2014, Archives, September 2014, The MFA Years

An Inside Look with Jake Russell, Wichita State University ’16

Jake Russell has a chapbook titled “Great Conversations, Greater Wasps” released through the Emerge Literary Journal. He also has poems published in the Open Window Review and The Weekenders Magazine. He studies poetry at Wichita State University and serves as poetry editor for Mojo and Mikrokosmos journals.

What is it like living in Wichita? How far does your stipend go there living wise?

As I approach the end of my 20s, I realize that I’m a Midwesterner through and through: I’ve lived in St. Louis, Mo.; Greenville, Ill.; Omaha, Neb.; Jacksonville, Ill.; and now Wichita, Kan. That said, I moved to Kansas with an expectation of “What can I learn from Kansas?” versus “How can I shape Wichita into another Jacksonville/St. Louis/Omaha?” Though absolving all expectations is impossible, my transition has been relatively easy. I also had a friend from undergrad who wrapped up his final year in the program as I entered, so that helped. Wichita has a cool sense of community — especially along Douglas Avenue (Old Towne, Delano, College Hill) and with Final Fridays — but it doesn’t have the name recognition of a big city or the touring acts coming through (although Of Montreal played here last April). As far as the stipend we receive as graduate teaching assistants goes — “They pay no tuition, receive $4,250 each semester and may buy discounted health insurance,” according to this with the average cost of a one-bedroom apartment being $500, but the tuition ($5,224 for in-state and $12,148 for out-of-state) is covered, save for per-credit-hour fees. I’ve been fortunate to receive a scholarship through my Jacksonville, Ill., church; financial support from my parents; and a freelancing gig with the Wichita Eagle.

How has the program equipped you for and supported you during your teaching assistantship?

We spent two weeks before the start of the semester enrolled in two classes: one, a class that really sharpened our grammatical skills and the other, a class that prepared us for the classroom (complete with second-year students sharing their experiences). This has been my first experience teaching, save for a journalism workshop I led for the Jacksonville School District summer school program, and I certainly appreciate the support and effort from my advisors. The program also allows us during our three years the opportunity to stretch ourselves by teaching ENG 101, ENG 102, ENG 011 (remedial English, which is what I teach), ENG 015 (an English as Second Language 011), ENG 100 (an English as Second Language 101), and ENG 210 (Business Writing).

What is the workshop environment like?

I am a poet in the program, so our requirements lean more toward turning in a poem every week as opposed to the fiction workshops, which (according to my two fiction-writer roommates) entail turning in two (roughly) 20-page stories a semester and then revising them. The workshops differ: in Albert Golbarth’s class, we turn in a poem every week and thoroughly discuss two of them during the semester (first making sure we understand the realm from which the poem wants to operate and then breaking it down line by line, focusing on whether the poem is working within those boundaries or not); in Sam Taylor’s class, we try to tackle all the poems.

What is your MFA experience like outside of the classroom?

This year, I am the president of the English Graduate Student Association and the poetry editor for Mojo and Mikrokosmos. Mojo is the program’s online literary journal, which receives more than 200 submissions (according to Duotrope), and Mikrokosmos is the program’s print journal, which prints Wichita State University students and alumni. Each fall, fiction writers can take a one-on-one workshop with a visiting writer, and each spring, poets have the same opportunity. Guest readers also attend for the Writing Now/Reading Now series: last year, for example, Gregory Orr read in the Ulrich Museum.

How does the program foster its MFA community? What is your community of fellow MFA students like?

Because there are only about 30 people in the MA/MFA program, we have a tight-knit community. Not everybody in the group is active, but those that are go out frequently. We have a ritual every Wednesday where we go out for half-price pizza at River City Brewery in Old Towne, and one of the poetry students hosted a barbecue last weekend. The program itself has the English Graduate Student Association, which is in charge of fostering weekend activities (bowling, movie nights, etc.) for MFA and MA students.


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