Interview With University of Houston

Picture of Joshua Gottlieb-MillerAuthor: Joshua Gottlieb-Miller

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

Houston (both the city and the program) can be very high work, high-reward. It is possible to design an easier course load, but most people here take to the notion that a lot of focused reading and writing will make them better poets and story-tellers—I like to think that I’ve become a much better reader in my time here, which has in turn helped me become a better writer—and so we end up spending a lot of time kicking around in coffee shops (Black Hole, Agora, Brasil, Bohemeo’s and Antidote are popular ones) or hanging out in the grad lounge, or running into each other at readings (there are a lot of readings in Houston: big-name readings run by Inprint downtown, hip younger folks at Poison Girl bar, popular poets and fiction writers at The Jung Center, mid-career types at Brazos bookstore, great locals and regional poets at Kaboom Books…and I’m still leaving a few venues unmentioned).

There’s also a lot of healthy releasing steam, mostly at Poison Girl, the Alabama Ice House, Grand Prize, Anvil, Dark Horse tavern, or whoever’s having people over that weekend (bringing your own six-pack or bottle of wine is usually encouraged but not required).

One of my personal favorite spots in Houston is The Menil, a wonderful museum whose director likes to brag that they have the best trees in Houston (I know, I know, but they are really nice); I’ve often picnicked, read and hung out with friends there on sunny winter days. They also host the local indie book fest, run by Gulf Coast.

There are a number of other great museums in Houston (including the Museum of Fine Arts and the Contemporary Arts Museum, to name just a few), and most of them have great deals for students and events happening all the time. I also tried to make a habit of going downtown as much as possible, to the symphony and theater, or whatever weird thing was going on.

There’s never enough time to explore all of Houston, but there’s always time to explore the parts you love most.

As for where people live: Houston is a very neighborhood-y kind of city. Most people in the program live in the inner loop, specifically Montrose (walk-able, with a lot of shops, bars, and restaurants), the Museum District (full of museums!), and the Heights (more suburban, but in a cute small-town kind of way).

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?
Over the course of three years I was obsessed with just about everything (at the expense of whatever I wasn’t obsessed with at that particular moment): music, image, story, character (unreliable narrators, too), structure and the turn, tone. There was enough aesthetic diversity in my workshops (MFA students, PhD students and the workshop leader), that whatever it was I was interested in, someone else was working on the same thing. If Houston has one thing that recommends it more than anything else, it’s that great mix of MFA and PhD students, which facilitates lively discussion between MFA’ers who haven’t learned all the wrong things yet (but are working on it), and PhD’ers who are often experimenting and learning new wrong things.

As for the workshop leaders: Right now Houston has 5 poets on the faculty (Nick Flynn, Tony Hoagland, Martha Serpas, Ange Mlinko and Kevin Prufer) and each has a different approach to writing and teaching, which is nice—you’ll find teachers here who will let you follow your music and teachers who will put pressure on you to not just do that one thing you’re really good at—but just about every workshop featured a fairly even split between craft talk/recent reading and workshopping our own writing.

If there’s one thing I think everyone strives to impart, it’s a seriousness of purpose, though that does mean different things for different people. Whether that’s through something being at stake in the poem, or the words having all that strange flair, the goal seema always to reach towards the most fully realized poem, the poem that doesn’t leave a reader saying, “and then?” as one of my cohort put it. I think my peers and teachers were also very invested in our work being part of the world we live in, a world rich with visual art, wisdom texts, philology, environmental decay, and some several billion interiorities, you know, people doing things who don’t necessarily care about your poem unless you write something that compels them to pay attention.

For myself, one of the most helpful things I heard when beginning my MFA was that the goal of the poet isn’t to be smarter than the reader, but to make the reader smarter (and perhaps also more full of feeling). In other words, as one reader and friend pointed out, what I was learning was control (and to some lesser extent, the importance of theme and intention). By the end of my MFA I started to find myself limited by that early advice, and since then I’ve started playing around more with experiments in structure and interiority, the unsaid and the etc. There’s a lot of that etc. you know?

What sort of funding opportunities are available? What are you teaching? How easy is it to balance your teaching and writing?
The best advice I can give here is that whatever advice I have is already dated: The program finally finished its latest hiring drive, and since then has been able to devote much more energy to pushing the university, with the help of the wonderful literary organization Inprint (also a major funder of students), to improve the funding and teaching opportunities for everyone.

What I do know: Almost everyone gets funding, either through TA-ships or fellowships (or both) that pay enough to live modestly in Houston (it’s a very cheap city).  Typically, almost every incoming MFA student receives a funding package that involves some mix of teaching, and fellowship money in addition to that (these are called topping up awards). I believe this last year all but one incoming student was funded. If you have competing offers, let UH know, as there are often competitive funds available. This year, most MFAs received a financial aid package of roughly 17k plus the tuition remission (worth roughly 9k). It’s not perfect, but it’s good for a big program, and again, Houston is a very livable city.

There are also prize competitions, and again, other topping up awards available at various points during the program. The situation’s a little different for PhD’s—they earn a slightly higher pay for teaching, and have some 3-5 final year dissertation grants ranging from 10-20k that provide a release from teaching. Aside from those minor funding differences, MFAs and PhDs take the same classes and compete for the same positions at Gulf Coast.

So the latest: Just this year they started offering a first-year fellowship that pays as well as teaching and entails a marginal amount of time working in the writing center. After that it’s a 1-2, 2-1 load for MFAs: composition and rhetoric for the first year, literature and creative writing in the last one, with some writing center spots still available as well.

I found ways to balance my teaching and writing (and schoolwork) by making my teaching as efficient as possible (repurposing lessons as appropriate, finding novels ways to engage with the same topic in order to reduce my reading), and by prioritizing my writing. You have to get your teaching and schoolwork done, so you will find ways to do that. If you carve out time for writing first, then everything ends up getting done.

The most important thing to take away: I’ve always felt that the more active and engaged I was in my teaching and my schoolwork, the better and more frequent my writing. I.e. When I prioritized writing, the writing was there, because there’s a charge that comes from being intellectually stimulated for such prolonged periods rather than just sitting around with a ton of free time and picking my nose all day.

What’s been your best memory of working with faculty?
Sitting in a coffee shop, talking about Simone Weil and the Tao, my teacher tells me that even though we’re working on a reading and research project, I should bring poems next time, too.

A different teacher offering to read through my manuscript, and then when we didn’t have time to finish it, asking how soon we could talk about it again.

More than any compliment or critique, I was helped by the sheer willingness of faculty to spend time working with me, and the feeling that gave me: to make the writing stronger, so I wouldn’t be wasting their time.

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

The only downside of having a mix of so many teachers, PhD students and MFA students, with the added boot-in-the-ass of all the big books read in the literature classes, is that it’s very easy to forget how much you don’t know. You think, “hey, people liked my last few poems, I’m awesome”

When I started teaching intro to creative writing, I realized how muddled some of my notions of various techniques were, and clearly articulating those fundamentals helped me better understand what I was doing. It also helped me see how fragile many of the poems in my manuscript were—the tone would be off, or I’d have too many weak beats in a more narrative poem—and tuning that sucker up ended up being a long and tense process, but I had to risk wrecking those poems if I was going to make them as strong as they could be.

In addition to workshops we had both “forms” classes and “writers on writing” classes that were heavy on craft, but when looking at individual poems, it seemed like there was always a find-the-right-wrench kind of approach. Is there something wrong with the music? How many ways are these images communicating? Is the narrative being tripped up by some mundane ambiguity? I can’t not approach a poem from a craft standpoint, but for me the vitality of craft has to do with how it helps the poem attempt to reach some deeper meaning or mystery.

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

Right now my wife is attending graduate school and I’m sending my work to magazines and book contests. Until she’s done with school, I won’t be applying to many fellowships or jobs.

I feel relatively prepared for when that time comes: The manuscript workshop helped build the framework for a book, but also helped me figure out which poems were working best in my collection—very important when it comes to fellowship portfolios and sending to magazines.

Building a strong portfolio (and publishing it) is most important, but the amount and diversity of my teaching experience will also make me more attractive when I do go on the job market.

One of the upsides of having the PhD’s hanging around is there’s a lot of spillover regarding knowledge about fellowships, submitting to magazines, placing manuscripts and jobs. There are also workshops for the job market—if students are interested—and I owe a special shout-out to Kevin Prufer for being ever-diligent in preparing students for the questions they’ll face at interviews and how a resume should look.

But all of that is the professional.

My reading, craft work and scholarship were so vital to my experience at Houston that I don’t have the dread-inducing feeling that I’m missing vast swaths in my education—I am, but also I’m ready to move on and forward in my writing.

One thing Houston did better than anything else was teach me to protect my writing time, and how to prioritize what’s most important: for me, writing first and publishing second.

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

Read some of the very, very good work produced by our graduates.

Understand that the program is going to be a lot of hard work, but at the end of it you’ll have had the opportunity to begin transforming your writing (the transformation never ends). You’ll also be a better reader (another process that never ends).

When putting together a writing sample for your application, ask yourself, “Do these poems have some real firecracker lines? Can these poems compel? Am I showing off my own strange flair?” Everything else can be learned, so long as those firecrackers are going off.