2015, Archives, September 2015, The MFA Years

An Inside Look With Alana Folsom, Oregon State University ’16

Image: Greg Keene

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

Living in Corvallis isn’t bad, but my frame of reference for college towns is pretty piss poor because I went to undergrad in rural Maine. That said, it’s pretty affordable to live in town (cheap housing can be found, farmer’s markets can be shopped at, $2 beers can be acquired, etc.) and I like the community feel of knowing that if you go to one of the four or so popular coffee places, you’re bound to run into someone from the program who you can chat with for an inordinate amount of time instead of actually working (the point of coffee shops?). I will say, though, that if you want to leave Corvallis—we’re 90 min from Portland and 3-4 hours from Seattle, traffic depending—then the stipend quickly becomes Just Not Enough. I’m lucky in that I squirreled money away from my job and I’ve been eating through that savings so I can be a happy human and do things like go out to dinner and see concerts in Portland and buy stupid expensive out of print books. That being said, I truly believe that if you need to make it work, you can on our stipend. It means, though, not living in a nice apt and not eating nice dinners whenever you feel like it. Ya know?

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

Alright. Here’s something that OSU is GREAT at. We have an amazing support system and a great teaching orientation before classes start. We are given a ton of guidance and assistance during orientation (syllabus, sample course materials, sample lesson plans) and all first years have a class in the fall that essentially becomes a support group/ how-to-teach-next week’s classes kinda situation. I was extremely nervous about teaching before I got to OSU and feel that I’ve been helped in such a way that I’m truly the best teacher I could conceivably be right now. Which doesn’t mean I’m fab; it just means that I have never cried before, during, or after teaching a single class. Compared to some of the horror stories I’ve heard from other MFAs, I can say that I feel truly lucky to have the support of the faculty and my fellow newbie teachers.

What is the workshop environment like?

It’s real standard. We turn in poems (for two of our three workshops, we can turn in as many poems as we want over the quarter, which is pretty rad; for the third WS, we have set weeks where we turn in) and then we workshop them the next week. We will occasionally read books and present on those, too; I believe we read three books in each of my WSs last year, some contemporaries like Rebecca Lindenberg’s Love, An Index (swoon) and also some wonderful dead white guys like Hopkins. The WS environment is very encouraging, but, I’d argue, there are times when our encouragements are detrimental. Because we’re a very close knit cohort and all genuinely like each other as human people, it can feel as though there are occasions when we’re as mindful of our friendships as we are of our writing. I know, though, that even among my cohort, this statement will be disagreed with and challenged. I’m just trying to paint my own experience. We have very lively discussions. I do feel as though my writing has been helped by workshop (duh) and that I have found some kindred souls whose ideas and comments on my work have pushed me and my writing in directions I’m interested and excited about. I think it cannot go without saying, too, that I (again, this is only me speaking for only me) was upset that we had a female-only cohort last year; that’s changing this year, so I’m hopeful for some fresh perspectives on that end.

What is your MFA experience like outside of the classroom?

It’s pretty rad in this regard, too. But here’s where my shameless plug comes in: in the winter quarter of last year, an absolutely amazing group of people and I got together and founded a lit mag because OSU didn’t have one and we wanted one. We’re called 45th Parallel and I’m the Editor-in-Chief and working to build this lit mag with my compatriots as well as with the administration and faculty has been by far the most rewarding part of my MFA experience. Tough, yea, but like genuinely edifying also. We came up with the idea in a bar around March and now it’s August and our website will be up by the end of the month, we’ve secured funding though the Library (hayyyy Gray Family Chair for Innovative Library Services!) and our department has even given us our very own office space.

The faculty has been uber supportive and I’m going to go ahead and speak for all of us when I say we’re all in a tizzy about the mag. It’s essentially best case scenario. We also have a great reading series and have had the chance to see read and speak with (as a program, so, imagine us in a room with about 15 people usually) writers ranging from Cheryl Strayed to Claire Vaye Watkins to Jenny Bouley to Kazim Ali. And, this year, Rita Dove is coming as part of some fancy OSU award, so that’ll be great, too. We also have a monthly MFA reading series where each person in the program reads once per year, which I think is a great way to hear what other people in other genres are writing and engaging with. I wish those happened more often because hearing everyone read is always this amazing two hour celebration of the SOMUCHTALENTTHATSURROUNDSUSALL!! but I’m easily excited.

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

I just went onto our website again to see what is what because I think this question is really important. I think that one of the main positives that isn’t highlighted is the true sense of community that exists within the MFA-ers (and MA’s) at OSU. By that I mean: we all pretty much love each other, cross-genre and cross-years and cross-degree. One of my closest friends is an MA who just graduated; we became close because we were in the same office and my year would have been entirely different and entirely worse had I not had the chance to get to know him. I am not the only one at OSU in this boat. The atmosphere is really supportive. When other people are published, for example, everyone is GENUINELY happy about it. The cutthroat competition doesn’t exist.

I’d try to explain why but all I can say is: empathy. We foster it and we appreciate it. In spades. The MFA/ MA group is equally supportive if you need someone to sit and talk about how terrible you feel about (1) your bad writing or (2) your bad skin (or whatever, you know, vaguely nonsense but also totally pertinent personal thing is getting you down). We all have offices in the basement of the building where we take all our classes and we’re all denizens by the end of Week One. As a result, there is a communal and engaging social atmosphere that, during the tough weeks and the rainy weeks and the nervy workshop weeks, becomes a true support system. I will wander the halls until I find someone who can give me a hug or a pep talk or tell me whether I can actually pull off the dress I borrowed from a friend. It’s really invaluable. My OSU wouldn’t be the same without the Moreland Basement.


Alana Folsom is pursuing an MFA in poetry at Oregon State University and is the Editor-in-Chief of 45th Parallel. Her writing has been published in the Iowa Review and elsewhere. Find her on twitter @axfolsom.

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