The New Mexico State University creative writing program has attracted accomplished teachers, graduated top-notch writers and brought the worlds best authors to Las Cruces to read from their work. But throughout its history, there has been one thing NMSU could not do. The schools creative writing program has never awarded a Master of Fine Arts, the most sought-after terminal graduate degree for a creative writing student.
Thats about to change. A three-year MFA program for poets and fiction writers, the first degree of its kind offered in New Mexico, begins at NMSU this fall.
Professor of English Kevin McIlvoy and English department head Christopher Burnham led the effort by NMSU faculty, students and alumni to gain approval for the MFA from the New Mexico Commission on Higher Education and Board of Finance. Fourteen creative writing graduates wrote key letters of support to secure the new degree.
According to McIlvoy, who will serve as the programs first director, prospective graduate students often called to ask about NMSUs MFA only to find, to their surprise, there was no such thing.
Their next question would be, Where in the Southwest can I get an MFA? McIlvoy says. Now, New Mexico writers can stay in their home region, where, he suggests, they can draw on the particular sensibility shaped by the landscape and people of their state.
The MFA also should make NMSU even more attractive to emerging writers from across the nation. Currently, half the applicants for creative writing graduate study at NMSU are from New Mexico, while the rest hail from many other parts of the country.
Professor of English and poet Kathleene West sees the MFA as an important stage in the development of the creative writing program. It will be all the MA was and more, says West. Now we will be able to provide our students with something they would have had to leave to get. She says that she looks forward to working with students for the one extra year afforded by an MFA program. I felt that there were people who were forced to assemble a bunch of poems instead of a more integrated manu-script, says West. With this extra year, students will be able to take their work to a higher level of completion.
McIlvoy agrees. The MFA is the preferred degree for people who choose to be educators, he says, but it will be useful for others. We think that people with this degree will first and foremost work toward publication of their writing, and that publication will open doors at a variety of levels, whether they go into publishing-related fields or teaching.
Many see the MFA as the natural culmination of three decades of devotion to the teaching of writing at NMSU. From its debut as a bachelors degree program in the 70s, to the inauguration of an MA, and now with the new MFA, a creative writing degree at NMSU has always involved a commitment to the artistic growth of individuals as well as to the artistic integrity of the Las Cruces community, McIlvoy says. Teachers such as Mark Medoff, Keith Wilson, Joe Somoza, Tom Erhard and Jim Mealy established a tradition of personal instruction and community involvement now continued by current faculty members McIlvoy, West, Antonya Nelson and Robert Boswell. The departments newest faculty member, nationally known poet Connie Voisine, will arrive in the fall.
We are clearly already on the map as being a program that played a role in the lives of acclaimed artists like fiction writer Lee K. Abbott, says McIlvoy. We intend to stay a small and personal program that pays attention to individuals in a way that few other programs do.
Some day, continues McIlvoy, people will look back on our MFA program and say that writers who wished to write in the particular artistic culture of New Mexico found a place to do that here.
Jim Earley, 96
A Community of Writers
The notion of the writing life as tortured and solitary is pure fiction at least as practiced at NMSU.
The sense of the group is distinctive of our creative writing program, says Antonya Nelson, associate professor of English.
We dont expect our students to sit alone in a garret and write, she says.
Instead, they are immersed in a rigorous environment that teaches them not only to become better writers, but also to become leaders in the community of writers.
While the Master of Fine Arts program in creative writing is new,
the practice of involving students in the writing community is well
established. English professor Robert Boswell, for example, instituted
the Writers in the Schools program in which graduate students teach
poetry and fiction writing in local grade schools. Each semester 40
to 50 of the young writers give a public reading of their work. Other
student involvement includes bringing well-known writers to NMSU for
public readings, publishing Puerto del Sol, the universitys
national literary magazine, and organizing public readings that raise
as much as $5,000 each year for a local food bank as part of the national
Master of Arts graduate Rob Wilder, 96, who teaches at Santa Fe Prep School, participated in Writers in the Schools while at NMSU, a terrific program, he says that reinforced the idea of non-competitive success. My students are grade-driven, so I try to set a tone that teaches them a respect for writing, he says, not just for grades.
Wilder describes the creative writing faculty at NMSU as having a generosity of spirit. Twenty years from now I feel I could call Kevin McIlvoy and he would agree to read my novel.
Wilder also learned to rely on his fellow writers for support. They give you permission to take risks, to send your stuff out, to take your time, he says.
Victoria Barrett considers it a stroke of luck that the MFA is being offered while she is still a graduate student. Staying on for her MFA also means an additional year as co-managing editor of Puerto del Sol. Puerto is an important experience for me as a developing writer, she says.
Although Barrett is busy working and teaching, she has written more
in the past two years than at any other time. Im far more
productive than I expected. Here I dont have to turn on my writers
switch. I am completely surrounded by the thing I want to do,