to grow as a writer in unexpected ways. Are you ready for that challenge? Have you adequately prepared for your MFA? Have you researched programs and learned everything you can about what will be expected of you, and are you ready for that? There’s nothing wrong with discovering that you aren’t ready, if that discovery helps you recognize what you need to do to be ready.

Do I Need an MFA?

As I’ve written in the past, no one absolutely needs an MFA to be a writer. There are other ways to grow and even network as a writer — summer workshops, seminars, retreats, local writing groups, etc. — so the answer to this question shouldn’t automatically be “yes.” But there are many reasons why you might feel you do need an MFA. Besides the reasons you might want an MFA, you might need an MFA as a credential. For instance, if you want to teach at the college level and don’t already have a Master’s degree or a Ph.D. Or you may have an advanced degeree in another field, but you want to teach creative writing, then you may need an MFA to be qualified. Similarly, in secondary education, having a Master’s degree can be advantageous to your career. Or you may feel that an MFA degree can help you break into publishing or other writing-related careers. Outside of academia, the MFA degree isn’t an absolute requirement of any position that I know of, but it can certainly help you advance in your career. And if your employer recognizes it as a degree that can lead to promotion, then that is another good reason to say you need the degree.

As you look at both these first questions, consider how much you want an MFA and how much you need one or how useful it can be to you, and weigh the two. One (wanting it or needing it) may be more important to you than the other, but both are important to consider as you think about your goals for entering a program, and both can help you decide on the kind of program that will be best for you.

How Can I Afford an MFA?

Assuming you’ve weighted both why you want an MFA and why you need one, and that you’ve come to the decision that you should pursue one, then the last question is how you can afford it. If you really want to pursue one, then there will be a way to make that happen, but you should always consider the costs and the benefits. That may also affect your choice of programs to apply to. If finances are the biggest issue and if you are at a place in your life where you can go to a traditional residential MFA program, then you should definitely look into fully funded programs. Most programs will ask you to work your way through by teaching composition, creative writing, or possibly literature. If you don’t get into a fully funded program, then you definitely want to consider how much tuition you can afford. Can you get into a partially funded program so that you don’t need to go into a lot of student loan debt? Can you keep working and go to school? This is often possible in a low-residency program. It’s best if you can afford the program without taking out a lot in loans, but if the program is affordable enough and your loan debt isn’t too high, then you may feel the benefits outweigh the cost.

I always urge students to try to support themselves as much as possible without loans. If they reserve loans for tuition and books only, then they may be looking at a loan they can pay off in a reasonable amount of time. Also consider who to get the loan from. Federally subsidized loans are usually the best, but if you don’t qualify for them, there are other options. A family member can lend money to you at pretty low interest rates, and that can be mutually benificial, since you know the interest you pay is going back to someone you know. Of course, you have even more incentive not to default on a family loan. There are also private lenders who offer student loans, though the interest rates are generally not as good as federal loans.

Finally, consider other expenses that you are likely to have while you’re in school. If you’re planning to buy a house, get married ,or start a family, or if you have to move or care for aging parents, these can all be factors that will affect your finances. I’m not saying you can’t go to grad school and do any of those things, but you at least want to consider the financial burden and decide whether now is the best time.

That can be a sobering thought to end on, but it is important to know what you’re getting into and to have a plan for how you’ll be able to pay for grad school. With appropriate planning, you can make it happen, but you may need to look for additional sources of funding besides what your university can provide.

Answering these three questions can help your application and can help you decide which programs are the best ones for you to apply to. Don’t just automatically apply to the same programs everyone is applying to, find the programs that will meet your needs, and your chances of being accepted will be higher and your satisfaction with the program you choose will likely be higher, too.

Virtual Symposium Followup

A week ago was the first day of the 32nd annual Eudora Welty Writers’ Symposium at Mississippi University for Women. For the first time in those 32 years, our symposium was totally virtual, something that is happening with a lot of events this year. The photo we used for our cover was taken a few years ago when we were in person in Poindexter Hall. Doing a virtual event like this was surprisingly good. Our readings felt personal and intimate. Writers invited us into their homes and readers were able to connect from wherever they were and even watch after the fact. Videos are still available.

We used Zoom to bring the writers together, and we had two classes on the Zoom call who had all read most of the books. This allowed us to do a live Q&A, and we were able to start Zoom before the public event and let everyone chat a bit as I was getting the tech ready. We always encourage our authors to attend eachother’s readings, which also helps with cameraderie. It went almost as well as it usually does in person, except there was no book signing after our keynote (though we did promote book sales), and there were no conversations in the van that I usually drive authors in to and from the hotel. We didn’t get to have meals or drinks together either, but still it was a great time, and no one caught the virus.

Now that we’ve done one virtual symposium, we’re eager to have the next one back in an auditorium, yet we’ll also be strategizing about how we can stream the video so people who can’t travel to Mississippi University for Women can also join in.

Book Review: Beth Kander, Original Syn

Original SynOriginal Syn by Beth Kander
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Though I haven’t been a huge sci-fi fan in many years, Original Syn lives up to some of the best classic science fiction I read when that was a mainstay in my reading life. The novel is inventive, has compelling characters, and has a fast-paced plot that is never predictable. Moreover, it explores ideas that are as relevant today as they might be in the imagined not-so-distant future. Kander considers the effect of technology on humanity, as does most great science fiction, by positing an earth where humans have used high tech to integrate themselves with their machines. Though we never get too far into the science of the ‘singularity’ (anyone who wants to know more can look it up, since it’s hardly an invented theory — only the practical application is fiction), we are asked to consider how technology is already informing our reality, for instance through social media and the web. Even more compelling are the ways some of Kander’s characters have compromised themselves in the quest for power and her exploration of systematic class and race difference: in the novel, this is mostly seen in the power dynamics between the Syns, who are in power and who have synthesized with technology, and the Originals, who have not and therefore are outcasts subject to eugenics and genocide. Race and class differences as we might understand them are also alluded to by who in American society had access to the technology to become a Syn and by the test subjects who were the beta generation for the Syns and are now second-class citizens. Though violence is always a threat in the police state the Syns have created, this is as much a story of two star-crossed lovers, one Original and one Syn. It will not be giving too much away to say that everything isn’t fully resolved in this first volume of the trilogy. Though the ending is satisfying in its own right, Original Syn leaves readers clamoring to read books 2 and 3 in the series: Born in Syn and Syn and Salvation. Fortunately, the third book is due out this month, so we won’t have to wait long for the final installment!

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Book Review: Katy Simpson Smith, The Everlasting

The EverlastingThe Everlasting by Katy Simpson Smith
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Everlasting is an ambitious historical novel that confronts literature’s central questions about love and death in novel ways. The frailty of the body and the resilience of the human spirit in the face of mortality are explored through the lives of a 21st Century researcher in biology facing his own ominous medical symptoms and failing marriage, to a 16th Century noblewoman of mixed African heritage who must come to terms with her second marriage and problematic pregnancy, a 9th Century monk who tends bodies in the prutridarium while longing for his first male love, and a young Christian girl from the 2nd Century who faces her own first love and the dangers of martyrdom for her faith. All are connected by place, each story occurring in Rome in a different age, as well as by a religious relic and the interjections of the ultimate unreliable narrator, Satan, whose perspective spans all time, even our own future, and who suffers his own loss of love.

The subtitle could well be ‘four linked novellas’ instead of ‘a novel,’ and at times the story suffers a little from this device. Each character is given two chapters, which allows their stories to be developed more fully, though interweaving shorter chapters or passages might have made the stories feel more interconnected. Nonetheless, the thematic connections are there and though each story could stand on its own, the impact of telling them in concert is much greater.

As always, Katy Simpson Smith is precise in her details and accurate to the historical period. She brings in elements like the issue of race or burial practices that may seem unexpected but at the same time are revelatory. Her characters, imperfect as they are, are compelling—even Satan has his human side—and though the novel is anything but preachy, it grapples with serious spiritual questions that remain as relevant today as in the periods Smith transports us to. This is a novel that will stay with you long after you turn the last page and one that will reward rereading.

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Book Review: M. O. Walsh, The Big Door Prize

The Big Door PrizeThe Big Door Prize by M.O. Walsh
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Big Door Prize is a big-hearted novel. Fans of John Prine will appreciate the frequent references to his lyrics in chapter titles and scattered in dialogue and narration. Though the story is by no means derivative, Walsh’s characters could easily be pulled from a Prine song and his loose manner of story-telling is clearly an influence. The central question of the novel may be “How can one know one’s life potential?” It is an answer that a new DNAMIX machine in the local grocery story in Deerfield, Louisiana, claims to give, leading many of the townspeople to upend their lives and change directions. There is an air of magic to the town as it approaches its bicentennial celebration and an air of catastrophe as some fear the DNAMIX is giving out false hope. The town has its secrets, too, as do each of the main characters. The question remains whether this new knowledge of the future will bring them together or tear them apart.

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Virtual Eudora Welty Writers’ Symposium

It’s October, and that means a big part of my job involves the Eudora Welty Writers’ Symposium. Usually, I would be lining up catering, coordinating with Resources Mangaement on setting up Poindexter Hall, getting a van to shutttle our writers to and from their hotel, sending maps and directions for how to get to campus, coordinating pickups for those arriving by air, etc. This year, everything is different, in case you hadn’t noticed.

The symposium will be held virtually. Despite some people’s rosy picture of the pandemic in the US, we’ve still topped 209,000 dead and 6 million infected. Travel for our authors and our audience would be risky, and we couldn’t even host many people for a live event, so back in August, we made the decision to go completely online. (Initially, we hoped to have some live panels and some virtual, but that proved to be unwieldy and also probably still too unsafe.) So I’m working on setting up Zoom to live-stream to Facebook, instead of ordering petit fours and punch for a reception. Fortunately, we did three virtual residencies over the summer and live-streamed all of our readings and performances, so we got a lot of practice and hopefully worked out all of the kinks.

It will be fun working with authors from all over the country, and it will be fun to make our event open to a larger potential audience. To attend, just go to our Facebook group, where you can see our events and watch each live-streamed to our group’s timeline.


Do You Need an MFA to Be a Writer?

This morning WordPress showed me a link to this post: You Don’t Need an MFA to Be a Writer by Roxanna Coldiron. Though I direct a low-residency MFA program, I couldn’t agree more. I liked the post, but there was no way to comment, so I decided to write my response here.

In her post, Coldiron says she received an acceptance to an MFA program 3 years ago, but didn’t go because life and bills got in the way. She was proud of the acceptance, but couldn’t make the commitment at the time. She seems to want to do an MFA because she knows it could help her writing — she’s definitely right, there — but the cost in terms of time and tuition is more than she could handle. Her post was from 2019, so maybe her situation has changed, but I think it’s a place a lot of people are in right now, maybe always.

So my first response is to say she’s right. No one needs an MFA to be a writer, though as she recognizes, being in a writing community, having your work read by professors and peers who are serious about their writing, being exposed to writers you might never hear of if you weren’t in this community, and learning from the writing of your other MFA colleagues can be incredibly rewarding and can take your writing life to new levels. But it’s not a requirement, and everyone should weigh the costs against the benefits. When the time is right, an MFA might be the best choice for you.

There are also many other opportunities for writers that don’t grant a degree, so they don’t charge tuition, though some do have charges for room, board, and instruction. Some also offer financial aid. These opportunities might be prestigious summer workshops that can last a week or more, such as Breadloaf, Sewannee, or other writers’ conferences. Or they may be writer’s retreats or weekend workshops that may be less well-known but that still foster community. You can build a career and form networks through these experiences and never need the academic degree, especially if you don’t plan to teach. But they may not be as sustained or as sustaining as a 2-3 year MFA program, where you will form friendships to last a lifetime.

So my other response is to suggest the low-residency MFA route. Most of the issues that Roxanna Coldiron mentions as impediments to her degree could be overcome or at least made less challenging with the low-res experience. Will there be tuition? Of course, though in a program like ours, students are able to attend part-time and keep their cost of attendance low each semester. One 3-hour class is still about $1,300, so it isn’t free, but it can be manageable. Many of our students take 6 hours per semester and either pay out of pocket or take out enough in loans to handle tuition and books. Most are working full-time and take as many classes as they can afford or as they can juggle with work and other commitments. Going part-time might also help her deal with what she describes as only having “so much energy.” I suspect she has a lot of energy, given her blog and other writing projects, but as she says: “Life happens.” The low-residency MFA is designed to allow students to combine life and school without moving across the country.

Earning an MFA may be more possible than you realize, on other words. I don’t say this to shame anyone for not doing it — everyone needs to decide on the right time and whether an MFA even is the right thing for them to do, and I respect that. But if you’d like an MFA and are worried about how you can make it happen, then the low-residency option may be right for you. And if self-educating, doing your writing on your own, joining writers’ groups, and attending conferences, workshops, and residencies is a better choice for you, then I wish you all the best.

There is no one right path to being a writer. An MFA is not required, but as Coldwater says, it can be an excellent opportunity and a way to improve your writing much more (or much more quickly) than you could on your own.