The MFA Corner is a section on O-Bits spotlighting one Creative Writing graduate program. Below is an interview with director Joshua Henkin of Brooklyn College.
Read “Mendel’s Wall” by Jai Chakrabarti, a student at Brooklyn College.
What is your program’s size and area of focus?
Fifteen students a year in fiction, ten in poetry, five in playwriting. It’s a two-year program, so across the three genres we have a total of sixty students enrolled at any one time.
Can you tell us something about your program that can’t be found on your website?
The degree of personal attention the students receive is unparalleled, whether that comes in the form of one-on-one conferences with the faculty or dinners and parties at my house in Park Slope. I’ve taught in several MFA programs and I’ve never seen one with such a strong sense of warmth and community and where the student work gets taken so seriously.
What are some of your most popular courses and workshops?
Workshop, which meets every semester, and the craft class, which is for the first-year cohort and meets every fall, form the foundation of our program. Most semesters we also have a novel workshop, which is very popular. The students are up twice and they can bring in up to 150 pages each time, so they can workshop an entire draft of a novel over the course of the semester.
Does your program have a literary journal? If so, how involved are students in the production of the journal? And why would people outside of your program be interested in reading the journal?
The Brooklyn Review is our MFA program’s journal and it’s entirely student-run and student-edited. It features some work by writers inside the program, but most of the work is by writers not affiliated with the program, ranging from writers being published for the first time to well-known writers with many publications. Our students also intern at journals such as Tin House, The Paris Review, and A Public Space. And Electric Literature and its spinoff, Recommended Reading, were started by graduates of our program and many of the editors and readers there are either graduates of or current students in BC’s MFA.
Can you talk about the local writing community outside of the program?
The vast majority of our students live in Brooklyn, and both formally and informally they populate the bars and cafes of Brooklyn. After workshop, they all head to Franklin Park to unwind. At Sycamore, a combination bar/florist in Ditmas Park, we hold monthly happy hours and a regular student reading series.
Which of your faculty members have been teaching in the program for the longest time?
We have a rotating faculty that, in recent years, has included, in addition to me, Michael Cunningham, Amy Hempel, Ernesto Mestre, Jenny Offill, Heidi Julavits, Dani Shapiro, Myla Goldberg, Hannah Tinti, Julie Orringer, Fiona Maazel, Nathaniel Rich, Josh Weil, Francisco Goldman, Rob Spillman, Susan Choi, and many others. We like to have a balance between faculty who teach regularly and those who teach every few semesters.
What would your students say is the most challenging aspect of the program?
We offer teaching to our second-year students (they teach composition to Brooklyn College undergrads), and this is both a real opportunity for them and a challenge for them to balance their teaching with their writing.
What estimated percentage of recent graduates become published authors?
In the last six months alone, seven of our recent graduates have gotten book contracts from major houses. One of our graduates won the Iowa Short Fiction Prize, judged by Jim Shepard, and will have her story collection published. One of last year’s graduates won the coveted Provincetown Fine Arts Center Fellowship. And our graduates are being published in the best journals and anthologized in the O’Henry’s, the Pushcarts, etc.
What makes your program different than the other eight hundred plus MFA programs in the country?
From the instant our admitted students receive the phone call from me telling them they’ve been admitted, they are welcomed into our MFA community. They are invited to visit workshop and to come to the admitted-students party at my house. Over the summer before school starts they join the returning students for our annual pilgrimage to Coney Island to watch the Brooklyn Cyclones play baseball. The students feel at home in the program, and this has a real impact on their writing. Then there’s the quality of the instruction itself, and the fact that our students get to work one-on-one for their theses not just with accomplished writers but with editors at major publishing houses and journals. And although we’re a writing program, not a publishing program (the best way to publish is to become a better writer), we invite agents and editors to campus every year to talk to our students and to meet with them individually to discuss their work. Many of our published graduates met their agents and editors through these visits.
Any advice for prospective students looking to apply to your program?
Read widely and deeply. Write every day. Revise and revise and revise and revise.