By Julie West
A bourgeoning literary scene flourishes in Denton, Texas, and writers across the country are paying attention. The University of North Texas is in the vanguard of creative writing programs in the nation. It is among a select group of schools -- and the only university in the Dallas-Fort Worth area -- offering a doctoral degree in English with a concentration in creative writing. Master's students and undergraduates also can major in English with a creative writing concentration.
"If you want to do creative writing, UNT is the place to be," says B.H. "Pete" Fairchild, an internationally recognized poet who says the caliber of the faculty and program lured him back to Texas to join UNT as a creative writing professor and senior poet in residence. "You choose to write because you can't not write. You begin with a deep love for the art form, and after that it becomes the hard work of mastering the craft. I want students to above all learn that."
Notable faculty poets such as Fairchild, Bruce Bond and Corey Marks are one of the reasons students are drawn to the program. Their works have been praised by some of the most important critics in the nation and appear in respected literary journals. They also have received some of the highest awards in the field. Fairchild's The Art of the Lathe, which won a Beatrice Hawley Award, was a finalist for the National Book Award and brought his work to national prominence. His Occult Memory Systems of the Lower Midwest won the National Book Critics Circle Award.
Bond, a Regents Professor of English, received the Texas Institute of Letters' Best Book of Poetry award for Radiography, and Marks, associate professor of English and director of creative writing, won the Green Rose Prize for his latest book, The Radio Tree.
"I'm thrilled to be working with talented peers and students," Marks says. "This feeds me as a writer. The students talk about having a wonderful sense of community here, and that's true for me, too."
Nonfiction and fiction also are mainstays of the program. Fiction writer and assistant professor Miroslav Penkov is receiving international honors and press for his book of stories, East of the West, including the highly sought 2012 BBC International Short Story Award and coverage on National Public Radio.
With support from UNT's Institute for the Advancement of the Arts, Penkov says he returned to Bulgaria "like a marathon runner who must first train for months" to research the setting and story for his next book.
Nonfiction writer and associate professor Ann McCutchan also is receiving noteworthy attention and reviews for her two new books, River Music -- An Atchafalaya Story, "an original blend of nature writing, music history, biography, journalism and memoir," and Circular Breathing, a collection of personal essays.
Doctoral student Chelsea Wagenaar turned down a scholarship at another university to pursue creative writing with UNT's well-known, and accessible, faculty writers.
"The opportunity for one-on-one mentorship was a big factor in my decision," says Wagenaar, whose work was awarded the 2012 Pablo Neruda poetry prize from the journal Nimrod. "The professors support individual creativity."
A distinction of the creative writing program is its integration into the Department of English. Creative writing doctoral students take literary criticism, theory, classical rhetoric and other courses similar to those taken by the literature students. David Holdeman, W.B. Yeats scholar and department chair, says that exposure to different genres is a means to good writing.
"We don't have a literature faction on one side and a creative writing group on the other," he says. "Our graduates will be qualified as multifaceted academics and teachers. I think that's key."
Jessica Hindman, a fourth-year Ph.D. student, says the cross training of genres has been invaluable in shaping her work.
"Teachers encourage literary experimentation. I might apply the creative nonfiction lens to traditional literature and analyze Chaucer's 'The Wife of Bath's Tale' as if it were a memoir written from the wife's perspective. I'm constantly finding myself in exciting new literary terrain," she says.
The advanced degree program is attracting many other talented students. Each year the English department has seen a significant increase in the number of advanced degree applications.
"Our graduate students are remarkable poets, story writers, nonfiction writers," Marks says. "Many have already published, sometimes significantly."
Mark Wagenaar, a second-year doctoral student, is a case in point. Prior to coming to UNT, he received numerous national poetry awards, including the Yellowwood Poetry Prize and the Gary Gildner Award. His work is published in distinguished literary venues such as The Southern Review and New England Review.
Wagenaar first learned of the UNT program's reputation through its signature journal, the American Literary Review. When one of his poems was published in the spring 2011 issue, he began investigating the possibility of pursuing a Ph.D. at UNT. A visit to campus convinced him.
"The enthusiasm for the program was obvious, among both faculty and students," he says. "I am continually impressed by the level of dialogue."
Bond says he learns daily from his students -- "their questions, their inventions, their provocations."
"I get to explore with them how poetry matters, how it binds us conceptually and emotionally to the world," he says. "It is regenerating to see students come to this art and bring to it their own depths of character."
Since being at UNT, Wagenaar has won the 2012 Felix Pollak Prize for his debut collection of poetry, Voodoo Inverso. As a research assistant, he is finalizing details for a 2013 publication of Bond's poetry collection, The Other Sky, which pairs Bond's poems with the evocative paintings of Aaron Wiesenfeld in what poet Stephen Dunn calls a "rare collaboration of sensibilities."
Established in 1990 at UNT, the biannual American Literary Review is a showcase of diverse genres and styles.
The finest crafted stories, essays and poems are selected from upwards of 800 general entries each year submitted from across the country, with additional entries received for the annual short fiction, creative nonfiction and poetry contests.
Creative writing professors and students work as a team to oversee the journal's production and serve as readers, contest coordinators, designers, and assistant and genre editors.
The journal, which has a large national readership, provides visibility for the creative writing program and is one reason people connect good writing with UNT and Denton.
The English department also sponsors the North Texas Review, a literary magazine for UNT students, who submit the poems, create the artwork and stories, edit and produce every aspect of the publication.
"Our journals give students the opportunity to learn valuable editing and management skills, stay on top of a rapidly changing publishing world and understand how their own work stacks up in that often dizzying environment," faculty editor-in-chief Ann McCutchan says.
"Working on a journal inspires developing writers to make the important leap from aspiring wordsmith to artist and professional."
Wagenaar also is working on materials for Bond's critical book project about poetics, Immanent Distance: Poetry and the Metaphysics of the Near at Hand.
"His collection of scholarly writing has inspired me to consider the scope and value of my own essays as being a relevant extension of my poetry," Wagenaar says. "I appreciate his insight."
The Visiting Writers Series, which brings esteemed authors to campus to give public readings, is another reason people associate literary excellence with UNT. English professors, students and community members benefit from dialogue with luminary literary figures such as Adam Zagajewski, Kathryn Harrison and Claudia Emerson.
UNT is a major contributor to the cultural environment of the region. The Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture, WordSpace and the Writer's Garrett are among area venues supporting exchange. Literary aficionados also enjoy the student-initiated Kraken Reading Series directed by doctoral students Kyle McCord and Justin Bigos, which focuses on supporting new talent.
Ben Fountain, lauded fiction writer, is a former guest author of the Visiting Writers Series who was impressed with the vitality of UNT's creative writing program.
"If you look at the literary accomplishments of the faculty -- especially at the kudos the younger faculty members are getting with their first and second books, and the dedication they bring to teaching -- it is clear to me that UNT has the talent and energy to power the program into the top tier nationally," Fountain says.
In 2012, the creative writing program introduced the first annual UNT Rilke Prize, named after the Bohemian-Austrian poet Rainier Maria Rilke. The $10,000 award, which recognizes a book written by a mid-career poet that demonstrates exceptional artistry and vision, was presented to poet, novelist and University of Michigan professor Laura Kasischke for her book Space, in Chains. The prize aims to raise awareness of talented writers in the field and bring focus to the program.
"I was just at a poetry reading in San Francisco and a couple of writers came up and asked about the award," Bond says. "Clearly the prize has helped in raising UNT's national visibility, and it validates vision and artistry -- qualities that are key to a healthy culture."
A new award also has been created for exceptional graduate students of poetry, thanks to a generous donation from Denton arts patron Paul Voertman. The Voertman Poetry Prize for Students was endowed by the Academy of American Poets, an affiliation that lends added prestige.
The prizes, poetry series, hire of a senior-level poet and other innovations build on the solid foundation of the program and help fuel its reputation.
"All of these ingredients are blending and strengthening each other in a pretty interesting way," Holdeman says. "UNT is in the right place at the right time."
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