Pam, that is.
Sep 14, 2013, 8:37 AM
Post #2538 of 2687
Re: [Sibella] Low-Residency MFAs
When I last wrote, I was going to start the MFA poetry program at Vermont College in the winter. Circumstances made it possible for me to start this summer instead.
I LOVE the program. It seems like the right fit for me.
The residency was exhausting. It's hard to explain exactly why and how. I didn't understand what people meant when they said it would be exhausting; by the time I'd spent a few days there, I knew. You receive an overwhelming amount of information (with events from 8 in the morning to 10 at night, give or take, every day); you're pretty isolated (it's possible to spend 10 days moving between a few buildings on a campus not much bigger than my high school); your living conditions might be radically different from what you've come to expect (dorms!).
I'd heard that the school prides itself on being supportive of its students yet extremely tough. I'd vouch for that. I feel like they have my best interests in mind and want to help me become the best writer I can be. There's a lot less ego-tripping than one might expect in this kind of situation.
There is an offbeat sensibility to the place. At times, I was reminded of Hogwarts, folk festivals, Quaker meetings, and a lefty-Christian arts camp I once attended. The people can be very silly, but only when the situation demands it. They're down to earth. You feel like there are stories around every corner when you start talking to people there.
The student body is diverse in terms of aesthetics, from what I understand. I was told by a faculty member that some of the other highly touted low-res programs have more of a prevailing poetry style that they teach. The program casts a wide net, although I didn't meet any Language poets while I was there.
It's also diverse in terms of age, to some degree. There was definitely a crowd of mostly younger people who ran around together. Lots of 30- to 40-somethings. I saw some older men, but not many, and a fair number of older women--many older than me. (I'm 52.)
Other sorts of diversity leave much to be desired. I noticed very few nonwhite students. I know that the school is making efforts to address that situation.
The staff create many opportunities for social mixing, in particular the chance to meet faculty members. During my orientation, I was seated at a lunch table with some faculty (I took photos of my name card next to Mary Ruefle's, figuring I'd never see THAT happen again!). The workshops are run by two faculty members, in most cases; I was assigned yet another faculty member as an advisor, meaning that I've now been exposed to the leadership of three faculty members. We also got to do a sort of speed-dating with potential advisors. The advisor to whom I was ultimately assigned took his group of advisees to dinner. We had a talent show, the famous poets-versus-prose-writers' softball game, and other group activities that allowed us to meet people. I'm very shy, so this was a great boon to me.
The dorms sucked, but not so badly that I won't stay there again this winter. (For all that I heard how wonderful the summer in Vermont was supposed to be, I found it unbearably hot, and the dorm halls--with no A/C--started to smell like a wet dog about halfway through the stay. I suspect that they handle winter a lot better.) The food was also problematic, but copious complaints have led to an effort to find solutions. I didn't find the food to be bad--mostly just boring and limited.
I came home changed in ways that I'm still trying to figure out. I love traveling and being by myself, but the separation from my husband really wore on me, and I didn't want to go anywhere for a while after I came home. On the positive side, I really had a sense of myself as a poet by occupation, since I'd spent all of that time in Vermont thinking of myself as such.
The at-home work has been harder than I expected, or at least hard for different reasons than I expected. There can be a lot of leeway and variability in the program depending on the student's needs and the advisor assigned to that student. My advisor has left things pretty well open, and I've found myself flailing a bit. But he's great. His feedback is detailed, rigorous, and fair.
The biggest drawback, as far as I can see, is the price; I think it's one of the more expensive low-res schools. I'm still not sure how I'm going to afford the whole program. Then again, I haven't explored the scholarship situation as fully as I should.
I recommend Vermont highly for anyone who's considering a low-res MFA program in writing.
"What I wanted to hear didn't exist, so it was necessary for me to go out and create it." --Richard Thompson