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.
I have been asked to give the student speech in the upcoming MFA commencement ceremony. Needless to say, I am honored. I have been meditating on the experience of having completed this remarkable journey, now from a distance of about five months, and looking back over material from my time in the program. One piece that helps summarize some of what I learned from the MFA is the critical introduction to my graduate reading. And so, I am reprinting it here, on my site, for those who might be interested. I have enhanced the text with some hyperlinks. I gave this introduction, and then read poems from my thesis, on January 12th, 2009 at the Best Western Seaside Resort in Seaside, Oregon.
I came to my first residency, here in Seaside, Oregon, one year after the death of our infant son. That event brought me back to poetry by momentarily stripping away all other ambitions. Poetry alone got me out of bed some mornings, and helped me chart the difficult inner landscape of grief, often in the bleary pre-dawn hours before work. I sought out mentors to assist me in improving my poems, and, on the sage advice of my friend and mentor Joseph Millar, I enrolled in the low-residency Master of Fine Arts in Writing program at Pacific University.
Getting to that first residency was hard: it was the first time my wife and I had been apart since the birth and death of our son, my first time in the Northwest, and my first real writing conference. I knew no one other than Joe. But from my arrival by bus in the freezing dark, throughout the past two years, at every turn and in even the most minute details of my experience — I received confirmation, time and again, that I was in the right place.
In one month’s time, I will be nearing the end of the fourth residency of the Pacific University MFA, preparing to head in to my fourth and final semester of correspondence work. I feel as though I blinked, and suddenly have reached the three-quarters-done mark. And, although I have given close reading to well over sixty works so far, I also feel as though I have just begun to chip away at the tip of the iceberg that is poetry. I am thinking about reading mostly heavy-hitting Modern poets in the coming semester, in an effort to fill in some gaps in my experience of their work. Here is my list so far:
- Yehuda Amichai, Love Poems
- John Ashbery, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror: Poems
- John Berryman, 77 Dream Songs: Poems
- Robert Bly, Silence In The Snowy Fields
- James Dickey, Drowning With Others
- Richard Hugo, The Lady In Kicking Horse Reservoir
- Rolf Jacobsen, The Silence Afterwards: Selected Poems
- Randall Jarrell, The Lost World
- Paul Mariani, The Great Wheel
- Thomas Merton, In the Dark Before Dawn: New Selected Poems
- W.S. Merwin, The Lice
- Frank O’Hara, Meditations In An Emergency
- Marianne Moore, Complete Poems
- Ezra Pound, Selected Poems
- Adrienne Rich, Diving Into The Wreck
- Jon Silkin, New and Selected Poems
- W.D. Snodgrass, Heart’s Needle
- Wallace Stevens, The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens
- Thomas Tranströmer, The Great Enigma: New Collected Poems
- Richard Wilbur, Love Calls Us To The Things Of This World
- William Carlos Williams, Spring And All
- William Carlos Williams, Imaginations
That’s more than the recommended twenty works (and notice I have deliberately not added any books about poetry) — so, I will have to trim and tinker.
Any suggestions, anyone?
I am heading into the third semester at Pacific, where in lieu of ongoing commentaries on individual works, I will be writing a longer critical essay. At this point, I am thinking about writing about Seamus Heaney, and in particular how he successfully navigates numerous dialectic elements in contemporary poetry, such as:
||Meter & rhyme
In addition, I will continue to read widely from a variety of sources. Here is what I am thinking about adding to my reading list:
- Fredrick Smock, Poetry And Compassion (thank you, Mr. Carter)
- Dorianne Laux and Kim Adonizzo, The Poet’s Companion: A Guide to the Pleasures of Writing Poetry
- Stephen Berg (ed.), Singular Voices: American Poetry Today
- Umberto Saba, Songbook: Selected Poems from the Canzoniere of Umberto Saba (trans. Stephen Sartarelli)
- Marvin Bell, The Book Of The Dead Man and Mars Being Red
- Paul Muldoon, Horse Latitudes
- Jane Mead, The Lord and the General Din of the World
- Ron Silliman (ed.), In The American Tree
- Patrick Kavanagh, Collected Poems
- Eavan Boland, Selected Poems
- Seamus Heaney, Opened Ground: Poems 1966-1996
- Seamus Heaney, District and Circle
- Medbh McGuckian, Selected Poems: 1978-1994
- David St. John, Study for the World’s Body: New and Selected Poems
- Tony Curtis (ed.), The Art of Seamus Heaney
- Paul Celan, Poems of Paul Celan: A Bilingual German/English Edition
Ideas For Poetry Book Structure
- Issa, The Year Of My Life (trans. Nobuyuki Yuasa)
- Basho, Back Roads To Far Towns (trans. Kamaike Susumu and Cid Corman)
- Robert Lowell, Life Studies
- Roland Barthes, A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments (trans. Richard Howard)
This is only a cursory sketch for now. Any suggestions?
The following email arrived this morning:
Dear MFA Students and Alumni,
I just discovered last night that the latest Atlantic Monthly magazine has listed Pacific University as one of the top five low-residency MFA programs in the nation! Jeannine Hall Gailey casually told me this in an email (a post script, no less) and I dashed out to buy two copies of the “Special Fiction Issue 2007.” In there is an article called “Where Great Writers Are Made” and there, in the last sidebar, is our program. We are included with the most venerable low-residency programs in the nation: Antioch, Bennington, Vermont and Warren Wilson.
Building a program is never easy. But it has truly been a group effort and the faculty and students are the ones who have helped make it happen. You are a talented, hardworking and passionate community and I hope you take as much pride and joy in this news as I do.
Shelley Washburn, Director
MFA in Writing
Not bad for a program that has only graduated two full classes so far.
Obviously, I didn’t choose Pacific for its reputation, since it effectively didn’t have one when I applied. But clearly I’m not the only one who sees the means to work so closely with such great faculty as a rare opportunity and privilege. The beyond-the-call-of-duty helpfulness of the staff, beautiful residency settings and challenging-yet-manageable academic structure go further in making this a great experience so far. Hats off to all involved.
Inspired in part by Lifehacker’s article on How To Study With A Full-time Job, I thought I’d share a little about how I’m surviving working full-time as an IT executive and studying toward an MFA in writing poetry. It’s early days — I am only a few weeks into my first semester, but I have already made it through the first residency intensive and am drawing close to the second exchange with my faculty advisor. Guess what? I’m loving it. A lot of that, however, is because I took certain steps well before the program started to make the whole experience less painful.
With the exception of times I have been really sick (since sleep is my immune system’s best friend), I have been getting up an hour early before work every day. I started this months before the MFA began, before I even knew I was accepted. This seemingly obvious exercise has helped me keep a steady focus on my writing independent of other circumstances. The catch, of course, is getting to bed early enough. But with the prospect of writing again in the morning, this little programmer-owl is has finally stopped stalling at beddy-by time. Well, mostly. Tonight’s an exception. Really.