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Kristine Sloan Introduction (University of Wyoming ’17)

On the last day of my job, my supervisor and I exchanged a difficult goodbye. I had come to see my supervisor as something of a guardian-mentor figure since he is also a poet. During my last month of work, he and I had a handful of conversations about craft and literary culture as it stands today. He’s recommended some amazing writers to me; spoke bluntly on the history of rigged writing contests; he even workshopped a poem of mine. Before our final farewell, he told me I should keep in touch with him, told me I wrote well and had potential. Of all the goodbyes, this one hit me the hardest. I had to come to really admire and respect him, and the only thing forcing me to say goodbye was my not-so-committal choice to leave Baltimore for an MFA program.

The next morning, I awoke to a strange feeling in my chest. At first, I thought it was anxiety. After a moment, I realized it was not anxiety, but longing. It was easy for me to confuse the two since longing is something I almost never feel. But I was leaving Baltimore, Maryland, a landscape, atmosphere, spirit even, that I had come to identify with. I didn’t want to leave. Why should I leave people and jobs that I enjoyed to take a risk on a town and a community that I knew little to nothing about? I had last-minute thoughts like, “Why didn’t I apply to programs in bigger, more progressive towns?” and “I made the wrong decision. I should’ve gone to Montana.”

For many people, the nearly year-long process of choosing programs, studying for the GRE, preparing application materials, actually applying, waiting, hearing back, and, finally, making a choice, demands an unwavering, linear desire. Like winning the lottery, you would want it, you could never stop wanting it, and, if you got it, there would be absolutely no hesitation in accepting your prize. But I wavered.

The summer of 2014, I fantasized about how wonderful it would be to get into an MFA program. Fantasies as these usually denote some lack of information, and I certainly had yet to see the entire picture of literary MFAs. I didn’t know much about the larger culture that engulfs them—that some programs may force writers to feel that they are in competition for financial, perhaps also intellectual, support; that some programs may frown upon interdisciplinary experimentation. When I started doing research on programs, I had little bearings about what I should look for. The one thing I did know at that point was my baseline criteria for starting the search: a diverse, perhaps even an experimental-leaning faculty, and full-funding.

Since I didn’t entirely know what I wanted, I needed a guide to help me navigate my search. I used the Poets & Writers MFA Index, and, as a result, allowed some of my search to be guided by a sense of prestige. I know I shouldn’t have let their charts steer me in that way, but it did. I met with my undergraduate poetry mentor that summer to get her thoughts on my tentative list of schools and advice on the process in general. Her words brought me back to earth a bit and reminded me that these programs are supposed to support your personal creative vision. Yes, those goals might change, but a good program will give you the freedom and support to explore the world with your own aesthetic compass.

In the end, I winded up applying to eleven programs:

  • Brown University
  • Temple University
  • University of Massachusetts, Amherst
  • Boise State University
  • University of Wyoming
  • University of Montana
  • University of Michigan
  • University of Wisconsin
  • Indiana University
  • George Mason University
  • Washington University

I put Brown at the top because they stood out to me in terms of its faculty, interdisciplinary opportunities, and, guiltily, the prestige. After that, I can’t really say I had a second or third choice. Many of those programs appealed to me for different reasons, either because of a specific faculty member, pedagogical training, or financial support for people of color.

Something I told myself throughout the whole process was that I shouldn’t hope for anything. I didn’t know how my work stacked up against other young writers in the big picture of poetry, especially since my writing has changed quite a bit since I first started writing (those embarrassingly archaic-sounding sonnets). Things got real for me when I received a phone call from a program director. They had called to let me know that they hadn’t received my personal statement (though I distinctly remember verifying that I had uploaded all application components) and that I ought to email it to them. Then, they went on to say how strong they thought my work was. I got excited. If one program valued my writing, there was a chance a few others would, too. I emotionally prepared myself for eleven verdicts.

  • Brown University
  • Temple University
  • University of Massachusetts, Amherst
  • Boise State University
  • University of Wyoming
  • University of Montana
  • University of Michigan
  • University of Wisconsin
  • Indiana University
  • George Mason University
  • Washington University

I chose Wyoming, though, it was a tough call. Montana, for whatever reason, gave me until March 15, instead of the usual April 15, to make my decision. Meanwhile, Wyoming offered to fly me, and the rest of their prospective students, out to campus for an open house weekend—all expenses paid. It was during this visit that I saw how welcoming the program was. On top of that, they seemed genuinely supportive of students who have unconventional ideas. For example, a fiction student received a project grant to bike around Wyoming and smell things. Yes, you read that right.

In step with that mindset, they encourage an interdisciplinary, cross-genre approach. Most importantly, they made it known that they care about the kind of people they accept. A faculty-member told a few of us that the only reason they even read letters of recommendation is to glean evidence of personality traits—kind, humble, and, as that faculty-member said, not a “prima donna.” I know, I’m really being a hype woman for my program right now, though I may discover differently as time goes on. My point is that Wyoming seemed to value me and the time I needed to make my decision. Perhaps, Montana’s program was forced to make such demands on its prospective students by university administration. No matter. I’ve carved out a small space for myself here in Wyoming, and there’s no going back.

If there’s any lesson or insight I can offer others who are interested in doing a creative writing MFA, it is this: do what’s best for you as an artist. Take the P&W popularity rankings with a grain of salt, let alone even paying them any mind. It might feel good to have a magazine validate your goals, but I believe an artist’s sense of vision should, ultimately, come from a sense of faith in one’s ability to create. After I finished undergrad, I couldn’t bring myself to write for a whole year. The artistic hoops I had to jump through in class crippled me. I needed to rediscover poetry on my own terms. When I finally brought pen to paper again, I was shocked and scared, and I’m not exaggerating. I had to confront myself and figure out if I was still someone who cared about the art of language.

It’s a comforting and easy answer to say that of course I would return to poetry, but, in that dark moment, I didn’t have an answer.  I came out of that experience a stronger, more confident person because I engaged with poetry on my own, not because I had map of what’s good and what’s bad.  There comes a time when the metaphorical map we all receive in life, whether it be a teacher’s opinions or P&W rankings, needs to be burned in order to truly venture forth toward an understanding of artistic truth.  Now, here I am, in the small town of Laramie, an unglamorous but beautiful place in the American West that has the ability to slow down any urbanite’s pace of life, spending my time with people who want to collaborate with me, who want to share their books with me, who make me laugh and inspire me—people who have given me a home away from home.

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