Your first career was as a combat engineer for the National Guard. Can you describe your path toward poetry and deciding to get an MFA?
When I started out in college I was—like many young students—thrust into the world, autonomous for the first time, and without any idea how to manage it. I wasn’t performing particularly well in school, and, mostly, I felt without direction. During my sophomore year of college I was deployed to Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri to guard a gate for a year. I got up at 3 each morning, went to the armory, and then guarded the gate from 5am-1pm. After, I did physical training for two hours then attended night classes at the local university. I made up sleep on the weekends, when I wasn’t studying. I knew after, when I returned to Missouri State, that I wanted to write poetry seriously, and to do that I had a great deal to learn. I still do.
When you started the degree, what were you leaving behind?
I worked as an editor for a certain program within the Department of Justice. Before that I worked for two and a half years as an investigator for a law firm in Springfield, Mo. I also picked up part-time work in the university library—a job I secured only for the chance to read literary journals (they could not be checked out). In high school I worked at Little Caesar’s for almost three years while running both cross-country and track. In middle school and early high school—before I had a car—I hauled hay in Mississippi and landscaped for local businesses.
I left nothing behind. I have always enjoyed work, and when I started the MFA program the job may have changed, but my work ethic did not.
Your first book, Bangalore, deals quite a bit with your experience in the military. How do you think being part of academia (as an MFA and Ph.D. student and now as an adjunct instructor) has changed your recent writing—the process of it, its content, or both?
I’ll just say this: as I evolve, my poems evolve.
How long did you spend looking for work after the MFA?
I applied for Ph.D. programs during the third year of my MFA program. I was fortunate enough to be accepted to Florida State’s Ph.D. program, which offers a teaching assistantship and the opportunity to teach a variety of classes in addition to studying with excellent writers and scholars.
Do you envision staying in academe? What do you like about it, and what gives you pause?
I do. I like learning, and teaching is a great way to learn. I want my poems to continue to evolve, and teaching allows me to be around talented writers with new ideas and different experiences. I have learned as much if not more from my students and peers, as I have through my own research, which is invaluable to me as a poet.
Do you ever have any regrets about getting an MFA?
I have no regrets about earning an MFA. I had the opportunity to work with great poets who I respect and admire—both professors and colleagues. It is an experience that continues to inform how I approach poetry.
Do you think that more MFA programs should draw students’ attention to other career paths than university teaching? How could this be accomplished?
I think a great deal of programs provide alternative career paths to students. The MFA program I attended did a great job of exposing students to a variety of experiences, whether working for the literary journal or serving as an intern for the university press. We also created a visiting writers’ series as well as a writers’ festival, which taught us a lot of valuable skills about things outside teaching, i.e. fundraising, networking, and time management. The faculty hosted a professionalism seminar each year where they answered our questions and told us about the job search process. The same kinds of opportunities were presented in the Ph.D. program I attended.
Do you have any other words of advice for writers entering MFA programs from the workforce?
I think it’s good to set specific, manageable goals. I know many people who have published books while still in the MFA program, and that’s impressive, but I would say that is an exception to the rule. Publishing is important, but learning one’s craft is more valuable. I think the more focus that students put toward honing individual skills, the better chance their poems can be heard.
Kerry James Evans is the author of Bangalore (Copper Canyon). He holds a Ph.D in English from Florida State University and an MFA in Creative Writing from Southern Illinois University-Carbondale. He lives in Tallahassee, Florida.