Saint Mary's College creative writing program celebrates 20 years
By Lou Fancher
One of the dangers of living in the eco-aware, culturally diverse Bay Area is becoming blind to incongruity.
Cows, Catholics and award winning-author Maxine Hong Kingston assembled within 200 yards of each other on a college campus? Pulitzer Prize-winning poet or Booker Prize-winning novelist hanging out with aspiring writers in an MFA program led by professors who dabble as guitarists in rock bands or engage in Code Pink peace activism? Sure.
This melding of literary figures is being offered by Saint Mary's College through its MFA Creative Writing program, which is celebrating 20 years of mentoring emerging writers with an ambitious "Creative Writing Reading Series." It features 10 nationally recognized authors of poetry, fiction and nonfiction.
Kingston kicked off the series Sept. 16; the remaining writers appearing on campus (unless otherwise noted) include Geoffrey G. O'Brien, Cristina García (at Lafayette Library and Learning Center), Gregory Pardlo, Michael Ondaatje (at Infinity Lounge, San Francisco), Claudia Rankine, Sarah Manguso, Porter Shreve, Brenda Hillman and Andrew Kenower.
Afternoon salons on the craft of writing and readings of student and faculty work are scheduled on Wednesdays throughout the academic calendar year.
It's all free and open to the public.
"This anniversary year in particular we said to ourselves, who do we know who would demonstrate and exemplify the values of this program," says faculty director Matthew Zapruder. "We're fortunate to have these writers come to the Bay Area. They're all writing at a very high level, and it's possible to see them in an intimate setting."
Access to a nearly limitless literary platform distinguishes the two-year graduate program. Cohorts of six-to-eight students in each genre (poetry, fiction, nonfiction) work closely with core faculty. Guest editors critique students' work and offer advice on publication.
While proud of the program's 20th anniversary series and the 350 graduates and more than 60 books published by alumni during the two decades, Zapruder says there's always room for improvement. One of the program areas the faculty is examining is the time allowed for the final thesis; work traditionally completed during the fourth semester that often is the groundwork for a student's first published book.
But unchanging is the effort to bring in writers like Kingston, whose poems and prose caused former United States Poet Laureate Robert Hass to say in his introductory remarks on opening night, "Her first book ("The Woman Warrior") is an immortal classic. It reinvented the memoir. It's an astonishing book."
Kingston told a story of loss that perhaps explains why a live reading at a small college campus attracted an audience of nearly 140 people. In no other forum than face-to-face would the magnitude of losing her home (and her fourth book manuscript) to the 1991 Oakland Fire resonate with equal force.
Crossing fire lines to search for the remnants of her home, Kingston sensed "a rushing feeling" that eventually named itself as "Idea." Fueled by that energy and a belief that writing is spiritual, Kingston mingled her sensitivities with a more concrete thought, "a book exists before its words."
Conveying urgency in the semi-breathless style in which she presents her work, her talk's closing confession: "I'm obsessed with time and not living long enough to write all the words."
Audience questions revealed Kingston found expression in painting during a period of dark years when her writing went fallow; she often uses a pencil to write because it allows light, dark, thin, thick dimensions of emphasis; and writing in English instead of her native Chinese does not weaken her voice, but instead, makes English stronger.
Zapruder says visiting writers often become an intense focus for students.
"I see in the actual writing of students specific and identifiable efforts to understand and make use of various powerful and notable formal innovations," he says. "These efforts often start out as something closer to imitations, and then gradually are absorbed as authentic aspects of (students') developing style."
Learning by listening, he says, is a vital component in a writer's tool kit.