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With the IAIA MFA program, Jon Davis (center) presides over a faculty that includes (clockwise from top left) Sherman Alexie, Susan Power, Santee Frasier and Natalie Diaz.

Literary Heavy Hitters: IAIA MFA Program Taps Indian Country's Best

Jason Asenap

Jon Davis is the director of the newly-created Low Residency MFA in Creative Writing at the and the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA). Davis has won a Lannan Literary Award in Poetry for his collection Scrimmage of Appetite, and a G.E. Younger Writers Award and the Lavan Prize for Dangerous Amusements. An IAIA instructor since 1990, Davis has also received two NEA Fellowships and is currently Santa Fe’s Poet Laureate. He spoke with Jason Asenap about the Low Residency MFA.

Can you describe the program?

The Low-Residency MFA in Creative Writing program was accredited by the Higher Learning Commission on February 15, 2013. The idea had been first floated when Arthur Sze and I were creating the BFA program in 2002. But at that point it was a vague dream. It wasn’t until a brief hallway conversation with the academic dean, Ann Filemyr, five years later that we really began planning. The dean, a poet herself, knew how the low residency model worked, and we agreed that it could be ideal for Native writers, who often are living on remote reservations, involved in cultural life or raising families and working to make ends meet. The low residency model allows the writing student to be at home, working over the internet for the 16 week long semester, but it also allows the face-to-face contact for one week at the beginning of each semester. The week-long residency is the engine that drives the program. It’s a great, intense week filled with workshops and craft talks and readings and lots of conversation and laughter. I’d be willing to bet that no MFA program laughs more often or harder than we do.

I should summarize for you the model. The program begins with the weeklong July residency, usually in the last week of July, when the students, faculty, visiting writers, editors, and agents all arrive to spend a week together reading and writing and talking about writing. Each day begins with two and a half hour creative writing workshops in the four genres we teach, fiction, creative nonfiction, poetry, and screenwriting. Then we all eat together. After lunch, there are optional workshops and seminars. Students use these to explore other genres or focus on a single aspect of writing. Last semester we had a workshop on writing about gender and sex, two seminars on screenwriting, a seminar on writing poetry reviews. These were very well attended. After the optional after lunch events, we have a craft lecture by one of the faculty or visiting writers. We eat dinner together, then end the evening with faculty and visiting writers reading their work. One night we have a late night student reading. After midweek, students request mentors for the 16 week online semester. Once students are matched with mentors, they meet and plan the semester reading and writing projects. The goal of all of this activity is a 25 page craft paper and a creative thesis, basically a book of poetry, fiction or creative nonfiction, or a feature screenplay.

What are some of the advantages of being an online program?

The obvious one I mentioned: You can live where you want, work, and participate in community activities. But, in terms of learning, I think the 16 week semester puts you in the writer’s habitual place: In a room, alone, with a keyboard (or pen and paper) and your imagination. There’s a certain charge of enthusiasm and motivation that you carry with you from the residency, but that wears down and you’re thrown back on your own resources. You find out very quickly that being a writer is not a lifestyle choice, it’s hard work. But you have support. You have your mentor and contact information for at least thirty other people who are in your same position. The students, so far, have been great about cheering each other along. The other good thing about the online process is that you’re getting in-depth critiques from your mentor. That close attention can help you improve your writing quickly.


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