Jodee Stanley is Director of the Creative Writing Program at the University of Illinois Urbana–Champaign and Editor of Ninth Letter. She has worked in literary publishing for twenty years, and has been a speaker and panelist at various conferences and festivals, including Bread Loaf, AWP, MLA, and the Kenyon Review Literary Festival. In 2009, she was awarded an Academic Professional Award from the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at UIUC, and she received a 2007 Faculty Fellowship from the University of Illinois Academy for Entrepreneurial Leadership. Her fiction, essays, and book reviews have appeared in journals including Crab Orchard Review, Hobart, 580 Split, Cincinnati Review, Future Fire, BkMk Quarterly, The Smoking Poet, Sycamore Review, Sou’wester, and Electric Velocipede.
Robin Tung: How is Illinois’ MFA program different from other programs?
Jodee Stanley: We are a very small, very community-oriented program, and we try to foster long-lasting working relationships among our students and faculty so that all our writers can benefit from a supportive and mutually respectful environment. We also resist prescribing a narrow aesthetic; we encourage our students to work toward goals they set for themselves, rather than insisting on a singular definition of what makes for a successful story, poem, or essay.
Our faculty have very diverse aesthetics and interests, and we try to present our students with a broad range of writers and texts to study. Likewise, we encourage a similar diversity of writing styles and interests among our students.
RT: What does the admissions committee look for in a candidate?
JS: We look for writing that is confident and passionate; technical skill is important, but even more important is a sense of originality, as well as a sense of strong commitment to the work. And in general, we are looking for candidates who understand what we have to offer as a program and demonstrate that this meets their own needs as a writer.
RT: What are the admissions rates like for UIUC’s MFA program?
JS: We had approximately 140 applications this past winter, and we accepted 6 applicants–3 in fiction and 3 in poetry.
RT: What advice would you offer applicants during the application process?
JS: First, I would say applicants should familiarize themselves with our program and decide if it seems a good fit for them as writers–and then demonstrate that in your statement of purpose! We are really looking for people who are excited about embarking or continuing on their journey as writers, and we want to see how our program would be a valuable part of that journey. In terms of writing samples, of course the standard wisdom is to include your best work, but I think what’s equally important is to include work that is really representative of what you are interested in (or represents at least some of the range of your interests).
RT: How are alumni faring out in the world?
JS: Our alumni are doing amazing things these days! We had two MFA alums receive NEA grants in poetry this year (and a winner in fiction a couple of years ago), and we have alumni publishing their first, second, and even third books in recent years. Recent book and chapbook prizes won by our alumni include the Bakeless Prize in Fiction (Graywolf Press), the Wick Poetry Prize (Kent State Univ. Press), Tupelo Press Open Competition, and the Dream Horse Press Chapbook Prize. And in 2015 we also have alumni with books published by Soho Press, Dzanc Books, and HarperCollins. Our alumni are also making great contributions in the world of editing: two of our alums have started independent presses, one for fiction and one for poetry.
RT: What advice do you have for new writers?
JS: Read and write, read and write–the two most important things any writer should be doing. And especially for new writers, get involved in the literary community. Attend readings, go to conferences, read and volunteer for literary journals. Building relationships with other writers can be extremely valuable.
RT: What are you working on now?
JS: I’m mostly just focused on getting upcoming issues of Ninth Letter out into the world!