Allison Hammond is Assistant Director of the Creative Writing and Translation Program at the University of Arkansas. A bio and photo were requested to left off this interview. Hammond wrote, “We’d much prefer that the focus be on the program and not one individual.”
Robin Tung: What sets Arkansas’ program apart from other programs?
Allison Hammond: Poets & Writers consistently ranks the University of Arkansas Program in Creative Writing and Translation in the top forty MFA programs in the nation, and The Atlantic Monthly named Arkansas among the “Top Five Most Innovative Creative Writing Programs.” Our graduates have published hundreds of books and won prestigious prizes, including the National Book Award, Guggenheim Fellowships, Ruth Lilly Poetry Fellowships, NEA grants, and the BBC International Short Story Award.
Ours is among the oldest MFA programs in the nation, founded in 1966. From the start, our MFA was designed to be a true terminal degree. The 60-hour curriculum enhances the typical workshop experience with coursework in craft and literary studies and provides students with four years to focus on their work. Graduates leave our program fully prepared for all aspects of the writing life—as writers, readers, teachers, and participants in literary culture.
Among the most distinctive features of our program is the degree track in literary translation, which focuses on the translation of literary works from other languages into English. This field of study treats the work of literary translation as an act of creative writing in and of itself.
Want more? There’s no fee to apply. Only students admitted to our MFA program end up paying a small fee. That means the bulk of our 200+ applicants have nothing to lose.
RT: What does the committee look for in a candidate?
RT: Are there stylistic or form leanings (traditional vs experimental, certain writers or texts taught each year)?
AH: Our program aims to offer students a strong foundation in the fundamental techniques of good poetry, fiction, and translation. Our most talented students use that foundation as a jumping-off point for creative expression. Our poetry alumni practice all forms of verse, from formal to experimental. And though our fiction program tends toward the literary, with a strong focus on character depth and development, graduates have gone on to publish everything from traditional novels to flash fiction and non-realist narratives.
RT: How closely do faculty work with students?
AH: Our program has 8 full-time faculty members and approximately 40 students at any given time. Class sizes vary between 5-15 students, and faculty are readily available for individual conferences and feedback. Students have two opportunities to work one-on-one with faculty members during their studies: through individualized readings courses and through the thesis advising process that takes place in the final year. Readings, receptions, and social opportunities for faculty and students abound.
RT: What is funding like for this or next year?
AH: Teaching assistantships form the main source of funding for our students, and admitted students receive TAs almost without exception. Each TA comes with a full tuition waiver and a steep discount on student health insurance. TAs teach two courses per semester for the first three years and one course per semester in their final year. Students who matriculate with a bachelor’s degree receive a TA stipend of $11,000 for the first two years, rising to $11,500 in the third and fourth years. Those who enter our program with a master’s degree receive $11,500 from the get-go.
A number of fellowships and awards are available to current students, including the Walton Fellowships, which offer $11,000 and a year free from teaching. Our program has a limited number of awards available to incoming students. There is no special application process for first-year fellowships. Eligible candidates are selected from the applicant pool.
RT: What are your admissions rates?
AH: We receive more than 200 applications each year and generally admit 5 poets, 5 fiction writers, and 3-5 literary translators.
RT: What advice would you offer applicants during the application process?
AH: 1) Follow the instructions on our admissions page, and do your best to provide exactly what we ask for. 2) Feel free to cruise through the online application before you submit it and familiarize yourself with the format and requirements. 3) Send your very best creative work—work that has been workshopped, work that you’ve revised, work that shimmers with voice, tension, momentum, and grace. Knock our socks off, please. 4) Be patient. We have a small review committee, and it takes a long time to give 200 manuscripts the attention that each deserves.
RT: What is the admissions process like, and should writers avoid doing anything in particular in their applications?
AH: We experience a lot of confusion about admissions. Our application process is really three-fold. First, we determine whether we want to admit an applicant to our MFA program. That determination is based solely on the creative manuscript. Once admission has been decided, we use the other materials to determine whether the admitted applicant will receive a teaching assistantship. Finally, students who commit to join our MFA program are given instructions to apply to the University of Arkansas Graduate School, which is largely a formality. MFA hopefuls should not apply to the Graduate School before applying directly to our program.
Common blunders include:
- Sending a critical writing sample that doesn’t meet the 10-page requirement… or that doesn’t make use of citations… or that still has the low grade and negative feedback of the original instructor written across it.
- Submitting a teaching statement that doesn’t directly address the teaching of composition (academic writing) and instead focuses solely on the teaching of creative writing.
- Harassing our staff about your admissions status: occasional, polite inquiries or messages expressing enthusiasm for our program are welcome; persistent badgering is not.
RT: What advice do you have for new writers?
AH: Seek community. Writing in isolation only allows you to progress so far. Find people who will read and comment on your work. Beyond that, your job is this: read widely, write daily.
(Art by Laura Owens)