Grad School: An Interview with Zeke Hudson

Zeke Hudson is completing his MFA in creative writing with a specialization in poetry at Boise State University. He is a 2011 graduate of Southern Oregon University.

EB: What was your graduate program like? What courses did you take and what sorts of things were you reading?

ZH: I’m trying to think of the best way to answer this hydra-headed question. I just finished a Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing (poetry) at Boise State University. But here’s the thing: there is currently no standard set of requirements for a creative writing MFA.

If you want to go down the MFA path, you’ll come across a few different options. First, there are low- and full-residency programs. At the low residency programs, you do most of your work from home, and then you can fly or drive to wherever your campus is–maybe across the country?–once per semester to work in person with your professors and cohort. At full residency programs, you physically attend classes like normal.

Second, there are academic and studio programs. Academic programs require significant coursework, usually in the English department, and are essentially a Master of Arts in English with an extra year’s worth of courses devoted to craft. Studio programs require little (if any) work outside of workshops and other craft-related courses.

Third, program lengths vary. The shortest MFAs can be completed in a year, whereas the longest can take four. Most programs take two or three.

Fourth, different programs take different approaches to workshops and craft instruction. The most traditional programs tend to give prompts for writing, while the more progressive schools rarely ever give prompts, allowing students to find or better hone their own styles.

In the end, I went for a three-year, full residency, academic MFA with almost no prompts. If I had to do it all over again, I wouldn’t change a thing. I keep in contact with hundreds of other MFA students around the country, and from what I can tell, I’m more satisfied with what Boise State has offered than almost anyone else. The cohort here is small, allowing only two or three students per year, so things generally don’t turn clique-ish and everyone has plenty of time to respond to each other’s work.

What I read at Boise State largely depended on the classes I took. Most workshop classes assign a book of poetry per week with the occasional essay thrown in. Writing, editing, and responding to classmates’ work comprises the majority of work in those courses. Literature courses tend to have more substantial reading loads of a book per week plus several articles or chapters of theory and criticism. My favorite courses were the mandatory Form & Theory seminars which were populated almost exclusively by poetry MFA students. Because it would be ridiculous to expect graduate students to read manuals about how to write poems (e.g. “this is how to effectively enjamb a line,” or “have you considered using an em dash?”), our Form & Theory reading was by far the most challenging. Beyond a few books of poetry, we spent most of our effort working through philosophy and literary criticism centered around a few common poetic themes (i.e. death, love, beauty), which led us to perennial academic all-stars such as Aristotle, Longinus, Burke, Kant, Hegel, Derrida, Gadamer, and so on.

The point is, poetry and criticism were built into the course requirements, but everyone’s welcome to take as many literature courses as they desire to get a taste of Gothic, Victorian, or Renaissance literature. I don’t know why you’d want to pick those over any of the other great offerings, but I guess some people are into those sorts of things.

EB: How has your experience so far shaped your career goals?

ZH: I still hope to teach, though my heart isn’t set on it. And that’s a good thing in this job market. However, what I found most surprising is that I have very little desire to research or teach literature exclusively. I figure literature doesn’t happen in a vacuum, so the most engaging courses were the ones with a significant theoretical, historical, or cultural component.

I’ll apply for PhDs next year, and when I do, I’ll be applying in the field of American Studies instead of English, literature, or writing.

EB: What is/was the most rewarding part and the most challenging?

ZH: It’s hard to pick a most rewarding thing. Above all, I’d say the most rewarding part was defending my thesis and hearing my thesis referred to as my “book.” I’m leaving school with most of a book! Having a ready manuscript is the first real step toward a life as a writer, right? Now I have one.

The most challenging this was uh. Well, probably a tie. Time management was difficult. Remember that old triangular graphic that says “College: sleep, homework, social life. Pick two”? A graphic for graduate school would be a far more complex polygon–maybe an octagon–with things like sleep, homework, social life, teaching/class preparation, grading, attending important program functions, etc,. but then the instructions would still be like, “pick two, and expect to cry about it.”

Not whine. Cry. Real, legit tears.

But you get used to it.

The other challenging thing was teaching. At Boise State, MFA students teach as many as two courses per semester (1/2 teaching load), and we teach three different classes. As with almost every school, graduate teaching fellows are given only a couple weeks of instruction about how and what to teach. And it’s not so much that we get instruction so much as we get tossed into the deep in and are told to swim. And bored, judgmental little 18-year-olds are the sharks infesting the pool. Learning how to teach while developing lesson plans, coursework, and syllabi is probably the hardest thing to do in the first year.

EB: What’s been your focus and how has grad school changed you?

ZH: My focus? You mean like what did I study? Poetry.

I’m not sure how much grad school changed me. At least, I don’t think that most of the changes I’ve made are a direct cause of my coursework or studies. I remember when I first applied to grad school, before even hearing back from schools, I decided that it was time to be responsible. I started dressing better, cooking more elaborate meals, cleaning more often, and being generally more responsible. Basically, I decided that it was time to be an adult.

But grad school? It definitely taught me how to more effectively budget my time.

EB: Any advice for students considering going on for more school?

ZH: Oh man. Yeah. I have so much advice. I know this has already been long-winded, but this is probably the realest part.

You have to want to be there. You have to love what you’re doing. Believe me, if your heart isn’t in it, you’ll never make it. It’s a lot of work–much more than a full time undergraduate course load, and a little bit more than an undergraduate course overload. Factor in teaching and it can be brutal (until you figure out how to manage your time). If you’re going to school for something in the humanities, you can’t count on your degree leading to a job, so learning should be its own reward.

Really research the schools you want to apply to. I cannot emphasize this enough. You should be at least a little bit familiar with the faculty, the course offerings, and the academic climate. Definitely talk to students who are currently attending programs you’re looking into. Remember, it’s important to know that you’ll get along with your professors and peers.

Don’t apply to a school only because of its name or reputation. Don’t mortgage your happiness for academic success. Find a place where you’ll be a good fit. From what I’ve seen, people who are unhappy with their programs but who try to stick it out because they think it’ll be worth it or impressive almost always drop out.

Depending on your degree, you might be in a place for anywhere from two to seven years. Make sure the school is in a location that you’d be happy to call home for a good while. You have to actually live there, you know.

Especially if you have a small cohort, try not to sleep with anyone in your program.

Pack light. Call your parents. Eat your vegetables.

EB: What’s next for you?

ZH: I need a little breather. I’m taking a year off to send out poems and my manuscript, plus my friend and I are starting a literary journal, and I’ve begun writing for a sports blog, so I’ll be keeping my hands in the literary world.

After my break, the plan is to apply for an American Studies PhD. I’ve already done most of the research, plus I have a draft of my writing sample and statement of purpose, and most of my letters of recommendation have been written. No last minute stuff for me!

EB: Thanks for talking with us.

ZH: Thank you!

About Ed Battistella

Edwin Battistella’s latest book Sorry About That: The Language of Public Apology was released by Oxford University Press in June of 2014.
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