The MFA Corner is a section on O-Bits spotlighting one Creative Writing graduate program. Below is an interview with director Jeff Mann of Virginia Tech.
What is your program’s size and area of focus?
We have twenty-two students currently enrolled, and we accept six or seven students each year. We focus on poetry and fiction, though we also have courses in playwriting and creative nonfiction.
Can you tell us something about your program that can’t be found on your website?
We pride ourselves on the diversity of both our faculty and our students. By diversity, I mean aesthetic as well as ethnic and cultural. We’re a rich mix.
What are some of your most popular courses and workshops?
The fiction and poetry workshops are always popular. Right now I’m teaching a Form and Theory of Poetry class that’s full to the brim, and I’d imagine that Form and Theory of Fiction would be much the same.
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?
We have two literary journals. One is The Minnesota Review, which, after years of movement about the country, has settled in Blacksburg, Virginia. In Editing a Literary Journal, a required course, the students examine the many submissions and choose which works will appear in an upcoming issue of that journal. We also have The New River: A Journal of Digital Writing and Art, which is edited by one or two students as part of an independent study course. Both journals publish up-and-coming and established authors from all over the country. Between these two courses, all of our graduates have experience editing literary journals.
Can you talk about the local writing community outside of the program?
Along with our Speakeasy reading series, which hosts less formal events than our Visiting Writers Series, there are two regular reading venues in the community: Polyperformance, which arranges readings in the Blacksburg area, and Connecting Ridges, which arranges readings of MFA students in our Virginia Tech program and MFA students at Hollins University.
Which of your faculty members have been teaching in the program for the longest time?
Lucinda Roy, Fred D’Aguiar, Ed Falco, Bob Hicok, and myself.
Does your program put a heavier emphasis on critical courses or workshops?
We emphasize workshops, though students must take at least nine hours of literature and theory electives.
What would your students say is the most challenging aspect of the program?
We hope that all of our courses provide appropriate challenges for our students. But they would probably say the pedagogy requirements, those classes they take in their first semester that are meant to prepare them to teach. The courses are demanding. On the other hand, those very courses give them the background to be good teachers, and the teaching experience they receive as MFA students will help them considerably in today’s difficult job market.
What estimated percentage of recent graduates become published authors?
Many of our students—around 50%, I’d say—enter our program having already published stories and poems in literary journals, and a larger percentage—probably 70%–go on to achieve journal publications. Of our 37 graduates (the first full class having graduated in 2008), four have already published full-length books of fiction or poetry or have books forthcoming. Another one of our graduates has founded her own press, YesYes Books. One of our current students has a poem in the next edition of Best New Poets: 2012, and another has a chapbook of poetry due out next year. As you can see, many of our students publish successfully in a variety of venues, and we’re very proud of that.
What makes your program different than the other eight hundred plus MFA programs in the country?
A combination of factors. Because of the aesthetic diversity mentioned above, we encourage students to find their own voices, not parrot the faculty members’ styles. Because we can accept so few applicants into the program, we end up with really stellar students, and that enriches everyone’s workshop experience. Because Virginia Tech values and appreciates our program, the university provides significant financial support for our students, giving them the opportunity to hone their talents. Because of the small size of the program, the educational process is more one-on-one and intimate.
Any advice for prospective students looking to apply to your program?
This is obvious, but send us your very best work. Our program is extremely competitive. Academic records and letters of recommendation are important, but it’s the writing sample that carries the most weight.