Interview With University of Southern California

Author: Diana Arterian

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

Los Angeles has become a more and more exciting place to be as a writer in the past few years. It seems that the community has become more tight-knit and supportive, with many thrilling events. And really, the events are where people see each other — at least the poets. There are some amazing reading series here in LA, especially Poetic Research Bureau, Unkindest Cut, and ENTER>Text, not to mention those put together by Insert Blanc and Les Figues Press. I am less privy to what happens on the west side of town, but downtown and the surrounding area has a lot going on.

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 a great deal on the instructor’s proclivity. I’ve been blessed to have professors with different sets of interests, so I’ve addressed a variety of things. It started with a manuscript workshop, then I worked in a class on including “distortion” of some kind in a set of poems. My workshop last semester was about producing a series of poems on a particular theme/idea behind them, which has helped me parse out the beginnings of my next book. But workshops at USC are a particular joy because you have not only the sharp eyes of the professor, but of the incredible, passionate and talented peers whose opinions are so so important. To have that kind of attention on your work is invaluable.

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

USC guarantees five years of funding between fellowship (2 years) and teaching (3 years), which can range from 23k-30k, to be blunt. Some people can finagle a sixth year of funding. I taught introductory analytical writing for the past year and a half, and I’m excited to say I’ll be teaching analytical writing in conjunction with a literature course of my own construction.

The balance between teaching, coursework, and writing can be tough, but it quickly became clear when I work best, and what I need to do to complete my work and still make time for writing. Mostly it involves waking up early, but I know for others it involves staying up late. I never really knew my best poems came out in the morning until my first semester at USC — but with so much work coming down on you, you are forced to take a hard look at what you do and when. Some of my peers have children and make it work, and I bow before these time-management gods and goddesses.

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

That’s a good and difficult question. I have so many. I will say that an entire course is a great memory for me — a law and literature course I took that also addressed gender studies. I always considered myself a staunch feminist with an open mind, but this course completely changed everything, and slowly revealed that I had in fact been quite conservative in a lot of my opinions and politics. I will be forever indebted to those faculty who team-taught that course. They changed my outlook on life and on literature. I will never read a book or piece of text the same way again.

In terms of poetry courses, I think one of my favorite experiences was in David St. John’s class. He would assign books that we might have a problem with for some reason or another (or love, depending). So if we started the class with one of us saying, “I actually took a lot of issue with this book,” David would respond with, “Great! Ok! Why?” I have a deep respect for an educator who makes room for and even welcomes dissent among her/his students. He did an amazing job of taking opinions and leading us through urgent and compelling discussions.

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

I had produced quite a bit of text in the year and a half before I began at USC while getting my MFA. I’m not entirely sure why I had that level of output, but it made it very difficult for me during my first year to have the stamina to do much more than edit and/or worry about why I wasn’t writing lots and lots of poems. After the first few months without me producing all that much, I decided to start working on translation and erasure — basically other modes of production that were creatively demanding in different ways than approaching a blank page. This did a great deal for honing my ear and I’m so glad I did that for as long as I did. That training/work shows in my most recent poems.

My view of craft has changed in a few ways. Mark Irwin’s course was the one that involved distorting images/ideas in a poem. That was pretty revolutionary for me, particularly in regards to the manuscript I’m working on now. I had never thought of approaching a poem that way. It’s beyond “magical realism” (that dreaded old phrase I so hate to use), and gave me a new method of looking at and writing a poem.

Beyond this, I realized how much work you need to do aside from writing. You need to advocate for yourself, particularly as a woman writer, and not be afraid of rejection and (this is where it often comes to pieces) sending more work to that place that rejected you. When your manuscript is done, send it out to oodles of presses. Send poems to your favorite magazines. A lot of them. My chapbook was selected from the Ugly Duckling Presse slush, and I had sent it out to many far less illustrious venues before it was accepted there. Going to conferences, getting papers published, getting poems published, sending out manuscripts to competitions — you have to be your own little PR person in addition to everything else. It’s tiring, but so so gratifying when it pans out, which happens more and more often the longer you work at it.

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

USC does so much to prepare students for life after the PhD. There is teaching experience, of course — and training for that. We also have two chapbook presses: Gold Line Press and its imprint Ricochet. I love working in publishing, and throwing myself into these two presses as Editor-in-Chief (Gold Line last academic year) and co-creator and Managing Editor (Ricochet) has done so much for me. When I apply for faculty positions, having started presses will look attractive particularly at schools that need faculty to start a journal. Also, if I continue to work in publishing apart from academic work, this will of course give me some cred in that market.

Beyond this there are also courses on job applications, finishing your dissertation, etc etc. They are all about doing what they can to assist you in getting a job you’re excited about in the field.

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

Talk to someone who is in the program or an alum to see what their experiences are. Generally, it seems that people love it — everyone is devoted and passionate and friendly, which is not all that common this high up in academia. Do your research, talk to the Graduate Coordinator, some of the faculty, etc. Come visit a class or two if you can.

On a less logistical point, be sure you are also devoted to critical work. I am a serious scholar, and knew that was an important aspect of my PhD experience when I was applying. Two-thirds of the courses of this program at USC are “critical,” and you need to have a strong critical essay as part of your application. You have room to expand upon your scholarly interests if you want, which is amazing.

Overall though, USC is an incredible place with amazing faculty and students. I am counting my blessings every day for having the opportunity to work with these writers and to teach my students.