The MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College is pleased to announce its faculty for the winter 2022 semester:

Dilruba Ahmed

Debra Allbery (Director)

Dean Bakopoulos

Oliver Baez Bendorf

Liam Callanan

Gabrielle Calvocoressi

Daisy Fried

Jennifer Grotz

David Haynes

C.J. Hribal

Vanessa Hua

T. Geronimo Johnson

Sally Keith

Akil Kumarasamy

Sandra Lim

Heather McHugh

Pablo Medina

Antonya Nelson

Alix Ohlin

Michael Parker

Robin Romm

Marisa Silver

Anna Solomon

Daniel Tobin

Connie Voisine

Hello, dear Graduates of the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. And welcome, friends and family, to this afternoon and evening of celebration. 

Along with our stellar faculty, students and all who gather here today, I congratulate you, members of the Class of July 2021, for your accomplishments and for, well, hanging in over these past extraordinary semesters.  You have joined the ranks of alums today—At 45 years old, this year, the MFA Program is that much stronger because of you. 

Some thanks are due and first, always, to Ellen Bryant Voigt for her poems, essays, teaching, vision and leadership as founder of the first low residency MFA program for writers in the country. Huge thanks to Deb, Trish, and Caleb for bringing us together –without them, we would all be somewhere, but where?

“ I learn by going where I have to go,”  says Theodore Roethke in The Waking.  To the page is where we have to go, where we learn how to progress from syllable to syllable, word to word, stanza or paragraph to the next. The first utterance demands another and another. And we do not know where the page will take us, of course, because we have never written this poem or story or novel before.  But we are compelled to push ahead, and we have had the good fortune to slosh through uncharted territory with each other over the past two or more years. Let me repeat, with each other. 

This is your graduation day, yes. But you are not leaving our ever-growing community. This month, nearly100 writers are gathering for the 31st annual alumni conference, the 2nd to be held in Zoom Land, to present papers, facilitate discussion classes, attend workshops and manuscript reviews, give readings and socialize. For the past 30 years, our community has been lovingly supported by Friends of Writers which provides scholarships, fellowships and grants to students, alums, and faculty, thus supporting our ongoing work and play together throughout each year. National and regional events, newsletters, social media, and a dedicated blog trumpet our pre and post grad vitality. You’ve only to respond to calls for participation. 

 In the months before my graduation, I had a recurrent dream – I was driving along a narrow and winding dirt road. To the left, balancing on a forbiddingly steep green mountain, a flock of men and women, all drinking champagne. To my right, a severe drop that my car kept pulling me toward. And ahead, a friendly meadow into which I steered my car and idled. Night after night I had this dream – both anxiety provoking and calming. On the mountain, my cohort – celebrating. To my right, the drop off. I was leaving the mountain but refusing the cliff to enter that welcoming meadow which I would continue to mow, tame, and let grow wild going forward.

Those with whom I studied and those who are my students and colleagues today are beloved residents of my literary neighborhood. We meet in Swannanoa; we meet in tiny rooms on our computer screens, we bump into each other at bookstores, and cafes. Through social media, we meet on the campaign trail for state representative; we couch surf as we travel, we marvel at the treasures discovered on each other’s trips to the Grand Canyon, Race Point, the Appalachian Trail. We read a poem, a story, an essay, a book.

 Lucille Clifton says, “I write out of what I wonder. I think most artists create art in order to explore, not to give the answers. Poetry and art are not about answers to me; they are about questions.”  And those questions might frighten us, trip us up, get the better of us. But we have learned, here, together to tackle them – we have learned that we are up to the task. And we have reached out to each other with our questions and concerns about our work. While the struggle is ultimately our own to wrangle with, we can often find relief from those who know just how difficult it can be to put word to page. This community continues to thrive because students, faculty, alums hold fast by continuing to read each other’s work, listen, and care.

So, whether you are writing, or in a dry spell, receiving honors or feeling like no one cares if you ever write again – this community can be counted on to  encourage,  congratulate, comfort,  and console you.

From James Baldwin,  “If you are going to be a writer there is nothing I can say to stop you; if you’re not going to be a writer nothing I can say will help you.” What you really need at the beginning is somebody to let you know that the effort is real.” 

We have certainly learned that the effort is real. We may, at times, need to be reminded of that. Without the semester’s deadlines, residencies, exchanges—we can lose sight of what we came here for. Family, new homes, jobs or joblessness, an HBO binge-worthy series may keep us from our writing practice. But there is always a way to the writing room. Sometimes we can usher ourselves back. Sometimes, we need help — a nudge, if not a shove. Trust in yourself – and if that feels wobbly—trust your literary neighborhood to help you find your way to the page. You have worked so hard. You have earned every word.

Thank you, Class of 2021, for your achievement. And thank you, in advance, for all you will achieve.

The MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College is pleased to announce its faculty for the July-November 2021 semester:

Mia Alvar

Lesley Nneka Arimah

Sally Ball

Robert Boswell

Karen Brennan

Christopher Castellani

Sonya Chung

Daisy Fried

Brooks Haxton

David Haynes

T. Geronimo Johnson

Christine Kitano

Dana Levin

Maurice Manning

Matthew Olzmann

Peter Orner

Hanna Pylväinen

Martha Rhodes

Nicole Sealey

Debra Spark

Lysley Tenorio

Peter Turchi

Alan Williamson

Welcome, graduates! Welcome, friends and family!

I am so happy and honored to be here with you this afternoon, and I am beaming each of you whole-hearted congratulations on your degree, which represents years of honoring your practice through drafts imagined and reimagined; through community and correspondence; through absorbing the words and worlds of other writers, at residency and beyond. When I was a graduate student myself, I experienced many moments where I felt overwhelmed by the work ahead of me; at times, I wondered if I was up to the task of being a writer at all. Perhaps some of you have experienced similar restless nights of the soul during your own M.F.A. journeys. Your presence here today is a testament to your commitment to your art; to your ability to persist even when the work turned uncertain; to return to the humble yet profound task of making one mark and then another on the page. 

I also want to thank you for the outstanding and generous contributions you have made to this residency—from your absorbing and illuminating classes to your beautiful readings to the conversations generated at your thesis interviews. We have all been privileged to learn from you. 

To your beloveds, your partners, your families, and friends, I would like to extend the warmest of welcomes. You, too, are a part—an integral part—of the Warren Wilson community. Thank you for supporting these writers as they vanished into the forests of their own imaginations and thank you for being there for them when they emerged. 

Graduates, your achievement would, of course, be cause for praise and celebration at any time, but you did not undertake your final semesters at “any time”; rather you undertook this work in the second half of 2020, amidst an ongoing and escalating pandemic, a national and global uprising in resistance to state-sanctioned racial violence, and an election of powerful consequence. In her novel Lost Children Archive, Valeria Luiselli writes: “I suppose that documenting things—through the lens of a camera, on paper, or with a sound recording device—is really only a way of contributing one more layer, something like soot, to all the things already sedimented in a collective understanding of the world.” Whenever writing has felt, for me, daunting, impossible, or even useless, I have found myself returning, again and again, to Luiselli’s notion of “contributing one more layer”—that to press on with our work in times of grief and terror and rage does not mean to abandon the world for the private sanctuary of the imagination, but rather to use the privacy of the imagination as a conduit for making meaningful contact with the realities we live in and through, with the hope of one day offering our own contribution to the collective understanding. 

This graduation marks both an end and a beginning. It marks the conclusion of your time in this program and the start of your post-MFA writing life—the “afterlife,” as I’ve heard Deb call it. While this new phase won’t come with reading lists and packet deadlines and green sheets, you are not undertaking this journey in solitude. The community you have cultivated here—from your former supervisors to your peers to the artistic lineages this program connects us all too—will journey alongside you. To that end, I encourage you to nurture the relationships that have been meaningful during your time in the program. Aristotle described friendship as “A single soul dwelling in two bodies.” Remember those who have evoked that feeling of shared spirit. Write letters! Send Texts! Make phone calls! Nourish the seeds of deep friendship that have been planted during your time in the program, so that you may offer each other sustenance on the road ahead. 

As a few of you already know, boxing is, in addition to literature, one of the great loves of my life. And so, with that road ahead in mind, I would like to now share with you a little story about what happened when I sparred for the very first time.  

I had been training for some months when I joined a weekly sparring group at my gym, and I had big ideas about all the moves I was going to make once I was in the ring. I would whip out all the tricks I had learned from footwork drills. I would throw all the combos I had practiced on the heavy bag. I would slip and roll, bob and weave. In reality it was all I could do to not get hopelessly trapped on the ropes and to keep my hands up. After one round, I was gasping for breath and both my arms felt like they had been set on fire. It seemed I had forgotten everything I had learned during my training, and, to add insult to injury, apparently I wasn’t in as good a shape as I’d thought I was in, either.

At the end, I was not hurt; I was only exhausted, discouraged, and ashamed. 

“How can I get better?” I asked my coach after. “What should I work on?”

He said, “Come back next week.”

Later, it would occur to me that come back next week was perhaps some of the most useful instruction I had ever received as a writer, even if it was not offered in that context. But this is how books get written after all, this is how a life in the arts takes shape—by coming back next week, again and again, until the work is done. And then, when the work is done, we begin anew. Last year, I embarked on a new novel and when I inevitably hit that first stretch of feeling exhausted, discouraged, and ashamed by my lack of progress, I taped come back next week above my desk and, like a little lighthouse, that one sentence continued to guide me.

For me, come back next week has come to mean something more than a physical return to the page; it also speaks to the project of holding within the self a kind of rigorous openness; curiosity; and courage. It means that we keep showing up for our current and future projects with a wiliness to listen to whatever it is they are trying to tell us; we keep showing up for starting over; we keep showing up for ourselves as human beings; we keep showing up for our communities; we keep showing up for honesty in all its forms; we keep showing up for all that we still have left to learn; we keep showing up for the gaps in understanding and accomplishment that we can close gradually, with labor and with time and with greater alertness, and also for the gaps that will remain forever open.

Your time in this program has already taught you how to come back next week. Now you need only continue. Your Warren Wilson family is cheering for you, today and always. We can’t wait to see what you create. 

Thank you, graduates, and congratulations. 

The MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College is pleased to announce its faculty for the winter 2021 semester:

Dilruba Ahmed

Kaveh Akbar

Debra Allbery (Director)

Dean Bakopoulos

Liam Callanan

Gabrielle Calvocoressi

Carolyn Ferrell

C.J. Hribal

Vanessa Hua

Sally Keith

Sandra Lim

Heather McHugh

Antonya Nelson

Matthew Olzmann

Robin Romm

Jason Schneiderman

Rion Amilcar Scott

Marisa Silver

Lysley Tenorio

Daniel Tobin

Laura van den Berg

Connie Voisine

            

I want to congratulate the glorious Warren Wilson MFA class of summer 2020.  You have been through four semesters (or more) of very hard work in what is probably the most demanding graduate writing program in the country, and you are finishing at a time of worldwide pandemic and acutely needed civic unrest and demands for change.  Our gathering together in a virtual residency has been to me a technological miracle.  And we’ve done it in our way, so much so that throughout this residency I’ve woken up every day thinking we’re all on campus together in North Carolina and my life in my New York apartment is an illusion.

            I want to applaud and thank, especially, the guests here now who’ve supported the graduating writers.   Friends and partners and parents and loved ones and kids, families in all senses.  You’ve put up with neglect and obsession and crabbiness, references to texts and personalities and terminology you really didn’t want to hear about again, for the sake of someone’s passion to write.  You’ve believed in these writers, you’ve made room for them to keep at it, when ordinary life hardly made room for it, and they won’t forget.  None of us forget. 

            I started teaching at Warren Wilson in 1986—I haven’t taught straight through, I took a long break in the middle—but I realized how long ago that was when I remembered—in the first year I saved all my letters by using carbon paper. (There were xerox machines—it wasn’t the Middle Ages– but they were some trouble to get to.)  I know more now than I did then, but what I knew right away was that had comrades here, I was with my kind.  I made and am still making lifelong friends.

            When you leave here, you’ll have the great relief of not having to send any more packets and the new dilemma of not having deadlines you’re afraid to disgrace yourself by missing.  JoAnne Beard, a wonderful writer whom I taught with at Sarah Lawrence, gave as her parting advice to graduates:  You’ll feel better if you do the work.  So do the work.  One of my favorite directives.

Nobody has to tell you, the whole thing isn’t easy.  I stand before you as a writer who’s had a long zigzagging career.  I started out doing fine and then, after the first two books,  thirteen years went by when no one wanted to publish a book of mine.  I always call it my thirteen years in the desert—at the time of course I didn’t know how long it would last, when the hell it would be over if ever.  So I’m the example of you-never-know.  

I want to say—everyone should be cheerful looking at me.  Except that it could happen again.  A writer has to be prepared for everything, a person does.  That’s what we write about.  Those loops of fate.   

During my years in the desert, I did a number of things to distract myself.  I considered giving up writing , but it was sort of like saying, I’m going to go eat worms.  It wasn’t a freeing notion.   And I considered giving up the teaching of writing.  I had the perfectly good idea that I might learn American Sign Language and work as an interpreter.  I did take an ASL class and I was terrible at it, I was the worst one in the class—I’m not very visual.  My better idea, as a way to get out of myself, was to volunteer, and I was a Buddy for Gay Men’s Health Crisis, which meant you showed up once a week to a help a person with AIDS—this was in the 90s, when AIDS was still very much a raging epidemic, and I ended up doing that for 17 years.

I was struck very much by what Amaud said in the tapes we all made of advice for you—he said it’s a lifelong apprenticeship—writing is.   I was definitely learning in those years of no book publication.   And as we’ve all learned again now, nothing causes you to adjust your perspective like the evidence of death around you.  It’s very useful instruction in the scale of things.  

I think in some underground indirect way it changed my writing, led me into deeper territory, though not in obvious ways.  I always took the process seriously but I understood things better by this time and I think I had a further sense of where a story could go.  

Everyone’s path is different.  Sometimes now I think that when I was younger—I wasn’t lacking in self-confidence, but I was always waiting to be another sort of writer, one who knew how to do it the right way.  It just took a long time to figure out what was my way.   

So each of you will be embarked now on some version of that process.   You have comrades with you, your fellow Wallies, who will understand your complaints and know how to cheer you on.  Nothing could make it clearer than our intercontinental electronic graduation how really quite easy and necessary it is to be attached to each other.  So I wish you the joy of those continuing attachments and long rich writing lives ahead.

The MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College is pleased to announce its faculty for the summer 2020 semester:

Kaveh Akbar

Debra Allbery (Director)

Sally Ball 

Robert Boswell

Karen Brennan

Jamel Brinkley

Christopher Castellani

Sonya Chung 

Angela Flournoy

Brooks Haxton 

David Haynes

Caitlin Horrocks

Amaud Jamaul Johnson

Christine Kitano

Dana Levin

Maurice Manning

Alix Ohlin

Matthew Olzmann

Peter Orner

Joan Silber

Debra Spark

Peter Turchi

Alan Williamson

Find the MFA PROGAM FOR WRITERS AT WARREN WILSON COLLEGE booth at 1541.

Graduates and current students of the MFA Program for Writers planning to attend this year’s AWP Conference in San Antonio, Texas are encouraged to volunteer at the program’s table in the Bookfair.  The Bookfair will be open daily Thursday, March 5 to Saturday, March 7 from 9:00 to 5:00. We seek volunteers for one- or two-hour shifts to answer prospective students’ questions and to talk about how this program and its community have informed and sustained your writing lives.

Interested alumni and students should contact Eric Cruz ([email protected]) and Laura Van Prooyen ([email protected]) with specifics about availability by Feb.12.  Eric and Laura will work together to coordinate the schedule and will be back in touch with you to confirm as the conference nears.

Our thanks in advance for your assistance!

As the writer asked to speak at your graduation, I took the assignment very seriously. I analyzed the form of the “graduation address” before I attempted it. I annotated a couple of famous graduation speeches (those of David Foster Wallace, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Mindy Kaling, to name a few), and developed a working definition of its structure, rhetorical purpose, etc. I submitted a few drafts to myself, and, as it is with all writing, I will likely never really feel finished. 

Class of 2020, I’ll be honest, I had hoped that having 2019 in the can would begin an upswing, a reevaluation of priorities, but as we all know, the news is not good. Let’s all think about 2020 as a year of sharp vision, of developing clarities, and actions towards the future we want and need. One of you graduates prefaced your reading by calling it an initiation, a ceremony, a ritual. That’s right—by being here we acknowledge a culture and practice older than written language itself. For that, we are lucky.

And congratulations! I must express how humbled I am to be before you as a fellow teacher, writer, and, also, to be with your beautiful families, families made, born, discovered, discovered here and all of whom are so lovingly present for your graduation in body and/or spirit. While we are at it let all of us writers express gratitude to our families. These are the beloveds who will look at you staring off into space and tenderly remind themselves that yes, this is our working. They will put you onto some task, eventually, such as dishes, bill paying, the managing of toaster oven fires, but they understand that whilst you doodle on a pad or reread a thousand-page novel, that you are working. The Program for Writers wishes to acknowledge our families with this ceremony as well. We thank you in advance for putting up with the serious leisure involved with creative production. We see how that represents your support and respect. How lucky we all are for the likes of our beloveds. 

Graduates, your achievements amaze and astound us already! What great readings you’ve given, what thoughtful classes you’ve taught, and, those thesis interviews! How seriously you’ve loved and shared as writers. Know that this continues—it’s the first consolation of graduation. The encouragement and connection you graduates provide for each other (at conferences, in other cities, online) is sustaining and at a scale truly unique in the world of creative writing programs. You have this gorgeous future, among others, to look forward to. Wallies abound and we are a fierce, smart and wily crew. We become another kind of beloved to each other, and let us be thankful for that, too. 

I believe that as readers, which we all are, we enter into another writer’s works as if entering a friendship. I don’t think we’d be here if we didn’t feel this way. As with friends, our writers’ books sustain us, wound us, please and frustrate. My current beloved writer is the poet Gwendolyn Brooks (thank you bookshop for reading her with me). She writes in her poem, “The Explorer” a crucial message about why people like us wish to make things like books. It’s a lesser known poem of hers, and also an ars poetica, a poem about the role of a poet or the job a poem should do. I’ll read the first stanza for you, because it is beloved to me: 

The Explorer

Somehow to find a still spot in the noise

Was the frayed inner want, the winding, the frayed hope

Whose tatters he kept hunting through the din.

A satin peace somewhere.

A room of wily hush somewhere within.”

“To find a still spot in the noise” might describe the search we’ve been practicing during our time at The Program for Writers and I mean this in the most communal way. The search for hope is complicated. It might be what we are doing as writers, rebuilding our frayed world, says Brooks. You might say “Connie, I am not hopeful” or  “Connie, that is corny,” or you might say “Gwendolyn Brooks, show don’t tell.” (I know we don’t say that here)! Hang on, Brooks will not let you down. She gives us two ways at hope in this stanza. First, it’s “a satin peace somewhere.” That “still spot,” that peace, is satin in her poem, a luxurious, shining, fancy fabric, satin, which is also rare and occasional, like a graduation. Second, in one of my favorite lines, Brooks offers another possibility for an end to our search, “A room of wily hush somewhere within.” Think about that word wily, how much it changes our idea of the hush. “Wily” is sly, trying to work an advantage, any angle, with some furtiveness, some concealing. After all, Warner Brothers did name a coyote Wile E. That “room of wily hush within” is what the explorer is seeking. And since I call this poem an ars poetica, it could be said it’s what we are seeking too, as writers. 

In the spirit of the ars poetica, I’ll point out that Brooks’s stanza is its own room. It’s been mentioned many times this residency that the word stanza means room in Italian, and so it goes. Each stanza in a poem might be the room in which you find a satin peace; any paragraph might contain that wily hush. You might find yourself in a room in where Toni Morrison’s Milkman is fighting to walk on a crowded street, struggling, growing, realizing that all the people were going in the direction he was coming from, or in Ben Jonson’s room where he mourns his boy who’s died too young, saying “Rest in soft peace, and, ask’d, say, “Here doth lie/Ben Jonson his best piece of poetry,” or you might find your peace in a room where Roberto Bolaño’s soft hearted Detective Juan de Dios Martínez weeps in his car for all the victims known and unknown, or this room, right here, where I have found some satin in your poem, your poem, your story, and your story. 

Allow me to expand this figure of the room and what goes on there. Likely when Gwendolyn Brooks wrote “Somehow to find a still spot in the noise,” she was in the same room as, talking back to T. S. Eliot’s “Burnt Norton,” where he wrote: “the still point of the turning world.” Or maybe she was commiserating with the Wordsworth of “The World is Too Much With Us” which he wrote to complain about noise, also known as the industrial revolution. And maybe Robert Boswell is right, that Bolaño’s 2666 (that thousand-page novel everyone should reread) is in deep conversation with Homer’s Iliad, a 15,693-line poem, and certainly I am in conversation with Robert Boswell about this matter still. I am in conversation with Gwendolyn Brooks right now, and at any residency at The Program for Writers, all day and all night, we are conversing, commiserating and talking back to writers living and dead, the writer sitting right beside us, writers living in places we have not yet seen but can imagine, thanks to their beautiful words, our wily rooms of survival. 

One expectation of this form of the “graduation address” is that the speaker offers some practical advice. I respectfully decline that element. Or rather, I’d rather call on Toni Morrison, who delivered such an address at Wellesley College in 2004. She much more eloquently suggests that writers create stories, of course, and that the story can alter or create the person,  

“You are your own stories and therefore free to imagine and experience what it means to be human without wealth. What it feels like to be human without domination over others, without reckless arrogance, without fear of others unlike you, without rotating, rehearsing and reinventing the hatreds you learned in the sandbox. And although you don’t have complete control over the narrative—no author does, I can tell you—you could nevertheless create it.” 

And so, this is my thought now, that the boundaries between what we write and who we are start to blur, and perhaps every poem or story that seemed to be a lesson in craft also becomes a part of our thinking of how to live: with attention, precision, understanding, and compassion. 

So what are we doing, writers? Are we historians? We do think about history, don’t we? We write whole novels set in other times, but we are not historians, not really. Are we philosophers? I don’t think so, but we question knowledge, reality, existence, right? We are not politicians, though many of us engage with themes of justice and injustice. So, what is our job? I have a quick anecdote about a moment which illuminated something for me about what writers do, about our “job.” 

When we lived in Northern Ireland, my daughter was in the fourth grade and had to write a report on a famous person. The only American on the list, Harriet Tubman, was assigned to the only American in the class, because, turns out our famous people aren’t their famous people once you remove entertainers from the list. She and I took out books from the library, googled, and talked about Tubman’s escape from slavery, her bravery guiding dozens of other slaves to the north, her work as a nurse, a commander and spy during the Civil War, and her later activism for women’s suffrage. FYI, as a parent who is a writer, my rough policy is that Alma writes what she will write and I enter only when invited. 

But what had she written? I saw the paper when it was returned to her (an A) and noticed that she had spent most of her allotted pages describing two things. The first part was a very long description of when a slave owner threw a heavy metal weight and hit Tubman on the head, causing a traumatic brain injury, the effects of which affected her whole life. My daughter wrote mostly about the wound, describing the blood, where it went, what it looked like, and Tubman’s fall to the ground. In other words, this nine-year-old felt and understood that part of Tubman’s story and wanted her readers (21 fourth graders and a teacher in a small room in Northern Ireland) to feel it ,too. I am not sure that, as Shelley claimed, “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” But we might well be its sensualists. We are as open as we can be to the textures, sounds and sights, the swells and storms, the smells and bells, the connections where we find them. By the way, the other information included in the report (which got an A, did I say that?) was that Tubman did not know her own birthday, something that had been unimaginable to a child of mine.

I will finish with a quote from a talk delivered by Mahmoud Dawish, perhaps the major poet of the 20thcentury Arab world. He was born in 1941 in Palestine and died from complications of heart surgery in Houston in 2008. Though he wrote in Arabic, he also read Hebrew, French, and English and has been translated into at least 20 languages and counting. A secular person, he wrote with his feet on the ground and his poems are loving, controversial at times, and often enact the struggle to sustain ourselves in this suffering and hope called the World. 

“Poetry and beauty are always making peace. When you read something beautiful you find coexistence; it breaks walls down.” 

Go on, find and make peace, oh wily Graduates, teachers, writers, all us, Beloveds.