Meet Me at the Book Festival

IMG_0089One of the great developments for writers in recent years has been the inception of state-wide or regional book festivals across the country. Mississippi holds its @MSBookFest in August on the Capitol lawn, and I’ll be there next weekend, August 17, for the fifth year. My first time, I went as a volunteer. My second year, I went as a writer with Barrier Island Suite, and for the past three years, I’ve gone to represent The W with our magazines, writing programs, and the Eudora Welty Writers’ Symposium at an organization table. I don’t get to hear as many of the great readers that way, but I do get to meet a lot of people and talk about writing and publishing in our state.

The readings take place inside the capitol building in the air conditioning. Our tables are outside in the shade, so the heat is never too unbearable, though last year we got some rain! Here’s some of what I’ll be missing out on inside. Mary Miller will read from her novel Biloxi, Kiese Laymon will read from Heavy. They will both also be at the Eudora Welty Writers’ Symposium this fall, so I will get a chance to hear them in October. There are many other panels with luminaries liek Joyce Carol Oats and Ann Patchett, as well as writers you may not have heard of, but whose work will delight.

John Bateman and T. K. Lee will be outdoors with me on Author’s Alley, where small press writers can represent their own books, and there are bookstores, food tents, and live music. It’s a great way to end the summer and start off the school year (if, like me, you’ll be heading back to classes soon). And it’s free! The only things you’ll need money for are books and food. Come enjoy a lovely Saturday (here’s hoping for good weather again!) in Jackson, Mississippi. And if that’s too far for you to travel, find the book festival in your state! More and more, it seems like something states are doing, and that’s great news for books, reading, and culture!

Learning from My Students

When I first started The W’s MFA in Creative Writing, I wrote in our Student Handbook (which I’ve been editing this summer) that the students are our colleagues, perhaps the teachers are a little further along in their writing careers (though not always older), but the students shouldn’t feel like they are any less because their experience is different. I meant it then, and I mean it today.

Of course, teachers always learn from students, no matter what level you teach, be it kindergarten or graduate school! In class, that’s the sign of a good class, in my book.

But what I’m thinking about today is about how much we learn and how much we appreciate it, when our students go on to do great (or small) things after they graduate. Today is commencement day, and five more MFAs will cross the stage: actually, only two can be there for the ceremony, but the other three will be with us in spirit!

Today, one of our recent graduates (the poet C. T. Salazar from December) announced that he did an interview with Benjamin Niespodziany at NeonPajamas. Reading it brings back memories of many things we dicussed together in the program but also of the great energy for reading and writing poetry that he brought to every class. I can see the influence of other poets in our program as well, and the ways he’s taken those influences, shaped them, and made them his own.

Reading essays by Exodus Brownlow or Katrina Byrd have the same effect. And I could link to something from each of our 15 graduates and most of our current students that would be just as moving. For a more complete list, see our program’s Accomplishments page, a page I desperately need to update, but I just can’t keep up with all the great work everyone is doing! (I’ll be asking for updates again soon!)

Learning in an MFA program doesn’t just happen in the classroom. It happens thanks to the connections we make, the conversations we have, and the brilliant work that we share with one another and with the world.

Today on commencement day for August 2019, I’m proud of the five theses and the work Thomas B. Richardson, Robin Taylor Murphy, Ashley Hewitt, Sally Lyon, and Courtney Clark have done in our program. But I am even more excited to see the work they will do and are doing out in the world. Commencement is a beginning, and we can’t wait to see what it will bring!

Fig Pesto Pizza

IMG_0624We have another bumper crop of figs this year, and since we don’t make fig jam or fig preserves, we are always on the lookout for good ways to use them. Sure we freeze quite a few to enjoy later in the year (just wash, let dry, and freeze whole), but we love eating them fresh, both raw and cooked as part of the meal. Figs are very nutritious and combine well in a stir-fry or our favorite, fig and gorgonzola pasta.

This week, Parade had a recipe for fig and prosciutto pizza, but I had already been thinking about using figs on a pizza. Since we’re vegetarians, I ignored the prosciutto recipe and came up with one of my own.

I start with a basic pizza dough recipe, which is essentially half a cup of water, yeast, flour, oil, sugar and salt (for two people). I disolve my yeast in the water, add a little sugar or molasses, then stir in enough white flour to make a muddy paste (the sponge of bread). After stirring this awhile to build up some gluten, I then add about a Tbs of olive oil and a dash of salt, then add whole wheat flour to make a soft bread dough. Coat the bowl with a little more oil, cover and let rise for at least half an hour before pressing out on your  pizza stone or pan. Or you can buy premade pizza dough, but homemade is so much better.

For the sauce, I sliced half an onion in rounds or half-rounds, then sautéed with a little garlic in olive oil until translucent and a little carmelized. Then I added mushrooms and a little asian eggplant, though you could leave them out if you prefer, along with a few chopped up figs and the juice of a tomato.

Tip: The tomato juice is a litte trick I use. When I want to use fresh tomato and don’t want it to be too runny, like when I add chopped tomato on top of pizza or on tacos, I quarter it, then squeeze the seeds and juice into whatever I’m cooking, so I don’t lose the flavor. The juice cooks down, and I”m left with the solid parts of the tomato, which I can then chop up, reserving to add raw at the end so they won’t cook too much and get mushy.

The pesto forms the base layer of this pizza. It’s just pine nuts, garlic, and herbs (for this, I used basil, oregeno, and rosemary because that’s what I had and I wanted a spicier pesto than basil alone would be—arugula would also work well). I chopped this into a paste in our mini food processor with enough olive oil to make it a paste. I did not add any parmesan, which I normally do with a pesto, but the cheese will be on top.

Spread the pesto evenly across the pizza, then add the onions, etc., on top of that. Then add quartered figs, chopped tomato, and kalamata olives. I used about 2 oz. of gorgonzola cheeze (leftover from our last fig pasta), a little mozzarella, and some parmesan. Bake for about 20 minutes at 425 degrees (or until done), and enjoy!

My First Decade as Occasional Blogger

Screen Shot 2019-07-23 at 10.01.10 AMRecently, WordPress was kind enough to inform me that this month is my 10th aniversary of writing this blog. As I looked back, I noticed the very first first post was July 24, 2009. What a long, fun, and a little crazy trip it’s been.

I started blogging mostly as a dare to myself. I’m a poet, and writing a blog seemed like a good way to give myself some writing goals that didn’t have to be poems. I didn’t expect to write daily or even weekly, as most blogging advice tells you to do. I also decided that I wouldn’t stick to just one subject, though that is also good advice.

What I wanted was an author’s website and blog, and I wanted to write about all aspects of my life, including poetry and teaching. Writers are people, too, and I wanted my blog to reflect that. So I went along for quite awhile, quietly blogging about poetry, teaching, food, etc., and I was getting a few people viewing and even following the blog now and then. My stats were modest, and I was fine with that. It was a good outlet for my thoughts, and that was enough.

1946motorette-croppedOne of the first posts that took off unexpectedly was one I wrote about my father’s 1946 Motorette motor scooter. I wrote it mostly as memoir and to chronicle something from my childhood that my mother was thinking of getting rid of. I didn’t really expect to sell it, but someone contacted me, one thing led to another, and we sold it — not for a lot of money, but to a new home where it would actually run again (and my brother even got to ride in it once, since he lived not too far away). That’s a post (along with its follow-up about the sale) that still gets a hit now and then, and it may be the post that has gotten the most comments over the years. People want to know where to buy one or where they can sell one. When I can, I try to point them in the direction of a group who may know.

But the biggest surprise post I ever wrote was the rant about my DSL modem from ATT. This is a post I wrote in May of 2013. It got a few hits at the time, but eventually started picking up steam, probably because someone linked to it. For awhile, it, along with a series of follow-up posts, was driving over a hundred visitors to my blog every day. Following on this popularity, I wrote more about technology for awhile, including some posts about my trackpad and our smart TV that still get the occasional hit.

Barrier Island Suite front cover imageBut after awhile, I wanted to bring the blog back closer to its original focus and began posting more about poetry again, especially with the launch of my third collection, Barrier Island Suite. The publication of my textbook, A Writer’s Craft, and the beginning of The W’s MFA in Creative Writing led me to post more about creative writing pedagogy. And yet, some of my other most popular posts are on cooking or buying and selling a car. Sometimes it’s hard to predict what will resonnate.

Over the years, I’ve had periods when I didn’t have time to blog much and times when I posted fairly regularly. I’ve written a lot about food, and have always been suprised at the popularity of buttermilk, which I first wrote about feeding to our dog when she was very sick, but later included in many of the recipes I’ve shared. It’s one of my standard ingredients for which I’ve found a lot of uses. As a cook, I’m as eclectic as I am as a blogger. I rarely follow recipes and use the blog write down what I did for myself as much as for anyone else, but the recipes I post tend to get a fair number of hits every now and then.

I’ve also used the blog to memorialize some of the teachers and friends who have passed away over the years. As long as I have a public forum, it seems right to use it to pay tribute to those who have contributed to who I am, both as a writer and as a person.

Book reviews are another category I’ve tried to come back to fairly regularly. I read a lot for class, and usually don’t review those books, but I try to write at least a few reviews of the best books I read for the Eudora Welty Writers’ Symposium: expect a few more of those in the coming weeks as I’m very excited about the current slate of writers. Still, I probably won’t find time to review them all because there’s lots of planning to do just to pull off the event!

I’m glad to see that writing is still the category I’m most prolific in, even though technology has certainly brought more people to my blog, and MFA advice is another category that is taking off, thanks to some outside links to my posts. Recently one reader commented that she first came to get help with her modem, but has kept coming back for the writing. I hope that’s true for some of you, but whatever brings you here, if you find something that’s useful or just entertaining, then I’m happy. I plan to keep writing, keep cooking, and occasionally keep ranting about technology or posting about a fix I’ve uncovered for a problem that I’m having. I’d like the blog to be moslty about poetry and creative writing pedagogy, but as an occasional blogger, I know I’ll probably write about whatever’s on my mind when the mood strikes me and I can carve out a few minutes from my day to write it down.

Thanks for reading this, and for following my blog if you do. It’s been a great ten years; here’s to the next decade!

Keeping the Res in Low-Residency MFA

DSCN9898As our low-residency MFA program enters its fifth year, it seems like a good time to reflect on where we’ve come and how we’ve evolved, and that includes why we’re committed to the low-res format for the degree.

Our program is different from many low-res MFAs out there because we follow an online class model. AWP, in its Hallmarks for Low-Residency MFA programs, oulines three types of program: ones with mentoring, ones with electronic classrooms, and hybrid. I’ve never met a hybrid program, and most of the well-known low-res MFAs out there seem to use the mentoring model, but I assume there are others using online classes, since the model existed before ours was created. Still, a lot of programs and prospective students seem to expect the mentoring model. Our students are usually glad to have the online class model because it means they have contact with each other outside of the residency periods. But for some, it begs the question: why do I even have to come to campus? Usually, once they’ve been here, they understand.

There are fully online MFA programs, of course, and those can be our competition. But there are things you can’t do online that you can do in a residency: have meals together, have and give readings, talk face-to-face in workshop groups and socially, complain about the air conditioning or the dorm beds (hey, nothing is perfect), get up early (as Kyla is famous for doing when she’s here) to go to the wildlife refuge, or stay up late together hanging out at local restaurants, etc. We have parties, and we bring coffee cake to workshops.

And in our program, we have multi-genre workshops in the summer, where fiction writers sit across from poets and beside playwrites or memoirists. We get out of our comfort zone and learn from each other, and our workshop leaders are not the same people who taught us during the semester and may even write in other genres than we do. This, combined with the afternoon seminars on practical aspects of being a professional writer and evening readings by students, thesis candidates, teachers, and guest writers helps us form a strong sense of community even though we are spread out all across the country (and in Europe). The online class format with regular video conferences helps with this as well, but being together for 10 days cements that feeling, energizes us, and gives us connections that will last a lifetime.

That’s the full-residency experience, but when we put the program together, we realized we also wanted some shorter experiences, too. We wanted to have times when we could recharge our batteries in four or five days and offer unique experiences. So we also instituted short residencies. The most logical one was at our Eudora Welty Writers’ Symposium, where students come to hear a dozen recently published writers at this annual event that is now in its 31st year. With a great writing event like this on campus, it only made sense to incorporate it into our MFA program, but since it happens in October and is for the community and the undergraduate campus as well, we knew it had to be seperate from any of our online classes.

Other short residency experiences that we’ve developed since then have focused on the business of writing or on another artform. The first summer short residency was led by our drama professor, T. K. Lee, who led a 5-day session in acting for writers. Students wrote their own short scripts adapted from something else they’ve been writing, and then acted in each others’ plays. We’ve also done one on oral storytelling and one on songwriting and music (and we repeated the acting residency once). Each was a great experience: a little intimidating at first for some, but in the end a great bonding experience and an opportunity for growth as an artist.

The other short residency that we offer is in the spring, when we take a group to the AWP conference. This is full immersion into the professional world of the writer, and it is also overwhelming, exciting, and incredibly rewarding. We spend a fair amount of time in our online class before the conference getting prepared: poring over the schedule, talking about what panels and off-site events people want to go to, looking at what bookstores or other local hotspots we definitely want to see when we escape AWP, and plannign what we’ll say about our writing and about our program and literary magazines when we’re walking the book fair or working our table. Then we arrive at AWP and are immersed for the three-day conference, trying to get together as a group a few times, though often we end up coalescing in smaller groups or seeing each other in passing.

When the program was begun, we knew this was the basic format we wanted to go with. We said (and continue to say) that we were flexible and want to work with students so they can have a low-res experience whether they can come to campus every semester or not. And we’ve managed to do that very well. We encourage everyone to come early in their program and to come back whenever they can, and generally that’s been doable, but we’ve had some students go a year or so without coming to a residency, yet they are always glad when they can return.

The other thing that has kept us flexible is adding new classes like the literary magazine production class and the internship class that allow us to give students professional experiences that will help their writing. In response to student requests, we’ve developed classes like Professional Writer, a (primarily) fiction class aimed at helping students revise and submit their work to literary magazines, and we’re planning to do a section of it focused on the long form: novels and full-length memoir. We’ve added special topics classes to address themes that students or faculty are interested in, and we keep exploring ways we can grow.

One of the most exciting developments this year will be collaborating with the theatre department’s new low-res MFA in Theatre Education program. We will have some of their students in our drama classes, and we are looking forward to the ability to offer some of their practical theatre classes (directing, stage design, etc.) to our playwriting students. And we’ve already been collaborating with theatre to produce staged readings of some of our student plays. Now that they’ll have a summer residency, too, we may be able to stage full productions of some of our scripts, and we may be able to offer a theatre residency or a short independent residency class for a resident playwrite.

Our first four years have been fantastic, and I’m looking forward to what the fifth year will bring. As always, our goal will be bringing the most rewarding experiences we can to all of our students and combining the flexibility of online learning with the benefits of face-to-face experiences.

The Best Little MFA

It’s been four years since we started the low-residency MFA program in creative writing at Mississippi University for Women, and in that time, I think we’ve created the best MFA of it’s size around. Of course, I’m biased, and I’m grateful to the students and faculty of our program who have been so great to work with.

We’ve now graduated 15 MFAs (counting the five who’ve defended their these and will get their degrees in August), and we have an enrollment hovering around 40, which is right where we want to be. We started with three faculty, two of whom were part-time, and now have three full-time faculty, one who prefers to teach 2 classes and direct theses and so is still part-time for now, and several regular part-time faculty who teach one class per semester. This allows us to offer a wide variety of classes and serve the varied needs of our current students. And it allows us to have enough faculty to direct theses as students move from taking coursework to the thesis stage. We’ve seen theses in each of the genres we focus on in the program: fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, and now drama with our first playscript as thesis defended in June.

What makes me think of our program as the best, though, are our students. We have a great, diverse group who work well together. They are writing in different genres (and some writing genre fiction or young adult), yet they provide a supportive environment in our online classes and when they get together at residencies. The energy in the building (despite this year’s headaches with A/C issues) has been fantastic. Every night at a full resicency, we host readings, featuring a faculty member or guest writer, a thesis candidate, and two or three other students at the residency. Our thesis students give great readings, are confident, and show they are ready to move into their professional careers. But the shorter readings by other students are fabulous, too. Here students take risks, sometimes reading for the first time in public, and the work they present is polished and compelling. You’d have to be there to know what I mean — and you could be, since they’re open to the public and we often have guests from town or beyond.

Besides the readings, I know our students are killing it through there publications. Hardly a week goes by without at least one notice of an acceptance from a student or alumn. We’ve had an AWP Intro Journals prize winner and an honorable mention, and our writers are getting into some great publications. We already have one graduate with two books of a three book deal published, and a poet with a micro chapbook and good leads on a full-length collection. And I expect more good news soon, given the strength of the theses I’ve seen.

I try to keep up with the all these accomplishments on our Facebook group, then periodically I ask students and faculty to send me their publications (I’m afraid I will miss some things on Facebook and Twitter) and list them on our accomplishments page.

I know there are more established and more prestigeous programs out there, and many of them do great work by their grad students. But if you measure the value of a program by the dedication of the faculty to teaching and by the cameraderie of the students and the writing (and publications) that this fosters, then we have a lot to be proud of. We’ve accomplished a lot in the first four years, and we’re looking forward to an even better fifth year.

That said, how would we like to improve? For one, I’d love to attract an even more diverse student body. We’ve been fortunate enough to attract African American, Asian American, Latinx, and LGBTQ students (and faculty). We also have students from all over Mississippi, every US time zone except Alaska and Hawaii (so far), and even a student in Italy (for now). We have students from all kinds of backgrounds and religious and political persuasions, yet everyone tends to get along very well because the writing is what really matters. Together, we have formed a great community, and to me, that’s what makes us the best little low-res MFA out there.

Facebook, You’re Such a Nag

Or Why writers Should All Say No to Constant Content

I don’t know about you, but I manage several groups and pages on Facebook, and one constant source of annoyance is the notifications that my readers haven’t heard from me in awhile. The only thing more annoying are the ones telling me a post is performing better, so I should pay Facebook to advertise it.

Let’s consider the logic here. Facebook’s business model is to get people on their platform because we enjoy sharing our news with others. But that isn’t enough for them. They know they have billions of free content creators, so they constantly remind us that they need us to create the news, entertainment, memes, personality quizzes, challenges, and other mindlessness that will keep their users coming back. Then they use algorithms to control what we see and convince us that we need to pay for ads, so our posts will stand out from all the drivel. They act like drug pushers, luring us in, then creating a need that will sustain their business. But the drug isn’t even real.

As a writer, I resent anyone who tries to get me to create content for free. If I’m going to do that (like I do on this blog), I want to do it on my own term and my own schedule. Often, I’m busy and don’t have time for Facebook. Or (like this week) I’m on vacation and don’t want to work, though I may respond to emails, etc. Or there simply isn’t anything I need to tell my “readers.” I want the content of these pages to be useful, informative, and timely. When the people who like my pages see my content, I want it to be something they want to read, not something they choose to ignore, so I resist Facebook’s near constant reminders.

Twitter, for all it’s flaws, is much better in this regard. It is more laissez faire. Twitter could care less when you post or even whether you post at all. Yes, you can buy an ad, but Twitter doesn’t seem to give a hoot whether you do or not. Maybe they’re just that much bigger than their immature rival or maybe it’s part because of their lawless culture. Lawlessness has it’s own issues, but in this regard, it creates a more positive environment for writers.

I want to guard my time and to create time for my own writing. Rather than writing a post so Facebook can profit, I’d rather write a poem. I want to use social media on my terms, go there for the information I want, and provide content when it suits my needs, not so Facebook can profit coming and going. Until Facebook comes up with a model that pays writers for their content (don’t hold your breath), we should all be very judicious about the time we spend there, and we should ignore the nagging call to create more free content than suits our needs.

Facebook, I’ll write on my page when I’m damn good and ready. It’s more important for me to write a poem or hang out with my nieces and nephews or visit with my mother. Life is more important than Facebook, and my writing is mine. I’ll give it to the world on my terms and in my own time.