2014, Archives, August 2014, The MFA Years

An Inside Look with Sarah Crossland, University of Wisconsin-Madison ’13

A picture of Sarah, who is blonde and has dark eyes, looking at the cameraSarah Crossland received a BA in storytelling from the University of Virginia and an MFA in poetry from the University of Wisconsin at Madison. The recipient of the 2012 Boston Review Poetry Prize, a 2013 AWP Intro Journals Award, and the 2013 Pablo Neruda Prize, she was invited to read her work at the Library of Congress for their Poetry at Noon series in the spring of 2011. Her manuscript, Tomorrowland, is currently under consideration at first book contests, and her work has appeared in or is forthcoming from CrazyhorseNarrativeShenandoahFIELDTriQuarterlyThe Iowa ReviewA Public Space, and others. Sarah currently lives in Charlottesville, VA, where she serves as the production editor for Devil’s Lake and the program assistant for WriterHouse, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting writing in the community. You can read more of her writing at sarahcrossland.com.

Note: The current stipend at UW-Madison is 18,500 per year.

What was it like living in Madison? How far did your stipend go there living wise?

Let me tell you about a beer. A delicious beer called Spotted Cow. New Glarus, the brewery that manufactures it, refers to it as a “cask-conditioned ale that has been the popular choice among brews since long before prohibition.” If they can have better-than-sex cakes, then let me tell you–this is a better-than-sex beer. And, it’s only sold in Wisconsin. And, sometimes I paid only a dollar for it. Feeling a little peckish? No worries–here’s a heaping plate of beer-battered cheese curds, pretzel rolls with dark honey butter, a pizza not topped with low-moisture, part-skim mozzarella, but instead: macaroni and cheese. Before moving to Madison, one of my friends told me that the best part about living in Madison was the grocery stores–it’s the kind of place where Trader Joe’s is mainstream. There are co-ops and a glorious grocery store called Brennan’s, which offers so many free samples it puts Costco to shame. (Once I ate a champagne mango so ripe there, it was basically like eating an angel.)

In any event, Madison is gorgeous. In summer, it can still get up in the nineties, but it’s not a humid heat. People grow these intricate and impossible gardens in their front yards, and sometimes, I would walk by a house and there would be three bunnies frolicking on the lawn, among a scattering of chipmunks, and it would feel like I was living in a fairy tale (minus the infanticide). There are several lakes, which shirtless guys flock to in winter, if you’re into that. If you wanted, you could live in a Victorian house overlooking the lake. (At an affordable price!) The city is also extremely liberal and politically active–the first day that I was there, my parents accidentally cut a biker off, and she flashed us the peace sign instead of giving us the finger. The bus system is a little laid back (not always on time), but it’s very far-reaching and free for all students to use with a school-supplied bus pass. Though I wouldn’t recommend it for regular transportation, Wisconsin also has a fantastic system of steam tunnels running underneath the university. If you’re interested in exploring them, give me a shout–I know a guy.

Okay, there’s no getting around it. Wisconsin is pretty effing cold. But I came out of there feeling like I could do ANYTHING. Now I can walk barefoot in the snow in Virginia winters (I actually did that) and scoff at the people who don’t really understand what a real winter is. It put hair on your chest, if you know what I mean. Probably my least favorite thing about Madison, though, was how much the wind hurt my sinuses. The English building is on a prime wind corridor, and it just barrels down and could make you stumble if you’re not careful. The city is really great about keeping the roads plowed and responding to storms, though, so it’s not like snow will shut everything down.

Finally, it’s probably unfair to judge my cost of living against the stipend, because I was able to pay for room and board with residual money left over from my college 529 account. From what I heard from others, though, they did just fine with the $11K stipend we had at the time–I believe it’s now increased to $16K, which just seems lavish for Madison (but very much appreciated!). My single, which was a mid-range 1-BR close to campus and built in the 1930s, was $850/month, with heat and water included. I heard of people renting singles for $400, and I know from my searching that you could pay $1500 for a single if you wanted to go all-out. Everyone is fully funded at Madison, and your money really will go a long way, especially for a city.

How did the program equip you for and support you during your teaching assistantship?

Unless you receive the Renk Fellowship as a poet, your teaching schedule will be 1/1 both years. The first year, you teach the introductory creative writing class (both fiction and poetry), and the second year you teach freshman composition. It is my understanding that Wisconsin prepares you for teaching much more than some of the other top-ranking programs. For the first year, we had a week of pedagogy camp prior to classes beginning, and then a weekly pedagogy class for the remainder of the first semester. Composition followed a similar format, with opportunities for professional development throughout the year. In both courses, the directors stressed a portfolio system and trying to engage students with innovative lesson plans and a technology-integrated classroom. When I got to my first professional development workshop as an adjunct after the MFA, it didn’t take long for me to realize that I was better prepared for thinking critically about pedagogical challenges than many people in the room who had been teaching for decades.

What was the workshop environment like?

Being in a small program with a tiny cohort (6 in each genre, with a total of 12 people in the entire program, at all times) was the best possible thing about being at Wisconsin. Really, I would have risked my life for any of the people in my cohort. They are brilliant writers and people, but what I liked most of all was the attitude of humility there. It’s only a competitive program if you decide you want it to be, because generally everyone is fairly private and humble about their accolades. (For instance, we didn’t find out someone in the cohort already had a book until November of first year, and we usually found out about people winning prizes from Facebook or magazine emails, not bragging. Also, people usually won prizes.) So everyone was very serious about their work, but private about what they accomplished. And yet you just got the feeling that everyone was secretly Batman–that someday these people would be the poet laureates and Pulitzer Prize winners. Even when we were competing for the same things (AWP Intro Journals, Wisconsin’s $1K grad prizes), we congratulated and consoled each other like family. Of course, each cohort will be different in personality, but this is the type of community that Wisconsin tries to foster for its students. Our workshops, then, became more like a panel of informed voices, not just a professor leading a class.

Wisconsin specifically structures its workshops to follow the traditional arc of poetic creation–Amy Quan Barry’s first workshop is often referred to as a poetry “boot camp.” I wrote more than 100 pages of poetry during a semester with AQB. We were asked to turn in two poems a week (one form, one choice), and then submit an unrelated 10-page longer poem at the end of class. Jesse Lee Kercheval’s class also asked that we write two poems a week–one choice, and one poem imitating a famous poet: each week, we’d trade off spotlighting a canonical poet we hadn’t read before from what Jesse Lee called her Poetry “Life List” (I still use it–I was looking at it last week!). Amaud Johnson’s workshop is more about grouping, thematics, and beginning to pull your manuscript together. Every 2-3 weeks, we’d turn in 3-5 pages of poems and discuss them as a group. The final semester, there’s no workshop, which is meant to wean you off of the workshop system so you can focus on polishing your book and meeting with your thesis adviser. Through all that madness, over only two years, I ended up writing several hundred pages of poetry–two and a half books.

What was your MFA experience like outside of the classroom?

I wish, when I’d applied, that I’d known what the difference is between a studio and academic program, because I didn’t even realize what a studio program was when I decided to go to Wisconsin. Basically, it means you get a whole hell of a lot of time to read, write, and engage in writing-inducing hobbies, rather than taking multiple literature courses at the graduate level. (You can still do that, but it’s not required.) If you want, you can sleep for 15 hours a day at Wisconsin. Really, you will have the opportunity to have whole, entire days where you can do nothing but write and watch three to four Criterion films on Hulu Plus. If the idea of crashing waves of unbounded free time scares you, though, there are tons of opportunities to become involved in writing-related activities through Wisconsin. One Wisconsin MFA graduate founded a program at the local prison called The Writers in Prisons Project, which allows writers to co-facilitate creative writing and reading classes for the inmates. I co-facilitated the Fiction Reading class, and it was seriously the best teaching experience I’ve ever had. Devil’s Lake, the MFA-run literary magazine, is also a fantastic way to get publishing experience and become more involved in the contemporary literary scene. One of my favorite parts of working on Devil’s Lake was the interviews and reviews segment–each year, every staff member was asked to write one review (=free book!) and interview one writer whose work they admired–I had the pleasure of speaking with Salvador Plascencia, the author of The People of Paper, and without my Devil’s Lake association, I doubt I’d ever have had such a great opportunity to talk shop with such a marvelous writer. I was also able to intern with the Wisconsin Festival of the Book the summer after my first year in the program.

Wisconsin does require that you take one elective on top of the workshop, the class you teach, and your thesis hours (a.k.a. writing time), and this was perhaps my second favorite thing about being at Wisconsin. For only $200 a semester, I was able to take weekly one-on-one harp lessons through the Wisconsin School of Music with a much-lauded harpist who once shared a harp teacher with Harpo Marx. Playing the harp (which I’d started studying during my undergrad at UVA) allowed me a secondary artistic outlet–when I was frustrated with a poem, I could go play my music, and it would drown everything else out. I also took one regular 3-credit elective each semester–Wisconsin has a fantastic letterpress studio and bookbinding program, and I was able to take semester-long classes in each while I was there. Working from this side of writing–handling the tiny lead type, watching the cotton travel around the pulp beater for handmade paper, mixing inks and tying off the waxed linen thread of a fresh binding–just immersed me in all the things I love and let me tend to all stages of the writing process. My final semester, I took a graduate-level folklore class (Wisconsin has one of the few remaining folklore programs in the nation) on folklore theory, and I wished I’d been around longer to take more folklore classes there.

For the most part, though, I spent a good deal of my time writing, reading (I had enough time for one novel and one book of poetry a week), cooking and baking, drinking beer, online shopping, and hanging out with my friends. The first day of workshop, Amy Quan Barry told us that the true learning in the MFA–the real discussions that get down to your bones–comes not in the classroom, but in the bars you gather in afterwards. It seems like something that could be so easily reproducible, but it’s not. There’s some fine alchemy that happens in the MFA–it’s either the beer or the cheese. I’m just not sure which.

Did engaging in all of those different modes of writing poetry in your workshops (the imitating a famous poet, the long poem) affect how you approached, or now approach, your writing?

I’ve always been interested in narrative, the epic, and the appropriation of blank verse into contemporary poetry. I actually went to high school for creative writing (the CFPA Program at Woodbridge Senior High School in Virginia), and the major project of our senior-year poetry class was to write a “long, narrative poem,” interchangeably called an “epic.” The funny thing is, an epic is no sweat for a seventeen-year-old. I went off to college with an inspired but very shitty first draft of a loosely blank verse, magical realist epic poem about war and love and duty and death called The Vegetalion. I came back to it periodically throughout college, but it wasn’t until I arrived in Madison that I sat down and started seriously re-crafting it. Every. Single. Day. The beauty of blank verse is that you can tell yourself, “Okay, I have to write one line today,” but since the meter is continuous, it’s almost impossible not to keep going. The studio nature of Wisconsin’s program gave me the space to tend to such an enormous project, and Amy Quan Barry’s fondness for forms–along with my cohorts’ fascination with my fascination with vegetables–nurtured it into a fifty-page manuscript that is still just the start of something much, much, much longer.

Though I eventually decided the epic had to be a private project, since it’s just as hard to workshop an epic-poem-progress as it is a novel-in-progress, if not more, Madison gave me the space to let my mind–my imagination–explode.  What I mean to say is that, cheesy as it sounds (haha!), Wisconsin was prepared to help me become the poet I wanted and needed to be, and gave me the money and time and tools I needed to do it. I should say that there were people in my cohort who wrote mystifying prose poems; love poems that threw themselves over the sky; maddeningly experimental poems–everyone was vastly different. I heard once that a great MFA program is one in which every poet goes in and comes out sounding different. I know now that that is true. What I learned from all these approaches–mimicking Carl Phillips, shaking my fist at an incredibly stupid villanelle, writing and writing and writing without even once coming up for breath–was that writing becomes something else when you take risks with it. Something to live on. Though I rarely write like W. S. Merwin and will probably never write a triolet again, Wisconsin taught me that there is something to be learned from everything. Everything. And a lot of the time, the risk in poetry is believing that.


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