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.

What a Difference a Day [Job] Makes: Some Notes and Reflections

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Cary Grant, ladies and gentlemen.

It’s been a little quiet around here lately. There’s a good reason for that, and no, it’s not because I poisoned some old gentlemen and hid them in the windowseat. Lo and behold,after a few months of asking people about their day jobs, I have one too.

Going forward, I’ll keep most of the details of my work life, like who I work for, names and projects, private. But I’d like to take a moment to think about how, in just a month of working a job—and yep, outside academe—my ideals and daily practices have changed.

1. Part-time is a state of mind.

My job, for the time being, is only two days a week. My twenty-two year-old self might have resented a less than full-time gig and clocked in and out accordingly. But I like this job, and eventually I’d like it to be possible for someone to consider hiring me full-time, or even just for more weekly hours. So the time and energy I put in tend to expand—as they do when I sit down to play with a manuscript, or as they did when I dreamed up lesson plans. I have to hold little tribunals with myself about how often it’s okay to check work email on my days off. But I’m certainly not all virtue. The tribunals (made up of my regular self, a version of me with sunglasses and no pants, and a medieval rabbi version of me—what would Freud say) extend to whether it’s really okay to wait until Tuesday to start thinking about that urgent thing that’s due the week after. Does this eat into my writing time? Maybe. Does it also make me feel pretty useful and stave off depression? Probably.

2. Good ideas and smart people are everywhere.

I’ve been lucky enough in my life to have experienced several situations where I felt almost spoiled by the talent, goodness, and passion of the people around me. I felt this way as a high school student spending a summer at the Pennsylvania Governor’s School for the Arts (now on long hiatus), a number of times in college, and in graduate school. In these situations, brilliantly engineered by admissions counselors and teachers, people spontaneously created theater projects together, had three-hour dinner conversations with folks they had met that afternoon, and traded work they’d never shown to anyone else.

I don’t think it’s an accident that I got to experience this kind of atmosphere multiple times—in fact, I know that I sought to reproduce it in my life again and again. So why should I—why should anyone—expect that just because they’ve left “the bubble” of a great MFA program or community of writers, they can’t find another place where people care about ideas, good conversation, and working on projects whose outcomes they wholly support? My workplace now, I’m happy to say, is full of people who would happily interrupt their data-entry to discuss the work of a 20th century Lithuanian poet, and who listen carefully when someone else has an idea. There’s some luck involved in finding that kind of place, I admit; but it can also be something you actively seek out or even carry around with you.

3.  Dust and ashes.

Let me get a little existential here. Like many people I’ve interviewed on this site, I do a lot of writing, editing, and submitting when I can. Nothing much about the way I do that has changed, except that there’s a sense of both urgency and ordinariness to it now—I don’t feel lifted up, promised, the way I did as an MFA student and post-MFA fellow. Writing is something I wake up and do, like going for a run or making coffee or getting on the train to go to work. But where as a student—and even as a younger person with other day jobs—I felt like I had all the time in the world, I usually feel that writing must be done now. There might not be time later, and later my head might be full of something else. I move through the usual good and bad writing feelings (usually: somebody likes me/ nobody likes me/ I am created in the image of the Lord/ I am but dust and ashes), and I try to recognize that whole range of feelings as a possible daily range. Anger is not just for special occasions, and neither is pride.

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As I continue to “live” this blog–as an MFA with a day job–on a daily basis, I’d also like to hear from you guys: have you taken a job (or two or three) recently, and have you witnessed a shift in your priorities or practices? Positive, negative, or in between, write about it and send it this way, sil vous plait.

 

Ph.D. Day Job–Part the Second

“Dr. Rogers suggests that alt-ac is less a matter of where you work than how — ‘with the same intellectual curiosity that fueled the desire to go to graduate school in the first place, and applying the same kinds of skills, such as close reading, historical inquiry or written argumentation, to the tasks at hand.’”

Over at The New York Timeswe get a reminder–did we need one?–that higher ed of all kinds is a means, not an end. All for starting an alt-ac MFA support group on the eastern seaboard, say aye (you’re welcome to do your party-planning in the comments). 

 

 

Selling Your Secret Life: MFA Lessons for the Entry-Level Job Search

Today, something a little different. Wendy Fox, who holds an MFA from the Inland Northwest Center for Writers and by day works as the marketing director for a technology company, offers some job-searching advice with MFA-colored glasses. 

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Going out on the job market fresh from an MFA can be daunting. It’s hard enough for new grads with degrees that lead more obviously to gainful employment, like business or accounting. Yet creative writers are marketable and skills like knowing how to meet deadlines and communicate effectively are both useful and in demand in a variety of professional settings). Continue reading

Let’s Not Forget an MFA is a Fine Arts Degree: An Interview with Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum

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Why did you decide to pursue an M.F.A.? 

I wanted to be a poet. I already was, technically, when I made this decision in my second year of undergrad at Virginia Tech to be an English major. I had published some poems, was doing well in my poetry classes, and was in the process of forming The Brush Mountain Review at the time, but I also knew I wasn’t very good at it.

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Another Side of Higher Ed: Chris L. Terry

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I am the Coordinator of Student Engagement and Culture at Columbia College Chicago. It’s a broad title because I do a variety of things, and love it. Last week, I saw scholarship students’ faces as they read about Fred Hampton’s murder for the first time in my Chicago African-American History discussion group; trained a group of peer mentors; and was in Grant Park at 4 a.m. on Friday, supervising the set up of tents and stages for the New Student Convocation.

There’s something different to do every day and it keeps me from being bored. The more that I see and do, the more that I can write about.

This position is the culmination of four years of work. I entered Columbia’s Fiction Writing MFA program in 2008, wanting to become a better writer and to find work that was more fulfilling than my old career editing make-up catalogues. I wasn’t sure what that work would be, but I wanted to use grad school to make my world bigger, to say “yes” to everything. I figured that the answers would present themselves. They did.

I posted a resume to Columbia’s campus job site, hoping to get work in the Fiction Writing office. Instead, Student Engagement contacted me about working as an assistant to the Director of African-American Cultural Affairs. It was perfect. I’d been writing a lot about my black/white mixed race identity and wanted to get to know myself better as a black man. Surely, this job would enrich me far more than checking the spelling of lipstick shades ever did.

Immediately, working in Student Engagement made me feel tapped into the world. I met a variety of students and participated in a million discussions about race, masculinity and relationships – all topics that helped my writing as I sorted out my own identity through stories.

At first I was scared. I’m pale, and was worried that people wondered why a white guy worked in the black office. My first week, my boss’s boss asked me if I was Greek, and I said, “No. I’m black and Irish.” Imagine my embarrassment when she said, “Chris, we know that. I meant, like, are you in a fraternity?”

That was my welcome. I was there. I was accepted.

I graduated in 2012, after spreading my thesis hours out over an extra year to keep my campus job. Shortly after, I was hired as staff. My first full-time job with benefits.

This job is in conversation with my writing, instead of making it feel like an after-hours secret life. That first year in Student Engagement quieted the internal voices that tell me I’m not black enough. It shook loose the thirty years of significant moments where I had to consider my identity, that became turning points in the stories that I write before work, after work, and that I can mull over out loud while on the clock.

Chris L. Terry has a Fiction Writing MFA from Columbia College Chicago. His debut novel Zero Fade will be released by Curbside Splendor on September 16, 2013. Visit www.chrislterry.com for more of his writing.

Do, Don’t Complain: An Interview with Nick Ripatrazone

Nick Ripatrazone’s novella, This Darksome Burn, is forthcoming from firthFORTH Books, and his short story collection, Good People, will be published by Foxhead Books in 2014. His fiction has received honors from Esquire, Shenandoah, The Kenyon Review, and ESPN: The Magazine. He lives with his wife and twin daughters in New Jersey.

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Why did you decide to pursue an MFA?

I began the MFA program at Rutgers-Newark in 2009, a few years after completing an MA in English Literature there. The MFA program was relatively new, so I attended based on the excellent faculty: studying fiction with Jayne Anne Phillips, Alice Elliott Dark, and Tayari Jones (as well as Paul Lisicky, a visiting professor) was a unique opportunity. I had submitted both critical and creative theses toward my MA, but I wanted to really engage my creative work during this second round of graduate study.

When you started the degree, what were you leaving behind?

Besides sleep, not much: Continue reading

This Week, Kicking off a Writer-Activist Feature

Hi everyone.

This blog strives to serve as a place for writers with day jobs to reflect on the balance between the work that earns them their living and the work that sustains their humanity, and the happy intersections between those types of work, whether they happen frequently or rarely. For every working person, work is to some extent caught up with his or her humanity: feeling useful, using one’s talents and skills, and supporting oneself or one’s family are all ways we continue to feel alive, necessary.

But for writers, work and humanity are particularly inextricable from each other: in our best writing, our job is to be brutally honest about what it means to be human, even if that means acknowledging the most painful, contradictory aspects of human behavior. To me, this also means that writers have an extra responsibility to pay attention to injustice—as Muriel Rukeyser put it, “If you refuse,/ wishing to be invisible, you choose/ Death of the spirit, the stone insanity.”

With that in mind, and as the sole person running this blog, I can’t pretend to any policy of political neutrality. In the perplexing and disturbing wake of George Zimmerman’s acquittal and in memory of Trayvon Martin and other victims like him, I feel compelled to return my attention to those writers—like Gwendolyn Brooks, Audre Lorde, Muriel Rukeyser, Adrienne Rich—whose day job was activism, and for whom writing and activism were in fact joined at the hip.

On this blog, I’ll feature activist writers, living or dead, starting this week—if you know of a living writer who would like to be interviewed, or if you’d like to recommend that I profile a famous writer-activist who’s no longer living, send their names my way.

Call for Submissions: Poems about Debt

Bartender cut you off again? Wake up to find the bill collector at the edge of the bed? IRS in your kitchen, eating the last of your Fage?

Drunken Boat is seeking “poems that engage with debt: the friction between desire and limits, the intersection of ownership and obligation.” We know something about THAT.

Submit here.