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!

MFA Thanksgiving: What We’re Thankful For

The last MFA reading of the Fall 2019 semester was this past Thursday. Readings from Caroline Miller and Evan O’Neal were preceded by a Thanksgiving feast prepared by members of the MFA program and organized by our fearless reading series coordinators, Alejandro Alonso Galva and Kari Nielsen.


We asked/gently pressured those in attendance to write down things they were thankful for. Without further ado, here’s what our students, faculty, friends, and other affiliated humans are feeling especially grateful for this season:

  1. Potlucks! Friends! Yay!
  2. Kittens
  3. That I live by the Classroom Building.
  4. Alejandro’s positive energy, and MFA energy in general.
  5. Dairy Queen
  6. Dog diapers
  7. Everyone in my life.
  8. The hit 90s song “Smooth” by Carlos Santana, featuring Rob Thomas of Matchbox Twenty.
  9. I am thankful for my dog, Gibby.
  10. Alejandro’s pranks on Caroline.
  11. Carlo Rossi
  12. I am grateful–and so should all you wine drinkers in the house tonight be–that I am the kind of woman who keeps a corkscrew handy in her car
  13. Friends
  14. Shrimp cocktail
  15. Brad Fucking Watson!
  16. My dog, Zoey
  17. Taylor’s cake
  18. WINE (& Alejandro)
  19. Great friends, good sunsets, and meals with people we know or will get to know.
  20. The Troops
  21. The Troops
  22. The Troops
  23. The Troops
  24. The Troops, and America.
  25. Alejandro’s biceps
  26. Getting to spend two years with really good writers and people.

Interview: Evan O’Neal


Evan O’Neal is a musician and writer from St. Louis, MO. He has been living and writing in Los Angeles with his long time companion, Wiley, a husky-shepherd mix, where he attended CSULA. He writes mainly fiction but has been experimenting with genres like play-writing and poetry. 

What made you decide to pursue an MFA in creative writing? Why did you choose the program at UW?
I was actually in an MA program in English before I decided to pursue the dark arts. I was taking classes in critical theory and traditions and I had a few really extraordinary professors. I also took a fiction workshop, which I thought would help me condition the other side of my brain. The professor in the fiction workshop was a nightmare, and I thought about withdrawing from the course, but I went to the third or fourth class and she was no longer teaching. The new instructor, Elisabeth Houston, was a great facilitator and the workshop was really enjoyable. I took another workshop after that in poetry, and decided I’d rather be a writer than spend the rest of my life analyzing other people’s works.

I learned about Brad Watson from an interview on YouTube where he was in conversation with Larry Brown and Barry Hannah–pretty heavy hitters! So I decided to read some of his work. It blew me away, so I dug a little and found out that he worked at UW.

Over Thanksgiving, I drove to Denver to visit my sister and decided to stop in Laramie and see if I could track down Brad–pick his brain a little bit. It ended up working out. I decided I wanted to work with him, so I applied to the MFA program. It was actually the only MFA program I applied to.

Do you think living in Wyoming has changed your writing process, or your perspective on writing?
I think it has changed a lot because it is solely what I’m here to do. I try to think about it as a privilege that I get to work with some of the best writers in the game out here. It’s easy to take that for granted. I’ve learned a lot about myself since I’ve been here and the most important change in perspective is making sure I enjoy the process.

What have you been working on lately? What is your thesis about?
My thesis will be a novel about a couple who get involved with a strange ‘high demand’ group. They live in Los Angeles but the grind and the high rent and the traffic is wearing on them. They decide to move off the grid and participate in a marijuana harvest up in Mendocino. Then things get a little weird.

I’ve also been writing some creative non-fiction and helping put together The Modern West podcast for WPR, our local NPR station.

What do you think the major influences on your work have been? Any particular books, movies, albums, or experiences that have shaped you as a writer?
Music has always been important to me. I come from a family of musicians and became one myself. My dad taught me guitar at a young age and I had access to a pretty impressive record collection. I was playing and touring in bands for about ten years before I went back to school, and music definitely informs and inspires my writing. All kinds of music, Hank Williams to Frank Ocean–I think Frank Ocean is my favorite contemporary artist at the moment. He’s reinventing pop music and is choosing interesting people to collaborate with. I’m really impressed with that dude.

I love film. Some favorite directors are Spike Lee, Orson Welles, Wim Winders, both Coppolas–Sophia and Francis.

I still like to read, thank god. I just read a really great novel called Goodbye, Goodness by Sam Brumbaugh. I also discovered Amy Hoempel recently, and she’s amazing. I love a lot of southern writers and poets. They have a lyrical quality that has always agreed with me. I seem to be drawn to poetry more than novels these days. C.D. Wright, Dorothy Parker, Frank Stanford. A newer poet from New Orleans named Dylan Krieger is doing some really interesting stuff. Also, Joseph Grantham.

What advice would you give to people who are starting an MFA program?
DIG IN! Enjoy the process.

Come hear Evan’s work at the third event in the 2019-2020 MFA Reading Series on Thursday, November 14 at the Berry Biodiversity Conservation Center on the University of Wyoming Campus.

Interview: Caroline Miller


Caroline Miller is an essayist and poet who writes about art, landscapes, and femininity. Her non-writing interests include tap dancing, hiking, and drinking far too much coffee. Her work has appeared in Quail Bell Magazine.

What made you decide to pursue an MFA in creative writing? Why did you choose the program at UW?
I decided to apply for MFA programs in a burst of existential panic, which is how I make pretty much all major decisions. One of my undergraduate professors had recommended a handful of schools, including the University of Wyoming. I had a lot of logical reasons for being interested in the program, like the fact that I’d be able to take electives in the gender and women’s studies department.

A less logical reason that I was drawn to Wyoming is that in high school, I was a big fan of the YA author John Green, who once said he uses “Cheyenne, Wyoming,” as shorthand for the mental space he inhabits when working on a novel, because it feels distant and removed from his real life. I guess I took that literally and began to think of Wyoming as an appealing creative space.

Do you think living in Wyoming has changed your writing process, or your perspective on writing?
One of the great things about moving halfway across the country to a place you never would have gone otherwise is that it’s hard to forget why you’re here. There are a lot of great things about living in Laramie, but the fact that I’m here to write is always at the front of my mind, and helps me stay focused.

It’s also impossible for me not to be talking about space and landscape while I’m here. I’m fascinated by how our surroundings influence the way we think, and Wyoming is so different from any other place I’ve been. I didn’t expect to be writing so much about place, but I’ve found it coming up again and again in my work.

What have you been working on lately? What’s your thesis about?
My thesis is a hybrid collection of poems and lyric essays dealing with questions of place, perception, and identity. Right now, I’m trying to figure out how to bring those things together into a coherent structure, and how to incorporate research and theory to take it beyond my personal experience to something more global. That’s been going okay, I guess.

What do you think the major influences on your work have been? Any particular books, movies, albums or experiences that have shaped you as a writer?
I’ll get the clichés out of the way first, but Joan Didion, Annie Dillard, and Anne Carson are my giants. I’m also obsessed with Ada Limon, Franny Choi, Maggie Nelson, and the music of Florence and the Machine. Visual art is a big inspiration as well–a lot of impressionism, but also the work of Thornton Dial.

What advice would you give to people who are starting an MFA?
The process is more important than the product. I spent undergrad worrying about producing something brilliant right away and waiting until I felt inspired to write. Since starting this program, I’ve focused on developing a process I can count on even when I’m not feeling particularly creative. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but it’s far more consistent than just waiting around for inspiration to strike.

Unfortunately, I’ve settled on a revision approach that often involves cutting up my essays and scattering the paragraphs all over my office floor. So my biggest piece of advice is to avoid having that be your process, if you can help it. It’s bad for the trees and requires a very patient office-mate.

Come hear Caroline’s work at the third event in the 2019-2020 MFA Reading Series on Thursday, November 14 at the Berry Biodiversity Conservation Center on the University of Wyoming Campus.


Interview: Christina Wheeler


Christina Wheeler moved to Wyoming after living in Seaville, NJ for over 20 years. Her work has appeared in Art New EnglandGrey Sparrow Journal and Festival Writer, among other places. As a member of the planning committee for the Shepard Symposium on Social Justice, she helps to make the UW-led conference accessible to all. Although she misses living by the beach, she admits that the sunset over the mountains is spectacular to see.

What made you decide to pursue an MFA in creative writing? Why did you choose the program at UW?
In high school, a teach encouraged me to continue working towards de-stigmatizing mental disabilities after I submitted a personal essay on the topic. Since then, I’ve wanted to write a memoir that further explores the subject. I chose to pursue and MFA in creative writing because it would provide me with the time, feedback, and skills I need to complete this writing project. UW’s program attracted me because it offered flexibility in the degree requirements to allow me to pursue interests related to my writing project, such as disability theory.

Do you think living in Wyoming has changed your writing process, or your perspective on writing?
My writing process has changed since I’ve moved to Wyoming in that I’ve become more aware of what works for me. For example, I’m a morning person through and through, but writing first thing in the morning is the most unproductive move I can try to make. I don’t make any progress whatsoever.

What have you been working on lately? What is your thesis about?
Lately, I’ve been working on incorporating a disability studies theoretical framework into my personal narrative. My thesis explores the fragility and subjectivity of memory and questions whether writing about my experiences with mental disabilities actually adds to the stigma rather than reducing it. Am I contributing to ableist notions of the mind by looking at the deterioration of my own?

What do you think the major influences on your work have been? Any particular books, movies, albums, or experiences that have shaped you as a writer?
The major influences on my work are fairly eclectic. They range from Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea series to William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, from staying at a mental hospital three times to taking a trip to Wales.

What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?
Pulitzer-prize winning poet Stephen Dunn once told me, “you have to earn your ending.” Although he was talking about poetry, this bit of advice is true for the work I’m doing now, too. I like this suggestion because of its concision. It’s like a catchphrase or a mantra–almost like a line of poetry in and of itself–that I repeat to myself when I don’t know where to go in a piece. It reminds me to attract the attention of my readers, hold their interest, and exit a piece of writing gracefully, not in a tumble or words or at a sudden halt, but through a conclusion that I’ve earned.

Come hear Christina’s work at the third event in the 2019-2020 MFA Reading Series on Thursday, November 13 at the Berry Biodiversity Conservation Center on the University of Wyoming Campus.

Interview: Taylor Gordon


Taylor Gordon is a Georgia native who writes about ghosts of the South and the multi-generational impact of abuse and prejudice. She loves rain hikes, cooking big meals, and making a personal connection with any kind of animal. She received her BA in English Language and Literature from the University of Georgia, where she studied fiction writing with Reginald McKnight. 

What made you decide to pursue an MFA in creative writing? Why did you choose the program at UW?
My undergraduate adviser pointed me in the direction of an MFA program before I graduated. After six years in the world working with animals and doing occasional freelance writing and editing, I decided to pursue an MFA in search of a new path and new opportunities. Wyoming was an early front-runner as I decided where to apply, because it was a significant change from the Appalachian South where I was raised and because the program was fully funded and had a strong reputation.

Do you think living in Wyoming has changed your writing process, or your perspective on writing?
Wyoming is different than any place I’d been before, and coming here was a moment of significant transition and expansion in my life. I not only gained perspective on the place I’d come from, about which I wanted to write, but also on the world beyond that place and what my part in it might be.

What have you been working on lately? What is your thesis about?
My thesis is a collection of fabulist, feminist short fiction set primarily in the American South. The stories included there obsess over phenomena, liminal spaces, cycles of trauma and abuse, and the reasons why ghosts hang around. I am also in the early stages of a novel about the effects of small towns and full moons.

What do you think the major influences on your work have been? Any particular books, movies, albums, or experiences that have shaped you as a writer?
I love anything with a hint of magic woven through. My bookshelf is sagging beneath the great weight of Karen Russell, Kelly Link, Joy Williams, Shirley Jackson, Ray Bradbury, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Anna Kavan, Anais Nin, Marguerite Duras, Carmen Maria Machado, Haruki Murakami, Sandra Cisneros, Margaret Atwood, Douglas Adams, Kurt Vonnegut, Sabrina Orah Mark, Carrie Fisher, Kazuo Ishiguro, Jeanette Winterson, Don Delillo. I would say each of these writers and many others (J.K. Rowling, Laura Ingalls Wilder, R.L. Stein) shaped me as a writer because reading was always my first love. I also depend on the music of Modest Mouse and the movies of Christopher Guest.

What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?
Write about the things that scare you, and be willing to be vulnerable. Neil Gaiman says that writing is like walking naked down the street–you have to be willing to share more of yourself than is necessarily comfortable. Also, writers write and writers read. Do both of these things regularly and you will be on your way.

Come see Taylor read at the second event in the 2019-2020 MFA Reading Series, a Halloween Party & Reading on Thursday, October 31 from 6-9 PM at the University of Wyoming Geological Museum. 

Interview: Alejandro Alonso Galva

Alejandro Alonso Galva is a second-year MFA in the nonfiction program.

What made you decide to pursue an MFA in creative writing? Why did you choose the program at UW?
I’d been working as the assistant news director of a community radio station in Madison, Wisconsin. I loved it. Loved journalism, loved working in my community and shining a light on local issues that really affect people daily. I also loved freelancing for a local weekly newspaper. But the grind of daily news doesn’t allow a lot of time, energy, or space for bigger projects, especially in today’s media world.

I’d actually avoided MFAs for a long time–the stubborn boy in me sort of wanted to pave my own way. Years of pounding the pavement in radio and print made the idea of getting an MFA and having space to breathe too wonderful to ignore.

When I told my mom I was considering Wyoming, she immediately said “That’s the one, that’s where you are going.” I hadn’t even applied yet. When I got the phone call from Brad Watson and later visited in the spring, it was clear my mom was right. You can’t ignore mom magic.

Do you think living in Wyoming has changed your writing process, or your perspective on writing?
Yes, absolutely. As a journalist in a major media market in a state capital, the noise was at fever pitch all the time. I would listen to 5 news podcasts before breakfast, read half a dozen newspapers, then pound through the wires. All of this ahead of coming to the station to prepare for the 6 PM broadcast. It was a full day and exciting and anxiety-fueled and insane.

When I arrived in Laramie, it felt like my whole world got quiet, like I could hear myself think in a different way. We are sitting up here at 7,220 feet and it is isolating in exactly the way I want. The world is at arm’s length and it allows me the space I was looking for. There’s a kind of peace in that.

What have you been working on lately? What is your thesis about?
Lately I’ve been working on a lot of performance writing. I wrote my first screenplay over the summer and performed at a handful of story slams. This semester I’ll take my first stab at the theater and playwriting. I’m really excited about that.

What do you think the major influences on your work have been? Any particular books, movies, albums, or experiences that have shaped you as a writer?
Lately: Junot Diaz, August Wilson, Luis Alberto Urea, Maya Angelou. Toni Morrison is jumping back into my world for obvious reasons. Reading through all our MFA faculty’s work.

Aaron Sorkin, Pablo Neruda, the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, and the Russians (Tolstoy, etc.) are constants in my life. But most of all, Hemingway. It’s hard to explain what it was like to be a Puerto Rican boy at an all-white school in Nebraska and discover a writer who wrote in Spanish. He lived in Cuba, Spain, places where I came from and that no one around me seemed to know existed. His work reminded me of my Abuelo and deceased father in a lot of ways.

What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received? What advice would you give to people who are starting an MFA program?
The best writing advice I ever got was not advice at all, but a passing comment from someone while we were wandering around downtown after bar close. I told her my dream was to be a writer and she said, “you are a writer.” She gave me the sort of grace and acknowledgement I wasn’t giving myself at the time.

That would be my advice to others: give yourself the grace to succeed. Give yourself the grace to fuck up, fail, struggle, and have time to figure it all out. I tell my students to have “patient urgency.” Be urgent with your efforts and patient with your progress.

Alejandro will be reading at the first event in the 2019-2020 MFA Reading Series, which will be held at Night Heron Books & Coffeehouse on Thursday, September 26, at 7 PM.