Q&A: Phillips Leads Newark’s New MFA

Sarah Weinman
From the November/December 2008 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

In September, Jayne Anne Phillips, the author of several works of fiction, including the novel Lark and Termite, forthcoming from Knopf next January, started her second year as program director of the new MFA program in creative writing at Rutgers University's Newark, New Jersey, campus. The program, which offers three elective concentrations—literature and book arts; performance and media studies; and cultural, political, and ethnic studies—will graduate its first class next spring. Phillips recently spoke about the program's genesis, its connection to Newark's literary and cultural community, and finding the time to complete her new novel.

How did you get involved with the new MFA program?
It was a combination of things. I was a writer-in-residence at Brandeis University, a half-time position teaching undergraduate courses with no possibility of tenure. I was entering a different phase in my life, and in order to go on teaching I wanted to work more with graduate students in a program that was more interdisciplinary and was more relevant to the community. I also wanted to be back in the New York area.

What makes Rutgers, Newark, stand apart from other creative writing programs?
First, it's one of the most rigorous MFA programs by design, with forty-six credit hours spread over two or three years. This allows students to take courses that support their writing in some way. Rutgers, Newark, has one of the largest jazz archives in the world, for example. Second, Newark itself is a diverse, intricate, historic city—the sixty-fourth largest in the country. The creative writing program reflects that diversity: The students range in age from twenty-one to sixty, and more than a third of them are writers of color. That percentage climbs even higher for the second-year students, to 50 percent. Many, if not most of them, have ongoing careers; they are writers, artists, lawyers. One is even an ex-vice president of AOL Time Warner. This program attracts those who are interested in the greater world outside themselves.

It also seems like the program takes community outreach very seriously.
Very much so, and it was one of the main ideas we had from the very beginning. The face of our outreach efforts is Writers at Newark, our annual reading series at the Paul Robeson Gallery, which is free and open to the public. Junot Díaz, Richard Price, and Rick Moody are some of the writers who have visited or will take part. It's a new and important resource for Newark, which is quite a ways away from Manhattan, where there can be fifty readings a night. There's a related reading group, for which we've partnered with the New York Public Library branch in Newark as well as the Paul Robeson Gallery. We've also partnered with Newark High School on an annual writing contest for fiction, poetry, and nonfiction by high school students. The public reading and reception for the first- and second-place winners was so moving; these high school students have such incredible voices and real stories to tell.

How did you balance getting a new MFA program off the ground and working on Lark and Termite?
I didn't balance things very well. There's often a five- to eight-year gap between my books because of teaching, raising a family, and having to work at other jobs every so often. It's a balancing act all writers and artists have to deal with. I knew that when I took the job at Rutgers, Newark, I was giving them two years of my life to get the program off the ground. That's why writers colonies like Yaddo and MacDowell are extremely important to me. I wrote Lark and Termite exclusively in these kinds of settings.

Sarah Weinman is a freelance writer in New York City. Her Web site is www.sarahweinman.com.

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