We are pleased to announce our latest MFA Admissions Open House Event! We are holding this as a virtual event via Zoom on September 14 from 7-8 pm. Email email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org to register for the Open House and for more information about our exciting and innovative program. In addition to our program director and assistant director, we will have several MFA faculty members available including Denise Duhamel and Marlin Barton, as well as some current students and alums who will offer a little perspective to our visitors who want to learn more about what it is like to be in a low-residency program. Once you email us to register for the Open House, we will email you the Zoom link so you can join us September 14 from 7-8 pm, Eastern time. We look forward to meeting you!
The Converse Low Residency MFA is pleased to announce that as of July 2020, our graduate MFA has entered into a new publishing collaboration with Clemson University Press. The new series, “The Clemson-Converse Literature Series,” will launch two exciting book prizes as part of that collaboration.
The first prize contest, a biennial award accepting submissions starting in the winter of 2021, is the Converse MFA Book Prize. This award series will offer our alumni and current students the unique opportunity of entering a book-length poetry, short fiction, or essay collection to the series contest, and the winner will be published by Clemson University Press. The Converse MFA Book Prize will be open only to Converse Low Residency MFA alumni and students, and it will be awarded biennially when a submitted manuscript warrants selection and publication. The Converse MFA author of the winning manuscript will be awarded a standard royalty book contract, publication by Clemson University Press, and a reading at the Converse College Low Residency MFA program residency session. Clemson University Press will edit, publish, and distribute each prize-winning book. The finalists for the prize will be judged by a writer of national distinction.
Through the Converse MFA Book series, our program becomes one of only a few graduate writing programs to provide students and graduates both outstanding writing instruction and mentoring, while also providing university press publishing opportunities.
The second book award series is a biennial national poetry prize (name TBD) which will be open to any poet writing in English. The prize winner will receive a $1,000 cash award, publication of a full-length collection of poetry by Clemson University Press, a standard royalty contract, 15 copies of the published book, and a post-publication reading at the Converse College Low Residency MFA and at Clemson University. Current and former employees, students, and graduates of Converse College are not eligible to enter this particular prize. The national poetry prize will open for submissions in 2022.
Additional information about the publishing collaboration and submission guidelines will be forthcoming. Clemson University Press and the Converse MFA plan to launch the new collaboration with the publication of a poetry anthology edited by Denise Duhamel and Rick Mulkey highlighting the writing of Converse faculty, visiting faculty, and alumni poets over the most recent decade of the program’s existence–2009 to 2019.
The new series agreement will also give our MFA scholarship students opportunities to participate in the management of the national prize competition. To keep up with updates check back to the Converse MFA web page at <www.converse.edu/mfa> or check out the the CU Press at the Clemson-Converse Literature Series web page: https://libraries.clemson.edu/press/series/converse-college-literature-series/
And remember, the place for your next book is here with the Converse Low Residency MFA.
Here in the Converse MFA office we’re still buzzing from all the excitement generated during our winter residency session which finished up last week. And we can’t wait for the start of our Summer residency/Fall mentoring semester. Right now we’re reviewing applications for the upcoming semester, and the next priority deadline is Feb. 15, so be sure to contact our office if you have any questions about the application process. You can reach us by email at <email@example.com> or <firstname.lastname@example.org>.
We’re also happy to share this essay by MFA program alumna Frances Nevill on how the MFA degree can benefit writers in the workplace. We think Frances makes some excellent points. Our thanks to her for writing this and for allowing us to reprint here on our program blog.
Five Ways A Creative Writing Degree Applies to the Workplace
By Frances Susanna Nevill
When I stepped into my Masters of Fine Arts (MFA) in Creative Writing program, I was often asked “What will you do with that degree?” What I desired the most was to see a major transformation in my fiction writing—to get really good at crafting story arcs and to explore a subject I was driven to understand in its most basic and most complex forms. I had no doubt I would be able to transfer what I learned as a writing student to other career paths. I believe that there are aspects of the creative process that transfer to non-artistic projects or decisions made in the workplace. Artistic creation and pragmatic business management are not mutually exclusive experiences. After completing an arts degree, I am even more convinced that what I learned as a fiction writer is applicable to the workplace. The buzz word on everyone’s lips is storytelling. An MFA degree is essence a degree in just that — the art of story. Whether we choose the genre of fiction, nonfiction, scriptwriting or poetry, MFA students practice the craft of story until they get it right. I have found five areas (although there are so many more) of what I have learned as a fiction writer converges with the workplace.
1) What Does Your Protagonist Want?
In fiction workshops, you hear this question again and again. The same can be true about your company or your place within it. Can you define, in one sentence, a mission statement of what your company aims to accomplish? Perhaps you need to ask yourself the one question: what do I want out of my career or this job? When asking these questions of characters in a story, writers often recall their own experiences to understand and communicate the answers. Similarly, identifying that one purpose is key to businesses as executives make the “big picture” decisions. Answering the big questions also helps guide the day-to-day ones as well.
2) The Intensity of a Character’s Want Drives the Action
How badly your character wants something – love, freedom, money, acceptance in the world – should drive the plot. Your character’s actions should be borne out of that deep desire whether or not it’s expressed to the reader or whether it’s known to the character. Getting to that “want” is part of the story’s plot. Editing out the unnecessary for the character in the story clears the way to achieve the “want.” Or, better yet, how the character clears their ownway to get to their “want” is essential to storytelling. The same is true of companies: how much time are you spending on things not essential to your company’s mission? The same is true of you as well: how much of your daily actions are directly tied to your goals? Are you being pulled in unproductive directions by circumstance?
3) All Writing is Rewriting
Writers are repeatedly reminded of this mantra during workshops, retreats, and classes. There’s no such thing as a perfect first draft. You can aim for stronger and stronger first drafts of course, but what comes out on the page the first go ‘round is not what usually makes it into print. C-level professionals know this inherently. They have lived through the “revision” of their companies and their careers. The ability to look at the product your company is producing or the service you are providing and critique it, and handle critique from others, separates the manifesters from the dreamers. As painful as it can sometimes be, learn to expect and even welcome critique. It can help you make needed adjustments, or even suggest radical new directions. Sometimes it helps you recognize more clearly that you are going in the right direction.
4) All the Senses Apply
I once created a writing exercise called “What Does Your Treehouse Taste Like?” It asked the writer to describe their childhood hangout. I knew the students could describe what a treehouse looked like, but by asking them what it “tasted” like, it got them to explore their feelings about their youth. I received responses such as, “campfires and s’mores,” and “raindrops dripping down the rope swing.” They were seeing the treehouse less as an inanimate object and something more symbolic of their childhood.
This sensory mining is extremely important in the corporate world when gathering a group for brainstorming or problem solving. The ability to foster non-linear thinking amongst staff can yield new ideas, products, and solutions. Sometimes silence and a pen is all it takes to tap into the creative well.
5) Adaptability Breeds Survival
This applies more to making a career as a professional writer. I’ve met writers who were tied to the traditional path of publishing, and I have met writers who are blazing their own paths by publishing as indie authors. Both groups have found success. There are many paths within a journey that can all lead to the summit. You must adapt if you want to be a part of the landscape. Businesses with longevity already know this. Ask yourself this: how many of our employees are aware of our industry’s emerging trends? How and where does our staff receive national, state, and local news? Does our staff read what is happening in our industry? Are we leaders in our field and how are we differentiating ourselves from the pack? Are we stuck in old and dated patterns of thinking? Thinking about possibilities leads to creating the pathways to those possibilities and ultimately creates an environment of adaptability and innovation.
In writing, we know that no matter how much practice we have or how interesting our work may be, there is one key action we desire from readers: turn the page. Companies want that same level of engagement from its clients. Give them a great story.
Frances Susanna Nevill is an expert at community engagement through storytelling. She is a writing professor and professional writer living in Orlando, Florida. She received her MFA in Creative Writing from Converse College and has worked for lawmakers, state agencies and an international nonprofit. Follow her on IG: @floridayall, Twitter: @francesnevill, and LinkedIn.
It has been a very busy semester in the MFA program at Converse. We’re going to work on a full blog post soon, but for now we want to quickly share a few things with you. First, if you haven’t read them, be sure to check out some of our earlier blogs from September and August about recent and upcoming student and alumni book publications. Also, since the publication of those blogs, we’ve heard good news from MFA alum Paul Michael Garrison that his debut novel Letters to the Editor will be available later this month from Owl Hollow Press.
Also, YA Fiction faculty members Sheila O’Connor and Geoff Herbach have new books out. Sheila’s new novel, Evidence of V, was recently #1 on the Small Press Distribution best-sellers list for the months of September and October. Congrats, Sheila! And here is a link to an interview and discussion with her about the writing of the new novel: https://brooklynrail.org/2019/11/books/SHEILA-OCONNOR-in-conversation-with-Brache-James
As for Geoff Herbach’s new novel, head to HarperCollins for a sample of Cracking the Bell: https://www.harpercollins.com/9780062453143/cracking-the-bell/ If you are like those of us in the MFA Office, you are going to be excited for this one.
We are quickly closing in on the start of our winter residency in late December. Check back here in early December, and at our main web page www.converse.edu/mfa and on our Twitter, Instagram and Facebook pages for information on visiting faculty and core faculty for this winter, and for information on our public events during the residency.
Finally, some of you may be thinking about our next application deadline and what Converse has to offer prospective students. Here are a couple of previous blogs, including one from a Converse MFA graduate, that might provide you with some valuable insight into our program. The first is from Gwen Holt, a YA Fiction graduate: https://conversecollegelowresidencymfa.wordpress.com/2017/10/18/accomplished-ya-author-why-i-chose-converse-mfa/
Our next application deadline is Feb. 15 for enrollment in the Summer/Fall 2020 semester.Contact Sarah Cooper at email@example.com or Rick Mulkey at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any questions about the program or the application process.
Tell us a little about your book and the process of writing it. How long have you worked on the collection?
The nine stories in The Lightness of Water & Other Stories feature strong characters such as West Virginia miners, Florida bikers, Tennessee granny women, and Virginia professors, who grapple with—and sometimes overcome—harsh issues that many of us face; loneliness, loss, grief, and guilt. I began work on this collection during my studies at the Converse College Low-Residency MFA Program. Some of the stories (in earlier form) were part of my creative thesis, while others are newer. Overall, the collection has taken about nine years to come together in its final form. The “10,000 Hours Rule” certainly held truth, for me, and I’m now looking forward to finding out what the next 10,000 hours of study will do for my writing.
When and where can we find it?
Pre-orders ship from my publisher, Press 53, on September 15th, though the collection will be available everywhere on October 12, 2019.
Can you talk a little about what informs your writing? How do you start a new story?
Everything around me informs my writing. I’m a chronic eavesdropper, so anything you say can, and will, be used as fodder for my writing. My fiction is character-driven, and that’s where my stories start—with a character. The characters in my stories are often a montage of people I’ve seen or met or heard speak. Sometimes one small action, or one snippet of overheard dialogue, will be enough to get my brain churning, and then I’ll see someone who would be the perfect person to say that line, or there will be an awful event in which I could place that person and have them say that line, and then I’m down the rabbit hole to storyland.
How do you know you have enough stories worth collecting into a book-length manuscript? Can you talk a little bit about how you shaped this collection, the decisions that went into arranging the stories and selecting them?
It’s a tedious, technical decision: I count the pages. Seriously, when I reached around 150 pages of strong writing, and half of those stories (now more than half) were published in well-respected literary magazines, I felt ready to submit them as a collection.
Arranging the stories took a bit more thought. I always knew I wanted the stories “Bondservant,” and “The Big Empty” to be bookend stories for the collection. (They also appear as chapters one and four in my novel-in-progress.) I felt the title story, “The Lightness of Water,” should spearhead the center. After that, I arranged the rest by working toward a rollercoaster of emotions; one story ending on a hopeful note, followed by a story that’s a bit more fatalistic, followed by one with more humor, and so on.
Can you talk a little about how a sense of place informs your writing? Is place what inspires you as a writer?
I could argue that place is a character, as the land is a living being that breathes and moves and affects us as much as we affect it. Place and environment—what the land means to us, and what me mean to the land on which we live—is always either a strong presence, a shifting shadow, or an eerie echo in my stories. It’s always there, and it always informs the way in which my characters respond to whatever is happening to them. It’s a fictional reflection of the vein of truth that runs through each of us: We are where we are from. What inspiration is greater than that?
What’s it like publishing your first book? Did you learn anything with this first one that you that you think will benefit you in working on a second book?
It’s thrilling, it’s scary, and it’s a whole lot more work than I ever imagined it could be. I learned a lot about contracts. I was fortunate to receive two offers for my debut collection on the same day. It felt joyfully surreal, but then the reality of choosing—and possibly choosing incorrectly—set in, and I’ll admit that sapped a bit of the fun from the excitement. I relied on writers who are a lot smarter than I am (this is where networking is critical for new writers!), and I shared the two contracts with a few well-published authors who weighed in with their firsthand experiences. I quickly learned there’s no such thing as a “standard publishing contract,” as each was quite different. I researched terms that were strange to me; second serial rights, electronic rights, foreign licensing, and so on. I did more math than I’m ever comfortable doing, comparing percentages and net and gross figures. I considered logistics such as the geographical scope of influence of both publishers; how easily I could travel to their locations; what is the reach, impact, and success of their current authors; and what is the reputation of each press in the academic and writing communities at large? Equally important for me was the comfort level of talking with both publishers. To which publisher and editor could I best relate? Who responded rapidly and patiently to my questions? Who was most willing to negotiate contract terms? (Yes, you can negotiate with a small press!) It felt risky to question some of the articles in the contracts, and even riskier to ask for changes (I’m a newbie and fortunate to be here, so how dare I ask for these things!), but now I’m confident that I made the right choice for this particular point in my fledgling career. I feel better equipped as both a writer and as a businesswoman to handle my next book and publishing contract.
Who are you reading? What books might we find on your bedside table right now?I’ve just started The Land Breakers by John Ehle, touted to be the first non-stereotypical work of Appalachian literature. Next in the stack is The Last Girls by Lee Smith, whose strong female characters always inspire me. My current craft book is Screenplay by Syd Field. I fluctuate from immersive reading (reading work that relates to or may influence my current work-in-progress), to reading craft-of-writing books—much the same way we read in the Converse MFA program.
I also read a fair amount of poetry, because the rhythm and lyricism and focused lens of poetry gives my fiction a more resonant voice. May Darkness Restore, by Sean Sexton is proving to be a gorgeous braid of the life-and-death cycles of humans, animals, and the land we share, and I’m reading at least a couple of poems from his collection each night before bed. Glenis Redmond’s collection What My Hand Say is next up in my poetry stack.
What do you do when you aren’t writing?
When is a writer not writing? I feel like I’m creatively writing when I’m driving, or cleaning, or cooking, or simply staring out a window. Physically, I still work full-time, managing three primary care clinics and an urgent care, and I often encounter character-inspiration there. I sometimes speak to classrooms or writing groups or teach workshops. For fun, I enjoy staycationing in different areas of Florida on the weekends, as there’s always something to do here, and there’s a story every place I go. Which, again, means I’m always writing.
You completed your MFA in fiction 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 writer?
My friend Chris Kuell told me that I was a very good storyteller, but a terrible writer. (Yes, we’re still friends!) I realized that, unless I took my writing seriously, no one else would. Committing to a low-residency program, leaving my family for weeks at a time, in addition to redirecting my focus to graduate work, felt selfish, but it was exactly what I needed as a writer and as a person. My husband and son supported my efforts and grew along with me.
The Converse MFA program provided direction, discipline, and encouraging support. It was tough—Converse puts the earn in earning an MFA—but in the best of ways. My writing grew measurably each week, and the skills I learned outside of writing (deep reading, critical thinking, networking, and public speaking, for example) go with me everywhere, even improving my work as a medical manager and a teacher. I’m still in touch almost daily with my Converse MFA family—and I do think of them as family. We support one another’s careers, critique each other’s work, commiserate and grow from our failures, and share our successes.
Finally, are you doing any readings or presentations to promote the new book? If so, where might readers find you?
Yes, the book tour planning is underway! Following a launch party in Port Orange, Florida on October 12th, I’ll be signing books at the Red Pig Brewery in Holly Hill, Florida on October 20th, then speaking and reading at the Other Words Conference at the University of Tampa on October 25thand 26th. My website’s Events page lists details on these and other book signings, readings, and workshops where I’ll be speaking in Florida, West Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina. I’m (gleefully!) available for readings and workshops, and I’m happy to meet with book clubs or classrooms via Zoom, Facetime, Skype, or in person (schedule and location permitting) to discuss writing or read from my stories. Reach out to me via my website Read.Write.Live! at www.RhondaBrowningWhite.com. Interacting with readers and other writers is the most rewarding part of publication, and I’m thrilled to inspire and be inspired by our exchange of ideas!
The Fall semester has begun here at Converse, and everyone is back to work. Inquires, applications, and phone calls are rolling in, and we get excited about each and every one. As we start our second decade as a low residency MFA program, we can’t wait to meet our next group of poets and prose writers, memoirists and YA authors. So if you want to join us in January 2020, be sure to get your application materials sent in by October 1, 2019.
Also, we are excited about all the new publications from our alumni, current students, and faculty. Among those books currently scheduled for publication this fall and winter are alumna Rhonda Browning White’s The Lightness of Water and Other Stories, Winner of the Press 53 Fiction Prize, MFA student Andrew Clark’s new full-length poetry collection Jesus in the Trailer, MFA graduate David Colodney’s chapbook poetry collection, Mimeograph, MFA alumna Cinelle Barnes’ second book, Malaya: Essays on Freedom, poetry alumna and MFA program Assistant Director Sarah Cooper’s chapbook Permanent Marker, YA Fiction faculty member Geoff Herbach’s new YA novel Cracking the Bell,and YA Fiction faculty member Sheila O’Connor’s new novel Evidence of V. Be sure to check them all out at local bookstores and online.
Up until recently, if you were pursuing an MFA through our program, you had to choose one genre for your entire course of study. While you certainly got to dip your toes into other genres during the craft lectures and readings, a poet who likes to write short stories as well, didn’t have an option to workshop those stories. So, applicants to our program had to pick a direction and stick with it.
We are now offering a second option. For those students wishing to pursue a minor in a second genre (fiction, poetry, or creative nonfiction), they can now choose to study an additional semester in a second genre. For students enrolling in the second genre option, the total number of graduate hours would increase from 48 hours to 60 credit hours. This new option gives our students who are interested and equipped for graduate level work in a genre outside of their primary genre of study an opportunity to develop as a more well-rounded author, and will help our graduates excel in an ever more competitive publishing marketplace and in the academic job market.
The MFA faculty are very excited to offer this new opportunity to our students. While not all of our students will be interested or prepared for second genre studies, and many students will recognize that focusing on a single genre will be their best path, we are pleased that this is now an opportunity for our students who have the ability and desire to pursue graduate studies in two genres.
And for those of you not ready to fully enroll in an MFA program, don’t forget to check out our Immersion Residency option. It is a great way to try out the program and enhance your writing knowledge. Go to our we page and check out our Non-Degree Options.
As you can see, it’s an exciting time to apply to the Converse College Low-Residency Program. So send us your best writing because we can’t wait to read it. Application deadline for the winter residency/spring mentoring semester is October 1.
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.
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.
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?
Hase-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?
Hase-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):
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.
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 Review, Southeast Review, North 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
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!