Creative Writing Program is turning pages, turning heads

Forewords & Acknowledgements:

Creative Writing Program is turning pages, turning heads

By Kevin Hyde

Relaxed in t-shirt and shorts, novelist Brian Leung sits in the sun at an open-front restaurant in the Crescent Hill neighborhood of Louisville. It’s Derby Week. The early evening is clear and warm, and the place is bustling. Between bites from a bowl of thick, Texas-style chili and sips on an icy beverage, Leung is deliberate and contemplative as he answers questions about the Creative Writing Program at the University of Louisville, a program he has directed for the past two years.

“I guess the most important thing I want people to know about us is that the courses—all of the programming, really—are designed first and foremost to be in service of students. In everything we do, we’re consciously asking ourselves, ‘What will be useful to students?’ ”

What Leung and his fellow faculty of fiction writers and poets have developed is a unique, vibrant array of opportunities for their students. Not only can they take engaging, challenging undergraduate and graduate courses in poetry, fiction, drama and creative nonfiction, but they get the chance to interact with important writers from throughout the country, to compete for lucrative scholarships and interesting awards, to benefit from the Louisville’s vigorous literary scene, and, hopefully, to find their own voice in the conversation of ideas.

Focus on Students

For undergraduates, UofL’s Creative Writing Program offers introductory to advanced courses, with several covering special, constantly changing topics. At the graduate level, the program culminates with an English master’s degree—thesis or culminating project—with a focus in creative writing. The work includes a range of courses, including graduate level creative writing workshops.

“Our department faculty made the decision to focus on undergraduate and master’s students,” Leung says, “and explicitly decided not to go the MFA [master’s in fine art] route.”

All students in the Creative Writing Program—undergrad or graduate—get the chance to interact with some of the most important contemporary writers, poets and playwrights in the country, even participating in master classes with them through the Anne & William Axton reading series. Established in 1999 with a gift from the late William Axton (a former UofL English professor) and his wife, the late Anne, the series brings in renowned writers from across the country to campus for two-day visits to read from their work, and then share their knowledge and expertise.

“A visit usually includes a public reading by the writer followed by a Q&A on the first day,” Leung says. “The next morning, they conduct a master class where some selected student work is read and critiqued. It’s an invaluable opportunity for our students.”

It is also a wonderful resource for the local community. Both events are free, and the public is encouraged to attend. The reading series is just one of many ways the Creative Writing Program collaborates with the local literary community, tying several of its events with those of outside non-profit organizations like the Louisville Literary Arts (LLA).

The list of Axton Reading Series writers, who are chosen through a process Leung calls “kind vetting,” is impressive. Previous seasons have included Tobias Wolff, Terrance Hayes, Junot Diaz, Brian Teare, Robert Pinsky, Charles Wright, Nathaniel Mackey, Susan Minot, Mary Karr, Stephen Dobyns, Colson Whitehead, Robin Lippincott, Robert Hass, Silas House, Beverly Lowry, George Saunders, Louise Glück and more.

“The poet Richard Blanco was here about five years ago,” Leung says. “That was long before his recent fame as Obama’s inaugural poet.”

He adds: “What we try to do is bring in a class of writers who are in conversation with the world of ideas, and who we know will serve our students best.”

This past semester, the series included three excellent writers: Hannah Tinti, whose short story collection, Animal Crackers, has sold in 16 countries and was runner-up for the PEN/Hemingway award; Claire Vaye Watkins, whose stories and essays have appeared in Granta, One Story, The Paris Review and more; and Lynnell Major Edwards, author of three collections of poetry, most recently Covet (October, 2011), and also The Farmer’s Daughter (2003) and The Highwayman’s Wife (2007).

Among the writers on tap for this coming fall semester’s series is the poet Tony Hoagland, whose collection What Does Narcissism Mean to Me was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and noted southern novelist Tim Gautreaux, author of the novel, The Missing in addition to many other books of fiction. Gautreaux’s reading and Q&A on Oct. 10 at the downtown Cressman Center for Visual Arts will also be part of LLA’s annual Writer’s Block Festival in Louisville’s NULU neighborhood.

World-Class Faculty

“Every year since I’ve been here, at least one of us has published a book,” Leung says. “Not to mention the numerous individual poems and prose pieces.”

But students in the Creative Writing Program don’t have to rely on visitors to campus. They have as their mentors a remarkable group of active, committed faculty who are working, producing writers and poets at or near the top of their game.

“Every year since I’ve been here, at least one of us has published a book,” Leung says. “Not to mention the numerous individual poems and prose pieces.”

Leung is the author of the short story collection, World Famous Love Acts (Sarabande), winner of the Mary McCarthy Award for short fiction and The Asian American Literary Award for Fiction. His novels are Lost Men (Random House) and Take Me Home (Harper/Collins), which won the 2011 Willa Award for Historical Fiction. His fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction appear in numerous magazines and journals. In 2012 he won a Lambda Literary Foundation Award for a Mid-career Novelist.

The professional bios of Leung’s colleagues are equally impressive and too long to include here in their entirety. Full bios: http://louisville.edu/english/creative-writing/faculty-biographies.html

Paul Griner, a former Fulbright Scholar, is the author of the short story collection Follow Me and the novels Collectors and The German Woman. He is the recipient of UofL’s Outstanding Teaching Awards at both the college and university levels as well as well as the Graduate School’s Outstanding Mentor Award.

Kiki Petrosino’s publications include a collection of poems, Fort Red Border and a chapbook, The Dark is Here. Her poems have appeared, or are forthcoming, in The New York Times, Tin House, Jubilat, Gulf Coast, Harvard Review and elsewhere. Along with a colleague, she co-edits Transom, an electronic poetry journal (http://www.transomjournal.com). Her latest collection of poems will be released from Sarabande in 2013.

Jeffrey Skinner’s collection of poetry Glaciology will be published in 2013. His prose book, The 6.5 Practices of Moderately Successful Poets: A Self-help Memoir, was published in 2012 by Sarabande Books. He has published five previous collections of poetry: Late Stars, A Guide to Forgetting (a winner in the 1987 National Poetry series), The Company of Heaven, Gender Studies and Salt Water Amnesia. He has written an informal text on creative writing for high school students, Real Toads in Imaginary Gardens , and, with the poet Sarah Gorham, edited an anthology, Last Call: Poems on Alcoholism, Addiction, & Deliverance.

Bronwyn T. Williams writes and teaches creative nonfiction as well as courses in rhetoric and composition (and is no relation to the romance novelist who uses his name as a pseudonym). All of his writing, including his research, involves elements of creative nonfiction. He has published essays on creative nonfiction in several journals and anthologies, including the forthcoming Blackwell Companion to Creative Writing. He is also on the editorial board of New Writing: The International Journal for the Practice and Theory of Creative Writing.

Creative Writing Program Writer in Residence, Sena Jeter Naslund, is the best-selling author of Ahab’s Wife, or the Star Gazer. The Birmingham, Ala., native received her master’s and doctorate degrees from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her recent works include Abundance, A Novel of Marie Antoinette (2006) and Adam & Eve (2010). She is the author of the novels Four Spirits, Ice Skating at the North Pole, The Animal Way to Love, Sherlock in Love and the short-story collection The Disobedience of Water. She has a novel due to be published in fall, 2013.

In 1980 she was appointed UofL’s first Distinguished Teaching Professor, and in 2000 she received the President's Award for Distinguished Creative Activity. She is editor of the literary magazine The Louisville Review, which she founded in 1976. She is a recipient of the Harper Lee Award and the former poet laureate of Kentucky.

Contests

The Creative Writing Program also promotes popular writing contests that draw submissions internationally and from throughout the region, including the Calvino Prize and the Kentuckiana Metroversity Writing Competition.

 The Calvino Prize is an annual fiction competition that awards outstanding pieces in the fabulist, experimental style of Italo Calvino (1923-1985). The prizes are meant to encourage experimental writing “in the mode of Calvino,” Leung emphasizes.

“They’re not meant to encourage merely imitative work,” he says. “Every year we submissions from countries across the globe.”

First place is $1,500 and publication in the Salt Hill Journal of Syracuse University. Second place is $300. The winner is also invited to read the winning entry at the Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture Since 1900, which is held at UofL every February. Like the Axton Reading series, this writing contest is supported by a generous and committed donor.

“This kind of generous spirit is so important to a thriving creative writing program,” Leung says.

Another writing competition promoted by the program—Kentuckiana Metroversity—is open to any student registered during the academic year in one or more classes at a Metroversity institution. The categories are poetry, short fiction and academic writing along with themed categories for creative non-fiction and an international category. Prizes are typically $200 for first place; $100 for second place in the various categories.

Sense of Place

Leung, a California native who grew up in San Diego County, says the Creative Writing Program’s success can be credited to many factors: devoted faculty, passionate students and just enough community support from this weird city to keep things … interesting. Leung sometimes heads out to the Churchill Downs, and when he’s there he likes to write, treatingthe 30-minute break between races like intensely concentrated writing sessions.

Sitting in the sun at the restaurant last week, with those special Derby vibrations creeping in, he conceded: “This is one of the best places to live the writer’s life.”

He didn’t raise his drink … but he should have.