MFA Spotlight: The University of New Orleans

I’m pleased to welcome MFA Candidate, Jennifer Hanks, to Niche. I want to take this opportunity to thank her for conducting an interview about the MFA Program at the University of New Orleans

Jennifer Hanks is an MFA candidate at the University of New Orleans where she works as a graduate assistant for UNO Press. Her work has been previously published or is forthcoming in journals such as Muzzle Magazine, Word Riot, Foxing Quarterly, and The Rain, Party, & Disaster Society. She is currently working on a poetry series that re-imagines the Book of Revelation in light of impending ecological disasters. You can follow her progress on tumblr.

NICHE: What was your journey to the MFA Program like? Why NOLA?

JENNIFER HANKS: I graduated from Sarah Lawrence in 2008 with a bachelor’s in Liberal Arts. Since then, I have worked in independent publishing at Seven Stories Press, been an NYC dog walker, and edited romance novels in Austin, Texas. Originally, I planned to apply for an MFA program a year or two after graduation, but I am glad that I spent a few years writing on my own. Learning to make time for my poetry while working full-time has made me a more patient and focused writer.

Of the schools I was accepted to, UNO was the warmest when I visited. I was just really impressed by what a tight-knit and supportive community they seemed to have, and that is ultimately what swayed my decision in favor of UNO.

NICHE: It appears as if The University of New Orleans has two options for the MFA—the resident program and the low-residency program. Which one did you choose, and why?

JENNIFER HANKS: I chose the full-residency program, because I wanted the uninterrupted time to a finish a book-length manuscript. After being out of school for a while, it felt vital to make poetry my central focus again. I wanted to spend three years connecting with and learning from other poets.

NICHE: Is Orleans a fully funded program? If so, much do graduate students receive in funding yearly? How many people are admitted to the program a year?

JENNIFER HANKS: UNO funds a portion of its incoming MFA students every year through graduate assistantships and scholarships. That number varies depending on the number of accepted applicants and what assistantships have become available. Assistantships for first-year students are usually administrative or research-related. Students who take the required pedagogy class in their first year can apply for teaching assistantship their second or third year. In addition, most graduate students receive a scholarship, the Privateer Award, that waives out-of-state tuition.

This is my first year in the program and I am a graduate assistant for the UNO Press. I receive a tuition waiver and a small stipend ($5,400).

In-state tuition at UNO is relatively inexpensive and the majority of MFA students receive an assistantship by their second year in the program. That being said, we definitely have less comprehensive funding than some of the more well-known schools. The stipend definitely does not cover all my expenses, and I have had to take out some loans this year to make my finances work. So for students who want to come out of an MFA with absolutely no debt whatsoever, that is something to consider.

The incoming class for Fall 2013 included thirteen fiction writers, nine poets, four nonfiction writers, five screenwriters, and one playwright.

NICHE: Tell me a little about the literary magazine, Bayou Magazine. Do graduate students play a part in its production at all? If so, what are the graduate students required to do?

JENNIFER HANKS: According to their website, Bayou Magazine is “a biannual literary magazine with natural circulation that publishes poetry, fiction, nonfiction and the winner of the annual Tennessee Williams One-Act Play Contest.” The magazine’s editor-in-chief is a Creative Writing Workshop faculty member, but all of the day-to-day operations of the magazine are handled by graduate MFA students.

There are four graduate assistantships available through Bayou, two editor positions, and two positions as assistant editors. Faculty members serve as genre editors, and students have the opportunity to serve as assistant genre editors on a volunteer basis. In addition, MFA students can intern with Bayou for course credit.

All MFA students are also invited to serve as first-round readers for submissions to the magazine. I’m currently reading poetry submissions for Bayou, and I’ve had a really great experience being involved with the magazine. As someone who is sending out my own work, it’s been helpful to get a look at the other side of the submission process. There is also a student-run magazine called Quaint Magazine. The magazine was founded by two current UNO MFA students, accepts submissions by female- identified people only, and is publishing its inaugural issue this month. I currently read poetry for Quaint. Keep an eye out for it.

NICHE: Who have you gotten to work with thus far?

JENNIFER HANKS: In the fall, I took a poetry workshop with Carolyn Hembree. This semester I am taking a poetry workshop with John Gery and a nonfiction workshop with Randy Bates.

NICHE: How would you describe the atmosphere of the workshops? What other classes are you required to take?

JENNIFER HANKS: I’d say this a program that is more focused on camaderie than competition, and this definitely comes across in workshop. Students here put a great deal of time into thinking about each other’s work, and overall, I’ve found the workshop atmosphere to be thoughtful and supportive.

In addition to workshops in my genre, I am also required to take a nonfiction workshop, two literature classes related to the study of poetry, and two electives (which can be literature classes or workshops in any genre).

NICHE: Can you tell me anything about the Writing Workshops abroad?

JENNIFER HANKS: The writing workshops abroad are the core workshops for the low-residency MFA program. They are held every summer in June and July in Cork, Ireland and Brunnenburg, Italy. Full-residency MFA students can take these summer workshops for credit toward their degree, but they are not covered by financial aid or the graduate assistant tuition waivers.

NICHE: I’m currently attending an MFA program in Louisiana myself. How do you like living in New Orleans? Is it a place you see yourself settling once you’ve graduated?

JENNIFER HANKS: New Orleans is not a place I imagined myself living until I started the application process, and I think it’s equally frustrating and wonderful here. I find this city very conducive to writing poetry, and I’m also delighted that it is both literary and queer-friendly. I think it is the right place for me to be getting an MFA, and I would certainly recommend this city to other writers.

However, I am a non-driving vegetarian who loves New York, and I’m pretty set on returning there after I graduate.

A note for vegetarians: you should know what you are getting into if you decide to come to this program. It can be difficult to find a restaurant with good (or any) vegetarian options, and grocery shopping can also be frustrating (meat substitutes, when you can find them, are very expensive here).

NICHE: Is there anything that you would like readers to know about the program at New Orleans? (In other words, what makes it unique?)

JENNIFER HANKS: Again, what I think really distinguishes this program is the sense of community here. We are the biggest celebrators of each other’s successes. If another writer thinks the piece you brought into workshop would be perfect for X journal, they will encourage you to submit there. If your band has a performance in Mid-City, you will get a crowd full of fellow MFA students. Currently, I am working on a longer series of poems that’s completely different from anything I’ve done previously, and I’ve had nothing but interest and support from the other poets in the program.

NICHE: What advice would you give to prospective candidates and writers?

JENNIFER HANKS: Think seriously about location. What kind of environment would be most conducive your writing? I am a city person through and through, and I would have had a hard time in a more rural area. But maybe you need miles of open space or you’re happiest at a higher altitude with access to the mountains. It has become more and more difficult to be accepted into an MFA program, and it’s definitely worth applying to five or more schools. However, I think it’s a better idea to look for schools that are a good fit instead of applying to high-rated schools in places you couldn’t see yourself ever living otherwise.

Once you are in a program, go ahead and be overly ambitious. Being in an MFA program offers you a great opportunity to take risks with your work or to begin a project you’ve been mulling over for several years. Try not to write with the workshop’s expectations in mind. Sometimes I feel like I should be bringing in the neatest and most lyrically consistent of my poems to workshop instead of the work that is most exciting to me. I’ve been attempting to fight this impulse, because I think it’s essential for me to share (and receive feedback) on the poems that, while not quite working yet, are getting me closer to where I want my work to go.

This MFA Spotlight was originally posted on Niche’s website on January 24th, 2014.

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