Connecting the Dots

by Scott Laughlin

Though the events of our lives can feel haphazard, even tangled, sometimes you can connect the dots. My dots, at least the literary ones, run from Boston to London to St. Petersburg to Lisbon, and to Spartanburg, South Carolina and Converse College.

Let’s begin with the phone call from Luís in August, 2007 to tell me Alberto had suffered a stroke. Luís had rushed to Alberto’s bedside, had placed a hand on his still-warm forehead—but he’d died that evening.

I booked a flight for the funeral and saw him lowered into the ground in Brompton Cemetery with a small group, the painter Paula Rego among us. We’d already learned about the state of his flat where he’d been found unconscious: piles of newspapers, trash, a browned sink and tub, mice rummaging in the corners—the classic flat of a recluse. We, Alberto’s remaining friends, suspected as much.

We also suspected this: over one-thousand works of art (many unframed, mercilessly not ravaged by mice); letters from artists and friends (Pessoa, Mallaremé, Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop, David Hockney); original documents, such as programs from the Ballet Russes; Portuguese pottery… It was a collection that reflected Alberto’s transatlantic life and his eclectic tastes.

Luís told me he inherited everything and said, “This is a monumental task, and I’ll need your help.”

The flat was unearthed, truly an excavation. Eventually, 16 tons emerged, were boxed, put on barges, and sent to Portugal. I booked another ticket, this time to Lisbon. Luís called as I was about to leave for the airport.

“We’ve had a miracle,” he said. “Mario Soares is accepting Alberto’s estate into his foundation.”

Soares was the former President of Portugal, had been a key member of the Socialist Party in overthrowing the dictatorship in the Seventies. He knew Alberto and admired him as a man and as a poet. When I arrived, people with blue gloves and tweezers worked carefully to extract Alberto’s life, his own dots. I was free to relax and roam the streets of Lisbon, to experience for the first time its unique light, and to read Pessoa in the very cafés he frequented.

My first dot: Boston. Strange that what seems like an inconsequential decision—for me, signing up for Alberto de Lacerda’s class at Boston University—could have such a profound effect on the trajectory of one’s life. After his class on Modern Poetry (we read Baudelaire, Rimbaud, the Futurists, Apollinaire, the Surrealists), which altered my ways of thinking about literature and the world, Alberto became a mentor, a father-figure, and a friend. Fast-forward almost two decades, and I’m working on his legacy in a country I never visited when he was alive. He’d only lived briefly in Portugal; being a gay poet in a time of a Fascist dictatorship took care of that.

Enter Jeff Parker, who ran a literary program in St. Petersburg, Russia. Two, two-week sessions that consisted of workshops in poetry, creative non-fiction, and fiction. I’d gone to the program in 2005 and had Sam Lipsyte as my workshop leader. It was a boozy, raucous time, but I saw Raskolnikov’s apartment (or where he lived in Dostoevsky’s imagination), met Russian poets and translators, and saw William T. Vollman disappear behind the church where Kovalev encounters his nose in “The Nose” (or in Gogol’s imagination). I returned in 2007 as a guest lecturer. Over the course of those two years, Jeff and I became friends.

But the program was in peril by rising, unpredictable costs—by, for example, having to bribe, at the last minute, the venue where a reading was being held. Jeff was forced to shutter the program, but not before some of the best contemporary writers had either been participants or teachers in the program.

Dzanc Books, always ready to fund an exciting venture that strives to make the world a better place, encouraged Jeff to start a new program based on that one. Jeff’s grandfather was from Lisbon. Lisbon wasn’t, at least then, on anyone’s radar. It had a rich literary tradition. It was fun, and cheap.

But Jeff didn’t know anyone there, so he called me up.

“What exactly are you doing in Lisbon?” he asked.

I told him all about Alberto’s estate.

“Do you want to start this thing with me?” he asked.

“Twist my arm,” I said.

“Dzanc will send us over on a scouting trip, so tell me when you can go.”

“Now?” I said.

Through Luís, we had a meeting with Teresa Tamen at the Centro Nacional de Cultura.The director, Guilherme d’Oliveira Martins, was another fan of Alberto’s and considered him an important poet and figure. They agreed to partner with us, to house our workshops and turn over all administrative support for the two weeks we’d bring American writers in the summer.

We arranged meetings with universities, and with Oona Patrick, Jeff developed the idea a workshop dedicated to Luso-American writing. Luís arranged a meeting at the Luso-American Development Foundation. Jeff and I pitched the workshop, and director Mario Mesquita furrowed his brow, placed a hand on his stomach, and like a mafia don, said, “We are ready to work with you.”

Jeff and I were astounded so many doors opened so quickly and at the enthusiasm among the Portuguese for this cultural exchange.

It was now time to name our program and begin to promote it. Philosophically, we wanted to take people out of their comfort zones, to exist in another culture, another language—all to inspire new forms of writing—to expand this thing called “American literature.” We wanted to invoke Pessoa. We chose the concept from his only prose work: The Book of Disquiet. Jeff also insisted the program be dedicated to Alberto’s memory.

Luckily for us, people signed up. In 2011, Colson Whitehead was our first writer-in-residence, just the beginning of an illustrious list of writers we’ve brought: George Saunders, Eileen Myles, and Denis Johnson, to name just a few… To date, over 800 writers have passed through DISQUIET.

Personally, however, one of the most important was Robert Olmstead, who first came in 2012. We became fast friends. We both had daughters and were divorced. He asked questions about life and writing, as a mentor would. He told me to meet him at the Hard Rock Café on Lisbon’s Avenida da Liberdade. Such an American choice was strange, but Bob is in many ways a quintessentially American guy.

I found him and his partner, the poet Denise Duhamel, sitting upstairs eating cheeseburgers. I ordered a beer as he explained the benefits of an MFA. My writing would only get better. He would mentor me for two of the four semesters. If I ever published a book and wanted to teach, I needed an MFA. The low-residency model was perfect for me, a father and a high school teacher. I’d learn to work writing into my “real” life. Converse was affordable. Denise, also on faculty, talked about how great the community was. She wasn’t wrong. I applied, got in, and now count Converse as special a community to me as DISQUIET’s. I made great friends in the program, and one of them, the poet David Colodney, has participated in DISQUIET twice.

In the game connect the dots, we draw a line from one dot to the other not knowing what image will form. Eventually, however, one emerges. I’m not exactly sure what my image is, but it does show a kind of literary life. It’s a fun game, and I suggest you try it sometime.

**You can check out DISQUIET International Literary Program here: https://disquietinternational.org

Advertisement

What Myth Am I Remaking and Retelling?

by Laurel Eshelman

Have you ever considered the myth you might be retelling in your work? When Tyree Daye asked me this question, I struggled for my answer. I am not mythic and my poems contain sparrows and mud, people I love, death. Ordinary. I started reading. In Coin of the Realm Carl Phillip’s writes, “Myth is a verbal mapping out of what is known but not understood (Phillips 7).” We account for the irrational in our lives, we explain what we don’t understand, ordinary or extraordinary, through the filter of all our experiences. Randall Jarrell calls myth, “the story we make of life.”


Within our stories are also those myths we return to, the figures we have resonated with,have seen their story as our story. There are many across a life. What are yours? Think Samwise carrying Mr. Frodo, hopeful for home even as the flames leap around them, or Martha, of Mary and Martha, forgetting to breathe, to walk in the woods by the lake, to listen to the teacher. Watch the “in-valid” Vincent, from the film Gattaca, who swims farther out to sea than his “valid” brother. Why could he swim so far? Because he kept nothing for the return swim to shore. Remember June Carter Cash telling us she’s like Aaron holding up Moses’ arms? If I were to pick one that runs through my writing now when I’m helping my elders before their crossing to the next life, it would be the Grimm’s tale, “The Six Swans.” See the sister with her six swan brothers, mute, her fingers bleeding, no laughter, no words may pass her lips. For six years she is courageous in her silence, gathering starwort, sewing shirts to cast over their feathered wings to bring them back to humanity, to her side.


Phillips says these myths appeal to us as they are and are not our stories. We see how we are like them and how we are different “and something kinetic occurs upon such a realization (Phillips 12).” When we can retell, render the myth, so the reader ‘sees’ the myth anew from our own story, then we are the myth makers.


What I’m retelling is like a map. A map of a journey, with much of the travel within a single county in northwest Illinois. I’m at the part where there’s lots of breakdowns on the side streets. The streets open out to others where time doesn’t exist. Some of my elders have driven off the map yet they’re here, holding me up as I sit at this scarred oak desk. I see my father’s back, hunched over a book, I feel his hands beneath mine, the pens in our lefts.


What had always been in my back pocket, guarded, I now take out and make visible, a re-rendering of my body, as I open the mouth of my pen to the page. During the lockdown of 2020 when our art shows were shuttered, the desire to study writing, to apply for an MFA raised up in me again. My daughter had just finished hers. I mentioned it to her in passing, and she said, “Why not apply now?” Here I am, an MFA student at Converse University, one year in. The practice of writing that started as an OCD nine-year-old is being shaped and honed through mentor and student input, through the devouring and digesting of craft and poetry books, by the
soaking in and percolating through of craft lectures and readings, and the kind camaraderie of students and faculty.


The map of who I’ve become, I’m just stabbing my pen in the dark to find her. I sit in a room called Remember, as Frederick Buechner names it in his book, A Room Called Remember. I inhabit that place within us where “we remember consciously the lives we have lived (Buechner 6).” I’m trying to recover and understand it all, from my father’s childhood to my own, to above all odds, meeting a man that I would build a life with, a life work of pottery—the financial impossibility of it—across four decades. How can we manage such mysteries? How can we comprehend? We write. We write toward myth. We learn to trust the will of the pen, incomprehensible at times to ourselves. We learn to delete, to start over. We trust to the grace of God. The myths we write, the stories, are artifacts of our lives and the map updates with our historical markers, our ebenezers, our heart’s desires and banes.

Works Cited
Buechner, Frederick. A Room Called Remember Uncollected Pieces. San Francisco:
HarperSanFranciso, 1992.
Phillips, Carl. Coin of the Realm. Saint Paul: Graywolf Press, 2004.

What Did I Get Out of an MFA?

by Zorina Frey

Arguably, no one was a skeptic of MFA programs more than I was. Years before applying to Converse’s MFA Program, I Googled “what can you do with an MFA,” and the results were: publish a book, teach, write for a magazine, a book publisher, or write for an advertisement agency. I thought to myself, I’ve done all those things. I’ve independently published more books than I care to mention, taught writing classes, and even got a certificate in literary publishing and web design. As a spoken word poet, that gave me enough traction to sell books but hardly enough to catch the attention and respect of other professional writers. I can usually sell a book after a performance, but no one was saying, “Hey, have you read Zorina Frey’s book? You need to read it!” 

We—at least, I have convinced myself with mantras and social media postings that I don’t care what other people think, but I think deep down, I do. Almost anyone with a social media account is proof they do, and even if you don’t have one, don’t we prove to people every day at our jobs, around family and friends, that, on some level, we care what they think? Sure, we shouldn’t dictate our happiness based on other people’s thoughts and opinions and be at peace with who we are and ya-dah, ya-dah. But you and I know there’s a happy balance between the two.

I say all this because there’s something special to me as a writer about other publications validating my work. I didn’t have that, especially working as a copywriter for a digital advertising boutique. I sold out what little credibility I had as a writer to get my boss and his clients published in big-named publications. It’s part of the copywriting gig, and honestly, I had fun doing it, but as a creative, I was slowly losing myself in the mundane tasks of strict style guides and never-ending deadlines. I felt I needed to revive my creativity by getting published–not self-published, but published by someone else so people would be convinced that I am a good writer.

One of my memoir-writing colleagues told me I didn’t need an MFA to get published, and she was right. Ironically, her writing company helped me get published in Shondaland and Chicken Soup for the Soul. Even after those five minutes of fame faded, I still felt something from my writing career was missing, and I figured whatever it was, it must be in an MFA program because I had tried everything else. 

I chose Poetry as a concentration because that’s my strength, and I wanted to get accepted into the MFA program. Once I got there, I wasn’t shy about sharing my first drafts and later found out that was my problem. I’d been so conditioned to write swiftly, edit quickly, and beat the deadline, that I never took time to finesse my writing. Even as a spoken word poet, I’d edit my drafts but never took much time to experiment with form and find other ways to tell a story. Most, if not all, of my spoken word pieces, aren’t stories more than they are anecdotes and street sermons. My pre-MFA work had been talking at my audience instead of to them and even with them. I never grounded my audience with a situation or invited them into the story with images and senses. I just “soapboxed” them, and my animated personality and theater experience let me get away with it. 

Eventually, I had to ask myself, “What am I really trying to say?” and “What do I want to say?”

My answer was: I don’t know. 

Until I knew.

I quickly learned that what’s expected from a copywriter in a digital advertising agency isn’t taught in college courses. In most agencies, time is more important than the art of writing. I know this is my third time mentioning deadlines, and that’s because it’s one of the top driving forces of ad agencies. The amount of time allotted to a client is contingent on the amount of money they pay. And no one is allowed to spend more time on a client than what is budgeted. Otherwise, the agency loses money. So this puts copywriters in a difficult place, and you can see why speed becomes a priority. The only thing you can do as a writer is to get better at it because the Internet waits for no one. And so I figured I’d go back to school to get my master’s degree and teach students how to prepare for a writing career outside academia.

Stop laughing.

Here’s where I need to mention I began my MFA program in the summer of 2020. As a Black woman, it was impossible for me not to write about what was happening in the world. By the end of my first residency, my mentor, Tyree Daye helped me identify my obsessions and poetic symbols based on my first-year manuscript and writing workshop drafts. Then he taught me how to integrate my work into why I think poetry matters. 

Without the Converse MFA residency, I would’ve compiled a collection of spoken word poems that spoke at the world like a Bible-thumping-hell-fire-and-brimstone-preacher instead of to them. Thanks to the individually tailored and disciplined semester plans, I took the initiative to learn as many forms and styles of poetry as possible while spending 2 1/2 years developing my creative thesis. In this work, I formed familiar constructs to serve as neutral ground for conversation. And choosing to double major in Creative Nonfiction with the privilege of two mentors, Robert Olmstead and Denise Duhamel, played a huge part in my experimenting with different forms–a triumphant feat for a spoken word poet privy to free form!  

I was also tasked with a critical paper on the craft of writing. And while that loomed over all of my cohorts as the least favorite part of the curriculum, everyone seems to come out on the other side feeling accomplished, empowered, informed, proud, and ready to help fellow cohorts. I knew my critical paper would be about redlining, but the previous co-director, Sarah Cooper suggested I should write about Afropessimism. It turns out the theory ties nicely into my creative thesis.

My MFA studies ended up being an academic discovery of craft, American History, and a self-searching journey of enlightenment that’s changed the trajectory of my writing career.  Converse has challenged me to dig deeper into my craft and truth. It provided me with what I believe my writing had been missing: substance, refinement, and a clear purpose of artistically communicating with a more universal voice. So, the reason I chose to pursue my MFA had nothing to do with what I actually got out of it, which ended up being just what I needed.

2021 Converse MFA Alumni Book Award Winners Announced

The Converse Low Residency MFA in Creative Writing and Clemson University Press are pleased to announce the winners of the 2021 Converse MFA Alumni Book Prize as selected by this year’s judge, Vassar Miller Poetry Prize–winning author Jeanine Hathaway. For 2021, Hathaway has selected two co-winners: Kim Shegog for her short story collection, Crossing Over, and Sarah Cooper, for her poetry collection, 89%.

The Converse MFA Alumni Book Prize is awarded every two years to a Converse MFA graduate who has submitted an original book-length manuscript. All entries are judged anonymously by a writer of national distinction, and the author of the winning manuscript(s) is awarded a book contract with Clemson University Press, plus the winner(s) are invited (expenses paid) to give a public reading from the winning manuscript at the Converse MFA program’s residency session.

In selecting this year’s winners, Hathaway stated that all the manuscripts distinguished themselves. She shared the following comments about the prize-winners:

Crossing Over

Anyone who played “Red Rover” or attended a funeral or stood on a bridge, calculating, knows there will be loss and gain in the passage suggested by the richly layered title. In stories strikingly varied, relationships shift, mores and morals hold up to scrutiny or resistance. Each presents us with characters on edge. Snake handlers, sibling and spousal rivals, suicide, stillbirth—these provide dramatic moments for characters to obey or resist the rules of civility and responsibility. The title implies choice. Call them acts of stasis or maturity, deeper entrenchment or overcoming habits, the choices position characters for change. The novella begins with a death and through complications of familial love closes on the possibility of a rebirth.

Gripped by each of the stories, we see that our own small lapses and courageous actions, petty angers and fears, will have consequences we hadn’t planned on. The ultimate charge is to review our options and take a step in the direction of what offers life. These are generous stories that reveal, dangerous or not, that step could get us to the other side.

89%

Organized like a scientific file, this is a love story of a daughter’s powerful love for her dying mother, her dutiful love for her father, her awakening love for other women. Each form, filial and romantic, bears an urgency. The poems themselves are an energizing mix of genres, some free verse, some prose poems, and the mother’s surprising one-liners. Her observations (“If you have a cat, you will always have standards.”) and maternal advice are laugh-out-loud brilliant. The poet deftly interrupts sexual tensions and unrelenting tragedy with some truly funny comic relief. The narrative engages repetition and rhythm that match the morphine doses, depths of observation and heights of hope, connection and ultimate loss. The mother had an 11% chance of surviving the cancer. In the skilled hands of this poet, the family has a 100% of living on in our hearts.

The Converse MFA Alumni Book Prize is part of a publishing partnership between the low-residency Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program at Converse and Clemson University Press. The Clemson-Converse Literature Series publishes a diverse and distinguished body of contemporary poetry, short fiction, and creative nonfiction essay collections. While the series will occasionally feature an outstanding anthology, the majority of the books will be selected through two competitions, each of which will run biennially: a national poetry prize for a full-length book, an award open to all poets publishing in English, and the Converse MFA Alumni Book Award Series, open to alumni of the Converse Low Residency MFA.

The full list of winners and finalists is below:

Kim Shegog, Co-winner, Crossing Over (short fiction)

Sarah Cooper, Co-winner, 89% (poetry)

David Hartshorne, finalist, The One-Ten to Yellowknife and Other Stories

Gwen Holt, finalist, Alyson

Believe in the Power of Your Voice: An Interview with New Converse MFA Faculty Member Ashley M. Jones

Converse MFA: You have a forthcoming book out soon. Can you tell us a little about your book and the process of writing it? How long have you worked on the collection? When and where can we find it? 

Jones: My newest book, REPARATIONS NOW! will be published in September by Hub City Press–the pre-order link is here.This book, like my other two, took three years to write–I keep a pretty steady rhythm with writing poems, and it always turns out that three years is the magic number. This book, my third, examines the things we are owed: love, apologies, humanity, respect, and atonement by our nation and by white supremacy. Reparations of all kinds are in this book–so there’s something for everyone to sink into, and to wrestle with. A mentor once told me that your third book is really your first book, and I really do feel that way–I love my first two books, and they represent me well, but this book found me in a place in life and career that left little room for the anxieties of self-doubt and left much more room for a confidence and appreciation of my own voice and perspective. I’m not looking to “prove myself” or “secure” my place in the literary world. Some of those anxieties existed with my first and second book. Now, I’m writing because the spirit leads me to it–no worries about the world around me and how I might fit into history. Just a poet with her words and the way those words move. That is, of course, not to say that I’m not concerned with the world around me–of course I am.  I just mean that I feel like the world is big enough for so many of us, and I want to reject the traditional “fight for just one spot of shine” mentality by feeling confident in my literary existence and allowing the art-making not to be tainted by that. 

Converse MFA: Can you talk a little bit about how you shaped this collection, the decisions that went into arranging the poems and selecting them? 

Jones: I did not know, when I began writing the poems in RN! that they would become this book. My process, usually, for writing books is to just focus on each poem as it comes, not spending too much energy on what it could be. And, before I know it, there it is. Often, my poems speak to each other by pure virtue of the fact that they came out of me–I’m a rather obsessive person (I think, perhaps, all writers are) and what I write about for three years, yes, revolves around the same themes. So, shaping and selecting aren’t too challenging for me. When ordering my books, I hold fast to what Denise and I worked on with my first book–telling a multilayered story through interweaving poems about history and the present. I like to give the reader the sense that all of these topics–the lynchings of Black people, having unlucky romantic love, loving God and family, asking for reparations–are related and inextricably linked. In my own body, all of these things have a place, and I work to erase this idea that we aren’t multifaceted beings–Whitman said it, we contain multitudes. 

Converse MFA: Can you tell us what informs your writing? How do you start a new poem? A new book project? 

Jones: The whole world informs my writing–by which I mean that I’m influenced by so many things. Sometimes a poem gets born out of a song. Sometimes out of a 90s TV sitcom. Sometimes out of pain, and sometimes out of joy. Anything I encounter in the world goes into my art. My process is, perhaps, unconventional–I’ve never been able to write every single day at an appointed time. It’s just not good for me. Instead, I just live my life as normal, taking in whatever comes my way or whatever I seek out. Ideas or lines for poems, or, even more exciting, the shape of a poem will start to form in my head, and when that shape starts becoming clear, that’s when I know it’s time to get to the page. Maybe it sounds a little new agey to say so, but I’m governed by Spirit in my art practice–I believe everything is spiritual, and I do think my writing talent was given to me by God. All of us have our own special gift, and this one is mine. So, I listen–I wait for that shape or those lines to come into view, and I obey the spirit that brings that poem and I write it down. 

Converse MFA:  When did you know you wanted to be a writer? 

Jones: I knew I wanted to be a writer when I was seven years old. I remember, quite vividly, reciting “Harriet Tubman” by Eloise Greenfield, dressed as Tubman, in front of my second grade class. Speaking those words ignited something in me, and I was already a rather bookish child. We read a lot at home, and I had written some storybooks for class assignments, but when I recited that poem and the power of Tubman and Greenfield and the great expansive landscape of Black poetry washed over me (certainly I did not know all of this at seven–this is thirty year-old Ashley assigning language to what I felt), I knew I wanted to create that kind of art, too. I started carrying around a composition notebook after that–my “spy journal,” as I had also been very attached to Harriet the Spy, which I had read around this time–and I do still have it. In it are little poems which are, I have to admit, way too angsty for a seven-year-old. I’ve been studying writing ever since–I went to the Alabama School of Fine Arts from 7-12th grade, and went on to study English and Creative Writing on the undergraduate and graduate levels. 

Converse MFA:  Is there anything you would advise an aspiring writer to do or not to do? 

Jones: I would advise an aspiring writer to believe in the power of their voice. That’s so much of the battle as a writer, believing that what you say has value and can impact someone. Staying authentic to yourself and to your unique voice and perspective is key, I think, to a fulfilling career as a writer. I’m not a veteran yet, so we’ll see if my theory continues to hold true! 

Converse MFA: You studied writing in college and received your MFA. What do you think you gained as a writer when you participated in a writing program? 

Jones: I think the MFA gave me some tools I needed to learn who I wanted to be as a writer in a professional and literary capacity. Interacting with my instructors, who are active in the field, really showed me the possibilities of a poet’s life, and meeting classmates whose work was always inspiring really pushed me to keep exploring new ways of creating art and expressing myself. The time I had to write and learn and write this first book was truly invaluable–those three years helped me develop my own writing practice, and it gave me the confidence to step out into the big writing world once I graduated. 

Converse MFA: What advice would you give students for making the most of an MFA program? 

Jones: I think what really helped me was to focus on what it was I wanted to get out of the experience. Some folks just want to meet other writers. Some folks need structured places to get feedback. Some folks need to learn more about the art form. Everyone has something they’re looking for, and staying really committed to that can allow you to get the most out of your time. I knew I wanted to come out of my program with a publishable manuscript and knowledge about writing and teaching that I didn’t have before. So, I learned as much as I could, I taught as much as I could, I volunteered and learned about ways to serve the community, and I took each assignment very seriously. That is, I treated each assignment as a fruitful opportunity, a chance to write a poem which could do something. Focusing in and giving my all to each piece is what I needed from my time, and I think I achieved my desired result! My graduate thesis became my first book! 

Converse MFA: What are the top three things you try to get across to your students when teaching? How do you help them learn that? 

Jones: I try to tell students that 1) they are already real writers. There is no magical diploma or even a magical publication that can make you more “real” than anyone else. Their work is already whole. They are already whole. I’m there to help as they move through that journey, but I’m not there to make them “real.” 2) I try to teach them that writers are actually alive right now. There’s a wealth of great contemporary work being written, and it actually matters a lot to realize that there are folks living and breathing and writing and maybe those people also reflect our backgrounds, too. For me, reading the work of Black writers and living Black writers really opened a door in my own thinking about my possibility. I try to offer this to students as well. and 3), I want students to feel like the learning process is reciprocal–they can teach me things, too–I’m not the keeper of all knowledge and I don’t desire to be that. We all have knowledge to share, and I’m just as inspired by their work as they might be of mine! 

Converse MFA: As a writing teacher, what advantages do you see to working in a low-residency program? 

Jones: The biggest advantage would have to be the flexibility–I did a traditional MFA which was great, but if I were go to back now and get a degree, it would 100% be low residency just so I could continue living my full life in the state of my choosing. And, there is something to be said about living in a place/time away from school–there might be more material to work with because your life is not all-consumed by school or the city in which your school is located. 

Converse MFA: Is there anything about you that you think people should know that can’t be found in a biography? 

Jones: Don’t think so! 

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

Jones: On my mental bedside table, I’m still trying to get through Celia Cruz’s autobiography (in Spanish!)–but most of my reading time is spent in the Submittable stacks at POETRY and Simple Machines, or with drafts of student work. I’m hoping to get back to ALL ABOUT LOVE by bell hooks, and I want to finally start PARABLE OF THE SOWER by Octavia Butler. 

Ashley M. Jones received an MFA in Poetry from Florida International University (FIU), where she was a John S. and James L. Knight Foundation Fellow. She served as Official Poet for the City of Sunrise, Florida’s Little Free Libraries Initiative from 2013-2015, and her work was recognized in the 2014 Poets and Writers Maureen Egen Writer’s Exchange Contest and the 2015 Academy of American Poets Contest at FIU. She was also a finalist in the 2015 Hub City Press New Southern Voices Contest, the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry First Book Award Contest, and the National Poetry Series. Her poems and essays appear or are forthcoming in many journals and anthologies, including CNN, the Academy of American Poets, POETRY, Tupelo Quarterly, Prelude, Steel Toe Review, Fjords Review, Quiet Lunch, Poets Respond to Race Anthology, Night Owl, The Harvard Journal of African American Public Policy, pluck!, Valley Voices: New York School Edition, Fjords Review: Black American Edition, PMSPoemMemoirStory (where her work was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2016), Kinfolks Quarterly, Tough Times in America Anthology, and Lucid Moose Press’ Like a Girl: Perspectives on Femininity Anthology. She received a 2015 Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer’s Award and a 2015 B-Metro Magazine Fusion Award. She was an editor of PANK Magazine. Her debut poetry collection, Magic City Gospel, was published by Hub City Press in January 2017, and it won the silver medal in poetry in the 2017 Independent Publishers Book Awards.

Her second book, dark // thing, won the 2018 Lena-Miles Wever Todd Prize for Poetry from Pleiades Press. Her third collection, REPARATIONS NOW! is forthcoming in Fall 2021 from Hub City Press. She won the 2018 Lucille Clifton Poetry Prize from Backbone Press, and she is the 2019 winner of the Lucille Clifton Legacy Award from St. Mary’s College of Maryland. Jones is a recipient of a Poetry Fellowship from the Alabama State Council on the Arts and a 2020 Alabama Author award from the Alabama Library Association. She was a finalist for the Ruth Lily Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellowship in 2020. She currently lives in Birmingham, Alabama, where she is founding director of the Magic City Poetry Festival, board member of the Alabama Writers Cooperative and the Alabama Writers Forum, co-director of PEN Birmingham, and a faculty member in the Creative Writing Department of the Alabama School of Fine Arts. She currently serves as the O’Neal Library’s Lift Every Voice Scholar and as a guest editor for Poetry Magazine.

Marlanda Dekine on Inheritance, Poetic Tension and What Helps her Write

Tell us about your creative work—do you have a preferred genre or aesthetic? Are there forms you want to try?

My poems have always come out of my experience as a Black, queer, gender non-conforming daughter of generations of preaching, wild, and direct folk, living in Plantersville, South Carolina. My experience as a social worker also informs my writing. My current manuscript, I feel, is dealing with my dead, my roots, the family land we inherited, and Plantersville’s connection to plantations and taking up space as our own.

I’d say my background is probably what drew me to the work of Saul Williams and Patricia Smith. When I decided I, still, liked writing and sharing poetry, I bought “The Spoken Word Redux”, and I lived with their cadences of courage over YouTube. I was an undergrad, then. While I’m drawn to those writers as my starting place in reading poems, I don’t have a preferred genre or aesthetic. 

I’m very interested in learning and pushing the boundaries of what constitutes a poem as well as demystifying the real work that poems do in the world. For this reason, I’m also drawn to the work of Lucille Clifton and Martin Espada. “Leave the idea that “poetry makes nothing happen” to the poets whose poetry makes nothing happen” per Martin Espada. 

I like quiet tension and intense desire within a poem as much as I enjoy staring seriously into the face of something broken within our world, or the human condition, and asking questions about the roots of the fissure. I don’t mind yelling or singing it out!

What are you reading right now? Which books might we find on your bedside table right now?

Root Magic by Eden Royce!!!! Whew!

Featherhood by Charlie Gilmour

Kontemporary Amerikan Poetry by John Murillo

Oracle by Destiny Hemphill

Spells: 21st Century Occult Poetry, ed. by Sarah Shin and Rebecca Tamás

What do you do when you aren’t writing?

I sit, feel, think, and read. I drink a lot of water. I take walks with my dog and watch birds. I have a vegetable garden, and I’m learning to cook new dishes. I allow myself to dream big about what I’m working on. I clean my home. All of these things help me to write. I attend a monthly group with artists across disciplines with the organization, ArtistsU. This space is highly generative to me as I create and learn to wonder. I also submit poems to magazines, journals, and opportunities that feel in alignment with my project. I enjoy rejections as well as acceptances. 

Why did you decide to pursue your MFA? What did you find most attractive about our low residency program and the low residency format? 

This will be my second Master’s degree. It turns out I love school. When I knew I would not be able to finish the low-residency program in Paris due to finances and COVID, I researched Converse’s program. I recalled that Kathryn Brackett mentioned it to me after I participated as an author during Hub City Press’s Delicious Reads event in Spartanburg. When I researched the program, I learned there was a research component and an oral defense required. I felt this would be tremendous for my goals as a writer. I love research, and I am fascinated by the interdisciplinary nature of any creative writing process. 

In what ways do you hope your writing will be further developed by our Converse core faculty, visiting faculty, and students? Do you have any writing goals you hope to accomplish?

I am going to finish my current manuscript and seek a publisher in alignment with what the project wants to accomplish. It is also important for me that the editor/publisher is considerate of who I am as a human being and writer. I am not a cog within a capitalistic system. I intend to complete my MFA with this attitude as well. 

I value instructors who know they, too, are participants and ongoing learners. I have been grateful to work with generous classmates and professors who are experienced writers and creatives with fantastical backgrounds in other things. 

I absolutely adore the visiting faculty craft talks. These talks bring in more diverse perspectives, and I value decentering whiteness, normative narratives, and craft talks from the 50s. 

In addition to your work on writing craft, how has the Converse program helped you in terms of navigating the publishing marketplace or the writing world?

I am still learning, for myself, how to listen to the deepest parts of me before sharing my work. I believe Converse has helped me to fall more deeply into the process of revision. I believe the publishing world is, if not being dismantled, being necessarily revised. I believe my life is under constant revision. So, I have learned to be clear within before I send anything out. It’s all revision! 

Why would you recommend the Converse College Low Residency Program to an MFA applicant?
I feel deeply that the faculty cares about each student and tries to figure out where that student is within their writing life. Many programs will not ask who you are when you arrive, and I feel it is important for programs to know what the student is bringing into the program. What has this student learned in their life already that will benefit our time in the workshop? I think these are good reasons to consider Converse College.

Andrew Clark on Writing, the Woods and Creativity

Tell us about your creative work—do you have a preferred genre or aesthetic? Are there forms you want to try?

Andrew Clark

My aesthetic might be described as Southern Gothic magical realism. This is the framework for both my fiction and poetry. I like the realism side of magical realism, in that I want to ground my reader in a setting they can feel and smell before something surreal happens. In a recent poem, the reader floats above a mattress on the side of the road as they ascend into a thundercloud.

As far as other forms, I am currently co-writing with the poet Miho Kinnas. We are using Japanese forms such as Rengay and Renku, rather than free verse – way outside my comfort zone. With fiction, I want to experiment more with different types of narrators and points of view.

What are you reading right now? Which books might we find on your bedside table right now?

Watson, the hiking pup!

I tend to have a book of fiction going alongside a poetry collection. I am currently reading Red Calvary by the Russian writer Isaac Babel and Horsepower by Kentucky poet Joy Priest. TBR fiction on my nightstand: The Nowhere Girls by Amy Reed, Willful Creatures by Aimee Bender, Appalachian Book of the Dead by Dale Neal, and Burn by Patrick Ness. Poetry on deck: Robert Haas and Nin Andrews.

What do you do when you aren’t writing?

A lot of reading, of course, but I love hiking with my wife and our dogs and being outdoors as much as possible. It’s part of the creative process for me. I try to write outdoors when the weather allows. Nietzsche said, “Never trust a thought that occurs to you indoors” and that’s good advice. We’re writing when we’re not writing. I am also a musician and dabble in electronic music. You can hear what I’m up to here:  https://analogwake.bandcamp.com/ 

Why did you decide to pursue your MFA? What did you find most attractive about our low residency program and the low residency format? 

I knew I needed help with my writing. At first, I tried to piecemeal my own development, but realized I could benefit from a more structured study of the craft. I needed a low residency program as I am a parent and work full time. I was accepted into a few programs, but I was attracted to the individual faculty and guest writers at Converse. I also heard from faculty members during the application process. They had sought out and read my work online and commented on it. I felt welcomed into the community before I made a commitment in a way that just didn’t happen with other programs. 


In what ways do you hope your writing will be further developed by our Converse core faculty, visiting faculty, and students? Do you have any writing goals you hope to accomplish?

Creativity Mediums

In my final semester I have a new mentor. While my writing has grown exponentially in the program, a new perspective has already shown me ways to improve. I think that is always the writer’s focus – both within the program and beyond: constant improvement and growth.

I am shopping my first novel at the moment and have early drafts of its sequel. My goals are to place the first novel, finish its sequel, and continue collecting poems for a chapbook. My first full-length collection of poetry, Jesus in the Trailer (Main Street Rag Press), launched in January of 2020, just ahead of the pandemic.

In addition to your work on writing craft, how has the Converse program helped you in terms of navigating the publishing marketplace or the writing world?

Having editors and agents visit during residencies has been helpful in gaining a better understanding of the marketplace and how our work matches up with the market.

Why would you recommend the Converse College Low Residency Program to an MFA applicant?

The Converse program offers personalized attention to your writing. You’ll learn to read as a writer. You’ll work with mentors who are successful writers and benefit from craft lectures outside of your main genre. Beyond the program, you’ll create a network of fellow writers that will benefit you after the program ends. These are your people, your tribe. 

Prospective students are welcome to reach out to learn more about my experience at Converse: andoru@icloud.com.

A Poet’s Journey: One-on-One With Zorina Frey

Zorina E. Frey_1Tell us about your creative work—do you have a preferred genre or aesthetic? Are there forms you want to try?

I’m currently studying why poetry matters, how it’s relevant to digital communication in business, and how these reasons correlate to the black community’s redlined social and cultural situations. My thesis will involve poetic anecdotes about my own experience living on a red-lined street that divided all-white and culturally diverse communities. Because this project is focused on telling a story, I’m more interested in free verse as it allows me to touch on multiple subjects without needing to go down a rabbit hole on one topic. However, exploring non-fiction as a second genre allows me to do just that when I want to dig deeper into a situation.

What are you reading right now? Which books might we find on your bedside table right now?

The Making of a Poem by Mark Strand and Eavan Holand. As a spoken word artist, I typically write free verse, but I know a craft book like this is what I need to become a great instructor. I just received a copy of African American Poetry 250 Years of Struggle & Song edited by Kevin Young and can’t wait to dig into it. You’ll also find his book of poems along with June Jordan, Jericho Brown, Toi Derricotte and of course, all my MFA and creative writing workshop mentors!

What do you do when you aren’t writing?

I don’t consider myself athletic, but I discovered kickboxing which became a therapeutic activity for 2020! I love watching movies because I like writing screenplays. I mess around with a little improv from time to time. I also design custom journals—mostly because I like designing book covers. I recently started selling them on Etsy. Oh, there was a time when I traveled…Hoping that comes back in style.

Why did you decide to pursue your MFA? What did you find most attractive about our low residency program and the low residency format? 

When I was working as a copywriter for an agency and small businesses, I noticed the marketers relied heavily on the writing department while not fully understanding the process to create satisfactory copy. They also didn’t seem to realize how crucial poetry is to the work nor the time it takes to craft it. Quite, frankly I’m pursuing my MFA so that I might teach aspiring writers and prepare them for real-life writing careers outside academia. I also want to enlighten businesses about the benefits of having a poet on their writing team.

I like that Converse’s Low-Residency Program allows for the flexibility to study poetry in a way that is interesting to me, making it helpful to research cultural and social issues that are relevant to my career as a poet and writer.

In what ways do you hope your writing will be further developed by our Converse core faculty, visiting faculty, and students? Do you have any writing goals you hope to accomplish?

Converse admits students from across the country and they bring in a diverse canon of visiting faculty who are well-accomplished authors with impressive accolades. My cohorts are amazing! They’re already terrific writers, so it’s both encouraging and humbling, because I learn from them too. Being in the company of such talent, I can only become a better poet and writer—and there are new students coming in every semester, so the program never gets dull! Every new student brings new energy and a new perspective.

In addition to your work on writing craft, how has the Converse program helped you in terms of other writing world activities or connections?

I’ve become part of a network of resourceful poets and writers who share creative ideas and information who encourage and help me better understand that I can have a rewarding career as a poet.

Why would you recommend the Converse College Low Residency Program to an MFA applicant?

I’d recommend anyone who has ever had a desire to explore their talent as a serious writer to the Converse Low-Residency Program. While it’s designed to work around busy schedules, this incredibly intense program also provides students the flexibility to dive as deep into their chosen area of study as they want. There’s also an opportunity for students to become published authors before they graduate—fingers crossed!

Laura Platas Scott & Her MFA Life

Tell us about your creative work—do you have a preferred genre or aesthetic? Are there forms you want to try?

I’ve long thought of myself as a CNF writer, but the Converse program has inspired a love of the short story form, especially linked stories. I’m hooked! I’d like to try a novel-in-stories as well as a hybrid fiction/nonfiction collection.

What are you reading right now? Which books might we find on your bedside table right now?

Current: Enthralled by The Map of Salt and Stars by Zeyn Joukhadar! My TBR pile is tall and includes Aleksandar Hemon’s My Parents: An Introduction/This Does Not Belong to You; Yelena Akhtiorskaya’s Panic in a Suitcase; Jaquira Díaz’s Ordinary Girls.

What do you do when you aren’t writing?

Writing is always present in my mind. In my day job in sales, I frequently encounter a detail or a scrap of a conversation that inspires a character or dialogue. I take long walks, love to cook, do a little yoga, and read, read, read.

Why did you decide to pursue your MFA? What did you find most attractive about our low residency program and the low residency format? 

Several reasons – I wanted to learn to write fiction and I wanted to be the best writer I could be. I had plenty of craft books, but the DIY method wasn’t engaging. I craved a writing community and felt that an MFA program would provide that for me. The low residency format allowed me to weave my studies into my existing life. Converse was highly recommended by a fellow writer and graduate of the program. I was impressed that the core faculty had been in the program since its inception.

In what ways do you hope your writing will be further developed by our Converse core faculty, visiting faculty, and students? Do you have any writing goals you hope to accomplish?

In my immersion residency and in every subsequent residency I have attended every craft lecture and reading scheduled. All of it intersects in my writer brain and opened up new ideas, new craft techniques to try. In the short term, I hope to publish a collection of short stories written during my MFA studies and a YA memoir in verse. and in the long term, finish a novel and start the next novel project.

In addition to your work on writing craft, how has the Converse program helped you in terms of navigating the publishing marketplace or participating in the writing world?

I took advantage of opportunities to meet with visiting editors and agents and came armed with specific questions as well as writing samples or query letters. They provided valuable insight and concrete ideas I’ve already implemented.

Why would you recommend the Converse College Low Residency Program to an MFA applicant?

My experience at Converse has been enlightening, empowering, and has exceeded all expectations. Not only does the core faculty genuinely care about the student writers, but they also challenge the writers to put in the work and the time to produce the highest quality work. I’ve gained confidence as a writer and know I am now a part of a life-long writing community. If you’re on the fence about the Converse MFA program, jump off and apply! 

Laura Platas Scott was born in Havana, Cuba and moved to the United States as a child. Growing up bilingual and bi-cultural provided rich, complex experiences that inform all of her writing. She lives in Greenville, SC with her husband and two rescue pups.

2021 Converse MFA Alumni Book Prize

The Converse Low Residency MFA program is one of a small handful of graduate writing programs in the country to offer its alumni and students the unique opportunity of entering a book-length poetry, short fiction, or essay collection to its contest. The Converse MFA Book Prize is open only to Converse Low Residency MFA alumni and graduating residency students, and the prize is awarded biennially. The inaugural MFA Alumni Book Prize will be open to book-length submissions in poetry and short fiction from January 10, 2021 to February 15, 2021.

The 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. The judge for the inaugural MFA Book Prize is award-winning poet, novelist, and essayist Jeanine Hathaway.

Submissions deadline for the 2021 MFA Book Series—contest will open January 10, 2021 and will deadline February 15, 2021 for full-length poetry manuscripts and full-length short story collections. Next open submission period for eligible nonfiction essay collections will be 2023. 

ELIGIBILITY

•This contest is open only to Converse Low Residency MFA alumni and graduating residency students. The 2021 prize is open only to book-length poetry and short fiction manuscripts. The 2023 prize will be open to poetry and nonfiction essay collections.

 •Individual works from the manuscript may have been published previously in magazines, chapbooks of less than 30 pages, or anthologies, but the collection as a whole must be unpublished. Translations and previously published collections are not eligible.

• Multiple submissions are welcome and simultaneous submissions are acceptable (please inform us if the manuscript is accepted elsewhere). Once submitted, manuscripts cannot be altered. Winner will be given the opportunity to make changes before publication.

•The Converse Low Residency MFA program and Clemson University Press reserve the right to consider all entrants for publication; a list of winners and finalists will be posted on the Converse MFA program website (www.converse.edu/mfa) and on program social media pages in late May/early June after the winning author is notified.

• Publication is contingent upon the writer’s agreeing to the terms of the publishing agreement.

• The Converse College Low Residency MFA and Clemson University Press reserve the right to not make a selection if the final judge decides there are no acceptable manuscripts.

2021 Poetry Manuscript Guidelines

  • Manuscripts must be accompanied by two title pages: one with the title of the collection, the author’s name, address, email address, and telephone number; and one with only the title. The author’s name or address must not appear anywhere on the manuscript except for the first title page.
  • Must be typed, standard font, 12 pt.
  • Manuscripts must be submitted by mail and postmarked by Feb. 15. Send to: Converse College MFA, Attention: MFA Book Prize, 580 East Main Street, Spartanburg, SC 29302.
  • Minimum length 48 pages to maximum length of 80 pages. A poem may be multiple pages, but no more than one poem per page is permitted. 
  • Manuscript must be paginated consecutively with a table of contents and acknowledgements page (a list of publications in which poems in the manuscript have appeared)
  • There is a $10 submission fee to cover costs associated with running the contest. Make check out to Converse College MFA Program.

2021 Manuscript Guidelines for Short Fiction Collections

  • Manuscripts must be accompanied by two title pages: one with the title of the collection, the author’s name, address, email address, and telephone number; and one with only the title. The author’s name or address must not appear anywhere on the manuscript except for the first title page.
  • Must be typed, standard font, 12 pt., double-spaced.
  • Manuscripts must be submitted by mail and postmarked by Feb. 15. Send to: Converse College MFA, Attention: MFA Book Prize, 580 East Main Street, Spartanburg, SC 29302.
  • Manuscript length: manuscripts should contain a collection of short stories (novels are not eligible for submission). Total page count should be between 100 to 200 pages, double-spaced in a standard 12-point font, such as Times New Roman, Garamond, etc.
  • Manuscript must be paginated consecutively with a table of contents and acknowledgements page (a list of publications in which stories in the manuscript have appeared)
  • There is a $10 submission fee to cover costs associated with running the contest. Make check out to Converse College MFA Program.

Sponsoring Organization: Converse Low Residency MFA in Creative Writing

Publisher: Clemson University Press, as part of the Clemson-Converse Literature Series

Clemson University Press, established in 2000, has expanded in recent years, adding approximately twenty-five books and journal issues per annum to its strong backlist of more than a hundred titles.

The Converse College Low Residency MFA recruits, teaches, and graduates new and emerging writers of poetry, fiction, YA fiction, and nonfiction, who produce publishable book-length manuscripts. The priority deadline for MFA program admission application and MFA scholarship consideration is Feb. 15. For program application forms and guidelines, go to: http://www.converse.edu/mfa