Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

On Listening to Virgil Suarez and Watching AWP Squirm

Last night I went to hear Virgil Suarez read on a panel with two other poets at #AWP18. The other two poets were good and all, but not ones I knew well. They first poet was Ishion Hutchinson a Jamaican poet who combined surreal meditations with literary allusions to Wordsworth and Keats. Then came Maggie Smith who read very nice poems about raising a young daughter (and one about her son) in the suburban Midwest. Then came Suarez, who read highly political and angry poems about Trump, guns, and Marco Rubio.

Now, let me say that Suarez reminded me a lot of David Hernandez who I used to work with in Chicago or Marc Kelly Smith for that matter. His cadences were familiar, and his politics were comfortable for me, and I felt the crowd was with him, laughing at his jokes and responding to the message. There were only two rough moments: One was the end of a long poem about teachers bringing guns to school when he wanted the crowd to say the last line, but everyone was either uncomfortable with that role or like me had forgotten how the line was supposed to go. There was a pause, while Suarez held a middle finger in the air (that was supposed to be our cue), and then he helped us out by saying the line — about half the crowd joined in. The other awkward moment was in the last poem, when Suarez couldn’t find the last page for a second. But he recovered, and the applause was great.

I want to note that everyone applauded because of the way things went in Q&A with the moderator, another apparently well-known poet whose name is not listed in the program. Oh well. He started out by asking the panel what they are thankful for. When it came to Suarez, he said he was thankful for children, but then went into a longer answer about Trump and the politics of today. He might have avoided the question, but then again, the question was clearly trying to avoid his politics. Thus began the sparring between Suarez and the moderator, who at one point seemed to lecture Suarez about the need to be positive or find the sublime even in our dark times. The poor other poets were sandwiched in the middle and didn’t seem to have a political bone in their bodies. It got uncomfortable.

Probably the problem stemmed from the selection of who to put on one panel together and who to moderate. It was an odd mix, and any of the four would have come across better with more like-minded poets. My sympathies were with Suarez, so the other poets, but mostly the moderator, came across as pretentious and even a little vapid. I wouldn’t have thought that, had the Q&A not devolved into the young moderator lecturing the old guard on his politics. Throughout, Suarez never backed down. I respect him for that, but it made me sad that AWP or at least its representative moderator has become so averse to conflict that he had to squirm in the presence of a Cuban revolutionary poet. Especially in 2018. Especially in Florida.

So thank you Virgil for Making America Strange Again, as I think your T-shirt read. And thank you for making AWP uncomfortable. We need to squirm a little or maybe a lot in 2018.

Why Rank MFA Programs? Or Why Not…

News appeared recently on the Creative Writing Pedagogy Facebook Group about a new ranking of MFA programs based on publishing history in annual prize anthologies. Naturally, a discussion ensued about the value of rankings (which is dubious, and to credit this one, they even begin their post with a disclaimer about why you shouldn’t care about their ranking, but then they go on to rank programs) and the methodology of basing rankings on placement in Best American Short Stories, Best American EssaysBest American Poetry, O. Henry Prize Stories, Pushcart Prize anthologies. As you might guess, quite a few programs get left out of that list, since only a very few writers (even well-published ones) end up in these anthologies each year.

The selection criteria for these anthologies might be called into question (though their goal is not to serve as a tool to rank MFA programs, so their editorial policies may well meet their market and their own goals). Furthermore, we might ask what other awards or anthologies are out there that are overlooked, thereby privileging certain kinds of writing: the Best New Poets series comes to mind, for instance, as well as AWP’s Intro Journals Project, which is specifically focused on current MFA students.

Annual prize anthologies have been criticized for their lack of inclusivity, so they may not be the best to use (exclusively) when ranking. In recent years, I’ve noticed attempts by the editors of these anthologies to be more inclusive in terms of race, gender, and identity, yet they still may not by as inclusive in terms of region, genre, and literary style. So why not include publication in “best of” genre anthologies, too? Many of our students have no desire to write the kind of stories, poems, or essays that would land them in the annual prize anthologies, yet they receive other forms of recognition in their chosen genres.

Rankings of MFA programs will always be controversial, yet the debate about what criteria to use can be constructive. If a prospective MFA student’s goal is to get into one of these anthologies, this ranking might be worthwhile, though a causal relationship isn’t guaranteed: as any investment portfolio is required to tell you — past performance is not a guarantee of future success.

If your goal is to be a professionally active writer, however, then this list may not help so much. How successful are the top-ranked programs at getting books by their students/alumni published? Probably pretty good, but what kind of books, and what kind of book does the prospective student want to write? What programs are overlooked in a ranking that focuses on annual anthologies? Which programs best serve students who want to teach, work in publishing, find alternate writing-related career paths, etc.?

Which programs best serve writers who aren’t already very sophisticated writers at the time they apply? Is the success of the top-ranked programs due to the instruction they provide or the quality of writers they’re able to attract and how selective they can be? What does the prospective student really need — excellent teaching that can help them improve or powerful writers who can help them network and get their already polished work noticed in the literary marketplace? Does a prospective student want mentoring or does she/he want to be anointed by a literary gatekeeper. And what happens if you don’t get anointed? Not everyone at these programs goes on to an illustrious literary career, after all.

These are all questions a prospective student ought to consider: what kind of program best meets your needs and what kind of culture will you fit into as a writer. Most of the advice I read urges prospective MFA students to avoid rankings and to really research the programs they are interested in. And yet, humans love rankings, and rankings tend to reduce the choice to a number — who performs best in terms of certain criteria.

My program has been ranked number 1 in a list of online programs in English and Creative Writing at Nonprofit Colleges Online (low-res programs were included). The next year, we fell to number 2, though we were still the top creative writing program on the list. That was gratifying, though I’m pretty sure the main criterion for this ranking was that our tuition is very low, which was confirmed by the slight change in ranking the second year. Don’t get me wrong, I love the exposure, and if you’re looking for low tuition, then this ranking is helpful. But I don’t let my ego swell too much because of it.

Rankings may be useful when considering graduate schools, but a ranking should only be one source of information you use. Carefully consider the criteria used in making the ranking, and compare it to other sources of information. AWP’s Guide to Writing Programs is a good place to learn about MFA, MA, and PhD programs, as is New Pages,  while Poet’s & Writers focuses on the MFA, and Publisher’s Weekly claims to list MFA, MA, and PhD programs, but I’ve primarily found MFA programs in their listing. Each database provides different information and might index different programs, so it’s worth checking and comparing them all. And it’s probably worth comparing different rankings for the information they might provide, but don’t just apply to the top-ranked programs. And don’t discount the programs that are overlooked in those rankings. Look for the program that will be the best fit for you!

Building Community for A Writer’s Craft

Untitled-2.inddNot long ago, I wrote about setting up the companion website for A Writer’s Craft. That is now up and running, but one thing I had always wanted to add was a discussion area, where teachers could talk about using the book and teaching introductory creative writing in 4 genres, and where students and teachers could share writing prompts, opportunities for undergraduate writers, etc.

In developing the companion site, we had talked about a number of services that could be used, since Palgrave.com doesn’t have a discussion feature for their companion websites. In the end, I settled on using GoodReads, which has the advantage of being linked to the textbook (on GoodReads) and open to all viewers. Anyone can read the discussions in a group, though to post to the group you need to login with GoodReads, Facebook, or Google and then join the group. That seems fairly easy for anyone to do, and I’ve found that GoodReads is a social media platform that isn’t too invasive — I can use it as much or as little as I want.

I called the group A Writer’s Craft Community to set the name apart from the title of the book and to emphasize that it is a community discussion. I hope this will become a good resource for anyone teaching introductory creative writing (though I also hope instructors will want to use my book).

So far, Teachers have discussion topics on:

  • Teaching 4 Genres
  • Sample Syllabi (I posted mine)
  • Workshop Strategies & Alternatives

Writers have discussions for:

  • Writing Prompts
  • Undergraduate Literary Magazines

I plan to add discussion topics in both folders, and I hope that people who are using the book will add to the discussion and maybe even suggest topics. Incidentally, I decided to have two groups, Teachers and Writers, because some people may get the book to use outside of a classroom. Though the Writers area is primarily aimed at undergraduate writers in an introductory class, teachers may add writing prompts, and the discussion could move on to topics of interest to any writer.

Companion Website for AWC

Untitled-2.inddThe companion website for my textbook A Writer’s Craft is now available at https://www.macmillanihe.com/companion/Dunkelberg-A-Writers-Craft/

Materials for teachers and students are publicly available, including:

  • Teaching with A Writer’s Craft
    • Why Teach 4 Genres
    • Cross-Genre Teaching
    • The Small Group Workshop
    • Full-Class Workshop
    • Midterm and Final Portfolios
    • Teaching Creative Writing with Literary Magazines
    • Plagiarism
  • For Students
    • Journal Exercises
    • Online Resources

For those who adopt the textbook, additional resources are available once you register with Palgrave and request access to the textbook’s restricted materials. These include:

  • Lecturer Materials
    • In-Class Exercises
    • Small Group Workshops (sample exercises)
    • Powerpoint presentations for
      • Chapters 4 & 8-14
      • Publishing
      • Workshop Guidelines

I hope the public materials will be useful to anyone teaching creative writing, though of course if they are, I also hope that provides an incentive to try using the book. I hope the restricted materials will make using the book easier or at least provide some models that you can use to create your own materials for the book that match your teaching style.

Book Review: Always Happy Hour by Mary Miller

Always Happy Hour: StoriesAlways Happy Hour: Stories by Mary Miller
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Mary Miller’s wit sparkles in these stories like a stiff drink with a healthy dash of bitters. They are dry, acerbic, and full of bitter irony. Consider the title, taken from a line on one of the later stories in the collection: it is “always happy hour,” yet no one seems happy in these stories. Or if they are, their happiness is fleeting, yet all of Miller’s characters are searching for this elusive spirit. We read these stories, not for the plot — spoiler alert, not much happens — but for Miller’s exquisite character studies, her detailed sense of place, and her subtle exploration of relationships. Miller’s narrators and female main characters are women, divorced or unmarried, most of whom are with or looking for boyfriends who are either divorced or unmarried. They are aware their relationships are imperfect and may not last. They may be dissatisfied with their current partner or they may be so satisfied they are sure they’ll do something to make their partner leave. We see the compromises they are willing to make for love, even as they struggle with commitment; we see them negotiate ex-wives and their boyfriends’ children; we see them struggle with family and friends who seem to have it all, at least if you believe their status updates. It is in the unguarded line of dialogue or the narrator’s reflections where Miller allows a realization, where we recognize ourselves in her flawed and human characters for whom a happy ending seems always just out of reach.

View all my reviews
Mary Miller will read at the Eudora Welty Writers’ Symposium on October 20.

Barrier Island Suite

Barrier Island Suite front cover imageBe sure to check out my new book page, featuring my third collection of poems, Barrier Island Suite, and the gracious comments from T. R. Hummer, Adam Vines, and Beth Ann Fennelly that will appear on the back cover. It is scheduled for publication in spring 2016. I’ve enjoyed working with the Anderson family on the cover art and art for the interior.

2015 in review (by WordPress)

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2015 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 57,000 times in 2015. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 21 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.