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July 2007 - Interview with David Fenza: Executive Director of AWP

Mr. Fenza is the Executive Director of the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP), a literary organization with over 400 colleges and universities as members. In addition, he has edited numerous literary magazines, taught at Johns Hopkins University and Goucher College, and is the author of a book-length poem, The Interlude. We decided to ask Mr. Fenza a few questions regarding the value of Master of Fine Arts (MFA) programs for aspiring writers:

You have an impressive resume as the Executive Director of the Associated Writing Programs, editor of The Writer’s Chronicle, college professor, and author, in addition to being awarded a Fellowship in Poetry from the National Endowment for the Arts. Please tell us a bit about how you accomplished all of this.

It happened very slowly over time. I’m over 50 so it took a long while!

You earned your MFA degree from the Writers' Workshop of the University of Iowa. How was your overall experience with the program?

It was a fantastic two years there and part of the reason I was a special case is that it is relatively competitive to get in and your fellow students are so accomplished and ambitious that you learn as much from them as you do from your teachers. There were some accomplished writers there at the same time I was, including Lynn Emanuel, Andre Hudgins, Eric Pankey, and many others in poetry. In fiction there was Glenn Savan, author of The White Palace, which was adapted into a well-known film.

In your experience, are MFA workshops beneficial in teaching authors vital writing techniques?

Yes, they definitely are. You can learn as much or more from your fellow students. Kurt Vonnegut taught a famous workshop in Iowa with students like Gail Godwin, John Irving, and John Casey. Everyone learned a lot, as I’m sure you can imagine, including Kurt himself. The teachers when I was there were also pretty good, especially Donald Justice, who didn’t like much of anything I did. He would look at a poem of mine and say something like, “Interesting, but how about trying it in quatrains this time?” Then I would bring it back to him and he would ask me to try it in tercets, then as a sonnet, etc. The important thing was learning that all of my work was elastic and malleable, and the point was to find the best possible form for the content you were moving towards.

Writing workshops have been called competitive places, sometimes even cutthroat. Would you agree?

That has not been my experience. While I was in Iowa, a few of us splintered off and had our own off-campus workshop, which was great. You must learn to accept and disregard some things that people say about your work, since everyone is speaking from their own prejudices and aesthetic preferences. Whining about criticism is immature and silly. Now a book review in the New York Times read by thousands of people can really be cutthroat. Workshops are child’s play in comparison.

As an editor and an author, do you feel that it is important, even necessary, for aspiring writers to get an MFA in today’s publishing world? How big a role do you feel it plays in getting an author published?

I don’t think it’s crucial to getting published but it is helpful and expediting in one’s own development as a writer. Everybody can benefit from spending two years working on finishing a book. It also provides fellow spirits, where you can talk out loud what you are trying to do, and you can talk about literature that you love and admire. It’s a wonderful thing, and being able to talk about it helps you read deeper and re-read. There were so many contemporary writers I had never read before, but my classmates insisted, and I am so much richer for it. One can also go to a big city and find a literary community, so it’s not always necessary to get an MFA, but not everybody has the will to live in a big city like Paris or New York.

Do you think that low residency programs have equal merit to more traditional programs where writers relocate to the campus?

Yes, I’ve visited them and been a guest lecturer at Bennington (in Vermont) and was very impressed with what I saw there and the amount of emphasis that was put on reading and deep study of literature in the programs. I especially like the requirement that graduating students have to give a lecture on a writer that they admire as part of their final requirements. I feel that it creates an outward-bound spirit of generosity and intellectual rigor. You can’t just focus on your own work; it’s important to see it in the bigger context of other talented writers.

There is a stereotype that MFA programs churn out “cookie cutter” writers who have lost their unique creativity. What would you say to this?

That’s extremely silly. Consider Vonnegut’s class again as the best example. The writers who came out of that class do not write like one another and that’s the case with many graduates of MFA programs. Sometimes writing programs are stereotyped as monolithic, oppressive institutions, but they are not a monolith; they are numerous and varied. Experimental writers like Ben Marcus and Percival Everett at the University of Southern California, and practitioners of fiction like Lorrie Moore at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and Jill McCorkle at Bennington are great examples of how this stereotype is not true. You must also remember that there is variety in the teaching methods and aesthetic preferences in each program. If you feel oppressed in your program, that means you chose badly and can always transfer to another program for which you are better suited.

Lastly, what advice would you offer to writers who are trying to choose an MFA program?

It is really important to acquaint yourself with the work of the teachers at each program you are looking into. It is a tremendous amount of work but it is an artistic decision, and not a decision that anyone should make except for the writer himself. You must find some merit in the teacher’s work or else it will be a very long two or three years! It is also a way to grow as a writer by not just studying work that you already like, but to study work you don’t like and learn to appreciate why it is good and what you can learn from it. It is a paradox that you must study with writers whose works you love and don’t love but find merit in it and some useful components. Rankings of programs are silly; looking at the work of the teacher is the most important thing to consider. I would say that the financial decision is the second most important, followed by whether you wish to teach or not, in which case you should look for a program with a teaching assistantship. The fourth most important aspect to consider would be the location or format if you are considering a low residency program.

We would like to extend our thanks to Mr. Fenza for sharing his expertise on MFA programs.

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