Meet the first years: Part 1

Our first-year cohort has survived their first semester and are diving in to their second, kicking off the spring semester with first-year MFA readings on February 6 and 27th. Second-year nonfiction MFA Caroline Miller interviewed Dana Liebelson, Winona León, Maggie Smith, and Nell Smith about writing, MFA life, and the weird and wonderful parts of living in Wyoming.

Winona León is a writer and artist originally from West Texas. She holds a BA in creative writing from the University of Southern California and comes to Laramie from Los Angeles, where she worked in book publishing and nonprofit development. In her free time, she enjoys drawing and hiking with her corgi, Winston.

Dana Liebelson is a writer and journalist from Bozeman, Montana. She has worked as a staff reporter for Mother Jones and HuffPost, where she was a two-time Livingston Awards finalist for her investigative work on prisons and jails. She previously played bass in a feminist punk band in Washington, D.C.

Maggie Smith is a nonfiction writer from Mississippi. She attended undergrad at the University of Mississippi, where she learned a lot about writing, music, the complexities of the Old and New South, and indie band boys. She has a three-legged cat named after Mississippi writer Barry Hannah, so named because he has a big personality and kind of walks like a drunk.

Nell Smith is a writer and field biologist originally from Maine who has lived in Arizona for the better part of the last decade. She earned a BA from Prescott College, where she double majored in Arts & Letters and Environmental Studies. She writes about the interplay between people and place, unorthodox community, birds, and tall ships.

Caroline Miller: Can I have you each start off by talking a little bit about your writing? What kind of things do you write? What topics are you interested in?

Dana Liebelson: I have a lot of trouble with this question, especially because it’s shifting since I entered the MFA program. My fiction is often rooted in the West—I like to write about people who try to leave behind family and places that shaped them and are dragged asunder again. I also write about bad men and false narratives, playing with the idea of who gets to define what is “true.” I’m attracted to stories and characters that are strange and unsettling.

Winona León: A lot of my stories take place in Texas and also the West. I’m heavily influenced by my own mixed identity and growing up in a small rural town. I’m interested in that liminal space between desire and responsibility, and how our lives are influenced by the confines of environments, families, and our own ingrained systems of belief.

DL: Nona always has the best answers.

Maggie Smith: My MFA emphasis is in nonfiction, but I write poetry as well. I really began my writing career as a poet, and I think that’s visible in the language I find myself using. I write personal essay and memoir, mostly about my own family and the American South and how those two influence and relate to one another. Some themes that also crop up a lot are femininity, sexuality, music, food, and mental illness. But I think at the core, what I’m writing about is home and sense of place and how environment affects those concepts.

Nell Smith: It’s always hard to define your writing in a way that feels authentic and encompassing…much of my writing works to integrate ecological themes with personal experience in ways that expand perceptions (both my own and, hopefully, my readers’) about the natural world and our place within it. Particularly having moved from the East to the West, I always find myself coming back to themes of adaptation and belonging within a sense of place.

DL: I don’t think it’s a coincidence that we have so many overlapping areas here!

CM: I’m definitely seeing things that resonate with subjects that folks in my own cohort have been exploring as well. I wonder if something about UW’s program draws people who are interested in these themes of place and belonging, or if being here encourages to start writing about them. Which also leads me to my next question—what made you decide to come to the University of Wyoming’s MFA program?

DL: I grew up in Montana and moved to D.C. when I was seventeen and then spent almost all of my twenties there. I love D.C., but I was really ready to get off the East Coast. When I applied to MFA programs, my partner and I had just moved to Austin. I actually ended up getting in to Texas State and it would have made sense for us to stay. But when I visited Wyoming, I knew immediately this was the right place for me. It was a combination of the people, the landscape, and watching the Old Town Road music video too many times. I also feel very lucky that my partner was willing to pick up and move to Wyoming.

NS: I didn’t really expect to end up in Wyoming! That said, I’m so glad I did. I was drawn to the program because it seemed to support interdisciplinary work, and because it was in a state I could imagine myself being content to live in for two years. When I was accepted, though, I sort of panicked, and it wasn’t until I visited and got a sense of the community that I began to feel like it could be a really good fit. Having been here a few months now, that feeling has grown and I feel so lucky to have found a place here.

MS: Wyoming was absolutely my first choice as a program. Brad Watson is a Mississippi native and a good friend of a lot of writing and literature people back home. People spoke highly of him and respected his work. I loved that the program seemed to offer avenues to pursue my interests outside of writing, but also how those might overlap with my writing. Working in radio for Wyoming Public Media or minoring in Environment and Natural Resources are two things that come to mind. In terms of location, I’d never lived anywhere other than Mississippi, and nothing seemed more far away and foreign to me while also seeming so uniquely American. It’s funny to me now, because as different as Laramie is, it also reminds me a lot of home.

NS: I second what Maggie said—it wasn’t until I  visited that I learned about the opportunities to work with Wyoming Public Radio and the Haub School, but those were huge motivations too.

DL: I think the other thing I should add is that there are only four of us in this year’s cohort! The amount of one-to-one face time I’ve had with faculty so far, writers I really admire, has been absolutely incredible.

WL: The second years are pretty awesome too. It’s been great knowing that the community here really does exist.

DL: Also, Joy Williams.

CM: Do you think it’s been what you’ve expected, both in terms of Laramie as a place and life as an MFA student? What’s been the best or weirdest or most unexpected thing that’s happened to you since you moved here?

WL: This is my first time ever experiencing a real winter and that’s definitely a huge change from me perpetually perfect sunny beach days back in California. However, snow tires and the opportunities for grants to travel abroad during our long winter and summer breaks make up for the nine long months of winter. Also, I want to learn how to ski!

MS: Well, the first thing that comes to mind is learning how to ride a horse and not being terrible at it.

DL: I feel like my friends back home in Bozeman, Montana, are like, “man…you’re really out there. In some ways, Laramie reminds me of Bozeman, but it has a different character too. I feel like best/weird are all lumped together for me. It’s some tie between the Game of Thrones fog wall I drove through on the way to the airport, the haunted Virginian Hotel and getting a university grant to go see a crater on an Estonian island.

NS: Honestly there has been more support and sense of community than I had prepared myself for. I’d heard stories of difficult dynamics within MFA programs and it was wonderful to arrive and immediately feel welcomed into this community of smart, talented, and kind people. In terms of good things that have happened here, I spent most of the last few years working as a field biologist and spending most of my time outside so I was glad to find accessible public land. Places like Happy Jack, the Snowy Mountains, Lake Hutton and the prairie east of town helped me start feeling at home.

MS: Speaking more seriously, the best thing has been the people. I was drawn to Wyoming because it seemed like a program for people who were authentic and serious about their work, which was important to me. And everyone is while also managing to be so kind. No one is here on a whim, but no one is here with a “not here to make friends” mentality. There’s the perfect balance of being devoted to your work while also being supportive.

DL: Yes! Also we are so good at potlucks.

NS: So many good potlucks!

Come hear first-years Dana Liebelson and Maggie Smith read their work this Thursday, February 6 at 7 PM at Night Heron Books and Coffeehouse, and stay tuned for Part 2 of our Meet the First Years interview!

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