Inside the MFA: A Preface and Mixed Feelings

Posted on Mon, Sep 28 2015 9:00 am by Miriam W. Karraker

The title of this column is perhaps a little deceiving, I myself am generally skeptical of any title that alludes to sensation and am reminded of things like Dateline specials and conspiracy theories. I mean to say that Inside the MFA is a column in which I’ll be sharing my experiences as a first year student at the University of Minnesota. In a way, I’m “on the inside” of this MFA world, which, admittedly is somewhat secluded. However, my aim is to not to sensationalize. Rather, I’ll be describing my experiences here for perhaps potential MFA-ers thinking about applying to programs, and possibly current MFA-ers and creative writing educators interested in this particular experience, as I navigate teaching, writing, and building literary community.

Getting accepted to an MFA program has caused me to feel like I’ve been on the verge of something cool for kind of a while (approximately six months), thus I didn’t want to prolong my departure from Portland, Oregon too much. In May, my father and I made the long drive back to my hometown of Minneapolis where I’d be starting the U of M’s MFA in poetry in the fall. Since I visited last March, I’d been giddy to return for the MFA community, the literary scene, and a gorgeous Minneapolis summer. I will admit that I spent most of my summer indoors as a barista/telemarketer/unpaid intern, and I did not write as much as I hoped. The past three months have only confirmed for me that an MFA is what I need to be doing at this point in my life. All I want to do is write and talk to people about writing—something I didn’t really get to do while selling people stuff on the phone. I’m about to live the dream: three years of time and space to write poems. It was way too easy to get distracted by Portland’s natural beauty, and I’m looking forward to experiencing seasons again, midwest autumns and long winters well-suited for denning up with my work.

A quick intro is probably in order, and my professional profile goes as follows: My name is Miriam Wilkes Karraker. I grew up in south Minneapolis. I earned my B.A. in religious studies and French from Lewis & Clark College in Portland. As far as publications go, I’ve written music and arts pieces for Bitch Media and She Shreds Magazine, and am slowly starting to send my poetry out for publication and try my hand at book reviews. I bike a lot. I listen to a lot of music. Right now I’m into Detroit rapper Dej Loaf and avant-pop composer Julia Holter. I’m definitely a dog person. I think horoscopes and restaurant reviews make great use of the English language.

I cannot really say how I got into writing poetry—my parents are not what I would consider creatively inclined, but they are wonderful people (and proofreaders) who gave me lots of room to be creative and ask questions as a kid. I distinctly remember being a middle schooler, reading the liner notes and listening to Carol King’s Tapestry and Joni Mitchell’s Blue. There were always lots of books in my childhood home: weird medical tomes my dad keeps around just because, my mom’s sociology books, lots of of large picture books about nature and animals. I have a quintessentially cool older sister: always listening to music and reading, good at math and music. I wanted to be like her, but my strength has never been in numbers.

In college, I found a group of peers concerned with social justice and feminism, people who cared about community and thinking critically about identity. I had a brief stint in my college’s slam poetry club, though I never actually performed (public speaking terrifies me). I was attracted to the rhythm of words but found myself drawn to minimal scenes rather than sprawling manifestos. Academically, I was attracted to the intersections of history, theory, literary criticism, and anthropology, which continue to inform my work. I was always hesitant to let literature go completely, so I tacked on a second major in French. I made room in my life for poetry wherever I could, doing workshops with friends, editing journals, taking electives. I owe a lot to professors Paul Merchant, Jerry Harp, and Mary Szybist for showing me how to create trust and community in the classroom, for their honest critique and care for my work, for teaching me how to be project-oriented.

I have a lot of fear and excitement going into the program. The notion of a large project drove me to apply to MFA programs in the first place (I’m already fantasizing about my thesis booklist) and I can’t wait to dip into it. I’m grateful for the privilege of being fully-funded with a TA appointment, and for the opportunity to work with talented faculty and undergraduate students. I am equally excited to swap work, criticism, and book recommendations with my peers in poetry, and also creative nonfiction and fiction. I’ve already added around 25 new books to my list of things to read since the first day of class.

As for my fears, I am a little afraid of teaching. I fear the sexism and misogyny that might (will) inevitably affect me as a woman in an academic environment. I’m grateful  for the weekly teaching practicum I am taking as part of my studies this semester, which grants me a peer mentor and a group of students to talk about the problems and successes of being new teachers in the classroom. A lot of people, myself included, worry about if their work will ever be what they want it to be. I plan on pushing myself to try new things formally and thematically, but how exactly my environment will support that remains somewhat mysterious. I am hoping to be my work’s best advocate. For myself, the best course of action is perhaps to just be present during the time I’m here, and to be grateful for obstacles, victories, and the peers with whom I’ll experiences along the way. For you, dear reader, I hope you’ll find something interesting in this column. I’ll share my experiences in workshop, teaching, and of course, writing. I’ll probably even recommend some books.

Miriam W. Karraker earned her BA in religious studies and French from Lewis & Clark College. She is currently an MFA candidate in poetry at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. She writes for Bitch Media here.