October 2, 2008

Wooooord! C.U. MFAs

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You know the person you bumped into at Temple of Zeus today? When your elbow knocked into his or her oh-so-delicious soup and sent it flying over his or her body and spilling onto the stack of pages he or she lovingly clutched to his or her chest? Well, that person may very well have been Cornell’s next Kurt Vonnegut, and those pages you accidentally destroyed may just have been the next great, American novel. (Good job.)
Talented writers abound on this campus — young and old, student and professor and visiting readers — yet so few of us are actively aware of it. You may know, for instance, that Toni Morrison and Kurt Vonnegut once graced our campus high above Cayuga’s waters. Maybe you’ve even heard of Thomas Pynchon. But I bet you didn’t know that Lauren Alleyne, Junot Diaz, Diane McPherson and Patrick Somerville (to name a few) spent time here teaching and writing and workshopping in the Masters of Fine Arts program.
The Masters of Fine Arts program (MFA) is a specialized creative writing graduate degree. The program admits only eight students per year, four in fiction and four in poetry. While here, students work for Epoch magazine — an award-winning publication that’s regarded as one of the best small literary magazines in the nation. Stories from Epoch have been included in the O. Henry Anthology, The Best American Short Stories and cited for the Pushcart Prize. In their second year, students also gain teaching experience by presiding over sections of the infamous Freshman Writing Seminars.
The program boasts an incredible faculty, and, because of its small size, an almost unparalleled amount of personal attention for each student. It is also largely responsible for the prestigious Reading Series, which brought to campus the likes of Salman Rushdie and Junot Diaz. (U.S. Poet Laureate Charles Simic will be in Goldwin-Smith at 4:30 today! Vamos!)
One such MFA is Alexi Zentner, who finished his degree last year and is currently a lecturer teaching a section of creative writing and the FWS known as Serious Comics (which he says is seriously fun). He spoke enthusiastically about teaching, saying that it has been an amazing and invigorating experience for him. Leaving Cornell, except to teach somewhere else, seemed silly to him.
Jackie Reitzes, another graduate-turned-lecturer, estimated that 75 percent of MFAs stay two years after the program as lecturers — time guaranteed to MFAs if they want it.
She explained that ultimately most MFAs want to teach. After this year (her second as a lecturer) Jackie plans to get a nine-to-five in New York and work on her collection in the hopes of getting published. Published work, she says, puts you in a much better position for getting a teaching job.
“One of the best things is being part of a community of serious writers … where talking about art is a deadly serious pursuit,” said Zentner. He described how many MFAs working on their theses take advantage of this dedicated and close community, by “workshopping” their potential submissions (e.g. having them critiqued by their professors and peers).
Reitzes also lauded the close-knit community, which she said made the workshopping experience a much more pleasant and productive one. She said the people in her group were her closest friends, and as such she trusted them much more with her writing. Although she said it’s always hard to have people critique your work, she was more willing to listen because she knew they would be honest with her, and she with them.
“Everyone is rooting for everyone else to succeed, and it makes critiquing that much easier. Our social life is actually indecipherable,” she said, because “we talk about writing when we’re at the bars, and talk about the bars while we’re at workshop.” She added that her closest friend in the program, unlike her, was a poet. The difference was beneficial in workshopping, because they could use their different perspectives for a more well-rounded critique.
Zentner added that working for Epoch, where the students’ primary responsibility was to read from the enormous pile of unsolicited work, was a great outlet for learning what to do and what not to do. “When you read dozens of stories a day,” he said, “you begin to understand what turns you off as a reader.”
Tea Bajraktarevic, another recent graduate now teaching creative writing, emphasized how incredibly beneficial her teaching experience had been.. She says she has met lots of talented undergraduate writers and has enjoyed trying to ‘pull out and encourage’ that talent.
Zentner and Bajraktarevic both have stories coming out in the next Atlantic Monthly fiction edition, a highly competitive issue of the magazine that’s published only once a year. Zentner’s story, Furlough, deals with the war and the questions of family responsibility (a father is left to look after the children when the mother goes to war) and is titled Furlough. Bajraktarevic’s story, The Laugh, explores a man’s guilt over having desired the late wife of someone else. A story of Alexi’s, entitled Touch, about loss and the intersection of love and beauty, was also published in May in the O. Henry Anthology.
Zentner explained to me how critical these sorts of publications are to the careers of young writers. He said that these prestigious publications will help him when he submits his novel, both in getting attention from publishers and in acquiring a readership. “The gloss will, I hope, make people actually read my work.” Jackie spoke also of how it’s amazing to see MFAs succeed. “It’s an honor,” she said “to see people who have read my work, and whose work I’ve read, succeeding.”
Unlike the incorrect perception of the hermit-writer, these writers are directly involved in the Ithaca community. MFAs participate in the Auburn project — Cornell professors, graduates and undergraduates teach inmates at the maximum-security Auburn prison.
Several also take advantage of a local poetry forum known as SOON Productions. Although not officially affiliated with Cornell, the program was founded by English doctoral students and MFAs, and has included curators from all walks of Cornell English. According to Co-curator Seth Perlow (a Ph.D. student in English), the program provides a reading series dedicated to bringing in poets doing experimental and small-press culture work.
Professor Helena Viramontes, Director of the creative writing program, feels that “… creative writing gives such a significance to people who have the opportunity to take it, because it’s the only time of your life that you actually engage in your own soul, your own values, your own heart and so it becomes revelatory.” Taking a creative writing class is a great way to interact with Cornell’s steady stream of up-and-comping writers.
Attend a reading, get involved with the Auburn project, take a class, buy a copy of Atlantic Monthly — it is certainly worth it. When Toni Morrison was here, how many people actually knew? Writers of her caliber are still here, are always here, are teaching and reading and writing and mingling at Temple of Zeus. Go ahead, mingle, bump into one — just be careful not to knock over their soup in the process.