Converse’s MFA Program Celebrates a Decade of Creative Excellence
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Converse’s MFA Program Celebrates a Decade of Creative Excellence

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By Monica Jones ‘03

Ten years is a milestone worth celebrating, and Converse College’s Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program will be commemorating in fine style on Thursday, June 6, 2019, with two exciting events in two different venues.

Kicking off this salute to the MFA program and its graduates’ accomplishments, a reception will be held between 4:30 pm and 6:30 pm at the Ciclops Cyderi and Brewery, located on E. St. John St. in Spartanburg. Managed by Clara Jane Hallar, a poetry graduate of the MFA program herself, they will launch a special release beer in honor of the anniversary, based on a recipe created by Jane Austen. Literally, a literary beer!

“Jane Austen was a home brewer herself, as were many women of the time.”

As Michael Millen, head brewer for Ciclops Cyderi and Brewery explains, “We are brewing a beer inspired by a great writer, Jane Austen. She was a home brewer herself, as were many women of the time, and although her recipes are not recorded, their flavor profiles and descriptions are. We are making a Gruit-styled ale, subbing herbs and spices for hops. During her time, hops were not always readily available to the general public, so they would use herbs and spices in their place to flavor the beer.”MFA faculty and students at brewery

The reception will be followed by an MFA Alumni reading on the Converse campus in Zimmerli Common Room at 7:30 pm. The reading will feature poet Lisa Hase-Jackson, novelist Sonja Condit, and YA novelist Gwen Holt, who has just published her fourth Young Adult (YA) novel, Imani Unraveled, with Owl Hollow Press, under the pen name Leigh Statham.

The reception and reading are open to all alumni, faculty, current students, administrators, and friends of the program.

The Converse low-residency Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program began in the summer of 2009, under the guidance of Professor Richard Mulkey. Mulkey has been at Converse for most of the last 25 years, but after a brief stint with Wichita State directing their MFA program, he and his wife, Professor Susan Tekulve, explored the possibilities of Converse having its own MFA program. After lots of research and proposal drafts to the faculty, it was launched with Professor Mulkey as Director.

“This is the only such program in South Carolina,” says Mulkey. “It provides an opportunity for adult graduate students to maintain their professional and private lives while setting aside time each week to study literature and practice the writing craft in a program with an award-winning faculty of poets, novelists, and essayists. It has become, as we hoped it would, a highly distinctive program for the college, with a large number of successful graduates.”

Converse’s two-year co-educational low residency MFA program is designed for independent writers looking for advanced instruction in fiction, Y.A. fiction, poetry, creative non-fiction, and environmental writing. The program emphasizes the apprentice mentoring relationship with students, and offers an individually tailored curriculum of courses and projects, resulting in mastery and understanding of writing skills and contemporary literature.

“It has become a highly distinctive program for the college, with a large number of successful graduates.”

The 48-hour credit requirements are completed during four nine-day residencies at Converse College, which are offered twice annually, with four mentoring semesters, a fifth graduating residency, an analytical project on literature or craft, and a book-length creative thesis and oral defense.

Students and graduates of the MFA program have published or had accepted for publication more than two dozen books so far with presses from William Morrow/Harper Collins to Word Works Press, according to Mulkey, and says he can’t keep up with the number of published stories, essays, and poems—but he estimates it’s well over 100. “They’ve been featured in the Paris issue of Rolling Stone Magazine, have received numerous fellowships, grants, and awards, including a Kundiman Foundation grant, a Gulbenkian Foundation fellowship for a writing residency in Portugal, the John and Susan Bennet Memorial Arts Fund grant, a Southeast Review Nonfiction Prize, an AWP Intro Award, a SC Poetry initiative Prize, The Bryant-Lisembee Poetry Book prize, Press 53’s Fiction prize for a collection stories, and a host of others.”Professor Mulkey speaks with an MFA student

Of her decision to seek an MFA, Gwen Holt says, “I chose the MFA in YA lit program at Converse because I have been working in commercial fiction for several years but wanted more of a literary program. I love literary fiction, and I wanted to improve my writing and take it more in that direction.” In addition to her success as a novelist, Holt is the managing Fiction Editor at South 85 Journal for the Converse MFA program and is the winner of the James Applewhite Poetry Prize honorable mention, and Southeast Review Narrative Nonfiction Prize. She already has another book completed and ready to go out to editors: a collaborative YA novel in verse, with co-author, Chris Menezes—himself a graduate of the MFA program in poetry—whom she met in an add-on poetry workshop.

Assistant Director, Sarah Cooper, herself a poetry graduate of the program, found that she could work around her day job as a faculty member at Clemson while she earned her degree. “I decided I wanted to pursue an MFA, and the low residency option was attractive because of the schedule,” Cooper said. “After some research, I learned Denise Duhamel was on faculty at Converse, and I knew that was the person I wanted to work with. I was thrilled to have the opportunity to study with her and other poets I came to know and respect: Suzanne Cleary, Rick Mulkey, and Richard Tillinghast. Each faculty member challenged me as a writer.”

“With dozens of books published by our graduates, the program has now established itself as a place that trains and mentors successful writers.”

Keeping the number of enrolled students between 25-30, the program remains intimate, with the students knowing each other, and all faculty members knowing the students. This isn’t always the case with larger programs that enroll between 60 to 150 people. Almost all of the faculty have been with the program since the first or second year of its creation, making it feel like a big family. One faculty member describes it as “a rigorous yet nurturing place to hone your craft,” according to Mulkey.

The student demographic is amazingly diverse. There have been journalists, lawyers, medical professionals, soldiers and marines who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, teachers, business professionals, retirees, actors and life-long students. Ages have ranged from 23 to70 plus, with a median age falling between the late 30s to mid-40s. Students have also come from all over the United States, including California, Washington, Oregon, New York, Florida, Oklahoma, Texas, and numerous other states, including South Carolina.

“As our graduates have moved on and started their own publishing careers, we invite them back once each year during our summer residency session to read from newly published books,” says Mulkey. “This helps to continue developing a bond between faculty, students, and alumni. With dozens of books published by our graduates, the program has now established itself as a place that trains and mentors successful writers.”

For more details about the Converse College Master of Fine Arts Low-Residency program, visit www.converse.edu/mfa.

Converse College offices will be closed Wednesday, November 27 through December 1. Offices will reopen December 2 at 8:30 am.
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