Kate Daniels has published four volumes of poetry–The White Wave, The Niobe Poems, Four Testimonies,and, in 2010, A Walk in Victoria’s Secret. The White Wave received the Agnes Lynch Starrett Prize for Poetry. Among her honors are a fellowship from what is now known as the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, the James Dickey Prize for Poetry, the Louisiana Literature Prize for Poetry, and the 2011 Hanes Award for Poetry from the Fellowship of Southern Writers. Her poems, which have been anthologized in a number of publications, have appeared in journals such as American Poetry Review, Critical Quarterly, and the Southern Review. She has also edited a volume of poems by Muriel Rukeyser and co-edited the book Of Solitude and Silence: Writings on Robert Bly. She is Director of Creative Writing at Vanderbilt University.
Robin Tung: What does the MFA committee look for in potential students?
Kate Daniels: More than anything else: Excellent writing; plus, a strong sense of the applicant’s reading life; evidence of involvement with contemporary literature; some sense of the applicant’s dedication to writing and reading, and why he or she has made the choice to attend an MFA program. We are most interested in people who are passionate about and dedicated to writing who also cannot live without reading…
RT: What are admission rates like at Vanderbilt?
KD: We have been deemed by the P&W listings to be the most competitive MFA program in the country, based on our admission rate. We admit only 6 students per year, 3 poets and 3 fiction writers. We average from 650-700 applicants, more applying in fiction than in poetry. That makes an admission rate of 1% or less. We admit six, bring them, fully funded, to campus in March to visit and meet students and faculty. We have a wait list, ranked, in each genre, and we stay in very close contact with these people throughout the process.
RT: Does the program have certain stylistic leanings?
KD: Our stylistic leanings can be determined by reading the work of faculty authors. We don’t keep master lists of which of our faculty members teach which writers or particular books. This is entirely up to faculty members. Obviously, there is a connection between the MFA workshops and the authors who come to us via our Visiting Writers Series.
RT: How closely do faculty and students work? And will any faculty be leaving or coming to Vanderbilt in the near future?
KD: We are a small, intensive program (12 students, 9 faculty) where students are closely mentored throughout their entire time here. Lorrie Moore is joining our faculty this coming year, and will teach in the MFA program for the first time in spring 2014. Poet Beth Bachmann will begin teaching in the MFA program in fall 2014.
RT: What is unique about Vanderbilt’s MFA program?
KD: The small size of our program, and our egalitarian approach to supporting students; the collegiality between MFA students and faculty; the generous, across the board funding for every student admitted (full tuition; health insurance; $24k stipend + topping up financial awards available to students with superior academic backgrounds which can add as much as $10k/year to the basic funding); the opportunities to work closely with faculty over a period of two years; our location in Nashville, Tennessee.
The opportunity to teach undergraduate creative writing and to work as a graduate writing consultant (which combine to offer teaching experience in CW and expository writing which is valuable to those grads hoping to enter the academic job market); a terrific and well-funded visiting writers series; several possibilities for MFA students to present their work to the English Department alongside doctoral students, as well as to give individual readings at Vanderbilt and in Nashville; the opportunity to work as an editor for Nashville Review; opportunities offered by our program for students to work as writers in community in various programs we co sponsor and/or participate in (teaching writing workshops in prisons and in healthcare settings; serving as Writers in Residence for the undergrad dorms; teaching CW in Vanderbilt’s Talented Youth Program; leading workshops for Nashville public schools CW students; participating in the Southern Festival of Books, sponsored by Tennessee Humanities Commission.
Also, Vanderbilt MFA sends all of its students to AWP each year with funding from the Graduate School. The summer after the first year, there is summer support money available for MFAs attending conferences, workshops, etc. There is also funding available to support MFA students who have papers or presentations accepted at other professional and/or academic conferences.
In May 2013, one of our faculty members arranged to have the entire poetry class invited to Sarasota, Florida for a literary conference with W.S. Merwin and Naomi Shihab Nye. In exchange for travel and room and board, our MFAs served as interns, and gave a poetry reading from their work.
RT: How are alumni faring post-graduation?
KD: We are still a very young program – have only graduated six classes, I think. Maybe 33 or 34 people total. We make a conscious effort to provide opportunities to students for experience doing different kinds of work with their skills and interests as writers, in the hopes that this may help prepare them for a changing and unpredictable job market.
Here is some of what I know so far: One graduate is a tenure track assistant professor of English/creative writing; several teach part-time as lecturers at colleges and universities, including Vanderbilt. Two of them teach at community colleges, one of whom is tenured, teaching English and creative writing. Two are teaching full-time in selective private schools. One is in a band, and has been touring Europe. One received a Wisconsin Creative Writing Fellowship from UW. One was a Fulbright Fellow to Ireland. One went on to do a PhD in English. One of them started an independent arts-consulting business. All of them that we are aware of are still writing and publishing, and in addition to appearing in journals, etc., a least two or three have had work accepted by anthologies. One of our early fiction graduates published a novel. Another fiction grad has a YA novel coming out next year, and one just won a book contest judged by Yusef Komunyakaa. Her book will be out in 2014, also. Three of our poets have or will soon have published chapbooks with excellent literary presses.