Director Insights: Alexander Parsons, MFA Director of the University of Houston
We’re so happy to share the insights of Alexander Parsons, Director of the MFA program at the University of Houston. Applying to an MFA can be overwhelming, and gathering information through websites, open houses, and Twitter threads requires timely navigation and sometimes personal connections. That is why we started the Director Insights series: to answer some of the highly requested questions from potential applicants, in the perspectives of Directors from the best MFA programs. Or in Alex’s words, “I love the idea of taking writers backstage to see the MFA admissions. It can seem mysterious or even imposing from the outside, but really it’s a gang of avid readers talking shop about new writers and their work.”
WXZ: One of the most nerve-wrecking parts of the application is the Personal Statement. Beyond what is presented on your admissions page, what usually makes an effective or memorable PS? What are some turn-offs for the admissions committee after reading hundreds of them?
AP: I’d say that everyone can smell a fake and that it takes strength to be honest, vulnerable, and trusting. It’s also what makes for good writing. Yes, I always love to hear that a student has specific intellectual interests, but really don’t we all read for character over theme? I always look for a sense of the person who is giving expression to their ideas, just as one will read a book with which they may disagree but is charmed by it because of the charisma—the feel of the authentic author—that is present in the voice in myriad ways. In a statement sometimes it’s a self-deprecating observation, or an admission of past failure, or a frank recognition of a weakness—but the effect is the opposite of what you might fear in admitting to imperfection. For me, it says that the eye can turn inward, analyze, and then work forward free of denial. It indicates a clear-eyed and undefensive stance. It is very easy to hide behind intellectualism or even victimization, but we—especially writers—have to acknowledge human complexity, contradiction and, yes, flaw if we want to write toward truth.
I’m not saying you should beat yourself up in your statement and showcase various failings, but the best statements allow us to feel that we know the person who wrote it because they were willing to reveal themselves as a person even as they tell us their interests and aspirations.
We have heard that narrowing down to the finalists is tough–there are always more qualified candidates than seats. Can you share with us some definitive qualities that often put shortlist applicants over the top? What distinguishes the final picks?
The harsh truth is that as you compile a list of, say, twice as many qualified candidates as you have space for, you begin to look at how they might balance against each other. Many issues then come to the fore: background, gender, region, intellectual and creative slant—the list is endless. But as a rule, I’d say that in most cases there is a thru-line in terms of the writer’s studies, work, and life that is beginning to emerge as a cogent search for understanding that her work will express. It’s sometimes inchoate, but no matter how varied, it looks like she has been working at it. Not so much because she has a 4.7 GPA or whatever, but because the cumulative biography indicates this search.
Recommenders who have put time into describing the writer is also revealing—this investment says a lot about how much they value the relationship and thus directly comments on the writer’s quality as a person above and beyond their work. Finally, originality goes a long, long way. Sometimes you come on a line, sensibility, or moment that is riveting. The sun flashes through the clouds and nothing is the same in the afterimage. We know these moments as readers, and we are just that when we sit on an admissions committee. So, there is this mix of continuity and impact that is generally present in the final picks.
In what physical environment do you usually review applications? Any rituals associated with it? How does the final meeting of deciding on the finalists go for the admissions committee? (& is it usually an easy agreement or somewhat heated?)
We all individually review applications at our computers as we have an online repository for them where we compile notes. I approach it with a sense of dread. I know that sounds terrible, but it’s true. I love recruiting students, but seeing all of these great and hopeful writers who meticulously put together wonderful applications is quite hard when you know how many you will have to disappoint. I’ve had my share of rejection and it sucks to be the one doling it out—it’s contrary to why I became a writing professor in the first place! (At the same time, no rejection is final. There are always applicants whom I feel were passed over for reasons beyond their control and I’m mindful of contacting them. One applied three times and then joined us and has been a great addition to the program. So: happy ending!) For all of this, I tend to clear the schedule and read for a long period of time. It also helps for comparison’s sake. When I feel I’m getting negative I take a break, but I like to hit a rhythm. And I regularly remind myself of stuff I wrote in my beginning years, which is usually much worse than the worst of the applications—this kind of humility and perspective is important and keeps you in touch with the fact that you are reading writers who are developing, not already perfected. I want people to come here and get much, much better, not arrive awesome and kill a few years feeling impermeably awesome.
As for ritual, at the moment of deciding finalists, I suspect the debates are more intense in poetry, where there is such a wide variety of form and approach. Poets exist in a world riven with marauding bands and crenellated keeps. Fiction writers are more like the accountants of the art world, trying to figure out the logistics of tracking five people in a scene and obsessing over the continuity of character; they tend to write within a narrower band in terms of form. So, our faculty discussions have a surprising degree of agreement. We use a dry-erase board to list students in various columns, constantly refreshing our memory by looking at the applications and one another’s comments. I’m grateful that we have such a functional and cooperative faculty. You can’t depend on a high degree of comity within academic units, where blood-feuds go back generations over various slights, real and imagined (John Williams’ Stoner is a good study of this, as is Rick Russo’s comedic Straight Man). But we genuinely like each other. The final meet where we establish our list is usually a good time—we like to imagine the kind of family we’re assembling because we’ll all spend a lot of time together and so the selections both matter and are filled with promise.
Most MFAs talk about their community being supportive, but applicants don’t often get many details. In practice, what does your program do to help students foster community, especially in the first year? Any hidden gems such as student organizations, departmental mentorship programs, workshop principles, and so on?
This is a big topic, so I’m going to range a bit. First, admission and matriculation: We like to have a party to welcome everyone, but even before this we host gatherings of prospective or admitted students at AWP every year. This gives them a chance to meet other students, other incoming classmates, many of the professors, and generally get a sense of the program’s vibe. Fair warning: we’re more or less humor-mandatory. We also encourage (and fund as best we can) prospective students so that they can see how Houston feels as they weigh their options. We have videos online that show life from our students’ prospective (how much is rent, where should you live, etc.) and we have a packet we send out with student contacts, advice for renting, stuff to do, museums to visit, and just-reworked additions that lay out what your teaching life might look like over the course of your degree as well as all of the sorts of fellowships we offer. Early on, all admitted candidates are given a list of student contacts so that they can suss out the program without worry of censorship. Our students volunteer to be contacts and we expect them to be honest and forthcoming in their evaluation of the program. I’m a strong proponent of transparency and believe you can’t run a good organization without understanding what is both good and bad about it, moving to emphasize the former and address the latter.
Second: The workshop. These operate on what I like to think of as our ethos, which is that success is not a zero-sum competition. We foster an environment where we celebrate everyone’s accomplishments because, as a collective, such accomplishments represent all of us. In a workshop, where MFAs and PhDs mix freely, the emphasis is on respect and honesty. You have better conversations, even uncomfortable ones, when there is trust in place to say what you think and feel without fear of being condemned and when the notion of a collective good—beautiful and meaningful literature in our case—is front-and-center. Workshop is, in short, meant to emulate the opposite of our polarized national political discourse. Truth and intent, I suppose, are cardinal. Our financial aid is predicated, too, on a sense of equality so that students don’t waste time trying to divine who is “favored.” If you earned your way in you are a full citizen in all respects, which means equal financial support and opportunity all the way through. As a young writer I experienced the favoritism model, and it made a deep impression on me; it was corrosive and undercut many students’ confidence. I remember vowing that if I ever ran a program, I’d do it differently.
Third: The day-to-day. We have lots of different assistantships for students, all with an eye on their professional development. But in the first year everyone begins the degree by tutoring in the Writing Center, which is low-stress and allows you to settle in without being overwhelmed by teaching. And you all read together in the UH Library’s Poetry and Prose Series, which allows everyone in the CWP to hear your work. I would say that one drawback to our program is that because we tend to recruit older writers (it’s a PhD program, too) who are more intellectually formed than your average 22-year-old, and because we are a large program and in a big city, students can operate in a fairly distant orbit if it’s either to their preference or they don’t make an effort to bond with others. This is not the kind of place where everyone lives in the same small town and hits the same bar after workshop. The good in this is that you can seek your own sub-group of peers and not worry about being trapped in the classroom again and again with a nemesis; the bad is that if you don’t look to your interests and advocate, if you are passive, you may feel adrift. Between our literary magazine, Gulf Coast, the readings at Brazos Books, the Graduate English Society (in which grad student reps sit in on departmental meetings and advocate for their colleagues), and a department that prizes teaching and mentorship as well as exhibits an informal and welcoming bonhomie, it’s easy to reach out. I tell everyone we recruit that their time here will be excellent if they advocate for themselves. Ask for what you want. If you don’t get it, well, you’ll probably understand there are valid reasons or limitations and, perhaps, can reformulate your needs around this. But if you don’t ask for what you want or need or simply expect it to be given to you, you are likely to be disappointed in life, not just in an MFA.
Finally, the place: Houston’s literary community is, in my experience, unparalleled. I went through two graduate programs and have taught at several universities and I haven’t seen anything quite like it. There are a few key defining partners.
- The amazing literary nonprofit, Inprint, which was originally established to help our creative writing program. The early founders included Donald Barthelme’s wife, Marion, as well as Karl Killian, the founder of Brazos Books, Houston’s greatest indie bookstore, as well as a highly literary psychologist, Glenn Cambor (whose wife, Cathy, also directed the program for a time). Borne out of their tight literary connections, they established a private fund for graduate students and a city reading series. They have since flowered into their own amazing literary presence: they bring Nobel Laureates and Pulitzer Prize winners and the like to read monthly in a spectacular reading series, they fund all of our graduate students with $10,000 grants, and they teach a great number of community workshops (many run by our students). They even employ our students as poetry buskers! I can’t do them justice here, but explore their site. They are one big reason we have such a singular program, and they work as a second center of gravity and place of connection for our students.
- Brazos Books. They have a vibrant and packed reading series and even have one of our students work annually in lieu of a TAship, teaching them everything about the book and publishing business. They run all sorts of panels, help us host events, and often our students hit the bar next door, Under the Volcano, with the visiting author for a few subsidized drinks and some literary talk. It’s a store run by writers and for writers.
- Gulf Coast. This is a high-profile literary and arts magazine that, while independent, is housed in our English Department and staffed by our MFA and PhD candidates. People often read manuscripts for them every year of their degree and sometimes work as full-time editors in lieu of TAships.
Added to this is a plethora of other literary organizations: Some of our students work in editorial roles with Arte Público Press, the oldest and biggest Latino press, whose authors have won about every award possible. Writers in the Schools is staffed by many past graduates and employs lots of our students to teach writing to kids and young adults. There is a lively theater scene, an opera (for which some students have written librettos in years past), the list goes on and on.
What is on the agenda to combat racism, queerphobia, misogyny, ableism, classism, etc., within the program? Any opportunities, especially but not limited to during the pandemic time, to uplift/fund marginalized voices?
Part of this, good intentions aside, is an issue of mechanics. My experience is that if you can’t offer students funding and the presence of writers who relate to them, you aren’t going to evolve very successfully if you mean to have an inclusive program. Structurally, we’ve moved ahead on two fronts: We raised roughly $4,000,000 three years ago with a large portion of the money targeted to further diversify our program. Students arrive with as much as $12,000 in fellowship monies granted upfront so that they can afford things like a security deposit and some financial security before their TAship salaries kick in. The marginalized are often financially marginalized as well, and this seemed a good way to indicate our intentions and set students at ease or at least distance them from some financial worry at the start. Second, we established two five-year professorships that rotate between faculty and encourage them to expand and redefine the Program in ways that are lacking. We used these to recruit faculty of color (two of our three hires in the past three years), one of whom, Prof. francine harris, is, in her words, “working on a Critical and Creative Legacy Project aimed at fostering dialogue between critics and creative writers of color, particularly within the context of black poetics. Ideally it will encourage critical writing by creative writers toward building archive and legacy and extend that effort beyond the university campus into the broader community.” Our second hire, Dr. Brenda Peynado, is only just joining us, but I expect her project will also have broad appeal to the diverse makeup of our student body. In these, I feel that we have incorporated a dynamic that fosters change from within and, rather than being a top-down “do something for me,” it is instead a bottom-up “this is what we would like to see and why.” We listen to our students and we take their suggestions and recommendations seriously.
We’ve worked hard for many years to diversify our program, but have probably had an easier time drawing top tier talent because Houston is so large and varied and makes the case for finding a broader community no matter your background or interests—it’s not like moving to rural Vermont. Given this, we have a legacy of writers such as Jericho Brown, who finished here in 2006 and won the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, and Bryan Washington, who was an undergraduate in our program; all have, collectively, helped the case for why others might join us and benefit and be celebrated because of their differences, not in spite of them. As a result of all of this, I’m pleased to say that half of our 2020 incoming class identify as nonwhite, among other hallmarks of diversity. We will never be perfect and certainly there are deficiencies within the program. But we are work in progress, as we will always be: there is no end save one of ongoing creative inclusiveness and dynamism.
For those unable to journey the MFA route, what study materials would you recommend?
Two of my mentors, Tony Hoagland and Robert Boswell, wrote excellent essays on writing that were a mix of analysis and the personal that taught me a lot about the nature of being a writer. That is, they educated me about specific elements of writing but were more an illustration of how a writer stands in the world. The happy fact is that there are now so many excellent writers engaged in craft essays that there’s no shortage. Listening to writers talk about writing and its necessity has also been helpful. You can get online and listen to someone like Olga Tokarczuk accept the Nobel Prize and come away with a thoughtful and concise expression for why writing matters. Writers geek out on other writers and so perhaps the best means of study is to follow one to the next—see who mentions whom as influences and inspirations—and identify the points of your own literary constellation. Added to this, study mechanics. Emoticons and emojis aside, to say nothing of email etiquette (or lack thereof), syntax, grammar, and punctuation matter. The better you are with these, the less you need think about them. Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style is an enduring go-to.
If there is a question you are bursting to answer from the experience of reading applications, please propose and answer one here.
The main one, which, truthfully, I grapple with myself, is this: Why are you writing this particular story/novel/novella/poem? Being able to answer this truthfully and succinctly—plainly—is a good place from which to take your bearings as an artist. Sometimes people write for approbation, which seems a poor, if understandable, reason. Is it out of a desire for connection? If so, with whom? Is it to understand something that eludes you? Is it because you simply love it and want to share this joy? Every answer has implications for what you write and how. Clarity of intent, stripped of all hyperbole and linguistic flashiness and intellectual justification and filigree, is a valuable compass point for you to hew to.
The deadline to apply to the MFA at the University of Houston is January 15, 2021. Here are some additional tips for applicants from Houston’s MFA faculty:
Alexander Parsons directs the University of Houston’s Creative Writing Program. He’s the author of the novels Leaving Disneyland and In the Shadows of the Sun. He’s received various fellowships and awards, among them a National Endowment for the Arts Literary Fellowship, and the Associated Writing Programs Award Series for the Novel, as well as teaching excellence awards at the University of Houston and the University of New Hampshire.
Winniebell Xinyu Zong
Winniebell Xinyu Zong is the winner of Columbia Journal's Womxn’s History Month Special Issue in poetry, the Associate Editor of Pleiades Magazine and Frontier Poetry, and the EiC of Touchstone Literary Magazine. Her recent work has appeared or is forthcoming in Barren Magazine, Meridian, and Poetry Daily, among others. You can find her online at winniebellxzong.com and on Twitter & Instagram @winniebell_zong.