Director Insights: Alix Ohlin, MFA Director of the University of British Columbia
We’re so happy to share the insights of Alix Ohlin, Associate Professor and Director of the UBC School of Creative Writing. 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.
WXZ: 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?
AO: It’s certainly a challenge to narrow down the finalists when we receive so many applications from talented writers, and I always want to emphasize that if you don’t get into an MFA program any given year, it’s really no verdict on your future as a writer. At UBC our application process gives a lot of weight to the writing people submit. Each application is carefully read by several faculty members, and our discussions center around what’s thrilling and engaging in the writing. We’re a multi-genre program, so one thing that helps is a sense that people are interested in and committed to exploring more than one genre. You don’t have to be equally adept or experienced in every genre you submit as part of your writing sample, but it helps for us to see that you’re willing, that the idea of working across genres is exciting to you.
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?
Our program works hard to create spaces for students to interact and build relationships beyond just coming to class: TA support training, a literary journal, a playwriting festival, a program that send MFAs to teach creative writing in the local public schools. We support our student organization to host events and readings and writing sessions, too. During the pandemic our student organization has hosted a lot of Zoom writing sessions and conversations on Discord. We offer both an on-campus MFA and an optional-residency (distance) MFA. One silver lining to having this past year be completely online is that we’ve been able to create a stronger sense of community and connection across these two programs, and we’ll be looking for ways to continue that going forward.
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?
In the past few years we’ve been working internally and with our office of Equity & Inclusion to nurture an inclusive and engaged program climate. We’ve held faculty trainings; run student and faculty focus groups centered around the experiences of people from marginalized communities; and made equity and inclusion considerations central to our faculty hiring. We’ve added two new Indigenous faculty hires and are building curriculum in Indigenous creative writing. Our pedagogy training includes things like using community workshop guidelines, normalizing pronoun introductions and land acknowledgments, and familiarizing faculty with accessibility issues. We support student groups like a queer lit reading group and an Indigenous reading circle.
For those unable to journey the MFA route, what study materials would you recommend?
I think it depends on the genre you want to study. One thing I’d recommend is using the openness of social media to follow writers who have interesting and important things to say: Alexander Chee, Beth Bich Minh Nguyen, Paisley Rekdal, Ocean Vuong, Matthew Salesses, Alicia Elliott, Brandon Taylor. I’ve learned so much from all of them. The New Yorker poetry and fiction podcasts are great. For books, my students have responded well to Jane Alison’s Meander, Spiral, Explode and to Zadie Smith’s essays on writing in Changing My Mind.
The deadline to apply to the MFA at the University of British Columbia is midnight PST on Friday, January 8th, 2021. Click the following page for more information on UBC’s application guidelines and MFA program details:
Alix Ohlin is the author of five books of fiction. Her story collection We Want What We Want is forthcoming in 2021. She lives in Vancouver and is the Director of the UBC School of Creative Writing.
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.