Interview With Virginia Commonwealth University

Picture of Emilia PhilipsAuthor: Emilia Philips

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

A river to the south to wash away all sins

A college to the east of us to learn where sin begins  

A graveyard to the west of it all

Which I may soon be lyin’ in…

—Cowboy Junkies, “Oregon Hill”

At risk of waxing poetic, I had to include an epigraph with my answer. I now live in the neighborhood described by the Cowboy Junkies, the namesake for the song—Oregon Hill. Don’t go and run it down on YouTube to get an accurate portraiture, however; it’s dated (1992?) and can only give you an account of the place it was at the tail-end of its more rustic era: bikers, rowdy redneck bars, shot houses, etc. My landlord, also a faculty member at VCU, likes to tell the story of having Gerald Stern, the visiting writer at the time, over to his Oregon Hill house on Halloween; the lady of the evening who lived down the street brought her kids by for candy. When Stern heard her story, he ran into the street, threw up his hands, and shouted, “I love this neighborhood!”

You believe that? I’m not sure, and I’m probably telling it poorly. Since then, however, because of its proximity to the ever-expanding VCU and its historical significance (it was built in the Reconstruction era and populated by white working class families, many of whom were employed by Albemarle Paper Company and Tredegar Iron Works), the neighborhood has seen an influx of new residents: grad and undergrad students, artists (I live across the street from the studio of the printmaker who started VCU’s printmaking program), musicians (there’s a band on every block!), tattoo artists (including mine), figures in the literary arts community, community gardeners and beekeepers, historical preservationists, professors, couples, hipsters, and a few holdouts from yesteryear (don’t be shocked to see a deer hide drying on a chain-link fence). All of this is to say is that it’s a diverse and changing neighborhood, my favorite in town. It’s perfect for artists and writers: the people watching is fantastic and though it’s made up of row houses, it’s not cookie-cutter, never dull, and right next to an enormous cemetery that’s home to the remains of two presidents (Monroe and Tyler), countless Confederates, and (supposedly) a vampire.

Many of the other students live in the Fan District which spreads out like (you guessed it) a fan to the west of the university. It’s less colorful than Oregon Hill but pleasant and tree-lined and populated with families and students alike.  Throughout my three years in the program, I lived behind Jackson Ward near Virginia Union University, a historically black liberal arts college on the northside. Some students will even venture out as far to the West as the Henrico County and others as far east as Church Hill (where Larry Levis lived).These neighborhoods, however, really require car transportation and most students, even if they own a car, walk or ride their bike.

VCU is an urban university with the #1 publicly funded arts program in the country, a medical school (MCV), exchange and ELL programs, and a sister school in Doha, Qatar; the student body is larger than George Mason, Virginia Tech, and the University of Virginia, making it the largest four-year university in the state.

Some students are skeptical of moving to the south, especially to the old Confederate capital. Well, guess what? VCU MFA students wear shoes, buy local, worship within different belief systems or none at all, can read, vote, don’t always say “ya’ll” (only for emphasis), eat carnivorous/vegetarian/vegan/gluten-free/raw, go thrifting and swimming in the James River, walk and bike, eat out, eat in, drink microbrews and Pabst Blue Ribbon, host dance parties, design, develop, travel, and as for me, I collect ephemera including old science/medical books and pulp and play pinball.

We’re not a bunch of backwards country bumpkins towing the red line and picking our teeth with wheat. In fact, just check out some of the work of our faculty (Greg Donovan, Kathleen Graber, David Wojahn) and former students (Tarfia Faizullah, Anna Journey, Joshua Poteat, Matthias Svalina, and Allison Titus, to name a few), to get a sense of the intellectual challenge, diverse aesthetics, and comraderie of the program. Ploughshares recently included Richmond in the Literary Boroughs series on their blog. Check it out at http://blog.pshares.org/index.php/literary-boroughs-25-richmond-virginia/.

There’s several coffee shops and bars around campus where MFAs hang out for official or unofficial events: Crossroads, Ipanema, Cous Cous, Kuba Kuba, the Village, Strange Matter, and the vegetarian/vegan-friendly Harrison Street Coffee. Additionally, my husband and I often eat out at The Black Sheep in Jackson Ward, a 40s-style sandwich shop called Garnett’s on Park Avenue, Moshi Moshi sushi in Carytown, and the New-Zealand style gastro pub called Burger Bach, also in Carytown. I go to concerts at the National and, in the summer, at Groovin’ in the Garden at Lewis Ginter Botanical Gardens. Each fall, the Richmond Folk Festival takes over Brown’s Island. Local bands usually perform at The Camel, Strange Matter, and elsewhere. Then there’s the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, the VMFA—a world-class yet state-funded art museum. (And it’s free!)If you like history, there’s that, too. (Poe, Hollywood Cemetery, the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, etc.) There’s also tons to do outside. This year, Outside Magazine rated Richmond as the Best River Town in America. (We were also recently ranked the third most tattooed city in the country, only behind Miami Beach and Las Vegas, but that’s neither here nor there.)

So often I hear horror stories of cutthroat competition, condescending attitudes or downright inappropriate behavior by professors, and prescriptive aesthetics in other programs. VCU’s not like that at all. The students are friends with one another. I’ve never seen an argument break out in a workshop. I’ve always felt like the MFAs treated my work with respect. Not only that, I felt like my interests, my life were all treated with respect. Some of the students are married. Some are single. Some are straight out of college. Others are older, have other degrees, other careers in addition to poetry.

The faculty at VCU sets a tone of openness and respect. While I will always see them as my mentors, still seek their advice post-graduation, I also can confidently say that I got to know them, not just as poets but as people. When I finished my thesis reading, one of the faculty members walked up to me and said, “Well now you have the same degree all of us do. Welcome.”

2. 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?

All three faculty members—Greg Donovan, Kathy Graber, and David Wojahn—have their own styles of workshop and lecture. Greg does wonders to get students out of the habit of writing boring poems. (I also know him as a senior editor of Blackbird and therefore know why he has this compulsion—it’s one I’ve developed myself after three and half years with the journal.) He often encourages students to experiment with a kind of magical realism as well as myth. I found it to be incredibly productive to get me out of certain habits and ticks.

Kathy is a great ambassador of clarity and meaning. There have been so many times that she’s (rightfully) said, “Emilia, can you please explain to me what you mean by this?” And you have no idea how helpful that is! She’s a great editor of a poem at the sentence level and she’s always able to locate those places where a poem’s logic cracks, the tone shifts, and the poet’s gotten lazy with their language. Every time she looks at a poem, it’s like she’s diagramming it, word by word, movement by movement.

David, with whom I’ve had the most workshops and TAed for twice, is an incredible guide for syntactical and prosodic nuances, how the rendering affects the reader’s reception of the poem. He’s a contemporary master of the subtle use of form. That said, he’s not a boring forms teacher. He’s always after pushing the boundaries. His poems are like the writhing chimera of man and insect in The Fly, shifting and yet present, alive.

Though there were times while I was working on my thesis that the three of them would have different things to say about a poem, I always thought that they complimented one another even as they conflicted, and they never said the other was wrong. They let me decide, which is half the battle of any MFA program: being able to make your own decisions, being confident in them.

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

Most everyone receives a graduate teaching assistantship. Some receive a fellowship. All work in the Writing Center their first semester and then start TAing for classes by their second or third semester. By the end, most everyone has taught English 200 (a kind of research and composition class) and 295: The Reading and Writing of Fiction and Poetry. My situation was a little bit different as I took on a couple other jobs outside the normal track. My second year, I served as the lead associate editor of Blackbird and my third year, I was given the Levis Fellowship for the coordination of the Levis Reading Prize, a post-publication prize for first or second books of poetry given by the VCU Department of English. Because those positions took up my available GTA hours, I requested to teach a 295 class in the summer between my second and third year. Because they knew that I’d like to have that experience before I left the program, they gave a summer class to me.

4. What’s been your best memory of working with faculty?

Getting to know them. I know that’s not a specific memory, but when you have workshop in their homes, eat with them and visiting writers, have countless office visits and TA’d for them multiple semesters in a row,  seen them at concerts and outdoor festivals, traveled to conferences with them, fed their dog, swapped CDs, borrowed (and maybe still have) some of their books, you build up a whole cache of memories. I’ll say this: I don’t have any bad memories of them. One fixed my bathtub the other day. I called another to ask some advice. And another has promised to burn me several CDs worth of music that he feels are invaluable to my education. They’re some of the best people I know.

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

Three things. The first was writing about subjects that I was afraid to approach without coding them or couching them in metaphor. The second was being able to make decisions on my own without dependency on my peers or a mentor. The third: giving enough time to things outside of the program, like a relationship (marriage). I’m happy to say that I think, in the end, I was successful (if that’s the right word) on all counts. I’m still married. I feel like I can make my own decisions. I’m taking on subject matter that I never would have before.

The greatest shaper of my craft has been all the reading. In Kathy’s Larry Levis and His California Contemporaries class, we often read four books a week. In David’s form class that focused on the Middle Generation, we’d read the entire oeuvre of poets like Bishop or Berryman. I got to read all of Joyce with Greg Donovan. (And you wouldn’t believe how productive it is for a poet to read Ulysses!) In Blackbird, I was reading so many submissions a week that I gave myself permission to kind of not write certain kinds of poems. They were already being done, too much and often poorly. In my last semester, I TA’d for David’s Thought Influence of Bob Dylan class and sat in on Kathy’s Poets in Prose class, both of which opened up a lot of possibilities for me. I realized to be a poet, you don’t have to talk about poetry all the time. In fact, it’s probably better if you don’t.

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

My first collection of poetry, Signaletics, was selected as the Editor’s Choice for the 2012 Akron Poetry Prize and will be published in August 2013.  This would’ve never happened if David Wojahn hadn’t sat me down, given me a list of contests to submit to, and said something like “The only way to get ready is to act like you are ready.” I was nervous (petrified?) about sending it out, but because I respect him so much, I did it. This summer, two months after I graduated, I got a phone call.

That said, a book doesn’t mean I know what I’m doing. Fortunately, VCU was able to give me a poetry workshop this semester, and I’ve chosen to stay on with Blackbird as the associate literary editor for the time being. I am applying to jobs, fellowships, and a PhD program in addition to working on new poems, an essay project, and book reviews. Who knows where I’ll end up, but I do know that I left with a skillset that includes teaching, publishing, editing, copyediting, coordinator, etc. That’s a start.

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

Like anywhere you apply, read the work of the faculty members and graduates. There’s a list of current students at the MFA program website. Look them up! Chances are, they’ve been publishing. If you’re applying in poetry, it wouldn’t hurt to brush up on your Larry Levis. Levis was a professor at VCU until his death in 1996. There’s a strong legacy of Levis here. And when I say strong, I mean strong like Turkish coffee, like Kevlar, like Levis’s mustache itself.

Read Blackbird (http://www.blackbird.vcu.edu), an online journal from VCU and a non-profit organization called New Virginia Review. Not all of the students work on the journal, but many do. (Do it—you have no idea how invaluable the experience is, not only to see what work is being written and published today, but also so that you will get skills like copyediting, audio editing, photo editing, pagebuilding, etc. that you can use to entice hiring committees to take a second look at you.)

The other thing I’d say is about your letter of application. My letter wasn’t so much about me (I love writing, writing is cool…) as a discussion of Wallace Stevens. Make them remember your smarts, not that your family golden retriever made you promise on her deathbed to write poetry for the rest of your life.