Our coverage of MFA programs continues with the first in a series of MFA Program Profiles. Poet Matthew Zapruder, author, most recently, of Sun Bear (Copper Canyon, 2014) is on the core faculty of St. Mary's Creative Writing program based in Moraga, CA. He talked to PW about what makes the program stand out.
What makes St. Mary's different from other programs?
Saint Mary's is a small program, with deliberate aesthetic diversity: we look for as wide a variety as possible in the backgrounds of our students, as well as in their writing. Our cohorts in each of the three genres (poetry, fiction, non-fiction) are 8 students each year. But the way it's structured, the program also has some of the desirable qualities of a larger program. Each year in each genre a visiting writer teaches workshop. Also each year in each genre we have well-known, published writers who are also experienced teachers as visiting craft instructors, as well as editors who come in for a few days and read manuscripts and meet with the students. So over the course of the two years in the program, you work closely with your two core faculty members, plus at least two visiting writers in workshop, and other visiting writers and editors.
Does St Mary's have any kind of aesthetic focus or area of specialty (e.g. experimental writing, cross-genre writing, etc.). If so, how do you teach toward that specialty?
The faculty, and our visitors, and of course our students, reflect our aspiration to aesthetic diversity. We have self-defined "experimental" writers studying here, as well as more traditional writers, people with lots of varying interests. In fiction we have people writing so-called "literary" stories and novels, as well as YA and fantasy, though in my opinion those things are just as literary too!
Also, Saint Mary's as an institution, as well as our MFA faculty have made a serious commitment to social justice, diversity, political change, and particularly ecological consciousness in writing, ecopoetics. For instance my colleague in poetry Brenda Hillman, as well as her husband Bob Hass, who teaches at UC Berkeley but is a long-time friend of the program, work tirelessly in these areas. Many students are drawn to our program because they know that type of work will be encouraged.
It also matters that we are out here in the Bay Area, on the West Coast. It feels different to be a writer out here, so far from the traditional east coast cultural centers, close to the Pacific Ocean, and a history of liberation from traditional values and roles, and innovation and experiment of all kinds. To take examples from poetry, since that's my field, out here Barbara Guest and John Wieners and Jack Spicer as well as living writers like Juan Felipe Herrera and are as important as Frank O'Hara in New York or Richard Hugo in the Northwest. Culturally, as a region, we point as much west toward the Pacific, or south toward Mexico and Central and South America, as toward Europe.
More recently, the political and cultural activities in Oakland, which is where so many young artists and writers and musicians are going, as well as the presence of McSweeney's and Narrative and Zyzzyva and The Rumpus and so many other exciting new publishing ventures, continue to make the Bay Area a renewed center for literary activity. Our students benefit from this proximity. They do internships at all those places, and they get to know the scene here, which is vibrant and eclectic and cool.
Have you seen any changes in the kinds of students applying and enrolling over the last few years?
In the past few years we have seen a marked uptick in the number of very talented and promising students of color, and students from diverse backgrounds, applying and matriculating, and we look forward to building on that. Another thing that is great about Saint Mary's is its age diversity. We have lots of younger poets from all over the country in the program. But we also have people who have had careers, and families, and are going back later in life to become the writers they have always wanted to be.
What do you tell your students about how to embark upon a "career"--either as an artist or anything else--following their degree?
There is of course the most obvious thing, which is to work as hard as you can on making your writing as good as it can possibly be. Without that, you have nothing. You won't be able to have a life as a writer that has any integrity if your work doesn't have it. And you won't be able to sustain yourself through the inevitable difficult times and disappointments if your work is totally oriented toward the outside, just to get attention or follow trends. That's not only a poor way to live, but it's also a bad strategy for success.
The biggest single thing I tell all my students is, try to separate out what you've been told you should care about, as opposed to what you actually need in order to live a satisfying, fulfilling, life as a writer. For instance, there are some writers who are very ambitious, and who want to publish a lot, and be known, and read all over the country, etc. Those writers won't be happy unless they try to have that. We try to help them get there. Other writers are quieter, both in their work and their personalities. So maybe they want a different kind of publishing life, something where their work is read, but it's more private, or focused. That's a fine way to live too. Some people want to teach, others have other interests, or careers already. I think it's my job as a professor in an MFA program to help students sort all this out, and to start to figure out what's right for them, which can take time, but at least they will understand there are options. There are so many different ways to live as a writer.
If someone asked you, "Why should I get an MFA?" what would you tell them?
If you are at the right time in your writing life, truly ready to listen and grow and change, and if you pick the right program, it can be intensely accelerating. As Brenda says, an MFA is incredibly efficient: you should be able to get all the main tools you need as a writer in a two year period, at least if we are doing our jobs!