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!
Kevin Kehl graduated from NKU in 2012 with a BA in English and a minor in Medieval and Renaissance Studies. He’s currently completing a MA in Literature at the University of Massachusetts Boston and is planning to apply to apply to PhD programs.
What are you up to now? Can you tell us a bit about your transition into the MA English Lit program at UMASS Boston?
Currently I am finishing my last semester in my Master’s program at the University of Massachusetts Boston and writing my thesis as well. In the upcoming fall, I plan on applying for Ph.D. programs. Besides my own studies, I teach a course at the University and I am also working with a professor to coordinate a study abroad trip this summer in Siena, Italy.
Once I graduated from NKU, I moved to Boston at the end of the summer to begin my M.A. in English Literature. My transition into the program was actually very exciting. I was one of many transplants into the city with many colleagues from different parts of the country. The idea of moving into a city with no previous connections was a bit nerve-racking, but the faculty and fellow students have provided a wonderful atmosphere for learning. For me, it has been a very profitable decision in both my academic career and personal life—mostly because Boston is an amazingly vibrant city, packed full of opportunities. The city is never a dull moment! Of course, running into random NKU professors at conferences is nice as well!
What is one of your greatest memories and/or greatest lessons from your time at NKU?
Hmm…that’s a tough question. Well the greatest memories, I will say, have always come from the interaction with the English faculty in-and-out of the classroom. Particularly, I always looked forward to the energetic classes taught by the professors. Topics such as Shakespeare, Faulkner, Romanticism, and…I hate to say it…Literary Theory, always seemed to be fun even at their most grueling moments. The best parts were being able to have study groups and conversations with other people about the things we enjoyed or suffered. I know that one semester, our theory class banded together to form a study group to help us understand what the heck these guys like Foucault, Derrida, and Barthes were teaching us. On a separate occasion, a bunch of students and faculty would get together to read and discuss novels written by Charles Dickens. The overarching sense of community that I found in the English department was the most enjoyable experience I had as an English major.
What is your main research interest?
Besides trying to find a steady balance between work, sleep, and personal freedom, my main research interest focuses primarily on literature of the English Renaissance and Romantic periods. My current research project aims to look at the influences of Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene on the ‘mature’ poetic style of John Keats.
Do you have any advice for our current students?
Find what you love. Do what you love. Don’t miss out on your opportunity. I say this with a grain of salt, because, sometimes life does hit you hard. If you are serious about your goals in school and life, don’t delay them any further. Read your material, write your papers, make friends with faculty and students; become immersed within your profession. You don’t want to be sitting on a park bench one day, pondering the meaning of your life, and say: “Wow, I really wish that I did that while I had the chance.” Of course this may sound like typical motivational mumbo-jumbo, but hey, they keep preachin’ it for a reason. Overall, know what you want to do with your life and have goals set to help yourself get there, but be smart about it. Have a backup plan prepared in case you don’t make it your first or second time. Of course, enjoy it all while it is happening.
Sara Moore with her son, Cohen, and her fiancé, Jon Wagner.
Recent MA grad, Sara Moore, talks about teaching in Korea, her studies at NKU, and her work as a poet.
You spent three years teaching in Korea. What was that like? How did you find this program and secure the position?
It was a phenomenally life changing experience. I first heard about the opportunity through a friend who was already living there. She helped me find a good recruiter who placed me in an amazing school. Recruiters can often be motivated solely by self-interest, but I found Footprints Recruiting to be extremely helpful and attentive to my needs as a foreigner (it’s run by previous teachers). It’s hard for me to sum up such a long and complex experience. I will say that I feel so differently about the world now, and about people. I think it’s easy to get caught in a worldview bubble, which is fed by media, etc. To get out and live in the world was a gift to me. It was at times beautiful, terrifying, boring, enriching, and humbling. It was like living anywhere else; you get used to it and it becomes a part of who you are. For me, it gave me a deeper sense of adventure, and a real love of teaching. The kids were the best part!
Why did you choose the MA program at NKU?
I chose this program because it really met all my needs. I had been out of school for seven years, and back in the US for about three. I was teaching at the high school level and raising my young son, but I wanted to be able to further my education that I might have more employment opportunities. I wasn’t sure that an MFA would do this for me, and at this time I wasn’t writing much poetry (I have a BFA in poetry from BGSU). The program here did not pressure me to decide what I wanted to do/study right away. I was allowed to explore and choose my own path. It was also affordable and offered all evening classes, which worked well for me as a single mom.
How has writing poetry changed your life?
I feel like I’ve always been a poet…I know it sounds cheesy. When I was as young as seven or eight, I would write my diary entries as rhymed poems. I don’t know if I thought this would make it harder for my brother to figure out what I was really saying or what. Regardless, I’ve always loved poetry. It helps me make sense of the world and my connection to it. Reading poetry does the same thing for me. My first poetic love was H.D., reading her made me want to learn and explore the world, and to play with language. She also led me to mythology, which is another passion of mine.
During the seven years between my BFA and MA, I wasn’t writing poetry as much, for whatever reason. Coming back to poetry through the writing program at NKU changed my life significantly. I am much more balanced and happy, and I’ve met an amazing community of writers who push and support me. I’ve learned to connect with my own voice, and to be regimented in my writing and revising.
Tell us about your recent publications.
One of the things I’m most proud of recently is my acceptance into Vine Leaves’ Best of 2013 anthology for my poem “Imaginary Bodies.” Also, two poems from my capstone project, “His Coffin” and “Explaining Origins and Ending” will soon be featured in Arsenic Lobster. Over the past year, my poems have appeared or are scheduled to appear in The Rappahannock Review, The Red Rose Review, The San Pedro River Review, and Illuminations.
What are you up to now?
I am currently teaching as an adjunct at NKU and at a private school for homeschoolers. This schedule allows me to spend a lot of my time with my son, who is just finishing preschool. I recently got engaged, and am looking forward to starting the next chapter of my life. I also see a PhD on the horizon.
Any advice for current students and recent grads?
My main advice is to make connections with both faculty and students, especially if you are a writer. This world has so many distractions. It’s easy to get off-task, or to forget things we promise ourselves we’ll do. Meet people who will help you be that person you want to be, and help them too. Offer the best of yourself in every class, and in the feedback you give your peers. Be present and engaged and take every opportunity you can.
Rich Shivener (BA 2006, MA 2010), Assistant Director of First Year Programs at NKU, discusses his position, his recent publications/conference papers, and his advice for recent grads.
How did you become the Assistant Director of First Year Programs at NKU and how did your English studies prepare you for this role?
In Fall 2010, I had a good connection with First Year Programs when I was teaching University 101 and finishing my last semester in the MA program. FYP was seeking an assistant director who could coordinate FYP’s communications and the Book Connection, its common reading program for freshmen; a bonus was that the 2011-2012 Book Connection would feature a graphic novel by NKU alum David Mack. I felt prepared for the position, since I studied writing technologies, creative nonfiction and graphic novels. What’s more, my final project in the MA program was a graphic novel script on Cincinnati music. I was advised by Profs. Andrew Miller, Allen Ellis and John Alberti, the latter of whom serves on the Book Connection committee. It’s a joy to stay connected with the department!
Tell us about your publications.
Simply put, I love writing in a variety of contexts, and I’m thankful for the opportunities. I’ll name some recent ones. Writer’s Digest published my interviews with A Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin and The Walking Dead writer Robert Kirkman. Cincinnati CityBeat published two chapters from my graphic novel script. I have credits with Paste, Sports Illustrated online and Publishers Weekly, for which I write features on digital publishing and comics. Beyond freelancing for magazines and online, I have presented scholarship at New York Comic-Con, the Conference on the First-Year Experience and Students in Transition and Comic-Con International: San Diego.
What did you present at Comic-Con International?
I was part of the panel “Crossover Series: Comics to College Writing” at the Comics Arts Conference at Comic-Con International. Fellow MA alum John Silvestro and I were sharing a lot of ideas since graduation, and we decided to propose a panel that discussed ways we use comics in ENG 101/College Writing. I thank Dr. Jen Cellio for offering me classes.
Any current projects?
I just finished a chapter on crime graphic novels, set to be published later this year in the book volume Critical Insights: The Graphic Novel (Salem Press). In December, Cincinnati magazine will publish my six-page comic on King Records in Cincinnati, where James Brown got his start. I wrote the script and recent grad Brian Wolf illustrated it.
Other than those, I have a few presentations and freelance pitches in the can. At FYP, I’m working with some colleagues on an assessment project regarding the Book Connection program. We want to know how the program impacts students’ opinions on such topics as child labor and globalization, two from this year’s book, Where Am I Wearing? by Kelsey Timmerman.
Any advice for current students or recent grads?
Stay persistent and form relationships as you pitch your ideas – whether you are connecting those with a professor or a potential employer. A little anecdote: When I was seeking an internship my senior year, I stalked (his words) a magazine’s editor-in-chief. I found out where he was holding special events and made sure to introduce myself each time. I had nary a writing clip to my name, but I sent over some recent creative writings and my first three clips with the student newspaper, The Northerner. The magazine decided to hire me because they knew I was eager to learn more about magazine writing and wasn’t afraid to fail many times in the process of sharpening my skills. I’ve been persistent in every pitch and application since.
Mary Anne Reese is an attorney based in Cincinnati. She graduated from the MA program May 2012 and she is the author of the poetry collections Raised by Water (Finishing Line Press, 2011) and the forthcoming Down Deep (Finishing Line Press).
Since you were/are a lawyer, why did you decide to pursue an MA in English? And why did you choose our program?
Most of my legal practice involves analytical writing. I knew from my undergrad experience that studying English would sharpen those analytical writing skills, and it has.
My real hunger, however, was to turn my creative side loose in a supportive environment and see what might happen. I searched online and found NKU’s new graduate program. From the first course, I knew I was in the right place. The learning community, the mentoring and feedback I received, and the extensive reading I did all helped me to develop as a writer.
Also, while many fields of study provide useful skills, I think the humanities are a lifeline. Our professors, students and the coursework taught me a great deal about living fully, with steadfastness, compassion and resilience.
What have you been up to since graduation?
I’m still working as an attorney–I do a lot of writing in the area of criminal constitutional law. In my spare time, I love to swim. I’ve also taken up tai chi. Since lawyering and writing require a lot of sitting, it really helps to move around. I’ve also found some good community writing programs–the Cincinnati Writers Project, Grailville, library series. . .
You just had your chapbook, Down Deep, accepted for publication by Finishing Line Press. Can you tell us a bit about those poems? How did they come together as a collection?
Most of the poems were part of my capstone project with Kelly Moffett, and one came from the 2012 First West Retreat. To arrange them, I did what I once heard Billy Collins suggest–pull out the strongest poems and lead with those.
Three topic areas predominate in the collection–gifts and struggles in family, in the natural world, and in my faith tradition. To keep the collection dynamic, I mixed up these topic areas. I also mixed up poems from different time periods and those with different voices/tones. Somehow there’s an inherent, nonlinear kind of logic to it. Almost every poem has water in it. The collection starts with a childhood scene and ends at a grave.
What is your writing process like?
Something strikes me that I need to respond to–it might be a film, a letter, a life event or a leaf. I sometimes make a note of it on my phone. Then I ruminate for awhile, or put it aside and then revisit it. For the actual writing, I like to have long stretches of time–the Friday night before our CWP poetry group meets on Saturday, or a Sunday morning. Then I revise and revise over at least a couple of weeks. I like to get feedback from a critique group before writing the final draft or submitting it anywhere.
Who are you reading right now?
Do you have any advice to the student-writers in our program?
Take every chance to read your work to an audience–at readings, conferences, the radio, open mics. NKU gave me a lot of those opportunities. It helps to hear how your work sounds out loud–what flows and what trips you up. Readings also let you feel audience response in a way that doesn’t happen alone at your computer. Giving readings is also a good counter to the critical voice that says “you can’t really write” or “you’re just wasting your time.”
For many of the same reasons, it’s great to attend writing conferences and retreats.
Ashley Theissen (Spring 2009) shares how she decided to attend graduate school, her fondest memories while at NKU, and advice for current students. She’s currently a PhD student in 20th century and contemporary U.S. fiction at Indiana University, and she maintains a professional blog at ashleytheissen.wordpress.com .
What are you doing? What have you been up to?
I just took my qualifying exams in September. I will start working on my dissertation this spring. While I am still figuring out my project, I plan on working on fictional representations of marginal figures such as the homeless, addicts, and the mentally ill. I want to explore how these figures articulate with other historical reasons for marginalization in the U.S., such as race, class, gender, and sexuality.
After I graduated NKU, I spent 9 months working at Keystone Bar and Grill in Covington, my place of employment during undergrad. I decided to take a year to focus on applying for graduate school instead of doing so while I was finishing up my degree. I know now that this was the right decision! Not only did it give me the necessary time for the application process, but it also allowed me to spend time with friends and family before moving away. I also met the man who is now my husband during this “gap” year!
How did you know you wanted to go to graduate school? What helped your decision to attend where you are now?
I think I was a sophomore in high school when I decided I wanted to be a professor. At the time, I thought I wanted to do history. When I started college (at Kentucky Wesleyan College in Owensboro, Kentucky) I decided to major in Political Science and Art. After a few semesters, I realized I was much more interested in my English classes! So I switched majors, but my professional goals remained the same. For me, graduate school was always a necessary step to get to where I wanted to go.
I applied during a very competitive year, so my decision to attend IU was partially based on the fact that I got in! with funding! If you are trying to decide where to go to graduate school, it is important to create that initial list with care. You may only get into a few places, even if you apply for 8-10 schools. So, for me, I only applied to programs I had thoroughly researched and felt comfortable attending. I was thrilled when I got accepted to IU, because it is a very strong program with amazing faculty.
What is one of your fondest memories of NKU?
I have so many. Really! Let’s see… Almost every memory I have of taking classes in the Honors House is a highlight. I was able to create documentaries for class projects, go on amazing field trips, and build a really cool community with students and teachers there. But I think my most important memory is one that has gained significance over time: it was in the final months of my senior year, and I had just turned in a mediocre draft of my senior thesis (on Kate Chopin and Virginia Woolf) to my advisor, Tonya Krouse. After reading the draft, Tonya set up a meeting with me. She told me I had two options: 1) do final edits and “call it” because I had already done more than enough work to fulfill the requirement, or 2) dig deep and find the energy to complete the project I had set out to write. This was a moment of reckoning for me. It does not sound like a “happy” memory, I know, and at the time I certainly was not happy! But over the years, when I have had, again and again, to dig deep and find the tenacity and persistence that I feel like I have lost, I remember that conversation. And I remember that I did choose option 2, and I did my best to produce the document I wanted to, despite the difficulty of my senior year. And a happier memory to end on: when I presented that same paper at the NKU Honors Colloquium, John Alberti asked me what I would change about transatlantic scholarship if I could. I began my answer “Well, if I were in charge of English everywhere….” That’s all you need to know. The confidence of a undergrad!
What are you reading now?
Critical things to “fill in the gaps” about my exam period, so, at the moment, Brian McHale’s Postmodernist Fiction (1987). I am also rereading everything Junot Díaz has written because he is visiting IU this spring and I love his work more than anything ever!
Do you have any advice for current students?
Study the fields you excel at and the ones you really love. Because I am now a teacher as well as a student, I find myself helping my students with letters, advice, career searches, etc. So many careers today require a degree, but not a specific one. So if you are worried about getting a job, the best thing to do is study something you can be proud of, and that you can talk about with grace and expertise. If you try to bet on the “right” major, but you get it wrong or it isn’t the right fit for you, it won’t make a difference anyway. So do what you love, AND work really hard to figure out how you are gaining the critical thinking, communication, cultural awareness, and other skills that will serve you throughout your life, no matter what your job title is or how many times you change careers. Take this time to learn about yourself and the world you live in, and no matter what, it will be worthwhile time spent.
What do you know now that you wish you knew when you were at NKU?
Graduate school is so much harder than I could have imagined! But everyone told me that… it is one of those things I could not have known then. And maybe that is for the best, after all.
Jennifer Whalen graduated May 2012 with a dual concentration in literature and writing. She lives in Austin and attends the Texas State University-San Marcos MFA program—a highly competitive program that has visiting writers such as Jorie Graham and Sherman Alexie. She also teaches freshman composition and acts as the public relations manager for the online literary journal, Front Porch.
How did you decide on a graduate program?
I had a lot of factors, but I wanted to go to a school that had a large focus on involvement within the writing community. I was impressed with the visiting writer series at Texas State, which brings in both up-and-coming and renown writers and we spend a couple days doing readings, Q&As, and workshops. There’s also a lot of involvement among the students themselves, between the literary magazine being entirely student run, as well as our monthly MFA student reading series.
Do you have advice for current NKU English students?
Take advantage of the experience. That sounds very freshman orientationy, but I mean it. Be involved and active in your education. Talk to people in your class. Share work with others outside of class. Meet with your professors. Be involved in a group or organization. There isn’t a day I don’t use some bit of knowledge I learned from either a peer or a professor at NKU. However, don’t spread yourself too thin. Know what you enjoy doing or where you excel, and give it your best effort, as opposed to giving a little bit of yourself to a lot of things.
Any reading suggestions? Who are you reading right now?
Right now I’m reading Traci Brimhall’s Our Lady of the Ruins. I’ve also tasked myself with having more of a foundation within my reading list, so I’m reading John Berryman’s Homage to Mistress Bradstreet.
What is one of your fondest memories of your time at NKU?
One of my fondest memories is the first Loch Norse Magazine release party. It had all the excitement of a movie (the magazine was printed literally an hour before the event), which made the night that much sweeter when it went so magnificently. It was a year of ups and downs, and it was incredibly special to see the editing staff’s dedication and hard work come to life in printed, physical form. So many students attended the celebration, as well as professors, and it was a perfect way to end my time at NKU.