Christopher Kennedy is the author of four poetry collections, including Encouragement for a Man Falling to His Death (BOA Editions, Ltd.), which received the Isabella Gardner Poetry Award in 2007 and Nietzsche’s Horse (Mitki/Mitki Press). He is also one of the translators of Light and Heavy Things: Selected Poems of Zeeshan Sahil (BOA Editions, Ltd.), published in 2013 as part of The Lannan Translation Series. His work has appeared in numerous print and on-line journals and magazines, including Ploughshares, The Threepenny Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Mississippi Review, Ninth Letter, and New York Tyrant. He has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the New York Foundation for the Arts, and a grant from the Constance Saltonstall Foundation for the Arts. He is an associate professor of English at Syracuse University where he directs the MFA Program in Creative Writing.
Robin Tung: What does the committee at Syracuse look for in a candidate?
Chris Kennedy: We look for original voices that show promise and that the faculty think they can help develop.
RT: Can you go further into what you mean by “promise”?
CK: By “promise” I mean that the work doesn’t need to have been published or be completely polished. We look for potential in writers we believe would benefit from having three years to devote to their craft.
I should also say that although I teach both poetry and fiction, I only read poetry manuscripts, so I can’t really speak for the fiction faculty, though I suspect it’s the same for them.
As far as examples go, we have two students who just graduated, Grady Chambers, who recently found out he will be a Stegner Fellow next year, and Jess Poli, co-editor of Salt Hill, editor of Birdfeast, co-editor of Midnight City Books, and author of three chapbooks, whose writing samples demonstrated great potential and who worked tirelessly to become extraordinary poets. I could just as easily mention several other students who have had similar trajectories while at Syracuse.
RT: Does Syracuse have any stylistic or form leanings (traditional vs experimental, certain writers or texts taught each year)?
CK: We are open to all styles of writing. What we teach varies from year to year.
RT: What texts or authors did you teach this year?
CK: This past year I taught the collected poems of James Wright, Jean Valentine, Robert Hayden, John Ashbery, James Tate, and Denis Johnson in one Forms course and the novels. The Old Reactor by David Ohle, Mumbo Jumbo by Ishmael Reed, Why Did I Ever by Mary Robison, Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino, and Reader’s Block and Wittgenstein’s Mistress by David Markson, as well as the short story collections, Stories in the Worst Way by Gary Lutz, Collected Stories by Lydia Davis, The Girl in the Flammable Skirt by Aimee Bender, and The Elephant Vanishes (as well as a few stories from After the Quake) by Haruki Murakami in an Experimental Fiction Forms course.
RT: What is funding like for this year or next?
CK: All students receive a tuition waiver and either a scholarship or fellowship in their first year, they teach composition in their second year, and either teach our Living Writers class or are on fellowship in their third year. Stipends change slightly each year, but they range from approximately 15K to 19K.
RT: What are admissions rates like for the program?
CK: We accept six students per genre (fiction and poetry). This year we received 600 fiction applications and 177 poetry applications.
RT: What advice would you give to applicants?
CK: Send only your best work. If you feel you’re sending subpar work as part of your writing sample, you should wait to apply until you’re more confident about your work.
RT: How are alumni faring post-MFA?
CK: Our alumni have a great track record of publication success. Notable alumni include Dan Torday, Cheryl Strayed, Adam Levin, Ashley Farmer, and Iain Haley Pollock.
RT: What are you currently working on now?
CK: I’m working on the final edits of a collection of prose poems that will be out this summer from Ampersand Books. I’m also working on another collection I hope to have finished by the end of the summer to submit to my regular publisher BOA Editions, Ltd.
RT: What’s the best advice you have for new writers?
CK: I write every day, even if it’s just minor revision work. Aspiring writers need to read everything they can whether it’s what they like or not. Exposure to different types of writing and development of good writing habits will enhance their talent. Talent alone isn’t enough.