Interview: Alejandro Alonso Galva

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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.

 

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Interview: Sally Leaf

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Sally Leaf is a nonfiction writer from Rockford, IL. Her current book explores loss on a personal and global scale. Drawing on the sudden death of her father and the sharp decline in the migratory monarch butterfly population, she hopes to encourage conversation about what it means to lose a person (or a species) forever. Her work has appeared in Prodigal Magazine and A Midwestern Review.

What made you decide to pursue an MFA in creative writing? Why did you choose the program at UW?
I spent three years after I finished my undergrad living in Chicago and working various jobs–from gigs at tech startups to public relations to interior design. I majored in creative writing and was raised by journalist parents, but found myself in a corporate-fueled creative slump after graduation. I carried notebooks around the city and jotted ideas down on the bus to work–but that was the extent of my writing. In college, I worked with an author who pushed me to apply to MFA programs post-grad. Honestly, I wouldn’t be here without her steady stream of voicemails encouraging me to apply.

I sent an application to Wyoming off the cuff, mostly because it was on a list of fully-funded schools. I came to the visit weekend and was really impressed by the caliber of people I met. I continue to be. My writer colleagues are whip-smart, encouraging, and fun to be around.

Do you think living in Wyoming has changed your writing process, or your perspective on writing?
This area of the country is gorgeous. I still pinch myself every time I drive downtown and catch a glimpse of the mountains in the distance. I wouldn’t necessarily link the move to Wyoming with a direct change in my writing style, but I think the openness of the landscape probably made me more willing to experiment with new ideas.

What have you been working on lately? What is your thesis about?
I’m creating an immersive space that will house a series of linked stories. More on that in the spring.

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?
My current project takes a lot of leaps between art forms. I feel indebted to Joan Didion and Joni Mitchell and Wes Anderson and Ai Weiwei–and really all artists who establish a strong sense of voice and recognizable style. I should probably name drop more books here, but my shelf is color coordinated and currently, I can only think of the red jackets. I don’t want to be unfair.

What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received? What advice would you give to people who are starting an MFA program?
Don’t throw anything away. Toss your wasted sentences into a compost pile. You’ll find a use for them later.

Sally 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.

 

Interview: Kari Nielsen

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Kari Nielsen is originally from Montana and has worked as a guide and land manager in Utah, Alaska, Montana, and Patagonia. Her work has appeared in The Esthetic Apostle, CIRQUE, and the anthologies Waymaking and A Narrative Map. Her novel manuscript, Koloniya, was a 2018 finalist for New Rivers’ Press Many Voices Project.

What made you decide to pursue an MFA in creative writing? Why did you choose the program at UW?
I applied to UW because it is a small, intimate program, and my husband and I wanted to stay in the Rockies.

Do you think living in Wyoming has changed your writing process, or your perspective on writing?
Being in the MFA program has introduced me to lots of writing processes, which has helped me be more open-minded about my own.

What have you been working on lately? What is your thesis about?
My thesis is a novel about two people who climb a mountain and encounter various people on their journey. This morning, I started working on a play that has been on the backburner for awhile.

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?
Major influences include Gary Snyder, J.M. Coetzee, Marilynne Robinson, Paul Bowles, and James Welch, among many others. I’ve recently been watching films by Ingmar Berman and Ciro Guerra and can’t stop listening to Thom Yorke’s soundtrack to Suspiria.

What advice would you give to people who are starting an MFA program?
I have often heard the advice ‘just keep writing,’ which is great. What can get lost in that seemingly harmless phrase is that living is also important. Life is what informs writing, and vice versa. For me, half of writing is living, being engaged with place and animals, friends and family, food, wilderness.

Kari 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.

Fall 2018 MFA Readings!

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This fall, our second-year MFAs had the opportunity to read for the Laramie community! In October, Lindsay Lynch and Jenny Zhang both shared short stories at the Riflemaker in downtown Laramie. Francesca King and Tayo Basquiat followed up in November, with a great reading at Second Story Books. Check out photos from both readings below:

 

5×5 Reading Series

This year, the Wyoming MFA program had the pleasure of kicking off the 5×5 reading series! Amazing writers from Colorado State, the University of Denver, CU-Boulder, and Naropa University traveled to Laramie to share their work in the beautiful University of Wyoming Art Museum.

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Francesca King, a U Wyoming MFA candidate in Fiction, reads from her novel-in-progress.

We look forward to participating in the next four readings in the 5×5 reading series later this fall and spring! Check out more photos from the Laramie reading below.

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What We’re Up To This Summer, Part 2

It’s summertime in Laramie, which means our MFAs have oodles of time to write, read, travel, and explore the world. To find out what the 2019 cohort is up to this summer, we did a quick interview with them— check it out below!


LINDSAY LYNCH, MFA, FICTION

If you were a kitchen utensil, which one would you be? Teaspoon, small but exact.

Now, if your writing were a kitchen utensil, which one would it be? A colander, letting out all the excess until I’m left with random bits of interesting junk.

What are you working on? My thesis, which is a collection of short stories. I will probably end up writing a few essays on art to avoid said thesis.

Am I allowed to ask how it’s going? I recently read Lauren Groff’s By the Book where she said that she deals with writer’s block by just reading a lot of books. I thought this was a good approach, but now I’ve read over 13 books in a month and have written, maybe, 3 pages. Oops.

Tell me your favorite adjective? Lugubrious.

Yay or nay: semi-colons? Yay semi-colons! I have a favorite semi-colon and it’s in the first line of Shirley Jackson’s Haunting of Hill House: “No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream.”

Got any summer plans? I will be traveling to Amsterdam and Paris with the plan to sit in art museums and write until someone kicks me out. I will also be road-tripping to Napa Valley later this summer to attend the Napa Valley Writer’s Conference.

What’s your favorite mode of transportation? Trains.

Are we having fun yet? 

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Recommend a book? What We Lose by Zinzi Clemmons.


 

FRANCESCA KING, MFA, FICTION

If you were a kitchen utensil, which one would you be? As a child practicing my violin scales (badly), my mother would often shout from the kitchen “Francesca, is your brain a sieve?” Even though I imagined for the longest time that a sieve was a kind of animal— a cross between a seal and a manatee— I still have a certain affinity with it.

Now, if your writing were a kitchen utensil, which one would it be? Perhaps a lemon squeezer? This current novel is squeezing the life from me… (in a good way, of course…).

What are you working on? I’m currently revising some of the vignettes I produced in Brad Watson’s Secret Life of Movies seminar last semester. Not sure what I’ll do with them, though I’m thinking about producing a chapbook either relating to my experience as a Londoner in Laramie, or about my childhood. Also, a novel. Though, in its early stages.

Yay or nay: semi-colons? Far superior to the lesser colon.

Got any summer plans? I was planning on attending the Arctic Circle Residency, but had to postpone to 2019 for funding, so I have 14 blank weeks in my planner! I’m staying around Laramie, working in the garden for the first time in my life, writing in Night Heron, going to the (blissfully empty) gym.

What’s your favorite mode of transportation? The underground system in London, for sure. Bring on Christmas 🎅🏼

Are we having fun yet? Always 😉

Recommend a book? I enjoyed Room by Emma Donoghue and have since been searching for another novel with a child protagonist. Only Child by Rhiannon Navin was published a couple of months ago and certainly filled that gap.

What We’re Up To This Summer, Part 1

It’s summertime in Laramie, which means our MFAs have oodles of time to write, read, travel, and explore the world. To find out what the 2019 cohort is up to this summer, we did a quick interview with them— check it out below!


JENNY ZHANG, MFA, NONFICTION

First off, if you were a kitchen utensil, which one would you be? I have always felt great affinity with the wooden spatula, in that we’re both reliable, easy to clean, and good for stir frying.

Now, if your writing were a kitchen utensil, which one would it be? Definitely a colander. Draining, but with a purpose.

What are you working on? My goal is to finish the first draft of my thesis by the end of summer. I’m also dabbling in writing trashy erotica to keep me somewhat sane in the inbetweens.

Am I allowed to ask how it’s going? Yes! It’s going OKAY, and I say that with some trepidation, because is it ever supposed to go better than awful? Mostly, I’m adjusting to not having hard and fast obligations for the next few months – it’s weird to go from a set schedule to what feels like infinite free time. I have to remind myself that it’s fine to just relax. I get to write at a leisurely pace, I’m not as anxious about finishing things, I’m exploring, and I’m failing a lot. I’m learning to be okay with it.

Tell me your favorite adjective? Cacophonous.

Yay or nay: semi-colons? Sure, why not? I’m a recovering dash addict, but everyone’s invited to the party!

Got any summer plans? Austin is my home base for the summer, and I plan on being near some sort of water feature every day. (That’s something I missed while in dry, windy Laramie.) My big trip is in July – I’m going to China to visit my family and do research for my thesis (thanks, Dick Cheney!).

What’s your favorite mode of transportation? Biking. I like knowing that I can leave of my own accord anytime.

Are we having fun yet?

Recommend a book? Night Sky with Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong.


TAYO BASQUIAT, MFA, NONFICTION

If you were a kitchen utensil, which one would you be? Spatula.

Now, if your writing were a kitchen utensil, which one would it be? Can opener. That manual kind that won’t stay on the can, leaves sections of the lid attached and thus requires a hammer to finish the job.

What are you working on? Right now, Wilderness First Responder certification.

Am I allowed to ask how it’s going? I have fake blood stains on my hands.

Tell me your favorite adjective? Stippled.

Yay or nay: semi-colons? No to semis, yes to lots of colons except in titles.

Got any summer plans? Write the first draft of my thesis and lead outdoor adventures for adults.

What’s your favorite mode of transportation? Walking.

Are we having fun yet? [Edit: Tayo didn’t answer this, which I presume means he’s having all the fun.]

Recommend a book? Stoner by John Williams.