Iowa State has a pretty unique MFA program. Their website states, “Iowa State University’s three-year MFA program in Creative Writing and Environment emphasizes study in creative writing — poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and drama — that encourages writers to identify and explore in their stories and lyric impressions the complex influences of place, the natural world, and the environmental imagination.” It’s a great program. We sat down with their staff to ask them a few questions.
Iowa State University is unique in its emphasis on incorporating the environment into its MFA program. Can you discuss the benefits of this environmental emphasis and how it changes Iowa’s program from others?
Iowa State’s program is truly interdisciplinary. Students take 12 hours outside the English Dept. in environmental areas–agriculture, the sciences, environmental sciences, philosophy, history, architecture, natural resources, etc. We want our students to have a background and expertise in their subject matter. ISU students get to know other students and faculty in all areas of the campus. They have something to write about.
Our students know that the academic job possibilities are limited, so many of them end up working for environmental non-profits, in environmental communications and editing, in sustainable agriculture, and in environmental education.
In particular, how does environmental fieldwork affect the goals and structure of the program?
Most of our students research their thesis material through their fieldwork. For example, I had a student who was writing a novel about a town that suddenly found itself surrounded by wind turbines. But the student knew nothing about wind turbines. I hooked him up with a biologist on campus who had a grant to research the effect of turbines on wildlife. The student was in the field all summer monitoring these effects, got to go up in a turbine, and understand how they functioned. He came back to his novel with new eyes.
Some of our other students use the fieldwork opportunity to test out a job that they might want to pursue after graduation. Some of our students have been hired by their fieldwork sponsors. These sponsors might be non-profits, museums, educational institutions, or private businesses.
What aspect of Iowa’s program are you most proud of?
I am proudest of our terrific students–the many, many awards they have won, the books they have published, and energy that they have contributed to make a better world.
How would you describe the creative and educational environment at Iowa?
Excellent. The faculty is dedicated and bends over backwards to help the students. We also have some of the top scientists in the world at our university and our students tap into these resources. Ours is a large land grant university with all the cultural and recreational activities that one would expect–and more so. We try harder.
What would you say are the qualities that Iowa looks for in applicants?
We look for great writing in a manuscript and a real environmental interest. Our students have been to Madagascar in the Peace Corps, worked on bio-dynamic farms in Hawaii, studied chimps in Africa, studied herbs in the mountains of Spain–before they’ve come to us. Most are not English majors. Many have not even studied creative writing. But they know how to write and want to improve their skills, and they want a deeper understanding of environmental issues.
If you could give one piece of advice to current or prospective MFA students, what would it be?
Our program is unique, with students who have unique backgrounds. If you want an MFA where you just sit around and drink beer, this is not for you. If you want a very active, involved community that does everything from create great literature, to explore the rain forest in Tobago, to keep bees on our own farm, please apply and join us.