MFA Residency

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Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing

Professionalization Workshops

Compositional Improvisation with TC Tolbert

In this fully embodied, experiential course, we will study, inhabit and practice the art of compositional improvisation – composing (individually and collaboratively) (with movement, text, sound and space) in the moment to create dynamic, rigorous, complex and fully realized “pieces” without rehearsal or planning. This course will allow writers a chance to work from and with their bodies and unique subject positions while demanding acute attention to choice-making and the elements of composition on and off the page. Building on the chance, (Soma)tic, conceptual and collaborative techniques of poets, dancers and musicians from the last 50 years, we will explore the limits of our attentions, bodies and abilities in an effort to expand the range of what is possible for our own writing and creative work. Experimental, risky, playful and vulnerable – the practice of compositional improvisation will become the lab in which we analyze and experience Jack Halberstam’s “queer art of failure” in the hopes that we can further realize new forms, modes and measures for a successful writing life.

How To Say The Wrong Thing: Bewilderment, Privilege, and Power with TC Tolbert

In this short but powerful course, we will consider our own experiences of privilege and power (on and off the page) through the lens of Fanny Howe’s “Bewilderment.” While reflecting upon our writing and experiences, we will take an intersectional approach. As is true in writing, the only requirement is the willingness to be honest with oneself.

Words In Action: “How Far is Too Far?” with Ru Freeman

In an essay on craft, Robert Boswell wrote,“From the wrong distance we are all stereotypes. From the wrong distance we are all un-mysterious.” Nowhere is this more apparent than when we write about political events. Misjudging the distance between writer and subject, particularly when it involves tragedy, turns our characters into stereotypes, and ourselves into lackluster commentators; we remain divorced from what we observe and therefore we can be assured that our readers will follow suit. In this workshop we will work on several techniques that will allow us to develop the skill of judging the right narrative distance with which to turn what may already be common knowledge—terrorist attacks, school shootings, nightclub bombings etc.— into stories that carry personal resonance even to those who could have no familiarity with those settings. We will consider several factors that enable a writer to find the sweet spot between their own knowledge of the subject, and what is of service to the story, by focussing on the usage of historical fact, the selection of humanizing details, juxtaposing what is known and what is unknown, and omission.

Installation & Collaboration Workshop with Horatio Law

This workshop is structured to explore meaning and resonance through visceral encounters of ordinary objects and experience, in workaday life and in nature. Reflecting on the current struggles of our country, it would be fitting to address the idea of "living through a dark time." To think about what constitutes "dark" would also require us to contemplate what constitutes "light". In addition to the dark/light pairing, we will consider other parallel antonyms such as: fake/true, closed/open, isolate/integrate, fear/trust, terror/joy, and dysphoria/euphoria. This workshop builds on ordinary things brought/collected from home as well as materials found onsite in Caldera, and requires collaboration and sharing among participants to create installations that reflect our lives in this extraordinary time.

Approaches for Transformative Community-Embedded Arts Practice with mia susan amir

In this interactive, practice-based workshop, we will use The Seven Principles of Compelling Storytelling (invocation, Inclusion, Challenge, Uncertainty, Discovery, Transofrmation, Humaization/Interdependence) as the theoretical frame through which we will develop practical tools and competency in community-embedded arts practice. Our aim is to explore together how central aspects of our personal creative practice are immediately transferable to out work with/in community settings.

Two-way Mirrors: Conceptual Processes as Personal and Political with TC Tolbert

Conceptual art began in the '60s and was, as Caroline Bergvall says in her introduction to "I’ll Drown My Book: Conceptual Writing By Women," a “mode of working that…was critical of the commodified art object and of the art institutions themselves.” It inherently carried with it an “investigative and critical incentive” yet some argue it was ultimately absorbed into the “art machine” it was attempting to undermine. In this course we will dip into the rich history of conceptual art and writing and its relationship to community, identity and the self. With a special emphasis on the historical and political implications of procedural practices such as appropriation, erasure, palimpsest and mimicry (among others), we will look at the work of Kathy Acker, Bernadette Mayer, Rosmarie Waldrop, Yedda Morrison, M. NourbeSe Philip, Dodie Bellamy, Jen Hofer, Jen Bervin and Giovanni Singleton (to name only a few). We will then choose a conceptual process (or three) and use this to create something new. 

Bringing Out the Dead with Geraldine Brooks

How do you create voices from the past, especially voices of those absent from the written record? Was Henry James correct in asserting that it's impossible to know a consciousness more than 50 years removed from one's own? We will explore some techniques for hearing the unheard, using emotional empathy and probing the places where the historical record falls silent. We will also examine the masterful use of voice and history in Gilead.

The Distance Traveled: What a novelist has learned--and unlearned--from a career in journalism with Geraldine Brooks

Geraldine Brooks spent a decade as a foreign correspondent, reporting on conflict in the mideast, Africa and the Balkans. In part two of the workshop she will unpack some useful writing tools picked up along the way and discuss the ones that she's discarded. The workshop will include a discussion of how gender has historically influenced war reporting, using a close analysis of how Hemingway and Gellhorn each reported the D Day Landing.

Queering Space: Openness within Constraint with TC Tolbert

In this course, we will examine and experiment with both traditional received poetic forms and more contemporary constraints in order to radically expand and deepen our perception of (the always) available poetic material. Beginning with a willingness to get lost, we will embark upon a site-specific micro-journey in which we create a haibun by utilizing hybrid material text construction, erasure, syllabic patterning, verb constriction and homophonic translation.

Thinking of the haibun as a kind of queer and trans textual body - a text in dynamic relationship to context at all times, passing through, in, between, among - this form, in particular, interrogates the static. Each passing body is made to relate to shifting landscapes (social, physical, emotional), and those shifts, in turn, influence thought, body and form. We will reflect on what kinds of topics, places, subject positions and ideas we allow ourselves access to and what kinds of space we may inhabit on (and off) the page. This course will invite reflection and discussion regarding access to space, movement and mobility as poetic and political concerns.

Craft Seminars

To Seek and Be Beseeching: The Poetics of Mystery with TC Tolbert

In this urgent cultural moment, there is a renewed hunger for the commiseration poetry shares with mystery. Poetry as prayer, doubt, supplication, petition, and/or exhortation: there are perhaps as many ways of writing into and through mystery as there are people. In this 2 day course, we will examine works (primarily poetry, though not only) that engage, in a variety of tones and states of surrender, with what we do not know.

In encountering mystery, many poets (and folks, in general) turn to concepts of god and use "religious" language. Therefore this class will include some discussion of spirituality and a variety of spiritual and/or religious practices. However, this is not a class for persuasion and/or evangelizing (in any direction). Instead, we will be working to get familiar with writing from and into mystery in all its forms. 

Nontraditional Forms of Poetry with TC Tolbert

In this two-part seminar, we will focus on “found text” forms of poetry-making including erasures; cut-ups and other Surrealist exercises; N+7 and other Ouilpo exercises; ready-mades, “gumshoes” and other kinds of poems drawn from other textual sources. Working with found text is an experimental and nontraditional method of composition; that said, its history dates back over a century at this point, and work in these forms have become highly influential. We’ll take a look at some of the history and notable examples of found poetics, read some essays on the ethical and other implications of such work, and discuss the advantages and pitfalls of these art-making strategies.

Speaking of advantages: one of the many pleasures of found text poems is that you need not wait for the muse to arrive on his little wingéd feet to find your language! So in addition to being a forum for deep theoretical discussion, we will also spend a good deal of time playing, creating and experimenting wildly.

Beginnings and Endings with TC Tolbert

In this craft course, we will examine, experience, and experiment with a variety of ways to begin and end (anything). Together will write (and read) (and reflect upon) (and live) many beginnings and endings. Ideally, we will increase our curiosity (and decrease our fear) of them both.

Documentary Foundations: Using Oral Histories & Others' Voices with Beth Alvarado

Anna Deveare Smith, an actor who bases her performances on oral histories she collects, writes that you can “find a character’s psychological reality by ‘inhabiting’ that character’s words. . . ” This technique of active listening can also stretch the writer’s imagination, empathy, and range of voice, no matter the genre. In this course, we will study texts where collecting stories was the first step in the research and writing process; in some cases, that initial research was then complicated by other types of research.

In terms of craft, there is the question of the balance of voices. We will study Smith’s performances as well as selections of nonfiction, fiction, and poetry. How do these collected materials "show up" in different ways in different genres? What are the tensions between research and writing? In other words, to what extent does the research, what is "found" or "collected," shape the writing itself? What are the ethics of using others' voices or artifacts about their lives?

Narrative Foundations with Beth Alvarado

“The stories we tell ourselves. . . create our lives and thus our health. What are the stories you tell yourself about your life and your health? This is story medicine.” Susun Weed, herbalist and natural health advisor.

In this course we will read recent essays by Heidi Julavitz, Leslie Jamison, Eula Biss, Eva Saulitis and Lia Purpura that weave together personal narrative with various types of research about health and medicine. We’ll study the ways these writers use narrative to orchestrate essays that are sometimes meditative, sometimes persuasive and sometimes lyrical as they document their own medical stories and, in Jamison’s case, the stories of others. We’ll write our own “story medicine” in response, exercising our capacities for observation, research, story-telling and self-reflection.

What Form Telling Takes: Essaying Race with Beth Alvarado

Susan Sontag tells us that “All works of art are founded on a certain distance from the lived reality that is represented,” and, further, that that distance is what determines style. But this is the challenge for the writer: how do we write about “lived reality” under conditions of extremity? And what else can we call a country where, as James Baldwin wrote in 1964, lynching was “a fact of life” or, as Eula Biss implies in 2009, writing about race is a minefield? How does one construct a persona or declare her subjectivity? What is the “right” narrative distance? For the writer, as Aisha Sabatini Sloan notes, there is the “primal frustration, that proximity somehow invalidates clarity.”

Sentences with T. Geronimo Johnson

Many a knuckle has been rapped over fragments, comma splices, run-ons, but each can be used to great effect. In creative prose. Momentarily setting aside notional rules of grammar (there are enough dusty tomes on those), we’ll examine the question: What make a good sentence? The answer: It depends. Through analyzing and emulating great sentences, we’ll discover that more than anything else, this is an education of both the heart and head.

Scenes with T. Geronimo Johnson

If readers can see it, they will believe it. The scene is a cornerstone of fiction. In dramatic mode, the author is a tour guide, pointing out landmarks, sites of interest, and potential hazards – both literal and figurative. In this workshop, you will learn tactics and tips for writing and revising scenes that keep readers engaged, heighten plot tensions and contribute to the overall design of your story or novel. We’ll also discuss plot considerations and chapter structure.

Our definition of the scene is simple: A conduit for emotion and meaning, the energy of which we amplify or impede by design. Part seminar/part inquiry-based lab, I’ll start and you’ll finish as we explore the gap between intention and execution and the gap between execution and experience. We'll look at the range of scenes from implied to full, the use of scenic overlays, and ways to achieve the scenic in brief. We'll talk about how scenes work to transform and propel character.

Come ready to write, revise and reconsider. This not about rules, but habits of mind; not strategies, but tactics. Our goal? To craft scenes that keep the readers turning pages.

Traditional Forms of Poetry with TC Tolbert

In this course, we will review the fundamentals that make up received formal verse: scansion, syllabics, meter and rhyme. The basics of each will be taught and explored, followed by a more in-depth look at two traditional, historical forms from across cultures: the sonnet and the ghazal. We will then discuss samples of poems in these forms—both canonical and contemporary—and try our own hands at working with some of the elements that give these forms their shape and structure.

Hermit Crabs: Form in Fiction with Tiana Kahakauwila

Hermit crab essays and stories adopt already existing forms as the container for the writing at hand. (The hermit crab is a creature born without its own shell to protect it so it must find an empty shell to inhabit.) By using a hermit crab form such as a “to-do” list, field guide, recipe or set of yoga poses, one can craft a story where the form organizes or even dictates the content, and where these formal constraints help us bypass our intellectual minds, our pre-determined idea of story, to make us more open and available to unexpected images, themes and memories.

In this course we will start by brainstorming and reviewing a variety of forms as well as exploring samples of prose -- fiction and nonfiction -- that employ formal constraint in order to unlock the heart of the story. Then we will discuss the intersections between structure and form, studying particular differences and similarities in the assigned readings. Finally, we will work with the tender underbelly of our own stories and seek to place them in a series of shells with the mind to discover something new, exciting, and emotionally engaging -- for us and for the reader.

Metaphors with T. Geronimo Johnson

The needle in the needle stack: An Exploded View
 [therewillbebloodoranges]

Like reading through running water...Uh-oh. Maybe not. We'll read some dusty old tomes about metaphor, a little Dante (maybe), and some dry linguistic base-metaphor stuff, some terminally dull academic writing. You will sit in a chair, but what, really, is a chair, but a wingless wish saddled by fate. You will talk more than I. These are not the droids you seek, nor is this the course description. OR Are these the droids you seek?

Revision with Tiana Kahakauwila

This two-part course will look at “tiers” of revision, beginning with concrete, line-level revisionary tricks for opening up scene, deepening character, discovering intent, revitalizing image, and adding driving tension to the line. As we move up the tiers, we will broach more abstract revisionary techniques. The first two-hour module will introduce the tiers and allow for play and hilarity. The second two-hour module will be a workshop, where your revisions inspire our conversation. Although conceived for prose writers, this is a trans-genre course. Please come with 2-8 pages that need a jumpstart.

Community Voices with Tiana Kahakuawila

Typically, a story is told from a single character’s perspective. But what happens when one narrative is interpreted by several characters, and a chorus of voices arises to complicate ideas of truth, perception, and the ethics of storytelling? In fact, greater truth can emerge. This Craft Salon studies point of view and perspective as lenses for sharpening voice, deepening character, expanding ideas of place and looking at the ethical landscape of a story.

A pre-distributed selection of five stories will aid us in discussing the first person plural, omniscient third, and series perspectives. We will then engage in a dialogical lecture, where we will examine the key aspects of each point of view and respond to prompts aimed at experimenting with them. To close, we will share our work and discuss how these techniques can help us in writing and/or revising stories with added tension, suspense, complexity and emotional heft.

During our second meeting, we’ll use the idea of community to look at ways of sustaining our writing life via interaction with others. For me, seeing how some of my communities directly engage my writing while others feed my imagination or my heart--in this way indirectly supporting my writing-- has been essential. Finally, through individual free-writes as well as group brainstorms and poems, we will create personalized “sustainability plans” rooted in our shared and individual communities.

Literature Seminars

The Consequences of My Body: Writing the Autobiographical Poem with TC Tolbert

In this course, we will study the work of two poets (Kazim Ali and Maged Zaher) and how distinctly they use autobiography in their poems with an eye toward developing new approaches for our own attempts at autobiographical writing. Both Ali and Zaher revel in the mystery of place and are no strangers to in-between-ness – Zaher was born in Cairo and now lives in Seattle; Ali, who is also gay, was born in the UK to Muslim parents of Indian descent and now lives in Ohio. But the key words here are “revel” and “mystery.” This is ecstatic poetry – standing outside of oneself while also coming in. For this course, be prepared to experience the consequences of your own body. And don’t be surprised if there is ecstasy. 

Creative Nonfiction: New Journalists, Joan Didion and Michael Herr with Beth Alvarado

Joan Didion and Michael Herr started their careers as journalists in the late 1960’s, but found themselves drawn to writing in more transparently subjective styles that came to be classified as New Journalism. We will read selected work from Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem and Herr’s Dispatches.  

Both books provide examples of immersive research, where the writer goes to a location, blends in, and, to some extent, internalizes what’s going on. Didion, a politically-conservative Californian, was writing about the late sixties San Bernadino and San Francisco and experiencing culture shock. Herr embedded himself with the troops in Vietnam and said, “Conventional journalism could no more cover this war than conventional fire-power could win it.” Both writers had to find new ways of writing as their realities shifted and their basic assumptions were thrown into question. Writing prompts will invite experimentation with a range of subjectivities from reportage to personal meditations.

Using Oral Histories To Gain Voice with Beth Alvarado

Anna Deveare Smith, an actor who bases her performances on oral histories she collects, writes that you can “find a character’s psychological reality by ‘inhabiting’ that character’s words. . . ” This technique of active listening can also stretch the writer’s imagination, empathy, and range of voice, no matter the genre. In this course, we will study texts where collecting stories was the first step in the research and writing process.

In terms of craft, there is the question of the balance of voices. Will you use the other person’s voice verbatim, as Smith does? Or to what extent will you integrate others’ voices into your own? In other words, where on the continuum between documentation and transformation will your work fall? Finally, we will practice what we’ve discussed by shaping raw material into poems, scenes or portraits.

Writers Without Borders, Christopher Boucher

One might argue that every writer is a border crosser – that writing in any genre should aspire to naming and dissolving the boundaries that divide us.  In this course, though, we’ll read work by some of today’s most important border crossers in fiction: Valeria Luiselli, Etgar Keret, Clarice Lispector, Junot Diaz, Jhumpa Lahiri, George Saunders and others.  After studying their strategies and methods, we’ll examine the walls that surround our own work; then we'll see what happens when we knock those walls down. Can we make new allies?  What new territory will we discover?

Poetry & Politics with TC Tolbert

A constant refrain in many undergraduate writing workshops is “Poetry is not propaganda.” And we don’t disagree. However, there is a long and varied history of poetry of revolution, resistance, dissent, protest and witness that eschews the didactic in favor of a widening attention to language and its many uses for social change. In this survey course, we will analyze many forms, styles and characteristics of political poetry in the hopes of creating our own work that will make a difference.

Writing the Sticky Stuff with T. Geronimo Johnson

According to the old Cole Porter song, birds do it, bees do it, even educated fleas do it.? Do what, you ask? Fall in love, of course. But, when Porter goes on to write: "I've heard that lizards and frogs do it...Layin' on a rock...They say that roosters do it...With a doodle and cock," we suspect that “fall in love” is a euphemism. Today, fifty years after Cole Porter's death, we are less circumspect in writing about sex and the body. There is a difference, though, between being direct, disturbing and distracting. Each has its place, and in this intensive sequence we'll look at writing sex to suit your intended effect.

Esssaying Race with Beth Alvarado

How does one write about conditions of extremity? And what else can we call a country where, as James Baldwin wrote in 1964, lynching was “a fact of life” or, as Eula Biss implies in 2009, writing about race is a minefield? How does one construct a persona or declare her subjectivity? What is the “right” narrative distance? What tone, form, figures of speech and other formal techniques can one use with such emotionally heavy and historically complicated material?

Remember the word essay comes from the French verb, essai, which means “to try.” For this reason, I always think of the essay as an act of inquiry or as enacting its subject matter.

In two of these essays, there are explicit descriptions of lynchings and so this is a trigger warning of sorts but, I would say, in all four essays, the writers hope to trigger strong emotions in us. When we read literature of social witness, according to Carolyn Forché, we have to be willing to enter the space the text creates; we have to be willing to experience the trauma we find there; we have to be willing to be changed by our experiences.

I want to acknowledge that this can be difficult.

Socially Engaged Literary Arts with T. Geronimo Johnson

Steinbeck, Roth, Morrison Greene, Bolaño, and Sinclair, among others, will both inspire and illuminate as we examine how attention to craft distinguishes the dramatic from the didactic.

Killing Me Softly with TC Tolbert

Whether through depictions, descriptions, or re)enactments of everything from child abuse to war, verbal assault, murder, or rape, we often turn to art and writing to explore, experience, explain or attempt to understand the worst of human nature. But what are the ethics of aestheticizing violence? When is violence just violence, when is it spectacle, and/or when does it transcend? Can violence ever become sublime? A moral imperative? Beautiful? In this course, we will quickly go deep in the writing of several authors who employ, enact and embody violence through a range of approaches. We will consider its implications and how we may approach these possibilities in our own writing.

Literatures of Passing with TC Tolbert

“Passing” can be understood as the ability, or experience, of a person identified with one social group to exist within, or to be accepted as, a member of another social group. Historically, this term has been applied primarily to people of color (particularly African Americans and people of mixed-race heritage) who were accepted as white and thus were able to avoid racial segregation and discrimination. However, in the last 30 years, with the rise of immigration and Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer (LGBTQ) debates, “passing” has taken on new connotations (positive and negative) and has been used to examine the permeable, and sometimes shifting, boundaries of identity and group cohesion with regard to nationality, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and class in addition to race. We will examine how different literary works, authors and artists conceive of “passing” and its various purposes and practices across culture and identity in order to reflect on the conflicting values of visibility and invisibility at significant moments in poetry and prose.

Writing the Other with Tiana Kahakauwila

The ability to imagine, empathize with, and wholly flesh a character is one of the great gifts of being a writer. But what are the risks of writing characters other than ourselves? If we take on characters different from us in terms of race, religion, sexual orientation, gender, age, ability and class, where do we risk misrepresentation? In terms of appropriation, what ethical concerns arise? Prior to the course, we will read Writing the Other (by Shawl & Ward) along with a couple of short pieces. In workshop, discussion will be interspersed with writing prompts. Think of this course as part of a larger conversation, one we’ve already begun (and will continue to have) in workshop, at the dinner table, and beyond.

Foundational Courses

Common Vocabulary

The Common Vocabulary course is required for incoming students. Our goal is to establish a shared literary (and workshop) vocabulary and begin developing your skill applying these terms and concepts to pieces of writing.

Revision

"Writing is revising," Donald Murray said, "and the writer's craft is largely a matter of knowing how to discover what you have to say, develop, and clarify it, each requiring the craft of revision." Murray's words point to the generative potential that revision holds for each of us as writers. How do we mine the hidden opportunities in our early drafts? How do we write through those moments in our drafts that appear to be false starts or dead ends? In this course, we'll cultivate strategies for naming, or creating, writing opportunities and chances for discovery. In doing so, we'll look for direction from writers such as Raymond Carver, Lydia Davis, James Joyce, Denis Johnson, Karen Russell, Chris Offutt, Lucy Corin, Susan Bell and some poets. Let's turn those false starts into alternate routes forward, and those dead ends into open roads.

Publishing with Chris Boucher

In today’s literary marketplace, a writer empowers herself by knowing how writing is published. Even a basic understanding of the processes involved can help debunk common myths about the industry and shorten the distance between writers and readers. In this course we’ll review the fundamentals of publishing and production – this will include tutorials on rights acquisition, copyediting, proofreading, layout, web publishing and other fundamentals. We’ll also discuss steps for getting your work published, and students who choose to will have the opportunity to publish a brief excerpt of their own work online.   

Wine & Dine with Tiana Kahakauwila & T. Geronimo Johnson

The course will begin with sensory exercises aimed at fully experiencing stimuli and finding the words to describe them. From there, we will discuss “taste memory” and memoir; image and the danger of accumulating adjectives; professional food writing for magazines, blogs, and catalogs; and the possibilities and pitfalls of food in fiction. This is a trans-genre course. A small reading packet will accompany the course, to be read prior to our seminar.  We see this as a lot of writing and some discussion of submitting and publishing. Fun, creative time. 

Give It Away: The Writer in Community with TC Tolbert

What does it mean to be a writer in the community? How can we use our skills and talents to engage more deeply in the places we live and work, and for the causes that matter to us? In this seminar, TC will discuss opportunities for writers to volunteer our time and energy: teaching in non-traditional settings; offering writing services to friends, non-profits and political causes; and other ways to make a difference. This kind of work allows you to participate in the gift economy, barter and exchange your skills for something you need, or parlay unpaid work into paid work, but beyond all that, it’s a wonderful thing for a writer to be useful in the larger world. We’ll discuss various meaningful ways to give away our skills, and have some time for each of you to brainstorm opportunities in which you could make a difference yourselves.