Interview With University of Louisiana at Lafayette
Let’s start by talking about the culture at your program. What’s the location like? What are some local hangouts for writers?
Louisiana is an area boiling with culture, festivals, food, and that classic Southern hospitality. The Lafayette Mardi Gras is the third largest Mardi Gras celebration in the state, with colorful floats, marching bands, and jazz music that echoes through the streets. Festival International in the spring is like a giant flea market with multiple bands of varied genres that play throughout the downtown streets. Lafayette is only an hour drive from Baton Rouge and about two and a half hours from New Orleans. The ULL campus, itself, has a lake in front of the Student Union known as “The Swamp” filled with native turtles, birds, fish, and gators. The area is just oozing with such great writing material.
Once a week, the writers and professors in the program often go downtown to the Jefferson Street Pub or Saints Street Inn for the Thursday Night Reading Series to have a few drinks, talk about their week with fellow grad students, or read some pieces of their work. There’s also a Bad Reading Series, where some writers in the program read humorous works of their own or others that some people may deem as “bad.” It’s a time for us writers to relax from our busy schedules and share a few laughs.
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?
There are workshops offered in fiction, poetry, and drama at ULL. I’ve taken part in the poetry, play/screenplay, and novel workshops so far. The reason I applied to this school was specifically because they offered a variety of workshops in multiple genres. I’m in the process of filming a mockumentry, completing a children’s novel, and editing a number of poems I’ve written throughout the semester. Sometimes, I get inspired to write about something and feel that its effect would be more appropriate in one genre than another. These workshops have allowed me to hone my craft and receive helpful feedback from those who have had more writing experience in particular genres.
The focus of the workshops for each class have not been about picking out what is wrong about the work, but rather providing ideas on how to spark improvement in areas where the writer’s desired effect has not yet been achieved. Often, to begin the workshop, peers point out what works in the piece, making it successful, discussing what they believe the writer is trying to do in the piece, occasionally pointing out themes or images that repeat in the person’s work. After this, the writer will point out particular areas or ask specific questions involving their work that may have not been brought up in discussion.
I’ve spent most of my focus on poetry. It’s the genre I feel I have the best grasp on, that I can dive into and start “painting” rhythms and tangible imagery. Yet, my dissertation proposal involves a creative translation of medieval texts, so I’ve been putting a lot of focus and study around such poets as Ted Hughes, Ezra Pound, and Robert Lowell and their dapples with translating, how their translations balance their own style as well as that of the intent of the author. The poetry workshop I took part in this semester was extremely helpful in letting me know how I am balancing on that tight rope.
What sort of funding opportunities are available? What are you teaching? How easy is it to balance your teaching and writing?
ULL offers assistantships and fellowships. If you apply and get into the program but do not receive an assistantship or fellowship, you can always apply for one during the year. I am a graduate assistant with a focus in creative writing. So far I’ve taught English 101 and 102 classes to freshman, focusing on how to develop their writing technique and teach them research skills at the collegiate level. This next semester I will be teaching a creative workshop to sophomores. I’ve applied to teach an Early American course, and have proposed my own class regarding humor in theatre, and will hear a response by the spring semester.
Because the program is so open to how you teach the material to your class, the process has been exciting and fun. You get to teach the class in a way that is enjoyable to you as well as your class. It has made it much easier to balance preparing for a class and doing assignments for the classes you are taking.
To be honest, with the amount of work given to graduate students in their own classes, in addition to grading papers for the classes you are teaching, it is often difficult to make time to write. That is one of the reasons I’ve taken many of the workshops. They act as a break from the more analytical classes and set deadlines that have “forced” me to write. Though, I know from other graduate assistants in the program, it has not been difficult for them to set aside at least an hour in the day to write. Personally, I like being given a deadline, along with writing when I feel inspired.
What’s been your best memory of working with faculty?
One of the school’s long time professors, Dr. Jim Anderson, who recently passed away, actually invited me to dinner early in the semester. I had a taken an Old Norse class with him, where the final was to translate the poem “The Doom of the Gods.” Whoever translated the piece most accurately won an Anglo-Saxon shirt. To my surprise, I actually won the shirt and a subsequent invitation to eat at a Mexican restaurant (mariachi band included) with him and his wife. He was interested in my proposal for my creative dissertation involving translating medieval texts and regularly gave me advice on what texts to read and how to prepare for it. He was like many of the professors in the department. Not only are they your teachers, but they are your friends, your family, ready to help you in any way so that you succeed in what you do.
What’s been your greatest struggle in graduate school thus far? How has this program shaped your view of craft?
I think my greatest struggle in the program was finding a balance between work and rest. There were numerous days in my first semester where I would teach classes from 8 AM to 10 AM and just sit in my office doing work for my own classes till 6 PM, when I had a night class or decided to head home, have dinner, and then finish the rest of my work. Doing this often made me stir crazy, as you could imagine. But as I mentioned earlier, I think what helped me learn to make this balance work was incorporating the workshop classes in my schedule so that writing became my break from reading and analysis.
I feel that this program has influenced me in the way I view craft, not for myself, but for how to teach creative writing to students. Writing seems to be taught these days in high school with a set book or pamphlet with detailed rules. It intimidates students from wanting to craft. But I’ve learned that words are like paint. To make an amazing painting, takes practice and influence from others. My own style has been influenced from the peers I’ve worked with in my workshops. One graduate assistant I’m good friends with enjoys writing satires. After reading and listening to his short works, which were hilarious, I felt the urge to try writing that way myself. Soon I found out which authors had influenced him and began to read their works and experiment with my own writing style. Students of all ages should learn the same way. They should experiment and mimic what they like, and over time develop their own style from it, learning their personal craft. This is what I want to profess to my workshop students next semester.
What’s your next step? What sort of steps does your program take to prepare you for your post-graduate experience?
Right now I am preparing for my comprehensive exams. All PhD students at ULL must take four comprehensive exams that are five hours each. They can all be taken in the fall semester, or split up two and two between the fall and spring semester. My major subject area is Creative Writing Pedagogy and my minor areas are Medieval Lit, Early American Lit, and Children’s Lit. Most programs offer one or two comprehensive exams. Most of the students are a bit peeved that we have to take so many. However I think it’s important. It prepares us for the job market. Being so broad with our knowledge in four specified areas makes us more marketable when we graduate. That is one of the major reasons I came to this school. With the way the economy and job market are looking at the moment, this school provides the best opportunity for a PhD graduate to get a job in the collegiate market.
What tips would you give a prospective student who is considering attending your program?
If you do decide to attend the program, a big tip that most people don’t warn you about is that the area actually gets cold in the winter. Being from New York, I thought it was going to be like California, sunny with a slight chance of rain. But December through January usually drops to the 20s, so don’t just bring shorts and a bathing suit. However, the compensation is that much of the fall feels like spring, averaging in the high 70s. I like that aspect of it.
Kevin Dwyer is a PhD Graduate Assistant in the Creative Writing program at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. Earning his Honors BA from Saint Louis University, he went back home to New York and received his MA with a focus in Creative Writing from Fordham University, while working as a 3rd Grade Teacher’s Assistant at CS 57 in the Bronx.