Friends of Writers and the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College congratulate Ellen Bryan Voigt, who has been selected to be a 2015 MacArthur Fellow.  The MacArthur Fellows Program awards unrestricted fellowships to talented individuals who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction. There are three criteria for selection of Fellows: exceptional creativity, promise for important future advances based on a track record of significant accomplishment, and potential for the fellowship to facilitate subsequent creative work.

Ellen Bryant Voigt is a poet whose eight published collections meditate on will and fate and the life cycles of the natural world while exploring the expressive potential of both lyric and narrative elements. Her upbringing on a farm in Virginia and her training as a pianist inform much of her writing, which is notable for its distinctive musical quality. Through her mastery of line and rhythm, she celebrates the grandeur of the poetic form, while her imagery remains rooted in scenes of rural life and close observations of natural phenomena.

Voigt’s earliest books, Claiming Kin (1976) and Forces of Plenty (1983), share an intimate, personal focus and use short-lined stanzas reminiscent of folk ballads and metrical psalms. In Kyrie (1995), she widens her lens to address the influenza pandemic of 1918–19—a historical tragedy with international impact—in a book-length sequence of sonnets spoken by imagined survivors. Voigt’s most recent collection, Headwaters (2013), marks a significant transition in style from her many preceding volumes; she abandons all punctuation and regularity of line length and imbues her verse with a sense of urgency through propulsive phrasing and rapid shifts in tone. Poems titled simply “Owl,” “Cow,” and “Fox” capture a mind in motion, fiercely examining both the instinctive behaviors of animals and our own human dilemmas and attachments.

In addition to her writing, Voigt is a dedicated and influential teacher. In 1976 she created the first low-residency M.F.A. program for writers (originally based at Goddard College and moved to Warren Wilson College in 1981), making rigorous mentorship available to students without relocation to campuses far from their homes. She has also authored two books on the writer’s craft: The Flexible Lyric (1999) and The Art of Syntax: Rhythm of Thought, Rhythm of Song (2009). A poet of sustained excellence and emotional depth, Voigt continues to advance American literary culture through her ongoing experimentation with form and technique.

Ellen Bryant Voigt received a B.A. (1964) from Converse College and an M.F.A. (1966) from the University of Iowa. Her additional collections of poetry include The Lotus Flowers (1987), Two Trees (1992), Shadow of Heaven (2002), and Messenger: New and Selected Poems, 1976–2006 (2007). Since 1981, she has been on the faculty of the M.F.A. program for writers at Warren Wilson College. She taught previously at Iowa Wesleyan College (1966–1969), Goddard College (1970–1978), and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (1979–1982). An elected member of the Fellowship of Southern Writers, she also served as the Vermont State Poet from 1999 to 2003 and was a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets from 2003 to 2009.


Poets & Writers has posted an article on diversity in MFA programs, focusing on the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College:

raceandthemfaDuring the program’s residency this past July, Warren Wilson MFA faculty members Lan Samantha Chang, David Haynes, A. Van Jordan, Monica Youn, and C. Dale Young presented “Shadowboxing: A Faculty Panel on the Intersections of Culture and Craft.” Chang, who is also the director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop; Haynes, the director of the creating writing program at Southern Methodist University in Dallas; Jordan, who teaches at Rutgers University in Newark, New Jersey; Youn, who teaches at Princeton University; and Young, who currently administers his own medical practice and practices medicine full-time, discussed their personal struggles regarding writing and identity, as well as the role of literary institutions in addressing (or perpetuating) these problems.

Continue reading online…

Faculty member A. Van Jordan spoke to the July 2015 graduates of the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. We are pleased to share his inspiring words here:

Jordan-330VP & Dean Garrett; our fearless leader, Deb; members of the faculty, proud family and friends, and, above all, graduates–the first thing I’d like to say is thank you: Ever since Deb contacted me about making these remarks, the weeks of nail biting and anxiety have kept me even more alert through this residency than if I had had an I.V. drip of coffee in my arm. As I stand before you here, I’m already fantasizing about the sound sleep that awaits me later tonight.

Okay, in all truth, I have wracked my mind and heart about what I would say today, and I thought about my time here as a student; in doing so, I thought both about what I was feeling 17 years ago when I was sitting where you all are now, and I’ve thought about what I wish I had known then. I have come up with two answers:  On this wonderful day when we’ve gathered together to celebrate your individual success, I want to talk to you about the power of the community you’ve become a part of and the freedom it brings. This may seem like a paradoxical pairing, but bear with me.

Over time, it becomes increasingly clearer to me that we accomplish nothing without the help of others, which is why it always touches me to see the families and loved ones of the graduates at the graduation. We know we’re loved in this world when our loved ones support us, even when they don’t quite know what we’re doing. This cohort graduating today would not be here, were it not for their first community: Their families, partners, and friends with the support and love you all have offered.

I can say to you with confidence that the graduates today have entered another community that will continue to support them on this journey. In 1996, I entered this program as a student. I was living in DC and working as an environmental journalist there at a news agency. I’d spend my days on Capital Hill covering my beat, and, in the evenings, I’d stay late at the office working on my packets.   In my last year in the MFA program, I quit my job, and, strangely enough, I quit after I had just gotten a promotion. And, even stranger yet, I had just gotten a promotion to a position for which I had been vying for two years to get. But I quit. I had gotten to that point where every conversation I had outside of Warren Wilson felt like an exchange of platitudes and clichés, everything from talking about who won last night’s game to what was happening in the news. So, I joined an Americorps program, WritersCorps, did some freelance film crew work, and focused on my writing. And, in what felt like no time, in 1998, I was graduating, but feeling a bit unmoored.  Indeed, I can say honestly that I was scared.

And I want you to know that although this was a perfectly valid feeling, it was also completely unreasonable. Ellen [Bryant Voigt] probably won’t remember this, but right after the graduation—right outside of Canon Hall—she asked me what I was going to do now. I told her that I really didn’t know. I somehow got around to saying something about thinking about applying to a “PhD” program. Now, I should confess to you all today, that I was already a PhD dropout before I ever entered this program; of course, I didn’t mention this in my application, just that I already had a Master’s degree—which was something I earned “along the way.”

So, I mentioned the PhD, but I really just wanted to get Ellen’s general reaction to the idea. She said that if that’s what I wanted to do, that I could do it, but she made it clear that I didn’t need a PhD. “You just get your book out,” she said, “and you’ll be just fine.”

“Really?” I asked.

“Absolutely. You have everything you need; just get your book out, and you’ll be just fine”

Now, at that point, in my mind, getting “a book out” was just something that the faculty here did. So, although I liked the sound of it, I didn’t really have enough confidence to think that I’d be “just fine.”

In retrospect, I can say that my insecurity was valid yet unreasonable because I should have felt emboldened by the education that I had just completed here. Since 1998, I have taught at a number of institutions, and I’ve been tenured at UT Austin, The University of Michigan, and now at Rutgers University-Newark. I have visited many, many MFA programs all over the country, and I’m here to tell you now what I didn’t know in 1998: There is simply no program in this country where you’ll get a better education as a writer than here at Warren Wilson. And I can honestly say, that I’ve told my students at these other institutions that you all are the best.

But, let’s be clear, the craft matters of Creative Writing are no more important than what William James called the “technical matters” of Philosophy; what is important, as he explains in his book Pragmatism, “is our more or less dumb sense of what life honestly and deeply means.” This is really at the heart of what writers study. And now you hold the knowledge that you have emerged with your degree, learning to hone your craft while living a full life, which means that you are, ever after, secure in your ability to survive in the world while practicing your craft, studying “what life honestly and deeply means.” With that knowledge, know that you are free.

You may be wondering what I mean by this vague word: Free.

In 1968, an interviewer asked this same question of the jazz/folk singer Nina Simone: “What does it mean to be free?”  In 1968, this was a tricky question: leaders were being assassinated; the country was burning. Simone, trying to side step the question threw it back to her white interviewer: “Freedom means the same for me as it does for you; you tell me!”  But when the interviewer pushed back, she finally went on to say that freedom feels like “living without fear.” Then the interviewer asked, Well then, when do you feel free?” and she said that she only felt free a few times in her life, and those times came only while on stage, performing.

I didn’t always know how big my community was when I left here, and I certainly didn’t feel free. I don’t want that for you. My hope is that you all know what it means to be free, and that, if in your lives away from here you feel the need to find some freedom, some way to “live without fear,” that you not only find it on the page as Simone did on stage but that you also find it in your communities, old and new.

So, graduates, keep freeing one another, keep supporting one another, stay connected to the communities that got you here and write without fear; you’ll be just fine.


Faculty member Gabrielle Calvocoressi spoke to the January 2015 graduates of the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. We are pleased to share her inspiring words here:

IMG_0528It’s a real honor to be here talking to all of you today. Before another moment goes by I want to thank all of the partners and parents and spouses and siblings and children and best pals who are such an integral part of the life of this program. Without your support and sacrifice many of the writers sitting here today would not have been able to take that walk they just took. It’s glorious being a writer and it’s also lonely and hard. I always think the most accurate author photo would be a shot of me lying in a ball beneath my desk with my partner standing in the doorway, staring at me like, “Really? Again?” So I thank you, as I know we all do. I personally couldn’t have done my job without you.

I think I’ve written this talk about fifteen times. It started when Deb Albery asked if I’d consider doing this talk (Giant YES in all caps sent back immediately) and started again a few days later when I thought to myself, “Who am I to give this talk?”

Then it started again.

And again.

And again all the way until this morning when I sat next to a group of students and chatted about how the weather tends to get nicer on the last day.

If anyone needs a graduation speech I have 14 that are pretty much ready to go.

Enough about me.  I want to talk to our grads.

You’re awesome.

You’re awesome because you’re really hard workers. I mean, seriously. I’ve been watching. You have worked your butts off. And that’s good because the life of writing is really hard work. It’s hard on family life and it’s hard on the heart. It will also quite possibly make you more fulfilled than anything you’ve ever done. But that will come because of all that work and all those late nights. I see the callous’ on you fingers and on your brains and I know you’re ready to go.

You’re awesome because you are kind. Every single one of you I’ve ever met is incredibly kind. Some people will tell you that’s not important to a life making art. You should suggest (kindly) that they go to bed. Kindness is essential. It’s how you keep not just yourself going but how you keep your compatriots afloat. Remember those hard times I was talking about? Who are you going to call? Who’s going to tell you it’s going to be okay? And who will tell you it’s time to move on? Other writers, that’s who. The people you’ve held up. Not just your closest friends but also the person sitting alone at supper at that residency or the writer who annoys the heck out of you but whose work, you know, is essential to the world.

For those of you who are thinking, “I’m totally not kind.” Maybe give it a shot. Variety is the spice of life.

And you are awesome because you are honest. Which is the twin and boon companion of kindness. In workshop and in our letters I’ve watched you push back and delve in as a means of helping your classmates and myself be our best selves our best minds. Keep that up. Your valiant honesty.

You’re awesome because you are balancing so many things. And it feels impossible a lot of the time. But look at you, right there, doing it. You’re better off than most grad students I know because you’ve always had to balance two or three different lives. Remember that when you feel like it’s all falling apart. You’ve been to the circus. You’re a freakin aerialist.

You are awesome because if I were to make some obscure literary reference at this moment, you’d probably know what it was. And if you didn’t know you’d go find out.

And then you’d annotate it.

You’re awesome because you’re willing to be yourself. I think that’s what I admire most about you. You take in all this knowledge and then I see you making work that so specifically and magnificently yours.

For my part the first 13 drafts of this talk basically stunk because I was trying to sound like someone else.

The draft right before this one was awesome.

On my third day as a grad student at Columbia University my teacher and future mentor Richard Howard walked into our classroom, looked around, and said, “Saying you are a famous poet is like saying you are a famous mushroom.”

I think over half of the class was pretty offended. What kind of person walks into a room and says something like that to, let’s face it a bunch of people so clearly destined for greatness.

But I thought, “That’s awesome.” And I think that every single day because that’s how often I remember him saying it. Because we’re all mushrooms and mushrooms are great. Around the 10th draft of this talk I found Mycologist Paul Stamets TED talk, “6 Ways Mushrooms Can Save the World.” Here are some things about us:

We make networks in the darkness that provide sustenance not only to our mushroom community but to all surrounding eco-systems. Some as far as 100 miles away.

We make our own fuel.

Remember when that giant asteroid hit the earth millions of years ago and all the dinosaurs and everything else died? Well, we survived. And for one shining moment we inherited the earth. (God, I miss those days)

Also, we can (apparently) cure the common cold.

See? Awesome.

You’re going to find yourself in lots of dark woods. There will be ice ages and years with no summer. It’s okay. You’ve got this. You’re a Lion’s Mane. You’re a Hen of the Woods. You are awesome. You are growing and surviving and making a world.


We’re happy to announce the faculty for the July 2014 Residency. For more information, see program website:

Charles Baxter

Christopher Castellani

Robert Cohen

Lauren Groff

David Haynes

Caitlin Horrocks

Kevin McIlvoy

Peter Orner

Steven Schwartz

Debra Spark

Peter Turchi

Laura van den Berg

Daisy Fried

Jennifer Grotz

Rodney Jones

Maurice Manning

Heather McHugh

Alan Shapiro (visiting faculty)

Daniel Tobin

Ellen Bryant Voigt

C. Dale Young

The MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College announces the publication of its seventh faculty anthology, THE RAG-PICKER’S GUIDE TO POETRY: POEMS, POETS, PROCESS, edited by Eleanor Wilner and Maurice Manning and published by University of Michigan Press.  The anthology gathers poetry and original essays from 35 poets who have taught in the program over the past decade.

“The venture of this collection,” write the editors in their introduction, “is to look, from the many vantages that the poets in this eclectic anthology chose to look, at what it was–knowing that a poem can’t be conceived in advance of its creation–that nevertheless helped their poems to emerge, or connected them over time.  And to see how the meticulous and the spontaneous come together in this process.  …Together, what these widely varied commentaries reveal is the exciting, unpredictable, always provisional nature of the writing process.”

Contributors donate 100% of their royalties toward Friends of Writers scholarship funds.

NYU Ragpicker's Reading

Warren Wilson Faculty Members at the NYC Reading and Book Launch, November 7, 2013–Reginald Gibbons, Eleanor Wilner, Maurice Manning, Martha Rhodes, and Daniel Tobin.


Faculty member Charles Baxter’s July 2013 MFA Graduation Address:

To this year’s graduates, and their beloved spouses, and partners, and children, and parents, and to my colleagues, and guests of the college—welcome. It’s my great pleasure and honor to offer a few words today, with emphasis on the word “few,” to the graduates. After all the sacrifices you’ve made—the writing, the revisions, the readings and lectures, the packets, the tuition, the hours alone struggling with words, and the sacrifices your families and loved one also have made—after all this, I know you’re just dreading the valedictory wisdom speech that goes with any graduation. I certainly would be dreading it. Fortunately for you, I have no wisdom. But I do have a story. I’ll give you that.

I’ve been teaching off-and-on in this program for a very long time. I’ve seen students come and go. But two of the most remarkable students stay in my memory. They were friends, two guys from Spain. You could hardly tell where they were from; they spoke without accents. One of them was tall and thin and went around with a sad face and a distracted expression. He had read all the books in all the libraries. He was always quoting from what he had read. The books had made him a little crazy. He said he was from La Mancha, although I have no idea if he was telling the truth about that. He was a poet, of course. For the sake of anonymity, let’s call him “Don.”

His friend was this short fat guy. This guy watched the world carefully, figuring everybody out. He had a crafty shrewd look. At lunch he always went back to the salad bar two or three times, and he spilled food on his clothes, and he belched, and there were always weird stains on his manuscripts. Of course he was a fiction writer. He had the somewhat unusual name of “Sancho.”

I worked with both of them.

I first worked with this Don guy. I remember our conferences in Jensen. I’d be talking about poetry, the semester’s reading list, and suddenly he would say, in a loud voice, “Blue is the color of distance!” And to calm him down, I’d agree: “Yeah, right, distance is blue.” I’d go on advising him about his poems, and suddenly he’d interrupt and say, “Blue is also the color of nobility.” And to placate him, I’d say, “Uh huh, nobility is blue.” It went on like that. After the residency, his packets started to arrive. They were thin, containing a few eloquent, sometimes incomprehensible poems, along with an enthusiastic cover letter, filled with ravings about his girlfriend, Dulcie.

How can I describe his poems? They were visionary and beautiful, but sometimes they made no sense. They also had some sort of moral agenda, but I could never figure it out. Evil, he thought, should be defeated; giants must be subdued. The poems represented the speech of the angels. I was in awe of these poems, I loved them, but what could I say about them? They created some utterly new world on the page, in which trees were giants and the giants were forces of nature and distance was blue and the forces of nature were colorful and rapt and aromatic, and the words he employed somehow seemed free of the things they referred to, and they hypnotized the reader. He used phrases like “the bubbling aquarium of eternity.”

Well, he eventually graduated, and he started his own press, Blue Distance Press. He never seemed to care about how many copies of his books he sold or what reviews he got or whether anybody read his work. I once sent him an order for several of his books, along with a check, and he never deposited the check. It’s still out there somewhere. He was impractical, oblivious, and his head stayed in the clouds. If people laughed at him, he never noticed. He didn’t believe in success and failure. He didn’t believe that the literary world had winners or losers. Literature is not a sack race, he once said to me. If he had never sold a single book, he still would have been a happy man.

I loved him. Everybody loved him.

I also worked with his fat friend, Sancho. The fat friend wrote fat novels, clear-eyed studies of how people actually live. You always knew what was going on in them. They told the truth, and this truth was precious. The sentences were lucid, sometimes witty. His packets were so fat that they occasionally exploded when the letter carrier dropped them on my front stoop. (This was before we had length limits for the exchanges.) Once the fat guy graduated, his first novel turned out to be an Oprah pick, a best-seller, and he sold thousands of copies and became quite rich. He still shows up at the Warren Wilson receptions at the AWP. If you go there, you’ll know him: he’s the fat guy standing near the hors d’oeuvre table, with the barbeque stains on his Brooks Brothers shirt. I never loved him the way I loved his tall impractical friend, but I admired him, and the program still asks him for charitable donations.

My dear friends, beloved graduates: I lied. I never actually taught Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. They were never actually students here. But I contain both of them. So do you, men and women both. When you are looking carefully at something, practicing the religion of attention, trying to remember how people talked and thought and how they acted and what they did, when you are watching and watchful and shrewd, you are Sancho; and when you are having visions, and when only the right words in the right order will do, and when you don’t know or care how successful you are in the world’s eyes, and when you forget to cash the checks because only the work is important, you are Don Quixote. You have to be Don Quixote to have the visions, and you have to be Sancho to pay the bills. But you don’t have to be either one; most of us are both.

What is it like to be both of these people? I promised you no wisdom of my own, but I have some borrowed wisdom, from the great modern Greek poet C. P. Cavafy, who lived in Alexandria, Egypt. Cavafy thought long and hard throughout his life about what it was to acknowledge oneself (as a gay man, as a poet) in public, and he thought endlessly about what we say to ourselves about our own successes and failures. He wrote one of the greatest poems ever about graduating into the life of writing. If there is a better poem about this subject, I don’t know it. The poem is called “The First Step” and Cavafy wrote it in1899. Here it is in a translation by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard. The poem contains the word “idyll”, meaning a poem about country life.

The young poet Eumenis

Complained one day to Theocritos:

“I’ve been writing for two years now

and I’ve composed only one idyll.

It’s my single completed work.

I see, sadly, that the ladder

Of Poetry is tall, extremely tall;

And from this first step I’m standing on now

I’ll never climb any higher.”

Theocritos retorted: “Words like that

Are improper, blasphemous.

Just to be on the first step

Should make you happy and proud.

To have reached this point is no small achievement:

What you’ve done already is a wonderful thing.

Even this first step

Is a long way above the ordinary world.

To stand on this step

You must be in your own right

A member of the city of ideas.

And it’s a hard, unusual thing

To be enrolled as a citizen of that city.

Its councils are full of Legislators

No charlatan can fool.

To have reached this point is no small achievement:

What you’ve done already is a wonderful thing.”


Graduates of the summer class of 2013, what you’ve done already is a wonderful thing. To quote Cavafy, it is a hard, unusual thing to be enrolled as a citizen of this city. Well, now you are enrolled in that city, and now you are citizens there. Congratulations and blessings and all good fortune to you all, in your writerly lives as spiritual Spaniards, as Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.

Warren Wilson MFA Program founder Ellen Bryant Voigt participated in the inauguration of Warren Wilson College’s seventh president, Dr. Steven Solnick, on April 27, reading her poems “The Lotus Flowers” and “Owl.”

Click to watch Dr. Solnick’s inaugural address

A transcription is available at