An Alternative to the Blunt Force Trauma of the MFA
Writing Centers of America, part II in a Series: The U of Arizona Poetry Center
For the second installment in our series focused on writing centers around the country, I interviewed (via email) Cybele Knowles, Digital Media Coordinator and Program Coordinator for the University of Arizona Poetry Center. The center, according to the website, “sponsors numerous university and community programs, including readings and lectures, classes and workshops, discussion groups, symposia, writing residencies, poets-in-the-schools, poets-in-the-prisons, contests, exhibitions, and online resources, including standards-based poetry curricula.”
What year did the Poetry Center open, and what was the mission?
The Poetry Center was founded in 1960 with the mission to “maintain and cherish the spirit of poetry.” We’ve since updated our mission statement to the following: “To advance a diverse and robust literary culture that serves a local-to-global spectrum of writers, readers, and new audiences for poetry and the literary arts.”
How many writers have taught for the Poetry Center over the years?
The Poetry Center’s Classes & Workshops program was established in 2002. Since then, over 80 writers have taught in the program. All have previous teaching experience and are published writers. Many have books and/or chapbooks to their name.
The majority of our instructors are local writers who are not employed in creative writing faculty positions. These writers have day jobs as lecturers, adjunct faculty, high-school teachers, graduate students, administrators, business writers, web designers, etc. For these instructors, teaching a course at the Poetry Center can be a rare and resume-building opportunity to teach creative writing to adults.
The Poetry Center hosts an annual Reading and Lecture Series, ongoing since 1962. We often invite poets and writers who we’re bringing to the Poetry Center to read to teach for our Classes and Workshops program as well. Visiting writers who have taught for us recently include CAConrad, Zachary Schomburg, Sherwin Bitsui, and Thomas Sayers Ellis.
How has working at Poetry Center helped your own writing career?
In many ways! Working in arts administration for a literary nonprofit requires me to stay up to date on writers, literary establishments, and developments in the literary world. This keeps me connected to literary life more continuously than if I worked in a different field. All the Poetry Center’s staff, and the majority of our volunteers and interns, are also writers, which means I have a built-in daily community of people with whom to discuss writing and writers. In the course of doing my job I meet lots of writers, many of who are also editors, publishers, reviewers, and collaborators. I also enroll in our courses as often as I am able. This helps me do my job better, but also always helps me as a writer.
What are your thoughts on MFA programs vs. writing centers?
I believe the MFA model is underdeveloped. I notice that many people experience trauma in the MFA, and I believe much of this trauma occurs within inadequate classroom structures that result from a lack of pedagogy. In the MFA workshop, one often encounters the monopoly of a single method—the workshop conversation where the MFA student presents a rough draft to a group that may be composed largely of strangers and competitors, and sits in silence as this group holds a (often poorly regulated) conversation about the work-in-progress. This method is a blunt instrument that can crush spirits and wills.
I want to provide the Poetry Center’s students with more and more delicate tools. It goes without saying that I want our students to achieve their goals: to become more savvy about the world of contemporary literature, to write work that is publishable in that world, and to improve their craft. I also want them to have fun, to feel supported, to have access to a community, and to be presented with different paths to and through writing.
What are the biggest challenges when it comes to running workshops at the Poetry Center?
I know that the challenge of running a course at the Poetry Center is the same at any community literary center, and that is, structuring a workshop to accommodate students who come to the course with very different levels of writing experience and awareness of literary conventions. The students in a course may range from complete beginner to published writer with a book or more to their name. Our most successful instructors have devised approaches that work with a range of students.
How did you come up with the structure for the workshops?
It’s important to offer options to serve as many people as possible. Some students are only available during the work week; some can only do a class on the weekend. Some students want a sustained eight-week course; others prefer a weekend workshop. An important factor is cost. Tucson is not a wealthy town, and I try to keep our courses between $50 and $300 so that they are affordable for as many people as possible. (The Poetry Center also offers scholarships to help people pay registration fees.)
I'm interested in how writing programs can help shape a literary community. What does community mean to you, and how does the Poetry Center promote community for both instructors and students?
To me, community is a gathering of people with shared values, interests, and goals. After the gathering takes place, the community can, together, accomplish a variety of things. What goes a long way to sustain a community is a space/place that is open to new members and safe for all. The Poetry Center is fortunate to be housed in a beautiful custom building with classrooms, performance spaces, and an exceptional library—a literal place and space for community to gather. The building, which opened its doors in 2007, was a labor of love funded by a public-private partnership and spearheaded by community members who were dedicated to making their vision of a communal space a reality. In this way, the Poetry Center is both a community and a result of that community’s collaborative effort. It’s an upward spiral!
University of Arizona Poetry Center program offerings.