The MFA Corner is a section on O-Bits spotlighting one Creative Writing graduate program. Below is an interview with director J. Robert Lennon of Cornell University.
What is your program’s size and area of focus?
We generally have 16 students total, 8 fiction and 8 poetry. We accept 4 per year in each genre (and occasionally an extra MFA/PhD dual-degree student).
Can you tell us something about your program that can’t be found on your website?
Our program is really intimate, and we all get to know each other very well. We are also very egalitarian—that is, once you’re here, you get the same deal as everyone else. Students don’t compete for fellowships. There is plenty of competition out there before and after grad school—while they’re here, we want our students to worry about one thing, and that is improving their work.
What are some of your most popular courses and workshops?
The graduate writing seminar is the center of our curriculum; it’s typically run as a workshop, and is where students bring their fiction and poetry for evaluation and discussion. Most students also take Reading For Writers every semester, a literature course taught by writers, for the purpose of improving craft. Cornell’s broader English department is also very large and diverse, and MFA candidates often take classes with PhD students.
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?
Sure, it’s Epoch Magazine, one of the oldest, most well-regarded, and most widely-read literary journals in America. I could go on about it all day—it is routinely the source of work for all of the major annual anthologies, including Best American Short Stories, Best American Poetry, Best American Essays, The Pushcart Prize: Best of the Small Presses, Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards, Editor’s Choice Awards, Best of the West, and New Stories from the South. It also featured the first publications by Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, and Stanley Elkin, along with early stories by Philip Roth and Joyce Carol Oates. First-year MFA candidates earn their keep as editorial assistants there, and the editor-in-chief is the brilliant and much-loved Michael Koch.
Can you talk about the local writing community outside of the program?
There’s always something new popping up, but these days we have a local literary festival called Spring Writes, which our students often participate in, and which spreads out through many local venues, including the favorite MFA bar, Felicia’s Atomic Lounge. Another bar, Lot 10, hosts a The-Moth-like storytelling series called Trampoline. Our local indie bookstore, Buffalo Street Books, hosts the annual first-year MFA readings.
Which of your faculty members have been teaching in the program for the longest time?
Robert Morgan, who writes fiction, poetry, and nonfiction; and fiction writer Stephanie Vaughn, author of the colleciton Sweet Talk.
Does your program put a heavier emphasis on critical courses or workshops?
Workshops, certainly—but there is a lot of interaction between MFA and PhD students, and many of our writers have considerable critical acumen as well. It’s not unusual for an MFA student to end up going for a PhD after, or vice-versa; and I already mentioned our dual-degree program.
What would your students say is the most challenging aspect of the program?
I would hope it’s finishing their thesis! Though they might say it’s walking up the hill to campus every day.
What estimated percentage of recent graduates become published authors?
Well, I’m not sure what you mean by published—many of our students are already publishing in magazines while they’re here, or soon after graduating, and it’s not unusual for a thesis to get picked up as a book before students have even left town. Recent successes are fiction writers Téa Obreht (The Tiger’s Wife), Alexi Zentner (Touch), and NoViolet Bulawayo (the forthcoming Mother of Bones), and poets Anne Marie Rooney (Spitshine) and Elizabeth Rogers (Chord Box). These students were all fresh out of the program when their books were picked up.
What makes your program different than the other eight hundred plus MFA programs in the country?
Its very small size, intimate feel, and noncompetitive nature. Our program is compact and intense, and focuses students’ concentration on their work. We also offer excellent support: two years of study, followed by two years of lectureships in Cornell’s English department, all fully funded. That’s four years in Ithaca.
Any advice for prospective students looking to apply to your program?
We get a huge number of applications. Be interesting. Write from your obsessions, not what you think we might want to see. We don’t know what we want to see until it’s in front of us! We are looking for original voices.