What makes Arizona State University’s M.F.A. program different from other programs?
This year we celebrate the program’s 30th anniversary. Over the past decade, ASU itself has focused on two major goals: access and excellence. The M.F.A. program has long provided a stellar example of both—we have a bountiful record of books published, awards and fellowships received: Stegner, Fulbright, Cave Canem, many others. All from alumni the vast majority of whom would not have been able to pay tuition, who had access thanks mostly to university-funded teaching fellowships.
Beyond the core curriculum, we offer a range of unique opportunities: Poesía del Sol, in partnership with the Mayo Clinic; international travel fellowships through the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing (this year: Oxford, Singapore, Southeast Asia); publishing internships with the New York–based independent press Four Way Books; opportunities with the literary magazine Hayden’s Ferry Review; and a new partnership with ASU’s Institute for Humanities Research focused on sustainability.
Does the ASU M.F.A. have any kind of aesthetic focus or area of specialty?
Currently, there are 12 faculty members in poetry and fiction, and we’re all over the map aesthetically, which we consider a strength. What we do hold in common is how seriously we all serve our students and their work. Over the past 14 years, I have seen this bedrock commitment to the well-being and development of students ground and energize the faculty and guide the program as a whole.
What do you tell your students about embarking upon a “career”—either as an artist or anything else—following their degree?
I tend to say that the M.F.A. is an exploration of yourself and your work, and it will give you real skills and strategies to make your work its absolute best. Also, the M.F.A. is not a guarantee of a particular job in a particular field: most people who get an M.F.A. never publish a book, and most never get a tenure-track job at a college. So you do it to spend serious time immersed in writing and reading, becoming a better writer and reader and maybe a better human too. There are loads of reasons why CEOs like to hire artists or liberal arts grads—and there are all kinds of practical skills one gets in workshops and lit classes. Alberto Ríos teaches a brass tacks class here called Creative Writing and the Professions. I want to stand up for less tangibles, too, not for the career but the life of an artist: you need an open, resilient capacity to alternate between pursuit and stillness. Why are you considering this degree? You can have additional reasons, but a kind of helpless commitment to writing probably has to come first.
How do you respond when someone asks you, “Why should I get an M.F.A.?”
No has ever asked me that. That’s only partly a disingenuous answer. But I’m really never in the position of trying to convince someone to do it. People do ask, “Should I?” And they probably want to know if they are talented enough or worthy in whatever way. Who can say? There is less correlation than you might expect between a student’s promise and his or her ability to keep writing over a lifetime. Talent, resilience, luck, and openness all play huge parts.