U.Va. a fertile ground for writers
|Lisa Russ Spaar (center), director of the creative writing program, assists students in an advanced class in printmaking and poetry that is team-taught by Spaar and studio art professor Dean Dass. The students wrote poems and made prints that they combined in their own individual books.
By Anne Bromley
The accolades are there for all to see: 2004 Pulitzer Prizes in fiction and poetry went to U.Va. creative writing alumni Edward P. Jones and Franz Wright, respectively, plus the top Library of Virginia Literary Awards went to writers from the University [see news briefs]. Several faculty members have garnered the highest literary awards in the country, and more alumni, particularly younger ones, are collecting an impressive array of respectable awards in the literary publishing world.
The reputation of the University’s creative writing program has grown throughout the years — it tied for fourth place in U.S. News & World
Report’s last ranking in 1997 — but its size has stayed the same, and therein lies its strength.
Turning 25 next year, the English department’s Master of Fine Arts degree program is well established, thanks in large part to funding from the Henry Hoyns bequest, set up by his daughter,
Lucille Sherman, in 1976.
“We keep it small,” said associate professor Lisa Russ Spaar, director of the program. “That makes for a good faculty-student ratio. … People come here to forge mentoring relationships.”
|A Sample of Alumni Awardees
|• Sharmila Voorakkara (’03): Akron
Poetry Prize for “Fire Wheel”
• Kyle Dargan (’02): 2003 Cave Canem Poetry Prize for “The Listening”
• Erika Meitner (’01): 2002 Anhinga Prize for “Inventory at the All-Night Drugstore”
• Lisa Williams (’96): 2004 Rome Prize Fellowship; May Swenson Poetry Award for “The Hammered Dulcimer”
• Judy Jordan (’95): 2000 National Book Critics Circle Award and 1999 Walt Whitman Award for “Carolina Ghost Woods”
• Davis McCombs (’95): Stegner Fellowship; 1999 Yale Younger Poets Prize for “Ultima Thule”
• Carrie Brown (’98): Barnes and Noble Discover Awards for “Rose’s Garden”
• James Kimbrell (’94): Kathryn A. Morton Prize for “The Gatehouse Heaven”
• Larissa Szporluk (’94): Barnard Women’s Poetry Prize for “Dark Sky Question”
Out of 400 to 500 applicants, only five poets and seven fiction writers are accepted each year for the two-year degree. The program does no advertising; word of mouth and the caliber of the faculty accomplish that function.
The draw for serious writing students includes Pulitzer Prize winners of poetry Rita Dove and Charles Wright; poets Gregory Orr, Lisa Russ Spaar and Debra Nystrom; and fiction writers Ann Beattie, Sydney Blair, John Casey, Deborah Eisenberg, Chris Tilghman and Jeb Livingood. All have racked up book publications and other prestigious awards.
They also are dedicated teachers, who take turns offering seminars, such as poetry and politics or narrative and time in fiction; lead writing workshops; and hold regular conferences with the budding writers.
“Our faculty are committed to providing the environment for poets and fiction writers to do the writing they want to do,” Spaar said.
The U.Va. faculty also teach undergraduates, and those workshops and classes are wildly popular, said Spaar, who founded a poetry writing program for undergraduates.
Ted Genoways, who recently returned to the Grounds to become editor of the prestigious Virginia Quarterly Review, was a master of fine arts’ student in the late ’90s. He said he applied to U.Va.’s M.F.A. program based on the faculty.
“The real appeal was getting to work with the three poets here who are very different,” he said, referring to Dove, Orr and Wright.
Jones, who received a master’s degree from U.Va. in 1981, before the first M.F.A. class, said he came to U.Va. after meeting a writer and teacher he wanted to work with — National Book Award winner John Casey.
George Garrett, retired Henry Hoyns Professor of Creative Writing, stressed that because U.Va. writing faculty are so different in style and philosophy, it’s a great example for students in developing their own voices. Genoways agreed.
“The students don’t all come out sounding alike,” said Garrett, refuting a criticism that has been leveled at creative writing programs, which have proliferated on college campuses recently.
“Because we’re small, we attract incredible writers,” Spaar continued. Some already have published before they’ve enrolled.
In the program, students have the opportunity to enjoy other benefits. They may work with visiting writers who come to U.Va. in the Rea Visiting Writers Series, funded by the late Michael M. Rea’s Dungannon Foundation.
The visiting writers give public readings and hold student-conferences during one-week residencies. Students may take Livingood’s literary publishing course to work on the journal, Meridian, which was founded in 1997 (by Genoways, as a matter of fact).
All students receive at least partial financial support, through Hoyns fellowships, Poe/Faulkner fellowships and other funding. During their second year, they teach introductory courses in poetry and fiction. Many go on to become writing professors; others work in fields such as publishing or arts administration.
“You can’t teach anyone to be a great writer,” Garrett said. “You can teach things that will make it easier to develop as a writer.” Genoways claimed that the intense two-year experience took five to 10 years off his learning curve.
No matter what the M.F.A. graduates do later — or any student who takes a creative writing course — Spaar stressed that they’ve had the chance to experience the mystery and power of language and to become more careful and discerning readers. Language, after all, is what makes us human, she said.