Interview With University of Montana

Picture of BJ SoloyAuthor: BJ Soloy, 2nd year MFA Poetry candidate at University of Montana

Let’s start by talking about the culture at your program. What’s the location like? What are some local hangouts for writers?

While the writing and lit. faculties are generally wonderful and the cohorts are generally supportive and close, the location is really one of the all-stars up/over here. Surrounded by the lure of day-trip to Glacier or Yellowstone Nat’l Parks and surrounded by thousands and thousands of acres of National Forests, National Wildernesses, preserves, etc., the location rightly kicks ass. Favorite writers’ spots are The Union Club (where one can grab a pint over a book early on and then two-step to some Country AND Western later), the Old Post (with a nice patio and Recession Specials to go along with [veggie] burger and beer specials and a good happy hour), Break Espresso, Bernice’s Bakery, The Rhino, the wonderful Top Hat, and the ass-grooved soil near the Clark Fork River.

Tell us about your experience in class. What’s the focus of your workshops? What parts of your writing have you put the most focus on?

The faculty is pretty diverse and, subsequently, so is the range of workshop stylings. While all instructors have idiosyncratic approaches to craft, historical and contemporary poetics, and individual process, some accentuate one over the others, with some workshops very earnestly engaged in discussions of idiomatic language, poetic politics, and the artistic landscape of the day, for instance, while another will focus more on general themes such as description, emotion, or aesthetic conflicts. I’ve personally found myself deeply involved in the interrogation of what it means to write in a medium that welcomes non-linear and elliptical modes of meaning-making and emotional engagement in a time of post-humanism and a generalized ironic distancing from earnestness. I’m sure, though, that if you asked all nine poets in my year, you’d get nine distinct answers.

What sort of funding opportunities are available? What are you teaching? How easy is it to balance your teaching and writing?

With a 1/1 teaching load, it’s pretty doable. Most creative writing TAs teach WRIT 101 (a comp. variation that focuses on personal process) for three semesters and teach a beginning workshop in their creative field one semester. Students without TA funding have opportunities to teach in Winter or Summer session, to teach through a local writers’ collaborative, and/or to tutor through some local school programs. There are also opportunities for grad. scholarships ($3,000 or $5,000) as well as travel grants and other awards.

What’s been your best memory of working with faculty?
After carefully reading my manuscript on her own time, Elizabeth Robinson spent a good six hours over two days in her office going over her reading with me. Generous, thorough, and direct, she was perfectly emblematic of the sort of deep reading and poetic sophistication that’s available here. Prageeta Sharma and Karen Volkman were both similarly amazing in the time and respect they afforded my work, especially as a first-year with no pending thesis emergencies.

What’s been your greatest struggle in graduate school thus far? How has this program shaped your view of craft?

I hope no one’s delusional enough to be in this for the money, but, even knowing what I was getting into and having plenty of experience pinching pennies, the reduced second-year stipend is lining up to be financially interesting. It’s a generally affordable town, exponentially more navigable than Chicago, say, but I’m still sending stuff out to every paying contest or grant I can find, editing my grocery list like it’s a fourteen year-old’s journal poem, and trying to reckon exactly how much plasma one body actually needs.

What’s your next step? What sort of steps does your program take to prepare you for your post-graduate experience?

I plan to stay in town for another year after graduation, as my wife’s just starting her first year, and then applying to PhD programs. One helpful thing that the program does is make it relatively easy to transfer a fair amount of credits from one’s MFA degree over (“double-dipping”) to an MA degree, so that I’ll likely be applying to PhD programs with both degrees and a whole new list of braggadocio on my c.v., including reading for CutBank contests, co-curating the MFA reading series, and teaching, ultimately, five semesters’ worth of classes.

What tips would you give a prospective student who is considering attending your program?

Depending on where you’re coming from, Montana can mean a long, expensive journey home for holidays, weddings, family emergencies, etc. This remoteness is hugely rewarded, though, with the aforementioned surroundings. As a Midwesterner, I don’t go a week without appreciating how wonderful the landscape and poetic environment are out here. If you’re from anywhere south of the Midwest, though, Wikipedia “Montana winter.” Hope this helps.