Cross-Pollination is Key: An Interview with Morgan Parker

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At what point in your writing life did you decide to get an MFA? Why? 

I was in college taking my second ever-poetry class with Josh Bell, during my sophomore year. I didn’t know what I was doing at all. When, in his office hours, he told me my poems were good, I was totally shocked. I had never heard of an MFA when he told me I should consider getting one. At the time I was just writing funny poems or depressed poems and reading them to my friends at parties. So the world has J. Bell to thank (or blame) for steering me in this direction and, basically, helping me to take myself seriously as a poet. I went into my MFA program straight from undergrad, wide-eyed about the possibility of nerding-out with other poets and becoming a more confident, focused writer.

What were you initially expecting to do after the degree? How did this expectation change (or not)?

Immediate worldwide fame. Just kidding. I really wasn’t sure. I was very focused on completing a manuscript by the time I finished school, and I didn’t see much past polishing and submitting it. While I was in grad school, I worked four days a week in the Visitor Services department at MoMA PS1. I’ve worked in the visual arts since college, so I was hoping to find a full-time job in the arts that wouldn’t distract me from writing. What I didn’t anticipate was the amount of work that goes into being a professional writer. It’s more than writing– it’s editing, it’s submitting, it’s ordering manuscripts, phone calls with publishers, giving readings, marketing, applying for fellowships and residencies– and it’s a lot of work. The balance between “work” and “other work” shifts all the time, and it’s taken me a while to get used to that fluidity and the fact that as a writer, you’re always working.

Were you ever interested in staying in academia? Why or why not? 

I’m definitely interested in it to some degree. Maybe one day there will be a Dr. in front of my name, maybe not. I know that the adjunct hustle is not for me. I have a lot of other hustles that keep me occupied and oppressed. I do love teaching, and I look forward to pursuing that more, maybe in academia, or maybe in a more nontraditional setting. In the meantime, museum education plays that role for me.

Your undergraduate degree is in Creative Writing and Anthropology. To what extent do the concerns of the social sciences influence your poems? Do you ever find yourself using ethnography or other parts of an anthropology framework in your work?

Yes– my majors always sounded like a weird combination to other people, but it made total sense to me to study people and how and why we act the way we do, particularly in relation to other people. Anthropology, for me, is about curiosity, observation, analysis, sensitivity, history, “culture,” rituals, all that good stuff. All of that fuels my work, or rather, the way my poet’s mind works. My anthropology studies were very interdisciplinary– I took English classes, African-American studies classes, a jazz studies class, even a class on “posthumanism.” I think of my writing in the same way. I draw on everything that surrounds me and interests me: race politics, feminist theory, pop culture, advertising, music, history. My work is about what it feel like to be this particular human, and I definitely think the anthropological side of my brain is very interested in that.

You’re now the Education Director at MoCADA – were you involved in the museum education/ visual arts world before starting to work there? How did you acquire the background and skills the job required?

MoCADA is my my first job in museum education, though I have worked in arts education/administration at previous gigs. I’ve been working in the arts for about six years now. I didn’t study art history but it’s a personal interest and passion. Since I took my first college job in arts administration, I’ve always loved the idea of being surrounded by artists and visual art. I was at PS1 part-time for almost four years, during which I became really connected to the art world and very in tune with how arts organizations run. I was able to talk and work with almost all of the departments, and tried my hand at everything from bartending for the rich and famous to climbing a ladder in heels to help out with installation. After teaching during my MFA, I was hungry for more opportunities to share my excitement about art, which is essentially at the heart of museum education. Working at MoCADA blends so many aspects of what I love: working with and within the Black community, teaching and spreading excitement about the arts, communications, and curating programs.

Many of your poems deal with contemporary American issues that impact the Black community (such as police violence). Does working at MoCADA give you opportunities to blur the line between what you think/ talk about in poems and what you think/ talk about at work? If the line is blurry, do you like having that cross-pollination, or would you rather keep your day job and poetry lives separate?

The cross-pollination is really, really key for me. The work I do and experience at MoCADA, in particular the conversations and debates I’m able to have with both coworkers and museum visitors, has totally transformed my writing. These are issues that color my life– not just work issues or themes I explore in writing. Art, Black communities, racism, intersectional feminism, activism– these are my concerns all the time, and I love being able to address them with my personal art and in a different way at work. Different strategies, same essential goal.

Do your colleagues know about and support your writing? 

I’m really the luckiest girl when it comes to this. My co-workers are incredible fans of mine. They come to readings, I send them poems, and they’re genuinely interested in my work and my success as a poet. Once, I hadn’t written a poem in months, and I took a day off to write. I signed onto my email in the middle of the day and was promptly accosted by g-chats telling me to go write poems! That kind of support is invaluable to me. But it’s also in the culture of working in the arts, particularly at such a small, inclusive institution. All of my coworkers are wildly talented artists of some kind, and we push and encourage each other.

How do you create time for writing around your other work obligations? 

The real secret is that I can work in front of the TV. While I’m sippling wine and catching up on Top Chef or whatever I’m usually drafting or editing something. Also, I’m single. So, like, what else am I doing? But honestly, and most importantly, I have a really great community of writers who push me. I’m really into meeting friends to write at a café or bar or hosting “writing days” at my apartment where we just listen to records and drink spiked coffee and write for hours. At this point, I’m proud to say I don’t even usually think about it, I just do it. I have to.

The artist collective BFAMFAPhD recently released a census report noting that in New York City, only 15% of artists make a living from their creative work alone, and that those who do earn a median of 25K/ year. (And of those, 74% are white, non-Hispanic). The collective’s response to this data is that artists should attend/ support alternative arts education institutions rather than go into debt. Do you agree? What other ramifications do you think this data has for the future of the arts in NYC?

I definitely agree. I’ve seen this report floating around on social media (confession: my newsfeeds are mostly made up of non-white, non-male artists) and in terms of ramifications, I think that awareness is the first step. And our response should be anger. We should demand more. We should agree to change the system. Because I surround myself with visual artists and musicians as well as poets, I wasn’t even the least bit surprised by this data. The art world is a dark, rich place. In some ways, I think that when one decides to become an artist, there’s a bit of giving into that super-capitalist system and almost agreeing to its rigidity and exclusion. So I’m excited by this information being fuel for revolution, for refusing to put up with these traditions. I think part of what drew me to museum education was an interest in alternative education, community-led education, and artist-as-educator models. And when I say we should demand more, I don’t just mean money. I mean worth. I mean investment in ourselves and the power of art. Alternative education can absolutely help this, as can community organizing around how to expand one’s art practice to allow for more optimal living.

What advice would you give to young writers just starting an MFA? To those doing a degree in New York? To writers of color specifically?

Try not to get distracted, but let yourself get distracted. Write what you care about, not what other people care about or want to hear. If you don’t care about anything at the moment, don’t write about anything at the moment. Go to readings. Give readings. Go to office hours. Be hard on yourself but forgive yourself. Write shitty, terrible drafts of things. Get super used to rejection. Do like Jay Z says and brush the dirt off your shoulders. Find community. And I don’t just mean friends (though those are great, too), I mean people you can trust and who understand not only your work but you as a person. In the NYC MFA community, you probably won’t naturally find a community of writers of color waiting for you in the classroom, but they exist, so don’t be afraid to seek them out. Don’t think you don’t need them. Say you’re gonna go to law school, but don’t. Say you’re gonna go into I-Banking, but don’t. Submit everywhere. Ask for favors. Do people favors. Read everything.

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Morgan Parker is the author of Other People’s Comfort Keeps Me Up At Night (Switchback Books 2015), selected by Eileen Myles for the 2013 Gatewood Prize, and There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé (Coconut Books 2016). Her work has been featured or is forthcoming in numerous publications, including the anthology Why I Am Not A Painter, published by Argos Books. She works as education director at the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts (MoCADA) and  a poetry editor of Coconut Magazine

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I Never Want to Go Back to Academia: An Interview with Sean Patrick Hill

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You got an MFA at Warren Wilson after moving to Louisville, where you currently live. What made you decide to do so, and how do you think doing a low-residency program impacted your MFA experience and the writing you produced during those years?

At the time I decided to apply to Warren Wilson, I was actually in residence at the Vermont Studio Center. It was July 2010, and I had just completed a very difficult year teaching high school. My tenure there had drained most of my creative energy, and my time in Vermont, doing nothing but writing and the occasional hike, made me realize that this was the life I wanted to lead.

At the time, I was reading Heather McHugh’s poems, and also Joe Wenderoth who had studied at Warren Wilson. I wrote Joe to ask him what he had thought of the program, and he was nothing but positive. I also wrote Heather, and she asked me to send her some poems. Once she read them, she told me to apply, and that she’d help by writing a letter to put in my file. Before I left Vermont, I resigned from my public school job. Continue reading

What Matters Is a Job You Can Leave at Work: An Interview with Gina Myers

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You got an MFA at the New School. What were you doing before the degree, and how did you expect the MFA would change your life?

I went directly from undergrad into my MFA program, and really I had given little or no thought to how an MFA would change my life beyond the fact that it meant moving from Michigan to New York. As a first generation college student, I came from a family that ultimately believed just going to college and getting a degree (no matter in what) would be advantageous. I saw the MFA as an opportunity to develop more as a reader and writer. I did not think about it leading to any specific type of job after graduation.

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Something that Unites the Two Modes: Kristen Gunther on Science, Poetry, Writing and Research

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Which came first for you, poetry or science? Or did you have to choose between the two at some point?

It was always both. When I was a kid, I tromped through the woods all day, which led to a curiosity about the natural world – but also, as soon as I could read, I was memorizing poems. In my senior year of college, I used to leave a class on Shakespeare’s histories, pull rubber boots out of my backpack, and go out to net fish in a tidal bay as part of an ecology course. The strange thing is that nobody ever asked me to choose – it was always completely acceptable that I was studying wildlife management but also constantly reading and writing poetry. Continue reading

Poetry and PowerPoint: An Interview With Katherine Bode-Lang

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Let’s start with chronology. You’re now an IT trainer at the Office of Research Protections at Penn State, and have a longer history of nonprofit administration. At what point in your career did you decide to get an MFA?

Poetry has always been a part of my life, if not my pay-the-bills career—I actually earned a small creative writing scholarship to attend college, where I majored in English and Women’s Studies. I’d been active in women’s philanthropy and nonprofit work throughout high school and college as a volunteer, intern, and eventually as a Program Officer for The Michigan Women’s Foundation, but I was always writing. The semester I worked full-time as an intern at the United Way, I also took an independent study for poetry. Continue reading

Business After All: An Interview with Kristin Maffei

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Why did you decide to get an MFA? 

When I first went to college, I remember meeting with my adviser and telling her immediately that my definite plan for after college was to get an MFA, so it’s always been in my consciousness somewhere.  But through college, I sort of backed away from the idea and thought maybe a PhD might be better suited for me. Either way, I’ve always loved school and learning, so I knew grad school was in my future, but it wasn’t until I’d worked for a few years that I realized that the MFA was really the right program for me. I wanted space to write creatively, and to be part of a community of writers, but not at the expense of time reading and analyzing other works.  Continue reading

Like An Overgrown English Garden: An Interview with Ester Bloom

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Tell me a little bit about the kinds of writing you do on a regular basis. 

Right now I’m responding to my agent’s edits on my novel manuscript, so that’s my main focus. I’m the new advice columnist (“Aunt Acid”) for Lilith Magazine, which is a hoot, and I write regularly for the Hairpin, mostly about literature from a feminist perspective. My latest “Read This with That” piece for the Toast is coming out soon, as is my first book review for the KGB Bar Literary Magazine. Is that it?

Somehow it always feels like I can and should be doing more. Like a weedy, overgrown English garden, my ambition will feed on anything and wants to go in all directions at once.

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Still Outraged at 100: Muriel Rukeyser’s Centennial

Muriel Rukeyser has been dead for 33 years, but we just can’t keep away from her. On the occasion of her recent centennial, Chanel Dubofsky and I gave her a nickname and talked about the ways this incredible lady built essential bridges between art, activism, and work. 

Courtesy of the Paris Review.

Leah Falk: 

So–I guess I would like to start by asking you how you first came to/ heard about Muriel Rukeyser, or if we can give her a posthumous nickname, “The Ruk.”

Chanel Dubofsky: 

So I think I heard about, um, The Ruk in college. I was in this weird band of poetry people.

LF: The best band.

CD:  YES. Even though I’m not actually a poet, we needed each other. Anyway. Someone brought The Ruk to a gathering, and she immediately felt important to me.

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I Left Nothing Behind: An Interview with Kerry James Evans

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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.

In Thirty Seconds Or Less: An Interview with Hieu Huynh

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Hieu Huynh is a writer/producer with CNN’s On-Air promotion department based in Atlanta, GA. She is enrolled in NYU’s inaugural low-residency MFA program with workshops in Paris. When she’s not writing poetry, she’s eating her way around the world.

You’re currently a writer-producer at CNN. Tell me a little bit about what that work is like on a daily basis. 

Every day is different and that is exactly what I love about working at CNN. I love knowing that what I do makes an impact and that my work can be seen all over the world. Today, I may be writing about the aftermath of the government shutdown; the next day, I could be writing about a national tragedy…all in thirty seconds or less.

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