The MFA Corner is a section on O-Bits spotlighting one Creative Writing graduate program. Below is an interview with director Nicole Cooley.
What your program’s size and area of focus?
Our program, which we started five years ago, in 2007, enrolls 35 students, who study poetry, prose, playwriting and literary translation. We are one of the very few programs in the US who offer a track in playwriting based in an English Department/MFA Program and one of two MFA programs in the country that offer an MFA in literary translation.
Can you tell us something about your program that can’t be found on your website?
I always say that as a new program we have no laurels to rest on. And we love this! It is very exciting. Our MFA program has a lively, energetic, can-do kind of spirit. No one can tell us that we can’t do something because it has never been done. We just go out and do it. For example, we have strong partnerships with the Poetry Society of America and the Flea Theater in Tribeca. Last week, we brought playwright David Henry Hwang and poet Cathy Park Hong to campus. Last year, we brought Poet Laureate Philip Levine to read and esteemed translator Lawrence Venuti to speak about translation.
What are some of your most popular courses and workshops?
Our program is committed to cross-genre work—everyone must take one workshop outside of their genre of focus– and our courses reflect that. For example, next semester we are offering a craft class on “Closure”—which explores how different kinds of writing construct endings. We also offer a craft class on “Tiny Texts: ten minute plays, flash fiction and short poems.” We offer a multi-genre thesis workshop which students take in their final year of the program, which is a wonderful, lively mix of work and aesthetics.
Does your program have a literary journal? If so, how involved are students in the production of the journal? And why would people outside of your program be interested in reading the journal?
The first year of our program, our MFA students started a national journal, Ozone Park, which includes work from across the country and has launch events each semester for each new issue. It’s a fabulous, eclectic mix of work, from poems to plays to interviews to comics.
Can you talk about the local writing community outside of the program? For example, do local bars and cafes hold a regular reading series?
We are working to make Queens the new Brooklyn—we are currently connecting our MFA program with the great new initiatives at the Queens Council for The Arts, the Newtown Literary Alliance, and the Queens Central Library in Jamaica. A group of our students and alumnae have also formed a writing collective/reading series called Oh Bernice which runs readings at Café Marlene in Sunnyside, Queens.
Which of your faculty members have been teaching in the program for the longest time?
All of us have been teaching in the program essentially since it began. And all of us are tenured, full-time and committed faculty members. Each year we area also lucky to have a visiting professor. This year, we have fiction writer Maaza Mengiste. Last year, we had translator Susan Bernofsky.
Does your program put a heavier emphasis on critical courses or workshops?
Worskhops are the core of our program. But we are what AWP would call a “studio/research” program. We believe that writing and reading are inextricably connected. Our English Department with which we have a wonderful relationship and a strong connection offers great literature courses, everything from feminist fairy tales to James Joyce to literature and the environment.
What would your students say is the most challenging aspect of the program?
I think it would be our commitment to helping them take risks in their writing. We are not trying to help students edit and polish their work. We are all here to help them think deeply about language, form, structure and voice.
What estimated percentage of recent graduates become published authors?
Our program is so new that we are still in the early stages of publication recording. But our students’ have published chapbooks as well as work in great journals. Our program’s publication record is evolving all the time.
What makes your program different than the other eight hundred plus MFA programs in the country?
So many things! Our focus on translation is a large part of what makes us different. 149 languages are spoken on the Queens College campus, so it’s an ideal place to study literary translation. And our translation track influences our entire MFA program in wonderful ways. Our students can do multi-lingual work in global literatures, attend talks on translation and we encourage everyone in the program to try their hand at translation.
Any advice for prospective students looking to apply to your program?
Apply to our program if you are interested in taking on challenges, stepping outside of your comfort zone, and writing the work that scares you and excites you!