A special thanks goes out to Pacific University’s MFA program for being the first in a series of profiles we’re doing on MFA programs around the country. We spoke with Pacific University professor Marvin Bell, who shed some light on what makes Pacific’s program just so special.
Generally speaking, what do you think is unique or beneficial about a low-residency program?
The age range. These are writers who can keep their paying jobs, and their home lives, and can still be smack dab in the midst of a serious writing community. Some have been in the game for a long time. They know the score.
Pacific University’s low-residency MFA program is consistently ranked among the best in the country. What do you think makes Pacific’s program so special?
The faculty. Spirited writers known for strong, individual literary voices. Then, their energy and, not to be slighted, their sense of fun. Also, a beloved director who engages the faculty on every matter. It is the opposite of micro-managed. To the contrary, we plan and ad-lib on behalf of the students. The faculty attracts unusual and talented students. The graduating students invariably break our hearts when, unbidden, they use up some of their reading time to thank their teachers, speaking specifically of how each made a difference to them. We neither ask for, nor expect, such public thanks, yet they continue to do it, often speaking with great feeling.
Would you describe Pacific’s MFA program as highly literary or broader in focus?
Literary in the best sense, whether the writing is sociopolitical, or surreal, or bravely personal, or of a style never before encountered, or just a good version of “mainstream.” How a piece is written is what brings back a reader for another go.
What aspect of Pacific’s program are you most proud of?
The spirit and variety of students and faculty, of course. But also, and you may smile at this, the dignity maintained by the program, which does not lean on applicants or bribe them or make unworthy promises. It’s high class and the opposite of laborious. The program maintains a focus on the excitement of writing and the possibilities.
Most MFA applicants know they’ll be focusing on their own writing. How much of Pacific’s program focuses on other areas related to craft? For example, applied criticism, reading other work, and literary tradition are listed as other areas of study for MFA students at Pacific.
There are craft talks and classes at the residencies, of course. There is a reading requirement, too, with the intention that the student learn to read, not like a scholar, but like a writer. Students write about their reading, and talk books with their teachers, from start to finish. The student even includes the bibliography of his or her reading in the thesis.
I understand you were Flannery O’ Connor Professor of Letters at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. How is it different teaching in a full-residency scenario as opposed to a low-residency one?
The age range and, thus, the life experiences of the students are different. Also, the combination of intense residencies and periodic interchanges is a very different dynamic. Students sometimes make a leap in confidence and verbal nerve between packets. I didn’t realize until I signed on how effective this sort of teaching can be, or how much I would enjoy this particular MFA. It’s a kick, it’s a hoot, it’s a workshop in the best sense of the term—that we are all in this together.
I know this can be difficult to define, but can you describe what Pacific looks for in applicants? What makes an ideal candidate?
It’s all about the writing sample. Sometimes, the personal statement is of use, if only that it reveals a mind and one’s ability to write prose. But in the end, it’s all about being a writer, not a critic or a scholar or even a teacher. The ideal applicant shows in his or her writing an interest in language and the influence of having read good writers. But then there are applicants who may not have written or read much but whose language knocks your socks off. That’s big.
If you could provide a piece of advice for current or upcoming MFA students, what would it be?
Welcome the influence of good writers. Write more than required. Be a writer every day, whether or not you write that day. Understand that the good stuff and the bad stuff are all part of the stuff. No good stuff without bad stuff. Don’t let anyone turn the excitement of writing into mere labor. Write with abandon. Avoid those who encourage you to write like them. Jonathan Williams, the poet who founded Jargon Press, once said that “the trouble with American poets is that they each want everyone else to write like them, but not as well.” Read writers who write differently from you. The poet Jordan Smith once said to me, “I have learned that, when I read a book of poetry and hate it, a year later I will love that book.”