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Creative Energy in English

By Sarah Schuetze

There are many parallels between the kickoff of a program and starting a novel/story. The creative possibilities seem to inspire creative writing faculty members who are energized by new projects. For Andrew Ewell, a new assistant professor in UK’s Department of English, “beginning projects is exciting because you can go anywhere with it but it’s also daunting because you haven’t yet gone, but I like being in the middle of things when it’s always tugging at the back of my mind.”

But no one involved in establishing the Department of English’s Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in Creative Writing Program seems daunted by the newness of the program—their collective enthusiasm overrides anything else. The program commences this fall.

The new faculty, assistant professors Ewell, Manuel Gonzales, DaMaris Hill, and Hannah Pittard, all have a common specialization in fiction-writing, but Ewell and Gonzales also write some creative nonfiction, and Hill is a poet and playwright as well. Talking about being a part of the new program, Ewell said, “I think everyone’s excited to be on the ground floor to see what’s next and to have a guiding hand in the full establishment of this program.” Some of them met for the first time only a few weeks ago, but it’s clear that the faculty in the department’s new MFA program have already become a community.

“The final approvals for the MFA,” Gonzales explained, “didn’t come through from the University until February or March.” These approvals came at the end of a process that began in earnest in 2011, when Julia Johnson, poet and associate professor arrived at UK. Director of the Creative Writing Program, Johnson noted, “There’s always been talk of an MFA because there’s always been great creative writing faculty here.” For Jeff Clymer, Chair of the Department of English, this is “a propitious time, since demand for creative writing courses and degrees has never been stronger. My goal is for the MFA to honor the long history of stellar creative writing at UK while quickly establishing itself as a premier national program.

Poets, fiction, and nonfiction writers like Wendell Berry, James Barker Hall, Percival Everett, Bobbie Ann Mason, Nikki Finney, Gurney Norman, Julia Johnson, Erik Reece Frank X Walker comprise the list of celebrated authors who have been or are creative writing faculty at UK. Norman, Walker, Reece and Johnson will be actively involved in the MFA. Janet Eldred, long-time faculty member of the department, will also teach non-fiction in the MFA program.

Instrumental to marshaling the program from idea to implementation were Department Chair Jeff Clymer and Mark Kornbluh, Dean of the College of Arts & Sciences. Both, Johnson remembered, were “unfailingly supportive.” She continued, “You have to have all of the parts supporting the endeavor. If you don’t have a lot of support, it’s just not going to happen.”

DaMaris Hill, who has a joint appointment in English and African American and Africana Studies, came to UK in 2013 during the final stages of the approval process. “There was no doubt in my mind that the program was going to be,” she said.

After the MFA program was officially approved, it was time to select the first class of students. Ewell, Hill, Gonzales, and Pittard participated in reading applicants’ portfolios in the spring of 2014, most of them remotely. “It was fun talking over email or over text with each other about what we thought and the choices we were thinking about making,” Gonzales recalled.

Even though the program had just gotten off the ground, Pittard said, “I was really, truly blown away by what we had” in that first applicant pool, adding “I can’t wait to see the way their writing will change and morph and go from the already great writing to something even better. I’m very excited.”

Everyone expects to see the applicant pool to get bigger every year. All four of the new fiction faculty writers see themselves as significant to that process. Ewell commented, “it takes time, networking, going to AWP [the Associated Writing Programs national conference]” to spread the word about the program. “And we have big mouths, in the best way possible,” remarked Pittard, laughing. She added, “I feel like the expression, ‘getting in someone’s face’ has so many negative connotations, but it’s about letting people know that we’re here and we’re excited.” Clymer believes the program will be nationally-ranked before too long, “given the strong buzz about the MFA, the award-winning writers we already have here, and the stunning new talent that we’ve just brought on board.”

Gonzales remarked, “I feel like there are only going to be good things that come out of it, even in the beginning, even as we stumble through figuring out the structure and the protocol of the MFA program—there’s really so much interesting talent in this department. The students and the faculty will all benefit even in this first year.”

As she thought about the faculty as a foundation for the program, Pittard said, “We’re all enthusiastic, and we all love writing, and it seems like we all genuinely love teaching, so that to me seems like the right recipe for a strong program.” Hill, when asked what her hopes were for the Creative Writing Program in the UK English Department, remarked that she doesn’t want to impose her own expectations on the program; instead, she wants “to give the program the opportunity to bloom, like a wild flower.” Both the faculty and the students will participate in making it bloom, as Hill put it.

One of the ways the students and the program will continue to grow by putting “students in dialog with active and successful writers” while working on their MFAs, as Pittard stated. In fact, Johnson is committed to bringing national and international writers to UK as part of a visiting writers series (beginning with readings by noted authors Jill McCorkle and Roxane Gay this fall).

Judging from the current and forthcoming projects of Ewell, Gonzales, Hill, and Pittard, the Creative Writing Program offers several models of active writers for students.

Hill admitted, “I just can’t stop writing.” She is participating in the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference this summer and was a writer for a production of the Urban Bush Women in New Orleans. She is currently finishing a novel.

The American Scholar” recently published one of Pittard’s short stories and her second novel “Reunion” will be released in October 2014. She is confident that being at UK will “allow me to actually get started on a novel that I’ve been thinking about for a long time but it’s a big novel and it’s a big idea.”

Andrew Ewell looks forward to finalizing revisions on one novel and then focusing on another that he’s already begun working on. Of course, as he noted, “It all depends on the publishing industry.”

Manuel Gonzales explained, “I swing back and forth between the novel and short stories….I just enjoy creating stuff.” He’s finishing a novel that will be published by Riverhead, the same house that published his 2013 collection of short stories.

All four are exploring avenues for collaboration with each other—readings, conference presentations, curricula, so there’s sure to be even more exciting things ahead for this vibrant group.