Q&A: Nicole Cooley and the New MFA

Kevin Larimer

As the number of colleges and universities offering graduate degrees in creative writing continues to rise, each new MFA program tries to distinguish itself, whether in its location, faculty, or curriculum. The new program at Queens College, City University of New York, which welcomed its first class of twenty-five students this fall, calls attention to itself in all three categories.

The first of its kind in Queens (the second most populous borough of New York City, behind Brooklyn), the program allows students to choose between two tracks: creative writing, with a focus on poetry, fiction, or playwriting, or literary translation, which is offered by only a handful of other programs, most notably the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, and the University of Iowa.

Program director Nicole Cooley, the author of a novel and two poetry collections, including The Afflicted Girls (Louisiana State University Press, 2004), says she and faculty members Jeffrey Renard Allen, Kimiko Hahn, Rigoberto González, Richard Schotter, and John Weir were able to shape the program according to their own vision. "We don't want to be just like so many other programs," she says. "How can we be different? It's been really great to think about and challenge those models."

Just weeks into the fall semester, Cooley spoke about her new program, its translation track, and what students should—and shouldn't—expect from an MFA.

Why the focus on translation?
We felt that Queens County, being the most linguistically and culturally diverse county in the nation, was a perfect setting for a focus on translation. Most of us [on the faculty] are veterans of MFA programs, and we wanted to do something that would be more interdisciplinary.… I think any time you think about language on a deeper level, as you do with translation, it's a good thing.

Would you characterize the program as academically rigorous?
I would. We define ourselves as a "studio research program," in accordance with the Association of Writers & Writing Programs guidelines, but we do, for example, require a literary theory class of all our students and we require three electives, three graduate literature classes, and two craft classes.… All of us on the faculty believe that reading is essential to writing.

So then what is your opinion of the typical workshop model—students sitting around a table…workshopping?
We want to have those workshops but we also want to have them surrounded by and invigorated by other kinds of courses, like craft classes, literature classes, translation workshops. And we want students to see their work as a body of work…that they're really engaged in a lifelong calling as writers, that their work is a continuous thing, not just a kind of send-it-out-soon idea. Process, not product, is the way we thought about it.

A lot of students, at the end of two or three years, are saying, "Okay, now what? What have I been trained to do exactly?" And if they don't want to teach, they feel stuck.
We really want to show that teaching is not the only career you have to go into. I think in New York we're uniquely situated to show that there are other kinds of careers. Nowadays, with the difficult job market, you can't really take an MFA and immediately become a college professor, unfortunately, but we really do want to talk to students about the wealth of opportunities in other professions.

Kevin Larimer is the senior editor of Poets & Writers Magazine.