Tuesday, April 1, 2014

MFA Programs - Myra Sklarew

In the mid-70s two projects in particular lay the groundwork for establishing an MFA Program in Creative Writing at American University: the designing and implementing of a course on Washington, D.C. as a learning resource, and an annual Writer’s Conference. 

Today, the University’s links to the vast resources of Washington are well known, but forty years ago this was not the case. The huge reservoir had scarcely been tapped. And thus we put in place a program for incoming freshmen and transfer students that embodied everything from the Congress, Department of State, the courts—from small claims to Supreme Court—international organizations, State Department, archives and libraries, Smithsonian, walks through our diverse neighborhoods led by young people from those neighborhoods, performing and fine arts, the media, lobbying organizations, religious organizations, the environment, including a journey on the Potomac River kindly provided by the National Park Service on their Wood-duck Barge at 5 A.M., usually in the pouring rain with Smithsonian Castle Curator James Goode who pointed out significant buildings as we sailed along. 

And the great generosity of key figures in these organizations in helping to teach our students will be remembered. We never could pay them but we would set up a table in the Gray Hall ditto room—the size of a closet—and serve elegant lunches to congressmen and Supreme Court aides to justices—Justice Douglass’s for one who saved the C & O Canal when there was a move to turn it into a road by requiring members of Congress to walk with him from Georgetown to Cumberland along the beautiful Potomac River.

At the same time, Georgetown University was the only university in the area that had had writer’s conferences and they were beginning to wind down their annual summer program. So we started what turned out to be an annual Writer’s conference. Of course we had no funds and had to raise all of it, which we somehow managed to do. Jane Stanhope, a stronghold in the Literature Department, once gave me a gift of bed sheets on which she had signed the names of dozens of famous writers from Dante to Longfellow in various styles of handwriting, as a commentary on the fact that it was my job to house, feed, transport and somehow come up with honoraria for the guest speakers and readers.  When I invited John Barth to come for $25 (no travel or housing) , he wrote back: "Your fee is $25; mine is $1000. Shall we dance!

But what wonderful summers we had with Howard Nemerov, Stanley Elkin, Kay Boyle, Michael Harper, Ahmos Zu-Bolton,  May Miller, Larry Neal who was then head of the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities and a terrific poet, Joachim Neugroschel, translator, Roger Rosenblatt, Richard Shelton who started the writing programs in the Florence Prison System in Arizona, Dolores Kendrick, our current Poet Laureate, O.B. Hardison, head of the Folger, E. Ethelbert Miller, Lucille Clifton, our national treasure, Dean Conger, photojournalist with the National Geographic, George Garrett, Lewis Thomas who was then head of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and was then writing his wonderful books, Lives of a Cell and others and hadn’t had anyone to listen to his poetry that he wrote in the 30s, and theatre groups  in residence all summer at A.U. thanks to Valerie Morris in the Performing Arts Department. So Mabou Mines actors demonstrated works by Samuel Beckett. Charles Ludlam’s Experimental Theatrical Company did offbeat and highly original performances; dance choreographers like Twyla Tharp provided demonstrations of works in progress. These were heady occasions that drew huge audiences.

The success of these programs led me to start thinking about the fact that there were absolutely no MFA programs in the area. The Hopkins Writing Seminars that Elliott Coleman started was the nearest. And it was clear, from the eclectic and large audiences we attracted for our summer writer’s conferences that we wouldn't lack for participants. But we needed to find the funds to convince the university that it wouldn’t be a huge burden. 

My idea was to do a collaborative MFA program, to engage other colleges and universities in the area. That way we could pool our resources and really offer a unique program. So I contacted all the schools in the area and those who were interested were George Mason’s Susan Shreve, and George Washington’s David McAleavey. Then began our journey together, using every holiday to write grant proposals, visiting government funding sources and any others that we could think of. On some occasions the wonderful writer John Gardner went with us. He believed that he could talk even a stone into helping. He was there when we talked with folks at the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare and applied for a FIPSE grant. We actually were among the finalists for a grant of $350,000, what seemed like an enormous amount of money in those days. But we didn’t end up getting the grant, or any others. 

George Mason dropped out, as did G.W.U. But we decided to go ahead. So we designed what was, in those days, a unique program with some rather odd requirements—a seminar on translation (because of my belief that apprentice writers needed new ways to think about language and also needed to be more aware of their counterparts in other parts of the world); a course in literary journalism (because it didn’t seem to me that we could take much time to talk about marketing the work or earning a living; there was so much else to learn, and this would at least provide some skills that might be useful later on and to make use of the extraordinary opportunities that Washington offers); and a requirement for internships (again to provide work experience for later and to let D.C. agencies and publishers know about our terrific students for jobs later on).

In addition, our program was not going to be a year long, like the Hopkins program, but more like 2 ½ -3 years long, a rather huge commitment, but long enough for serious writers to make a stake in their art that was going to have to last a long time and see them through the enormous hardships of being a writer. We also planned to include a visiting writers series, not only for readings, but so that established writers could spend real time with us, could teach seminars and workshops, serve on thesis committees and really get to know our students.

We sent out notices. To our amazement, our first students applied. We began the first year in 1980 with some 10 folks and 10+ the next year so that we had what seemed to me then an ideal number, approximately 25 a year. As the years went by the numbers more than doubled. Wonderful students, all ages, came committed to devoting themselves to the work and to one another, from many backgrounds, disciplines,  areas of the country and abroad.

Various folks led the program—I did at first, later Henry Taylor, Kermit Moyer, Richard McCann, Denise Orenstein, David Keplinger, and now our terrific Kyle Dargan—and in generously teaching in the program, a hugely labor-intensive job, including extensive thesis work and careful advising. And our Literature Department shared in this work as it does today by teaching our MFA students, by serving on thesis committees and reading applicant manuscripts. This openness regarding the MFA program is unusual; many English Departments are quite separate from the MFA programs.  Our students have gone on to publish their works, to win awards and acclamation, to work in diverse professions and to make us proud of them.

Shortly after our program got underway George Mason University instituted its MFA Program. And University of Maryland followed suit a while later. Georgetown University had an active undergraduate program under the aegis of Washington Poet Roland Flint. University of Maryland had a series of remarkable conferences called “Poetry and the National Conscience” under the leadership of Rod Jellema. George Washington University, under the aegis of David McAleavey, has a strong undergraduate writing program. Howard University, long the home of our nation’s leading poets, has had E. Ethelbert Miller in the directorship of the Center for African American Studies.  Michael Lally, a major activist, came to teach at what was then called Trinity College in 1969. Mt. Vernon College, Catholic University, Gallaudet University all have had active writing programs, as have had the community colleges—Montgomery College, Prince Georges Community College. It is to be hoped that those who have been involved in these programs will come aboard and write something about them for this blog.

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