What was it like living in Cheney? How far does your stipend go there living wise?
EWU’s main campus is in Cheney, so this is where the undergraduate classes are held (and where TAs teach classes) but the MFA program is housed on the satellite campus in Spokane. Almost all of the MFA candidates choose to live in Spokane since this is where all of our classes are held, and also where all of the internship and program/faculty offices are located. So, there have been some folks in the program who prefer the small-town feel of Cheney over Spokane, but most people live in Spokane and drive or take the free bus to Cheney (about a twenty five minute ride) when they teach. Spokane is a very livable city. When I came to the program I was just returning to the states after working abroad as an au pair, so I didn’t have a lot of money saved. I took out a small loan even though I had tuition remission and a stipend, because I just didn’t want to stress about money during my first year. Looking back, I would have been fine without the loan. I’m from New Jersey, so I just didn’t realize how much lower the cost of living would be. While I was in the program I paid 500 a month for a nice two-bedroom apartment in a great part of town, and knew people who were in studios or one bedrooms who paid as little as 400 a month. In the past few years there have been a lot of people moving to Spokane from bigger cities like Seattle and Portland, because the art scene here is really thriving, and living here is just so much cheaper.
How did the program equip you for and support you during your teaching assistantship?
I had no teaching experience at all when I started the program, so I was really nervous. I remember the English dept. program coordinator calling me to talk about the TA training, and right away she made me feel better because she was just incredibly kind and helpful. TAs attend a week-long training program that helps them understand the curriculum requirements, create a syllabus, work on lesson plans, and discuss pedagogical strategies. I found it really helpful, especially when we got to meet the second-years TAs and hear about their experiences. We were paired up at the end of the week with both a faculty mentor, and a second-year mentor, so we automatically had two people we could go to for help if need be. The program provides a lot of resources (tons of lesson plans, etc.) but they are also great about letting you do things your own way.
What was the workshop environment like?
Workshops were rigorous in the sense that my cohort took their job seriously, but they were also extremely supportive. There really is a great sense of community at EWU, so our workshops never felt competitive. I hear that a lot when it comes to workshops at EWU across all genres, but most of my experience was with poetry (we are encouraged to take an out-of-genre workshop, so I took one in non-fiction with Rachel Toor that I enjoyed very much as well.) Our poetry faculty, Jonathan Johnson and Christopher Howell, approach workshops a bit differently (generally, Jonathan is not very prescriptive and focuses more on figuring out what kind of poet you want to be in ten years, and Chris is more likely to offer editorial suggestions and consider what the poem is doing now) so it was great to have two different approaches to workshop. I think one of the best things that comes out of any MFA program is that you end up with lifelong readers. I’ve found this to be true not only with my own cohort, but with the alumni in general. A lot of us end up sticking around Spokane after graduation, so there is a large group of us who continue to workshop with each other today.
What was your MFA experience like outside of the classroom?
While I was in the program, especially during my second year, I was really busy. I wanted to try everything that the program had to offer in terms of internships, etc., and I stretched myself a bit thin. I don’t regret this though, as I think it really made my experience so much better (not to mention my C.V.) I was an Assistant Managing Editor for Willow Springs, taught poetry to kids in a Children’s Hospital through Writers in the Community, was the Graduate Advisor for EWU’s undergraduate literary magazine Northwest Boulevard, and was also a TA, teaching both comp and creative writing (a few of us apply to teach that in our second year). On top of all of that, there were also tons of readings, parties, and visiting writer events going on. There really is a reading every weekend in Spokane, whether it is through our program or others throughout the community. So I was really busy, but I enjoyed everything I was doing so much that the two years in the program went by way too fast. I still sit in on Willow Springs meetings when I can, because I found my time working on the magazine to be so useful in terms of my own work. It’s great to know what editors are looking for, and how the process works behind the scenes.
What’s something about the program applicants might not know about but should?
I asked some current and former students to help me answer this question and they all immediately started talking about the bad-ass, supportive, tight-knit literary community we have here in Spokane. So, I know that I already mentioned it when talking about workshop, but it really is worth saying more about. A lot of people tend to stick around after graduation, so we have a huge cohort of alumni who have started workshop groups, book clubs, small presses, non-profits, and even bands. Jess Walter is an alumni of the program and he founded Spark Central, a nonprofit offering all sorts of innovative and important community events, workshops, readings, and connections. Washington State’s poet laureate Tod Marshal is an alum, and so are both the current (Laura Read) and former (Thom Caraway) Spokane poet laureates, which means that the poetry community is maybe even more vibrant (there are also a ton of weekly open mics and poetry slams.) There is also a strong community of writers in Spokane outside of the MFA; writers like Sharma Shields, Ellen Welcker, Kris Dinnison, and Maya Jewell Zeller. It’s hard to explain just how approachable, kind, generous, and yes, I’ll say it again, supportive all of these people are. There are always readings to attend, not just through the MFA program, but through Gonzaga University, Spokane is Reading, and many other venues. When you come to Spokane for your MFA you really aren’t just getting your class as a cohort, you’re getting the Spokane literary community too, which is huge. Here are just a few of the cool things going on besides what I’ve mentioned already: Sage Hill Press, Scablands Books, Terrain, Collect, Spokane Arts, and of course, (in addition to Willow Springs, our lit mag) the MFA program has our own small press, Willow Springs Books. So, the vibrant literary community in Spokane really is something makes the program special.
Kate Peterson earned her MFA from Eastern Washington University in Spokane, where she now works as an adjunct professor. Her poetry and prose have been published in Glassworks, The Sierra Nevada Review, Sugar House Review, Hawai’i Pacific Review, Aethlon, and others. Her chapbook Grist won the 2016 Floating Bridge Chapbook Prize and was published in October, 2016.
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