Surrounded by the Love of the Literary: My First AWP Experience

By Jørn Otte

As the dust settles, the books are shelved, the business cards sorted through (who was that again?), and the jet lag lazily lingers, I sit and ponder over my first Association of Writers and Writing Publishers conference in Minneapolis, and what can be said of this unique literary experience.

Writers, readers, MFA programs, publishers, literary magazines, drag queens, booksellers, activists, panelists, recovering alcoholics, dog lovers, trendsetters, translation enthusiasts, poets, playwrights, prison writing publishers, Duendians, Goddardites, and thousands of other categories of people and uncategorizeable people attended this three-day-long event, and the positive energy in the rooms was palpable and contagious.

What did I learn? Plenty. Let’s start with my college and literary magazine.

Goddard College has a wider influence than I realized, and it was wonderful to meet alumni and former faculty who have gone on to great things – from people like Mark Doty, a Goddard alum and renowned poet and memoirist who won the National Book Award in 2008, to Doug Van Gundy, a Goddard alum and fellow West Virginia native who now at the low residency MFA program at West Virginia Wesleyan, and was also a contestant on ABC’s Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. Alumni and former professors stopped by the Goddard table every day, recalling fond memories, sharing enthusiasm about our programs, and encouraging others to attend.

Perhaps one of my favorite parts of the AWP experience was the fact that many contributors to Duende stopped by our table to thank us for publishing them and to share their love of all things literary. From Harrison Candelaria Fletcher to Bianca Spriggs to Seema Reza and so many others, meeting our contributors face to face and sharing in mutual love of the written word was truly a wonderful experience. It was also nice to build an even deeper camaraderie with my fellow Duendians Amy Sterne and Catherine Chambers, as we represented our school and magazine.

Meeting famous authors is always a treat, and it was distinct pleasure to be able to sit down and talk with people like Nick Flynn and Karen Russell, both of whom, like so many other attendees, were gracious with their time and thoroughly engaging.

Being courted by MFA programs does a little something to stroke the ego as well, and while I won’t call out any names, I can say with complete sincerity that the fact that half-a-dozen graduate writing programs expressed a genuine interest in both my writing and in me as a person made me feel that this whole experience was equally surreal and grounding.

Panels of noted authors and publishers were also an integral part of the AWP experience, and none was more engaging that the Writers Write No Matter What panel, conducted by four wonderful writers: Wendy Call, Stephanie Elizondo Griest, Anastacia Tolbert and Sejal Shah.  This panel was actually workshop, and the productive writing that occurred in this space was unlike anything else I saw at AWP, and hearing from other attendees and panelists, I can confirm that this was a unique and engaging experience that ranked up there with the best panels AWP has ever had.

What more can be said? Being around 15,000 like-minded people – people who care about the written word, about publishing, education, poetry and prose – it is both an awe-inspiring and humbling experience. I am proud to be one of the managing co-editors of Duende, and I am honored to be a student of Goddard College. As a literary magazine and as an institution, we are setting a high standard of excellence, and it was evident at AWP in Minneapolis, just as it will be when I see all of you at AWP in Los Angeles in 2016!

To MFA or Not to MFA: The Question That's Still on Every Writer's Mind

by Cameron Price

Okay, so education (and just being alive) requires a lot of money. With this in mind, why would one invest in a degree that guarantees absolutely no promise of a job on the other side?

To begin, let’s just assume that you have reached the point where you know that you NEED to be a writer and that no other calling under the moon could possibly satisfy you. If this is the case– and is it for anyone 100% of the time?– then why go into debt for a two year degree when you could just, well, write? There are many strongly differing opinions on the matter.

Writer and poet Donald Hall, former Poet Laureate of the United States in 2006, is one of the most outspoken critics of the MFA degree, and he has some good points. In his essay “Poetry and Ambition,” he writes: “The workshop schools us to produce the McPoem, which is ‘a mold in plaster, / Made with no loss of time,’ with no waste of effort, with no strenuous questioning as to merit. If we attend a workshop we must bring something to class or we do not contribute.”

McPoem? Harsh. But this critique comes from Hall’s experience of seeing too many programs churn out writers who have merely been trained to mimic what has gone before them. He argues in his essay that writers must have ambition of the right sort– the kind in which the “petty ego” is sacrificed in service to the poem (or narrative) itself. More often than not, Hall feels that MFA programs encourage the opposite and are not cultivating the proper literary immersion, independence of thought, and true ambition needed to write innovative literature.

I agree that one gets what they put into an MFA. Or into anything, really. The writer must already exist inside the writer if that inner-writer is to be developed and coaxed out...if that makes any sense. In short, an MFA isn't going to make you a better writer. YOU are going to make you a better writer only if you work, research, learn, live, and (most importantly) write.

These things can happen in an MFA program, contrary to Hall’s belief. Poet Arielle Greenberg believes that, if treated in the right way, the MFA can act as a supportive green house environment for budding writers. Greenberg writes, “I’d be thrilled if we lived in a nation—like some others in the world—where people gathered in local cafes and plazas to recite great verse and breathe it in, but the truth is, in America, this happens primarily in the classrooms and reading series and conferences and living rooms of MFA students, alumni, and faculty—and for this we should be thankful" (from "A [Slightly Qualified] Defense of MFA Programs: 6 Benefits of Graduate School"). Greenberg illuminates the benefits of the MFA program, which range from cultivating community, teaching the student what and how to read, and finding one's voice and unique set of values.

Both of these writers provide potential students with nuggets of wisdom. I think it’s safe to say that pursuing an MFA is an individual decision– especially if you know that an MFA isn’t going to make you a better writer. The more appropriate question would be: what is going to grow you best? Despite opposing views on whether to get an MFA, I think one thing can be agreed upon: you need to write in order to be a writer, MFA or not. So stop surfing the web and go do it!