Amid the organized chaos of the recent AWP Conference in Chicago, Editor Sidney Brammer met for a quiet brunch with RWW Director Stan Rubin to talk to him about the RWW program, the writing life, and his own efforts to create new work while administering a complex low residency writing program.
SOUNDINGS: Tell me about the genesis of the RWW program and what you and Judith Kitchen originally hoped to create at PLU.
RUBIN: I had studied with Robert Lowell and Judith had been at the Warren Wilson program, but it was through our work in literary education in New York State that we met. Judith was with the New York State Literary Center working with schools and community organizations. At the time, I was teaching creative writing and film studies and running a writer’s program and a summer writing workshop out of SUNY, the Brockport Writers Forum and Video Library, for which I interviewed hundreds of writers and published dozens of interviews, including a book, The Post-Confessionals: Conversations with American Poets of the Eighties. Judith has been a novelist, essayist, poet, and editor; at that time, at State Street Press, she essentially brought back the chapbook to American poetry. I joined the editorial board. In turn, she joined the SUNY faculty as Writer in Residence, and worked with me on the Forum and the Brockport Summer Workshops. We developed special events with writers such as Nadine Gordimer and Wole Soyinka. So we both had decades of history with literary community and writing education at all levels: elementary school on up to the university level, doing everything from teaching to developing videos, special programs and grants. I’d say that we combined our strengths to develop RWW. It was at AWP that we first approached colleagues and writers (some of whom ended up on the RWW faculty) about our vision of an MFA program that takes care, in an ethical sense, of what a program owes to the MFA student, a program that treats students as adults—transparent, collaborative, process-oriented, committed to writing as a lifetime endeavor. Some of our founding faculty are still with us: David Huddle, Marjorie Sandor, Peggy Shumaker, Ann Pancake, Lia Purpura. Our goal was not to put people into the job market, nor to focus only on literary achievement, but to help our students find for themselves a sustainable writing life. We looked for a small private university setting where we could develop such a program with a special spirit of respect for the whole person, where participants are treated as grown-ups, where the student’s creative life is not taken over by the program, yet the student is challenged to discover the best of the writer self. It took us about two years of planning and set-up.
SOUNDINGS: What do you believe sets RWW apart from the pack of MFA low residency programs?
RUBIN: Our spirit as much as our structure. We had a recent graduate tell us that she had a friend in another program whose thoughts upon graduating were something like, “What do I do now!” whereas our graduate’s thoughts were more akin to, “I’m just getting started!” I think that’s indicative of the satisfaction in personal achievement that we foster at RWW. We don’t believe in pointless and destructive competition; we consider it a given that there are unequal levels of prior experience here. But once people are out there writing and publishing, contributing to the literary community, we trumpet the accomplishments of our graduates. We search for applicants who have already established a writing habit in their lives to some extent, and who are likely to flourish with us. When a graduate says something effusive like “you changed my life as a writer,” I prefer to answer: “We admitted the right person.” We are mentor-driven and not micro-managed. We focus on the writer/participant and faculty relationship as a one-on-one association. Thus, we try to bring in participants whom our faculty will be satisfied to work with in a year-long mentorship, and where the participant plays a significant role in choosing the mentor. We want that one-on-one relationship to be one of trust, growth, and challenge. Many literature departments have become heavily theorized over the years, which we try to avoid. We’re writerly. The typical program is two years, whereas ours is three years so that there is time for exploration of multiple genres, and, thus, we’ve seen some dual genre theses. We take risks we think are the right ones. We don’t rigidly track people in their beginning genre. Even though our participants are admitted into a cohort, they are not expected to stay with that cohort at the residency, so there is a lot of cross-cohort contact. I think we foster a strong sense of community, even though, “How do we build a writing community in a low res. program” was a question that Judith and I asked in the early planning stages. The answer came quickly. RWW participants have really built that community themselves. Being community-created, it feeds back into itself through an overlapping of communication between generations of graduates. The Outside Experience is a unique result of our desire to deal with participants as self-directed writers in the world, not protégés in a classroom.
SOUNDINGS: What do you think about the seeming glut of MFA programs that are out there now, a decade after starting one at PLU? Is it a good thing or a bad thing to have so many creative writing programs and graduates in the world?
RUBIN: This came up at our Low Residency MFA Program Director’s Caucus this morning [at AWP]. I was the elected chair of this group for two years, so I know the field well. According to the data discussed, the MFA low residency boom is slowly tapering. There soon will be about fifty low residency programs. So the trend may be cresting, but there are several new ones in the works. There seems to be a hunger for artistic education in general, so I think we’re responding to a need in the culture. There are a lot of women joining MFA programs, which I think really liberates the energy of these programs, as we’ve seen happen here at RWW. On the whole, I think the MFA phenomenon has been worthwhile. As they proliferate, though, many are destined to be local or regional. We expect to maintain our high quality and national scope. Our uniqueness. Our own program has exceeded my expectations for building a productive community of writers, and I think we have had some tremendous achievements from graduates for a not quite ten-year-old program.
SOUNDINGS: What are some you like to trumpet?
RUBIN: Oh, so many. Jennifer Culkin came to us as a helicopter medivac nurse who also wrote; her thesis when published as a book won one of six Rona Jaffe Foundation’s Emerging Writers’ Awards in 2008. Agents in Boston and New York were calling me about her. I think this is one reason for our third year—it provides a participant with the opportunity to further develop as a writer rather than being an “add on” at the end. Another would be Kathleen Flenniken, just named Washington Poet Laureate, whose second year Outside Experience took her back to her childhood home of Hanford, WA and its decommissioned nuclear complex, which ultimately led to her forthcoming book. Holly Hughes’ Beyond Forgetting, an anthology of Alzheimer’s writing, is another example of this kind of achievement from one of our first graduates, one which has done service to others. Real achievement can take years. Usually does. April Lawson, who graduated in ‘08, won the George Plimpton Prize from Paris Review this year. Her career is taking off. That’s one of the things we want to provide: a chance to understand and master your own process, to open new possibilities. It’s not just one or two, they keep coming. A few years back, Kelli Agodon won first place in poetry in the Atlantic Monthly contest, and this year Natalie Tilghman won first place in fiction in the same contest, prior to graduating. A memorable moment was when Creative Nonfiction sponsored a national contest for all MFA programs. Amy Andrews won first place and we were at her reading in New York City. The runners-up, as I recall, were from the University of Virginia and the Iowa Writers Workshop. It’s not about “stars,” we believe in everyone we admit. It’s about achievement, and we have had so much at so many levels, it’s impossible to name just a few. So many are now publishing in first-rate places. Others edit, work at or direct literary centers, like Ann Powers at Fishtrap in Oregon. Many teach, here and abroad, like Andrea Henchey in Namibia now. But all add to our reputation, and that’s good for everyone.
SOUNDINGS: Have there been any unexpected, serendipitous moments or people who have come through RWW as participants or faculty—through whatever cross-pollination, osmosis or germination of an idea that has been tossed about at residency—that has led them eventually to new work?
RUBIN: I think the Outside Experience is where we find these sorts of serendipities most often at RWW—pleasant surprises where an OE actually leads to further opportunities, projects, even books. Another would be how participants and faculty come to collaborate in our open atmosphere, e.g., the work that Holly Hughes and Brenda Miller have been doing together, other collaborations come to mind. Faculty tell us they have been inspired as mentors and by other faculty. Many feel comfortable sharing a work-in-progress at residency, and learn from that. Greg Glazner’s genre blending work, which he shared at several Residencies, saw some wonderful publication this year. Kent Meyers read a couple of summers from what became his novel Twisted Tree, he shared some of the revisions he was willing to make for publication and how he resisted others. There are a lot of stories like that. The morning presentations have often worked beautifully together as though a single conversation about writing, which is our goal for Residency.
SOUNDINGS: What is it like to live your creative life with another highly creative person, while working together administratively on a common effort as complex and demanding as RWW?
RUBIN: We wonderfully overlap in certain areas, but it is sometimes tumultuous. First thing in the morning, it’s not unusual for Judith and myself to have a debate about literature. It might still be going on late that night. She still tries to advance work she believes in, through publishing and reviewing, and I review as well, and we both communicate with many writers, so every single day we are thinking about the literary community at large as we work on the program. RWW planning starts early, with a cycle of recruitment, admission, set-up of the residency, mentor/mentee assignments, and myriad other specifics, right down to food choices, travel and other user-friendly considerations that we deal with to ensure that admission to our program be something special. I have to say that we are beautifully supported by PLU, though there are always problems to be dealt with. They’re endless.
SOUNDINGS: Does inspiration come more or less easily as one moves further down the pike of life? What continues to light creative fires for you?
RUBIN: Oh, we’re all fraught with insecurity all the time, with demons inside and out. Sometimes people want your work, it’s in phase, but, other times… really, you just have to do what you do. It’s vital for me to keep a portion of my inner life intact while administering the program. The existence of RWW has allowed me to focus my energy on one thing I love. Life in general gets clearer and less encumbered, and it’s easier to devote sustained time to my own work, but I still have to get up and work at it. I always look for new places to publish, currently I have work forthcoming in print and online in Agni, Poetry Northwest, Cider Press Review, and Superstition Review, to name a few. My last book was chosen by Donald Revell for the Barrow Street Book Prize. It was written after we moved here; I don’t think I would have had time for it before. But I don’t write now to be published; rather I try to think of myself as in communion with the language of writers long dead. It keeps you alive in another dimension. Over time, enough knowledge and skills develop that one comes to an understanding from within, and that’s the pay-off of age—the achievement of your own necessary voice, how to call each thing by its “living name,” to quote Lowell. To earn the exactitude Stevens asks for in his great spare late poems. To make something that is part of a larger reality. It’s a coming to terms, with self, with the art, with time. You can’t help a community of writers if you have no idea who you are. It’s doubtful what your communal contribution can be. I hope our program helps each writer to become a contributor to that community. Sustainment of writers as individuals can create better citizens in the culture at large.