Interview With University of Oregon

Authors: Julia Kolchinsky Dasbach (Poetry) and Sarah Gurman (Fiction):

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

JKD: The UO MFA Program is located in Eugene, Oregon. We live for the beautiful summers, full of hiking, camping, and trips to the coast; and we last through the 6 months of drizzle by drinking a lot of coffee and of course getting plenty of writing done. After workshop, we tend to gather at the local bars, Max’s Tavern (the inspiration for The Simpsons’ Moe’s Tavern, complete with pickled eggs on the counter) and Rennie’s (famous for its bacon cheese fries). There, we talk “shop,” agonizing over what could have gone better, but after a few drinks and a lot of laughs, we move on and look toward what’s to come.

SG: To Julia’s list of summer splendors I’d add that on the hottest days, it’s highly advisable to take a dip at the swimming hole or float the McKenzie with a cold beer in hand.

Twice a term visiting writers come to workshop and give readings at the Knight Library. Most recently fiction writer Susan Straight and poet Mary Szybist shared their work and answered questions. We tend to head to Max’s after readings as well!

Once a month MFA candidates read their work at Tsunami Books, a great local spot with hardwood floors, quirky paintings, old-school records, and, of course, shelves and shelves of used and new titles. For the stories, poems, brownies, and wine, students, locals, and professors gather. After spending so much time writing on our own and analyzing pieces in workshop, it’s nice to sit back, listen, and just enjoy. Coming together to support each other’s work like this fosters a sense of community. I’ve also always appreciated getting to hear the poets’ work—since we’re in different workshops, this is one of the few structured opportunities to share across genres. (Although the poets and the prosers hang out plenty in other contexts!)

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?

JKD: I can honestly say that since I started studying poetry here in Fall 2010, my writing has developed and matured more than I could have ever anticipated. It’s hard to describe a typical workshop because each instructor has his or her particular style, and thus focuses on different craft elements. I would say the four main poetry foci are the narrative, lyric, structural, and formal movements. With respect to my own writing, I think it really depends on the poem. If the poem is going to function in a narrative mode primarily, that is where I begin, but if the poem is working lyrically, then that is the lens through which I approach the work. In revision, I almost always focus on the lyricism of the poem in order to bring out its musicality and complicate or smooth out the syntax. But, again, it depends on the particular intention of the poem.

SG: On the fiction side, each professor has a different approach to workshop. In all workshops, the conversation usually begins with students offering feedback. However, each professor has a different tack in terms of where the workshop goes from there.

In some workshops the professor has a more hands-off approach, guiding a largely student discussion. Other workshops are more lecture -oriented; the professor teaches an aspect of craft with the workshop story as a point of reference. Finally, there are workshops with a more Socratic style. The professor poses questions, often leading students to discover the way a story functions and why.

All of the workshops emphasize revision. In any workshop students are likely to submit both new and revised work. In addition, workshops tend to focus on character and point of view as the driving forces of stories. The professors address other aspects of craft—plot, structure, setting, dialogue, key detail, etc. However, we often consider how point of view and character influence how these craft elements manifest.

In my own work I have focused on character in light of specificity, complexity, and need. Of course, my considerations of character are largely joined to those of point of view: I’m striving to understand and deepen my point of view character. I’m working (I hope!) to effectively render this character’s specific vision of the world and make the reader emotionally engage with that vision. It’s daunting and exciting!

My understanding of craft continues to deepen. I am often humbled, always engaged and learning. The professors are brilliant, invested, generous with their time, rigorous, and direct. They push you!

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

JKD: Every MFA candidate is fully funded through Graduate Teaching Fellowships. First-year students teach either an Intro Creative Writing Course or in the Kidd Tutorial Program, an advanced year-long, cross-genre course focused on craft analysis as applied to creative and critical writing skills. I had an amazing time working as a poetry instructor in the Kidd Program. Not only is the program taken very seriously by the undergraduates (they look at it like “mini MFA”), but it gives the students a unique opportunity to attend craft talks by published poets and fiction writers like Charles Wright, Randall Kenan, and Linda Gregerson.

During their second year, students teach Freshmen Writing courses in the Composition Program. While I found it fairly easy to shift between teaching creative writing and working on my own poetry, teaching composition made this balance much more of a challenge. I think there are three main reasons for this: (1) the large class size (26 students), (2) the length and number of papers (three essay cycles, each with a first and final draft, at 1,500 words per essay), and (3) teaching creative writing came much more naturally to me while the format of writing an enthymeme-based essay was something that I had to learn as I taught.

There are also a few opportunities for a third year, during which you continue work on your thesis and take craft seminars. These opportunities include teaching Intermediate Creative Writing courses, serving as the Kidd Fellow, or working in the creative writing office as the Special Projects Coordinator. I was fortunate enough to be awarded the Special Projects third-year position. I am responsible for: supporting the Creative Writing Office’s internal operations, helping organize the Reading Series, and serving as a mentor to the new Intro to Poetry Instructors.

SG: Nice one JKD! Nothing to add :)

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

JKD: It is near impossible to pick one best memory. But I’d say that the highlight of the program has been the one-on-one time spent with my professors. During the first year, we participate in Individual Writing and Conference tutorials with each faculty member in our genre. This gives us the chance to explore a particular element of craft or poetics and discover each professor’s specific approach. From this study, we start to understand and identify our focus or obsessions, and determine who would be best suited to guide us as thesis adviser.

In my own experience, Garrett Hongo laid the foundation for my thesis, then Geri Doran challenged and complicated my understanding of craft (in the best way possible) as my thesis advisor. The UO faculty is sincerely invested in its students. I recall reading at LiveLit West open mic night along with some of Geri’s other advisees, and she came out to show her support. To me, and I think to the other readers, this meant a great deal.

SG: I second having a difficult time pinning down one best memory. I hope you’ll be lenient and let me offer two favorite “Aha!” moments:

During my first year David Bradley and I were discussing one of my scenes. I was struggling to evoke a particular emotional effect with a description. David asked me if I had ever listened to Simon and Garfunkel’s “My Little Town.” I admitted, cheeks burning, I hadn’t. “He recited, “And after it rains/There’s a rainbow/And all of the colors are black/It’s not that the colors aren’t there/It’s just imagin-ation they lack.” He pointed out how the song gets us to feel how bleak and dull the town is with that colorless rainbow. He said something along the lines of, “Sometimes you have to go far away from the thing itself, from reality, to describe it.” I think about that every time I’m having trouble with  description, trying to make the essence of something come alive on the page.

In my second year, I was gathered with a few other students in Ehud Havazelet’s office and we were discussing Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. Ehud read aloud from the scene when Charles Bovary is watching Emma the first time they meet, and, among other things, notices the whiteness and shape of her fingernails. Ehud asked us what we thought. I probably made some vague, smart-ass comment about Charles thinking Emma was no slouch. But Ehud wanted us to understand how Flaubert showed us, gave us the experience of infatuation first beginning. “See how closely he’s looking at her? How closely we look—at the tips of her fingernails!” he said. “That’s the power of point of view.” I think that’s when I really started to get what he meant about point of view animating a story. When writing, I’ve often thought about Charles looking at Emma’s nails.

At both moments I felt like someone was letting me behind the scenes of this secret world. They’re amazing teachers—and writers.

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

JKD: I think it is tough to know what to do after you have earned an MFA. It seems near impossible to get a creative writing teaching position without having published a book. Thus, there are only a few paths for MFA graduates: to teach composition at the university or community college level (and try to all the while keep writing), to return to a quasi-real world job (and try to all the while keep writing), to hope for a fellowship (deep sigh of wishful thinking), or to continue in academia with a Ph.D. in either creative writing or another field. The burden of planning for the future while keeping up with my current work load has been the biggest challenge for me.

When it comes to craft, I have a better understanding of its trajectory and evolution with respect to genre, form, and literary device, from classical texts all the way to contemporary ones. Having read Horace, Virgil, Dante, and others has enriched my approach to reading and writing, and has shown me that all the greats understood these texts. If one hopes to join the literary canon, one must have read it, and read it closely.

SG: Striking a balance between teaching and writing has been one of my greatest struggles. As Julia mentioned, teaching Composition presents the challenge of having so much grading. When I’m  teaching creative writing, I find it difficult to limit how much time and effort I give to planning classes and grading because I feel so invested in the material. I really enjoy teaching and every so often (perhaps just plain often) it’s helped to have my professors and peers remind me I’m here first and foremost to write.

Of course, I’m glad to have the teaching experience, particularly as I prepare to re-enter the job market. I’ve also learned so much about craft through teaching it. No doubt, teaching writing has made me a better writer. As Julia mentioned, it’s so difficult to get a position teaching creative writing after graduate school; for now, even while I struggle with the writing time balance, I feel grateful for the opportunity. Sometimes I’m prepping for class and I have this moment of excitement and almost disbelief: “Really? I get to go teach Carver’s ‘Cathedral’?” I should also mention that because we teach, tuition is waived and we earn a salary. As nervous as I am about my next step, it will be nice to leave graduate school without heaps of loans to pay off.

I could blab on for pages about how this program has shaped my view of craft! Certainly, like Julia, I have a much greater awareness and understanding of the evolution of craft. It’s strange and wonderful to shift from just enjoying a text in a sitting to reading it over and over and coming to see the carefully executed craft behind the seeming magic. Jason Brown tells us that every text is in conversation with the texts that came before it, and the texts still to come. I now have the skills to analyze that conversation and where I might enter it—if that makes sense?

Reading Chekhov, Melville, Flaubert, Mansfield, O’Connor, and Babel (to name a few) withfaculty guidance has changed my view of craft. Particularly studying Chekhov has convincedme that though point of view, inhabiting a specific vision, we can come to understand andempathize with almost any character, even if we don’t condone her behaviors. I strive to give the reader an intimate, specific experience of a character while also creating space to see what the character can or will not. Chekhov has taught me to look closer and closer at characters, to avoid judgment and finite resolution—allow for contradictions and mystery. O’Connor taught me that too. I have always read and written for character, but graduate school has given me a much more sophisticated perspective on how to read and render character. I also now see point of view, along with character, as the foundation of a story.

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

JKD: The third year is a great time to work on applying for fellowships and to think about the next steps. Because it is very hard to prepare for the MFA exam, complete a thesis, and apply for the “next step” during the second year, the third year is a fantastic opportunity; it would great if all students could have it. The program also presents an annual discussion led by a panel of professors that explores the various post-graduate opportunities, providing, among other helpful materials, a list of scholarships and fellowships.

I am currently working on applications to Ph.D. programs in Comparative Literature. I think my situation is slightly unique in that my creative thesis stemmed from a more critical project largely inspired by my Jewish refugee immigrant experience (I moved to the US from Ukraine when I was six). Throughout my MFA, I’ve been concerned with poetry of witness, particularly exploring its various degrees, from direct, to imagined, to the middle ground of what I have tentatively termed inherited witness. The latter is particularly the space and the terminology that I would like to work on defining further.

I am of course concerned that pursuing a critical route in academia will not leave any time for my creative writing. So, I am also applying to all the prestigious fellowships of which every MFA-grad dreams: Stegner, Colgate, Wisconsin, and the list goes on. In the meantime, I’m trying to submit my writing to literary magazines so as to increase my list of publications. Aside from that, once all the applications and submissions are out, it’s a waiting game.

SG: Like Julia, I’m applying to some of the fellowships—a girl can dream. Before I came to UO, I worked in book publishing, so I’m considering a return to that industry. I’m also interested in grant writing, and over the summer tried to get experience and give myself a crash course. As I mentioned, I love to teach. If I can find a way to teach writing or literature at any level, I would be excited. Obviously, the future’s a bit uncertain for me! I will apply for jobs in several arenas. At least for now, I’m fairly open to any job that will leave me with time and energy to write fiction!

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

JKD: In the Genres Seminar, Garrett Hongo said: “You study to encounter a methodology for your own practice.” The UO MFA is that rigorous course of study, and it is not for the faint of heart. I’m sure those who are applying have all heard this before, but it is truer than they think. The program pushes you to the limits of your intellectual and creative potential, and when you think you can’t go any further, you realize that with the support of your faculty and peers, you really can, and you become a better writer and reader for it.

SG: I couldn’t have said this better. The UO MFA program is intense, but if you are ready to focus full time on your writing, push yourself, and open yourself to the professors’ perspectives, it’s well worth it.