Category Archives: Special Features

Stonecoast Faculty Member Nancy Holder blogs about community and how she stays connected to Alumni.

Stonecoast MFA in Creative Writing Blog

By Nancy Holder

When I first started teaching at Stonecoast, I wondered if I would feel like part of a community, since I would only see the other faculty members and students twice a year. After having taught in the lit department at the University of California at San Diego, I figured I would miss the mingling—passing students in the halls and seeing them during office hours.

I did remind myself that I’ve worked for years with editors I’ve never met in person, and I’ve done a substantial amount of online teaching and never met any of those students. But I knew it would be different as a faculty member of an intensive low-residency program, where I would only see other Stonecoasters every January and July.

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Announcing Stonecoast Writing for Social Change

One of the exciting things to come out of the recent Stonecoast alumni reunion was a new project called Stonecoast Writing for Social Change. Three of us – Jeff Kass, Amy Alvarez and Elli Meeropol – met to begin the work. Like many of you, we are compelled by injustices of our world to use writing as a tool for social justice, and that’s what this project is about.

The goal of the Writing for Social Change Project is to create opportunities for the Stonecoast community to use our passion for and skills in writing and reading to create social change locally and globally by:

  • Collecting the stories of Stonecoast alumni, faculty and students involved in projects that use writing to empower targeted or vulnerable members of our communities, or to promote social change in other ways. Sharing these stories with the Stonecoast community along with resources, and encouraging other alumni, faculty and students to become involved with writing-related social change activism,
  • Deepening the commitment to writing for social change (race, class, gender, environment) in the MFA curriculum by offering ongoing residency seminars, workshops, and readings, facilitating third semester projects and internships for social change, and preparing writers for careers with underserved communities.

If you’d like to join our working group on the project, please email Elli at ellenmeeropol@verizon.net before August 5, 2012.

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Stonecoast MFA Community Directory

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Life Happens: The Post-MFA Blues and the Process of Learning, Forgetting, and Remembering Again

by
Matt Switliski PF W’11

While I was a student at Stonecoast, I was always excited to see alumni show up at the graduation ceremony and reception. For me, there was this unshakeable sense that, after my friends and I walked across the stage to receive our degrees, we wouldn’t see each other again. Life, I know, is far too unpredictable, filled with too many vagaries for me to make a pronouncement like that with any certainty. Still, it remained a definite possibility, one I dreaded. So to see these old friends and fellow writers appear again unexpectedly was a pleasure. In some small way, I needed them to confirm that life after Stonecoast would not be the bleak vision I had imagined.

When I spoke with these alumni, I had to ask, had to know: “Are you still writing?” While many people responded yes, I received far more no’s than I’d care to count. Most people looked sheepish about it. Some wanted a respite after two intense years of study. Others needed to arrange priorities now that they weren’t in school and paying for a degree. Yet, as often as not, they felt burnt out or—worse—wanted to write but felt incapable of doing so. The MFA had become an anchor, weighing them down.

I promised myself I wouldn’t let that happen. And, for a while, it didn’t: I set a writing goal for myself the year I graduated and, despite a few rough patches, reached it. I may not have been as productive as I’d have liked, but, once I’d proven to myself I could remain disciplined without external deadlines or being accountable to a mentor, I felt confident about setting my goal incrementally higher.

So went my rationale.

As 2011 wound down, my life started to unravel. I lost someone very important, I scrambled to finish my PhD applications at the last minute (for good reason, but that’s beside the point), and I was juggling three jobs, one of which was teaching a new course at a new school, with a curriculum unlike any I was familiar with. It’s little wonder that my writing fell by the wayside.

I wanted to keep writing, though. As paradoxical as it may seem, writing is how I stay connected with the world even as it takes me out of it. It’s how I process my thoughts and experiences, how I keep parts of my brain active that would otherwise atrophy. (As a teacher and a Scorpio, I don’t consider it a viable option to run on anything besides all cylinders.) To not be writing creatively was disorienting, to put it mildly. So, I made an effort to incorporate writing when I could and to not flog myself if I couldn’t always follow through. For about a week, I made progress. I’d been a few months out of practice, so the prose was rough, and my synapses fired more slowly than I’d grown used to. But I had words on the page, the beginnings of a story. Then life intervened again. It was another month before I returned to writing.

Click here for more graphics and gifs!Suddenly, I couldn’t do it anymore. I sat for hours by a blank notebook, trying in vain to put down even vaguely connected ideas. I assaulted myself with questions I’d learned to ask during Stonecoast. I worried about every sentence, every word. It was, as I’ve detailed in a personal journal post, the worst case of the centipede’s dilemma I’d ever had. I was afraid of writing badly, because I knew I was capable of better. Instead of having more confidence with the MFA, I had less; I was thinking too much, instead of trusting my normal process: Just write and worry about fixing all the problems later.

At the recent reunion, I discovered that graduates from all over the spectrum had encountered a similar problem. Some had worked through, but others were still figuring out how to lure the Muse back. How to simply write again.

Talking with Stonecoast students past and present shook loose a number of thoughts for me. One, I shouldn’t have been surprised that I came down with the post-MFA blues. Graduates of intensive workshops like Clarion and Odyssey, for example, often need some fallow time afterward, letting the learning sink in—or recuperating after six straight weeks of writing. Some stop writing altogether after those pressurized experiences. In my case, the blues set in later, after I had fewer things to occupy my time and attention. Thus, it was easy to obsess over my writing—so many questions and too few answers—in a way that hindered my productivity. Thinking too much in advance seems to be fatal to the work of a steer-by-the-headlights writer like me.

Another thing is that, even though graduation meant a change in the dynamic of the Stonecoast community for me, that didn’t mean it had to end. Yes, I wouldn’t see my friends for ten days every six months to talk writing, but these conversations can—should—happen in other ways. Texting, phone calls, Skype, or even old-fashioned letters can maintain the bonds created over the past few years. Doing so can be essential for many writers. I know that’s true for me. I had an amazing support network of fellow writers during my undergrad years. But as that network became more far-flung and more tenuous, my output slowed (but didn’t stop completely, thankfully). At Stonecoast, I found the support I’d been lacking and hadn’t known I craved. It’s not that I need encouragement, however much I value it. I need solidarity. People to commiserate with when the writing goes slowly or not at all, people to share victories with, people to test ideas on, to listen to. Writing often feels like a solitary endeavor, and it can be maddening if you don’t have someone—a patient spouse, a writing partner, sympathetic co-workers—who understands you and this vocation.

If I’m going to accomplish anything, I need to forget what I learned. Or at least let that learning inform the work I do without being self-conscious about it. I’ve read plenty of great stories that break some of the sacred “rules” of writing. Know the rules before you break them; I get that. I spent the past two years learning, to say nothing of the time I invested prior to starting my MFA. I know the rules, more or less. Now, I need to use them without giving the process too much thought. The centipede didn’t get on its feet again by concentrating on the act of walking.

What I can’t forget is the community I became part of at Stonecoast. They’re out there in the world, doing great things, ready to help each other. Willing to listen, share experiences, offer insights. It may not always seem like it, but we writers are all in this together. Sometimes we need to remember that.

***

Have you ever struggled with the post-MFA blues? How did it affect you and your writing? What did you do to work through it?

***

Matt Switliski (Popular Fiction, Winter ’11) is a tutor and teacher at several colleges in the Philadelphia area. His publication credits include poetry, short fiction, book reviews, and news articles. In the fall of 2012, he will start a PhD in Composition at the University of New Hampshire. He keeps a blog on writing, books, and other topics at iamrazorwing.livejournal.com.

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AWP 2012–Don’t Stop Believin’

by Libby Cudmore PF W’10 and Matthew Quinn Martin PF S’10

Everyone on the dance floor immediately recognized those oh so familiar piano chords from Journey’s most famous song–even if it had been plastered over with a generic dance beat. There was little double that their shadows were searching in the night–underneath the disco ball and gel-covered stage lights. And those who win as well as those who lose, along with a smattering of those who may or may not have been born to sing the blues, belted out the rest–Don’t Stop Believing!

For the better part of the past three days AWP ’12 Chicago’s nine-thousand plus attendees–the largest turnout in the conference’s history–go, have been rising at the crack of dawn and rarely hitting the sack before midnight. All of us have spent our time shuffling from conference room to conference room, from hotel to hotel, butts glued to uncomfortable chairs when available, and camping out on the floor when not. We’ve taken in panel after panel, found our way to late-night readings on the outskirts of a mostly-unfamiliar town and connected with friends and colleagues we haven’t seen in far too long. During the day we’ve subsisted on overpriced coffee and candy scrounged from an endless sea of book fair tables competing for our attention. At night we raid the many receptions for crudete, cheese ‘n crackers, and the occasional pulled pork slider, as well as any complimentary libations that might be extended by the more generous hosts. And we’ve seen it all, the undiscovered gems as well as the big stinking turds, all hoping that we’ll hear those magic words of inspiration, or make that one chance connection that will take us to the next level in our writing careers.

For some this is their first experience with the madness that can be the Association of Writers and Writing Programs annual conference, others are hardened vets. Speaking personally, this is a return to the scene of the first AWP that we’d attended three years ago. To call the Chicago Hilton’s layout a labyrinth would be generous. Our own overwhelming confusion that first year eventually birthed the story “Convention of Exphrasis” (published in Stonecoast Lines S’10). The many elevators that all stopped at a different selection of floors, the creepy-eyed gloved bellmen and the winding staircases that seemed to lead nowhere were still there and still terrifying.  It was like coming home.

AWP is an odd mix of hope and fear, joy and frustration, uplift and disappointment. Nearly every writer there could point to at least one booth and justify taking a few extra mini-Snickers or an additional piece of swag because they rejected a submission.  The book fair can seem like a crowded bazaar of hustlers and carnival barkers.  It’s hard not to look at all the books on the table and wonder, Will that ever be me? And if it is, will anyone buy it?  Hands shoot up during Q&A’s to ask non-questions or to openly argue with the panelists. And it can seem like everyone there has it figured out except you–not just AWP, the whole writing game.

But here, on the dance floor, at five till midnight, we’re all still believing. We’ve weathered the storm, and at the brink of exhaustion we know, at the bottom of our hearts, that we deserve to dance. Because maybe sitting on top of that stack of form rejections is the one from the editor that loved it. And even if it isn’t yet, it’s only yet, and that acceptance might be sitting in our e-mail waiting for us when we get back. If only we could keep believing long enough to get us through the next double shift, at the keyboard or the coffee shop, we’d make it. And tonight, there isn’t a single soul in that sweaty, ecstatic, frenzied horde that wasn’t.

We took the midnight train to get here–literally, not metaphorically–and now as we sit in our tiny cabin, rocking back and fourth on the rails as we make our way back to New York, we find ourselves wondering about some of the other Stonecoasters. Not the ones we were able to meet up with, or those whose many newsletter announcements trumpet their accomplishments. No, our minds turn to those we haven’t heard from in a while, and we wonder how many of them may havestopped believing. There isn’t a writer alive that hasn’t in some part bought into the myth of the solitary genius, but the reality is that no one is truly successful on their own, and it is the duty of the Stonecoast alumni as a group–as well at our Alma Mater itself (if it is to deserve that title of “nourishing mother”)–to make sure that none of us stop believing. Believing in ourselves andbelieving in each other.

~

Libby Cudmore and Matthew Quinn Martin are Summer 2010 graduates.  Libby’s work has been featured in Pank, Umbrella Factory, Postcard Press, Connotation Press, The MacGuffin and the Yalobusha Review. Matthew Quinn Martin is the writer of the feature film Slingshot. His prose work has been featured in Transition Magazine, Thuglit and JMWW. Their collaborative work has been published by Emprise Reviewand Big Pulp and will be featured in the July issue of The Writer.   Record of the Month/Boys on Filmwww.matthewquinnmartin.com

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Happy Valentine’s Day from the Stonecoast Community

Poetry has long been the currency of love whether it be love lost, found, desired, feared, forbidden, or something in between. Therefore, in honor of Valentine’s Day the Stonecoast community wishes you a poetry filled holiday that is shared with friends and loved ones. We hope you enjoy this selection of poems and would love to hear some of your poetry in return in the comments below.

~ *~

Valentine’s Day, 2012
by Alexandra Oliver

Because your bird has died, I’ll give you mine;
I never heard it sing. It’s grey of plume
But bright of eye. Its needs are quick and plain
It values an accomplice in the room.

I understand your orchid plant has gone
Take heart: I have a cabbage. Short on bloom
But big on taste (just add a Balkan wine)
It asks you not to ogle, but consume.

I see you have a broken violin.
But offer up my wooden ear. The gloom
Of missing music will not mean a thing
Right after me, my nail-on-blackboard hum.

I hear you wish you were a better man
The wilted, dead and broken have a name
But none applies to you. As right as rain
Unmended, getting better all the time.

~ *~

Your One Too
by Mike Kimball

Amazing
how it hits me
somewhere between
mcdonalds and walmart
after hearing a human bomb
has blown apart a market
and everyone in it, how
in this short life
this sudden life
this whole life long
and all through time,
You’re the one.
And what’s more
Amazing,
I’m your one too

~ *~

Not a love poem
by Soyini Ayanna Forde

This is what it’s not about.
This is not about
the way you trudge out of bed at ungodly hours
life-infused Frankenstein, too tall; arms and legs
like Tolkien’s Ents, lumbering to the bathroom
where you always remember to put the seat back down. This is
not about how you said you could wine (but didn’t) and you learnt
about J’ouvert, third-eye aflutter so you saw beneath my paint and mud.

This is not about how you said you weren’t a smoker, but really
really you are one—
and when you told me how your mother died

lips tasting like cheap cigars and ‘dro—

how, when you curled your mouth
around the sadness, I felt sad too
but I didn’t want you to think I was pitying you.

This is not about your head beneath my fingertips
pecan skin
or your big-big feet
or your big-big hands
how they wrap around my own
your body enveloping mine, all fetal reabsorption-like
or a giant burrito, warm and delicious
making me feel tiny, which I almost never do these days.

This is not about how I wouldn’t mind if you loved me
if you wanted to go down that road again
even for a moment
barefoot, to feel the dust and fresh dirt between your toes.
I’d carry you if I could
me, my bad back, my heart an open birth canal
oozing, thumping, waiting for a bloody head to crown.

~ *~

If This Were The Final Swim
by Bruce Pratt

If this were the final swim,
the last ever from the float to the rocks,
rippling the shadows of the praying birches,
the memory would anneal the fissures of my heart.

the black dog paddling ahead of you,
worrying up sand in the shallows.
the brown dog posed on the hill,
nosing the far mountains.
a frost-tinged alder leaf,
sailing the breeze-dimpled lake.

If this were the final swim,
I could die recalling the pattern of your
bathing suit and the curve of your body,
and marvel that you’ve yet to find any gray.

Where summer migrates before Labor Day,
and the northern night is the province of
the anxious loon and fire-eyed owl,
I will sleep entombed in this thought:
that the end of August, like a good story,
must always break your heart.

First appeared in Wild Goose Poetry Review 2006
Reprinted in the anthology Only Connect from Cinnamon Press Wales UK 2007

~ *~

Remnants: A Poem
by Julie Scharf

I found your sock
Underneath
My bed.

What more
Should I ask
For?

I’ve known others
To break my heart
And at least lie,

Disappear,
No trace—scent
Of tobacco, your hands

And this one
Piece of you,
Hidden

Underneath
My dreams, reasons
I am sleepless

I can’t even
Think of you
Without

Crying—yet
There was nothing
I could do

Now, this foot stench
Memory
Nothing

You’ve forgotten it
There
Underneath

In the meantime
I wait
Cry more

And you
Move forward
I stay

What else can I do.

It has your faint smell
On the top of it.

A smell I came
To miss when
You weren’t
There.

Now, I imagine
You sitting right there,
Moving forward—I keep
No precedence in your mind.

No thought.

No desire.

I’m nothing to you.

My love for you,
Pushed aside—worthless.

Meant nothing.

My words, “I want to spend
The rest of my life with you,”

No effect.

Nothing.

~ *~

The Golem
by Jessica DeKoninck

I understand the magic of dead things,
the resurrection of mud into matter,
desiring, as I do, to recreate you from clay,
dry grass, beach glass and sand,
wood shavings, graphite, the earth
around your plain pine box. Anything,
to bring you back. Some seed
or pod. Some breeze to breathe
life into you.

I would sit beside you. Breathless,
we would drive away. In our silence
I might forget, Golem do not speak,
cannot differentiate the living
from the dead and out of ignorance
do harm. No one in this room
has risen from the dead. No one’s
kiss tastes of maggots and ash,

but nothing would stop me
from blending my mortar
of grief and desire to will
you here. I am ready to die.
I would follow you anywhere.

First appeared in the collection Repairs by Jessica DeKoninck, published by Finishing Line Press.

~ *~

All poetry has been published with the consent of the authors.

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The Post MFA World: Alumni Thoughts on Success and Graduation

By Erin Underwood PF S’09

When I attended my MFA program at Stonecoast, I looked at each of the 10-day long residencies as my opportunity to learn and immerse myself in the writing life I desired. And while I was a student, that’s exactly what they were, but now the semi-annual residencies have evolved into something much more for me.

During my first semester, I was so involved with settling into the program that I was barely aware of the 20+ students who were graduating. As a result, I decided not to attend the graduation ceremony because I didn’t see that as part of my experience. A poor decision to be sure! Instead, I stayed at the dorm and hung out with the other first semester students who were also haunting the halls of Stonecoast.

When I returned to Maine for my second residency, I hadn’t planned to attend graduation, but by the time the ceremony rolled around I decided that I wanted to be there to see my new friends graduate. The joy of watching the graduating students walk across the stage to give Annie a hug and to receive their diploma from Robin was the least of what I experienced. Sitting around me was almost everyone from the popular fiction classes who were ahead of me in the program as well as many local alumni who were able to attend. When I looked around the theater, I noticed a similar pattern of attendance for the other genres: creative nonfiction, fiction, and poetry. I was even pleasantly surprised to see a few new students in the audience.

Each time I returned to Maine for one of my residencies, I sat in the theater to cheer on the graduating students and to feel the support of my classmates as we held onto every moment that we could share together. With each new class, and each new group of friends who joined us at Stonecoast, we watched an older class and an existing group of friends leave. Each graduation became more poignant than the last until I found myself walking across the theater’s stage to give Annie a hug and to receive my diploma from Robin.

My last residency found me dreading my own graduation and the inevitability that I too would be leaving behind this wonderful group of friends that I had come to hold so dear. We may not always have agreed on whether a piece of fiction was well written, a character properly conflicted, or a plot successfully executed. However, we all agreed that it was one of the most significant experiences of our lives. While we were sad to leave Stonecoast, we were also growing excited to step out into the Post MFA World to see what successes were in store for us. We were ready to conquer the world!

That first semester after I graduated was exhausting. I found myself suffering from post-MFA syndrome, not caused by recovering from the intensive writing within the program, but instead caused by the disconnect that I felt from my new family of writers. When the next residency came around there was no doubt I would be returning to Stonecoast to visit with my friends and to attend graduation…not to mention I was looking forward to enjoying whatever residual effects I could glean from the residency given my new status as an alumna.

While the experience of attending the residency was wonderful, the dark edges of my subconscious kept poking through and asking me “What have you done since graduation?” That question was echoed by just about everyone that I saw. What have you been up to? Have you sold anything? Are you teaching? What are you writing? What are you working on now?

Those answers were easy to give, but not necessarily satisfying. I started feeling like I hadn’t measured up to my personal standard of success. After graduating, I had immediately been elected as President of the Stonecoast Alumni Association. I was  active in the alumni community, which was only modestly present at the residencies–except for the graduation. I had also finished a screenplay that wouldn’t sell and I had also been working on a few short stories that weren’t getting any action. As a result, I felt like I hadn’t accomplished anything significant since graduating and my idea of being a successful writer was growing ever thinner and more fragile.

For one reason or another, I found myself returning to Stonecoast either to meet with someone, to help with an event, or to attend graduation. However, each time I visited, I found I knew fewer and fewer people until only familiar faces belonged to the staff and faculty–with a few exceptions. I began feeling like a stranger in a strange land who had graduated from my MFA program and over stayed my visit. I still had not scored that movie deal or made the amazing book deal that I had been sure was waiting for me after graduation.

During the Summer 2011 residency, I finally realized two things that completely changed how I felt about returning to Stonecoast as an alumna. The first thing was that I needed to change my experiential expectations and to embrace the alumni related events when I returned to Maine. Sadly, there weren’t many events other than the faculty and student reading that were geared toward alumni. However, we did have the Graduating Student and Alumni Reception. This one event was the key to realizing that alumni needed a better way to engage with Stonecoast through more alumni centric events. We needed a reunion. Yes, that’s when the real work of organizing the July 2012 reunion began. No matter how our first major reunion turns out, the one thing I know is that I will not be haunting the halls of Stonecoast as a returning alumna, I will be actively engaging with a community of writers from Stonecoast who have been going through similar experiences, doubts, and successes.

There is that word again. Success.

This brings me to the second thing that changed how I felt about returning to Stonecoast as an alumna. When I graduated, I gauged my success on what I thought being successful meant after earning an MFA. Since then, I have continued to work full-time, I experienced the deaths of loved ones, I had personal victories and defeats, I published fiction and nonfiction, I started a blog that was extremely well received, and I was happy. I have come to realize that success is one of those things that morph over time. What is important to me today may not even be on my radar a year from now. When I look back at my graduation and forward toward my future, I can truly say I have been and will continue to be successful because I have found peace with my expectations and my personal achievements in my Post MFA World.

In a few days, I will return to Maine to attend the graduation ceremony for the next set of students who will be heading out into the Post MFA World. I’ll also be staying over night to attend the alumni meeting that will be held on the final day of the residency. For the first time since graduating, I feel like I am finally returning to Maine and to Stonecoast on my own terms. While I may feel some of the residual effects of the residency experience, I will be building upon my own alumni experiences, glad to be a part of this extremely special community of writers that include my fellow alumni, the Stonecoast faculty and staff, the current students, and the new students who will be so involved with settling into their MFA that they are barely aware that a group of 20+ students who are graduating from the program. However, in two years, I look forward to seeing them up on that stage, giving Annie a hug and receiving their diploma from Robin.

The student experience is only one small, but very important, part of becoming a Stonecoaster. Our community is strong, our community is vibrant, and our community will–in its own special way–conquer the world.

I look forward to seeing you at the graduation ceremony.

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