In the Spotlight
Program Director, Oregon State University- Cascades Low-Residency MFA in Creative Writing
Bend, OR Member Since: 2001
About: Emily Carr directs the Low-Residency MFA at Oregon State University - Cascades, where it is our mission to grow whole writers with healthy writing lives guided by this mandate: wish higher, fail faster, be wilder. In praise of her forthcoming McSweeney’s collection, whosoever has let a minotaur enter them, or a sonnet (2016), Craig Dworkin writes, “The gods float here—as for Pound—in the azure air.” In all of her endeavors, whether they be creative, administrative, pedagogical, athletic, or just simply living, Emily is most interested in experiment, with heart.
If you could require every student in your program to read only one book, which would it be?
All of our students read C. A. Conrad's A Beautiful Marsupial Afternoon, and take at least one workshop with Conrad, in which—at a bare minimum—they learn what he really means when he insists, "We are artists, and we are useful." Sometimes this looks like writing on both sides of the tie; sometimes this involves downloading our dreams or sniffing the dawn mist evaporating off some old-growth Ponderosa Pines; sometimes it means sitting spine-to-spine and breathing into each others' exhalations; sometimes it looks like imagining we are three feet tall and negotiating the path through the trees to the collapsed caldera we call Blue Lake, and other times we stand up, close our eyes and hold our pens to the third, infuse those pens with the memory of our greatest loves, open our eyes, make eye contact, exchange our pens, and take some notes... What it always involves is finding poetry everywhere, all the time, and expanding our understanding of our creative viability as members of the human species on our home, this planet, Earth.
What is the best writing advice that you dispense to your students?
What to pack—poet, alumnus, competitive cyclocross racer and general badass Laura Winberry writes in a letter to incoming OSU-Cascades Low-Residency MFA students: vulnerability. Definitely vulnerability. As well as a strong-willed ability to fail gloriously. Everyday, open-faced sandwiches of Fail will leave mustard stains on your chin, so why not embrace the yellow? Also, please leave any preconceived notions at home. Or, really, just recycle them. Who wants that shit to be there when they get back anyhow?
To which I would add: you have to be willing to be changed—on the page, in the workshop, by your mentors and your peers, by your readers, with your audiences. This requires, at a bare minimum: presence, activity, risk, and vulnerability. It might also involve getting messy and making some mistakes—a healthy dose of serious whimsy—and, as we like to put it in the OSU-Cascades MFA Program, wishing higher, failing faster, and being wilder.
What is the best career advice that you dispense to your students?
Art is a spiritual extension of the body, and to influence the art, the body must be influenced. Which, poet, alumni, CrossFit aficionado and new father Austin Anderson reflects, is to say that a group of poets and writers who sing together, hike together, cook and eat together, who play games together, play guitars together, paint and run and watch the moon together—their art changes because their bodies, in proximity to other creative bodies, shed a thick layer of the something that has been telling them not to create or love or be. And they are left naked and vulnerable, taking in deep breaths of a communal air and communal creativity.
I don’t know what success looks like for you; in fact, I’ve worked really hard not to know what success looks like so I can get the work done. Most days, success doesn’t look like a publication contract with McSweeney’s, or a Pushcart nomination, or a fellowship in France. Most days, success looks like my brother-in-law, the eager young Presbyterian minister, texting, “Today I saw your book, 13 Ways of Happily, and decided to pick it up and read it… I’ve gotten three quarters of the way through and I’m loving it… Would love to talk sometime about its meaning(s)… fascinating and intriguing poems. Hope you’re well, Emily.” It’s a post card from Craig Dworkin that says simply, “The gods float here—as for Pound—in the azure air.” It’s between two persons; it’s kinetic; it’s back-and-forth, like a conversation. If anything, it’s the antithesis to our institutional system of rewards and punishments, or A’s and B’s and C’s and the desperate pressure to perform. Everything I do as an administrator—from our curriculum design to our workshop philosophy to our publishing seminars to our evaluation system—is intended to help our students shift their focus from performance to process and from punishment to practice.
What has been the best experience of building or sustaining a creative writing program?
If I could point to any one achievement of which I am particularly proud, it’s the innovative ways in which we’ve built a culture of celebration and difference (as opposed to a culture of competition and comparison) in the OSU-Cascades MFA.
When, for example, we are in residency, every morning starts with chores: forty-five minutes of basic food prep in the kitchen, under the supervision of our chef, a former student and graduate of the California Culinary Academy. Everyone—students and faculty alike—is on a rotating chore team. But, as Austin Anderson reflects: chores might be the wrong word from what I did on those mornings and evenings with my fellow poets and writers, my dear MFA friends. Sure, we washed dishes; we put the silverware in the silverware trays; we took out the trash to the dumpster through the door in the back of the kitchen. But we also washed the dirt from the stems of rainbow chard, burned red peppers for Mike’s super secret dressing; we wiped down the warm pine countertops, cut potatoes, and peeled. And sang—someone, I think, was always humming or singing. Or maybe, when no one was, the running faucet and the knives on the cutting boards were humming along with the gentle sway of ponderosa, the rustle tamarack. Chore team built community.
(And character—like that time we raked pine needles… in the pine forest…)
The collaboration (and character building) that we do in the kitchen extends into Creative Skill Share, which happens just after chores and just before workshop three of the nine mornings we are in residence. Creative Skill Share is one way we explore the ways in which practical discipline is a useful and necessary complement to artistic discipline. The rules: you can teach anything, but it cannot be directly writing related and it has to be somewhat physical. This is a great way to start the day: to laugh, trade skills, and practice teaching.
Or, as Austin poetically puts it: I stretched belly dance stretches with friends on a woven rug; I surfed on white paper on red cedar floorboards where I practiced Aikido with spatulas from the kitchen where I made vegan pizza dough. I watercolored a rusting metal elk whose shadow fell at the feet of two ponderosa pines. Ours is not a writer’s community. Ours is a community of people who all love to write. Creative Skill Share took the poets and novelists, the essayists and short story writers, and put us outside the page and said: teach each other the other ways our bodies speak.
Can writing be taught? Why does creative writing belong in the academy?
I could—endlessly—define these two troubling, (hopelessly?) optimistic terms: whole writer and healthy writing life (and sometimes, on their evaluation surveys, our students do, and we take this to be a sign of very real and very necessary progress). I could say that whole writers are vulnerable on the page, which means they must start by being vulnerable with the self and in the community. I could say whole writers celebrate failure as a necessary—even radical—act, by which I mean the act of creation is something more than the product of one’s intentions (read: ego). I could say whole writers don’t just exist in a state of negative capability; they thrive in negative capability: that unfinished, at-stake state where the tricks of self-certainty and external validation are not options. I could say whole writers are entrepreneurial, by which I mean not caged by patterns of cultural expectations about success. I could say a healthy writing life is, to borrow from feminist science and technology studies scholar Donna Haraway, a passionate avocation. I could say a healthy writing life is dirty and happens as much off the page as on it. I could say a healthy writing life starts with self-care, which involves but is not limited to plenty of time for rest and sleep, physical activity, a well-balanced diet, and some combination of yoga/meditation/reiki/therapy. But the truth is, the healthy writing life is difficult, specific, and personal. It involves entering into a life-changing relationship with each and every act of creation—and that’s not just on the page.
Which is to say, wholeheartedly: yes. Perhaps writing itself cannot be taught. Attempting to answer that unwieldy question is beyond the purview of this interview, and would require at least a dozen or a hundred dissertations. I can, however, affirm with confidence that a healthy writing life can—and should!—be taught, and this is why we need the MFA, more than ever.
What is your favorite AWP Conference memory?
Because I wholeheartedly believe in forward momentum, and in creating opportunities for spontaneous collaboration amongst writers at all stages of their careers, I’m most excited about the memories I will make during OSU-Cascades Science Fairies Pop-Up Poetry Fair at the AWP’s 2016 Conference in LA! Our Pop-Up Poetry Fair is a chance to meet, mingle, get messy, and make some art with some current MFA students and alumni. Remember cheering on seedling sweet peas with a little Mozart and some Miracle Gro for science fair in middle school? Or hosting a lemonade, cookies, and magnetic poetry stand with a misspelled sign at your best friend’s house by the local golf course? Our Pop-Up Fair is equal parts poetry, amateur science, and DIY art-making. You can expect to get a hands-on experience of our innovative, holistic approach to growing writers, enjoy some wholesome snacks (think ants-on-a-log and Rice Krispies treats), and make some seriously whimsical memories.