by Claude Christensen
The Northeast Ohio Master of Fine Arts in creative writing, or NEOMFA, is a creative writing graduate program unlike any other. The NEOMFA is a consortial program that includes four universities: Youngstown State University, Kent State University, Cleveland State University and the University of Akron. This article is the first of a series in which we’ll highlight NEOMFA students and their work.
To begin the series we spoke with program director Steven Reese about the program. Reese, in addition to being the current director of the NEOMFA, teaches poetry at Youngstown State. His own work has appeared in such journals as “Poetry Northwest,” “West Branch,” and “Asheville Poetry Review.” He has also authored two collections of poetry: “Enough Light to Steer By” (CSU Press) and “American Dervish” (Salmon Press, Ireland).
Claude Christensen: For starters, when and why was the NEOMFA created? Are there any other consortial MFAs?
Steven Reese: The MFA was created fourteen years ago to fulfill what was perceived as a need for the degree in northeast ohio. There was a lot of communication between the schools at the time, but no formal structure connecting them. That’s what the MFA did. No, there aren’t other programs like it. It’s really a marvelous design if a student really [wants] to have a program with a lot of options.
CC: What kinds of opportunities does the NEOMFA provide its students, opportunities that they may not have at a more traditional MFA program?
SR: It [combines] the resources not only of four universities–with the variety of faculty, the availability of classes at all four campuses, the rich academic and cultural lives of the campuses–but of four cities as well, and their museums, their music, their histories, geographies, etc. Also: the MFA brings in four distinguished writers each year to read, hold workshops with students, talk shop, etc., in addition to a number of other opportunities for direct contact with “name” writers; but that’s in addition to the reading series held by each individual campus and the great writers that those bring in. So really there are almost more opportunities than one can manage and keep up with schoolwork!
CC: Could you explain a little how the program in of itself works? How a student applies to a home campus and takes advantage of the resources at any of the other three campuses as well?
SR: Students apply the Graduate Program to any one of the four campuses—based on convenience, a professor they might especially want to work with, the availability of financial aid, e.g. At the same time they apply to the MFA by sending a portfolio of creative work to an admissions committee made up of MFA faculty. Students have to be accepted by both the Grad School and the NEOMFA; if either says no, then the application is denied. Once students are admitted, they can register for courses at their home—or “Gateway”—campus, or at any of the other three.
CC: What do you consider the weaknesses of the program?
SR: As to weaknesses, I’d say the registration process is a little cumbersome, especially for cross-registering for classes at other campuses. The four universities have different registration schedules, which means we have to have our own semi-formal registration, with students contacting professors directly to hold a place in their class, before they actually register. Not ideal. But the strengths are many, and the sense of community is very strong.
CC: Finally, what is your experience of the NEOMFA? At a more personal level, and then as a teacher and director, what do you consider the strengths of the program?
SR: My experience with the program has been very positive—especially the chance to work with students who are in it for one reason: to get stronger at their craft and to launch themselves into a lifetime of writing, whatever shape that might take. My experience as Director has brought me into contact with even more of the faculty and students and gives me a clear sense of what a good thing is happening—a feeling that culminates at graduation, which can be a very moving experience. This year we’ll be sending 20 students—more than a quarter of our enrollment—on to their next phases of the writing life, after three years of hard work and discovery.
Claude Christensen is taking a working break after 18 years in school, catching up on all the things he’s never read.
For more information about the program, visit neomfa.org
(Photo courtesy of Steven Reese)