Click Image to Visit the Pecan Grove Press Web Page for Poetry from Paradise Valley


Poetry From Paradise Valley

Pecan Grove Press has released an anthology of poems, a sampling of works published in Valparaiso Poetry Review during its first decade, from the original 1999-2000 volume to the 2009-2010 volume.

Poetry from Paradise Valley includes a stellar roster of 50 poets. Among the contributors are a former Poet Laureate of the United States, a winner of the Griffin International Prize, two Pulitzer Prize winners, two National Book Award winners, two National Book Critics Circle winners, six finalists for the National Book Award, four finalists for the National Book Critics Circle Award, two finalists for the Pulitzer Prize, and a few dozen recipients of other honors, such as fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, etc.

Readers are encouraged to visit the Poetry from Paradise Valley page at the publisher's web site, where ordering information about the book can be found.

Best Books of Indiana 2011: Finalist. Judges' Citation: "Poetry from Paradise Valley is an excellent anthology that features world-class poetry, including the work of many artists from the Midwest, such as Jared Carter, Annie Finch, David Baker, and Allison Joseph. It’s an eclectic and always interesting collection where poems on similar themes flow into each other. It showcases the highest caliber of U. S. poetry."
—Indiana Center for the Book, Indiana State Library

Friday, March 7, 2008

Creative Writing Programs: Brief Observations and Advice

The other evening while attending a first-round post-season conference tournament game for my university’s basketball team, I was reminded how much I enjoy the excitement of March Madness. Every year, I look forward to the announcement of the teams selected to compete for the national championship, as well as the process of elimination that winnows the teams down to two in a final game. However, during halftime as I spoke with one of my student advisees, a senior looking forward to attending graduate school, I also realized once more how March represents the month when many students receive from graduate programs notification of whether or not they have been accepted for the following fall semester.

Because of my background, the courses I teach, and my position as an advisor to senior English majors, students seeking entrance into graduate creative writing programs frequently consult with me. In addition to offering a letter of recommendation, I usually supply the students with information on specific schools, their faculty, and assorted other details about the graduate programs, items I feel one ought to consider when filing an application. Contributing factors unique to each student’s hopes and goals, as well as various personal preferences, can complicate the process. However, all the applicants share an anxiety while they await word of acceptance or rejection. As Tom Petty once sang: “The waiting is the hardest part.”

Nevertheless, the decision-making process—based upon so many available options and an array of criteria that may differentiate, even slightly, one program from another—appears almost as difficult for most students. Indeed, an explosion of growth in the number of creative writing programs during the last few decades has created a wealth of opportunities for young writers; still, the multitude of choices also can cause some confusion or uncertainty. Moreover, although many creative writing programs exist, the pool of applicants to these programs has increased over the years as well. Therefore, the acceptance rate for each program remains quite low and only adds to the anxiety experienced by those anticipating responses.

For example, according to articles at Seth Abramson’s illuminating blog page that offers extensive statistical information about the process of applying to MFA programs in creative writing, the most selective schools accept less than two percent of their applicants, while even “the easiest ‘top’ schools” accept no more than ten to fifteen percent of their applicants. Abramson helpfully supplies an assortment of sources for overall rankings of MFA programs in creative writing, as well as separate statistics for the genres of fiction and poetry. He also includes a readers’ poll ranking of the PhD programs allowing creative dissertations, admittedly much more limited in number and obviously even more competitive.

In addition to the individual websites for each university, other locations exist online where students may be assisted in their search for a graduate program in creative writing. The Association of Writers and Writing Programs recently made accessible online its official guide to writing programs, which for years had been available only through purchase in book form. The AWP Official Guide to Writing Programs includes all sorts of categories for consideration when choosing a school, most of which I advise my seniors to consider when weighing the advantages or disadvantages of particular graduate creative writing programs. Some great practical advice shared by those engaged in the process of applying to graduate programs and awaiting responses can be found at the MFA Blog.

First thoughts for most students looking at such programs ought to be directed toward the individuals on the faculty who would be teaching the genre for which they are interested in pursuing. I recommend students read extensively the works of these authors, perhaps seeking to discover someone whose writing they admire and whose style or content might be complementary to their own inclination. One also wants to find faculty who have a reputation for reading students’ drafts closely and working well with their advisees, rather than figures that might maintain a distant attitude. For this reason, faculty with the most famous names or more awards to their credit may not necessarily be the wisest choice as a mentor. Along with their publishing success, these writers sometimes have less time to devote to their students, tend to travel more frequently, might likely be on leave any given semester, and could be less available for meeting with students.

Indeed, one should check for certain that faculty would be present on campus and display an allegiance to their university. Obviously, the preferred method would be a personal visit to the campus. However, for most this would be impractical, especially when applying to half dozen or more programs. Phone calls or email messages might resolve some questions. One cannot always rely solely upon reference material; for instance, reading the AWP catalog I noticed a few prominent writers listed for certain creative writing programs even though I know they are no longer on the faculty at the university mentioned. One also should attempt to learn as much as possible from current or former students about the faculty, including their willingness when possible to assist students seeking publication opportunities or teaching positions. With electronic communications, this option for obtaining information seems even more viable than in the past.

Occasionally, programs are known for identifiable styles or a dominant school of writing, and prospective students would be wise to acquaint themselves with these in order to determine if their work would be complemented by such an influence. Awareness of faculty outside of creative writing and the overall reputation of the English department can aid applicants, especially when degree requirements include significant coursework in literature or literary theory courses. If the scholars on the faculty are as well respected as the writers, students whose interests drift more toward a balance of creative writing and critical commentary will be benefited. In fact, students often ask me whether they should attend a program with an MFA in creative writing or one offering an MA with creative thesis. My response depends upon the specifics in each program and the intentions of the student applying for entry.

If a student desires to continue toward a teaching career at a university, I recommend a program with more concentration on literature courses rather than a studio type program that leans heavily on workshops. Also, since the possibility of an MFA grad obtaining a tenure-track position at a four-year university is very much less likely than someone who has completed a PhD, I will recommend an MA or an MFA with strong literature content that will prepare the student for a PhD program. Alternatively, I will suggest an MFA studio program to the student who may merely be looking to develop his or her writing skills under the guidance of an experienced writer. Although, I repeatedly point out that earning an MFA, or any other degree, does not guarantee someone is a better writer than another who worked with equal dedication at his or her writing in a non-degree atmosphere.

An examination of any publishing achievement by a creative writing program’s alums or the placement of its former students in tenure-track teaching positions could reveal a couple of ways to measure a program’s success. When considering PhD programs with a creative dissertation, I guide students toward programs that present opportunities for teaching experience in as many kinds of courses as possible, making the individual more attractive as a candidate for entry-level jobs that almost always require teaching additional classes in subjects other than creative writing. When I pursued my PhD as a teaching fellow, I had the good fortune to be given courses in composition, introduction to creative writing, advanced poetry, introduction to literature, business writing, and film studies. I even served as a teaching assistant in a legal writing course. This variety enhanced my value to any university English department at the beginning of my career.

Writing programs range in size from fairly large to somewhat more intimate. The bigger ones usually have some advantages, such as a markedly greater budget for visiting writers or publication of a nationally recognized literary journal, as well as a more significant network of sympathetic alumni who might someday support someone from their former program. Students can obtain positive experience helping to host public readings or serving on the staff of a university sponsored literary journal. However, students at smaller programs sometimes report more frequent personal conferences with their advisors and increased attention to the individual’s writing. Some students thrive when among many others enrolled in a large class where participants assist and influence one another. Others prefer smaller groups with increased familiarity in which one might identify more closely with a fellow classmate’s condition and concerns.

Funding always stands as a primary issue for most students. An applicant must investigate the terms of acceptance, including any means of tuition reduction or elimination, possibility of assistantships or fellowships, as well as additional scholarships, and whether or not the amounts offered for such positions are appropriate to the student’s needs, especially since the cost of living can vary widely from one campus location to another. For this reason, potential applicants ought to research the price of housing and availability of university owned residences rented to students, as well as the general cost of other necessities.

Beyond a remarkable variation in the cost of living at a university town in a rural region contrasted with a campus situated in the center of a large urban area, one should regard other characteristics associated with such situations. Certainly, one may easily understand the lure of a large city that also acts as a cultural center and contains numerous social contacts or artistic experiences. However, in addition to the expenses involved, some might find the lifestyle distracting, eating away time one might better put toward more writing.

On the other hand, the relative isolation of a campus town provides a buffer that might compel some student writers to mingle among themselves, creating a unique and supportive community while focusing more closely on the task of writing well. Moreover, inspiring natural landscapes with nearby rivers or ski slopes that offer delightful physical activities surround some rural universities. Potential applicants studying the location of any university are likely to uncover each place has its own personality that fits some more than others.

Of course, before applying to any university, one should be knowledgeable of expectations for graduation, including such items as needed proficiency in a foreign language (perhaps two), and guidelines for a thesis or dissertation that would prepare one for possibly producing a publishable manuscript. As well, although demands and standards vary from university to university, a student seeking a spot at a creative writing program must already have the qualifications necessary for a successful application. These might include good test scores, high undergraduate grades, a well-written personal statement of objectives, a strong sample of creative work, an analytical scholarly essay, and evidence of interest in extracurricular activities involving literature or creative writing. Some students might have the start of a publishing record in journals that displays dedication to writing or have demonstrated skills in online publishing.

When the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (originally the Associated Writing Programs) was instituted about forty years ago, the organization included only thirteen universities with creative writing programs. Today, there are more than 400 programs of some level noted by the organization. Nevertheless, the growth in popularity of creative writing courses also can be estimated by the degree of difficulty still experienced by applicants seeking to enroll in particular programs.

When advising my students I remind them of this fact, linking such difficulty to future complications they might face when attempting to publish a book or obtain a tenure-track teaching position. I try to impress my students with the long odds often encountered in such an endeavor, and I urge them not to undertake the task unless they possess a lasting love for language and a deep desire to write well, along with a willingness to sustain some rejection and certain aspects of failure along the way. After all, as all of us who enjoy March Madness know, few who start the march toward the finals make it all the way to the end of the road, and only the rare ones achieve everything they had hoped. However, if the writing remains what truly matters, as in the sports metaphor, enough excitement exists in the process that many will preserve treasured memories.


Daniel Pritchard said...

You're quite right in that case, I misunderstood – I was thinking of the writing, you of the career. In that regard, I have other qualms; they deal mostly with the publishing industry's acquisitions practices, etc etc.

Thanks for the kind words. I read your blog regularly as well, and have really enjoyed it.

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