We are excited to share this three-part interview with our fearless leader, Rick Mulkey, founder and director of the Converse College MFA in Creative Writing program, and a stellar poet in his own right (check out one of his poems here). Rick is a charismatic leader, an engaging lecturer/reader, and a passionate advocate for the creative writing MFA degree as a vital instrument in shaping better writers in a space that is safe and nurturing. In Part I, Rick talks about the Converse MFA program specifically and gives a more in-depth explanation of how our program works.
And don’t forget to check out our Instagram account beginning this Sunday, August 6, for the first in our daily series of faculty profiles.
Writing, Career, and the Converse Low Residency MFA: A Conversation with the Director
Q: Rick, the MFA program at Converse College is nearly a decade old now. Can you talk about it, and what makes the program unique?
Mulkey: Certainly. Its structure sets it apart from traditional residential programs across the country. It’s a low-residency MFA in Creative Writing, and the only low residency program in South Carolina. The various types of genres our students can major in is another quality that sets us apart from many MFA programs. We offer five genres for students to select as a major: poetry, fiction, non-fiction, young adult fiction writing, and environmental writing, and that makes us the only program in South Carolina that offers all of those options, and one of only a few programs in the U.S. to offer all of them. Also, we do something few low-residency programs do. We offer a limited number of Teaching Assistantship opportunities for second year students, and many of our first year MFA students receive a small merit-based work scholarship. We are also a program that believes in the idea of studying the art of writing while preparing for the business of publishing. We do this through our classroom workshops, lectures, and mentoring studies with award-winning faculty, but also through our regular opportunities to meet and work with New York agents and commercial and literary press editors.
Q: Can you define “low-residency?”
Mulkey: Sure. The first low-residency program that I know of was at Goddard College in Vermont, and it started decades ago. In fact, the program was initiated by a graduate of the Converse College undergraduate program, the award-winning poet Ellen Bryant Voigt. Low-residency programs were conceived as programs for individuals who had perhaps given up on writing or were struggling to complete their writing because of the responsibilities of jobs, families, and daily life, and then they had gone back to writing and wanted to study writing without having to give up those jobs or move families. In our program writing students include writers with families and full-time jobs, but also recent college graduates who come to us directly from their undergraduate degree programs. These students, ranging in age from 22 to 70, come to us to study with some of the most recognized and critically-acclaimed writers in the country. And they work with these experienced writers from their own hometowns in a one to one mentoring relationship. In order to create a catalyst for this semester-long mentoring experience, our program holds on-campus residencies of about ten days twice-a-year. During these residency sessions, everyone in the program, students, faculty, visiting agents and editors get together. We hold workshops, there are lectures and seminars, readings, so student writers leave energized both to revise their writing and to start new work as well. It is an intimate, group experience, followed by an intimate student to faculty mentor experience. The result after two years, four mentoring semesters, and five residency sessions, is the completion of a book-length work of prose or poetry, and the MFA.
Q: Why do you think an aspiring writer should choose the creative writing program at Converse College?
Mulkey: I’ve thought about this a good deal because this is something that prospective students often ask. The answer that always comes to my mind is that Converse students and graduates are strong writers who become even stronger writers while studying at Converse. When I see student writers in a classroom at Converse, I think these students should feel they are at a graduate writing program as strong as any in the country, and I want to make that clear to everyone, the students and the larger community. One way we’ve done this at Converse has been to show them the caliber of the poets and writers who want to come and work with our students. So our students sit down in classrooms and conferences with and are mentored by outstanding writers, winners of National Book Critics Circle Awards, the Drue Heinz Prize, Guggenheim Fellows, and Cave Canem Prize winners. As a writing student at Converse, you’re going to have opportunities to engage in some very exciting dialogue with outstanding writers, editors, and agents. And this quality is represented by the excellent publications of our students and alumni. People here at Converse have known about the outstanding quality of our program for quite some time, but I think, in recent years, it’s becoming clear to many outside our program that something exceptional is happening here. If you have a Converse College MFA, you’ve acquired a very valuable and respected education, one that can help open doors in publishing, higher education, and elsewhere.
To see Part II, click here.