In Search of Silence

by Sheila O’Connor

Sheila O’Connor’s Writing Room at Yaddo

I was in my 40’s before I was awarded my first writing residency. I’d never left home to write, never left my kids for more than an overnight for any reason, and here I was setting off for a week of solitude to write in silence with strangers. Although neither the silence nor the strangers truly appealed to me, I knew I needed time. Between work and parenting and tending to our extended family, there wasn’t space in my days to write a single word. What I remember most clearly about that first long drive to Norcroft, a former writing retreat for women in northern Minnesota, is feeling overwhelmed by a mix of terror and hope. No internet. No cell service. Where was the nearest pay phone? How was I going to spend an entire week speaking only to strangers at supper? What if, given this tremendous gift of time, I had nothing of value to write? It wasn’t until I’d arrived, and the director walked me down the wooded path to my tiny writing space, a small one-room studio that overlooked Lake Superior, that my terror disappeared. Suddenly, it was just me in my silence, and that would be enough.

It’s impossible to describe how grateful I still am for that single week at Norcroft, but I can say I was never the same writer again. Without the noise of the world, without phones and computers, without relationships and tasks, my imagination began to fill the void. My fictional world became clear to me. My characters spoke clearly and often. At Norcroft, my only job was to be still and listen, to honor the unfolding of the fictional dream, to translate that mystery into language. By the third day, sitting on a boulder overlooking the vast gray of Lake Superior, I didn’t care if I ever went home.

In the years beyond Norcroft, a hunger for longer residencies followed. Whenever I could steal time away, I went off for a month at the Anderson Center, Yaddo, The Studios at Key West, the Tyrone Guthrie Center in Ireland. I applied for residencies as often as I could, taking the rejections in stride and when a residency wasn’t possible, I learned to arrange my own. I wrote my novels at retreat centers and monasteries, on a sheep farm, at an annual writing retreat surrounded by the pure white of a Minnesota winter. For a few years, in my eternal search for uninterrupted silence, I rented various spaces in the city where I live.

Today I have my own backyard space, a writing studio I happily share with other writers in need of quiet, and yet I know there is nothing like extended time away, nothing like a stretch of uninterrupted dreaming to bring a book to life, or to suddenly discover the missing secret to an especially daunting revision. Of course, like most writers, I can’t wait for that opportunity to be awarded. I continue to work where I can, whenever I can, while still holding to the hope that someday I’ll have another lucky chance at a long pause of blissful silence.


Finding the DNA of My Stories in Poetry

by Susan Tekulve

Note: This week’s blog post is from Converse Creative Writing faculty member Susan Tekulve, author of multiple books of fiction and nonfiction, including most recently Second Shift: Essays, and In The Garden of Stone, winner of the South Carolina Novel Prize and an Independent Publishers Prize. Tekulve, like most of our faculty writers, works in more than one genre. The following essay, written at the end of her recent sabbatical, details some of the work she has completed in poetry over the last several months, and what the process of writing poetry has done for her as a prose writer, and how it has changed the way she thinks about her fiction and essays. As you think about your own potential writing career and graduate studies in creative writing, you might to take a look at the second genre option offered in the Converse Low Residency MFA program which provides students the opportunity to minor in a second genre for a semester in addition to the work they do in their major writing genre during their program studies. To learn more, go to

Finding the DNA of My Stories in Poetry

Over the last few years, I began to realize that the material for my stories—fictional and nonfictional—had stopped fitting into the traditional narrative structure, one that demands linearity, and cause and effect. This could have happened because I’d reached a liminal point in my life, both personally and creatively, but I let that worry me a whole lot. I never gave up writing, though I spent a lot of time trying to impose linear structures upon characters who simply did not want to abide the conceptions that traditional narrative demands. The result, of course, was that I wrote a lot of long, rambling stories and essays that never really went anywhere, and often fizzled on the page long before they resolved themselves.

Then, early last spring, I started writing poetry—after a 30-year hiatus from writing in verse–and my material began to pour forth rather quickly onto the page. I began each poem with an image or event, and then I allowed the poem to fill with other images in an organic way. I let the poems leap from image to image until I discovered—always by surprise—what revelations those images were leading me to. Once I started working in this way, I was able to write about subjects that I’d been wrestling unsuccessfully with for years. I began working with material I hadn’t ever considered writing about at all. I concluded that my stories had been in search of a new vessel, and that new vessel was poetry because a poem de-emphasizes the straight narrative line, and relies upon images, language, and syntax to create forward motion, unity, and revelation.

I thought maybe I was going through a “poetry phase,” that I would work through my new material as poems for a month or so, and then I’d return to writing fiction or essays. But as summer arrived, my stories just kept coming to me as poems. I honestly never thought of myself as a poet, but as one who was conducting an experiment in writing poetry. As I continued my experiment, I set out a few simple ground rules for myself: I would read one book of poetry a day, or the collected works of a single poet every week. I would begin each of my own poems with a triggering image, (instead of a preconceived notion of what I thought I was writing about), and I would plumb those images until they revealed the poem’s meaning to me.

Summer became fall, and I surrendered to writing poetry, mostly because I felt energized by the process. I awoke every morning, eager to go the work and discover where any given poem would take me. I’d end the day’s writing session with jotting down another image that I wanted to explore in another poem. I was living in a kind of semitrance, which is where most writers want to live. And when I wasn’t writing, I read poets whose work I knew, or didn’t know, but now I was reading them as though they were all my teachers. The lyricism of poetry allowed me to embrace that liminal space I had been stuck in for so long. Once I let go of the linear, I no longer worried.

In an interview, the poet Ellen Bryant Voigt defines the lyric as “born, perhaps, from recognition of impermanence, rather the opposite of chiseling a poem into stone—and unlike the chisel, it allows faster, multiple shifts of tone, redirections, mid-course corrections.” What this means is that the lyric counters the structures of the sequential and linear often associated with the narrative. By taking on the lyric mode, I was able to juxtapose images, leap through metaphors, and use other lyric patterns to focus on a structural arrangement that de- emphasizes narrative sequence. By highlighting the lyric present, I found the moment of heightened emotional response and understanding that the poem explored. All of these skills are transferrable to prose writing.

In the Wake of Trauma

by Becky Cartwright

Adversarial growth is a psychological phenomenon of post-traumatic changes in which people flourish after extreme adversity. I’d never heard of it until I came across an article comparing some trauma survivors to the lotus. In nature the lotus seed may lay dormant for hundreds of years in pond muck but still germinate if presented the right conditions. Once growth is activated, the lotus can take up to two years to extend mature tubers, and finally, a bud rises above the murky water line to bloom. Apparently, humans can do the same—rise out of unfortunate circumstances to not only thrive, but to transform into better people.

I’m not overstating when I say Converse University contributed the right environment for me to grow from my adversity.

I married Tommy in 1981, but before our second anniversary, an accident crushed his back. For the next 36 years, I was his wife and caretaker. But the months between March of 2017 and the summer of 2018 became the most difficult. My father died in March at the same time Tommy began to struggle with more debilitating health problems. He would be in and out of intensive care multiple times by the end of 2017. On January 4th, 2018, our daughter gave birth to her third child, and on January 30th, Tommy died. In February my son-in-law was, with no prior indicators, diagnosed with stage four cancer. He died in June of 2018, leaving two little boys, and a baby who’d never remember him.

I barely survived those months myself, but as a family, we held together.

The mourning interim allowed me time to think about what I wanted that years of caretaking hadn’t allowed. I considered my options while also abiding by the “don’t make any big decisions for the first year after losing a loved one” mantra. As I turned my temporary bedroom back into an office, I found a quote scribbled on a dismembered flap of a manilla envelope: “And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom” by Anais Nin. I decided my day had come to join the writing world, an idea I’d lodged for years. I needed to do something I enjoyed, so after researching multiple writing programs, I joined the MFA immersion residency at Converse.

Within the first few days of the residency, I called my daughter to tell her I’d found my writing family.

I never expected an immediate connection with like-minded people—writer people. I expected to feel inferior in my lack of writing experience. But that confident writer façade I thought I needed, I didn’t. Everyone was transparent, even the highly-awarded writing mentors and the most academic people on campus.

The bonds cemented my decision to return to Converse for the full MFA program, and my transformation began. I wasn’t fully aware of it until a few months after I graduated the program in January of 2022. The growth I’m referring to isn’t only the increased knowledge of the writing craft and the improvements in my writing, it’s the personal growth I experienced—the adversarial growth.

Here’s how I think it happened.

Not only did I make connections to the people on campus and continue those relationships, I also connected to fictional characters. I know those pseudo-connections hover on the edge of the parasocial realm—a one-sided encounter or an imagined relationship. But as we engage in fiction, our brains do not distinguish between made-up characters and actual people, so we sometimes experience the same range of emotions as the ones we develop in creating real relationships. Of course, falling into a pathological black hole of celebrity-like obsession is unhealthy. But as benefits, the bonds we build within a fictional character’s “reality” carries us to a deeper understanding of our own, especially since we don’t erect the same kinds of barriers for fictional characters as we tend to do with bona-fide humans.

Within those fictional engagements, I analyzed characters such as Gene Forrester in A Separate Peace, Ponyboy Curtis in The Outsiders, Miriam and Laila in A Thousand Splendid Suns, Charlie Gordon in Flowers for Algernon, John Singer in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Adah Price in The Poisonwood Bible, and Randle McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. My thesis
included an exploration of the bildungsroman genre, comparing and contrasting Holden Caulfield and Esther Greenwood. I explored their trauma and made connections with my own. A characteristic of the bildungsroman is for the protagonist to undergo a process of alienation, usually by way of a death, in order to achieve self-consciousness.

That’s where I made the most profound changes—in the awareness of myself, something I’d neglected for decades. My writing mentors encouraged me to take risks with my writing, causing me to look inward. Marlin Barton challenged me to write chapters from the perspective of the autistic character in my novel. Those chapters were the most difficult to write but the ones of which I am most proud. At the time, I was moving out of the grips of empathy fatigue—the emotional and physical exhaustion from prolonged care of others. I didn’t know if I could write proper depictions from the perspective of an autistic child, but
doing so refilled that empty space. Bob Olmstead pushed me to strengthen my young female protagonist. In one particular critique of a chapter, he told me to give her a “more active role” in the scene because it was, after all, her story. In another he said about a passage, “The power should be intrinsic.” I copied those notes in bold letters on the outside of the file folder in which the chapters were filed. They repeated their message from the top of the stack. Even though Bob was relating them to the words on the page, they became personal challenges.

Since then, I’ve recognized my adversarial growth—the transformation that transcends the former state of myself: a heightened sense of gratitude, increased emotional strength and resilience, and the confidence to embrace new opportunities. I can’t undo the trauma, so I’ll bask above the murky pond and enjoy my new found self.

Connecting the Dots

by Scott Laughlin

Though the events of our lives can feel haphazard, even tangled, sometimes you can connect the dots. My dots, at least the literary ones, run from Boston to London to St. Petersburg to Lisbon, and to Spartanburg, South Carolina and Converse College.

Let’s begin with the phone call from Luís in August, 2007 to tell me Alberto had suffered a stroke. Luís had rushed to Alberto’s bedside, had placed a hand on his still-warm forehead—but he’d died that evening.

I booked a flight for the funeral and saw him lowered into the ground in Brompton Cemetery with a small group, the painter Paula Rego among us. We’d already learned about the state of his flat where he’d been found unconscious: piles of newspapers, trash, a browned sink and tub, mice rummaging in the corners—the classic flat of a recluse. We, Alberto’s remaining friends, suspected as much.

We also suspected this: over one-thousand works of art (many unframed, mercilessly not ravaged by mice); letters from artists and friends (Pessoa, Mallaremé, Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop, David Hockney); original documents, such as programs from the Ballet Russes; Portuguese pottery… It was a collection that reflected Alberto’s transatlantic life and his eclectic tastes.

Luís told me he inherited everything and said, “This is a monumental task, and I’ll need your help.”

The flat was unearthed, truly an excavation. Eventually, 16 tons emerged, were boxed, put on barges, and sent to Portugal. I booked another ticket, this time to Lisbon. Luís called as I was about to leave for the airport.

“We’ve had a miracle,” he said. “Mario Soares is accepting Alberto’s estate into his foundation.”

Soares was the former President of Portugal, had been a key member of the Socialist Party in overthrowing the dictatorship in the Seventies. He knew Alberto and admired him as a man and as a poet. When I arrived, people with blue gloves and tweezers worked carefully to extract Alberto’s life, his own dots. I was free to relax and roam the streets of Lisbon, to experience for the first time its unique light, and to read Pessoa in the very cafés he frequented.

My first dot: Boston. Strange that what seems like an inconsequential decision—for me, signing up for Alberto de Lacerda’s class at Boston University—could have such a profound effect on the trajectory of one’s life. After his class on Modern Poetry (we read Baudelaire, Rimbaud, the Futurists, Apollinaire, the Surrealists), which altered my ways of thinking about literature and the world, Alberto became a mentor, a father-figure, and a friend. Fast-forward almost two decades, and I’m working on his legacy in a country I never visited when he was alive. He’d only lived briefly in Portugal; being a gay poet in a time of a Fascist dictatorship took care of that.

Enter Jeff Parker, who ran a literary program in St. Petersburg, Russia. Two, two-week sessions that consisted of workshops in poetry, creative non-fiction, and fiction. I’d gone to the program in 2005 and had Sam Lipsyte as my workshop leader. It was a boozy, raucous time, but I saw Raskolnikov’s apartment (or where he lived in Dostoevsky’s imagination), met Russian poets and translators, and saw William T. Vollman disappear behind the church where Kovalev encounters his nose in “The Nose” (or in Gogol’s imagination). I returned in 2007 as a guest lecturer. Over the course of those two years, Jeff and I became friends.

But the program was in peril by rising, unpredictable costs—by, for example, having to bribe, at the last minute, the venue where a reading was being held. Jeff was forced to shutter the program, but not before some of the best contemporary writers had either been participants or teachers in the program.

Dzanc Books, always ready to fund an exciting venture that strives to make the world a better place, encouraged Jeff to start a new program based on that one. Jeff’s grandfather was from Lisbon. Lisbon wasn’t, at least then, on anyone’s radar. It had a rich literary tradition. It was fun, and cheap.

But Jeff didn’t know anyone there, so he called me up.

“What exactly are you doing in Lisbon?” he asked.

I told him all about Alberto’s estate.

“Do you want to start this thing with me?” he asked.

“Twist my arm,” I said.

“Dzanc will send us over on a scouting trip, so tell me when you can go.”

“Now?” I said.

Through Luís, we had a meeting with Teresa Tamen at the Centro Nacional de Cultura.The director, Guilherme d’Oliveira Martins, was another fan of Alberto’s and considered him an important poet and figure. They agreed to partner with us, to house our workshops and turn over all administrative support for the two weeks we’d bring American writers in the summer.

We arranged meetings with universities, and with Oona Patrick, Jeff developed the idea a workshop dedicated to Luso-American writing. Luís arranged a meeting at the Luso-American Development Foundation. Jeff and I pitched the workshop, and director Mario Mesquita furrowed his brow, placed a hand on his stomach, and like a mafia don, said, “We are ready to work with you.”

Jeff and I were astounded so many doors opened so quickly and at the enthusiasm among the Portuguese for this cultural exchange.

It was now time to name our program and begin to promote it. Philosophically, we wanted to take people out of their comfort zones, to exist in another culture, another language—all to inspire new forms of writing—to expand this thing called “American literature.” We wanted to invoke Pessoa. We chose the concept from his only prose work: The Book of Disquiet. Jeff also insisted the program be dedicated to Alberto’s memory.

Luckily for us, people signed up. In 2011, Colson Whitehead was our first writer-in-residence, just the beginning of an illustrious list of writers we’ve brought: George Saunders, Eileen Myles, and Denis Johnson, to name just a few… To date, over 800 writers have passed through DISQUIET.

Personally, however, one of the most important was Robert Olmstead, who first came in 2012. We became fast friends. We both had daughters and were divorced. He asked questions about life and writing, as a mentor would. He told me to meet him at the Hard Rock Café on Lisbon’s Avenida da Liberdade. Such an American choice was strange, but Bob is in many ways a quintessentially American guy.

I found him and his partner, the poet Denise Duhamel, sitting upstairs eating cheeseburgers. I ordered a beer as he explained the benefits of an MFA. My writing would only get better. He would mentor me for two of the four semesters. If I ever published a book and wanted to teach, I needed an MFA. The low-residency model was perfect for me, a father and a high school teacher. I’d learn to work writing into my “real” life. Converse was affordable. Denise, also on faculty, talked about how great the community was. She wasn’t wrong. I applied, got in, and now count Converse as special a community to me as DISQUIET’s. I made great friends in the program, and one of them, the poet David Colodney, has participated in DISQUIET twice.

In the game connect the dots, we draw a line from one dot to the other not knowing what image will form. Eventually, however, one emerges. I’m not exactly sure what my image is, but it does show a kind of literary life. It’s a fun game, and I suggest you try it sometime.

**You can check out DISQUIET International Literary Program here:

What Myth Am I Remaking and Retelling?

by Laurel Eshelman

Have you ever considered the myth you might be retelling in your work? When Tyree Daye asked me this question, I struggled for my answer. I am not mythic and my poems contain sparrows and mud, people I love, death. Ordinary. I started reading. In Coin of the Realm Carl Phillip’s writes, “Myth is a verbal mapping out of what is known but not understood (Phillips 7).” We account for the irrational in our lives, we explain what we don’t understand, ordinary or extraordinary, through the filter of all our experiences. Randall Jarrell calls myth, “the story we make of life.”

Within our stories are also those myths we return to, the figures we have resonated with,have seen their story as our story. There are many across a life. What are yours? Think Samwise carrying Mr. Frodo, hopeful for home even as the flames leap around them, or Martha, of Mary and Martha, forgetting to breathe, to walk in the woods by the lake, to listen to the teacher. Watch the “in-valid” Vincent, from the film Gattaca, who swims farther out to sea than his “valid” brother. Why could he swim so far? Because he kept nothing for the return swim to shore. Remember June Carter Cash telling us she’s like Aaron holding up Moses’ arms? If I were to pick one that runs through my writing now when I’m helping my elders before their crossing to the next life, it would be the Grimm’s tale, “The Six Swans.” See the sister with her six swan brothers, mute, her fingers bleeding, no laughter, no words may pass her lips. For six years she is courageous in her silence, gathering starwort, sewing shirts to cast over their feathered wings to bring them back to humanity, to her side.

Phillips says these myths appeal to us as they are and are not our stories. We see how we are like them and how we are different “and something kinetic occurs upon such a realization (Phillips 12).” When we can retell, render the myth, so the reader ‘sees’ the myth anew from our own story, then we are the myth makers.

What I’m retelling is like a map. A map of a journey, with much of the travel within a single county in northwest Illinois. I’m at the part where there’s lots of breakdowns on the side streets. The streets open out to others where time doesn’t exist. Some of my elders have driven off the map yet they’re here, holding me up as I sit at this scarred oak desk. I see my father’s back, hunched over a book, I feel his hands beneath mine, the pens in our lefts.

What had always been in my back pocket, guarded, I now take out and make visible, a re-rendering of my body, as I open the mouth of my pen to the page. During the lockdown of 2020 when our art shows were shuttered, the desire to study writing, to apply for an MFA raised up in me again. My daughter had just finished hers. I mentioned it to her in passing, and she said, “Why not apply now?” Here I am, an MFA student at Converse University, one year in. The practice of writing that started as an OCD nine-year-old is being shaped and honed through mentor and student input, through the devouring and digesting of craft and poetry books, by the
soaking in and percolating through of craft lectures and readings, and the kind camaraderie of students and faculty.

The map of who I’ve become, I’m just stabbing my pen in the dark to find her. I sit in a room called Remember, as Frederick Buechner names it in his book, A Room Called Remember. I inhabit that place within us where “we remember consciously the lives we have lived (Buechner 6).” I’m trying to recover and understand it all, from my father’s childhood to my own, to above all odds, meeting a man that I would build a life with, a life work of pottery—the financial impossibility of it—across four decades. How can we manage such mysteries? How can we comprehend? We write. We write toward myth. We learn to trust the will of the pen, incomprehensible at times to ourselves. We learn to delete, to start over. We trust to the grace of God. The myths we write, the stories, are artifacts of our lives and the map updates with our historical markers, our ebenezers, our heart’s desires and banes.

Works Cited
Buechner, Frederick. A Room Called Remember Uncollected Pieces. San Francisco:
HarperSanFranciso, 1992.
Phillips, Carl. Coin of the Realm. Saint Paul: Graywolf Press, 2004.

What Did I Get Out of an MFA?

by Zorina Frey

Arguably, no one was a skeptic of MFA programs more than I was. Years before applying to Converse’s MFA Program, I Googled “what can you do with an MFA,” and the results were: publish a book, teach, write for a magazine, a book publisher, or write for an advertisement agency. I thought to myself, I’ve done all those things. I’ve independently published more books than I care to mention, taught writing classes, and even got a certificate in literary publishing and web design. As a spoken word poet, that gave me enough traction to sell books but hardly enough to catch the attention and respect of other professional writers. I can usually sell a book after a performance, but no one was saying, “Hey, have you read Zorina Frey’s book? You need to read it!” 

We—at least, I have convinced myself with mantras and social media postings that I don’t care what other people think, but I think deep down, I do. Almost anyone with a social media account is proof they do, and even if you don’t have one, don’t we prove to people every day at our jobs, around family and friends, that, on some level, we care what they think? Sure, we shouldn’t dictate our happiness based on other people’s thoughts and opinions and be at peace with who we are and ya-dah, ya-dah. But you and I know there’s a happy balance between the two.

I say all this because there’s something special to me as a writer about other publications validating my work. I didn’t have that, especially working as a copywriter for a digital advertising boutique. I sold out what little credibility I had as a writer to get my boss and his clients published in big-named publications. It’s part of the copywriting gig, and honestly, I had fun doing it, but as a creative, I was slowly losing myself in the mundane tasks of strict style guides and never-ending deadlines. I felt I needed to revive my creativity by getting published–not self-published, but published by someone else so people would be convinced that I am a good writer.

One of my memoir-writing colleagues told me I didn’t need an MFA to get published, and she was right. Ironically, her writing company helped me get published in Shondaland and Chicken Soup for the Soul. Even after those five minutes of fame faded, I still felt something from my writing career was missing, and I figured whatever it was, it must be in an MFA program because I had tried everything else. 

I chose Poetry as a concentration because that’s my strength, and I wanted to get accepted into the MFA program. Once I got there, I wasn’t shy about sharing my first drafts and later found out that was my problem. I’d been so conditioned to write swiftly, edit quickly, and beat the deadline, that I never took time to finesse my writing. Even as a spoken word poet, I’d edit my drafts but never took much time to experiment with form and find other ways to tell a story. Most, if not all, of my spoken word pieces, aren’t stories more than they are anecdotes and street sermons. My pre-MFA work had been talking at my audience instead of to them and even with them. I never grounded my audience with a situation or invited them into the story with images and senses. I just “soapboxed” them, and my animated personality and theater experience let me get away with it. 

Eventually, I had to ask myself, “What am I really trying to say?” and “What do I want to say?”

My answer was: I don’t know. 

Until I knew.

I quickly learned that what’s expected from a copywriter in a digital advertising agency isn’t taught in college courses. In most agencies, time is more important than the art of writing. I know this is my third time mentioning deadlines, and that’s because it’s one of the top driving forces of ad agencies. The amount of time allotted to a client is contingent on the amount of money they pay. And no one is allowed to spend more time on a client than what is budgeted. Otherwise, the agency loses money. So this puts copywriters in a difficult place, and you can see why speed becomes a priority. The only thing you can do as a writer is to get better at it because the Internet waits for no one. And so I figured I’d go back to school to get my master’s degree and teach students how to prepare for a writing career outside academia.

Stop laughing.

Here’s where I need to mention I began my MFA program in the summer of 2020. As a Black woman, it was impossible for me not to write about what was happening in the world. By the end of my first residency, my mentor, Tyree Daye helped me identify my obsessions and poetic symbols based on my first-year manuscript and writing workshop drafts. Then he taught me how to integrate my work into why I think poetry matters. 

Without the Converse MFA residency, I would’ve compiled a collection of spoken word poems that spoke at the world like a Bible-thumping-hell-fire-and-brimstone-preacher instead of to them. Thanks to the individually tailored and disciplined semester plans, I took the initiative to learn as many forms and styles of poetry as possible while spending 2 1/2 years developing my creative thesis. In this work, I formed familiar constructs to serve as neutral ground for conversation. And choosing to double major in Creative Nonfiction with the privilege of two mentors, Robert Olmstead and Denise Duhamel, played a huge part in my experimenting with different forms–a triumphant feat for a spoken word poet privy to free form!  

I was also tasked with a critical paper on the craft of writing. And while that loomed over all of my cohorts as the least favorite part of the curriculum, everyone seems to come out on the other side feeling accomplished, empowered, informed, proud, and ready to help fellow cohorts. I knew my critical paper would be about redlining, but the previous co-director, Sarah Cooper suggested I should write about Afropessimism. It turns out the theory ties nicely into my creative thesis.

My MFA studies ended up being an academic discovery of craft, American History, and a self-searching journey of enlightenment that’s changed the trajectory of my writing career.  Converse has challenged me to dig deeper into my craft and truth. It provided me with what I believe my writing had been missing: substance, refinement, and a clear purpose of artistically communicating with a more universal voice. So, the reason I chose to pursue my MFA had nothing to do with what I actually got out of it, which ended up being just what I needed.

2021 Converse MFA Alumni Book Award Winners Announced

The Converse Low Residency MFA in Creative Writing and Clemson University Press are pleased to announce the winners of the 2021 Converse MFA Alumni Book Prize as selected by this year’s judge, Vassar Miller Poetry Prize–winning author Jeanine Hathaway. For 2021, Hathaway has selected two co-winners: Kim Shegog for her short story collection, Crossing Over, and Sarah Cooper, for her poetry collection, 89%.

The Converse MFA Alumni Book Prize is awarded every two years to a Converse MFA graduate who has submitted an original book-length manuscript. All entries are judged anonymously by a writer of national distinction, and the author of the winning manuscript(s) is awarded a book contract with Clemson University Press, plus the winner(s) are invited (expenses paid) to give a public reading from the winning manuscript at the Converse MFA program’s residency session.

In selecting this year’s winners, Hathaway stated that all the manuscripts distinguished themselves. She shared the following comments about the prize-winners:

Crossing Over

Anyone who played “Red Rover” or attended a funeral or stood on a bridge, calculating, knows there will be loss and gain in the passage suggested by the richly layered title. In stories strikingly varied, relationships shift, mores and morals hold up to scrutiny or resistance. Each presents us with characters on edge. Snake handlers, sibling and spousal rivals, suicide, stillbirth—these provide dramatic moments for characters to obey or resist the rules of civility and responsibility. The title implies choice. Call them acts of stasis or maturity, deeper entrenchment or overcoming habits, the choices position characters for change. The novella begins with a death and through complications of familial love closes on the possibility of a rebirth.

Gripped by each of the stories, we see that our own small lapses and courageous actions, petty angers and fears, will have consequences we hadn’t planned on. The ultimate charge is to review our options and take a step in the direction of what offers life. These are generous stories that reveal, dangerous or not, that step could get us to the other side.


Organized like a scientific file, this is a love story of a daughter’s powerful love for her dying mother, her dutiful love for her father, her awakening love for other women. Each form, filial and romantic, bears an urgency. The poems themselves are an energizing mix of genres, some free verse, some prose poems, and the mother’s surprising one-liners. Her observations (“If you have a cat, you will always have standards.”) and maternal advice are laugh-out-loud brilliant. The poet deftly interrupts sexual tensions and unrelenting tragedy with some truly funny comic relief. The narrative engages repetition and rhythm that match the morphine doses, depths of observation and heights of hope, connection and ultimate loss. The mother had an 11% chance of surviving the cancer. In the skilled hands of this poet, the family has a 100% of living on in our hearts.

The Converse MFA Alumni Book Prize is part of a publishing partnership between the low-residency Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program at Converse and Clemson University Press. The Clemson-Converse Literature Series publishes a diverse and distinguished body of contemporary poetry, short fiction, and creative nonfiction essay collections. While the series will occasionally feature an outstanding anthology, the majority of the books will be selected through two competitions, each of which will run biennially: a national poetry prize for a full-length book, an award open to all poets publishing in English, and the Converse MFA Alumni Book Award Series, open to alumni of the Converse Low Residency MFA.

The full list of winners and finalists is below:

Kim Shegog, Co-winner, Crossing Over (short fiction)

Sarah Cooper, Co-winner, 89% (poetry)

David Hartshorne, finalist, The One-Ten to Yellowknife and Other Stories

Gwen Holt, finalist, Alyson

Believe in the Power of Your Voice: An Interview with New Converse MFA Faculty Member Ashley M. Jones

Converse MFA: You have a forthcoming book out soon. Can you tell us a little about your book and the process of writing it? How long have you worked on the collection? When and where can we find it? 

Jones: My newest book, REPARATIONS NOW! will be published in September by Hub City Press–the pre-order link is here.This book, like my other two, took three years to write–I keep a pretty steady rhythm with writing poems, and it always turns out that three years is the magic number. This book, my third, examines the things we are owed: love, apologies, humanity, respect, and atonement by our nation and by white supremacy. Reparations of all kinds are in this book–so there’s something for everyone to sink into, and to wrestle with. A mentor once told me that your third book is really your first book, and I really do feel that way–I love my first two books, and they represent me well, but this book found me in a place in life and career that left little room for the anxieties of self-doubt and left much more room for a confidence and appreciation of my own voice and perspective. I’m not looking to “prove myself” or “secure” my place in the literary world. Some of those anxieties existed with my first and second book. Now, I’m writing because the spirit leads me to it–no worries about the world around me and how I might fit into history. Just a poet with her words and the way those words move. That is, of course, not to say that I’m not concerned with the world around me–of course I am.  I just mean that I feel like the world is big enough for so many of us, and I want to reject the traditional “fight for just one spot of shine” mentality by feeling confident in my literary existence and allowing the art-making not to be tainted by that. 

Converse MFA: Can you talk a little bit about how you shaped this collection, the decisions that went into arranging the poems and selecting them? 

Jones: I did not know, when I began writing the poems in RN! that they would become this book. My process, usually, for writing books is to just focus on each poem as it comes, not spending too much energy on what it could be. And, before I know it, there it is. Often, my poems speak to each other by pure virtue of the fact that they came out of me–I’m a rather obsessive person (I think, perhaps, all writers are) and what I write about for three years, yes, revolves around the same themes. So, shaping and selecting aren’t too challenging for me. When ordering my books, I hold fast to what Denise and I worked on with my first book–telling a multilayered story through interweaving poems about history and the present. I like to give the reader the sense that all of these topics–the lynchings of Black people, having unlucky romantic love, loving God and family, asking for reparations–are related and inextricably linked. In my own body, all of these things have a place, and I work to erase this idea that we aren’t multifaceted beings–Whitman said it, we contain multitudes. 

Converse MFA: Can you tell us what informs your writing? How do you start a new poem? A new book project? 

Jones: The whole world informs my writing–by which I mean that I’m influenced by so many things. Sometimes a poem gets born out of a song. Sometimes out of a 90s TV sitcom. Sometimes out of pain, and sometimes out of joy. Anything I encounter in the world goes into my art. My process is, perhaps, unconventional–I’ve never been able to write every single day at an appointed time. It’s just not good for me. Instead, I just live my life as normal, taking in whatever comes my way or whatever I seek out. Ideas or lines for poems, or, even more exciting, the shape of a poem will start to form in my head, and when that shape starts becoming clear, that’s when I know it’s time to get to the page. Maybe it sounds a little new agey to say so, but I’m governed by Spirit in my art practice–I believe everything is spiritual, and I do think my writing talent was given to me by God. All of us have our own special gift, and this one is mine. So, I listen–I wait for that shape or those lines to come into view, and I obey the spirit that brings that poem and I write it down. 

Converse MFA:  When did you know you wanted to be a writer? 

Jones: I knew I wanted to be a writer when I was seven years old. I remember, quite vividly, reciting “Harriet Tubman” by Eloise Greenfield, dressed as Tubman, in front of my second grade class. Speaking those words ignited something in me, and I was already a rather bookish child. We read a lot at home, and I had written some storybooks for class assignments, but when I recited that poem and the power of Tubman and Greenfield and the great expansive landscape of Black poetry washed over me (certainly I did not know all of this at seven–this is thirty year-old Ashley assigning language to what I felt), I knew I wanted to create that kind of art, too. I started carrying around a composition notebook after that–my “spy journal,” as I had also been very attached to Harriet the Spy, which I had read around this time–and I do still have it. In it are little poems which are, I have to admit, way too angsty for a seven-year-old. I’ve been studying writing ever since–I went to the Alabama School of Fine Arts from 7-12th grade, and went on to study English and Creative Writing on the undergraduate and graduate levels. 

Converse MFA:  Is there anything you would advise an aspiring writer to do or not to do? 

Jones: I would advise an aspiring writer to believe in the power of their voice. That’s so much of the battle as a writer, believing that what you say has value and can impact someone. Staying authentic to yourself and to your unique voice and perspective is key, I think, to a fulfilling career as a writer. I’m not a veteran yet, so we’ll see if my theory continues to hold true! 

Converse MFA: You studied writing in college and received your MFA. What do you think you gained as a writer when you participated in a writing program? 

Jones: I think the MFA gave me some tools I needed to learn who I wanted to be as a writer in a professional and literary capacity. Interacting with my instructors, who are active in the field, really showed me the possibilities of a poet’s life, and meeting classmates whose work was always inspiring really pushed me to keep exploring new ways of creating art and expressing myself. The time I had to write and learn and write this first book was truly invaluable–those three years helped me develop my own writing practice, and it gave me the confidence to step out into the big writing world once I graduated. 

Converse MFA: What advice would you give students for making the most of an MFA program? 

Jones: I think what really helped me was to focus on what it was I wanted to get out of the experience. Some folks just want to meet other writers. Some folks need structured places to get feedback. Some folks need to learn more about the art form. Everyone has something they’re looking for, and staying really committed to that can allow you to get the most out of your time. I knew I wanted to come out of my program with a publishable manuscript and knowledge about writing and teaching that I didn’t have before. So, I learned as much as I could, I taught as much as I could, I volunteered and learned about ways to serve the community, and I took each assignment very seriously. That is, I treated each assignment as a fruitful opportunity, a chance to write a poem which could do something. Focusing in and giving my all to each piece is what I needed from my time, and I think I achieved my desired result! My graduate thesis became my first book! 

Converse MFA: What are the top three things you try to get across to your students when teaching? How do you help them learn that? 

Jones: I try to tell students that 1) they are already real writers. There is no magical diploma or even a magical publication that can make you more “real” than anyone else. Their work is already whole. They are already whole. I’m there to help as they move through that journey, but I’m not there to make them “real.” 2) I try to teach them that writers are actually alive right now. There’s a wealth of great contemporary work being written, and it actually matters a lot to realize that there are folks living and breathing and writing and maybe those people also reflect our backgrounds, too. For me, reading the work of Black writers and living Black writers really opened a door in my own thinking about my possibility. I try to offer this to students as well. and 3), I want students to feel like the learning process is reciprocal–they can teach me things, too–I’m not the keeper of all knowledge and I don’t desire to be that. We all have knowledge to share, and I’m just as inspired by their work as they might be of mine! 

Converse MFA: As a writing teacher, what advantages do you see to working in a low-residency program? 

Jones: The biggest advantage would have to be the flexibility–I did a traditional MFA which was great, but if I were go to back now and get a degree, it would 100% be low residency just so I could continue living my full life in the state of my choosing. And, there is something to be said about living in a place/time away from school–there might be more material to work with because your life is not all-consumed by school or the city in which your school is located. 

Converse MFA: Is there anything about you that you think people should know that can’t be found in a biography? 

Jones: Don’t think so! 

Converse MFA:  Finally, What are you reading right now? Which books might we find on your bedside table? 

Jones: On my mental bedside table, I’m still trying to get through Celia Cruz’s autobiography (in Spanish!)–but most of my reading time is spent in the Submittable stacks at POETRY and Simple Machines, or with drafts of student work. I’m hoping to get back to ALL ABOUT LOVE by bell hooks, and I want to finally start PARABLE OF THE SOWER by Octavia Butler. 

Ashley M. Jones received an MFA in Poetry from Florida International University (FIU), where she was a John S. and James L. Knight Foundation Fellow. She served as Official Poet for the City of Sunrise, Florida’s Little Free Libraries Initiative from 2013-2015, and her work was recognized in the 2014 Poets and Writers Maureen Egen Writer’s Exchange Contest and the 2015 Academy of American Poets Contest at FIU. She was also a finalist in the 2015 Hub City Press New Southern Voices Contest, the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry First Book Award Contest, and the National Poetry Series. Her poems and essays appear or are forthcoming in many journals and anthologies, including CNN, the Academy of American Poets, POETRY, Tupelo Quarterly, Prelude, Steel Toe Review, Fjords Review, Quiet Lunch, Poets Respond to Race Anthology, Night Owl, The Harvard Journal of African American Public Policy, pluck!, Valley Voices: New York School Edition, Fjords Review: Black American Edition, PMSPoemMemoirStory (where her work was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2016), Kinfolks Quarterly, Tough Times in America Anthology, and Lucid Moose Press’ Like a Girl: Perspectives on Femininity Anthology. She received a 2015 Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer’s Award and a 2015 B-Metro Magazine Fusion Award. She was an editor of PANK Magazine. Her debut poetry collection, Magic City Gospel, was published by Hub City Press in January 2017, and it won the silver medal in poetry in the 2017 Independent Publishers Book Awards.

Her second book, dark // thing, won the 2018 Lena-Miles Wever Todd Prize for Poetry from Pleiades Press. Her third collection, REPARATIONS NOW! is forthcoming in Fall 2021 from Hub City Press. She won the 2018 Lucille Clifton Poetry Prize from Backbone Press, and she is the 2019 winner of the Lucille Clifton Legacy Award from St. Mary’s College of Maryland. Jones is a recipient of a Poetry Fellowship from the Alabama State Council on the Arts and a 2020 Alabama Author award from the Alabama Library Association. She was a finalist for the Ruth Lily Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellowship in 2020. She currently lives in Birmingham, Alabama, where she is founding director of the Magic City Poetry Festival, board member of the Alabama Writers Cooperative and the Alabama Writers Forum, co-director of PEN Birmingham, and a faculty member in the Creative Writing Department of the Alabama School of Fine Arts. She currently serves as the O’Neal Library’s Lift Every Voice Scholar and as a guest editor for Poetry Magazine.

Marlanda Dekine on Inheritance, Poetic Tension and What Helps her Write

Tell us about your creative work—do you have a preferred genre or aesthetic? Are there forms you want to try?

My poems have always come out of my experience as a Black, queer, gender non-conforming daughter of generations of preaching, wild, and direct folk, living in Plantersville, South Carolina. My experience as a social worker also informs my writing. My current manuscript, I feel, is dealing with my dead, my roots, the family land we inherited, and Plantersville’s connection to plantations and taking up space as our own.

I’d say my background is probably what drew me to the work of Saul Williams and Patricia Smith. When I decided I, still, liked writing and sharing poetry, I bought “The Spoken Word Redux”, and I lived with their cadences of courage over YouTube. I was an undergrad, then. While I’m drawn to those writers as my starting place in reading poems, I don’t have a preferred genre or aesthetic. 

I’m very interested in learning and pushing the boundaries of what constitutes a poem as well as demystifying the real work that poems do in the world. For this reason, I’m also drawn to the work of Lucille Clifton and Martin Espada. “Leave the idea that “poetry makes nothing happen” to the poets whose poetry makes nothing happen” per Martin Espada. 

I like quiet tension and intense desire within a poem as much as I enjoy staring seriously into the face of something broken within our world, or the human condition, and asking questions about the roots of the fissure. I don’t mind yelling or singing it out!

What are you reading right now? Which books might we find on your bedside table right now?

Root Magic by Eden Royce!!!! Whew!

Featherhood by Charlie Gilmour

Kontemporary Amerikan Poetry by John Murillo

Oracle by Destiny Hemphill

Spells: 21st Century Occult Poetry, ed. by Sarah Shin and Rebecca Tamás

What do you do when you aren’t writing?

I sit, feel, think, and read. I drink a lot of water. I take walks with my dog and watch birds. I have a vegetable garden, and I’m learning to cook new dishes. I allow myself to dream big about what I’m working on. I clean my home. All of these things help me to write. I attend a monthly group with artists across disciplines with the organization, ArtistsU. This space is highly generative to me as I create and learn to wonder. I also submit poems to magazines, journals, and opportunities that feel in alignment with my project. I enjoy rejections as well as acceptances. 

Why did you decide to pursue your MFA? What did you find most attractive about our low residency program and the low residency format? 

This will be my second Master’s degree. It turns out I love school. When I knew I would not be able to finish the low-residency program in Paris due to finances and COVID, I researched Converse’s program. I recalled that Kathryn Brackett mentioned it to me after I participated as an author during Hub City Press’s Delicious Reads event in Spartanburg. When I researched the program, I learned there was a research component and an oral defense required. I felt this would be tremendous for my goals as a writer. I love research, and I am fascinated by the interdisciplinary nature of any creative writing process. 

In what ways do you hope your writing will be further developed by our Converse core faculty, visiting faculty, and students? Do you have any writing goals you hope to accomplish?

I am going to finish my current manuscript and seek a publisher in alignment with what the project wants to accomplish. It is also important for me that the editor/publisher is considerate of who I am as a human being and writer. I am not a cog within a capitalistic system. I intend to complete my MFA with this attitude as well. 

I value instructors who know they, too, are participants and ongoing learners. I have been grateful to work with generous classmates and professors who are experienced writers and creatives with fantastical backgrounds in other things. 

I absolutely adore the visiting faculty craft talks. These talks bring in more diverse perspectives, and I value decentering whiteness, normative narratives, and craft talks from the 50s. 

In addition to your work on writing craft, how has the Converse program helped you in terms of navigating the publishing marketplace or the writing world?

I am still learning, for myself, how to listen to the deepest parts of me before sharing my work. I believe Converse has helped me to fall more deeply into the process of revision. I believe the publishing world is, if not being dismantled, being necessarily revised. I believe my life is under constant revision. So, I have learned to be clear within before I send anything out. It’s all revision! 

Why would you recommend the Converse College Low Residency Program to an MFA applicant?
I feel deeply that the faculty cares about each student and tries to figure out where that student is within their writing life. Many programs will not ask who you are when you arrive, and I feel it is important for programs to know what the student is bringing into the program. What has this student learned in their life already that will benefit our time in the workshop? I think these are good reasons to consider Converse College.

Andrew Clark on Writing, the Woods and Creativity

Tell us about your creative work—do you have a preferred genre or aesthetic? Are there forms you want to try?

Andrew Clark

My aesthetic might be described as Southern Gothic magical realism. This is the framework for both my fiction and poetry. I like the realism side of magical realism, in that I want to ground my reader in a setting they can feel and smell before something surreal happens. In a recent poem, the reader floats above a mattress on the side of the road as they ascend into a thundercloud.

As far as other forms, I am currently co-writing with the poet Miho Kinnas. We are using Japanese forms such as Rengay and Renku, rather than free verse – way outside my comfort zone. With fiction, I want to experiment more with different types of narrators and points of view.

What are you reading right now? Which books might we find on your bedside table right now?

Watson, the hiking pup!

I tend to have a book of fiction going alongside a poetry collection. I am currently reading Red Calvary by the Russian writer Isaac Babel and Horsepower by Kentucky poet Joy Priest. TBR fiction on my nightstand: The Nowhere Girls by Amy Reed, Willful Creatures by Aimee Bender, Appalachian Book of the Dead by Dale Neal, and Burn by Patrick Ness. Poetry on deck: Robert Haas and Nin Andrews.

What do you do when you aren’t writing?

A lot of reading, of course, but I love hiking with my wife and our dogs and being outdoors as much as possible. It’s part of the creative process for me. I try to write outdoors when the weather allows. Nietzsche said, “Never trust a thought that occurs to you indoors” and that’s good advice. We’re writing when we’re not writing. I am also a musician and dabble in electronic music. You can hear what I’m up to here: 

Why did you decide to pursue your MFA? What did you find most attractive about our low residency program and the low residency format? 

I knew I needed help with my writing. At first, I tried to piecemeal my own development, but realized I could benefit from a more structured study of the craft. I needed a low residency program as I am a parent and work full time. I was accepted into a few programs, but I was attracted to the individual faculty and guest writers at Converse. I also heard from faculty members during the application process. They had sought out and read my work online and commented on it. I felt welcomed into the community before I made a commitment in a way that just didn’t happen with other programs. 

In what ways do you hope your writing will be further developed by our Converse core faculty, visiting faculty, and students? Do you have any writing goals you hope to accomplish?

Creativity Mediums

In my final semester I have a new mentor. While my writing has grown exponentially in the program, a new perspective has already shown me ways to improve. I think that is always the writer’s focus – both within the program and beyond: constant improvement and growth.

I am shopping my first novel at the moment and have early drafts of its sequel. My goals are to place the first novel, finish its sequel, and continue collecting poems for a chapbook. My first full-length collection of poetry, Jesus in the Trailer (Main Street Rag Press), launched in January of 2020, just ahead of the pandemic.

In addition to your work on writing craft, how has the Converse program helped you in terms of navigating the publishing marketplace or the writing world?

Having editors and agents visit during residencies has been helpful in gaining a better understanding of the marketplace and how our work matches up with the market.

Why would you recommend the Converse College Low Residency Program to an MFA applicant?

The Converse program offers personalized attention to your writing. You’ll learn to read as a writer. You’ll work with mentors who are successful writers and benefit from craft lectures outside of your main genre. Beyond the program, you’ll create a network of fellow writers that will benefit you after the program ends. These are your people, your tribe. 

Prospective students are welcome to reach out to learn more about my experience at Converse: