Open Thanks to the Pacific University MFA Program and All Who Sail in Her

In the movie, “The Savages,” Laura Linney’s character finds herself in a cheap motel outside of Niagara, having an affair with a married man she doesn’t really like. She sits bolt upright in bed, surveys the tacky decor and annoying middle-aged man beside her, and exclaims in pure bewilderment, “I have an MFA!”

It is funny only because it is true that having this particular combination of letters after one’s name is not an automatic pass into the love, understanding, and recognition we all crave. Being raised by public school teachers taught me that our society undervalues education in a way that can be seen as either comic or tragic — depending on how tired you feel at the end of the day — and that teaching is an act worth pouring your whole self into anyway. It is the same with art.

After the graduate readings at this residency, a new student remarked that they were struck by the profound sense of gratitude present in the hearts of each of us outgoing students. This program is suffused with a spirit of generosity. Faculty and students mix easily, talk honestly, and work hard not to take themselves too seriously. A visiting professor put it succinctly: “usually people are either really good or really nice — but here they are both.”

If the faculty were priests, and this were a church, we might predict that they will reap rewards for their generosity in heaven. But they are not priests, and this is not a church, and instead of taking confession or quoting answers from religious texts, they have instead stood by us, in their humility, and marveled at the beauty of the questions. It is a privilege just to be here, partaking of something that transcends commerce, and politics, and marketing-speak: the deep words. The ones that matter.

And the rewards these artists and teachers reap in this life, for having faced down the human condition in their own projects, and hung in there with us students through our likely all-too-familiar neuroses, insecurities, doubts, and hopes as we face down our own projects — is the knowledge, all too rarely expressed, that they have changed — not only our writing, but our writing lives — for the better.

If there were a better phrase in English to expres profound gratitude and respect, I would want to use it. But all I can think to say is “thank you” — to the faculty in all genres, to Dean Hayes for believing in this program, and to Shelley, and Tenley, and Colleen, and, formerly, Amber, and all the interns, past and present, who slog heroically behind the scenes to sustain this place where brilliance doesn’t require pretension, where sincerely never lacks toughness — where people set out, with their raincoats and tackle, in search of the deep words. It has been a privilege to travel with you in this vessel for a little while.

Stephen Kuusisto on Listening

I had the privilege of hearing Stephen Kuusisto, the remarkable writer, blind since birth, indict us writers for not listening well enough. He rightly pointed out that images have dominated contemporary writing, at the expense of other senses, since Hemingway’s time. He has generously posted the text of this insightful and moving talk, which he spoke to us flawlessly and compellingly, only seconds after hearing it in his earbud, synthesized in a robotic voice. You can read the complete text, with comments, on his blog. Enjoy!

Literary Coincidence & Greg Rappleye’s Figured Dark

Because this is my final residency, I have a bit more discretionary time between lectures. So, Val and I took books and journals down to The Tenth Muse, a local bookshop that serves espresso drinks. Nearing the end of Figured Dark, I was surprised to discover the epigraph to “The Salt Cairn”: “Seaside, Oregon.” We had just made the walk down Broadway ourselves, just like the speaker’s family, “our lungs thick / with a cold we carried / through the taffy shop and pinball palace / to a carousel no one rides / in this ragged carnival town.”

Figured Dark by Greg RappleyeThis is a remarkable, confident, mature collection by a poet I am grateful to have met through the blogosphere. These are poems about cancer, divorce, and the possible violence — both physical and emotional — that linger beneath the surface of ordinary life. But there is also a striking metaphysical dimension, from the opening conversation with God to the angelic figures of great poets, birds, dead saints, and fire. Unpretentious and elegiac, these poems progress like the epigraph to “Elegy for Light and Balance,” notes on Winslow Homer from “a catalog” which point out, “Homer depended on narrative structures that would, just as they begun to suggest a normal unfolding, deflect the viewer from obvious and easy interpretations.” This is a tremendous collection, delivered, in my case, in a moment of delightful synchronicity.

The Beginning of the End (of the Beginning)

Best Western, Seaside, Oregon. So it begins: the final residency of two life-changing years in this MFA program. Our journey progressed like a staged rocket in reverse — instead of jettisoning components as we went, we gathered fellow students into our merry band all along our trajectory. Three of us left Ojai and met two more at LAX. Then we were thirteen on the bus from PDX to Seaside (which made our superstitious driver nervous). Finally, there are scores of us swarming throughout not one but two adjacent hotels.

Though the halls are quiet — partly due to the chilly open balconies — faculty and students are no doubt buzzing like bees in their cells. I suspect this because the WiFi signal is sapped on my floor, probably due to overuse. So, I’ll either be posting this when the mass-scale email-checking blitz subsides, or use the old standby — the chilly first-floor laundry room, unsuitable to sustain human life, but great for WiFi.

Val and I were tired from our journey, which began at 7AM, so we ordered up room service — fish & chips & hot cocoa — and flicked on the ceramic-log fire. It is great to finally be here. But lingering at the back of my mind with each new friendly face I meet is the knowledge that I will have no good excuse to return to this place when our ten eleven days together have run their course. We may leave zingers on one another’s Facebook status updates, swap the occasional poem or congratulatory note on a publication or award — but the two intense years of stretching together into the writers we always hoped (and still hope) we could someday become — is coming to a close. But not before eight nine days packed full of inspiration, revelation, camaraderie, and, almost certainly: rain, rain, rain.

The Final Residency

On Thursday, I will leave for the fifth and final residency of the Pacific University Master of Fine Arts in Writing program. A new twist this time: my lovely wife will be joining me. On balance, with the omission of workshops and the addition of a graduate reading and thesis review committee session, it looks like this special final residency schedule will be slightly less intense than the previous four. So, I asked Val to come along to watch the graduate readings, hang out with the amazing writers I have befriended in the last two years at mealtimes, and soak up the outstanding faculty readings each evening. I look forward to introducing her to the Pacific Northwest, and the remarkable faculty, staff, and students in this community. We’re mulling over the packing list now. This is going to be fun!