Interview With University of Alabama

Picture of Laura KochmanAuthor: Laura Kochman

Let’s start by talking about the culture at your program. What’s the location like? What are some local hangouts for writers?
The program is in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, which can be a big deciding factor for a lot of prospective students. Tuscaloosa is a small, southern football town, centered around the University campus and the Black Warrior River. It’s the kind of place where there are many more undergrad bars than coffee shops, but there are also a lot of hidden corners of town where you can find interesting histories. Derrida used to hang out at our Red Lobster. The Drish House sometimes spontaneously catches fire. A friend of mine used to live in Richard Yeats’ duplex. Birmingham is an hour away, and Atlanta is four hours away.

There are certain restaurants or bars where you can find MFA folks hanging out—watching Jeopardy at Egan’s over an afternoon beer, or writing at Five Java (new! coffee!)—but we also have backyard screenings of Downton Abbey, or midnight hula hooping in the street, or group excursions to Pie Lab in Greensboro. I know everyone says that their program is tight-knit, but, well, we really are, and I think that the size of Tuscaloosa has a lot to do with that.

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 focus of the workshop depends on the professor—I’ve had a poetry workshop where we turned in work every few weeks, read and reviewed a book every week, gave a presentation, read a poet’s entire collected works and wrote a short essay on it, but I’ve also had a fiction workshop where we turned in work every other week and that was the entire focus. We also have forms classes at Bama, some of which are one-offs, and some of which get repeated. I’ve taken forms classes on Greek and Roman classics, short forms, reiteration, and mixed forms. Forms classes are always a combination of reading and writing, but again that balance depends on the professor. I’ve taken more forms classes than workshops, because I like seeing what happens to my writing under various pressures. I’m interested in form itself, and though forms classes aren’t always literally about form, they’re all different shapes.

What sort of funding opportunities are available? What are you teaching? How easy is it to balance your teaching and writing?
Everyone at Bama is fully funded, with a tuition waiver and a stipend. We also all get a bonus check at the beginning of the year. Most people teach a 2/2 load, starting with composition courses and then branching out into creative writing and lit, but there are some students that only teach a 1/1 load with the same funding as a 2/2. If you’re a genre editor for Black Warrior Review, you get a one-course remission, and if you’re the managing editor or editor-in-chief, you get a full teaching remission. The assistant to the director of the program also gets a full remission. Unless you have 18 graduate credit hours before you arrive, though, you don’t start teaching until your second year. During your first year, you work in the Writing Center as a tutor, which is a nice way to ease into teaching.

I’m the poetry editor right now, so I’m teaching one section of creative writing. In terms of balancing, it’s a matter of prioritizing. For some people, the first semester teaching means prioritizing that new skill. It’s definitely tough, but I don’t think it’s tougher to have a 2/2 than a 1/1, other than when it comes to time spent grading.

What’s been your best memory of working with faculty?
I really enjoyed that classics forms class, with Joel Brouwer. We read the Iliad, Odyssey, Aeneid, and the Metamorphoses, but we read them as fellow writers, not as lit students. We were all in it together, working through the texts as a group, Joel along with us. He also let us take pomegranates from his backyard, so obviously that won me over.

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

Balance. But I think that that is the struggle of every graduate student everywhere. I’ve learned a lot about organization and uses for Google Calendar.

When it comes to craft, what comes to mind is the way that Bama MFAs approach critique and workshop comments. Writers here tend to steer clear of prescriptive comments, thinking about the project at hand and all the possibilities in it rather than how to craft it into a finished product. I think that we all trust in each other’s skill as writers. We know how to ‘finish’ something, or if we don’t, we know how to ask for that kind of specific response. Expansion and potential and possibility are more exciting and productive to think about, and viewing other people’s writing in that way has changed the way that I view my own writing.

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

Right at this moment, I don’t know what my next step is. I’m interested in arts administration and nonprofit work, but I don’t have a specific plan. There’s a lot of support here for people who are interested in teaching after their MFA, not just in teaching experience, but pedagogy classes, teaching job meetings that happen at least once a semester, job postings on the listserv, and the possibility of teaching at Bama as an instructor. The fact that we’re a three-year program with an optional fourth year is also pretty key—if you teach a 2/2 load all the way through and take the full four years, by the time you’re done you’ve taught 12 classes. That’s a lot of teaching experience. There are usually at least two or three people every year who graduate but stick around as instructors. People who are more interested in administrative or editing work have the opportunity to work as the assistant to the director, or organize the reading series, or get experience through BWR. One of our recent BWR editors just became the managing editor at Georgia Review, and a lot of other lit journals have Bama MFAs on their editorial staff.

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

Visit. We always have a visiting weekend in February or March, paid for and organized by the program. You’ll get to meet us, and see Tuscaloosa, and most importantly, meet the other people who could potentially be in your class. The best thing about this program is the people, and seeing how you could fit into that community is important.

We also have a reputation for being experimental, and I would tell any prospective student not to be afraid of that. I would call us open-minded, rather than experimental. There are MFAs writing in ballad form here, as well as writers at the boundary lines of genre, and we all get together under the same umbrella and learn from each other.