MFA Course Descriptions

Spring 2021

ENGL 751: Workshop in Fiction: (Re)Visioning

Maaza Mengiste, Tue 6:40pm-8:30pm

I want this class to push you in directions that you didn’t expect. I want your characters and scenes to disrupt and surprise. In short, I want to use our time together to shake things up in your writing. I don’t think this comes from what you imagine you want to do. It comes from what you haven’t thought of yet. It comes from a blank page, from setting aside what you think you know and plunging ahead into the unknown. It comes from something slightly radical, even revolutionary. This doesn’t happen without hard work, but it can happen. It comes through focused attention on the particulars of a story: POV, characters, setting, structure, etc. It comes from setting aside ego and fear, that sense that you cannot write another great sentence, or a great paragraph or a great page if you delete this one: you will need to kill a few of your darlings. Brace yourself. But I guarantee you that together, we will move towards a richer, more complicated story that only you could tell.

This course will be fully synchronous, meeting at the listed time online.

ENGL 753: Poetry, Place and Documentary Poetics

Nicole Cooley, Wed 6:40pm-8:30pm

Our focus in this MFA poetry workshop will be on writing documentary poetic projects. We will read a range of texts from twentieth and twenty-first century US poetry, beginning with poems by Muriel Rukeyser and Charles Reznikoff -- before turning to a number of contemporary poets who engage in various ways with the documentary, including Claudia Rankine, CD Wright, Philip Metres, among others. We’ll discuss how poets function as historians, journalists and witnesses, and we’ll investigate writing from archives, images, found material and oral histories and stories. Class time will be spent on in-class writing generative exercises, workshops of your poems, and discussion of the assigned texts and their poetic practices. The final project will be a sustained experiment in documentary poetics, accompanied by a short process paper.

This course will be fully synchronous, meeting at the listed time online.

ENGL 755: Playwriting

Ira Hauptman, Thu 6:30pm-9:20pm

The class will focus on close examination of students’ plays-in-progress as the first stage of a development process that will help create a producible script. The class's main objective is to help students tell the story that they want to tell. Each student is expected to complete either two one-act plays of 35-40 pages each, or one full-length play of at least 75 pages. Learning goals: Students will develop the skills required to write complete plays in the course of the workshop. They will also sharpen critical skills that will help them understand and discuss the fundamentals of dramatic writing. Through scene study, students will learn exposition, dramatic structure, rhythm, character development, subtext, stage language. Undergraduate acting students will be available during class to read from your plays. The class will also read contemporary plays and may attend an Off-Broadway theatre performance, live or online.

This course will be fully synchronous, meeting at the listed time online.

ENGL 757: Workshop in Creative Nonfiction

Jason Tougaw, Tue 6:40pm-8:30pm

Creative nonfiction is a big category, including a range of forms--memoir, reportage, essays, biographies, cultural criticism, science and nature writing, graphic narrative. Any work of creative nonfiction calibrates relationships between a writer and the world through a series of formal choices and research techniques. We'll examine form and research in the work of very different nonfiction writers. In our workshops, we'll examine your writing in relation to the range of techniques at play in our readings. Students will share and collaborate on the research that informs their writing. Readings are likely to include Hanif Abdurraqib's Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to A Tribe Called Quest, Sonia Shah's The Great Migration: The Beauty and Terror of Life on the Move, Eve Babitz's Eve's Hollywood, and G.B. Tran's Vietnamerica.

This course will be fully synchronous, meeting at the listed time online.

ENGL 761: Closure Is Not the End: a Multi-Genre Craft Class

Kimiko Hahn, Mon 6:40pm-8:30pm

A craft class on closure is not "just" about the ending. In fact, we must explore the totality to see how a satisfying close can resonate. As "the last word," closure is a concern for writers of all genres. It is the close of the writer's relationship with writing and revising; for the reader, it is parting with both the text and the writer. This parting can be--and should be--an experience and, as such, it is physical, psychological, and emotional. It is art. Given the importance of closure, why do texts so often close with an easy or obvious ending? Many feel clichéd (the ubiquitous circle-back to the beginning); or like a melodramatic or witty punch line. At times the end feels slapped on as if the writer was in a hurry to get it over (the same is true of titles). In this craft class we will explore how various texts achieve closure and what makes an ending successful. We will also look into what one's own options may be. To do so, our lens will be Barbara Herrnstein Smith's text Poetic Closure where she presents this theory: "The conclusion of a [text] has a special status in the process, for it is only at that point that the total pattern--the structural principles which we have been testing--is revealed." In other words, this theory will be a means to explore the dynamic play within a text and to see how all the components play out. It is an incredibly effective method for interpreting literature. For revision purposes, it can be a tool to assess the whole text down to the closure--no matter what genre and no matter whether the poem, say, is sonnet or free verse. We will read short texts to acquire a practical understanding of this concept. Writing assignments will allow us to put this theory into practice.

This course will be fully synchronous, meeting at the listed time online.

ENGL 763. “ABC/s of Reading”: The Life & Death of Forms

Ammiel Alcalay, Wed 6:40pm-8:30pm

The past year has been anything but normal as trends that had already been looming large have taken center stage during the pandemic: namely, the predominance of virtual means of social relations and the severe curtailing of public space, a domain already deeply compromised. For those born digital, these changes may not be quite as dramatic as for older people whose memories and life experiences are based in fundamentally different reference points of the real, but they are certainly affecting us all very deeply. At the same time, no matter what age we are, most of the cultural, literary, textual, and visual worlds we engage in are rooted in the pre-digital world, going back to the “Singing Neanderthals,” as archaeologist Steven Mithen refers to our ancestors. From orality and representational systems ranging from pictographs, hieroglyphs, quipu and other modes, to the mainly alphabetic and character based systems we now use, we seem to be crossing a new divide that involves a general flattening of data by digital means: the underlying ones and twos have come to stand in for gestures, marks, and glyphs. What might this mean? Where do we find keys that might lead to reactivating older systems to create new “alphabets”? How do genres and forms, movements and institutions, come into being, emerge, disintegrate and disappear? How can we both include and overarch the present, particularly in moments of political and formal coercion, when demands for a certain language or ideological adherence exerts extreme pressure? As writers and translators, what kinds of tools do we need in order to assess the works we encounter, to think about them in the present we actually inhabit? Why are we attracted to certain texts? Why do we want to learn a particular language? How can we navigate the overwhelming barrage of options thrust at us in order to feel confident in our abilities to judge, to place, to contextualize? Do we still even live in what poet Charles Olson once called a “human universe”? We will explore and develop these tools amongst ourselves, with class organized in collaborative ways to respond to, overcome and, in some cases, take advantage of the constraints we are working under. While I certainly don’t have a blueprint for how to do this, I have some ideas and we will work together to find ways to support and nurture our efforts in these trying times. In effect, we will be “translating” values, weights, and measures of different times and places into the specifics of our condition. When do we pause or stop? How long does something need to take? How do we come to understand the emotional narrative that unfolds in a word, a sentence, a stanza, a poem, a paragraph, a story, a novel, a historical account? Can we find those same textures of unfolding in larger configurations of generic and historical drift, in cultural movements, linguistic or geographic groupings, political structures, in migration itself? Each student will be expected to participate fully, in whatever manner might be most useful and productive for each person, whether by presenting readings, sharing work in progress, or engaging in modules of research that we will develop along the way through our own extremely varied class readings and discussions. Our sources will range from ancient and medieval sources to colonial, decolonizing, post-colonial and contemporary contexts. The work we do together is important and we will find ways for it not to remain unrecorded and virtual, possibly through some kind of class project that will have concrete and physical manifestation.

If you have any questions about the course, please feel free to get in touch with me at: aaka@earthlink.net

This course will be fully synchronous, meeting at the listed time online.