Students

Students in the MFA program come from all over the country (and sometimes other countries such as Iran, New Zealand, England, China, South Africa, Canada, Nigeria, and Scotland) and thrive in an atmosphere where they can rely upon other writers to keep their predilections and projects in mind. People with ambitious imaginations, intricate histories, and riveting talents will be your cohort here. Some arrive fresh from college, some interrupt perfectly serviceable careers; all have in common a love of the written word and a commitment to do right by it so long as they both shall live. You can read through our Student Spotlights below to get to know some of our current students.

Shaelyn Smith, recent graduate, non-fiction 

Why did you choose Alabama for your MFA? What were you doing before you came here?

I chose to apply to Alabama because at the time I was beginning to consider applying for MFA programs, I was in fairly regular contact with XFA Ander Monson (I had interviewed him for the lit mag I was editing in undergrad and I had taken a summer creative writing class with him years before in between my 8th grade year and freshman year of high school—in many ways, he stuck in my mind not as the kind of writer I'd necessarily like to emulate, but the kind of personality I'd like to surround myself with, and he also opened me up to the possibilities embedded in the term "creative writing"—he showed me that to be a creative writer meant mostly to be a creative and curious person—he was the first person to take me into a used record store, and also to take me down into a functioning mine). When I asked him about programs, he recommended I check out Alabama. I chose to come to Alabama because of the optional fourth year, because of the rigorous teaching load, because The Deep South is a place I had never really envisioned myself, and because of the plethora of opportunities to be found in the community here both in and out of the University's MFA program.

Before I came I was living in New York City working as a line cook for April Bloomfield at The John Dory Oyster Bar, which I had helped her open. I thought restaurant work was a career I wanted to pursue long term, and in many ways it's not that much different than pursuing a career in any other field of the arts—it requires one to be both a creative and curious person, not to mention dedicated and hard-working.

How have the courses, faculty, and resources here helped you define and carry out your projects? 

I'd say the best way this program has helped shape me as a writer is allowing a breadth and depth of experimentation within coursework. Sure we are a cross-genre program, but that extends beyond form classes into the classes we can teach, the programs we can teach in, and the other courses we are allowed (or required to take). Definitely flawless syllabi from just about every professor I've taken a class with, regardless of whether that class is creative writing or literature or something outside the department, have informed my thought and writing processes, and my fellow MFAs have provided a space and collaborative space in which to realize those processes into products. I could say so much more about that, but really without each element of opportunity and circumstance I've been presented with and being able to take advantage of (book lists, mentors, office hours, workshops, volunteer opportunities, readings, the library, the time I'm gifted to allot to writing, my freshman composition students, football games, travel funding, developing relationships, the love and encouragement from peers, the farmers' markets, the Bama Theater Art House series, I could go on and on) I would be nowhere near as close as I am to having a fully realized book project. That fully realized book project being something that was faintly nebulous and still would be just a spark if I didn't have access to all of these things in my daily life.

How does getting an MFA degree fit into your goals for the future?

I'd say right now that the way this degree fits into my goals for the future is allowing me to do exactly what I want to do and explore exactly what I want to explore. Programs like the recently established Writers in the Schools (WITS) and the partnership with the Alabama Prison Arts and Education Project have allowed or will allow me to teach creative writing with at-risk members of the community, which is something I would like to pursue further in the future. And the program, as well as everything Tuscaloosa has to offer, has helped me, and forced me, to have experiences and build a CV and experiences worthy of following these plans.

Diamond Ford, 3rd year, poetry

Why did you choose Alabama for your MFA? What were you doing before you came here?

Let’s be honest—there was some degree of hesitation. Here I am, heavy-set black girl smack dab in the heart of the South, surrounded by a sea of very similar, very unfamiliar faces. Community was a key factor in my MFA decision, and I wasn’t sure I was going to find that at UA (and I was pretty upfront about that hesitation). But I think we all know at the end of the day community isn’t built on race, familiar faces, or similar histories—it’s built on compassion. And the level of commitment and dedication to each other I felt here between members of this MFA were beyond comprehension without experience. That first visit changed everything for me. I fed on the love, care, and concern I received. The community this MFA builds depends on intimacy, an intimacy that develops from respect for one another’s (amazing) work and needs. Rather than sole competition, this MFA moves on support and growth. In the courses, you learn to develop as writers together. There’s something so meaningful about that.    

How have the courses, faculty, and resources here helped you define and carry out your projects? 

To answer this question, I first turn to a quote by Saeed Jones in his Buzzfeed essay “Self-Portrait of the Artist as Ungrateful Black Writer.” He is standing amongst the literati in the wake of his first poetry book publication, and he’s struck by how alarmingly grateful he is to be there—“almost exhaustingly grateful.” A close-to-home feeling he describes as “the kind of gratitude that, I suspect, is very familiar to those whom our culture has a habit of reminding they should be happy ‘to just be here.’”

I am using the resources here at UA to relieve myself of this submissive gratitude in the literary world. Am I grateful? Absolutely. But there have been multiple points in my time as a creative writer where I have attached gratitude to my blackness, as if my accomplishments as a writer happen despite my blackness instead of in tandem. What I mean is, I am using UA to assert and establish my agency, to feel comfortable in that agency. I want to be at a place as a writer where I always feel pride for my work. I want to know I belong instead of thinking that I am lucky enough to belong. In short, I want confidence.

Putting yourself out there as a writer is, as everyone knows, difficult, terrifying. Stepping out as a writer of color has its own set of obstacles; it requires the kind of strength that comes only with believing in yourself. That kind of belief only comes from understanding what you’re capable of. UA courses and faculty give me free reign over my work. As the final arbiter, I determine my level of experimentation, control, involvement. The faculty are open when I need them and hands-off when I don’t. I can make mistakes without fear here and for that I am grateful.  

How does getting an MFA degree fit into your goals for the future?

Because I plan on taking over the world with my poetry, the MFA seemed like a pretty good start. In all seriousness, the MFA has given me some great opportunities, even right now, that I might not have necessarily accomplished on my own. Just this past summer I was able to attend the Callaloo Creative Writers’ Workshop, which furthered my development as a black writer more than any other experience I have had so far, and I couldn’t have attended that fantastic workshop without the help I received here at UA. And tomorrow I have a meeting with one of the faculty to discuss some of my future goals/dreams/big dreams (Civitella Ranieri Foundation, anyone?) and how I might accomplish them one day (surely? hopefully?). I’d say that even if I am only shakily aware of what I want to do with my future, my experience with the MFA has been useful in not only aiding me to accomplish what I know I want right now, but also helping me figure out what else I could do that I am not yet aware of. Plus, this MFA is teaching me how to be a better person. It gives me a chance at community involvement, teaching high schoolers with the Creative Writing Club. The workshops equip me with skills in poetic discernment and compassion. I’m learning how to interact with people—both personally and professionally. No matter what I decide to do, these skills are irreplaceable.   

shelley feller, 3rd year, poetry

Why did you choose Alabama for your MFA? What were you doing before you came here?

To be perfectly honest, I didn’t know much about Alabama when I decided to apply. Five years ago, one of my favorite poets told me that all you really need from an MFA is money and time. In this regard, she added, “Alabama is the hidden gem of the MFA world.” Remembering her words three years later, I applied to the University of Alabama with a blind faith in this money + time = gem equation. And yes, the funding package and optional 4th year were nice incentives. Like, really nice. But the real reasons I chose to attend Alabama were its commitment to supporting a diverse range of aesthetics, its openness to experimentation, to cross-genre and interdisciplinary work, and all the totally weird and amazingly kind people I met at prospective students weekend who have since become close friends. Oh, and Heidi Lynn Staples (hi, Heidi)! I’d had a poetry-crush on her work for two years before I applied here, and sometime during prospie weekend they announced she would be joining the faculty, so now here I am.

Before coming here I was working as an assistant at a blue-chip gallery in Chelsea. I miss the New York art world sometimes, but the fantastic thing about Tuscaloosa is that you can pretty much do whatever you want and people will welcome you with open arms. Last spring, for instance, I helped XFA Christopher McCarter organize and install his hybrid poetry/performance/visual art thesis exhibition at a local gallery. Seeing everyone from the MFA and the larger community come out to the opening to support Christopher really made me feel at home here.

How have the courses, faculty, and resources here helped you define and carry out your projects?

I came into this program with little understanding of the writing world. I liked to read and I liked to write, but I had never been in a poetry workshop, and I had no idea what anyone was talking about when they said things like caesura and are you going to AWP this year?, which I eventually googled after responding mayyybe, are you? to three different people to avoid embarrassment. This is to say I have learned a lot since coming here. Professors Heidi Lynn Staples and Joel Brouwer have been nothing but encouraging, and have introduced me to myriad new writers and artists. Personal conferences with visiting writers Cathy Park Hong and Michelle Tea were also instrumental in opening my eyes to new realms of possibility for my own work. The most rewarding aspect of this program, though, is getting to immerse myself in the work of my peers. Everyone here is so brilliant and generous; I cannot underscore enough how much I have learned from my friends here. Oh, and the MFA soccer team! We just won the co-rec intramural championship! Y’all give me life, Bird Poets.

How does getting an MFA degree fit into your goals for the future?

I’d be lying if I said I had any concrete goals for my life after this program, other than becoming Ina Garten’s new best friend. The MFA is giving me time and space to romp around and explore totally new creative paths. I’ve already begun this process here at UA, but after this program I hope to branch out even more and collaborate with artists in other disciplines. I have this recurring dream where I move into Prada Marfa and dress up in the fall/winter 2005 collection and become a really glamorous psychic for a living, so maybe there’s something in there I can explore later.

Luke Percy, 4th year, fiction

Why did you choose Alabama for your MFA? What were you doing before you came here?

I think the most honest answer here would be: Alabama chose me. As an international student who decided very late in the application season to pursue an MFA, I scattered my applications all over the board. Not only was UA the first school to get back to me (with an incredibly personal, welcoming email I might add), they offered the best deal. The funding was impossible to turn down, and so was the writing freedom I'd gain in a school as accepting as this one. The Montessori approach allows students to develop and hone their interests, free from judgement or interference, in an environment that truly supports individuality.

After I graduated in 2009, I spent a year and a half teaching English in South Korea. I spent the next year and a half backpacking through South America, reading, writing, working as a barman for a Scotsman in a Thai restaurant, caring for capuchin monkeys in an animal sanctuary. The MFA seemed like the perfect next adventure.

How have the courses, faculty, and resources here helped you define and carry out your projects? 

I was a Psychology major in undergrad. I didn't take writing classes before I came here. So EVERYTHING was new to me. The fiction forms, the vocabulary, the unique workshop model fostered in Michael Martone's hypoxic class [a fiction workshop]. And it was all fantastic. Peers have been nothing but supportive; teachers encouraging. The learning curve was crazy. I learned so much so quickly. I was allowed to explore my writing interests and writing styles and soon found projects that I cared about committing to.

Though this is a big program, and faculty members are busy people, they have made themselves available to me whenever I've requested. They've been kind, helpful, and friendly in a way only people living in South (so I'm told) know how to be.

How does getting an MFA degree fit into your goals for the future?

Well. I'd quite like to publish and be read by millions. A hunch: 4 years to practice my craft may go along way to helping that happen. But should I fail in this very realistic ambition—well how might a degree like this not be helpful to me in the future? Writing skills can be applied anywhere! Plus, the opportunities provided here look great on a CV. Just saying. Teaching college students? Teaching school kids? Teaching prisoners? Reading for a nationally reputable literary journal? Editing for that journal? This school is the bee's pyjamas is basically what I'm saying. 

Check out the Alumni Books page for more about what UA MFAs have been up to post-graduation.