Alum Feature: Christen Leppla and Ryan Kauffman

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NKU English graduates, Christen Leppla (MA, 2011) and Ryan Kauffman (MA, 2011), discuss their graduate studies at Northern Michigan University, including their summer grants and recent publications.

What are you doing now?  Tell us about your MFA program, especially.

CL: I was lucky enough to get a fellowship in poetry to Northern Michigan University’s MFA program. It’s a teaching fellowship, so I teach one course a semester that will range from Composition to Creative Writing. In the fall, I will also be an associate fiction editor for Passages North. Since I’ve begun the MFA program, I’ve become the first person at NMU to duel track, so I’m now getting a MFA in poetry and fiction. It’s a lot of work, but I’m having a blast. The program is 3 years, so as of right now my thesis will entail a novel and a book length poetry collection. Needless to say, with that amount of work I’m glad the program is 3 years instead of 2!

RK: I’m a creative nonfiction candidate in the MFA program at Northern Michigan University. At first, I was considering dual tracking in nonfiction and fiction, but I’ve decided to concentrate solely on nonfiction for my coursework. The fiction faculty members, despite not having me as a student in their classes, have all been very helpful and encouraging of any works of fiction I’m working on outside of my nonfiction classes. Like Christen, I’ve been awarded funding for the program – mine in the form of a teaching assistantship – in which I teach one course a semester. So far, I’ve taught EN 111 Composition 1 and EN 211B Narrative and Descriptive Writing, and I’ll be teaching EN 211D Technical Writing in the fall. Also in the fall, I will be an associate nonfiction editor for Passages North.

Tell us about your summer grants.

CL: I received the Excellence in Education Grant to work on my novel over the summer. Basically, it covers some of my living expenses so that I can focus on finishing the first draft of my novel. The novel is centered on characters within diasporic Appalachian communities on the outskirts of what is considered the traditional Appalachian region, and the grant also paid for research materials to help me with authentic representation. I hope to have the first draft finished by September 1st.

RK: I received the Excellence in Education Grant to write a series of essays (that will hopefully become the centerpiece for a book-length work) interrogating memory through the lens of whale watching and the history of whaling in New England. With the grant, I travelled to Portland, Maine for archival research at the Maine Historical Society Library and the Portland Observatory, as well as two whale-watching tours in the North Atlantic for experiential research – in which I saw several Fin Whales (the second largest animal in the world) and Humpback Whales. My goal is to have written through at least three drafts of four essays by September 1st.

What have you recently published?

CL: I recently had two poems accepted in East Coast Literary Review. They were both poems that I’d workshopped at NKU and were part of the writing samples I sent with my MFA applications. It was great to see them find a home! I’ve actually published quite a few of the poems I wrote during my time at NKU, and I’m so grateful to the people in those workshops who challenged me as a writer.

RK: I’ve recently had several acceptances: One poem was accepted in Jellyfish Whispers, another poem was accepted in Poetry Quarterly, and a nonfiction piece was accepted in Punchnel’s. I worked on all three of these pieces, in earlier forms, during my time at NKU. The poem in Jellyfish Whispers has since been anthologized in the journal’s “Best of 2013” publication. I also have several pieces hanging out there in the ether between submission and rejection/acceptance, so my fingers are crossed for some more good news in the coming months.

Any current projects?

CL: Of course, my novel is the top priority this summer. To fulfill my grant proposal, I will need to complete at least twenty thousand words by the end of August. I’m also working on the beginnings of the poetry portion of my thesis, as well as trying to write a few nonfiction pieces that have been keeping me up at night. I will be presenting at the Writing Across the Peninsula Conference in the fall, so I will be polishing that presentation towards the end of the summer, as well.

RK: Along with the “whale” essays, I’m working on several other things this summer. I’ve been toying with a few flash fiction pieces, a novelette, and some ideas for a couple poetry/essay hybrid pieces that I’d like to get down on paper and start polishing. Another major project for this summer is centered on my reading list. Right now I have quite the stack to get through!

Any advice for current students?

CL: My advice is really for creative writing students. I think the most important thing current students can do is take advantage of every opportunity, whether that be working on Licking River Review, attending the readings the department organizes, or joining a workshop outside the classroom. The people I met when I got involved have continued to challenge and support me, and every experience helped my writing. I always wish I had done more. Also, commit to, and be present for, every workshop you take. Take risks. Experiment. Accept what is working and what isn’t. If you do that, the writing that will come from those workshops will be stronger and your ability to revise your work will be greater. Lastly, enjoy every minute! We are all so fortunate to go into a classroom that is devoted to what we love. I often can’t believe how lucky I am when I remember that my homework is to read a good book and write a few poems. I know I will look back someday and think how great this experience was and how I would do it all again if I could.

RK: Christen said it pretty well. In addition to her comments, I would encourage current students to take advantage of the wonderful creative writing classes and faculty at NKU. When you edit another student’s manuscript, take it seriously. By being a good editor/critic, you help yourself establish the literary moves you want to make in your own writing. Ask questions, and pay close attention to the faculty’s answers/suggestions. They know what they’re doing!

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