MFA Spotlight: The University of Michigan

I am very pleased to welcome Marcelo H. Castillo to Niche. I want to take this opportunity to thank him very much for sharing his experiences and insights about the MFA Program offered at The University of Michigan.

Marcelo H. Castillo is an MFA candidate at the University of Michigan. He was born in Zacatecas, Mexico and earned a BA from Cal State Sacramento. He has held residencies at the Squaw Writer’s Workshop, and served as artist in resident at the Atlantic Center for the Arts in Florida. With CD Wright, he is currently translating the Mexican poet Marcelo Uribe. His chapbook, “This Side of Wonder,” was published in 2012 by Amber Moon Press. He lives in Ann Arbor with his wife Rubi.

NICHE: Can you tell us a little bit about your journey to the MFA. Why Michigan?

MARCELO H. CASTILLO: I began to seriously consider MFA programs during my first residency at the Squaw Writer’s Workshop which gave me a brief glimpse at the larger writing community out there. In a conversation with a friend I met at the workshop, and who I still keep in close contact with, she told me to look into MFA programs. I had no idea where to look or what requirements to consider, so I bought the Poets&Writer’s MFA  issue and began researching.  2011 proved to be an unreal year because I got married in the fall, graduated from my undergrad in the early winter, and had to find time to apply to MFA’s. I missed the deadline to take the GRE and was only able to consider those schools that didn’t require the GRE. Recently married, and paying off a wedding, I was financially restricted to two schools: Michigan and Iowa. My plan was to work my way down to other schools the following year when I had more time to apply. Iowa rejected me with a very kind letter, and around the same time, I received a life altering call from Michael Byers, the MFA director at Michigan. I quit my job as a health club manager and made the 2000 mile trip to Michigan from California.

NICHE: Does Michigan support their students? That is, do they give tuition waivers, scholarships, or teaching assistantships? How much do they get? Do students receive summer funding?

MARCELO H. CASTILLO: Here at Michigan, before any Webster Reading series by a second year, or an Edwards reading by a first year, one person is consistently thanked: Helen Zell. She is the reason we have coined the term Zollers, and Zellows, and Zalary. Thanks to Helen Zell, after who the titleZell Fellowship” is named, all entering candidates are guaranteed full funding which means a full tuition waiver, full health benefits, conference financial support, travel grants, book purchasing stipends, and considerable summer funding. Not all of it comes from Mrs. Zell, of course, but she is our biggest supporter. Most importantly, first years are not required to teach, though some are offered graderships. In terms of scholarships, each year, students enter the Hopwood literary awards in hopes of winning scholarships from the Academy of American Poets and others like the $5,000 Theodore Roethke prize. We receive $6,000 in summer funding to focus on our writing and not have to take up a job. Being married, funding was a significant concern and I am happy that Michigan accommodates.

NICHE: Do you have the opportunity to teach, and if so, how do you balance teaching responsibilities with writing responsibilities?

MARCELO H. CASTILLO: Beginning my second year, I will teach either a creative writing or composition course each semester. Many of the second years that I have spoken with regarding their teaching responsibilities say to me that their biggest advice is to double up on courses my first year so that I am not overwhelmed my second year by teaching, the workshop, and on top of that, another lit class. Most agree that it is manageable, mostly because our entire time here is devoted to the craft, and our studies. I will teach my creative writing class in the Fall of 2013 and will enroll in workshop. The university begins training us since our first year in pedagogy to prepare us for teaching. I’m excited about it because we get to choose who we teach in creative writing.

NICHE: What unique opportunities does the MFA Program at Michigan offer?

MARCELO H. CASTILLO: Perhaps, one of the biggest, and to my knowledge, most unique opportunity in Michigan is the brand new third year Zell Fellowship awarded to all candidates. The program itself is officially a two year program with thesis work in your last semester, but now, thanks to Helen Zell, all candidates are awarded the Zell Fellowship in order to further support their writing with a full funding package. Before, graduating candidates applied but only a few were awarded the fellowship. “Zellows” as we call them don’t have to take classes, don’t have to teach, or, if they wanted to, nothing at all, though most “Zellows” that I speak to are vigorously finishing or beginning new work. I am especially excited about having that time to become a complete recluse and do nothing but write morning, day and night. Most Zellows are required to live within the Ann Arbor area, but a few are granted the liberty to live wherever they please and are still funded. There’s other opportunities that come with being a grad student in terms of travel. If there is extensive research that a candidate needs to do for a novel, or whatever, there are other grants outside of the MFA program that we are eligible for.

NICHE: Which authors have you had the opportunity to work with? 

MARCELO H. CASTILLO: I’ve had the opportunity to work with Keith Taylor, A. Van Jordan, Laura Kasiskche, Lorna Goodison and my advisor, Linda Gregerson. It’s really amazing to have such a vast and talented bunch of professors to go to for conversation and larger issues about my own writing.

NICHE: Tell us a little bit about the visiting writers?

MARCELO H. CASTILLO: The Zell visiting writers series (Again, Zell is a name that constantly pops up) brings great established poets and writers. In my first semester, they brought, among others, David Mitchel, David Shields, Carrie Fountain, Terrance Hayes, Clayton Eshleman, and Toi Derricote. This semester, Heather McHugh, Colson Whitehead, and Nicky Finney are coming to visit. The visiting writers, except for the distinguished writer who stay for a week, all stay for a couple of days and give readings, craft talks, lectures, and have lunch or dinner with four MFA students. Last semester I had lunch with Carrie Fountain and Terrance Hayes; it was surreal. What’s great about Michigan, though, is that it’s not just the MFA program that brings writers, last semester, different private reading series and other departments throughout the university managed to bring Traci K. Smith, Patricia Smith, Phillip Levine, and Charles Baxter among others. If you’re lucky, you might bump into Anne Carson who has been given unicorn status around the campus for her aloofness, save for the occasional reading she will do to entertain her cult like following of readers.

The official literary magazine is the Michigan Quarterly Review. They are a very well respected journal and recently appointed Jonathan Friedman as chief editor who teaches in the English department. Throughout the university and in the city of Ann Arbor, though, there are many other up and coming magazines and reviews like Xylem, as well as a few presses like Canarium, and Dzanc Books.

NICHE: What advice would you give current or prospective students of MFA programs?

MARCELO H. CASTILLO: For those applying to programs, my advice is to try to stay sane because I know what a hell it is to write personal statements, academic statements of purpose, send dozens of transcripts to who knows where, let alone find some cohesion in a sample of work. After speaking with many other students in other MFA programs, I have come to believe that it’s what you bring to the program, your love for your writing that will make the difference. As one of my favorite poetsRobert Hass said to me, “never quit your craft, stick with it and you will develop a body of work.” To current MFA students, my advice is that it’s important to have a few drinks and enjoy your time while you are there.

This MFA Spotlight was originally published on Niche’s website on January 20th, 2013.

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