Posts Tagged ‘literature’

Low-Residency MFA — What is it?

I’ve been working on our proposal for a new Low-Residency MFA in Creative Writing at Mississippi University for Women, and it occurred to me that it might be worth blogging about what one is. So let’s start with the most obvious question.

What is an MFA?

To non-academics, the acronyms we use can sometimes be confusing. An MFA is a Master of Fine Arts degree. In Creative Writing, this is seen as the terminal degree (the highest degree you need to teach), though there are some Ph.D. programs in Creative Writing now. It is different from an MA in English with a concentration in Creative Writing because the emphasis tends to be more on writing classes and less on literary scholarship, though some literature classes are usually part of an MFA program. MFA programs are also typically longer than MA programs by a year or more, and they usually involve more classes or credits.

So in our MFA program, we will have three main types of classes: Writing workshops in specific genres (poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and drama), literature classes, and forms classes. Literature classes emphasize literary scholarship, reading for interpretation in other words. Forms classes emphasize craft, reading to learn how a genre has developed or to learn the nuts and bolts of writing. Literature classes involve reading primary texts and scholarly essays or books about those texts. Forms classes involve reading primary texts and essays or books about the genre, which may be essays by working writers about their craft. Students will be required to take at least 4 Workshop classes and 4 Literature or Forms classes, along with 4 electives that can be Workshops, Literature, or Forms classes. This gives the student flexibility in creating their curriculum. We also plan to offer independent studies, seminars, and internships, which may count as electives.

After all, students have different goals in mind when entering an MFA program in Creative Writing. All want to become better writers, but some also want to teach and others also want to enter the world of publishing or find other writing careers. Those who want to teach at the university level should take at least 6 literature courses (though some may already have a Master’s in English). Those who want to go on in publishing or a related field may find the Forms classes better suit their needs. Since our program is low-residency, most of our classes will be conducted online.

So what does Low-Residency mean?

Traditional MFA programs are full residency programs. In other words, students move to the university town, attend classes on campus, hang out together after class, and have an intensely creative experience. This is a good model, especially for young students who are fresh out of undergrad (or have worked a few years), and who don’t have career or family responsibilities that limit them geographically. I recommend to my students that they look for this kind of experience while they can. But it isn’t always convenient for those who have started a career or a family or have other obligations that won’t allow them to move to where their grad program is.

That’s the need that Low-Residency programs were designed to fill. They’ve been around for decades, though the means of teaching them has changed as distance learning technologies have developed. The idea is that creative writers need a sense of community and that face-to-face discussion of student work can be more productive than fully online or correspondence work. Creative writing programs often feature a reading series. They often have social or community involvement as part of their program. In a fully online or distance learning program, these elements are limited if not lacking, but in the low-residency model, students are required to come to campus periodically for intense workshop experiences.

In our program, if it’s approved, we plan to have two types of residency classes: a short residency where the time together is about a week (and work is done before and after the residency online), and a full residency, which will last about two weeks and work is mostly completed while on campus. The short residencies will be optional to allow more flexible scheduling; one full residency and one short residency will be required in the first year. During these times, besides additional workshopping of student writing, we will have hands-on experiences in different art forms or subjects (music, pottery, painting, theater, environmental writing, history, etc.) and sessions on writing as a profession. The full residency will be scheduled in late May or early June. Short residencies will be scheduled throughout the year at times that we hope will be convenient for our students, though one will likely be scheduled to coincide with the annual Eudora Welty Writers’ Symposium.

Though all programs are a little different, I think this overview of the one we’re planning should give you an idea of what they are. You will spend 2-3 years (or more) in intense conversation with other writers about your writing (our program could be finished in two years, but we recommend 3 or more, especially since most low-residency students are also working, so they will take classes part-time). You will also develop your ideas about literature through literature and forms classes, and you’ll learn about the profession of being a writer and/or teacher of writing.

In Memoriam, David Hernandez, Chi-Town Poet

Yesterday, I learned that David Hernandez had passed away of a heart attack at the age of 66. He died in his beloved city, Chicago, on Feb. 25, 2013. (By the way, there is another David Hernandez, a poet from California, who is very much alive.)

Reading this news two months after the fact brought back vivid memories of another stage of my life, when I was fortunate enough to know David and be influenced by this fabulous poet and teacher. As I read articles about his life that included lines from his poems, his distinctive voice came back to me as well. David read his poetry with a musical lilt, even when he wasn’t performing with his band Street Sounds. When he was with the band, then the full sense of the Latin rhythms came through, but even without the band, you could hear the echoes of the music in his lines. Poetry Poetry has audio clips of several of his poems available online, including one of my all-time favorites “Why I Want to be a Real Poet.” But it’s hard to pick a favorite David Hernandez poem: every poem is a hardened gem.

Hernandez has been described as a street poet, as Chicago’s unnofficial poet-laureate (he wrote innaugural poems for Mayor Harold Washington), and Chicago’s first Latino poet (he began publishing in 1971). But I didn’t know any of those things when I met David in 1986. He was well into his second decade as a published poet, but apart from his fabulous poems, you’d never guess it to look at him or to interact with him.

I was just a kid, fresh out of college, trying to make a living in my first job at Chicago Review Press, and my good friend and college professor, Robin Metz, was running Knox Colleges’ Urban Studies program in Chicago for a semester. He enlisted me to help out with their poetry workshop. David was the real poet, I manned the coffee pot and  sat in on the informal discussions. I was probably full of myself and gave too much ‘advice.’ David was always encouraging, gently prodding or exploring a poem, but mostly encouraging the other poets to explore their creativity. You see, he never treated us like students; he always treated us like artists. He could be demanding about art, but you never felt judged or looked down upon. He led by example, and his example was absolute honesty. There was no room for pretentiousness in the little church basement where we met each Saturday. He never had to lay down the law or tell us to be humble: you just knew. In part because, though he never claimed to be a great poet and even wrote ironic poems about wanting to be a ‘real poet,’ we could sense we were in the presence of a real poet.

I learned more about life and about poetry in those Saturday mornings with David than I would in many other classrooms, so I was sad when the Knox students packed up their bags and went back to campus. But I didn’t need to be. David was still around, and I’d bump into him at the Green Mill Lounge, where I’d started going to the Poetry Slams. And David never forgot who you were and never acted like he didn’t know you because he didn’t have to know you anymore. Each time you saw David, it was like no time had passed. We remained friends throughout the time I lived in Chicago, and he remains one of my absolute favorite poet friends from those days.

Ghosts at the Welty Symposium

Of course when you think Gothic, one thing that comes to mind are old mansions full of ghosts. This year’s Welty Symposium has a few literary ghosts of its own. Of course, Sonny Brewer’s novel The Widow and the Tree is about the Ghosthead Oak, a 500-year-old live oak tree, and there are many memories and legends associated with the tree. And Carolyn Haines Bonefire of the Vanities (and other Sarah Booth Delaney mysteries) feature a a ghost or two, most notably the ghost of Sarah’s grandmother’s maid, who gives her advice (sometimes unwanted). But did you know we have some other ghosts in the symposium?

Several characters in Jessica Maria Tuccelli’s debut novel Glow see ghosts, and at least one is seen as a ghost. One of the main characters has a ghostly friend, Lovelady, who appears in an earlier time before her death. Another couple of characters are intimate with many ghosts and help the youngest protagonist deal with her own. There are other forms of conjuring in this novel as well, filled as it is with African American and Native American lore from North Georgia.

Christopher Lowe’s debut collection of short stories, Those Like Us, includes a story “Ghost Tour” that may not have actual ghosts, but tells of a character who makes up ghost stories, some of which may be more real than she’d like to admit, or may become real to her in the telling. Other characters in these linked stories struggle with death and loss. As with most ghost stories, there is an element of reality or normality that the paranormal brings to light.

Apologies to Chicago or ‘Truth’ in Poetry

As I wrote awhile back, we visited Chicago this summer. I got to read at the Uptown Poetry Slam and see old friends. We also drove around the city (driving the Loop on Sunday morning was delightful!), took the dog to the Montrose dog park, had Leona’s pizza in my old neighborhood, and had a thoroughly wonderful time.

That all got me thinking about a poem I wrote several years ago that is in my new book Time Capsules. The poem is “Travelogue,” and it was written on a cross-country trip as an experiment in writing very autobiographical poetry about what was happening as it happened. Mind you, this could be dangerous to do while driving, but never fear, I did stop to write most of the time. Occasionally, I jotted a line or a few words on a scrap of paper, but mostly composed in my head or waited until I could take a break to write. Everything in the poem happened in one way or another, though I quickly found that memory became a theme even though I had planned to write about the present. Past memories and present experiences merged, which should probably not come as a surprise, since I was driving for days by myself with just a cassette player and my dog to keep me company.

Though my goal was to write the truth, I also realized quickly that the truth is a slippery concept in a poem. Hence my need to apologize to Chicago or to my friends who stayed there, at any rate. While driving the interstate in heavy traffic, I was caught in a long traffic jam. This reminded me of some of the reasons I left the city — the traffic, the concrete, the heat in summer, the crowds of people — all of which could be exciting and oppressive, especially to a kid from a small town.That section of the poem ends:

             …Now I
remember why I left Chicago.
It was not the traffic really,
but all that concrete and so
many people going nowhere.

Though true for me, and certainly true of the traffic jam I was in as I drove I-80, I felt even as I wrote it that the last line both was and wasn’t true. There are so many people in Chicago, but many are going places, even though at the time I left, I felt I needed to move on to go where I wanted to go. So for my friends who have gone many places while staying in Chicago, and even for myself, now that I see where I might have gone had I stayed there, the last line isn’t true. And yet in the moment of composition it was the truest line I could write. To say more would have overburdened the poem.

Of course, this is the case in any poem, and it’s not just a matter of poetic license. The demands of the form you are working with or the demands of the thematic choices you have decided on (to write the truth as you see it at the moment of the writing, for instance), affect what you can or should say. The sound of a word or the length of a sentence can demand that you need to tell it ‘false’ in order to reveal the ‘truth.’ The truth of any situation is complicated and has many facets; a poem often can only hold some of the many ways of looking at it.

For “Travelogue” this was even more the case than usual, since I was weaving together the surreal experiences of memory and a long drive. And as with any autobiography, experience became subjective even when ‘recorded’ as it was happening, since it was filtered through my experience of it and my thoughts and memories. This became a theme for the book as a whole, or at least for parts of it, as the working title of the collection remained “Travelogue and Other Poems” for quite awhile.

Literary Influence

More fun with computers and grading have kept me quiet this week. (Back up your data! I was glad I had when trouble hit.) I am figuring out the new book ordering procedures and getting caught up on my grading, too. I also experienced some of the fun of directing a literary event when one of last year’s authors, Hillary Jordan (her novel is Mudbound), wrote with some questions about Columbus for the new novel she’s working on. A character passes through our town, and she wanted to know the color of our grass, what flowers bloom in winter, and a few other fact-checking details. I wonder how many other Welty Symposium authors have been influenced by their visit to Columbus to include it in their work?

I remember when I was a grad student at the University of Texas at Austin, there were many Dutch and German visiting writers who lived in town. It was fun to learn what a big influence this had on Dutch literature, especially. Many more stories or poems were set in Texas than ever would have been the case without the program. Besides New York and Berkeley, Austin may be the best-known American city in the Dutch -speaking world.

You never know what will bring a place literary fame or how far the influence of one good program will spread. At the very least this literary exchange brightened up my week, and for that I was grateful.

A Look Behind the Curtain

Or why I haven’t written much this week!

One of my many hats is Director of the Eudora Welty Writers’ Symposium at Mississippi University for Women, an annual event at which a dozen or so authors appear and read from their work. For the audience, everything seems to go seamlessly–I hope! MUW faculty give introductions, authors read and answer questions, students and faculty sell books: it’s a successful event in its 21st season. What the audience doesn’t see is what goes on before and after a cultural event like this, with which as director, I’ve become intimately familiar, making me feel a bit like the Wizard of Oz at times.

This week, I was busily teaching classes, updating the Welty Symposium website, working on the schedule and press release, and ordering the first books. Then a little crisis hit. Someone decided we could no longer sell books the way we had in the past, due to sales tax regulations. Several phone calls later, and I was in the process of rearranging our book account so that so that the right side of the university would be in charge of sales. It will still be me, but the money goes through a more appropriate fund. This means different rules for purchasing, one of which is that I can’t pay in advance for books to sell, which is what I needed to do that caused me to be alerted to the new rules! Several more emails and calls later, and I am close to resolving the issue for this order, buying myself time to figure out the next.

That’s just one fairly big fire that needs to be be put out before October 22 — there will be others. One person asked if we make much money on books, suggesting we could just stop selling them. I assured her that we make enough, but that even if we didn’t, selling books at an author’s event is part of the atmosphere, brings in a bigger crowd, and promotes reading. As long as we don’t lose money, we’ll keep selling books somehow!

The more usual crises involve finding authors’ photos, reviews, and bios; getting everyone to turn in their forms; helping authors with travel arrangements; making time for writing the press release, creating a flyer (I’m going to try doing it in color this year), working up the program, making sure we have all the rooms, and chairs, and food, and whatever else I’m blanking out on right now! Those things and finding time to be a professor, father, and writer of poetry and this blog.

I hope it doesn’t sound like I’m whining or complaining. Really, I’m not! I did think, though, since it’s what has been on my mind most of the week, it would be the best thing to write about. There are many aspects of the business side of literature worth exploring. It’s not always glamorous or even fun every minute, but I do get to meet a dozen authors every year and talk with a lot of publishers, and it’s worth all the headaches and crises to make that one weekend a magical event.