A door closes – losing the UAA MFA Program

posted in: The Journey | 3
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I dreamt last night that I was conducting a university-level poetry class on an open lawn to a large number of students. The dean and my father were there. But I was so far from the students that they couldn’t hear me, and by the time I got around the huge table they’d positioned me behind, most of the students, my father, and the dean were gone. The next class was scheduled in a shack so small that the students wouldn’t fit and the books that were there were old, falling apart engineering texts. 

There are so many ways to interpret this dream. I’ve only given you the bare bones outline, but my dream emotions ranged from excitement at teaching again, to frustration, and finally landing on despair. And shame. Shame that I couldn’t make it work, that I couldn’t reach the students, that I couldn’t provide them with what would let them bring their own poetry into the light. 

This month marks the closing residency of the University of Alaska Anchorage Low-Residency MFA program. I won’t go into the weeds (and unleash my bitter anger) about why the program was cut. It was a gem, providing a way for working people, parents, and anyone who couldn’t afford two years full-time in grad school a way to become a better writer. Let me say that again – the UAA MFA Low-Residency program was a way for ordinary people who couldn’t take extended time off to learn how to write. The very people who have interesting stories. 

So often I meet folks who think that writers are born with talent. “I could never be a writer; I just wasn’t born with that talent,” they say to me. In high school, we’re aren’t taught that writers draft, revise, read, revise, get help from other writers, etc. And as a nod to that age old debate (can you teach writing), my opinion is that you can’t teach someone to be a good writer, but that you can teach them the tools of good writing. That’s what a good MFA program can do – teach the tools of good writing, introduce students to a wide range of good writing, put them in proximity with good writers who like to teach, and maybe most importantly give them a community that cares about and wants to foster good writers and good writing. At that point, there’s an excellent chance that at least some or maybe most of them will become good writers.

And now that door is closing. 

I don’t have a snappy way to fix the situation. There will be fewer opportunities for ordinary working folks to learn to become writers. The writing community in Alaska will lose a centering force. Personally, I’ll miss working with the amazing, giving, funny, smart, and talented students and faculty of the program. But the people I feel the worse for are the readers waiting for the amazing writing that would have sprung from the program. It may still arrive, but it will take those writers a lot more effort, they’ll run into a lot more brick walls, and we may lose some of them – especially the ones who aren’t wealthy enough or able to take time off to go places to network and learn. And frankly, those are the stories I want to hear the most – the ones from people like me, folks who work, raise their kids, go for walks after the dinner dishes are done. The folks in the struggle.

In the meantime, some poetry from William Stafford.

The Way It Is

There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.

from The Way It Is: New and Selected Poems by William Stafford

Hey, keep writing. I want to read what you put on the page. I see you out there holding onto the thread, following it.

3 Responses

  1. Evelyn Asher

    I hear your heart, Erin. Your recognition of the desire of the marginalized voices to be heard reminds me of “The Dictionary of Lost Words.” I trust that after this pause that was thrust on you, your efforts will be recognized and perhaps take a different form. Thank you for every voice you have nurtured, the poetry that records history, and your extreme effort in forming and meeting challenges with StoryKnife. I admire you. May we hear your voice in your new collection and those from it sprang.

  2. Kate Carroll de Gutes

    Erin, this is such a sad and (yet) lovely piece. I know I could have never gotten an MFA if it was not for a low-residency program, and I have way more job leeway and privilege than most folks. Thank you for all you do to help everyday writers become better at craft–and for caring so much.

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