Anyone who knows anything about the literary history of Vanderbilt University where I teach – birthplace of the Fugitive Poets (Warren, Tate, Ransom), and mid-20th century English Department of choice for writers like Randall Jarrell, Peter Taylor, Caroline Gordon, Elizabeth Spencer, James Dickey, and Ellen Gilchrist – would probably assume that a creative writing program has been in place there for decades. But that would not be true. Although Gertrude Vanderbilt served as generous creative writing patron for decades (my colleague Vereen Bell recalls her giving him handwritten checks, pulled from the pocket of her full length mink coat), and although the English Department instituted a creative writing track in its undergraduate major in 1974, it was not until 2006 that an MFA began to be offered. http://www.vanderbilt.edu/creativewriting/ Last month, we graduated our fifth class of writers. By design, it is a small program: only three poets and three fiction writers are admitted each fall. That our Vanderbilt MFA community of twelve students and eight faculty members has grown into a known entity is gratifying to us, attracting more than 700 applicants for only six admission slots each year.
We are often asked not only how we did this, but why – in an era that many admit is overrun with graduate programs in creative writing, churning out MFAs with few marketable job skills and little hope of teaching at the college level – we would even think about adding one more MFA to the mix.
Before I tell you the answer, a diversion…
In 1980, when I received my MFA from the School of the Arts at Columbia, there was really only a handful of graduate creative writing programs that generated buzz. Besides Columbia, there was Iowa (of course), and the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. The Hopkins program was at that time a brutal 12 month regime of master’s level course work, similar to Boston U. Visible, but somewhat more low-key programs were dispersed around the country: UC-Irvine out west, University of Arizona in the southwest, and UNC-Greensboro down south. The now-flourishing Ph.D. programs in creative writing were just beginning to stir, and were considered oddities at the time. I only remember three: Ohio State, and the Universities of Utah and Houston… Now of course, we’re deep in another era, overstocked with almost 200 MFA programs, plus 38 Ph.D. programs, and still counting…
Initially, my own feelings about birthing a new MFA program were mixed. I had been on the board of AWP in the late 1980s (when Liam Rector was at the helm), and so had few illusions about the standing of creative writing in academia. And when our MFA program was being proposed at Vanderbilt, I was just beginning a three year appointment as Associate Dean of the College of Arts and Science. Thus positioned, I understood how extremely unlikely it was that the higher-ups would approve a proposal for a non self-supporting, brand new graduate program in a “discipline” that could not be measured, quantified, or otherwise dealt with statistically. The first thing we were asked to do was to write up a “business plan” (what kind of person asks poets to write up a business plan?) that incorporated charts, projections, comparative data, and probabilities – something none of us had ever done before. We quickly realized that our gifts for narrative were of little use in this new, weird world.
At the time we began these deliberations, however, Vanderbilt was in the midst of a very conscientious, campus-wide culture-change. (Thank you, then-Chancellor Gordon Gee.) It began to seem as if there was some potential for developing an argument for more representation of and investment in the arts at the university. It also began to be clear that there was a very large national community of alumni and others who identified with Vanderbilt as the birthplace of the Southern Literary Renaissance. Our hope of engendering a new kind of literary renaissance in Nashville intersected neatly, (and also instructed us in what the administration meant when they used the word “leverage”). During this time, it seemed that every week or so, we were being asked to attend meetings or read articles devoted to the “crisis” in the humanities, the “death” of liberal arts education. Obviously, it would be suicidal to propose a program modeled on the old, leisurely habits of the MFA programs of the 1970s and 1980s that had produced most of our faculty.
Over time, as the economy worsened, we began to imagine our 21st century MFA as something more than a training ground for future generations of creative writing teachers. In this way, our ideas of the kind of opportunities we might offer began to enlarge and diversify. In addition to coursework and teaching, our MFAs also engage in community service that makes use of their skills as creative writers. Vanderbilt Medical Center, Gilda’s Club, the Tennessee State Women’s Prison, and Nashville Metro Public Schools are some of the organizations that have benefitted from their work. Our students benefit directly (when they are paid) and indirectly by gaining experience they can list on their vitae. We also offer an annual retreat for MFAs on alternatives to teaching, which brings several successful creative writers (with MFAs) to campus to talk about their paths to publishing…
Ultimately, I became convinced that a graduate program in creative writing, composed of talented, vibrant young writers with good work ethics who were interested in being part of both the university and surrounding community constituted a kind of social good that Vanderbilt – being able to sponsor – should, in fact, undertake. This was a powerful argument that appealed to the administration’s great investment in Nashville and middle Tennessee, and it became part of our successful narrative arguing for the implementation of the Vanderbilt MFA.
Now the question became how to go about it?
The answer for us was: 1. Gather good, engaged creative writing faculty who agree on the goal and commit to sharing the work. 2. Solicit the support of colleagues in the English Department and the higher administration. 3. Ensure a source (preferably large and continuous) of MONEY.
As a private institution, Vanderbilt has resources that are more reliable in some ways than those available to public universities. From the beginning, we were able to pretty much count on the continuity of whatever the administration was willing to commit to the program. (Thank you, then-Dean and now-Provost Richard McCarty.) And we knew that impressive results would arouse interest, and probably bring in more commitments. This is exactly what happened: the more impressive students (by the standards of the Graduate School) we were able to admit, the more the administration was willing to increase support. Which – in response to our ongoing lobbying and publicizing of our students and their accomplishments – they regularly did… From the beginning, Mark Jarman, director of the program, insisted on completely equal funding for all students, and health insurance coverage. I wasn’t sure about this at first (maybe the term “nanny society” was running around in my brain), but it has turned out to be a major strength of the program, and crucial to our ability to attract good applicants. Equally-funding students seems to free up mental energy that otherwise might have been devoted to personal resentments, and to prevent the frequent complaints about faculty favoritism in other MFA programs. Each of our incoming students this year has been awarded full-tuition remission; healthcare coverage; and a stipend of $20k. Academically superior students are eligible for topping-up awards from the Graduate School (each year, the awardees include MFAs) that enhance their stipend generously.
We had a few other things to start with, as well: several faculty colleagues who had particular interest in creative writing and served as Department chairs as we were proposing the MFA; the felicitous placement of a creative writing faculty member (me!) in the Dean’s office who was able to talk at length and leisure with the administration about MFA programs and the value of creative writing in a research university. But perhaps our most valuable pre-exsisting asset was a long-established visiting writers program that had entertained an amazing roster of writers over the years from Eudora Welty to Yusef Komunyaaka, Maxine Kumin (it’s her 87th birthday today!) to Seamus Heaney, Rita Dove to Robert Lowell, J.M. Coetzee to Ellen Bryant Voigt. In recent years, VVW has brought exciting younger writers like Jericho Brown, Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum, Aimee Bender, Junot Diaz, Maile Meloy, and Salvatore Scibona for readings and sit downs with the MFAs. Here is Bonnie Campbell with my colleague Tony Earley and some of the Vanderbilt MFAs last November at the Robert Penn Warren Center for the Humanities where all the receptions are held after readings. (That’s Red Warren they’ve given nose ring, earring, and jaunty cravat & beret --)
Would we do it again, now in 2012? Perhaps not in this dreadful and dread-inducing economy. But now that we have done it – albeit late to the game –we are happy here at Vanderbilt, six years down the road, with what we have created: an intense, short term community designed to mentor writers- in-training that offers complete financial support; health care coverage; a manageable cost of living; frequent exposure to eminent writers; a cool, creative city to live in; a beautiful, woodsy campus to bomb around on; and a graduate degree from Vanderbilt University. It is wonderful to be able to offer serious young writers two years like this. A place to come to is what their Vanderbilt predecessor, Robert Penn Warren, might have called it: support, leisure, and vital stimulation for their writing. When else in their lives are they going to get a crack at something so conducive to their writing as that?