The MFA Corner is a section on O-Bits spotlighting one Creative Writing graduate program. Below is an interview with director Brian Evenson of Brown University.
What your program’s size and area of focus?
Each year we admit five fiction writers, five poets, and one or two electronic writers. Since we have a two year program we have between 22-24 students in residence at any given time.
Can you tell us something about your program that can’t be found on your website?
We try to put the most interesting things on the website–the things not on the website might be slightly embarrassing or ridiculous (like who ended up putting a lampshade on their head at Robert Coover’s birthday party—besides Robert Coover, that is). One thing that might not be obvious is that we provide students with summer support between their first and second year, as a way of allowing them to pursue their projects. There are other small things we do, most of them good surprises.
What are some of your most popular courses and workshops?
We have an incredibly flexible program: students have to take three workshops in their genre over the course of four semesters and they have to take thesis hours, but the other four classes are completely open: they can take classes in our department or in other departments if they can justify it. One student, for instance, ended up taking Egyptology courses. Another took a graduate level Medical Anatomy course. Because of that, students end up pursuing their own individual paths, which end up being quite varied.
Can you talk about the local writing community outside of the program?
Providence is an amazingly vibrate and lively city in terms of readings and music, and there’s always something going on. The Brown bookstore has a reading series, as does Ada Books, one of the best used bookstores in town. There are other series at bars and elsewhere, including several at AS220. In short, there are lots of opportunities for readings and to hear work.
Which of your faculty members have been teaching in the program for the longest time?
Keith Waldrop was the longest, nearly forty years, but he retired last year. After that, it’s a tossup between several faculty members. I think the shortest amount of time a faculty member has been at Brown is six years (Renee Gladman). I’m the next shortest at around ten years. So, there’s a lot of experienced teachers who have been here for a while.
Does your program put a heavier emphasis on critical courses or workshops?
Our MFA puts the most emphasis on the workshops, but the program is constructed in such a way as to allow students to pursue a heavily theoretical track with their electives if they want to do so. Some students do–several students recently have used their electives as a way to prepare for English and Comp Lit PhD programs. Other students do something closer to a studio MFA.
What would your students say is the most challenging aspect of the program?
I think many students, the fiction students in particular, feel like the most challenging aspect of the program is the fact that it’s only two years. Many students wish they had more time to stay and develop their writing.
What estimated percentage of recent graduates become published authors?
Almost all of our graduate students go on to publish stories or poems in magazines, and a large percentage of them do so before they graduate. In terms of book-length publication, the last figure I had was that more than half of students end up publishing a book within five years.
What makes your program different than the other eight hundred plus MFA programs in the country?
We fund well and we fund everybody equally, so there’s a sense of community more than a sense of having to fight your fellow students for limited funds. We also provide all students with proctorships for their first year, which gives them more time to write and think. For the second year, every student in good standing is given teaching and allowed to teach a creative writing workshop.
Any advice for prospective students looking to apply to your program?
We’re very competitive. Submit your best work (and only your best work), and do what you can in your statement to let us know what makes you unique and interesting why we should take a chance on you. In fiction, we often end up with 20 or 30 people who we’d love to have, but unfortunately we only have five slots. We tend to go with students who we honestly think we’ll be the most help to, who will get something out of this program and this particular constellation of faculty. But still, making that final decision can be very hard.