2014, Archives, September 2014, The MFA Years

An Inside Look with Lisa Summe, Virginia Tech ’16

Lisa Summe was born and raised in Cincinnati, Ohio and earned her BA and MA in English at the University of Cincinnati. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in RHINO, Word Riot, Sundog Lit, Revolution House, Fourth River, Mead, and elsewhere. In 2013, she was the recipient of the Atlantis Award from The Poet’s Billow for her poem, “Pilot You.” Currently an MFA candidate in poetry at Virginia Tech, she lives in Blacksburg, Virginia where she teaches writing, and works as the poetry editor of the minnesota review and the associate editor of Toad.

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

Moving to Blacksburg was a bit of a culture shock at first, but I guess it really just depends on who you are and where you’re coming from. I lived in Cincinnati my whole life until I moved to Virginia to attend VT. Blacksburg is a small college town in rural, southwest Virginia and the entire place is essentially Virginia Tech. I’m not really into school spirit, at least in terms of athletics, but football is everything to this town, and there are Hokies (our mascot) everywhere– statues, flags, and other memorabilia can be found in most town establishments, whether it be at the bar, the mechanic, the pharmacy, or the laundromat. The Hokie is a made-up character. My girlfriend describes it as a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turkey. It’s like a turkey on steroids. But, in my desire to clearly explain Hokie for the sake of this interview, I found that it actually has nothing to do with turkeys. O.M. Stull, a former VT student who used the word in a cheer that he made up for a contest to select a new spirit yell when VT changed their name in 1896, coined the term. He won $5 for coming up with the best cheer. More info on the Hokie can be found here if you’re interested.

What I like about Blacksburg is that there is a strong sense of community and people are generally very friendly. When I first moved down here, I went to the thrift store down the road for a bookshelf. Out in the parking lot, as I was trying to adjust the front seat of my Corolla to somehow shove the bookshelf in the back, an older guy came up to me and asked if it would fit. Annoyed with the hot weather that day and trying to the amount of energy I was spending trying to shove the thing in my car, I told him I’d probably manage, hoping he would just go away. He continued to talk to me and asked me where I was going. I told him I lived just two miles down the road and he helped me toss the shelf in his truck and followed me down Main Street to my apartment, which, usually a 3-4 minute drive took 10-15 minutes because it was move-in week for the freshman. This was one of my first interactions with a stranger in Blacksburg, and I have thought kindly of this town since. Another bonus about living here is that the cost of living is very affordable, so the $16,000 stipend is pretty sufficient. MFA students also have access to really good health insurance at a very discounted price, which can be deducted from our paychecks so that we don’t have to pay anything up front.

I can’t with a clear conscious fail to comment on the lack of diversity here. Because it’s a college town, it makes some sense that about 60% of the population is made up of VT students, so there are a lot of young people in town. According to the 2010 census, Blacksburg is 85% white. There are no gay bars. This town is not ideal for any minority and one could easily feel isolated here because of that. However, I will say that there is a more comfortable amount of diversity within the MFA program itself, in terms of both faculty and students. But to end on a positive note, I have to mention that Blacksburg, and just beyond it, is just gorgeous–you can see the mountains in the distance from just about anywhere and there are a lot rivers and places to hike nearby. It’s generally a really calm area (except during football home games!), and I think that has played a major role in helping me get so much writing done. I just read on a MoveTo blog that Blacksburg ranks number four in their post titled “These are the 10 Happiest Small Places in America.” It’s not a bad gig.

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

VT’s program is very conscientious in preparing you to teach and they do a good job easing you into it. During your first semester you do not teach. Instead, you take a 6-credit pedagogy course surrounding many aspects of first-year writing and you are assigned a mentor (a senior comp instructor), who you shadow at various times throughout the semester. After a few training sessions, you earn your stipend by working a few hours a week at the writing center on campus. Then, in your second semester here, you teach one section of first-year writing while enrolled in a practicum course that meets once every other week. In addition, the department hosts a series of “teaching talks” each semester. These talks, led by senior comp faculty, can be useful to anyone teaching comp, but are really directed toward GTAs. Some topics for these talks have included how to work with a diverse student population (i.e. ELL students), how to incorporate the required texts into your course, how to deal with plagiarism, effective assessment tactics, etc.

Currently in my second year, I’m teaching a 2:2 load, which is tricky but doable if you know how to manage your time. It’s definitely not ideal when it comes time to grade papers. This year, I’m still enrolled in the same practicum course and attending the “teaching talks.” What I’m looking forward to though is next year’s teaching, which is a 2:1 load, and in that final semester I will have the opportunity to teach a multi-genre intro to creative writing course instead of first-year writing. In order to prepare for this I will be enrolled in a creative writing pedagogy practicum course throughout the course of my third year instead of the first-year writing practicum I’m currently in.

What is the workshop environment like?

The workshop environment varies drastically based on who is teaching, simply because different professors have different attitudes about workshop and visions about how it can be most effective. I’m currently taking my third poetry workshop since entering the program and needless to say all three have been very different. The one I am currently taking is really interesting because we work outside of the “traditional” workshop mode. For example, every time you pass around copies of your poem to be workshopped in an upcoming class, you write at the top of it what kind of workshop you want. There are many options, such as the “global contract response,” the “Q&A,” the “snapshot response,” and many, many more. I won’t explain each one, but I will say that our class sort of came up with a new one, which I call the “what if,” where we begin the discussion about a poem by calling out any “what if” questions we can think of regarding the poem while the instructor writes them on the board, i.e. “what if you start the poem with the third stanza,” “what if you spend more time exploring the relationship between the speaker and his lover,” “what if you wrote this poem in present tense,” etc. After we have a comprehensive list on the board, we just go around talking about why we listed what we did. It’s fascinating because as the author of the poem, you get a strong sense of how people are actually responding to your poem without the bullshit while being provided really straightforward options to try out in a revision.

One thing that is consistent in workshops here is the small size, usually between five and ten students for any given genre. VT is a small program, currently home to a total of 22 students. Any of the MFA students can enroll in any genre of workshop during any semester and I think it’s cool we have that opportunity and are encouraged to work outside our genre. Poetry and fiction are the degree tracks offered at VT, but there are also opportunities to take workshops in creative nonfiction, new media writing, and playwriting. I have yet to take a workshop outside of poetry, but am planning on trying out CNF and fiction before I graduate.

What is your MFA experience like outside of the classroom?

One of my favorite aspects about VT’s program is the wide range of opportunities it provides us beyond the scope of the classroom. One thing I’m very interested in is working on literary journals. At VT the MFA students work on the minnesota review, a print lit journal that is published biannually and features both critical and creative work from both emerging and established writers. The MFA students who work on the journal have complete say in the creative section of the journal. We read from the slush pile, select the work, decide on the order we want it appear in, etc. This is my second semester working as a poetry editor. In addition, I am the associate editor of Toad, an online journal founded by Bob Hicok that features poetry, flash fiction, and art; it’s run entirely by VT MFA students and alums. We also have the opportunity to work on The New River, which is a journal of digital writing and art. It was founded in 1996 by Ed Falco, an MFA professor here and was the first journal of its kind. If lit journals interest you at all, there are a lot of opportunities to get involved in them at VT.

Another perk is that VT hosts a badass visiting writer’s series. The writers visiting Tech this year are Percival Everett, C.K. Williams, Rachel Zucker, Jamaal May, Patricia Engle, and George Saunders. Each year the MFA students get complete say in choosing one fiction writer and one poet to visit VT. We decide on this amongst ourselves, usually with some sort of voting process, and actually reach out to the writers to invite them to come read at VT. Our student picks for this year are Jamaal May and Patricia Engle.

What interactions do MFA students have with the visiting writers?

We are very fortunate that we get to interact with visiting writers quite a bit. When a writer comes to visit VT, he or she often hosts a craft talk. The one I enjoyed the most last year was Heather Christle’s talk on various ways to integrate humor and surprise into our poems. In addition to craft talks, the department pays for interested MFA students to eat lunch and/or dinner with the writer on the day of his or her visit. We most frequently end up at India Garden’s lunch buffet, which is an added bonus. Last year I got to have dinner with Heather Christle and lunch with Mary Gaitskill. These outings are small, usually 3-5 students, an MFA faculty member, and the visiting writer. What I like about spending this time with the visiting writers is getting to talk to them and ask them questions outside of the academic setting we are always in. There’s always something fun to do after the readings as well. Often an MFA faculty member will host a reception for the writer and the MFA students and faculty at his or her house after the reading, which is another cool way to talk to the writers in a laid-back, low-stakes setting while hanging out with your friends from the program. I’m thrilled that we have so many opportunities so meet other, often very famous writers, and so grateful for the generosity of our department for making this possible.


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