Last week, I sat down with Alyson Hagy, professor extraordinaire and one of the founding faculty members of the UWyo MFA program. We talked about her writing projects, where she sees the program heading, and what advice she has for MFA applicants. Below is a transcript of the interview, edited for clarity. (And to remove all references to the subpar Detroit Tigers’ season.)
What are you working on this summer?
I’ve been doing final edits on a short novel which will be published in October 2018, by Graywolf Press. It’s called Scribe. I just sent it in last week, as my birthday present to myself. I’m really curious how it gets handled, because I’m too close to it now. I’ve been working on this for about four years, and I’m just too close to it.
I’ve also got a small handful of short stories, literally all but one of them are flash fiction, a thousand words or under. And that’s my next thing. They roughly go together, so I’m trying to put together a chapbook with some sort of thematic center. I don’t have good words for what the center is. A couple of the stories are about migration and immigration, a couple of them have war angles. They’re more fables than realist pieces. I’d like to spend the next couple or three months seeing what that looks like.
I’ve got lots of ideas for after that, but I need to recharge. I’m recharging now.
It seems like a very productive summer.
I’ve also been reading a lot, and that’s been a real pleasure. I’m reading Daisy Johnson’s Fen right now, which is interesting. Layli Long Soldier’s Whereas is a really powerful book of poems. I also read H.L. Hix’s Rain Inscription, and Ocean Vuong’s Night Sky With Exit Wounds. So I’ve read a lot of really powerful poetry this summer. I’ve also read some crime fiction and loved every page, because I needed that, too.
It’s difficult for me to call anything the best I’ve read this summer. I read Outline by Rachel Cusk, and I’m not sure I’d say I loved it, but I’m so intrigued by it. American Gods, by Neil Gaiman, is just a ton of fun. I re-read William Gay’s The Long Home, which is classic southern gothic. It was published in 1999 and I’d read it when it came out, but it was really fascinating to read again. So I think I’ve gotten a pretty good cross section. I’ve also read a book I’ve been thinking a lifetime about: Missoula, the rape and social justice book by Jon Krakauer.
It’s also been an interesting summer for the program. Obviously there’s been some financial turmoil in the program this year. As faculty and as a program, how are we moving forward from that?
Brad Watson [MFA Program Director] is in the lead, but he and I have been in pretty constant contact with the dean. She’s been our advocate for all kinds of arguments, primarily for getting our discretionary funding back when those accounts fill up again, That’s the big picture move. The dean declared her support, but the devil will be in the details. I have met with pretty much every colleague who will be here this fall and we’ll be committed to a strong year, for everything that’s in our control. So what can we control? Good workshop experiences, good program experiences. I don’t think we have the detail on teaching assignments yet, but we’ve got everyone’s GAs [graduate assistantships] covered.
But what we’d like to know, what everyone would like to know, is how many positions we can recruit for next year. We don’t have an answer yet. We’re scheduled to meet with the dean again in early September to discuss this. I also was fortunate enough to have some good interactions with Neltje, whose relationship with the university looks really strong. So we’ve got this great opportunity with her and her museum as a kind of anchor for a really incredible future for the art museum and for the writing program.
We still think this a great program. There are lots of people who are interested in helping the program retain its really unique position as a small, innovative, flexible, interdisciplinary MFA. There’s almost no other program like us. There are some programs that have pieces of what we have, but our connections to places like the art museum, the Haub School, Wyoming Public Media, Barry Center, UCross, and Jentel… I would also hope we develop a relationship to Brush Creek, the residency over near Saratoga. That’s something I’m talking to the art museum about.
So, we’ve got some possibilities. We’ve got some really excellent first year students coming in and of course we have a really excellent second year class. Brad has been working hard for the program, and we’ve all been throwing ideas out. We’re going to try to bring some visitors in. We need to get a clearer sense of who’s going to be in Denver, who will be driving up to UCross. We can provide a couch, some dinner, a chance to make some connections. And we’re hoping to grab enough discretionary funding to have a couple additional events.
You know, the details will be different in some ways but I’m hopeful that the end result will be good. I mean, the program is only as good ultimately as what we all put into it as a community. You guys [current students and recent grads] know that. You did a really good job of that last year and have for many years. That’s our ace. And so we as faculty have to commit to being part of that as well. We all need to talk to each other.
And there’s also some talk, and we probably out to do this as a community too: What is the future of genre here? Because our faculty has changed its face. We still can offer the traditional three genres, but are there other things we should be thinking about doing?
A lot of the people who read the blog are making decisions about where to apply. Do you have a sense right now if you’ll be recruiting people for the three genres?
That’s definitely the hope. But we believe that we need to have enough GAs to provide the critical mass for those. And there are a lot of ideas out there. One of which is that we may have people apply both genre-specific and not genre-specific. We haven’t had that conversation yet, but I think that could be a very interesting way to do this. We tend to have a great many fiction applications and, still having the core of our fiction faculty, we can probably stay steady there.
But the short answer is we’ve asked for enough GAs to keep all three genres, and the dean found that a persuasive ask. Whether she can make that actually happen or not…
In your experience reading applications in past years, what do people focus on that’s extraneous? What should they be focusing on?
I love applications. I say bring on your strongest writing sample and don’t be afraid to take certain kinds of risks. I’ll steal from my old friend Charlie Baxter: I’m looking for what he calls emotional intelligence or aesthetic intelligence in those writing samples. I’m not looking for craft perfection, that’s something that comes with practice and reading. I’m looking for whether there’s an investment, consciously or unconsciously, in the material that has a kind of shimmer or knottiness to it. That’s what makes it really interesting. And it can be something that’s pretty untamed.
When people are writing about wanting to teach, they should let us know if they have teaching experience. But, you know, be honest about that.
(Laughing) Are people not honest about that?
I think people are generally honest about that. That’s the shortest and safest part of the application.
Letters of recommendation do matter, and it’s not as much about the writing skill but people talking about your ability to be in a community. I don’t think that all writers have to be social animals, but one of the deals you have to make when you come to our program is that you’re willing to be in a critical and aesthetic community.
Last but not least, in their statements of purpose, I think sometimes people tell us what they think we want to hear rather than what they really need to say.
What do they think you want to hear?
What wonderful traditional undergraduate achievement they’ve had, or that they’re absolutely going to finish that novel or finish that story collection and that they’re sure they know what they’re going to do when they get here. Don’t get me wrong, that’s nice. I like seeing the ambition and the plans. But I also believe that books take a lot longer than 20 months.
And people often submit statements of purpose as if they live in a world without other writers and other books. It’s really helpful to me to know who they love to read, who’s driving them crazy or who has really got them thinking, old or new. Reading is your constant training as a writer, we’re all doing it all the time. That’s probably more important to me than–look, I can see your undergraduate record on your transcripts. But a lot of writers aren’t traditionally great students. Many are, but not all. I’m looking for “Why do you need to be in Laramie now, reasons large or small? Why is now the time to move into a program and really test your own voice and aesthetic and make what can really be a real leap, particularly if you’re leaving a job?” Just tell it to us straight. And the people who tell us those stories most sincerely are pretty effective in their applications.
You learn so much about a person not just from the books they love but also the ones that get under their skin, the books that they end up throwing across the room.
The Rachel Cusk novel Outline, again, I wouldn’t say I love it, but it’s trying to do something that’s gnawing at me. I’m not even sure I like it, but I would love to talk to incoming students about it. So yes, I would love to know what books you want to throw across a room and the ones you’re mystified by, or the ones that make you feel the way you hope your own work will make other people feel. And there’s no house style here. We read applications for building the most interesting cohort possible, not replicating ourselves. And we’ll continue to make that our principle.
Is that going to be more difficult with a smaller cohort?
Yes, I think that’s true. I don’t have a good answer for that, but if you think you’re going to have 9-12 students overall, it’s probably a little different than if you think you’re going to have 4-6. We’re still going to go with the work and the people we think will fit best here. Traditionally, we have not felt like we were necessarily the best home for people who have already launched professionally. They send us great applications and I think they’d be fabulous to have here, but if they’ve already got a contract with Pantheon, we may not be the right program. We might be–I wouldn’t say to turn us down–but we have traditionally been the program that attracts people that have multiple interests, sometimes not in literature, and who have made that wildlife biology or that undergraduate printmaking ceramics degree a foundation on which to build a writing life.