Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Gearing Up for the MFA Summer Residency

By Hilary Donatini

Our faculty and staff in the MFA in Creative Writing at AU are busy preparing for its July 27 start date. Read an interview with the director of the program, Dr. Stephen Haven, below. 

HD: What would you like to highlight about the upcoming residency? What would you like to share about particular visiting writers or faculty?

SH: The Ashland MFA Residency is a two-week literary festival, with enrolled MFA students participating in intensive classes (closed to the public) weekday mornings and attending free-and-open-to-the-public literary readings and afternoon Craft Seminars about writing and literature.  

The literary readings and Craft Seminars are presented by visiting writers and by Ashland University's MFA faculty, some of whom are as accomplished as our visiting writers.  Cheryl Strayed may be the best publicized author among our four visiting writers this year.  Her book Wild remained at #1 on the New York Times Best Seller list for 5 or 6 weeks. The book was also endorsed by Oprah and distributed through Oprah's book club.  Other visiting writers include Brian Doyle, a Pacific Northwest creative nonfiction writer with many books, Alicia Ostriker, a venerable poet from New York and former finalist for the National Book Award, and poet Linda Gregerson, also a former finalist for the National Book Award.  Gregerson teaches at the University of Michigan.  

Among our own MFA faculty participating in this year's readings and Craft Seminars we have a runner-up for the Pultizer Prize, Guggenheim Fellowship winners, National Endowment for the Arts grant winners, a Rome Literature Prize Winner, a winner of the Colorado Book Award, an Ohio Poet of the Year winner, and winners of many book publication competitions.  All Ashland MFA faculty are dedicated teachers as well as accomplished writers.  The Ashland MFA Program places a special emphasis--as does the university as a whole--on dedicated teaching.

HD: How has the MFA grown and changed since its inception?

SH: The MFA Program has grown considerably.  We started in Summer 2007 with 17 students and 5 faculty members. We will have approximately 60 students at the 2013 Summer Residency and 16 faculty members.

HD: Which events are open to the public?

SH: All afternoon Craft Seminars (most begin at 1:00 p.m. weekdays) and all evening readings (7:00 p.m. weekday and Sunday evenings) are free and open to the public.  Most readings and Craft Seminars take place in 138 Schar.

HD: What is your favorite aspect of directing the MFA? The greatest challenge?

SH: My favorite task in directing the Ashland MFA Program has been building and maintaining a supportive, cohesive arts community that cares deeply for high aesthetic standards.  Together with the MFA Faculty Committee (the committee that oversees all MFA curricular issues and makes recommendations to the Dean of Arts and Sciences for faculty hiring) I have been very careful to invite to the MFA faculty only accomplished, well-published writers who are as devoted to teaching as they are to their own writing.

It has also been important for me to help create as much as possible an inclusive, democratic governance in the MFA faculty.  I believe Ashland MFA faculty members take ownership of the program—feel that they not only work for the Ashland MFA Program but have helped create it.  Finally, working together with other MFA faculty and with MFA Administrative Director Sarah Wells, it was a challenge to find the right students to embrace the supportive spirit of the program, and to rise to the challenge of the faculty in the program’s collective attempt to write new literature.    

HD: What else would you like the world to know?

SH: I talk openly during the recruitment process about the respect for the integrity of all human beings, without regard for demographic distinctions of any kind:  We welcome anyone who is interested in the pursuit of the literary arts, as long as prospective students have already attained a moderate level of success that enables  them to participate meaningfully as members of the Ashland MFA community.  Everyone who comes to our program, students and faculty, can expect to be challenged, in terms of constantly working to become better writers, and they can expect also the collective support of other students and faculty when they break through to new levels of achievement. 

Not even Emily Dickinson worked alone.  She had the life-long personal and intellectual friendship of her sister-in-law, Susan Gilbert Dickinson, as well as the friendship of the Springfield, Mass., newspaper editor Samuel Bowles. Hemingway shared his early writing with Sherwood Anderson and Gertrude Stein.  Thoreau had (among others) Emerson, Hawthorne, Margaret Fuller, and Bronson Alcott as literary companions.  The poets H.D., Ezra Pound, and William Carlos Williams, were friends as undergraduates at the University of Pennsylvania, and remained life-long influences in the development of each other’s art.  More than most people realize, the creation of new literature is a group endeavor.  The Ashland MFA Program is not only an academic degree program—it is a dynamic arts community that will stimulate the growth of every writer—student and faculty alike—who comes in contact with it. The Ashland MFA Program provides a foundation for the life-long pursuit of writing better and better books.