Telling stories in Swannanoa

Nestled in the Swannanoa Valley is a small liberal-arts college with a nationally acclaimed writing program. Known for its rigorous and extremely personalized curriculum, the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College has earned an impressive international reputation.

More than words: Writer Peter Turchi heads Warren Wilson College’s MFA program. He will join a number of staff and students at the college’s upcoming reading series.

With a faculty that has collectively won nearly every major English-language literary honor—including the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award and MacArthur and Guggenheim fellowships—the program attracts talented fiction writers and poets from across the country to participate in high-intensity classes.

Throughout the two-year program, students engage in labor-intensive one-on-one lessons (also known as tutorials) with their professors. In the tutorial system, students send their work to their professors and receive written feedback and criticism about their writing. The program is also “low residency,” with twice yearly, 10-day marathons of classes and workshops taking the place of regular classes.

The program is “designed for older students and writers who have to support themselves,” explains Peter Turchi, the MFA Program’s director. “It requires a great deal of self-discipline. Each student is asked to devote 25 hours a week to the work. Everyone has to figure out how to cut that time out of their schedule. It means having to redesign their life, [but it’s] a valuable endeavor. It means that when they leave [the MFA program] they have a working model that they can continue to use for their writing.”

During the residency periods, Warren Wilson’s campus plays host to a number of readings, lectures and classes by the staff and graduating writers. For literature lovers, it’s a rare chance to see these talented wordsmiths on their home turf, reading for a crowd of their peers.

One such writer is graduating MFA student Mark Prudowsky, an Asheville-based poet who runs the reading series at the Flood Gallery in the River Arts District. His poetry has been published in the Warren Wilson environmental journal Heartstone and the literary journal Agenda.

“I wanted a low-residency program since I work full time as an electrical contractor,” Prudowsky says of the experience. “During the residencies you’re immersed for 12 hours a day in lectures, discussions, workshops and readings. By the end of the residency, I’m spent.”

Although challenging, Prudowsky also says that the program’s lessons have been invaluable.

“Steve Orlen, one of my supervisors, once told me that if I sat down to write a poem with a particular intent I would likely write a lousy poem—no discovery,” he recalls. “It’s only been in the last year that I’ve felt any kind of confidence in my work. That only happened after I stopped trying to force a poem instead of letting it come to me.”

And his post-graduation plans?

“I want to keep reading other poets,” Prudowsky says. “I think that’s how I’ve learned the most—reading and trying to understand how another poet modulates the tone in a poem or examines an image from several perspectives. I’ll also be putting together a manuscript and sending it off to small publishing houses.”

While students make up the majority of the featured readers at the program’s upcoming events, a number of presentations will come from the teachers themselves. Included in that roster is Betty Adcock, a Raleigh-based poet and longtime member of the MFA Program’s teaching staff. Adcock has written five books, won the Pushcart Prize (twice) and was a Guggenheim Fellow. The proudly self-described “last Luddite” (she doesn’t even own a computer) is also a somewhat unlikely teacher (since she’s largely self-educated), but her self-developed approach seems to work.

“Teaching differs with every student,” Adcock says of her technique. “I try to find what a student loves and then show it to him or her by finding reading that spurs them. I try to help improve their ear for musicality in writing; help them find a narrative thread in poetry; to work intensively on revisions and to literally ‘re-envision’ their work.”

Another faculty reader is fiction writer C.J. Hribal, an 18-year veteran of the program. Although based in Milwaukee, Wis., (where he’s an English professor and Director of Undergraduate Studies at Marquette University), Hribal commutes to the program in Swannanoa a few times each year.

“You’re working with students one to one, so you’re really focused on their work: their strengths and their areas of need,” Hribal says of the program. “Every three weeks they’re sending you some 40 pages of fiction plus a letter filled with their concerns about their work. That level of intensity can be exhausting, both for the student and for the faculty supervisor. But it’s also tremendously rewarding.”

Hribal says that part of that reward is watching his students grow. “It’s gratifying to help a student push ahead with their own understanding of the craft, and particularly gratifying when they experience one of those ‘breakthrough’ moments when they understand something that had formerly been a bit cloudy to them.”

There are other benefits for Hribal as well. “In the course of the semester, I always end up learning more about writing myself,” he notes.

Starting on Thursday, Jan. 3, the public gets a chance to get in on the literary action. Part celebration, part literary showcase, the series of readings and lectures by the MFA program’s students and faculty puts dozens of the program’s writers—a group that ranges in age from early 20s to retirees past 65—in the spotlight to read their fiction and poems. It’s an ideal way to see these dedicated writers in their element.

who: Warren Wilson College’s MFA readings
what: Poetry, fiction and lectures by faculty and students
where: Warren Wilson’s Fellowship Hall
when: Thursday, Jan. 3, through Saturday, Jan. 12 (8:15 p.m. Free. 771-3715)

About Aiyanna Sezak-Blatt
Aiyanna grew up on the island of Kauai, Hawaii. She was educated at The Cambridge School of Weston, Sarah Lawrence College, and Oxford University. Aiyanna lives in Asheville, North Carolina where she proudly works for Mountain Xpress, the city’s independent local newspaper.

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