A Community of Writers

MFA program nurtures creativity, collaboration

By Anastasia Athon Heck

Paving a path for new voices to emerge in the literary arts has been a focus for Oregon State University’s Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program for nearly 20 years. Since 2002, the program has quickly evolved into one of the country’s premier graduate opportunities for aspiring novelists, creative nonfiction writers and poets.

Today, OSU’s MFA program is among the university’s crown jewels with more than 350 applicants vying for a highly coveted 12 admission spots in 2018. 

“We foster a real close community among the writers,” says Keith Scribner, MFA program director, OSU English professor and novelist. “We have been fortunate to accept good students. We are all very committed to making this a place where students can thrive and leave the program with a good writing discipline.”

The fully funded program covers tuition, fees and living expenses for its two-year duration. Graduate students teach undergraduate writing courses in addition to pursuing their own creative work. 

With a quarter of MFA program applicants’ selecting poetry as their genre of choice, leaders in OSU’s School of Writing, Literature, and Film in the College of Liberal Arts have worked to expand the poetry faculty in the MFA program. Each of the three poetry faculty — David Biespiel, Karen Holmberg and Jennifer Richter — are all well-published poets who lead workshops for MFA students as well as pursue their own writing.

Writing Practice

Peter Betjemann, school director, points out that it is “wildly competitive” to become a published poet. This often first occurs through poetry contests conducted by literary presses or periodicals. 

“How to work within that system is something our students need to learn, and David’s unique success in the poetry marketplace makes him an amazing asset to OSU and our students,” Betjemann says, referring to Biespiel’s prolific publication record and deep understanding of the market landscape for contemporary poetry.

Betjemann says that OSU’s work to bring poetry to the public is one of its strongest assets. For example, Richter leads an internship program for MFA students, placing them in teaching and arts administration positions in venues ranging from San Quentin prison to literary presses. Holmberg runs a letterpress print studio in Moreland Hall where she teaches courses on the relationship between literary expression and the history and practice of publishing.

In addition to its distinguished faculty across all genres, the MFA program fosters a vibrant literary community within OSU and throughout the region. The Visiting Writers Series brings four to five nationally known writers and poets to the Corvallis campus each year for student engagement and public readings. A Literary Northwest series celebrates the thriving literary scene in the Willamette Valley and the Pacific Northwest.

Stone Award for Literary Lifetime Achievement

The MFA program also is instrumental in the biennial Stone Award in Lifetime Literary Achievement. One of the nation’s most generous literary prizes, the award was established in 2011 thanks to the generosity of OSU alumni Patrick and Vicki Stone. Joyce Carol Oates was the inaugural recipient in 2012, followed by Tobias Wolff in 2014, Rita Dove in 2016 and Colson Whitehead in 2019.

The success of the MFA program led to the launch of a low-residency MFA program at Oregon State University-Cascades in Bend in 2013. The two-year program involves intensive 10-day residencies and individual mentorships.

Creative Writing for Life

Oregon State will soon become the only public university in the state to offer the widely accessible Bachelor of Arts degree in creative writing. The new program will launch in fall 2020. It demonstrates how the arts are integrated into the university’s land grant mission of access to higher education and efforts to engage the public through OSU’s creative writing degrees.

By Nick Houtman

Nick Houtman is director of research communications at OSU and edits Terra, a world of research and creativity at Oregon State University. He has experience in weekly and daily print journalism and university science writing. A native Californian, he lived in Wisconsin and Maine before arriving in Corvallis in 2005.