A lifetime to write: Warren Wilson and the origins of the low-residency MFA
By Jeremiah Chamberlin
Poets & Writers Magazine
Sept – Oct 2016 (Vol. 44, Issue 5)
You surprised me!” says Ellen Bryant Voigt when I begin our conversation by asking if we can talk about how she came to writing. She seems pleased to have been caught off guard, happy for the dialogue. It’s an early morning in late April, and we’re sitting at an outdoor cafe in Los Angeles, where we’ve both come for the annual AWP conference and book fair. This year marks the fortieth anniversary of Voigt’s founding of the first low-residency MFA program in creative writing in the country, a program she established in 1976 at Goddard College in Vermont and relocated, in 1981, to Warren Wilson College in Swannanoa, North Carolina, where it remains.
This is ostensibly the subject of our meeting–discussing the low-residency model and Voigt’s role in its creation–but I’ve always been curious about the circuitous routes that lead us to this calling. The path to writing is rarely straight, after all, especially for those who are drawn to a low-residency program, which often serves as a bridge between an individual’s already established life of commitments to place or work or family, and the writer’s commitment to craft and art and creation. So it feels like a fitting place to start.
During the same forty-year span of the low-residency program she founded, Voigt has also managed to publish eight collections of poems and two books on craft, as well as coedited two anthologies, for which she has received numerous honors, most recently a 2015 MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship. So I’m curious to know if writing is something that Voigt came to later, or whether it was an early part of her life.
“I came to it much later,” she says, then explains how she’d begun playing piano by following in the footsteps of an older sister she admired. After a few years, her sister found other passions, but Voigt was hooked. “What I remember was that it was sanctioned solitude,” she says. “I grew up on a farm [in Virginia], and you were supposed to be busy all the time. If you were not busy, you might get into trouble. And if you couldn’t keep yourself busy, things would be found for you to do. So that was my major love and identity and life, and I never even considered that I’d do anything else but have a life in music.”
But after her first few years at Converse College in Spartanburg, South Carolina, where she studied music with the intention of becoming a high school band director, Voigt discovered that what she loved most about music was “the math of it,” rather than performing. She adds: “I had a very good ear and very flat fingers.”
Around the same time, working a summer job playing piano at a restaurant in Blowing Rock, North Carolina–one that featured singing waiters and waitresses–she made a friend of a waiter who was passionate about poetry. “He was reading Rilke and e. e. cummings, and I had no idea that that was poetry. I thought poetry was ‘The highwayman came riding, riding, riding…up to the old inn-door.’ Because that’s what I’d had in high school. But I found this thrilling.”
So much so, in fact, that Voigt changed her major to English, began trying to write poems of her own, and, as she neared the completion of her undergraduate degree, decided she wanted to pursue literature in graduate school. “I was all set to go to Vanderbilt and get a PhD,” she says. But in March, just before graduation, she had a meeting with the dean. “He explained to me that Vanderbilt did not give fellowships to women–this was in 1964–because I would be a very bad investment. I would come and I would meet some nice young man.”
Fortunately, a professor at Converse encouraged Voigt to apply to the University of Iowa, and later that fall she found herself at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the first full-residency MFA program in the United States, founded in 1936, with sixty other poets–only three of whom, including herself, were women. “I still didn’t think of myself as a poet; I don’t think I was a poet then,” she says. “I just loved poetry.”
That first year in Iowa City, she and her classmates met in a Quonset hut for their workshops. “All at the same time, in one big room. And so your chance of having any poems discussed was very slim.
“But that’s what the initial design was. I mean, that was Paul Engle’s vision–instead of people going to the East Village, or instead of going to Paris to a salon, let’s have them right here in the heartland. He was able to get money to bring people, and then we were supposed to teach ourselves. The faculty would be flown in. They would fly in for Monday afternoon workshop and than fly back out.”
The following year, when Donald Justice returned from a sabbatical, the program instituted a structure more typical of contemporary programs, and the sixty students were broken into groups of fifteen. But Voigt recalls only meeting with Justice three times over the course of the next year.
“For some people, that’s a great model. And especially for those people who are sure about what they’re doing and their commitment to it, and they do sense they’re poets, they get together with other poets at the same time in their development and they are given time. It’s a great two years…. But I came later to realize that that’s not the only way that this thing can be studied, and it doesn’t serve everybody. It didn’t serve me.”
While at Iowa, Voigt did meet “a nice young man,” she tells me with a smile. “But I didn’t stop what I was doing,” she is quick to add. While he finished his degree, she taught at Iowa Wesleyan University, in nearby Mount Pleasant. Then, in 1969, Voigt and her husband left Iowa for Vermont, where he’d accepted a position at Goddard College.
That first year was the first time Voigt could recall not having a job. “We were renting a little house on the edge of a state forest, and I just sat in that house and I fed the fireplace and I read and I wrote. It was in that time, then, that I had an inkling that this was a calling, or that this was the art form that was most compatible with me.”
The next year, Voigt was hired by Goddard to teach in its low-residency BA program. The model consisted of a two-week residency every six months, with the remainder of the work done via correspondence. “It was a marvelous thing,” Voigt says, “and especially for women, women with children, a way to go back to school.”
While teaching in this program, Voigt also met a number of individuals whose poetry impressed her. But despite their desire to continue studying the craft, they couldn’t pick up and move to a place like Iowa City–after all, they had children or jobs or other commitments in their lives.
Soon, however, Goddard started to experience financial difficulties. One evening the president called a faculty dinner to brainstorm ways that the school might improve its situation. “His background was in business,” Voigt recalls, “and he said, ‘Where is the constituency not being served?’ And I said, ‘Well, I had these students and there was nowhere for them to go.’ It seemed to me that we could take that model–the low-residency model-and adapt it just to writing.”
Voigt leans forward in her chair, excited again, it seems, by the possibility of this prospect coming to fruition. Plus, she tells me, as she told the president, “If you have a faculty of five people, and they’re all writers, why, that’s more than what I had at Iowa!”
The president thought it was a great idea and asked her to prepare a proposal.
“But who was I to write up a proposal?” Voigt recalls, sitting back in her chair. She was in her mid-twenties at the time, with only limited teaching experience. She smiles and shakes her head.
Still, after consulting with friends like poet Louise Gluck, who was teaching at Goddard at the time, she eventually did outline a proposal for a low-residency MFA program in creative writing, which Goddard’s administration accepted in the summer of 1975. The first class of seventeen students started the following January.
The inaugural faculty at Goddard included, along with Voigt serving as director, Rosellen Brown, George Chambers, and Barbara Greenberg; and the program soon added such writers as Robert Hass, Gluck, Stephen Dobyns, Geoffrey and Tobias Wolff, Raymond Carver, Donald Hall, David Huddle, Lisel Mueller, Michael Ryan, Steve Orlen, Eve Shelnutt, Thomas Lux, and Heather McHugh.
Describing why she was so drawn to Voigt’s approach and philosophy, McHugh said the following at AWP this past spring, during a tribute to Voigt’s life and work:
The program Voigt was inventing she had divined in a format ideal for writers whose lives, like hers, were already rich with relationships--answerable relationships--relationship to families, to jobs, to life experience itself. This program's design of two intensive annual meetings with other crazies in the field, and in the interims--that's an inadequate word for a life--daily devotions to reading and writing in active correspondence with a mentor in the field, struck me from day one as inspired in its application to the reality of a writer's life, a life whose meaningful practices were not to be suspended in pursuit of the art as moratorium on life, but rather conducted in the very swirl of it.
Grounded in this philosophy, and guided by its talented faculty, the program grew quickly in those early years. And soon many of its early students, like Mark Doty and Mary Karr, became well-known writers themselves.
But within a few years Goddard struggled with overwhelming financial difficulties and a potential loss of its accreditation. Facing looming changes in the curriculum and an increased teaching load to be required by the administration–changes that Voigt and her fellow teachers viewed as a kind of dilution of their rigorous work with their students–the entire faculty resigned as a body in November 1980, recommending to the board of trustees that they close the program. “We were not interested in anything that was half grade,” Voigt tells me. “Either you’re for excellence or you’re not for excellence. That’s it. So we all resigned.
“Well, we thought that that was the end of the chapter,” Voigt continues. “We had not changed the world of American poetry, and we thought we were done. Our students, though, didn’t think that. They kept writing to us and saying, ‘You need to find a new place. You need to go to someplace and we’ll wait for you. And once you get there, we’ll come and pick up again.'”
Later that same winter, in another one of those circuitous twists of fate or chance–one that would prove fundamental to the program’s continued growth and, more important, its ability to foster the sort of curriculum and approach that was at the core of Voigt’s vision–Gluck was invited to give a reading at Warren Wilson College. At a reception following the event, Gluck was asked where she was currently teaching.
Voigt recounts how Gluck replied that she was no longer teaching anywhere, but that she’d been a part of a wonderful program that had recently closed its doors. And as she went on to describe her experience, the president of the college, Reuben A. Holden, whom Voigt tells me everyone affectionately referred to as Ben, and who was a great supporter of the arts, turned to Gluck matter-of-factly and said, “Why don’t you come here?”
Gluck demurred, saying that Holden should be in touch with Voigt, to whom Gluck promised she would relate the story upon her return. True to his word, Holden was soon in contact with Voigt to reiterate his offer.
“Ben was very shrewd,” Voigt says. “He knew he was getting a structure, he was getting a curriculum design, he was getting a faculty.” He was also getting a program that already had a strong reputation, as well as students waiting for it to reestablish itself at a new home.
“So that’s what happened. We followed up, and that was the place.”
Voigt speaks with great affection of Holden and his unwavering support of the program. “Come here and do what you do,” she recalls him telling her. Few things could have felt more important to Voigt and her fellow faculty in the young program she was shepherding than having the freedom and autonomy to develop the curriculum and craft-centered approach to teaching writing that they envisioned.
Further, Warren Wilson’s commitment to what it refers to as “The Triad,” which is at the foundation of the college’s undergraduate educational model–a three-part system of academics, service, and study that the students engage in–complemented Voigt’s philosophy that the practice of writing need not be divorced from life and from one’s commitments, but rather should be integrated into and enriched by those things. As Voigt describes the meeting of these two philosophies, it seems like an inspired pairing indeed.
“Life and art dovetailing,” I offer.
“Exactly,” she agrees with a smile.
IN JULY 1981 the program was rechristened the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College, and the faculty resumed teaching. It was fitting, in many ways, for the program to reestablish itself in the Swannanoa Valley of western North Carolina, as it had once been the home of Black Mountain College, an experimental school founded in the early 1930s as part of the progressive-education movement, a college whose central belief was that the practice and study of art were foundational to a liberal arts education. And though the institution closed in 1957, after only a little more than two decades in operation, it was a prototype for numerous alternative schools to follow.
The comparison to Black Mountain feels particularly apt because of the deliberateness of Voigt’s approach and vision for the program. Over the years the model has evolved, of course, influenced and informed by the diversity of the faculty and the needs of the students, but the core tenets have remained in place, among which is that all workshops are team-taught. “From the start the idea was that there not be any one way of doing this, or any ‘school’ for doing this,” Voigt says. Workshops are composed of students from each semester of the program, but the faculty pairings change daily in the hope of exposing students to the widest range of approaches, as well as ensuring that a single aesthetic won’t dominate.
The co-teaching system also provides opportunities for faculty members to discuss different approaches to and interpretations of the work. Doing so, Voigt believes, models for students how to ask productive questions not only of their own work, but of whatever they are reading, helping them develop the skills to think and read as writers. Poet Jamaal May, a 2011 graduate of the program, describes this approach and how it shaped his work as “the ability to see a poem the way a composer sees a score: as moving parts that offer tools but without any diminishment of pleasure.”
Alongside the notion that there isn’t a single aesthetic or approach to the work, the program views workshop as an opportunity for dialogue, rather than a prescriptive or evaluative experience. Novelist David Haynes, a faculty member for more than twenty years and a member of the academic board of Warren Wilson’s MFA program, says the workshop philosophy is to come to the work on its own terms and address the author’s intentions. “My philosophy is that neither the student nor their work is a problem that needs to be fixed,” he says. “I guess I should qualify that and say that if they are, fixing them is not my job. My goal, in workshop or across the semester, is to consider with the writer his or her approaches to the work. Where does the story come alive, for them and for me? How does their voice and style serve the work?”
A collateral benefit of this model seems to be that it’s as generative and instructive for the faculty as for the students. Laura van den Berg, a recent addition to the MFA faculty at Warren Wilson, told me of her experience team-teaching: “In other classroom settings, I have had moments where I wondered how another teacher I admired might have handled a particular moment in workshop, or how they might have discussed a particular story, and so what I love about co-teaching is that, even though the effort is a collaborative one, it gives faculty a chance to witness, and potentially learn from, other approaches and vocabularies.”
The faculty craft lectures–another core element of the program that can be traced back to its earliest days, having helped define the culture of the Warren Wilson MFA program–seem to work in similar fashion. Marianne Boruch, a faculty member since 1988, recalls how “unnerving it was that everyone showed up” for her first lecture:
I had figured it would be like most places and I'd be giving my talk on Gerard Manley Hopkins to pretty much the graduate students only. But slowly filed in the likes of Greg Orr, Michael Ryan, Heather McHugh, Alan Williamson, Ellen herself, of course, and others. Fortunately, I survived, and when hands shot up afterward (Michael's first, instantly, then Alan's--both terrifying to me) I managed to joke that everything I knew about Hopkins was in that lecture. So any questions were pointless! But that broke the ice for me. What continues to surprise me is how much I've learned--and keep learning--about poetry and fiction by going to those lectures and classes, from the people at the front of the room, their holding forth, as well as from the students and fellow faculty who engage in the discussion. It's the closest thing to an old-time literary salon I've found, and it's my dumb luck to have been a part of it all these years. I consider it my education, really.
In fact, over the past two decades, many of the lectures have been collected in anthologies such as Poets Teaching Poets: Self and the World (University of Michigan Press, 1996), Bringing the Devil to His Knees: The Craft of Fiction and the Writing Life (University of Michigan Press, 2001), Poet’s Work, Poet’s Play: Essays on the Practice and the Art (University of Michigan Press, 2008), and A Kite in the Wind: Fiction Writers on Their Craft (Trinity University Press, 2011).
The series began when Peter Turchi, who took over the directorship of Warren Wilson’s MFA program from John Skoyles in 1993 (and where he would remain until 2008) found that he kept kicking a box under his desk. “I pulled it out and it was a bunch of onion-skinned versions of typed copies of a few lectures on poetry and a few lectures on fiction,” Turchi says. Over the next several years, these initial talks were revised into a more essayistic fashion, new lectures were added, and the first of the anthologies was published.
The proceeds from the sales of these books go to Friends of Writers Inc., a nonprofit organization founded in 1991 to raise money for student scholarships. And it is here that Warren Wilson is perhaps unique not only as compared with some other low-residency MFA programs, but also many residential ones: Nearly all of Warren Wilson’s scholarships are need-based; the program offers no prizes or merit fellowships.
“What sort of message does this give to everyone else?” Voigt wonders of programs that offer tiered funding. “So you establish a hierarchy of what? Of talent? Of achievement? But whatever it is, you have said that these people are better than these other people. So right from the beginning we’ve always had–and we still have–need-blind applications.”
The program at Warren Wilson also has a longtime dedication to supporting diversity. The Holden Minority Scholarship, which was inaugurated in 1995 and named for the college’s former president, provides full tuition and residency fees for a student of color for all four semesters. The program also offers the Rona Jaffe Foundation Graduate Fellowship in Creative Writing, underwritten by the Rona Jaffe Foundation, to support an incoming female student at Warren Wilson for two consecutive semesters, along with a modest stipend.
This focus on equality is a hallmark across the curriculum and design of Warren Wilson. Charles Baxter, who has been on the faculty since 1986, says the entire enterprise seems like “a collective effort” and that there is a decided lack of egotism among the students and faculty. “Everybody seems to be pulling together; everybody seems to be doing his or her best to help everyone else out,” he says. “That’s quite rare, and the students know it. Where does this ethos come from? Probably from the example that Ellen has set.”
Margot Livesey, who began teaching with the program in the early 1990s, agrees: “I think one of the great virtues of the program is that it creates a model of writerly generosity among both faculty and students.”
Yet it could also be that the type of student drawn to the low-residency model contributes to this ethos of collaboration. The average age of the student at Warren Wilson–and I suspect this would likely be the same across similar low-residency programs–is thirty-six, though in the current cohort the ages range from twenty-three to sixty-nine. And while age, of course, does not wholly contribute to this phenomenon, many of the faculty members I spoke with describe the sense of urgency with which their students enter the program. “The student writers who come to Warren Wilson usually come because something in their life has told them that the time is now–they could no longer go on living the life they’d been living without fully embracing their identity as writers, without devoting themselves to the craft,” says Dean Bakopoulos, who has taught in the program since 2009.
Richard Russo, who first taught at Warren Wilson in the late 1980s, recalls his initial impressions of the program: “You immediately sensed the seriousness of the place, how special it was. A lot of that emanated from Ellen, but you understood that this wasn’t a rip-off, which too many creative programs are. You went there to work long hours, for a common purpose. The students, many of them older, were not just talented, but urgent in their hunger to make up for time lost to families and first careers and, well, life.”
Alumna Patricia Grace King, echoing this sentiment, describes how, in her late thirties, while living and teaching in Guatemala, she found herself wondering, “If I were going to die tomorrow, what would I regret never having done?” Her reply: “I wish I were writing fiction–I’d rather do that than anything else.” At Warren Wilson she found a number of her fellow writers were drawn to the low-residency model for similar reasons. “They’ve reached a now-or-never moment in their lives, where they feel: ‘I have to do this now, even though my life has become very full.’ People came with this sense of urgency and hunger for the work, and a desire to carve out space in their everyday life to do the work.”
That shared experience of finally acting upon the creative impulse not only contributes to a collective sense of urgency about and seriousness toward the enterprise, but also helps foster a sense of community among participants. This is a common refrain among current and former students and faculty. “People may think the notion of community is counterintuitive in a low-residency program,” says Debra Allbery, who has been director of the program since 2009. “But tremendous, lifelong friendships are formed here.”
This may also have something to do with the intense experience of the residencies themselves. “It is immersion in a community of writers, in the best possible sense,” King says. “It’s incredibly stimulating. You’re thinking and talking about writing from the moment you get up in the morning until the moment you go to bed at night.”
Though it’s not just the structure of the residencies, packed as they are with workshops and lectures and discussions, that helps foster this community-centered experience. “It’s this notion that everyone goes to everything, which has been in place since our very beginning” Allbery notes. “This is perhaps not a given at all low-residency programs, but it is at ours. That communal notion of the day-to-day accretion of knowledge, how the residency grows from day to day. It’s a narrative that we’re all writing together.”
Perhaps the other common misconception about low-residency programs is that they simply confer degrees by mail. But the kind of mentorship that is cultivated through the sustained, regular correspondence between faculty supervisor and student is one that nearly all participants cite as one of the most meaningful and enriching elements of the program–as well as one of the most rigorous. Warren Wilson MFA students and their faculty mentor exchange six writing “packets” over the course of each semester, and students must sign a pledge that they’ll devote no less than twenty-five hours a week to this collective work. In addition to new and revised writing in each packet, students are also expected to provide several three-to-four page “annotations” (which the program handbook describes as “one writer writing to another writer about a third writer’s work…in which the student examines some aspect of craft in a poem, story, or novel he or she is reading”), an updated bibliography of their reading, and–most important–a letter to the faculty supervisor that thoughtfully addresses the materials in the packet, along with the writer’s reflections on their growth, questions about the writer’s life, observations related to the readings, responses to the supervisor’s previous commentary, and so on. Likewise, the faculty mentor responds in similar, in-depth fashion, offering his or her own questions, insights, and feedback on these various elements, creating an ongoing dialogue between teacher and student, one the program describes as an “apprentice-colleague relationship.” This correspondence is truly at the heart of the program.
“The correspondence between teacher and student is a kind of art form and is the most intellectually challenging part of my teaching life,” Bakopoulos says. “The writing of these letters is an act of discovery for me; each time out I think of something about my own work, or a published work, or how we teach, that I had never thought of before.”
A. Van Jordan, a 1998 graduate of the program, a recipient of the Holden Scholarship, and a faculty member for the past decade, agrees. While in the program, his faculty mentors were Claudia Rankine, Agha Shahid Ali, Eleanor Wilner, and Carl Phillips. “I could tell stories about how each of these poets changed my life in some way,” Jordan says, “but I think the moment that stands out for me now–the moment that I reflect on as a faculty member now, a moment that still guides me–is my semester with Agha Shahid Ali and our exchanges during the time that his mother was dying.” He continues:
This was before we were using e-mail, so we were exchanging our documents via the postal service. Shahid had to fly to Kashmir, India, to make funeral arrangements for his mother, and he sent me his response to my poems and my annotations with a thoughtful letter, on time, Global Federal Express. I wept when I opened that envelope. I think of him whenever I've had a challenging week, and I have to respond to my students; my ambition is to have that kind of commitment to those who depend on me.
Similarly, Fred Arroyo, who was the first recipient of the Holden Scholarship, completing the program in 1997, says he is still in contact with most of his mentors from Warren Wilson. “Pablo Medina and I have continued writing to each other regularly for almost twenty years,” he says. “We share books, elements of process and current projects, and the worlds we write in. He is still my mentor, and a friend. He’s always had a wonderful ability to help me bridge and mix together the various lingual, cultural, and generational forces that shape my writing life. When I was in the program, e-mail was just beginning, and so our packet exchanges happened through the mail. The letters I wrote and the letters I received were essential. There was this living dialogue taking place, I held it in my hands, I could return to it over time, and I was immersed in the process and life of writing.”
But what about the benefit of time–of two years to write–that traditional, full-residency programs offer students? Having served on the MFA admissions committee for the Helen Zell Writers’ Program at the University of Michigan in the past, I’ve read countless cover letters from writers who state that this is the reason they’re pursuing an MFA. So as we near the end of our conversation, I pose the question to Voigt, asking what a low-residency program like Warren Wilson might offer instead.
“A lifetime to write,” she replies, not missing a beat.
“We give you the tools that you need so that you can pursue this for a lifetime, if that is your passion.”
And Voigt is clear that she doesn’t believe the low-residency model is best for every writer or every path. Some individuals, she feels, need the built-in community of a residential program, the structure of weekly workshops and deadlines. She’s also aware that a low-residency program like Warren Wilson can’t offer the experience and credentials necessary for a career in teaching, for example.
“In other words,” Voigt tells me, “come to us only if you have that passion, and this is a dream deferred, and this is what you need to do. If you need a divorce, or you need a new job”–and here Voigt begins laughing–“well, that’s your business.”
The question of how one becomes a writer, then, turns out to be perhaps the best place I could start my conversation with Ellen Bryant Voigt. Because what I keep returning to in conversation after conversation with many writers is an attempt to understand how and when we each recognize that we want–need–to pursue a life in writing, and how we go about achieving that end. For some, the calling comes early. (Not that this guarantees one will continue on the path.) For others, recognizing–or being given permission to recognize-the writer in themselves is no small feat. It might even be the greatest of gifts. Robin Black, a 2005 graduate of the Warren Wilson program, captures this sentiment:
Had Ellen not dreamed this entirely new paradigm for graduate education in writing, people like me, a mother to three kids, absolutely glued to my city, to my obligations, would have remained shut out. The same goes for people who have jobs they can't leave, and many, many others. What she did, really, was invent a new kind of inclusiveness for MFA programs-and in that tradition, Warren Wilson remains committed to inclusiveness of all kinds. The program ... is in some ways a simple refusal--first and foremost by Ellen--to accept that a higher degree in the arts is something only for a few people who happen to be mobile and able to devote themselves full-time to the pursuit. It is bold and it is gorgeous for being that.
Nearing the end of our talk, I am reminded of what Charles Baxter said the previous day at the tribute to Voigt and her career. Looking out over the hundreds of audience members gathered in the room, he said, “I am here to say that what I know about the teaching of writing I owe entirely to Warren Wilson, and to Ellen, and I am happy to say so.”
I ask Voigt what she thinks of Baxter’s comment.
“Oh, yeah,” she says, beaming–not at the compliment itself, but because she shares the same sentiment. “But I would go further.I would add to Charlie and say, ‘I could not have written the poems I wrote had it not been for this program, had it not been from hearing their work.’ Starting back in the Goddard days, starting with Ray Carver. He got up there and he was reading those stories.” She pauses and shakes her head at the memory. “You know when you’re in the presence of the real thing. You just know it.”
It’s clear that the writers who have passed through the MFA program at Warren Wilson know it too.
JEREMIAH CHAMBERLIN is a contributing editor of Poets & Writers Magazine.