2014, Archives, October 2014, The MFA Years

An Inside Look With Audrey Gradzewicz, Purdue University ’16

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

Lafayette is a place that is distinctly alive and distinctly itself—and somehow, even, quintessentially American. In Lafayette, beautiful, old architecture and a palpable, even haunted history exist alongside the soullessly new and the dilapidated unto ruin. The Wabash River is simultaneously a sewer and a river Styx and the center of this place—a division between two distinct cities—West Lafayette, where the university is, and which is clean and kept up and is the public face, and Lafayette, which, if it were human, would be an old man sitting in his house after a hard day’s labor reading a book about chess strategy in his shiny red boxers. The two cities are separated by about a ten minute walk across a bridge—and flow into each other—like the Wabash would flow, if it indeed had any water in it.

Lafayette is where most of the graduate students live, as it is cheaper than West Lafayette. In Lafayette, there are as many churches as there are bars (there are a good deal of both!), and restaurants, and curious shops, and a cool, old movie theatre, and coffee shops, and art galleries, and festivals, and farmer’s markets, and a charming, well-run little zoo, and plenty of places to go thrifting—there’s always something to do if you look. On another note, I have never been as haunted by a place as I am by Lafayette—there is a resilience and persistence about this city—something grim and ghostly—but lovely, too—Lafayette’s a wonderful city to settle into for a few years, to write in. There is something beautiful about a place where beauty isn’t a constant—where you have to look—where beauty becomes a way of seeing. Also, the people of Lafayette are strange and wonderful.

Though I am fonder of the less-manicured Lafayette, West Lafayette does boast one of the best bookstores on the planet. Von’s is less than a five minute walk from Heavilon (the English Department building, or a vortex, if you prefer), and has the best selection of new and used poetry I’ve seen anywhere. Von’s has rooms and rooms and rooms of books and narrow winding spaces—it also carries comic books and DVDs and records and cards and clothing and stuffed animals and things like porcupine quills and sea urchin spines and preserved tarantulas and woolly mammoth hair if that is your preference; Von’s Dough Shack is right next-door lest you get hungry. Another favorite place in West Lafayette is the Horticulture Park—which somehow is Lafayette and West Lafayette in microcosm—well-maintained beauty alongside the neglected and wild-growing; the juxtaposition is striking. There is something Edenic about it, and something funereal; it has its own dark magic. There are also plenty of other parks and places to hike in both West Lafayette and Lafayette, and some really lovely ones further out, like Turkey Run; there are also plenty of dark alleys to duck into.

Our base stipend of approximately $13,500 is perfectly livable; there are also opportunities (through various administrative and editorial positions, through the Writing Lab, through teaching Creative Writing, and so forth) to earn more money after your first year. Rent is very reasonable, even in West Lafayette, and every time I go to the store I’m newly thrilled by how cheap groceries are (there have been squeals of glee). We have pretty good public transportation here, which is nice. We do pay $54 a month toward our health insurance, but it is very good health insurance. And though at the end of each month, as I stare at my ever-more-empty cupboards, I do find myself singing “And I got by/and I got by/and I got by-y” to the tune of Afroman’s “Because I Got High,” I’ve always had enough here—and sometimes it is nice—and even freeing—to have just exactly enough.

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

Purdue takes a great deal of pride in its Introductory Composition program, and therefore new TAs receive a great deal of support and training. All English graduate students teach First-Year Composition. Each incoming TA is assigned a mentor and a small mentor group; prior to the start of the school year, new TAs go through a week of orientation in these groups—the orientation is very intense and very focused. Throughout the school year, in both the fall and spring semesters, new TAs will continue to meet with their mentor groups twice a week for practicum, where they learn everything from classroom management to how to craft assignments and rubrics to how to incorporate various technologies and media to pedagogical theory to professionalization. Sometimes, practicum involves the playing of certain adult-language covers of “Let It Go,” and that’s also okay—and strangely useful. We also have several additional mandatory training sessions throughout the year, and we have something called Brown Bag Workshops every other week, which are wholly optional, but where TAs can learn various classroom strategies and skills. New TAs are also observed four times during the school year by their mentor and receive extensive feedback; they also must observe other classrooms and attend some sort of workshop or professionalization event.

Even having never taught before, I felt incredibly well-prepared to teach last year—and it was wonderful having a built-in community to discuss any issues (and successes!) regarding teaching. Though in training you can’t possibly cover every scenario you are likely to encounter in a classroom (What do you do when a student comes to class pretending to be T-Rex? How should you recover when your student tries to high-five you and you, being the uncoordinated creature you are, just completely miss?) you do get a good sense of how to approach almost anything—and your mentor, mentor-group, and the greater composition program, are always there for you should you ever encounter a situation you don’t know quite how to handle.

We also have a surprising amount of flexibility in our classrooms— there are eight different syllabus approaches that instructors can choose from (in your first-year, you are assigned based on your ranked preferences; from your second year on, you make the unilateral decision!) from Composing Through Pop Culture to Documenting Realities to Digital Rhetorics—each syllabus approach has a unique set of goals and its own character. I teach in the Writing about Writing approach, which I really love for its emphasis on meta-analysis. Yet though there are goals that we have to meet as instructors in our various approaches (students need to learn about ethnography, academic research, etc.), the day-to-day life of a classroom—the syllabus, the classroom policies, the assignments, the readings, everything—is entirely determined by the individual instructor. Every classroom has its own personality, and I think that is exactly as it should be. We are really encouraged to take complete ownership of our teaching.

I don’t know of many other programs where TAs have the same kind of flexibility that we do—but I also don’t know of many other programs where TAs have the kind of support that we do.

MFAs also have the opportunity to teach Creative Writing in their second or third-years; there is also a practicum for this. There is also a practicum for anything you might desire to teach—such as Technical Writing. We are a practicum-heavy school for sure, but we are also a school filled with competent, confident TAs.

What is the workshop environment like?

I think the sense of community that we have here is rare, even unique. Every person here has their own strengths, their own aesthetics, and their own niche. It is amazing to see such a diverse range in such a small program—we accept four poets and four fiction writers each year, for a total program size of 24. But what strikes me is how much everyone believes in one another, supports one another. There is no competitiveness or jealousy here; only support, enthusiasm, and celebration. I think this is just the nature of this program. We are also conscious of maintaining an environment that is inclusive and consistent, nurturing and demanding; the poets here meet and discuss what they want from workshop, from their poems, and from each other. Every voice is heard here, and every voice is valued.

Because of these things, workshop is consistently wonderful. Workshop is a place of sharing and laughter—a lot of laughter—but it is also a place where incisive critique is given. There is no false praise here, but there is also no unhelpful criticism. I appreciate that in our workshop there is no rush to consensus—we do not hesitate to disagree with each other—real discussion is had.

Discussions also continue outside of the classroom. In poetry workshop, we write two poems a week—(which may feel like a lot at times, but I think is important—here, you learn to produce and to revise; with two poems, I believe students feel freer to experiment, to push the boundaries of their own comfort, and to really see writing as a process and continuous and fluid)—poets workshop one poem every other week, the other poems go to the professor and to their poetry partners. Poetry partners work in many different (and sometimes convoluted ways!), but generally, one other poet in the room with read the entire body of your work in a semester. This semester, in addition to a rotating partner system (called “one-night stands” by the incomparable Marianne Boruch) we have arranged ourselves into trios (or as we call them, threesomes, because poetry is sexy); we meet in these small groups over coffee or food or alcohol to discuss our partner poems and the trajectory of our poetry and poetry in general. This is always extremely helpful, and a lot of fun. It is also extremely common to receive additional feedback from peers in the form of multiple long texts and emails—and I have accosted, and been accosted by, poets in the program on multiple occasions to talk about poems!

I think it helps that we have professors at this program who truly care about their students and their students’ work.  While I can’t speak as much for the fiction program, I know that I’ve never heard anything but fantastic things about Sharon Solwitz, and that everyone is energized by the hiring of Brian Leung (who is doing a fantastic job as our new director) and Roxane Gay. In poetry, we are currently searching for a third faculty member, which is really exciting, but currently we have Marianne Boruch, who is a genius goddess of weird, and who knows just about everything there is to know, except who Beyoncé is (though I’m guessing, should they meet, Beyoncé would be forced to acknowledge Marianne as the real queen), and Donald Platt, who is in addition to being a wonderful poet and a wonderful reader of all kinds of poetry, is one of the most patient and understanding and giving people I have ever come across. He is our Dumbledore, except unlike Dumbledore, Don Platt isn’t shady. Also, his name is a verb—when you do something tactfully and graciously, you can say: “I totally Don Platted that.” It’s a thing. Also, “fetch” has totally happened here.

The support I have received from everyone in this program—faculty and peers—even through the most difficult times—has been incredible—and beyond anything that I could even hope for. Lafayette may smell a bit of garbage at times, and Heavilon may be as dark and dirty as a restroom in the very bowels of Hell, but this program is absolute magic. So many kind and generous and talented and funny and brilliant people in the same small place. Every day, I feel fortunate. I would never want to be anywhere else.

What is your MFA experience like outside of the classroom?

The MFA experience outside of the classroom has been wonderful. We have a fantastic reading series, and we also are only about an hour away from Butler, so we take full advantage of their fantastic reading series, too! Each year, the second and third-year fiction writers and poets meet with a visiting writer or poet one-on-one to discuss their work—the poets just met with Tony Hoagland last week, which was a great experience for all of us—something about a fresh perspective is incredibly energizing. The MFA students here also have their own reading series, “You’re in Indiana Now,” which occurs once each month, and generally features three poets and three fiction writers from the MFA program—these readings are always some of the best times I’ve ever had in my life. I’m always newly astounded by the talent here—but the friendly, laid-back atmosphere (the readings take place in a bar; Spurlock’s is generally good about us taking this lovely little room in the back, and serving us delicious fried pickles and beer) is a definite bonus.  There are also the fantastic thesis readings at the end of the year (a two-night, star-studded event) and other readings in the community, such as the Writer’s Harvest, which raises money for Food Finders, and features Purdue faculty, MFA students, and other writers.

This MFA program, which is very big on community, is also very big on being involved with the community—and so through Looseleaf, MFA students bring creative writing to everyone from elementary-age children to senior citizens. Additionally, MFA students often hold themed workshops in one of the public libraries in the area (there are multiple—good— public libraries!).  Though in the community there are wonderful events like the Starry Night Music and Arts Festival, there isn’t a huge literary scene beyond the MFA program. However, there is a good arts scene—there are so many quirky little galleries and gallery walks and music festivals and odd film screenings and performances that I could never mention them all—or do any of them justice! As a little added bonus, there are so many talented buskers here! If you haven’t seen man sing and play the harmonica while making a sock puppet also sing and play the harmonica, you haven’t lived.

Purdue also is home to The Sycamore Review, and there are plenty of ways to get involved with the magazine—you can work as Editor-in-Chief, as a genre editor or assistant editor, or as a reader (I read for poetry and nonfiction, and it’s the bomb-diggity). You can also write book reviews, work on the website, or become involved in a myriad of other ways.

Something that I nearly forgot that that happens here is that one of the second-years—(I hope that this is something that continues for years to come) periodically hosts “Hoots,” where people come to sing, read poetry (or give a poetic rendering of ACDC’s “Big Balls,” which was genius, thank you), make art and be together. While the MFAs do like a good party, and there’s almost always an event or a hang-out to go to, I think these Hoots that center around art and community are quite lovely, and root us to why we are here.

What’s something about the Purdue MFA that can’t be found on the program website, that you think potential applicants should know about?

There’s a lot of good information on that program site! I would recommend it for some light reading over breakfast. But I think something truly important–and wonderful–about this program is that it really stresses writing, stresses the present. I know other schools do have classes on professionalization and publication and fellowships–these are not things Purdue emphasizes. But our alums (and our current students!) get jobs, publish, get fellowships–we have two poets, Corey Van Landingham and Rosalie Moffett, with Stegners right now. This program trusts the talent it has, believes in us enough to let us find our own way. The work is foremost. And the work will lead us.

You will work here–a lot–and play Britney Spears’ “Work B*tch”–a lot–but there is always a lot of fun to be had here. I don’t want to say “Work Hard, Play Hard,” but yeah, I’m saying it. And I think the fun is important. Though everyone is deadly serious about writing (I mean Avada Kedavra serious), this is a particularly social and sociable program. Everyone is here for their own writing, but everyone is also there for everyone else. This is really a community. A community that is occupied by the now–the MFA program at Purdue really is a time to write, to be passionate about writing, and to be with others who are passionate about writing; the MFA here is never viewed as a means to an end.

Image: Matt Grieser


Audrey Gradzewicz was born and raised in Buffalo, New York, and received her B.A. from Dartmouth College in 2011. When Audrey is not escaping from cults, she is often found studying eschatology, using cat videos to teach psychoanalytic theory, and writing poetry; she is also regularly found on the Greyhound singing Simon & Garfunkel’s “America” non-ironically. She is currently a second-year poet in the MFA program at Purdue University.

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