Literary Heavy Hitters: IAIA MFA Program Taps Indian Country's Best

Jason Asenap interviews Jon Davis, head of the MFA program at the Institute of American Indian Arts.

Jon Davis is the director of the newly-created Low Residency MFA in Creative Writing at the and the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA). Davis has won a Lannan Literary Award in Poetry for his collection Scrimmage of Appetite, and a G.E. Younger Writers Award and the Lavan Prize for Dangerous Amusements. An IAIA instructor since 1990, Davis has also received two NEA Fellowships and is currently Santa Fe’s Poet Laureate. He spoke with Jason Asenap about the Low Residency MFA.

Can you describe the program?

The Low-Residency MFA in Creative Writing program was accredited by the Higher Learning Commission on February 15, 2013. The idea had been first floated when Arthur Sze and I were creating the BFA program in 2002. But at that point it was a vague dream. It wasn’t until a brief hallway conversation with the academic dean, Ann Filemyr, five years later that we really began planning. The dean, a poet herself, knew how the low residency model worked, and we agreed that it could be ideal for Native writers, who often are living on remote reservations, involved in cultural life or raising families and working to make ends meet. The low residency model allows the writing student to be at home, working over the internet for the 16 week long semester, but it also allows the face-to-face contact for one week at the beginning of each semester. The week-long residency is the engine that drives the program. It’s a great, intense week filled with workshops and craft talks and readings and lots of conversation and laughter. I’d be willing to bet that no MFA program laughs more often or harder than we do.

Stacks of Alexie's book, which was handed out for free on World Book Night.

I should summarize for you the model. The program begins with the weeklong July residency, usually in the last week of July, when the students, faculty, visiting writers, editors, and agents all arrive to spend a week together reading and writing and talking about writing. Each day begins with two and a half hour creative writing workshops in the four genres we teach, fiction, creative nonfiction, poetry, and screenwriting. Then we all eat together. After lunch, there are optional workshops and seminars. Students use these to explore other genres or focus on a single aspect of writing. Last semester we had a workshop on writing about gender and sex, two seminars on screenwriting, a seminar on writing poetry reviews. These were very well attended. After the optional after lunch events, we have a craft lecture by one of the faculty or visiting writers. We eat dinner together, then end the evening with faculty and visiting writers reading their work. One night we have a late night student reading. After midweek, students request mentors for the 16 week online semester. Once students are matched with mentors, they meet and plan the semester reading and writing projects. The goal of all of this activity is a 25 page craft paper and a creative thesis, basically a book of poetry, fiction or creative nonfiction, or a feature screenplay.

What are some of the advantages of being an online program?

The obvious one I mentioned: You can live where you want, work, and participate in community activities. But, in terms of learning, I think the 16 week semester puts you in the writer’s habitual place: In a room, alone, with a keyboard (or pen and paper) and your imagination. There’s a certain charge of enthusiasm and motivation that you carry with you from the residency, but that wears down and you’re thrown back on your own resources. You find out very quickly that being a writer is not a lifestyle choice, it’s hard work. But you have support. You have your mentor and contact information for at least thirty other people who are in your same position. The students, so far, have been great about cheering each other along. The other good thing about the online process is that you’re getting in-depth critiques from your mentor. That close attention can help you improve your writing quickly.

 What inspired you to create this program? Is it based on any previous MFA programs?

I was inspired to create the program—to take on Dean Filemyr’s challenge—at least partly because we have graduated a number of very good student writers who stalled out after receiving their BFA degrees. For whatever reason, they did not continue on to graduate school and some stopped writing altogether. These are students (many of them now in the IAIA program) who had the skills and imaginations to write, but could not find an environment like IAIA at the next level. While some schools see the low residency model as a "cash cow" (I have actually heard that very term used many times), I saw it as a chance to provide a good education at a very low cost. Although eventually we’d like to provide more scholarship aid, we’re not doing badly on that front given that we’re in the middle of our first year. 

Inupiaq poet Joan Naviyuk Kane reading at the January IAIA MFA residency. Image source: facebook.com/IAIA.MFA

The low residency model has been around since 1976 when what is now the Warren Wilson MFA program was founded at Goddard College. (The program moved from Goddard to Warren Wilson in 1981.) When I started developing the IAIA program in 2007, I looked at all of the programs and decided to look closely at two of the most successful, Warren Wilson and Vermont College, as well as a relatively new program at Pacific University. As I explored, I could see that Pacific had also looked closely at Warren Wilson and Vermont College! I also looked at programs that had diverged from the standard model, some with live online workshops, others with no residencies at all, but, in the end, I decided to start with the simplest, easiest to manage model. The only big differences between our program and the ones I studied are the largely Native faculty and the requirement that 25% of the books the students read be written by Native authors. We’ve also put slightly more emphasis on the creative writing and a little less on reading and writing about literature.

 What surprises, good or bad, have you had thus far, as director of the IAIA MFA program?

When we were about to open the doors, the Institute’s president, Dr. Robert Martin, who has been incredibly supportive of the MFA, said we would run the program if we could recruit five or more students. I told him we’d have twenty-five. I’ll admit now I wasn’t nearly as confident as I sounded, but sure enough, we had thirty students in the first class, and it looks like we’ll have 35-40 in the second class. So that’s been a little surprise. The other surprise, also good, was the first class of students, who have been a delight. There have been the usual life issues and difficulties staying on schedule, but when the students show up for the residency, it really is a big, comfortable family with—sure--some of a big family’s dysfunctionality at times, but nothing we can’t take care of.

The only bad surprise, for me, has been discovering how much work it is to singlehandedly run a program like this. I have to say the staff at IAIA has been amazing at pitching in to help me when they see I’m overloaded or volunteering to complete a task that they see I might not get done or being gentle when they have to chide me for missing a deadline or filling a form out wrong. But still, even with all the help, the job is pretty all-consuming. In fact, I’m behind on about a half dozen things right this minute.

You have some pretty heavy hitters on your faculty, how did you get Sherman Alexie?

Most of the faculty I have known for a while thanks to the Lannan Foundation, which grants us money each year to bring in visiting writers. Sherman was one of the invited writers over the years, as was were Joseph and Amanda Boyden, Eden Robinson, and several others. I’d seen them all read, talk, teach in the classroom, and work one-on-one with students. I’d basically been auditioning teachers for ten years. When I first started thinking about the program, I emailed Sherman. At that point, he said yes, count me in. But it took a while to get the program sorted out, then get everything approved, so there was a long silence before I emailed him again. I wasn’t at all sure he’d say yes again, but he did, right away and enthusiastically.

Poet Sherwin Bitsui. Image source: facebook.com/IAIA.MFA

Once I had Sherman on board, everything else went smoothly. All my faculty are great, but Sherman had the high profile that brought attention to the program. I could go on and on about his support—he wrote a letter that helped us with accreditation; he even auctioned himself off to give private dinner readings to raise scholarship funds. Last residency, he jumped out of his fiction workshop and onto Native America Calling with two minutes’ notice to talk about the program.

 What do you hope to achieve from the MFA program?

I hope to change the world, of course! I see this program developing writers, promoting writers, developing a sense of community and ownership, and providing a center for contemporary Native literature and thought. To accomplish these goals, we have developed a strong reading series that we call the Writers Festival which brings in both Native and non-Native writers to read. Linda Hogan was here last time; coming up, we’ve got Debra Earling in July, Joy Harjo in January. In July, we’ll start an online journal.

In addition to developing Native writers, we’re also creating a strong group of non-Native writers who have experienced working alongside Native writers and so have real connections and less stereotypical views. They’ve read Native literature closely. They’ve been taught by Native writers. All of that is good, too.

Jason Asenap (Comanche/Muskogee Creek) is a writer and filmmaker from Walters, OK now based in Albuquerque, NM. Asenap was selected to the 2011 Sundance Institute Nativelab fellowship.