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.
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.