So after many years of deliberation and doubt, I finally found the courage and confidence this past December to apply for a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) degree in Poetry. As one of my friends pointed out when I’d asked him to critique my poetry portfolio, he was glad to see me actually making a move on this, since I’d first mentioned it to him as something I really wanted to do… over 5 years ago. (Yeah.)
But I’m pleased that I’d spent those years writing, practicing, memorizing, performing, trying on different forms and voices, exploring diverse emotions, and reading a lot more poetry and prose. It all allowed me to discover what I didn’t want my poetry to be, or to become, and how I can contribute my voice to the grand body of work that is the poetry of mankind.
The Lay of the Land
When applying, I followed the advice of both my former professors and The Creative Writing MFA Handbook (by Tom Kealey) and applied to 12 different MFA programs. Each one varied by location, class size, professors, costs, and personal bent on what poetry should be/do, but they all had 2 things in common: they were all top-tier programs with a dedication to mostly- or fully-funding their grad students. (And really, this monetary pledge toward your success in the program as vital, as there’s no guarantee of income with the degree in hand, unlike, for example, a medical degree.)
“But why so many schools, Justin? Isn’t a dozen absurd?!?”
Why yes, collective voice of the curious internets, it is absurd. But each program is rather small (usually admitting between only 3 and 10 poetry students per year), rather selective and competitive (because hundreds and sometimes even thousands of aspiring writers apply for just these few spots), and rather subjective (as all your hard work and preparation are screwed if one of the professors/admissions folks reads your work and thinks “meh,” for whatever reason whatsoever). To quasi-counteract all of this, nearly all recommended employing the shotgun method of applying – just shoot wide and hope you hit something, boy. And really, I only need but one school to contact me and say, “Hey, we think you’re cool. Come make words with us. Oh, and here’s a bunch of monies. See ya in the fall.” So here I am at home, with cramped and crossed fingers and tiring, waiting lungs.
Yet, even if I don’t get accepted into any of the programs to which I’ve applied, this process has definitely made me feel more like a legitimate writer, let me peek into what the MFA life just might be like, and let me know just whom I could call upon in times of creative crises. And on that note…
- Thank you to my recommendation letter writers. Not only did you (assumingly) say nice things about me, but you also said those said things 12 times to 12 different schools, each with its own submission peculiarities, and put up with last-minute deadlines on my behalf. Thank you for your past and continual efforts to make me better and more literate.
- Alene Harris – Vanderbilt Prof. Emeritus; my first writing patron; a phenomenal professor turned employer, turned mentor, turned friend, turned family.
- Bill Brown – Vanderbilt Prof. Emeritus and Professional Poet, my first poet-mentor, truly humble and wise in all things.
- Cat Acree – BookPage Associate Editor, my first professional editor who actually cared enough to edit my words, and still feeding me with writing assignments after nearly 2 years.
- Thank you to all whom read over, critiqued, helped select my best poems – and then made them better – so I’d have a portfolio with a fighting chance. You da best:
- Mary DeYoe (my first poetry professor from all the way back in freshman year!),
- JR Mahung (for always being “that dude”),
- Malcom Friend (for grilling me with that good MFA critique work),
- Josh Stewart (for all your heart you put into everything),
- Kali Scurdy (for all your love you put into everything),
- Benjamin Carr and Ruqayyah Strozier (for reading through every one of my poems with me and telling me things to my face, even if they weren’t always things I wanted to hear)
- Jessica Rutsky (for editing my poems between med school cramming and examming),
- Travis Cohen (for cranking out some beastly critiques at the last minute, like a boss)
- and Kerry Cullen (for applying the MFA Fiction lens to my poetics and passing on some of your own, hard-earned, writing wisdom).
- Thank you to my friends and fellow writers who’ve encouraged me and taught me so much about poetry and spoken word over the past 8 years. You’ve, quite literally, changed the trajectory of my life.
- My Vandy Spoken Word family – especially Debangshu Roychoudhury, Kevin Hritz, Jose Grenet, and Dan King (for your impact in making my words more bold)
- My Atlanta Word Works family (for reminding me of why we continue to write)
- Tonika Huff (for opening me up to different worlds; for reminding me that my words are powerful, even if you don’t always understand them),
- George Barisich (for encouraging me to “project my voice” even as a child in your beat-up pick-up truck, and for being just crazy enough to ad lib song lyrics to fit your mood)
- Chris Barisich (for your endless support and engineer’s eye applied to the creative cloud)
- Michael Shirey (my fellow Mother-Fuckin-Artist to be; and personal, on-call graphic designer)
- Ethan Labourdette (for your years of friendship and helping me to appreciate the theater/plays)
- Alfred Chan (for your loyalty, for making me feel like a real writer by studying my poetry with your high school students, and for always pestering me about when I’d be posting my next poem)
- Jonathan Tomick (for telling me to read Steven Pressfield’s life-changing The War of Art so many moons ago)
- Tom Harris (for all your grandfatherly and academic advice)
- Mr. Gary Wyss (for running the Creative Writing Club in high school that first got me to share my poems),
- And all the random people and companies who/that fed me with freelance writing gigs.
- The Most Honest:
- The solitary writer life is a bunch of bullshit. I just thanked over 26 people above. How foolish to think I was ever alone in this process.
- The Harshest:
- Only some of your professors thought as highly of you as you thought of them. When selecting folks to write your rec letters, don’t ask someone just because they’re a big name or a big deal in the writing community. Odds are they won’t remember that you’d even taken their course some number of years back, and thus, won’t care whether or not you get in.
- Instead, lean on those former professors with whom you’d actually created a good rapport. They’ll be willing to help out, are happy to see you going after something bigger and better, and are far more likely to invest their time and effort into giving you a better chance to reach it.
- The Most Unexpected:
- It will take hours upon hours (and dollars upon dollars) to get all your app ducks in a row and digitally flying together in the right direction. Be sure to set aside a lot more time then you’d ever think to do this, and do it right, so that you might not ever have to do it again. Also, just assume that all of your apps are due on December 12th and you won’t be caught off-guard by the one that actually is (side-eyes at you, sneaky OSU).
- Also, there’s a lot to keep track of here, which multiplies with every additional school to which you choose to apply. Make a checklist (like the one I made, pictured below), get organized, and don’t shoot yourself in the foot before you’re even given the chance to start running.
Grad School Apps Costs
Below are all the schools to which I’ve applied (in order of app cost), and then all the ancillary costs that came coupled with completely submitting them.
- Application Fees ($870)
- Washington University – $45
- Ohio State University – $60
- University of Iowa – $60
- University of Texas at Austin, English Department – $65
- University of Texas at Austin, Michener Center – $65
- Brown University – $75
- Johns Hopkins University – $75
- University of Houston – $75
- Boston University – $80
- University of Virginia – $85
- University of California at Irvine – $90
- Cornell University – $95
- Sending GRE Scores ($189)
- Sent out to 7 programs (required) – $27 each
- Sending Undergrad Transcripts ($15)
- (Vanderbilt’s were free. Yays!)
- LSU summer coursework – sent out to 5 different schools – $15
- **More may be required after being admitted into program.**
- Mailing out packets/samples [Certified mail postage, from Atlanta, GA] ($22.69)
- To UC Irvine – $8.66
- To Iowa Univ. – $7.12
- To UVA – $6.91
- GRAND TOTAL: $1,096.69
- Wait impatiently to hear back from all the programs to which I’ve sent my soul and hopes.
- Send poems out in hopes of being published somewhere.
- Stop, collaborate, and listen.
- Remain humble. Remain grateful. Continue learning. Continue writing.