The Rise of UMKC’s MFA Program
For decades art has been a vital part of Kansas City culture. Visitors from all over the world travel to Kansas City for a glimpse of its vibrant art districts, including the Crossroads Art District and the historic 18th and Vine Jazz District. But Kansas City also nurtures another art form – a hidden gem. Creative Writing.
The University of Missouri-Kansas City is home to a widely recognized creative writing hub – the Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing and Media Arts (MFA) program – nestled under the umbrella of the College of Arts and Sciences’ English Department. A literary force to be reckoned with, the MFA program has seen steady growth both in enrollment and recognition throughout its nearly ten years of life. This, in large part, is due to the program’s award-winning faculty who help to nurture a strong community of literary artists who want to study creative writing.
“We want the creative writing program to be a place where students come to retreat from the burdens and crush of life,” said UMKC Director of Creative Writing Michael Pritchett. Pritchett has authored several works including The Melancholy Fate of Capt. Lewis and Iowa Short Story Fiction Award winner The Venus Tree.
MFA Success: A Combination of Faculty Experience, Student Relationships
The MFA program is a nationally competitive, studio-research program that combines intensive workshops with literature and craft classes to foster discovery and mastery in creative writing. Students in the program have the opportunity to learn from distinguished laureates in various literary genres, including two-time Pulitzer Prize nominee Michelle Boisseau.
“We are trying to create a creative capital in Kansas City, and it’s happening,” said Boisseau, whose recent book of poetry, Among the Gorgons, won a 2015 Tampa Review Prize for Poetry. She has taught at UMKC for nearly 22 years. The longevity and individual successes of MFA faculty help to make the program more attractive to prospective students.
“We wouldn’t be here without faculty like Michelle Boisseau and Robert Stewart and all of the creative writing faculty,” said Pritchett. “We have to have a number of talented faculty to attract students.”
From second-year MFA student John Moessner’s perspective, being immersed in the world of creative writing and learning from professionals who continue to write and win awards allows him to orient himself into their world. He says he is learning first-hand about writing and publishing.
Professor of English Hadara Bar-Nadav, won a 2017 National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Poetry.
Bar-Nadav says it is critical in a high-caliber program that faculty are active writers. “We are a very energetic, ambitious faculty. We are on the hustle, and being able to share our successes and lessons learned with our students is a major factor in the program’s success,” she said, adding that she is excited to work with faculty who are on the move.
Whitney Terrell, assistant professor of fiction and creative non-fiction, held a book promotion tour last summer that lasted from June through mid-October 2016.
Terrell says it is important to recognize that even before the MFA program was established, faculty were already being published and winning awards.
Because the department already had a long-lived, popular and highly successful MA program in place, with many successful features, the start-up costs were very low: little overhead was involved. “We just started putting the pieces together to develop the MFA,” said Terrell, whose most recent book, The Good Lieutenant, was nominated for the 2017 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction.
Hodgen, a 2011 Guggenheim Fellowship Awardee, says when she talks to students about their experience in the MFA program, they never fail to mention the importance of their peers in their development as artists. Hodgen’s collection of short fiction, A Jeweler’s Eye for Flaw, won an AWP Award in Fiction and was published by the University of Massachusetts Press in 2003.
Hodgen explained that any successful program has to have an accomplished and engaged faculty. Those faculty are not only found within the MFA program but within the English Department as a whole, as well as their colleagues within Communication Studies, such as Mitch Brian, and in Theater, such as playwright Frank Higgins. Having other literary resources such as the nationally prominent New Letters and New Letters On The Air, UMKC libraries and KC Rep are also a huge bonus.
Renowned Literary Services Draw Attention to City, Offer Hands-on Experiences for Students
According to Robert Stewart, executive editor and director of award-winning BkMk Press, New Letters and New Letters On The Air, UMKC is the only university in the country with a nationally recognized literary magazine, a literary book publisher and a national literary radio series. With an annual readership of more than 12,000, New Letters is a National Magazine Award-winning compilation of poems, fiction, essays and artwork, with occasional editions focused on a specific theme – most recently jazz. Its nationally syndicated radio affiliate, New Letters On The Air, features various well-known writers each week reading from and talking about their work. New Letters On The Air, with producer-host Angela Elam, is offered via podcast and is broadcast over 30 public-radio stations nationally; it airs Sunday mornings on KCUR 89.3. Many of the artists featured in New Letters magazine and On The Air have also been published by UMKC’s BkMk Press, a national publisher of literary books of poetry, fiction and creative non-fiction. Each of these services, possessing a track record of awards and recognition of their own, provides internship opportunities for MFA students while also attracting writers nationwide to know and visit Kansas City.
Moessner says that as an MFA student “you have the opportunity to build connections and relationships with other writers, faculty and fellow students because you’re not one of 1,000, you’re one of six…” figuratively. The MFA program admits about 12 – 15 students on average each year. Faculty participate and present at various workshops, readings and other literary events around the city that give students the opportunity to further hone their craft while learning first-hand from successful writers from all over the country, including MFA faculty.
“Students are looking for a program to go to where they can study under writers whose work they’ve read. They want to know their professors have access to places they want to go to get published,” said Terrell.
“The resources that our city brings to the table – with its museums and galleries, with Kauffman Center and places like Charlotte Street – help to form a larger arts community that helps our students thrive,” said Hodgen. But she emphasizes that the MFA students are successful primarily because they work with one another.
Faculty are also benefitting from teaching and working alongside MFA students. Take Bar-Nadav for example – two poems included in her upcoming book were written during workshop with her students. She also values the joys that come with teaching seasoned works. She says that teaching old poetry makes it new again every time because she picks up on something she may have previously missed, or gains other points of view from her students.
Attracting talent to UMKC
Faculty say the opportunity to work with colleagues they’ve admired attracted them to teach at UMKC.
“We are bringing writers to Kansas City and they are staying here,” said Terrell. “Alumni are staying in town and writing for national publications.”
For students, the program’s funding options make UMKC even more attractive. The MFA program offers graduate teaching assistantships, several creative writing scholarships and a generous $25,000 Stanley Durwood Scholarship given to two prospective MFA students.
As for the future of the MFA program, Pritchett says he wants it to continue to be a place where brilliant writers want to study and teach.
“We’re on the right track and we’re trying to keep everything on track,” he said. “Students graduate and immediately get jobs, win prizes and publish books.”
Notable writers who have come through the MFA program include:
- Emily Geminder – Dead Girls and Other Stories
- Annie Fischer – Problems and Provocations: Grand Arts 1995-2015
- Writer and actress Sabrina Veroczi, a 2015 Durwood Scholarship recipient.
Prior to attending UMKC, Veroczi worked as an actress in New York. She appeared on the television program Law & Order and has written for publications such as Cosmopolitan magazine, Rumpus and Twelfth Street. While at UMKC she is working to finish a book detailing her father’s experience in the Vietnam War.
UMKC students have also won the Association of Writing Programs’ Intro Award four times, most recently in 2015. This honor recognizes the best student writing from more than 500 Creative Writing programs across the country.
While MFA faculty are busy mentoring promising writers and publishers and keeping up with their individual works, they continue to travel around the United States and abroad reading and receiving awards and recognition for their creativity.
Publications & Awards by MFA Faculty
The New Nudity (Saturnalia Books, 2017)
Lullaby (with Exit Sign) (Saturnalia Books, 2013) – Saturnalia Books Poetry Prize
The Frame Called Ruin (New Issues, 2012) – Green Rose Prize runner-up
A Glass of Milk to Kiss Goodnight (Margie/Intuit House, 2007) – Margie Book Prize
Fountain and Furnace (Tupelo Press, 2015) – Sunken Garden Poetry Prize (Chapbook)
Show Me Yours (Laurel Review, Green Tower Press 2010) – Midwest Poets Series Prize (Chapbook)
Writing Poems 8th edition – co-authored with Michelle Boisseau
Bar-Nadav also received a 2017 National Endowment for the Arts award for poetry and the Lucille Medwick Prize from the Poetry Society of America. Her books A Glass of Milk to Kiss Goodnight and Lullaby (with Exit Sign) were both nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. Other awards include the Lynda Hull Memorial Poetry Prize from Crazyhorse and fellowships from the Vermont Studio and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. Her work has appeared in American Poetry Review, Iowa Review, Kenyon Review, Ploughshares, and other publications. Her latest book, The New Nudity, is set to publish in 2017.
Ugglig, a poem from Among the Gorgons – 2016 Best American Poetry
Among the Gorgons (University of Tampa Press, 2016) – 2016 Tampa Review Prize
A Sunday in God Years (University of Arkansas Press, 2009) – Pulitzer Prize nomination
Trembling Air (University of Arkansas Press, 2003) – PEN USA finalist
Understory (Northeastern University Press, 1996) – 1996 Morse Prize
No Private Life (Vanderbilt, 1990)
Writing Poems 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8th edition (Longman)
Boisseau has twice received the National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Poetry and two prizes from The Poetry Society of America. Her work has also appeared in Poetry, Gettysburg Review, Yale Review, Georgia Review, and more. She serves as associate editor of BkMk Press, and is a member of The Poetry Society of America and PEN America.
A Jeweler’s Eye for Flaw (UMASS, 2003) – AWP Award in Fiction
Hello, I Must Be Going (W.W. Norton & Co., 2006)
Elegies for the Brokenhearted (W.W. Norton & Co., 2010)
Hodgen has also won two Pushcart Prizes and a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship in Literature. In 2002 she was a recipient of the National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Fiction. Hodgen is currently working on two books – a novel called The Family Gift and a memoir, “1999.”
The Melancholy Fate of Capt. Lewis (Unbridled Books, 2007)
The Venus Tree (University of Iowa Press, 1988) – Iowa Short Story Award
The Final Effort of the Archer – 2000 Dana Award for a novel-in-progress
Pritchett’s stories have appeared in Slippery Elm, Passages North, Natural Bridge and New Letters. He is currently working on a new novel exploring transgender characters trying to find a world more receptive and open.
Robert Stewart v. “Bob.”
Chickenhood (poems, chapbook 2015)
The Narrow Gate: Writing, Art & Values (essays, Serving House Books, 2014)
Outside Language: Essays (Helicon Nine Editions, 2003) – 2004 Thorpe Menn Award
Plumbers (poems, BkMk Press, 1988)
Stewart has won a National Magazine Award (known as the Pulitzer Prize for Magazine Editors) for editorial achievement from the American Society of Magazine Editors. His poems have appeared in the Iowa Review, Denver Quarterly, Poetry Northwest, Prairie Schooner, Literary Review and more. He is the founding director of the Midwest Poets Series, on behalf of Rockhurst University, hosting four prominent writers each year, now in its 34th year.
The Good Lieutenant (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016) – 2017 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction nominee, Washington Post’s “Notable Book for 2016” and Boston Globe’s “Best Book of 2016”
The King of Kings County (Viking Penguin, 2005)
The Huntsman (Penguin Books, 2002) – New York Times notable book
Terrell was also an embedded reporter in Iraq during 2006 and 2010 and covered the war for the Washington Post Magazine, Slate, and NPR. His nonfiction has appeared in The New York Times, Harper’s, The New Republic, The Kansas City Star and other publications.
Kelsey Haynes | Division of Strategic Marketing and Communication