Converse MFA Celebrates Its First Decade

by Monica Jones BFA ‘03

Ten years is a milestone worth celebrating, and Converse College’s Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program will be commemorating in fine style on Thursday, June 6, 2019, with two exciting events in two different venues.

Kicking off this salute to the MFA program and its graduates’ accomplishments, a reception will be held between 4:30 pm and 6:30 pm at the Ciclops Cyderi and Brewery, located on E. St. John St. in Spartanburg.

Anniversary Announcement April (1)The reception will be followed by an MFA Alumni reading on the Converse campus in Zimmerli Common Room at 7:30 pm.  The reading will feature poet Lisa Hase-Jackson, novelist Sonja Condit, and YA novelist Gwen Holt, who has just published her fourth Young Adult (YA) novel, Imani Unraveled, with Owl Hollow Press, under the pen name Leigh Statham.

The reception and reading are open to all alumni, faculty, current students, administrators, prospective students, and friends of the program.

The Converse low-residency Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program began in the summer of 2009, under the guidance of Professor Rick Mulkey. Mulkey has been at Converse for most of the last 25 years, but after a brief stint with Wichita State directing their MFA program, he and his wife, Professor Susan Tekulve, explored the possibilities of Converse having its own MFA program. After lots of research and proposal drafts to the faculty, it was launched with Professor Mulkey as Director.

“This is the only such program in South Carolina,” says Mulkey.  “It provides an opportunity for adult graduate students to maintain their professional and private lives while setting aside time each week to study literature and practice the writing craft in a program with an award-winning faculty of poets, novelists, and essayists.  It has become, as we hoped it would, a highly distinctive program for the college, with a large number of successful graduates.”

Converse’s two-year co-educational low residency MFA program is designed for independent writers looking for advanced instruction in fiction, Y.A. fiction, poetry, creative non-fiction, and environmental writing. The program emphasizes the apprentice mentoring relationship with students, and offers an individually tailored curriculum of courses and projects, resulting in mastery and understanding of writing skills and contemporary literature.

The 48-hour credit requirements are completed during four nine-day residencies at Converse College, which are offered twice annually, with four mentoring semesters, a fifth graduating residency, an analytical project on literature or craft, and a book-length creative thesis and oral defense.

Students and graduates of the MFA program have published or had accepted for publication more than two dozen books so far with presses from William Morrow/Harper Collins to Word Works Press, according to Mulkey, and says he can’t keep up with the number of published stories, essays, and poems—but he estimates it’s well over 100. “They’ve been featured in the Paris issue of Rolling Stone Magazine, have received numerous fellowships, grants, and awards, including a Kundiman Foundation grant, a Gulbenkian Foundation fellowship for a writing residency in Portugal, the John and Susan Bennet Memorial Arts Fund grant, a Southeast Review Nonfiction Prize, an AWP Intro Award, a SC Poetry initiative Prize, The Bryant-Lisembee Poetry Book prize, Press 53’s Fiction prize for a collection stories, and a host of others.”

Of her decision to seek an MFA, Gwen Holt says, “I chose the MFA in YA lit program at Converse because I have been working in commercial fiction for several years but wanted more of a literary program. I love literary fiction, and I wanted to improve my writing and take it more in that direction.” In addition to her success as a novelist, Holt is the managing Fiction Editor at South 85 Journal for the Converse MFA program and is the winner of the James Applewhite Poetry Prize honorable mention, and Southeast Review Narrative Nonfiction Prize. She already has another book completed and ready to go out to editors: a collaborative YA novel in verse, with co-author, Chris Menezes—himself a graduate of the MFA program in poetry—whom she met in an add-on poetry workshop.

Assistant Director, Sarah Cooper, herself a poetry graduate of the program, found that she could work around her day job as a faculty member at Clemson while she earned her degree. “I decided I wanted to pursue an MFA, and the low residency option was attractive because of the schedule,” Cooper said. “After some research, I learned Denise Duhamel was on faculty at Converse, and I knew that was the person I wanted to work with. I was thrilled to have the opportunity to study with her and other poets I came to know and respect: Suzanne Cleary, Rick Mulkey, and Richard Tillinghast. Each faculty member challenged me as a writer.”

Keeping the number of enrolled students between 25-30, the program remains intimate, with the students knowing each other, and all faculty members knowing the students.  This isn’t always the case with larger programs that enroll between 60 to 150 people. Almost all of the faculty have been with the program since the first or second year of its creation, making it feel like a big family.  One faculty member describes it as “a rigorous yet nurturing place to hone your craft,” according to Mulkey.

The student demographic is amazingly diverse. There have been journalists, lawyers, medical professionals, soldiers and marines who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, teachers, business professionals, retirees, actors and life-long students.  Ages have ranged from 23 to70 plus, with a median age falling between the late 30s to mid-40s.  Students have also come from all over the United States, including California, Washington, Oregon, New York, Florida, Oklahoma, Texas, and numerous other states, including South Carolina.

“As our graduates have moved on and started their own publishing careers, we invite them back once each year during our summer residency session to read from newly published books,” says Mulkey.  “This helps to continue developing a bond between faculty, students and alumni. With dozens of books published by our graduates, the program has now established itself as a place that trains and mentors successful writers.”

One of those successful writers is Clara Jane Hallar, a poetry graduate of the MFA program and General Manager of Ciclops Brewery where the 10th Anniversary reception takes place.  Ciclops Brewery will launch a special release beer in honor of the MFA program’s anniversary, based on a recipe created by Jane Austen. Literally, a literary beer!

As Michael Millen, head brewer for Ciclops Cyderi and Brewery explains, “We are brewing a beer inspired by a great writer, Jane Austen. She was a home brewer herself, as were many women of the time, and although her recipes are not recorded, their flavor profiles and descriptions are. We are making a Gruit-styled ale, subbing herbs and spices for hops. During her time, hops were not always readily available to the general public, so they would use herbs and spices in their place to flavor the beer.”

For more details about the 10th Anniversary Celebration, go to the MFA program’s Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/ConverseMFA/, and for additional information on the Converse College Master of Fine Arts Low-Residency program, visit www.converse.edu/mfa.

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Interview: Lisa Hase-Jackson on her debut full-length collection, Flint & Fire

Converse College MFA alumna, Lisa Hase-Jackson, chats with us about her writing process, collaboration and her debut collection (a 17 year writing project).

Jackson will be in Spartanburg this summer on Thursday, June 6 for the 10th Anniversary Alumni event at Ciclops Cidery and Brewery and on campus at 7:30 p.m. to read with alumnae Sonja Condit and Gwen Holt. Both of these events are part of the MFA program’s Summer/Fall Residency.

Converse MFA: Tell us a little about your book and the process of writing it. How long have your worked on the collection? When and where can we find it?

Hase-Jackson: The writing process is fascinating, isn’t it, and so crucial for a practicing writer.  I mean, everything in life is related to process for all of life is distillable material – fodder for poetry or whatever else comes out on the page. I try not to view process as a static activity but as an ever-expanding practice that flexes in response to whatever writing, and life, demands. My own writing process has evolved over the years. While working toward my BA, and then my MA, my writing was mostly concerned with keeping up with the demands of school and my creativity was somewhat prescribed and kept within the parameters of educational requirements. The years between graduating with an MA and starting an MFA program were mostly spent figuring out what kinds of practices worked best for producing work I felt good about. I wrote prolifically, though not always consistently, and a lot of that writing was, well, crap, which is not to say that it wasn’t useful. I actually still mine journals and drafts written during that time for lines and images that I can now develop because I finally know what I was trying to get at.

In terms of a routine, I usually write in the mornings and sometimes late at night. Often, I write longhand but sometimes find the quickness of typing on a computer more fitting or more satisfying. Though I try not to push myself when overwhelmed, tired, or grieving, I also know that I will feel better if I show up to the page as consistently as I can, if even only for a few minutes. This might mean returning to the page several times a day or it might mean once a week, or even once a month. It’s also important for me to realize that periods of not producing work can be just as productive as working daily since these fallow times allow for rest and the germination of new ideas and self-discovery. I believe a strong writing practice must also include a lot of reading, preferably in myriad genres, sending out work for publication as often as tolerable, and being surrounded with a community of writers who can provide feedback, guidance, and support.

The poems in Flint and Fire were written (and revised) between 2001 and 2018, which is a period of time that includes a divorce, lots of relocating, and plenty of fallow time. The poems included are mostly inspired by my experiences and interaction with the many places I have lived and my interpersonal relationships with family. Twenty-four or so were previously published in literary journals, though a few published poems did not find their way into the collection at all.

The title, lifted from one of the poems within the collection, is inspired by images of the Kansas Flint Hills during prescribed burnings, a spectacle that I always looked forward to when I lived in Kansas but missed one season when I was away on spring break.

Flint & Fire will be published in March by The Word Works, just in time for this year’s AWP conference in Portland, which begins March 27th. It will be available through their website, as well as at live readings.

Converse MFA: Can you talk a little about how a sense of place informs your writing? Is place what inspires you as a writer?

downloadHase-Jackson: Whether consciously or not, we are constantly taking stock of our surroundings and are likewise influenced by them. Gravity and temperature, for example, continuously affect us, just as does light, sound, and the millions of atoms that we perpetually exchange with the world around us. All of this contributes to our mood, our perceptions, and even our physiological state of being. We do not exist outside of place, and neither does poetry.

Writing about place helps me to connect with reality, and often to self. I think it’s difficult to immediately relate to other people, especially when new to town, but connecting to an environment, even when it’s very unfamiliar, is much more direct. I can get to know a geography or a building through first-hand experience and a little research, which is less the case with people. I have also noticed that arriving in a new place provides different perspectives on places I’ve lived before so that even while living among the stunning mesas and mountains of New Mexico I came to admire the subtle beauty of the Kansas prairie, and just as living now among Cyprus swamps, wetlands, and the Atlantic coast that comprise Charleston, my appreciation for the stark and ever-changing color palette of the dessert is deepened. I am always excited by vocabulary, too, and becoming familiar with new terms and the topography they symbolize helps me gain a sense of belonging. Invariably these terms make their way into my poetry. So, yes, I do find quite a lot of inspiration in “place.”

Converse MFA: Who are you reading? What books might we find on your bedside table right now?

Hase-Jackson: I am rereading When Women Were Birds by Terry Tempest Williams and Silent Spring by Rachel Carson to prepare for an Ecofeminism course I am co-teaching for the Honors College at the College of Charleston next spring (2020), and I just finished reading Jennifer Chang’s two collections of poetry, The History of Anonymity and Some Say the Lark, in preparation for her upcoming visit and reading. This led me to read The Word Doesn’t End by Charles Simic, as Chang sites Simic as an influence.

Recently, I also pulled the Collected Poems of T.S. Elliot, 1909-1962 from the bookshelf to reread “Journey of the Magi” because the poem came up in one of my writer’s groups, so I wanted to reread it. In addition, I am perusing a charming 1930 edition of Representative Poems of Robert Burns with Carlyle’s Essay on Burns which I found on my mother’s bookshelf while clearing out her house. I am almost finished with Freedom by Jonathan Franzen, which my son recommended, and I just started The Last Romantics by Tara Conklin, which I am reading purely for pleasure.

Converse MFA: What do you do when you aren’t writing?

Hase-Jackson: It’s not often that a day goes by I am not involved with the writing life, whether attending a reading, facilitating a writers group, writing a book review, editing Zingara Poetry Review, talking with other writers, or jotting down notes for a poem or essay. I do find it very helpful to step away from the writing life and engage in a little creative cross-training. Lately, knitting has been instrumental in helping me maintain perspective as well as process grief over my mother’s recent passing. Perhaps predictably, I enjoy spending time outdoors and often go on hikes and bird walks or ride my bike on the city’s bike trails. Hunting for shells on the beach is another favorite, though just walking around my neighborhood can provide a great respite when needed. I’ve also been playing around with acrylic paints and have undertaken a collaborative project with my daughter, who is a visual artist and biologist.

Converse MFA: You completed your MFA in poetry at Converse College. Can you talk a little bit about why you pursued the MFA and how your time in the Converse program impacted you as a poet?

Hase-Jackson: I wanted to be part of a formal program that would help me mature as a writer and develop my aesthetic. I chose Converse because of its faculty and the size of the workshops, and because I wanted to work with knowledgeable practicing writers passionate about their craft. I had a lot of raw material – drafts and ideas – when I entered that program and hoped specifically that a low-res program would help me create the kind of personal discipline and practice I needed to revise and organize my work into a cohesive collection and to gain confidence enough to send that collection out into the world. Clearly, my time at Converse has provided all of this and more.

Converse MFA: Finally, are you doing any readings or presentations to promote the new book? If so, where might readers find you?

downloadHase-Jackson: I am thrilled to say that I will be reading at an offsite location during AWP in Portland in March, with other authors with The Word Works, so I guess that is the official “launch” for Flint & Fire. I will be reading for The Writer’s Place in Kansas City on April 19th and at the Raven Bookstore in Lawrence Kansas as part of the Big Tent Series on April 25th. I will also be at Converse on June 6th to read as part of the alumni series. I am looking into a venue for a Charleston book launch, perhaps in late April or early May, and have a few leads on readings in Greenville and Raleigh.

 

Poem from Collection (First published in Fall Lines):

Junk Mail

My new husband pulls the hood of his sweatshirt

over his head and jokes—in that inappropriate way men

 

think is so funny—that I should come looking for him

if he doesn’t return from checking the mail.

 

My heart jumps that short space between my chest

and throat, but I don’t laugh because it’s dark

 

outside and all of our neighbors are white.

I worry every minute of the five he is gone,

 

recite the Serenity Prayer like a perpetual mantra

until he comes back through the front door, keys

 

in hand, dragging a little of the night’s cool air with him.

In the pile of mail, a few sealed envelopes

 

from utility companies, a church flier, sheets

of glossy coupons—the kind you can’t recycle.

The evening passes as so many do: dinner,

reading in bed, goodnight kisses. When morning

 

comes and my husband leaves for work, I watch

him drive out of the cul-de-sac. The sound

 

of the engine fades into sunrise, and I go to the closet

where he hangs the clothes he doesn’t fold, pull down

 

every single hoodie he owns, even the Adidas we bought

in Korea, and shred them all to unwearable strips.

Interview: YA Fiction Alumna Gwen Holt Talks About Her Latest Novel, Imani Unraveled

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Earlier this month, Gwen Holt published her newest novel, Imani Unraveled, under her YA pen name Leigh Statham.  Gwen, who was raised in the wilds of rural Idaho,  now resides in North Carolina. When not writing or parenting, Gwen serves as the Managing Fiction Editor at South 85 Journal, the Converse College MFA program’s online literary journal. She is the winner of the 2018 James Applewhite Poetry Prize honorable mention, and received Southeast Review’s 2016 Narrative Nonfiction prize. Her essays, poetry, and short stories can be found in the Remington ReviewSoutheast ReviewNorth Carolina Literary Review, and several anthologies.

In June Gwen will participate in the annual MFA alumni reading, and in addition to that reading, Gwen also will be doing a number of upcoming readings and signings. You’ll find the dates at the bottom of this interview.

Today, Gwen has agreed to share some of her experience and inspiration with regards to her latest release and to writing in general.

Converse MFA: Gwen, tell us a little about your new book and the process of writing it. How long have you worked on this novel? When and where can we find it?

Gwen Holt: Imani Unraveled is the second novel in my “Daughter 4254” series. We pick up where book one left our heroine in the woods and follow her as she explores a part of her country she never thought she would see. The series as a whole tackles the importance of the arts in our own culture. I’ve tried to use the dystopian background to emphasize how vital all branches of the arts are to our society and for our happiness.

Converse MFA: Can you talk a little about what informs your writing? How do you start a new novel? How do you know you have an idea worth pursuing over the length of a novel?

Gwen Holt: I spend a lot of time thinking about “what if’s” and sometimes one of those trains of thought won’t let me go. If that scenario comes with the clear view of a main character, then I know I have a new novel on my hands. I usually make notes on the idea and character and I keep that in an idea folder. Then I think about it for a long time, if the rest of the story starts to flesh out – setting, plot, supporting cast- and I find that’s all I want to think about, it’s time to start writing.

Converse MFA: Who are you reading? What books (fiction, YA, poetry, nonfiction, etc.) might we find on your bedside table right now?

Gwen Holt: Currently, you’d find “The Great Believers” by Rebecca Makkai (adult), “What the Night Sings” by Vesper Stamper (YA), “To Those Who Were Our First Gods” by Nickole Brown (Poetry), and “All of Us” by Raymond Carver (Poetry).

Converse MFA: What do you do when you aren’t writing?

Gwen Holt: I have four kids. Enough said.

Converse MFA: You completed your MFA in YA fiction at Converse College and you did an immersion residency in poetry. Can you talk a little bit about why you pursued the MFA and how your time in the Converse program impacted you as a writer?

Gwen Holt: I decided to get an MFA because I reached a point in my writing where I felt I needed to really focus on the quality of my work. I wanted to study full time with literary authors and I really needed some deadlines. Converse gave me all of that, with world class faculty and an excellent program structure, plus I made friends with my classmates that I hope to have my whole life.

Converse MFA: Finally, are you doing any readings or presentations to promote the new book? If so, where might readers find you?

Gwen Holt: I am! I will be at Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh on Feb 15. Durham Public Library on Feb 21, and Teen Author Boot Camp on March 23rd.

The rest of my dates and times for the book tour are listed on my website, www.LeighStatham.com

Converse MFA: Gwen, thanks for taking the time to talk with us and tell us about your newest book. We look forward to hosting you this summer along with Sonja Condit and Lisa Hase-Jackson when each of you will read on June 6.

If you haven’t yet purchased your copy of Imani Unraveled, and you don’t want to wait until Gwen reads at Converse this summer, you can order it online: https://www.amazon.com/Imani-Unraveled-Daughter-4254-Book/dp/1945654252/ref=tmm_pap_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1550081580&sr=1-1

 

Winter Residency Wrap Up

We recently completed another Converse writing residency filled with workshops, readings, craft lectures, agent pitch sessions, and even time to squeeze in a little fun.  Everybody went home with lots of new books signed by the amazing authors who read each night, and with new goals for writing this semester. We finished the residency with some wonderful thesis readings from our graduating students and a little end-of-residency celebration. It really was everything you could want a winter residency to be: serous, thoughtful work, outstanding writing, and most importantly….onesies for New Year’s Eve.  It would be difficult to capture every moment of our fabulous ten days, but here are some highlights. And don’t forget, the deadline to apply for the next residency is February 15, so don’t miss out!

Converse Winter Residency 2019 – Lecture Passes (Schedules)

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It’s nearly that time again — time for the MFA January 2019 Residency.  We are so excited about the upcoming session with students and faculty, visiting writers, and, maybe, YOU!  That’s right.  We are again offering both Full and Half Lecture Passes for those who would like to attend our stellar faculty’s and visiting writers’ craft lectures (and readings too for those who choose Full Passes.)  This is a wonderful opportunity, not only to hear amazing and insightful lectures, but it also gives visitors a chance to experience the nurturing instructional environment that our program offers.

The cost of this affordable option is Full Lecture Pass: $450 and Half Lecture Pass: $225.  Check out the schedules for both below and see what we have on offer that will feed your love of and passion for writing. We hope to see you there!

 

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Converse College Low Residency MFA Full Pass Lecture Schedule Winter 2019

All lectures and readings take place in the Spartanburg Marriott Conference Center, Oak Board Room.

 December 30, 2018

10:00-11:30 a.m. Craft Lecture: Susan Tekulve, “At the Edge of the Fire: Writing Flash Nonfiction”, Oak Board Room, Conference Center 2nd flr.

4;30-5:30 p.m. Craft Lecture, Marlin Barton, “So How Do I Get Out of This Thing?: Ending short Stories,” Oak Board Room, Conference Ctr. 2nd flr.

8:00-9:00 p.m. Visiting Faculty Reading: Catherine Reid, Oak Board Room, Conference Center 2nd flr.

December 31, 2018

10:00-11:30 a.m. Nonfiction Craft Lecture, Catherine Reid, “The Extraordinary Ordinary/The Luminous Particular,” Oak Board Room, Conference Ctr. 2nd flr.

4:30-5:30 p.m. Poetry Craft Lecture: Rick Mulkey: “Poetry Strength Training: Shaping Up Syntax and Line,” Oak Board Room, Conf. Ctr. 2nd flr.

8:00-9:00 p.m. Faculty Reading, Susan Tekulve and Marlin Barton, Oak Board Room, Conference Ctr. 2nd flr.

January 1, 2019

4:30-5:30 p.m. Poetry Craft Lecture: Suzanne Cleary, “Schmoozing With Your Muse: Radical Revision,” Oak Board Room, Conference Ctr. 2nd floor

January 2, 2019

10:00–11:30 p.m., Craft Lecture, Leslie Pietrzyk, “In the Beginning: Start Your Story/Essay Right” Oak Board Room, Conference Ctr. 2nd flr.

4:30-5:45 p.m., Poetry Craft Lecture: Joshua Bell, Title “The Disappearing Craft Talk,” Oak Board Room, 2nd floor Conference Ctr.

8:00-9:00 p.m., Visiting Faculty Reading, Joshua Bell, Oak Board Room, Conference Ctr. 2nd flr.

January 3, 2019

4:30-5:45 p.m. Fiction Craft Lecture, Bryn Chancellor, The “Nth Perspective: Omniscience and the Retrospective ‘I’,” Oak Board Room, Conference Center 2nd flr.

8:00 p.m., Visiting Faculty Reading, Bryn Chancellor, Oak Board Room, Conference Center 2nd flr.

January 4, 2019

4:30-5:30 p.m. Discussion and Q&A on Agent Querying and Publishing Process with visiting Agent Noah Ballard, Oak Board Room, 2nd floor, Conference Center.

8:00-9:00 p.m., Faculty Reading, Rick Mulkey and Leslie Pietrzyk, Oak Board Room, Conference Center 2nd flr.

January 5, 2019

4:30-5:30 Panel Discussion, “So You’ve Finished a Manuscript: When and How to Submit Your Writing,” Oak Board Room, Conference Center 2nd flr.

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Converse College Low Residency MFA Half Pass Lecture Schedule Winter 2019

All lectures take place in the Spartanburg Marriott Conference Center, Oak Board Room.

December 30, 2018

10:00-11:30 a.m. Craft Lecture: Susan Tekulve, “At the Edge of the Fire: Writing Flash Nonfiction”, Oak Board Room, Conference Center 2nd flr.

4:30-5:30 p.m. Craft Lecture, Marlin Barton, “So How Do I Get Out of This Thing?: Ending short Stories,” Oak Board Room, Conference Ctr. 2nd flr.

December 31, 2018

10:00-11:30 a.m. Nonfiction Craft Lecture, Catherine Reid, “The Extraordinary Ordinary/The Luminous Particular,” Oak Board Room, Conference Ctr. 2nd flr.

4:30-5:30 p.m. Poetry Craft Lecture: Rick Mulkey: “Poetry Strength Training: Shaping Up Syntax and Line,” Oak Board Room, Conf. Ctr. 2nd flr.

January 1, 2019

4:30-5:30 p.m. Poetry Craft Lecture: Suzanne Cleary, “Schmoozing With Your Muse: Radical Revision,” Oak Board Room, Conference Ctr. 2nd floor

January 2, 2019

10:00–11:30 p.m., Craft Lecture, Leslie Pietrzyk, “In the Beginning: Start Your Story/Essay Right” Oak Board Room, Conference Ctr. 2nd flr.

4:30-5:45 p.m., Poetry Craft Lecture: Joshua Bell, Title “The Disappearing Craft Talk,” Oak Board Room, 2nd floor Conference Ctr.

January 3, 2019

4:30-5:45 p.m. Fiction Craft Lecture, Bryn Chancellor, “The Nth Perspective: Omniscience and the Retrospective ‘I’,” Oak Board Room, Conference Center 2nd flr.

January 4, 2019

4:30-5:30 p.m. Discussion and Q&A on Agent Querying and Publishing Process with visiting Agent Noah Ballard, Oak Board Room, 2nd floor, Conference Center.

January 5, 2019

4:30-5:30 Panel Discussion, “So You’ve Finished a Manuscript: When and How to Submit Your Writing,” Oak Board Room, Conference Center 2nd flr.

Suzanne Cleary – New Poetry and Facebook Live

 

Suzanne Cleary, beloved poetry faculty member here at Converse College Low-Residency MFA, has a brand new collection of poems released this month called, Crude Angel, published by BkMk Press .  While we are very excited for Suzanne, we are even more excited to announce that you will be able to hear her read some of her brand-spanking new poetry LIVE during the opening night of our Winter Residency.

Beginning at 8 pm on Saturday, December 29, 2018, Suzanne Cleary’s reading will be streamed live on our program’s Facebook page.  And the good news is that if you can’t watch the reading live, the video will remain on our Facebook page to view at your leisure.  So whatever winter holidays you celebrate, you can kick back in the comfort of your own home with a cup of cocoa and what will be an amazing reading by one of our favorite poets.  It doesn’t get much better than that.

See you there!

 

January Residency is on its way!

The January Residency is nearly here, and we couldn’t be more excited about all we have on offer for our students this time around.  Here’s just a taste of some of the accomplished writers who will be presenting at the upcoming residency:

joshua_bell_photoJosh Bell

Josh Bell (Poetry) is a Senior Lecturer at Harvard University. He’s published the poetry collections, No Planets Strike, and, Alamo Theory, and he is the recent recipient of a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Bryn Chancellorbryn_chancellor_photo

Bryn Chancellor (Fiction) is the author of the novel Sycamore (Harper/HarperCollins 2017), which was a Southwest Book of the Year, an Indie Next pick, an Amazon Editors’ Best Book of 2017, and among Bustle‘s Best Debuts of 2017. Her story collection When Are You Coming Home? (University of Nebraska Press 2015) won the Prairie Schooner Book Prize, and her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Gulf Coast, Blackbird, Colorado Review, Crazyhorse, Phoebe, The Common, Publishers Weekly, and elsewhere. She is a grateful recipient of fellowships from the Alabama, Arizona, and North Carolina state arts councils and the Poets and Writers Maureen Egen Writers Exchange Award.

catherine_reid_headshotCatherine Reid

Catherine Reid (Nonfiction) has taught at a number of different schools, most recently at Warren Wilson College, in Asheville, North Carolina, where she served as director of the undergraduate creative writing program and specialized in creative nonfiction and environmental writing. In addition to three works of nonfiction, Falling into Place: An Intimate Geography of Home; Coyote: Seeking the Hunter in Our Midst, and the recent The Landscapes of Anne of Green Gables, she has edited two anthologies (Every Woman I Ever Loved and His Hands, His Tools, His Sex, His Dress) and published essays in such journals as the Georgia Review, Fourth Genre, Bellevue Literary Review, and Massachusetts Review. She has been a creative writing fellow at the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Massachusetts and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and has received fellowships in creative nonfiction from the North Carolina Arts Council and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Of course, there will still be craft lectures and readings with our amazing core faculty, as well as invaluable workshop time in the afternoons.  With agent pitch sessions and meetings with faculty mentors, this residency is shaping up to be another jam-packed nine days of all things writing.  If this sounds like just the thing you’ve been looking for, the deadline for the June/Fall residency is February 15, 2019.  We’d love to see you there.

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Interview: Alumna Sonja Condit Talks About Her Latest Book

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Last month, alumna Sonja Condit, graciously shared an excerpt from her book, The Banshee of Machrae with our blog, and it was sufficiently creepy and suspenseful enough to ensure that you all now own a copy.  But if you haven’t yet gotten your copy, and you would like to get it signed, Sonja is having a book launch party on October 22, 2018, at Fiction Addiction in Greenville, SC, from 6-8 pm.  Bring your book and get it signed, or pick up a copy or two for you and your book-loving friends. You can also order it online here.

Today, Sonja has agreed to share some of her experience and inspiration with regards to her latest release. So sit back and enjoy, and maybe learn something too!

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Converse MFA:  In your first book, Starter House, an actual house that you saw inspired you and informed your idea for the book. Is there some real thing/place/person that inspired this story?

Sonja Condit: I remember reading, years ago, about a couple of  teenage girls who went on an arson spree for reasons related to friendship and love, never entirely made clear. I don’t recall where it happened, although some part of my mind thinks maybe New Jersey. I also don’t remember any other details at all! Somebody once said that a novelist needs the gift of forgetting (I don’t remember who said it, though).

MFA: What’s it like publishing a second book? Did you learn anything with the first that changed/will change how you approach/approached things this time around?

SC: This time, I wasn’t surprised by how collaborative the whole process was, and found it much easier to take criticism and suggestions for change. The first time, I left editorial emails unopened for a couple of days while working up the courage to read them, and I was slightly devastated to learn that some parts of the first book would have to be cut. My general feeling was, well why not just take a chunk of my liver and maybe a lung and a few fingers while you’re at it? (The cuts were good and necessary, but they hurt.) This time, I was a bit more professional and not so whiny.

MFA: Why do you think you’re drawn to the spooky and otherworldly? Is that what you read primarily?

SC: I read all kinds of things, but I’ve always been drawn to the otherworldly, beginning with a childhood taste for folklore and mythology. I would like to write something naturalistic one of these days–but I’m working on a new one, and it’s definitely supernatural, so maybe those patterns are just hardwired into my imagination.

MFA: What are you reading right now?

SC: I’m partway through the Patrick Melrose series by Edward St Aubyn, but I can’t read much of it at a time because it’s too sad. It’s one of those books that makes you want to intervene in some way, just to make it stop.

MFA:  Who’s a writer you really admire and why? Is there a specific writer who really informs your writing?

SC: I rather love Tana French at the moment. I’m slowly re-reading bits of The Likeness.

MFA: How long did it take you to write this book, from idea to completion?

SC: This one came in bits. The first long story, “Flashover,” took a couple of months, and then I sat with it for a long time, trying to figure out which ending was right. The longer it sat, the more I kept imagining scenes coming as a result of all the possible endings. Finally I gave up and decided to write them all, in whichever order they occurred in my imagination, which was very random. All the rest of the book after “Flashover” took about a month. It was intense, three or four thousand words a day. This was during summer, so I had the time. Then I spent about a year rewriting, cutting things, and writing other things, and trying to put it in order.

MFA: What was the process like? (Both your personal editing and your editing with your agent and/or editor/publisher.)

SC: The writing itself was very fast. Then I spent a long time ruminating and thinking about how the stories fit together. I went through the book several times for the purpose of dropping snippets from stories into other stories so it wouldn’t be so chaotic. Occasionally I worried about continuity and consistency, but mostly I just let that go. It’s an unconscious kind of book; it fits together through dream logic, and there’s no real explanation for some of it. As far as publishing, I thought, this is just too strange, so I went to the competition route–I needed just one person who would read it and get it. It went to seven or eight contests, and came in second at SFK, and they decided to publish it even though it didn’t win.

MFA: Who are you writing this book for? Who is your ideal reader? What kind of tastes do they have? I guess I’m asking what some comps might be for your new book?

SC: I wrote this one for myself. My ideal reader is anyone who’s willing to come into this weird inner space and hang out with me for a while.

MFA: Do you work alone or are you part of a writing group?

SC: Alone right now, but groups are great!

MFA: Do you know the ending before you start?

SC: Definitely, but the ending I know at the start isn’t the ending that actually happens. This one doesn’t have an end; it has a sort of loop. There’s a story called “The End,” but it’s in the middle.

MFA: Can you talk a little bit about how you shaped this new book, which isn’t as linear and straightforward as your previous one? How do you think those decisions affect the story/mood/etc.?

SC: I let my inner poet off the chain for this one. My theory was, you can do anything if it’s eight pages or shorter. Also, I was completely done with chronological storytelling. Who lives chronologically, really? Don’t we spend a lot of time in our own heads recreating bits of the past in an order that is emotional but not chronological, and projecting ourselves into all sorts of different futures, and being unreliable narrators of our own lives and false omniscient narrators of the world? Emmy is a first person omniscient narrator. She tells all the stories, even the ones that go deep into other people’s minds or into things she can’t know, because that’s what people do. I can’t explain why I put the sections in the order I did; it just felt right.  Maybe it’s because that’s how I read. If I’m interested in a book, I’ll read the first chapter, and then the last chapter. If I need to know how the author got from the beginning to end, I’ll read the middle, but not necessarily in order.  Of course, I’m going back to chronological storytelling now. There’s a reason most books are written that way. But it felt good to do something else for a change.

Thanks so much to Sonja Condit for her generosity and time.  We love reading about your process and writing/reading life, and we are more than a little proud to have you as an alumna of our program.  Best of luck with your new book!

 

Celebrating Converse MFA Alumna, Sonja Condit’s 2nd Book Release, The Banshee of Machrae, (Excerpt Included)

bansheeofmachrae1: An Old Man in a Quiet Room
“Come and see,” Jessa said. She took my hand and led me into her great-grandfather’s room.

Jessa Machrae was my best friend. She knew things. She ate candy every day. I followed her everywhere. In the first week of October 2006, when we were seven, Jessa’s great-grandfather had been dying for as long as I’d known her, which was three months and felt like my whole life. He was a-hundred-and-one years old. Mrs. Machrae said, “If you two live to be a hundred and one, you’ll live in three centuries,” because we’d been born in 1999. If he wanted to live in three centuries, Jessa’s brother Kalen would have to live to a hundred and four. He only made it to nineteen.

When we first moved in across Fenchurch Road from the Machraes in July, Jessa came over the road—crossing the road alone, which I was not allowed to do—and introduced herself by saying, “This is my house.”

“It’s ours,” I said, but I wasn’t sure; in my life so far, we’d moved eight times, sometimes unexpectedly in the middle of the night, and my father’s car had been repossessed. I had no way of knowing what was mine, and here was Jessa in the sunlight, with purple lights shimmering in her black hair, staking her claim.

The house was over a century old and had been built in stages, new rooms tacked on to old. There was a window in the brick wall between the kitchen and the dining room, and you couldn’t find a truly flat floor in the whole place. Wherever you set a marble down, it would quiver, then tremble, then wobble, then roll toward one wall or another. If you rolled it back, it would stop as if caughtunder someone’s thumb, and then after a while it would roll back to you; if you squinted, you could almost make out a small body crouched in the swirl of day-shining dust waiting for you to take another turn. Infinite patience in a simple game. My mother took the marble away, Emerson, don’t summon what you don’t understand: anything can happen. My parents had let me choose which of the two smaller bedrooms I wanted, and I chose the one on the corner because it had two windows. Jessa had been born in that room, she said.

“My house,” Jessa said. “Only we’re in the new house now. We can throw you out whenever we want.”

“No you can’t.”

“We can get the sheriff to throw you out and dump your stuff on the side of the road, and anybody who drives by can stop and take whatever they want.”

“No, no, no—”

“Nothing here is yours,” Jessa said. “Show me your toys.” She led me into the house and I followed her, hiccupping at the top of every breath and wiping my tears into my hair, as she prowled from room to room until she found mine. “How many Barbies you got?” she asked.

“My mom doesn’t believe in Barbies.”

“That’s stupid.”

My toys lived in a cedar trunk hand-carved by a friend of my mother’s, an amateur carpenter who never quite mastered the square edge. The whole thing tilted to the left and the lid didn’t close. Jessa dumped everything on the floor—the handmade blocks, the unpainted wooden train, the rag dolls made of actual rags—and stirred the mess with a queenly, contemptuous toe. “Pathetic,” she said. But she’d come this far; she couldn’t leave empty-handed. She took one of the rag dolls and said, “You give me this and I’ll let you keep the rest. You can come and look at my toys, but you aren’t allowed to touch them.”

Three months later, half her Barbies had found their way to my house, and once a week my mother repatriated them, muttering all the while about genital mutilation and footbinding. Jessa’s mother fed me Popsicles and Rice Krispies Treats and hot dogs off the grill. Her great-grandfather said call me Granda and told me all the Machrae stories, as if I were a new Machrae sprung fully formed from the earth.

He told me about Lilly who drowned with her baby at the bridge, and whose ghost would eat any traveler who was so foolish as to stop for her. He told me about his half-brother who worked in the dye house at Roberts Mill and accidentally cut off his own thumb with a hatchet while chopping firewood . . . and how his thumb-bones were dyed blue, and his flesh was purple at the bone. He told me about wild animals that weren’t around much anymore, like panthers and lizardmen and the black owl, which was big enough to carry off a middling dog, and called like a woman wailing in the dark. He showed me the scar on his arm from the time a coyote bit him, and the scar on his ankle from when he stepped into the trap he had set for that very same coyote, which had taken the trap in its teeth and moved it on purpose into Granda’s path.

I never knew my real grandparents. Eldred Machrae was the only old person I’d ever met. He smelled strongly of peppermint with an undertone of eucalyptus, a smell so aggressively clean I was always sniffing for something horrible underneath. His hair was thick, black, and coarse, with only a few white strands around his ears. He could stick out his tongue through the gap in his lower teeth, a trick which never failed to make Jessa shriek with laughter, though it scared and revolted me.

“Come and see,” Jessa said in October, three months after we moved to Roberts Mill. “Mommy left me alone with Granda and I think he’s dead.”

His room was still and dim. The body in the bed seemed to have shriveled. I took a step into the room and the hand of vertigo whirled me up and down and backwards all at once. I caught myself on the doorframe. For a moment, I was my own small self and another self, two feet taller, sixty pounds heavier; it was Granda’s room and someone else’s room (whose, I could not say); emotions blew through me, moving me though they were not my own. Shame, sadness, grief. Then I slammed back into my body, electric in every pore. The blanket was drawn over the face, above the eyebrows, and the wild black hair sprayed over the pillow. I smelled mint and eucalyptus. I smelled, very clearly, that scent I had searched for all those months, living flesh already rotten, human waste, bleach, lemon. One breath and it was gone.

“Touch him,” Jessa said.

“I don’t want to.”

“Go on. He won’t bite.”

I took another step toward the bed. “Let’s tell my mom. She’ll call someone.”
Jessa snorted and I flushed. Hadn’t I learned yet that let’s tell my mom was never the answer? I took another step, and now I could see the band of golden skin between the blanket and the black hair. Death had smoothed the deep lines of Granda’s face. I touched a lock of hair. It felt no different than anyone’s hair. I touched the forehead.

I had just time to think this is a dead body I’m touching a dead body he’s dead when it happened. A hand snaked from the blanket, the body flung the covers aside, and Jessa’s brother Kalen grabbed my shoulders and pulled me toward him. He crossed his eyes and shouted, “Got you now!” and he and Jessa burst out laughing.

This time, I didn’t cry. All the blood in my body turned to light and I hummed with power. It sparkled in myfingertips. “I hope you die,” I said. “I hope you die, I hope you die.” Immediately I was sorry, and I gabbled as quickly as I could, before the power faded, “No, don’t all the way die . . .”

Eldred Machrae died two days after Thanksgiving, but it took ten years for my curse to work its way into the world. I did it. I said those things. It’s my fault: everything.

Sonja-Coppenbarger-300x300Sonja Condit is a graduate of the Converse Low-Residency MFA program.  This is her second novel, the first being, Starter Housepublished by Harper Collins.  Her latest book, The Banshee of Machraeis published by SFK Press.

 

 

Be on the lookout for an upcoming blog post interview with Sonja about her new book and how she made it from MFA student to twice published author.

MFA Admission Open House Event

MFA Admission Open House

We are so happy to announce our latest MFA Admissions Open House Event!  Please stop by for more information about our exciting and innovative program.  Alumni are welcome to drop in as well to bring along interested friends or just offer a little perspective to our visitors who want to learn more about what it’s like to be in a low-residency program.  Either way, we can’t wait to see you there!