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A Singular Place at a Singular Time

by Julie West

A bourgeoning literary scene flourishes in Denton, Texas, and writers across the country are increasingly paying attention. The University of North Texas is in the vanguard of creative writing programs in the nation. A unique combination of assets makes it so: its prominent faculty writers, exceptional students, doctoral degree, established literary journal, reputable writers series, new Rilke prize, and symbiotic relationship with local and regional communities.

Central to the program’s development has also been a university administration that recognizes the value of these resources, and whose institutional initiatives have significantly facilitated their growth. 

A Place to Be

UNT creative writing professor and senior poet in residence B.H. “Pete” Fairchild sits at a table in Jupiter House, a popular coffee café on the main square of Denton. He lives nearby and likes to come here throughout the week to “get a feel for community.” With its exposed brick walls and abstract paintings framing the room, the atmosphere is cozy yet energized. A couple chats with the barista.  Students sprawl on sofas at the back of the room. Businessmen hold forth by the door. The bulletin board is jammed with announcements of art openings, poetry readings, lectures and concerts.

Fairchild notes a cultural richness about Denton that did not exist thirty years ago when he taught at Texas Women’s University. “There are a lot of artists in the area now, and more commercial venues for painters, musicians, and poets to present their work. It’s a vibrant, cultural town. And of course you have three, solid cultural hot spots with Denton being between Dallas and Fort Worth.  There’s a world-class arts and music scene here.  And if you want to do creative writing, this is the place to be.

Since leaving Texas in 1983 for California State University-San Bernardino, where he taught for twenty-four years, Fairchild has enjoyed a productive professional life and academic career. An internationally recognized poet and author of six acclaimed poetry volumes, his work has garnered top awards. The Art of the Lathe, which received a Beatrice Hawley Award, was a finalist for the National Book Award and brought Fairchild's work to national prominence.  Occult Memory Systems of the Lower Midwest won the National Book Critics Circle Award.

Now back in town, he talks about the attributes that distinguish the UNT writing program from others in the nation, and what compelled him to join the creative writing faculty. “I have never had the privilege to work in a residential M.F.A. and Ph.D. program. Prior to coming here I knew there were big ambitions; there was an excitement about the place. And I knew about the caliber of the poets. Believe me, there are some astonishingly good writers on this faculty—nationally known.  When you go to conferences and meetings, people know their names. A lot of possibilities exist here.  This is a singular place at a singular time.” 

Faculty Foundation

UNT is among a select group of schools in the country to offer a doctoral degree in English with a concentration in creative writing, and it is the only university in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex to offer the degree. Master’s students and undergraduates can also major in English with a creative writing concentration.

Prominent faculty writers such as Fairchild anchor the Department of English and are one of the reasons students are drawn to come to UNT. Jenny Molberg, a first year Ph.D. poetry student, did so because of the opportunity to study with Fairchild as well as notable poets Bruce Bond, Regents Professor of English, and Corey Marks, Associate Professor and Director of Creative Writing.  She says, “The poets here are among the most distinguished in the country. It makes a difference to learn from practicing writers of this caliber."

The poems, essays, articles and books of Fairchild, Bond, and Marks have been praised by some of the most important critics of our times.  Their work appears in respected literary journals such as The Sewanee Review, The Paris Review, The Yale Review, The New Yorker, Ploughshares, TriQuarterly, The New England Review, and The Hudson Review.  Between them, they have received some of the highest awards and fellowships available in the field. 

First-year Ph.D. student Chelsea Henderson, who turned down a scholarship at the University of Southern California to pursue a creative writing degree at UNT, says the poets here are well known, but also accessible.  “The opportunity for one-on-one mentorship was a big factor in my decision to come here. There’s an open door policy with the professors; they take time to meet with the students and are invested in helping us grow as individuals. ”

Community is another reason Henderson chose UNT. Whereas many of the USC students live an hour from campus, most of the UNT creative writing students and teachers live in Denton, where the cost of living is affordable and the school is located in the heart of the town.  “Denton is a small but culturally interesting city; there’s a lot to do here.  It’s not uncommon for students and teachers to exchange work outside of class and meet in town. This reinforces the sense of community.”

Openness to broad and various aesthetics are traits that define the creative writing concentration and that Fairchild believes are integral to a healthy writing community. He says that one of the attractive things about the program is that there is not a push to champion any particular school of poetry.  “There are what I call poetry wars going on in American culture all the time. Sometimes writing programs are pulled into one fairly small style or poetics and can become restrictive and creatively stifling. I think this is a mistake. The teachers here support a huge variety of styles and perspectives on poetry and other genres.”David Holdeman, W.B. Yeats scholar and Department of English chair

Although the poetry area is a strong suit within creative writing, the genres of nonfiction and fiction are also mainstays of the program, and faculty affiliated with these areas are highly regarded, well published authors who are actively involved in local, regional, and international literary events. Fiction writer Miroslav Penkov, an assistant professor, is getting fabulous reviews and interviews for his new book of stories, East of the West, including a National Public Radio (NPR) interview. And nonfiction writer and Associate Professor Ann McCutchan’s two new books, River Music— An Atchafalaya Story, “an original blend of nature writing, music history, biography, journalism, and memoir,” and Circular Breathing, a collection of personal essays, are also receiving noteworthy attention and reviews.

David Holdeman, W. B. Yeats scholar and Department of English chair, says that exposure to different genres introduces students to faculty talent across the board and is also a means to good writing. “Our aim has always been for students to not only write a variety of different kinds of poems, but to have access to these other genres.  This makes for a well-rounded creative writing area.” This strategy is applied across the department, as well.

Integration of Genres

One of the strengths and distinctions of the creative writing program is its integration into the English Department.  Holdeman says, “We don’t have a literature faction on one side and a creative writing group on the other.  The Ph.D. creative writing students have to take requirements similar to the literature students, so there’s a lot of blending, a lot of very serious scholarly training for students here.  These are Ph.Ds. who are going to be qualified when they graduate, not just to go out and teach workshops in their genre, but also to teach literature surveys, to be multifaceted academics and teachers.  That is key.”

Third-year Ph.D. student and poet Tori Sharpe agrees, “It’s a first class English department. UNT encourages me to experiment with writing poems, but also to write good stories and nonfiction pieces, to understand classical rhetoric as well as literary criticism. The training is rigorous. Classes prepare me to be a good writer and reader but also a critical thinker and teacher.”

Sharpe is developing a book of poems for her dissertation and aspires to be a university professor.  She is the recipient of a competitive, departmental teaching fellowship and teaches a freshman writing class. “I love to teach. The fellowship gives me practical experience in the classroom.  It’s an opportunity to apply my knowledge while helping younger students become better writers and readers.”

Jessica Hindman, a third year Ph.D. student, studies creative nonfiction with Ann McCutchan and Bonnie Friedman.  She explains that “creative nonfiction” is a term for nonfiction writing that aspires in part to mimic the literary devices of fiction and poetry.

A wide range of nonfiction writing is included under this rubric, from the essays of Montaigne and the "new journalism" of the 60s and 70s, in which journalists inserted themselves subjectively into their reportage via first-person narrative, to the latest memoir. At the heart of creative nonfiction are personal experience and the searching, imaginative rendering of that experience.

The cross training of genres has been invaluable in shaping Hindman’s work, sometimes with fascinating results. “Teachers encourage me to apply the creative non-fiction lens to traditional literature.  I might, for example, analyze Chaucer’s “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” as if it were a memoir written from the wife’s perspective.  I can guarantee you that most other schools don’t introduce this kind of literary experimentation.  I’m constantly finding myself in exciting new literary terrain here,” she says.

Exceptional Students

The advanced degree program is attracting many talented students such as Sharpe and Hindman. Each year, the English department has seen a significant increase in the number of advanced degree applications it receives, with an increase in the quality of its students’ writing.

Marks states, “We have terrific graduate students here right now. The students are remarkable poets, story writers, nonfiction writers …  people are applying from some of the best writing programs in the country to come here, people who have already published, sometimes significantly before they come. Having these vibrant graduate students is an area of growth for us that only helps the undergraduate program."

Mark Wagenaar, a first-year doctoral student, is a case in point. Prior to coming to UNT, he received numerous national poetry awards, including the Felix Pollak Prize in Poetry from the University of Wisconsin Press, the Yellowwood Poetry Prize, and the Gary Gildner Award.  His work is published in distinguished literary venues such as the Southern Review, the New England Review, Antioch Review, Fugue Magazine, and the Columbia Journal of Literature and Art.

As a graduate student at the University of Utah, another top ranking program in the country, Wagenaar knew of UNT’s reputation through The American Literary Review, its signature and biannual journal. When his poem, “The Little Book of the Last Day” was selected as a runner-up in ALR’s poetry contest and was published in the spring 2011 issue, he began seriously investigating the possibility of leaving the program to pursue a Ph.D. at UNT, instead. That’s a big step, he admits.  But he says, “A visit to UNT played a huge role in my decision. The enthusiasm for the program was obvious, as was Bruce and Corey’s love and dedication for the job and to the students. I found the talent of the students as well as the teachers to be exceptional.  And I continue to be impressed by the level of dialogue.”

Now a research assistant to Bond, he is preparing documents and research materials for Bond’s next book of essays while also developing a new book of poems for his dissertation. Both Wagenaar and Henderson received doctoral fellowships—highly competitive, multi-year funding packages with tuition, stipend, and health benefits that will give them time to focus on writing and teaching. 

Although the creative writing students are ambitious and accomplished, which raises the bar for everyone, fiction writer and master’s student Michael Winston says that superior standards surprisingly do not translate into superior attitudes. “We’re a close knit group. We read each other’s work. We encourage each other to pursue publishing opportunities, contests, and awards.  But we hang out together, too. I’ve grown so much as a writer thanks to my friends as well as my teachers. They’re a big part of what makes my experience here so positive.”

Defining Features

The combined high level of faculty and student talent invigorates the overall dialogue and energy of the place.  It also makes for a first rate publication. Established in 1990, The American Literary Review is a showcase of diverse genres and styles. The finest crafted stories, essays and poems are selected from upwards of 800 general entries each year, with additional entries received for the annual short fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry contests. A casual flip through its pages, and it is clear that the journal should be savored, not skimmed. 

Creative writing professors and students work as a team to oversee the journal’s production and serve as readers, contest coordinators, designers, and assistant and genre editors. With this mix of behind-the-scenes talent guiding the selection process, excellence is par for the course.

With hundreds of subscribers and an active online presence, the journal provides visibility for the creative writing program and is one reason people connect interesting writing with UNT and Denton. When asked how the magazine has changed, Marks says, “Its original identity was much more of a regional magazine, but our ambition has always been to make it a national magazine.” Holdeman adds, “Now, it’s living up to its name.”

The English Department also sponsors the UNT North Texas Review, the literary magazine for students, who also produce every aspect of the publication.  They submit the poems, create the artwork and stories, edit, and learn how to make a journal.

Ann McCutchan, faculty editor-in-chief for the American Literary Journal says, “Our journals give students the opportunity to directly take part in literary publishing, learn valuable editing and management skills, stay on top of a rapidly changing publishing world, and understand how their own work stacks up in that often dizzying environment.  Working on a journal inspires developing writers to make the important leap from aspiring wordsmith to artist and professional.”

The UNT Visiting Writers Series—an equally defining feature of the Department—is another reason people associate literary excellence with UNT.  The series brings esteemed authors to campus to give public readings. English professors and students benefit from dialogue with luminary literary figures such as Adam Zagajewski, Kathryn Harrison, W.S. Merwin, and Claudia Emerson.  The Denton community benefits, too. UNT is a major contributor to the cultural environment of Denton and the surrounding metroplex, and the Visiting Writers Series enriches the repertory of cultural offerings.

Ben Fountain, lauded fiction writer and former guest author in the UNT Writers Series says, "I don't think there's any question that the creative writing program at UNT is one of the real up-and-coming programs in the country.  If you look at the literary accomplishments of the faculty—especially at the kudos that the younger faculty members are getting with their first and second books, and the quite evident dedication that they bring to teaching—it's clear to me that UNT has the talent and energy to power their program into the top tier of writing programs nationally.  Another thing that impressed me when I visited campus was the way the program has become such an integral part of campus life.  I was stunned when I walked into the auditorium for my reading and saw the place was packed.  There must have been at least 200 people there, the vast majority of them students. That kind of interest really speaks well for the vitality of program."

New Initiatives

Denton is the hub where most of UNT’s creative writing related events occur, but the Department of English is increasingly involving the Dallas-Fort Worth area in its events.  The cross exchange of visiting writers, faculty and student authors expands the literary network.

Recognized for excellence in literary programming, The Writer’s Garret is a literary center based in Dallas that invites “living writers of varying aesthetics and genres to share their work with local audiences.” UNT professors have been guest authors and frequently participate in its workshops and events with fellow writers and students. WordSpace is another innovative literary arts organization where writers exchange work and ideas.

Holdeman says, “We want the Metroplex to know about what we’re doing, and we want to serve the Metroplex in terms of making what we’re doing available to them, but we also want to harness the energy and feed off it in the way we harness the energy here in Denton and extend that out to the larger areas.”

The creative writing program is excited to announce its newest development, the first annual UNT Rilke Prize.  The $10,000 award recognizes a book written by a mid-career poet that demonstrates exceptional artistry and vision. The prize aims to raise awareness of talented writers in the field and additionally bring focus to the program.

This year’s prize is awarded to Laura Kasischke for her book Space, in Chains. The poet and University of Michigan teacher has been the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and two grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, among other awards. She has published eight collections of poetry and eight novels.  Her inaugural reading and reception will take place at The Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture as well as in Denton in April 2012.  Based in a 1920’s Prairie style mansion located in the Turtle Creek area of Dallas, the Institute’s mission is dedicated to “enrich and deepen lives through the wisdom and imagination of the humanities.” 

Cultural exchange fosters new connections and brings visibility to UNT, but Marks and colleagues hope the high caliber events will also inspire potential patrons to give to the program. Friends of UNT are needed to sustain existing developments and reach new goals, such as creating an endowed chair position, raising funds to endow the Rilke prize, and establishing additional scholarships for graduate students to enable them to “write better, write harder, and write more.”

An Enduring Community

The creative writing faculty credit the initiatives implemented in the last five years to a visionary administration.  Warren Burggren, Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs, and Michael Monticino, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, have been hugely supportive. The hire of a senior level poet, an increased budget and advertising that targets a national pool of students, and the introduction of the Rilke prize—these and other innovations build on the solid foundation of the creative writing program and help foment its reputation.  They also underscore the administration’s commitment to offer the best undergraduate and graduate programs in the State of Texas, and its conviction that investment in the arts is essential to growing a research university. Fairchild observes, “It was made clear to me all along that the administration is committed to the arts.  That’s not exactly common at research universities.”  This commitment is evident across the department.

Marks exclaims, “I’m thrilled to be here at UNT, to be working with peers like this and the quality of students. I get to talk about poetry and read poems with my students. I get to spend time thinking about what I love.  This feeds me as a writer. The students talk about having a wonderful sense of community here, and that’s true for me, too.”

“UNT is in the right place at the right time. All of these ingredients are blending and strengthening each other in a way that’s pretty interesting,” says Holdeman. “Our ambition is not only to build a first class creative writing program, our ambition is to build a first class English Department.”

Consider it a blessing, that part of you

you cannot see.  Always a space to fill,

to sign your name as if it were a guest,

a day that breaks its silence in the distance.

— Excerpt from the poem, “Oracle,” from the book The Visible, by Bruce Bond

— February 2012