Mother always told me, be careful what you put in writing or into records of any kind.[i]
To prepare myself to write these words, I sampled each of the approximately 850 bound volumes that comprise the final manuscripts of the MFA alumni who graduated between June 1999 and June 2016. The short excerpts that inform this reflection on the first two decades of the program are all taken from graduated students’ FMs. The authors are identified in endnotes. In most cases, the title of an individual story, poem, essay, or chapter within the FM is cited. If the quoted section has no distinguishing title or subheading, the title of the entire manuscript is cited.
Of one thing, I can be sure.
My memory is already betraying me.
I have forgotten how to fly
and long ago let my mermaid tongue evaporate.[ii]
Although each is engaging in its own way, these alumni quotes are not offered as pithy examples of the best writing the MFA program has produced. Instead, they are offered as examples that illustrate the “creative” part of creative writing: the personal discoveries each writer makes throughout the entire process of writing. This process includes not merely writing but reading, remembering, revising, and testing—what Francine Prose has called “putting each word on trial for its life.” This trial-and-error process naturally leads the writer to eventually stumble upon something new, something the writer didn’t know when s/he originally sat down to write about a subject s/he thought s/he knew intimately. Having chaired the various manifestations of AULA’s creative writing department for the last fourteen years, I thought I knew the MFA program pretty well. And yet, my most important discovery in these pages was that the only way I could reflect on the actual nature of the program was through the words of those who had graduated from it.
She tried to live simply, cooking, knitting, writing children’s books. Not novels or poetry or even short stories.
But she was forever making mistakes.[iii]
Elsewhere in this special issue of Lunch Ticket, my former colleague Tara Ison pays eloquent tribute to the founder of our program, Eloise Klein Healy, whose searing verses in a book called Passing prompted me to join the MFA in creative writing program and to take up its mission. Over its first two decades, that mission has expanded to include the education of literary artists, community engagement, and the pursuit of not only social but economic and environmental justice. Like the final manuscripts themselves, and the many books and individual stories, poems, essays, articles, and other publications that have sprung from those projects—not to mention the numerous blogs, small presses, literary journals, reading series, arts organizations, and the dizzying varieties of volunteer work MFA alumni have undertaken—the quotes shared here reflect some of the ways our graduates have engaged that mission. The truest history of the MFA program is written in the prose and verse of our graduates. This is their story.
A woman wanted to become a boat. She couldn’t become a boat so she decided the next best thing would be to have Labyrinthitis. The woman wanted fluid to form, like a pond, inside her middle ear.[iv]
I wish there were sufficient space—in this reflection and in my tiny Okie brain—to quote the work of each of our MFA graduates when they were students. After sampling each final manuscript, I can attest that they are all quotable, memorable, and certainly invaluable to anyone who seeks to discover what this program and its growing community of writers has achieved. The most difficult moment in sampling each FM came when I forced myself to stop reading. As a result, many of the writers whose work most impresses me are not represented in these pages.
Nevertheless, the words of our graduates are the words that speak most truly, most expressively, for the program and how it has addressed the problem of the writer facing the blank page.
There will be problems with this piece.
Of that much you can be sure.[v]
If you are a sucker for metaphor, this is your chapter.[vi]
“If dreams are like movies, then memories are films about ghosts,” Adam Duritz of Counting Crows once sang. Even more than our treasured memories of each distinctive MFA cohort (the Reds, Mustards, the Citrons, the Scarlet Tanagers, the Palis—forty cohorts in twenty years), the words of our graduates are the ghosts who travel with us. Each time we read them, spirits dance.
If I were to tell you the story of a man, a hypothetical story, you would not judge that man if you knew it was only a story. But he would feel real to you, and you might worry. You might think the man actually exists, and you might worry. For the sake of this story, we’ll call the man Desmond.[vii]
To every incoming MFA cohort, we make two promises. The first is: There is no Antioch way to think or write.
Poetic license? Nah, nobody
taught me this.
I figured it out on my own,
As pyramid glyphs fell like sabers,
you will see what is in store.[viii]
Sometimes what our students write seems aimed at the beating heart of our mission—and reminds us of the responsibilities MFA graduates often feel in their lives off the page.
Mahalia Jackson’s contralto voice carried us
like a mother carries a fetus inside her womb, but
through back doors to rear sections of Jim Crowed places
past lunch counters wiped clean
of black faces.[ix]
Here I go up to the altar of God,
to God who gives joy to my youth,
to the altar
where lies were told
and labeled truth
and I grew old
before my time.[x]
The day I finally told my grandmother I was gay she didn’t even bother looking up from her homemade cake frosting that she had been frowning over all morning. She just said “I don’t give a shit who you’re screwing. Long as you remember you was born a woman and you gonna die a woman and ain’t nuthin you can do to change that.”[xi]
Andrew upon Andrew
Jackson after Jackson after Jackson
the current seas flow like this
Sometimes writers claim identity.
Even before I was born, China was in my bones.[xiii]
Sometimes they deny it.
The first thing you need to know is that I’m not Chinese.[xiv]
Sometimes they seek it.
All the homos are extinct but us.
Hablis, that genius with tools.
Ergaster with her thin skull bones
& tiny teeth. Erectus, who first stood
up to gravity’s law with that fine
spinal column. Neanderthalensis,
first to bury his dead with flowers.
Now it’s down to us, sapiens sapiens
who shuffle the bones of the others
like runes, seeking clues to their
extinction, or charms against ours.[xv]
And sometimes they just don’t know.
Everything had changed. He was here now. He was in America.[xvi]
For many, perception itself is the focus:
Moon, you nursed my childhood bruises.
River, I only knew you in dreams.
Rain, you were a visitor I welcomed,
face pressed onto window-panes.
Wind, I watched you stretching in the sun.[xvii]
I can still close my eyes and feel the waves of energy that rolled over me when I realized I could read.[xviii]
The Girl sees a dream: Grandma’s voice meets Granddad’s voice and they become a river. The river flows, and sings, and lures the Girl to swim in it. The Girl steps into the river and gives herself to the current. She knows it is a dream, nothing bad ever happens in a dream. The river is warm, the Girl turns onto her back and floats downstream with her arms spread wide like a star.[xix]
Sometimes the moonlight hangs a shadow of the window bars above me. They are meant to keep criminals out.[xx]
Night tucks sadness in,
one cricket creases silence,
folds tears into song.[xxi]
For a great many, the most powerful subject is yearning.
Nikki knows she is being watched. She has been watched all week—and not just by the sleepy tourists fighting nausea on this swaying catamaran. Sure, they clutch their coffees and admire her ease as she balances the breakfast tray. They smile as their suntanned children rush to the rail where she flings crumbs to the shrieking gulls. The mothers envy her freedom; the fathers lust after her form. But I watch the real girl beneath the Maui Tours T-shirt, and I will love her long after we snorkel and return to the dock.[xxii]
But sometimes the writer’s tone conveys irony that emerges with distance or time.
After Humberto Escobar broke up with me my junior year, I went over to my best friend Samatha Garcia’s for consolation. She provided hugs and frozen yogurt. “I loved him, Sam. How could he do this to me?” It was difficult to keep crying with razzleberry-coconut swirl in my mouth.[xxiii]
The second thing we promise is that each incoming MFA cohort should be judged, at least in part, on what each writer does beyond the page: This program will change your life.
We promise that what students encounter in this program will haunt them in ways that spill into the life they cannot control with point of view, degree of omniscience, characterization, figurative language, careful lining, or even tone: the life they live. We promise that whoever they are when they enter the program—whatever their individual strengths, weaknesses, personal baggage, and potentials—they will be altered by what they learn here. They will become more than they are when they arrive, even if the ways they grow are difficult to gauge.
In the West
zero was a problem.
Aristotle urged it outlawed
for dividing without an answer.
In the East
they relished mystery,
knew the opposite of something is.
Brahmagupta used it
for his definition of infinity:
nothing going into anything forever.[xxiv]
Is this promise always fulfilled? Surely not. But for those who make it all the way through, who devote themselves not merely to improving their own art but to lifelong learning—of what it means to be a literary citizen, to devote oneself to goals beyond personal success—for the vast majority of those, my correspondence with hundreds of graduates informs me, the question hardly occurs. For them, the stakes are larger now, and their achievements as writers constitute only one measure of the lives they are living. When a life actually changes, so do the assumptions and frames of reference that have underlain it.
Odysseus: There were no suitors. There was never any wife at home. I have no son. There never was any gold.
For that matter, there never was a face that launched a thousand ships, unless it was my own (and I was never good with mirrors at the best of times). Why then did I come back? Why did I set out in the first place?[xxv]
Originally, I planned to fill this space with the history of the MFA program, how it has evolved over the years. The first low-residency MFA on the West Coast. The first low-residency program to include an online component. The first low-residency program devoted to social justice. I planned to trace the program’s growth, in both size and scope, describing the post-MFA certificate in the teaching of creative writing, the professional development semester, the writing for young people track, inspiration2publication, a dual-degree option with our MA in urban sustainability (chaired by MFA alum Don Strauss), and an exciting genre jump option into the new MFA in writing & contemporary media program at our sister campus in Santa Barbara. I expected to describe fascinating opportunities now on the drawing board: creative writing for the therapeutic community, and an MA in English aimed at creative writers who want to teach at community colleges and middle/secondary schools. I planned to sprinkle this reflection with flattering quotes about the program from famous writers who have served as guests at our ten-day on-campus residencies. And of course, I planned to thank our extraordinary faculty mentors and the invaluable members of the MFA on-campus team over the program’s history. Most especially our dedicated core faculty: Eloise, Tara, Jenny Factor, Emily Rapp, and Bernadette Murphy. And our devoted program coordinators: Keith Rand, Audrey Mandelbaum, Wendy Ortiz, Howie Davidson, Jackie Heinz, Kristen Schroer, and Natalie Truhan. Without their diligence and self-sacrifice, this MFA in creative writing could never have developed into one of the most successful and respected programs of its kind. There was much to be said.
But in the end, our graduates should tell the story of Antioch’s MFA in creative writing, for they are the ones who will take the story wherever it goes from here. To them I leave the final words.
When the ukulele my grandpa gave me started playing itself, I kind of expected it.[xxvi]
The first time my father met my boyfriend Jamie he said, “If you ever go near my daughter again I’ll break both your legs.”[xxvii]
“Ma’am, I paint my toenails pink so that at the end of the day, when I take off my boots, I still feel like a woman.” I’m in the chow hall with one of my female Marines, Sergeant Browning.[xxviii]
Every fall they came, after the carnavales and the circus had come and gone, just before the hot November rain made all the rivers overflow, flooding even the most joyous hearts and homes of eastern Cuba with despair.[xxix]
I take my dog’s ashes to our lake house,
the soil supple at last.
In a hole dug to fit the new maple
I nestle them on a Saturday morning
amongst photos, a love letter,
sand from the East End beach and Brandy Pond
where his paws dug diligently into earth.[xxx]
In Big Town the beer was cold, the chili dogs were hot and no self-respecting woman ever climbed the steps to the second-floor establishment.[xxxi]
If ever your husband comes home stinking drunk, don’t
beat him while he sleeps; you’ll just end up confessing to it.[xxxii]
Chickasaw County is where the Piedmont Hills descend like a green and rumpled blanket from the rounded peaks of the Great Smoky Mountains, the land lowering into the remote northwestern corner of the small state, shaped like a pork chop, that is South Carolina. It is a Jesus-haunted place, held captive yet by the grim and tragic history of slavery, the ensuing war, and the dreadfulness that followed in the generations since.[xxxiii]
This is a first for Maritha. She can’t remember another man taking a pass on sex with her. There is no precedent.[xxxiv]
I preferred the new weird out of body experience of being stoned. It numbed my fear of facing the girls who ruled State Beach.[xxxv]
In a parking lot a woman knelt on the pavement, talking to a puddle.
The ripples of muddy water contained her face. “Ah ha!” she cried as
she scooped brown liquid with the vessel of cupped hands. Her face had
been missing for days and she’d felt lost without it. “Why did you leave
me?” she asked the drips escaping her palms through finger cracks.[xxxvi]
“Your father was arrested today,” my mother said as she passed me the remote, “for doing something stupid.”[xxxvii]
Artichokes, antelopes, Bactine, banana cream
pie, celery, caribou, cantaloupe, a canteen,
diapers, dental floss, egg whites and elbow
room, frogs’ legs, frogs’ head soup, fried lipstick
the color of my mother’s hair (that matches my
perfume), and a monsoon, plus many types
of mangos and a machine to make them move[xxxviii]
The Serb had been right—she was an absolute stunner.[xxxix]
“Holy crap.” That didn’t really sum it up. “Holy crap on a crap cracker with crap frosting on top.”[xl]
The first time I met Sam, I put him in a headlock. The second time he saved my life. The third time, we tried to save the world.[xli]
In the night did you cry
onto the angles
of your cheeks?[xlii]
I have only one foot inside the school bus and I can already hear Ellie hollering to me from the back seat. I step up the stairs and saunter down the aisle to join her and we both laugh and shout “we are it!” It doesn’t even matter that I’m not quite sure what it is; I always feel confident with Ellie and today of all days I need as much daring as I can get. Today is the day Mr. Gaffney said he would kiss me.[xliii]
Sweatpants and hooded sweatshirts, enough to always have a dry set to put on. Lots of cotton T-shirts for changing out of between strings of gear, when you soak them through with your sweat. Underwear.
You need a knowledge of cookery. The ability to learn how to change the oil in a Caterpillar 3298. An appreciation for dawn. A respect for night . . .[xliv]
Mother longed for this image: to locate a part of herself in her daughter. She pulled it off for a few years with her matching silks and cashmeres; saddle shoes and satin dresses. Her idea of me worked only until I became able to distinguish parts of my own personality.[xlv]
So promise is a girl in a loose summer dress
Hands folded neatly into heart shaped fists.
Fist is a boy, clenched tight and hard
With bitten nails, scuffed and scarred.
Promise is a girl with scars at her wrists
Hands folded neatly into heart shaped fists.
Heart is a muscle, thick and veined with blue
Blue is her dress, and her eyes, and a bruise.
Bruise is the taste of a plum or a peach
A stone at its heart, but yielding and sweet.
Stone is as hard and as smooth as a fist
Clean like a promise, like that first sweet kiss.[xlvi]
Professionally speaking, she was known as LTD4547981.
Jeremy called her Karen.[xlvii]
You work at a Hollywood diner. You serve pancakes to Andy Garcia. He comes in with his family. You blush because you love him, and want to knock his wife out of the booth so you can pour syrup all over his . . . pancakes. Your waitress friend asks you: “Why is your face so red?” You answer: “It’s Andy. I am serving Andy, and I want to have his babies.”[xlviii]
The side of the Penske truck read “Dedication at every turn.” Larry, the inbred bumpkin who rented it to me, assured me it was up to the task.[xlix]
Bobby dreamed of dresses. First-born boy, he learned to be a good provider. He took his bride shopping: one for her, one for me. And she always agreed. He dreamed his daughter growing inside of himself and was sure she would understand, when the time came for explaining.[l]
[i] Man of the Forest: Chronicles of Comptche, Christy Wagner, June, 1999.
[ii] “Never Never Land,” Gina Loring, December 2011.
[iii] Intarsia, Mary Wysong-Haeri, December 2005.
[iv] “Labyrinthitis,” Chrystina M. Tobey, December 2006.
[v] “(Sub)Mission to a Creative Writing Workshop,” Curt Duffy, June 1999.
[vi] “Foundation,” Donald Strauss, June 2000.
[vii] “The Story of a Man,” Aaron Gansky, June 2009.
[viii] “Stone Still,” Jose Trejo-Mayo, June 2011.
[ix] “Sparrow,” Dana Stringer, June 2011.
[x] “Introibo,” John M. Paulett, June 2013.
[xi] This Life, Carolyn R. Wysinger, December 2007.
[xii] “The Ghost of 1830,” Ben Rhodes, December 2010.
[xiii] A Walk in the Mist, Nancy Conyers, December 2011.
[xiv] I’m Not Chinese—The Journey from Resentment to Reverence, Raymond Wong, June 2013.
[xv] “Love Song for the Homos,” Richard Beban, December 2003.
[xvi] “A Free Life,” Charse Yun, December 2014.
[xvii] “Moon, River, Rain, Wind,” Magdelawit Makonnen Tesfaye, December 2011.
[xviii] “A Day of Celebration,” Judy Sunderland, June 2009.
[xix] “Bits and Pieces,” Natalie Truhan, December 2015.
[xx] Please Don’t Come Back From the Moon, Larry Strauss, June 1999.
[xxi] “Song,” Pamela Annette Woolway, December 2007.
[xxii] “After,” Leslie Lehr Spirson, June 2005.
[xxiii] “A Sign of Peace,” Tisha Marie Reichle, June 2009.
[xxiv] “Dichotomy,” Peter L. Bergquist, December 2009.
[xxv] “Return to Ithaca,” Aaron Raz Link, June 2011.
[xxvi] “Ukulele,” Lee Garth Stoops, December 2012.
[xxvii] “On Being in Lust,” Kristine Debra LeBlanc, December 2006.
[xxviii] “Secret Girl Behavior, Al Asad, Iraq, April, 2008,” Lisbeth M. Prifogle, June 2010.
[xxix] “Cuba, 1949,” Eduardo Santiago, June 2011.
[xxx] “The Dead Are Always Left at My Feet,” Deborah Krainin, June 2003.
[xxxi] The Wrath of the Dixie Mafia, James Paul Sinor, December 2011.
[xxxii] “Grandma Zolie Gives Unheeded Advice,” Lauren Schmidt, June 2010.
[xxxiii] “Lilith McGee,” John Guthrie, December 2006.
[xxxiv] “S&M,” Kimberly Renee Mack, December 2008.
[xxxv] “Rulers of the World,” Lisa Freeman, December 2004.
[xxxvi] “Puddle,” Susan Vespoli, December 2010.
[xxxvii] “Comfort Food,” Sakena Jwan Patterson, June 2009.
[xxxviii] “Shopping List—The Musical,” Cati Porter, June 2010.
[xxxix] Lake Town, Gary Shenk, June 2016.
[xl] Time Cubed, Eileen Rendahl, June 2015.
[xli] Grace, Michelle Lynne Le Blanc, June 2012.
[xlii] “To Van Gogh,” Robert Delgado Montoya, December 2008.
[xliii] “Practically Twelve,” Joan Dempsey, June 2005.
[xliv] “The Things You Need,” Toby J. Sullivan, December 2005.
[xlv] Airways and Other Obstacles of Life, Terry Jean Ratner, June 2004.
[xlvi] “Onomatopoeia,” Anna Kate Scotti, June 2006.
[xlvii] “The Dismemberer,” David Morris Parson, December 2007.
[xlviii] “Self-Made Mother,” Andrea Tate, December 2014.
[xlix] “Sixty Miles to Charlotte,” T. G. LaFredo, December 2012.
[l] “The Dreams of Girls,” Autumn Konopka, June 2006.