Congratulations Again, Pacific University MFA

Culture is the key to a great program

I flipped open my copy of Poets & Writers this month to discover that Pacific University’s MFA in Writing Program has ranked fourth among the top low-residency MFA programs in the U.S., edging up one place from last year. Congratulations to the faculty, students, and staff who made this possible. What is remarkable is that the Pacific program has only been around for a handful of years, as compared to the three programs ranked above it (Bennington since ’94, Warren Wilson since ’76, Vermont College since ’81) and the one program it surpassed in these particular rankings this year (Antioch, started in ’97).

My theory about the secret to this program’s twenty-first-century upstart success is, once again: faculty, faculty, faculty.
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Reading at the Ruskin Art Club

I spent a rich and meaningful afternoon reading poems with fellow Pacific University Alumni: Kathryn Belsey, Michelle Bitting, Jonathan Harris, and George Wallace — as well as eminent faculty member David St. John. The Ruskin Art Club played host, thanks to the ever-gracious Elena Karina Byrne, to this reunion of sorts. Afterward I heard audience members remark that they felt the variety and quality of the readings gave testament to the strength of Pacific’s writing program. David St. John kindly remarked that, to him, the real secret of teaching is that one actually gets back, through the students, so much more than one gives. It was an afternoon full of generosity and goodwill — not to mention outstanding poetry.

I also took this occasion to debut my new limited-edition broadside of the poem “Recipe for the Broken.” The poem was first published in “Walt’s Corner” of The Long Islander, the newspaper founded by Walt Whitman in 1838. Fittingly, the column is now curated by George Wallace. The poem and background image are printed on sturdy 8.5″ x 11″ paper as part of The Broadsider Volume 2, Series 12 (Poor Souls Press 2010), conceived and created by Paul Fericano. A limited quantity of hand-numbered and signed prints are now available for sale on this website.


More on Choosing to Do an MFA

A website modestly entitled “The Best Damn Creative Writing Blog…Period” recently collected questions from readers about doing an MFA. They sent me the questions, and I responded to each one. Then, much like the trick where one whisks away a table cloth, leaving the items on the table in tact — I swiped the questions and stitched the piece together into this article about why and how I went about doing my MFA.

The piece begins:

The circumstances that brought me back to poetry, and subsequently to an MFA degree, were not common. In fact, the doctors told me what my wife and I experienced was a one-in-one-thousand occurrence. After the death of our infant son, poetry became the only language that made sense to me.

Read the full article at “The Best Damn Creative Writing Blog … Period.”


“Should I Do An MFA?” (and Farewell, Read Write Poem)

It saddens me to report that, with the departure of the founder, and with the site’s editorial, maintenance, and technical needs having grown beyond the capabilities for a new all-volunteer team to take it on, the excellent poetry social networking website Read Write Poem will close its doors May 1st. It has been a pleasure writing a series of poetry advice column editorials for the site, and getting to know its thousand-plus smart, sensitive, poetry-loving members.

While my first two pieces, on how to learn from rejection and how to be a poet every day, will remain archived on the site, my latest response to a member question, originally slated for mid-May, will now no longer show up on the site. So, in honor of the first day of the last month of this remarkable community’s existence, in honor of the first day of National Poetry Month, and in honor of Read Write Poem member Julie’s question, I am publishing my final column in this series here, on my own website.

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At work, when I interview candidates for an open position, I always ask what it was like at their previous job. I am amazed at how many interviewees animatedly complain. It is a warning sign to me that, if I hire them, they will likely soon be doing the same about my company. And so, though it seems Socratic, I am compelled to respond, whenever fellow writers ask me if they ought to do an MFA, with more questions, such as: How is it going in your current writing workshops? What is the conversation like between you and your trusted peers, when they give you feedback? Who are your current mentors (including those you learn from solely through their published work)? What are you working on improving about your writing life? Whom do you emulate? What do you absolutely know you still need to learn?

Learning to write well is, to me, a lifelong process of self-education. Just as I consider myself responsible for looking after my health, and enlist medical professionals to that end, likewise I am the one in charge of educating myself as a writer. My attitude, therefore, played a critical part in making my MFA two of the most rich and fulfilling years of my writerly life so far.

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Cloudbank Precipitates Great Poetry

“How open to suggestion / they have always been, carrying nothing // with them of the past, content to leave almost / everything behind…”

-Christopher Buckley, “New Clouds”

Cloudbank Issue 1I received a complimentary copy of the premiere issue of Cloudbank today. The journal is co-edited by Peter Sears, core faculty in the Pacific Unviersity MFA program, and the index reads like a roll-call of some of that program’s most talented writers: Arthur Ginsberg helps us see behind sight, Ron Bloodworth takes us into meditative country, Marianne Klekacz makes a Christmas-morning discovery of flight, Jennifer Whetham extols the sensuous mushroom, Beth Russell defends the curious appetites of the female praying mantis, and Abby Murray brings a glimmer of hard-earned compassion to a dog-eat-dog world. More than this, new poems by Christopher Buckley, Carolyn Miller, Margaret McGovern, and a host of other wonderful poets — some from the Pacific Northwest, others not — round out this impressive debut. A publication of Cloudbank Books in Corvalis, Oregon, Cloudbank the journal is accepting submissions for its second issue, including offering a $200 prize for one outstanding poem. Details for submitting poems, and ordering a copy of their excellent first issue, are available on the Cloudbank website.


Pacific University MFA Commencement Student Speech

Today I had the honor of giving the student speech at the 2009 Pacific University commencement ceremony. Here is the text of that speech.

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Standing at the podium. Associate Provost Wilkes, Dean Hayes, Vice President Akers, Ms. Washburn, faculty, staff, graduates, alumni, family, and friends — good afternoon. Today we celebrate our completion of the requirements for Pacific University’s Master of Fine Arts in Writing degree, and a milestone for each of us in our ongoing education as writers. This also marks the fifth year of this MFA program’s existence. And if any program has earned the right to act its age, this one has. If memory serves me, this involves spontaneous tantrums followed by graham cracker cookies and a nap. At least, that’s what I liked best about being five. It was also the age when I dictated my first poem to my kind and patient mother. It ran seven pages. And, although I have learned a lot since then, today I would like to be brief in simply reminding us all of some truths about this program, and about writing, we all already know — but might want to hear repeated.
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Poetry and Productivity

I would not have been able to complete an MFA in writing poetry while holding down a job as a technology executive had I not been a longtime practitioner of the GTD® methodology. In a recently released podcast, David Allen, my boss and the inventor of GTD, asked me about how the GTD concept of the ubiquitous capture tool relates to poetic inspiration. (That conversation begins around 16:56.) My process has evolved considerably in the past few years, from capturing phrases and lines whenever they came through my head to “assemble” later into a poem, to establishing a regular practice of opening up to the muse. This shift sees me capturing fewer individual lines in the moment, and focusing more on getting my head clear of work and personal responsibilities — by using GTD — so that when I do sit down to write, I can slip through the keyhole unencumbered into that poetic space.

The practice of capturing inspiration in the moment is nothing new to artists and writers. After the Ojai Poetry Fest Fundraiser, I had a stimulating conversation with a fellow writer who also happens to be a journalist. As our chat got interesting, he whipped out a pad and paper, seemingly on reflex, and began to take notes. He was “off duty” in the sense that he wasn’t taking notes for a news story — but it got me thinking that if one is, indeed, a student of life, there is no “off duty.” And a good student takes good notes about subjects that fascinate. The difference GTD makes, of course, is that it presents a systematic approach for what to do with those notes — including tracking any resulting commitments to oneself or others, and executing appropriate action and regular review in order to make one’s dreams more than just a scribble on a notepad.

So, in case I haven’t said it lately, thank you, David, for bringing this methodology into my life, helping me to bring appropriate focus and attention to the many different worlds I inhabit. The gift of being more present in my life is truly precious.