MFA Spotlight: The University of Minnesota

I want to thank Carrie Lorig very much for conducting this interview about the MFA Program in Creative Writing offered at The University of Minnesota.

Carrie Lorig is a poet living in the cold part of Minneapolis, MN. She is author of the chapbooknods. (Magic Helicopter Press), and the co-author of a book of political erasuresNancy and The Dutch (NAP), with Nick Sturm. She has poems and collaborations published or forthcoming in The Denver Quarterly, TYPO, Forklift, OH, NOO Weekly, DIAGRAM, and other places. Her t-shirt says, Wonder, in red red lettering.

NICHE: Can you tell us a little bit about your journey to the MFA? What form did it take?

CARRIE LORIG: I took a route that I would argue has been an asset to me in the program. That is, I took some time to get here. By the time I decided an MFA was what I wanted, I knew I was going to write poetry my whole life whether or not anyone gave me permission. I took poetry workshops as a undergrad at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I worked on the Madison Review and clamored around town constantly with a gang of kid poets (Feng Sun Chen, who is also in the program at UMN, Jared Joseph, Leif Haven) starting magazines and writing all kinds of shitty sparkles. They were my first writing family, and I’m still in love with so many of them. Some of them have been reading my poems for 9 years! I had encouragement at UW from Quan Barry to keep writing poems, but wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do come graduation. I didn’t think I was very good at poems. I ended up spending two years in South Korea teaching English. I was lucky to have that opportunity. Because I went there, and I found out I loved teaching. I found out I loved peach trees and mountains. However, I was fucking sad and lonely there to the point that my body felt like it had burned itself numb. (This wasn’t Korea’s fault, btw. <3) So I started writing poems, scribbling in journals, reviewing books, and reading every book like I could turn it back into a forest if I just read it hard enough. Something in the gut region told me this was the way I could crawl back towards the world and to my life. I was right. Poetry opened me sea-like to my beastly, sensitive self. I got bigger. I started cutting my own hair. My first poem was published in elimae. I felt like I understood something about how light could come out of the dark. I moved back to Madison, WI for a year and was a bike messenger while I applied to schools. I spent my piddly nothing money on applications to school and beer. I kept writing poems, started getting published more, interned for the Monsters of Poetry (Adam Fell, Lauren Shapiro, Kevin Gonzalez) reading series, met people like Russ Woods + Meghan Lamb + Cassandra Troyan, made my first “chapbook” for my boyfriend at the time, and did my first reading in Chicago for Stephen Tully Dierks/Pop Serial. I got into Minnesota off the waiting list in April, after being rejected everywhere else. I had just gone to brunch at Monty’s when I got the email, and I cried and cried and cried into my black fingerless gloves.

NICHE: How would you describe the atmosphere in workshop? How might be different/unique from workshops in other programs?

CARRIE LORIG: This is a complicated question. Maybe that’s appropriate since workshop, in general, is kind of a big question for the MFA system. It’s a model that’s been in place for so long that it’s a reflex, and I’m not sure everyone is convinced it’s the only way we should be doing things. I don’t think I am convinced that it’s the only way we can be sharing and transferring poetry in-progress in an academic setting. 

Our workshops are what most people think of when they think of workshop. We read poetry books, most of which are contemporary or relatively contemporary. We have a conversation about them (sometimes student led/sometimes teacher led) and workshop 2-3 people per week according to comments we’ve handwritten on the poems. That said, I do find the atmosphere of our workshops to be supportiveRay Gonzalez and Peter Campion, our workshop teachers these past couple years, are both very easy to talk to and be around. They are willing to meet outside of class and go over comments/ideas. They demand big output (both require poems + a paper analyzing and explaining your work, which I love and would argue is an incredibly important thing to do), and that’s what you want and need to get out of a workshop. A WATERFALL OF STUFF TO WORK WITH. Ray makes a book list like no other. (Reason and Other Women by Alice Notley!) The writers want to be genuinely interested in each other’s work, and I think workshop can be an excellent place to experience a diversity of aesthetics. At this level, you can’t just dismiss people and their work, no matter how much you “don’t get it.” You have to learn to respond to that diversity of aesthetics thoughtfully/intellectually. Workshop teaches us to engage difference and to not assume difference is synonymous with hostility or “badness.” We all fought tooth and raptor claw to be here. We all have tooth and raptor claws that can do awesome things. 

NICHE: What can you tell us about the funding/support given at Minnesota?

CARRIE LORIG: We are very, very, very, very lucky to have THREE YEARS of funding (in exchange for teaching) that adds up to about $13,000 a year. That is not the case everywhere, as we all know. All of us are grateful and happy to be in a program that gives us that extra year and isn’t going to leave us stranded in immense debt (Seriously world, why?). We are finally seeing creative writing students push back against this sort of thing at Houston, for example. I pump my fist in the air for them! We also receive some relief for AWP during one of our years in the program, and we can ask for modest reimbursements for readings we travel to do (I’ve benefited so much from this), conferences, etc. There are prizes every fall chosen by outside writers we can get some money from upon winning. 

However, student fees at the University of Minnesota/most universities are criminal (I love paying for services meant for the greater good, but we pay back a little over 11% of our already small, small earnings. I struggle every year to pay them, and I certainly don’t live extravagantly. I buy PBR, yo.) Summer funding within the department definitely exists, which is amazing, but it’s limited. I am the MFA representative to the faculty. I know how hard they struggle to get us money. I greatly admire them for it. However, only 5 of the 36 students receive summer funding ranging from $1700-$4000 for the summer. 3 others receive a travel grant that allows you to be reimbursed (for travel/studio space/supplies for whatever project you’re doing) for somewhere about $2000. I work any number of odd, tolerable jobs in the summer, write as often as possible, and pray I won’t have to ask my parents to help me.

NICHE: What can you tell me about Dislocate? How much are graduate students involved, and what roles do they play?

CARRIE LORIG: I’m not a member of dislocate. I’m going to turn this question over to Jennifer Fossenbell, one of the editors in chief.  

JENNIFER FOSSENBELL: dislocate is 100% graduate student-run. Our staff come from MFA, MA and PhD tracks, and the exact roles are determined each year by who comes on board and what strengths and experiences they have. Speaking for this year, we’ve got two of us sharing the ‘chief’ position, a distribution team, a social-media/web manager, an event-planning team, three head genre editors, plus a tidy army of associate editors. But when it comes right down to it, many of the decisions we make are consensus-based, and we all do a little bit of everything as needed. As a result, we’re all learning important skills for the real world, such as: how to beg for money in a convincing way; how to argue this poem vs. that one; how cozy is too cozy for a public reading; when to start x in order to complete y and z on time without stress-molting in the process; and how to answer PR questions about our publication. We’re still working on all or most of these, but I can say it’s a project that completely belongs to the students each year who make it happen… and to our readers, of course.

NICHE: Who have you had an opportunity to work with?

CARRIE LORIG: Ray Gonzalez + Peter Campion are here and serve as instructors/advisors to the poets. I’ve worked with both of them more than once. I’ve worked with Maria Damon, who brings an incredible energy to this city and to poetry that will be sadly missed next year when she goes off to head a department at Pratt. She attends every student reading or event there is (and brings food)! Her generosity and incredible knowledge of poetry/literature/theory (DEAR GOD) motivates me to be involved, to be interested, to care, and to work hard. I’ve also taken a jaw slackening Anthropology class with Stuart McLean about the dead that gave birth to the final portions of my chapbook that just came out, nods. We read Michael Taussig, Amos Tutola, Bracha Ettinger. He let us read and talk about poets Aase Berg + Raul Zurita per our invading MFA suggestionJani Scandura is teaching a class on the Avant Garde I’m taking this semester through the Art History/English Department that’s been wonderfully challenging. We’ve read Rosalind Krauss, Marcel DuChamp, Walter Benjamin, Maurice Blanchot, The Surrealists. She is another one of these professors, along with McLlean, who believes in accepting creative projects as academic, intellectual work and responds to them as such. Being able to combine theory w/my creative impulses has been a huge turning point for me that has really allowed my work to blossom in unexpected, important ways. 

I also want to insist that who I’ve worked with is my cohort. I owe them all my first unborn ponychild hybrid. We are a tight (There are only 12 of us per year, 4 poets per year.), challenging group. Many of us work hard to push each other in terms of constantly thinking about what poetry/writing is and what it can be. We are always lending/giving each other books. Just this morning Elisabeth Workman gave me The Romance of Happy Workers by Anne Boyer. We exchange work in class and outside of it. We get together for circus drinking time, and we get together to talk about books for a thing we call “Gristle Day.” This is where I found a plate shifting book in my writing called I LOVE DICK by Chris Kraus. I started a reading series, Our Flow is Hard, with Feng Sun Chen, Kristin Fitzsimmons, Chrissy Friedlander (all in the program/all powerful ladies of the swamp), and my roommate, Amelia Foster. Jennifer Fossenbell, another lovely pack of feathers in the MFA program, joined us this year. 

We work to be each other’s teachers because we take contemporary poetry and our place in it seriously. I think that’s something that sometimes gets a little lost in the academic scheme of things sometimes? Like, you are next! You are what is next in poetry, and so are the people around you. That means somethingThat means you don’t have to cower under the shadow of all those dead dude authors, great as they absolutely are. Whitman would certainly not want that for us! This does not mean we give a shit about who is the most published between us or whatever. It just means we have ideas about what we could be. I don’t know. Spew all your oily, pretty juices and feed voraciously off the ones coming out of those around you! Why else are we all in this small space we call the MFA together?! 

NICHE: Are you given the opportunity to teach, and if so, how have you found the experience?

CARRIE LORIG: Yes. Everyone teaches. Each incoming year, one person receives a DOVE fellowship for their first year only. They don’t teach during that time. Your first year you teach all three genres in Creative Writing 1101 (think 101) and probably TA for a lit course. Most classes are capped at 26 students. If you TA for a lit course, you’ll have two discussions of 26. Your second year you start to have choices. You can teach freshman comp, do the same thing you did your first year, or teach one/both of the undergraduate workshops you’re guaranteed during your time here. I think this is all incredible. I love the variety of choice we have. I love that we are guaranteed to be able to teach creative writing, which I understand is not the case everywhere. If you want to be a teacher, this is THE place to come. You will be one before you leave. I had some teaching experience before I came, but I really adore teaching college students. They are smart, open, and willing. Totally magic beings. They are so excited to read the things you have for them. They are so excited when you tell them that their thoughts matter and that they can do so many things with them. They are so excited to breathe some imagination. They teach me things too, and I will quote Emily Kendal Frey’s facebook status here, “Learning is where all healing happens.” Watching my students read wrinkle themselves through Edouard Leve and Amelia Gray has been the best  Prof. Joe Hughes, who I TAed for, let me to two lectures on Zachary Schomburg’s Scary, No Scary for a 300 student class. That was a thing that really made me think yes, this is what I want to be doing with my little sliver of lizard life. We get a lot of freedom to control and make our classes (even composition) what we want them to be, which is a gift. I really think the MFAs and English PhDs are teaching some of the most exciting undergrad classes here at the UMN. 

NICHE: Any unique experiences you want to share?

CARRIE LORIG: I think my unique experience is that the MFA became this entry point into the greater writing community for me. I came here, and I was OK, I’M GOING TO DO THIS. ALL OF IT. You don’t have to wait to graduate to do this!!! I was walking once with Lewis Freedman in Madison before I got into a program, and he said something along the lines of, “If you love what a writer does, fucking email them. Tell them. Be that person.” I went home and emailed a poet named Jame Schiller right away. And I don’t forget what Lewis told me or quit doing that. This is why I review books as often as possible. This is why I have a reading series. This is why I go to readings here in Minne. as often as possible. This is why I pinch my pennies to death so I can go to AWP and eat burritos every year. I hug really hard at AWP. The MFA became this event that gave me a reason/the confidence to go and look for my writing and my tribe. This year at AWP, Matt Hart said it seemed like I’d figured something out, that I’d found out something about my place, and he’s right. I correspond with a lot of poets. We send each other poems and recordings and emails and letters and packages. I travel to do readings as often as I’m invited and can manage to scramble the money together. I READ ON TOP OF A METAL BAND IN AKRON,OH THIS YEAR. My unique experience is that I figured out that I’m a person who thrives off the energy of other poets, of conversations and friendships with them. A lot of things continue to be hard and terrible, but I’ve found the sudden cultivation of such immense language and family to be a beach covered in beer and only the raddest jukebox songs. 

NICHE: Would Minnesota be somewhere you would settle after graduation?

CARRIE LORIG:  I’m not a settling type of person. My parents were migratory llamas. At least, I’m not a settling person yet. I want to go off and do more school because I love school + believe in school a great deal. However, if I don’t get in anywhere, I might end up staying here. (Though, I hope that’s not the case.) Lots and lots of MFAs do stay here. Minneapolis and the Midwest are fantastic. I wear my flannelized heart (I grew up in Wisconsin) for them. The Twin Cities are a collective Arts Town. It’s not just poets that go to poetry readings, and there’s a lot of places to find and get support here. There are a lot of writers/places for artists here doing wonderful things. Sarah Fox, Matt Mauch, Andy Sturdevant, Brad Liening, Coffee House Press, The Soap Factory, Matt Rasmussen, Lightsey Darst, William Walsh + Conduit Magazine, Rain Taxi, The Loft, Open Book, L’etoile Magazine, Revolver Magazine, The Walker Art Museum, Chris Martin + Mary Austin Speaker are coming here soon, Paper Darts, the recently re-located Whole Beast Rag. If you come here and show your love, people will return it tenfold. I love that about this town. Also, great co-ops, great music (PRINCE LIVES HERE), great neighborhoods, great bike culture, great bookstores, great record stores, great museums, great goodgod lakes, good beer, good food. 

NICHE: What advice would you give to prospective candidates?

CARRIE LORIG: Kill everything. Murder the rhythm of your love and of your decaying spots. Kiss the gravestones against your house with all the risk. Be generous and thoughtful and caring with your work and others. Don’t ever stop thinking that’s what you need to do. Just write and read the fuck out of everything with every sense of bleeding you’ve ever had. Your MFA program is not the only poetry. Your mentors are not the only poetry. You are not the only poetry. We’re in here massed together and complicated. Be a sound. Be a love monster. Go deep in there and crawl your way back out with balloons in your mitts. Maybe that all sounds simplistic. I’m not sure. But I don’t think anyone could ever convince me to stop, no matter how many times my computer breaks or someone dislikes my poems, which they are certainly free to do. I’m going to be extreme and say that if you have that set to boiling, you will do this. I will see you at the Zombie Party, and we will dance.

This MFA Spotlight was originally published on Niche’s website on April 27th, 2013.

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