Noah Eli Gordon, a poet and author, most recently of The Year of the Rooster (Ahsata, 2013), is on the faculty of the University of Colorado Boulder creative writing program. He talks with PW about what makes his program special.
What makes the M.F.A. at University of Colorado Boulder’s different from other programs?
As a three-year program, one where students have the opportunity to teach creative writing courses without the burden of first having to slog through time-consuming rhet./comp. classes, we’re something of an anomaly: folks here dive—or are lovingly pushed—right in, yet they’re also supported with enough time to learn to stay afloat. Our program is small and focused, driven by the energy of our active and accomplished faculty and the camaraderie among our students and the burgeoning local literary scene, a loose conglomeration of innovatively bent writers working across genres and in different communities here in Colorado.
There is just so much abuzz at CU-Boulder, especially in the field of small press publishing. I teach an annual publishing workshop course in which our M.F.A. students run Subito Press, learning the ins and outs of how a press works. At the same time, as a kind of career seminar, we meet with various folks who’ve landed jobs in the literary arts just outside of academia: a letter-press printer, an agent, a book designer, a publicist. As editors and publishers, our faculty is closely tied to numerous important international presses, including FC2, Counterpath Press, Subtio Press, Letter Machine Editions, and more.
Does CU-Boulder’s program have any kind of aesthetic focus or area of specialty?
Our program does pride itself on a tradition of innovation and experimentation; however, for us, those terms include a historic underpinning: we recognize that much of what we now consider canonical became so precisely because of its [authors’] willingness to explore and explode the boundaries of what one might do with writing. Along with workshops, our faculty members teach seminar courses on an ever-changing and wide range of literary topics. I recently taught a course on the art of the poetry book review, while my colleague Marcia Douglas taught one that examined the politics of language and the ways in which voice and linguistic concerns inform narrative and community across the black vernacular tradition in the U.S., as well as local dialects in the Caribbean, Africa, Asia, and Ireland.
What do you tell your students about embarking upon a “career”—either as an artist or anything else—following their degree?
I’m a little more interested in helping to cultivate, facilitate, assist, and otherwise germinate the desire of those folks who have a calling to become artists, rather than anyone setting out on a career path. Is there a difference? Yes, the calling is about sustaining a life in art—ongoing, endless, deeply fulfilling. But we do all need to support ourselves, right? The guest speakers I bring into my publishing workshop course offer a few examples of various occupations and career paths for those wanting to keep a foot in the literary field.
Sure, I wish I could help land our graduates wonderful jobs teaching in M.F.A. programs themselves, but the reality of the market makes that an uphill trek; however, as long as I can make folks aware of that fact, I’m happy to offer guidance.
When people ask you, “Why should I get an M.F.A.?” what do you say?
I tell them that it could be a rare convergence of sympathetic energies, of developing camaraderie and friendships, a chance to test the waters so to speak for one version of the kind of life they might really want. There’s been a trend as of late for professors in various writing programs to disavow their academic affiliations, as though they’re somehow pure artists, free from the confines of capital. If it’s cool to pretend you don’t get paid to talk about your art, then I’m happy to be totally unhip, because I love my job at CU-Boulder!