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!
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.
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.
One of our newest alums, Nicci Mechler (MA, 2013), shares her latest project: creating an exciting new literary journal, Sugared Water, which had its first issue released this week.
Why was Sugared Water created? What gap do you feel it fills in the lit publishing world?
Sugared Water is meant to be a place where genre meets literary work. We consider all kinds, and choose what strikes us in the moment, mark it for later, and come back to it in a week or four. If we just can’t let it go, there’s a good chance we’ll accept the work. Things that grab on to our minds can be anything from beautifully lyric and richly visual poetry to flash speculative fiction, or experimental forms of creative nonfiction. We dig humor and sass, and we’ve found, as writers, that combinations of all of these things can be difficult to place.
Though I have a data-clogged Kindle and love to read that way, I also adore books. I think books should be beautiful, well crafted, and worthy of space on a real bookshelf. Sugared Water is limited edition, handbound & stenciled. #001 is wrapped in a screen print on 100% recycled paper. Only 240 exist. I’ve read the work inside a number of times over the five months in production, and I’m happy to go back and look again.
What we want out of a literary magazine: good stuff that doesn’t get old.
What kind of work does your editorial board like? Why?
We like clean copy that’s evocative of emotion, image, or both. Strong voiced, sure characters. We want people and narrators that feel realistic, even if they sell tornadoes from their garden, or hold fifteen-minute conversations with a goldfish. Humor is good. Our editorial board is big enough that we’re willing to argue for any number of things. My best advice in submitting to us is to be sure your work knows what it is. Commit. Be weird if your piece is weird, but don’t go for full on literary and then drop a unicorn in the last sentence. Nobody likes a U-bomb.
Issue #001 has evolved with a water theme, which was completely accidental despite our journal’s name. We didn’t go looking for it, but it certainly found us. We have a fishbowl, lakes, oceans, whales, fog, pails of water, angelfish, hurricanes, tides, tears. But, of course, we also have fire and laughter, bones, salt, and blackbirds. As Anna says in her editorial bio, we like stories that make us forget who we are. (We also like stories that make us see ourselves—either way, it’s about connection.)
We let the larger pool of submissions shape our magazine for us.
Do you have any advice for current writing students?
No matter how many rejections you receive, keep working your craft. Somewhere out there is a home for your work. Don’t be afraid to write what you need to write—or be afraid, then write it anyway.
(And don’t be an asshole in critiques.)
Once you’re ready to submit your work, 1) read each magazine’s guidelines carefully, 2) follow them.
Small press saves lives.
Sugared Water reads April 1 – July 1 and October 1 – January 1.
If we could candy words, we’d eat them to bellyaches every afternoon. We carry journals and collect chapbooks like Smaug ripping through a gold-sequin disco. If we’re lucky enough to leave something behind that enriches the dialogue of writerly types around the world, so much the better. Send us your stuff—we’ll only hoard it for a little while.
Website & Submission info:http://sugaredwatermagazine.wordpress.com/
Issue #001 is available primarily via Etsy:https://www.etsy.com/shop/WickedLittleHeart?section_id=14226332