In addition to her three collections of poetry—Theories of Falling (2008), I Was the Jukebox (2010), and Count the Waves (2015)—Sandra’s memoir, Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales From an Allergic Life (2011), offers a cultural history of food allergies. She attributes her movement toward creative nonfiction to her cross-genre workshop experience in the MFA program.
Sandra’s poetry has appeared in such magazines as Tin House, The Believer, and Ploughshares, and her nonfiction has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post Magazine, Oxford American, and the Wall Street Journal. Her numerous honors include a 2015 Literature Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.
A strong voice in the DC literary community, Sandra gives readings, visits schools, and coordinates events for the Arts Club of Washington.
We reached out to Sandra over email to find out more about her time at AU, and to get her advice for writers looking into MFA programs or launching writing careers in DC.
What led you to choose AU’s MFA program?
In the spring of 2002, I was finishing my degree at the University of Virginia, and I wanted to build on the mentorship I’d found in workshops. I applied to programs all over the country, but I felt a pull toward home in the DC area. At UVA, I’d interviewed Henry Taylor* for 3.7, a literary journal. Our scheduled hour turned into an afternoon-long conversation that included discussion of Henry’s own UVA memories, how writing had anchored him during a battle with cancer, and the craft of sonnets and clerihews. So when Henry left a message on the voicemail in my dorm room—saying he had reviewed my application, asking if I’d come study poetry with him—that settled it. All young writers dream of being heard. The American University community made me feel like my voice could matter.
[* Henry Taylor taught literature and co-directed the MFA program in creative writing from 1971–2003.]
What were your most meaningful experiences in the program?
Thanks to the Visiting Writer Series we had incredible authors come through, such as Nick Flynn and Thomas Glave. But what really stayed with me were two unique components of the program’s requirements for study: the journalism class, taught by Henry Taylor, and the exposure to world poetry and poetry in translation, taught by Myra Sklarew. These courses should be part of every MFA curriculum. These classes broadened my sense of a literary community, and of what I could do with the degree. I can thank Richard McCann for introducing me to the craft of creative nonfiction. Not every program allows students to cross genres so freely. He said you have to find the nerve, the place where it hurts—and then press on it. That advice has stayed with me.
How has the MFA program made a difference in your career since graduation?
You don’t need an MFA to be a great writer. But an MFA-vetted manuscript can provide the basis for your first book, as it was for me with Theories of Falling. You can use an MFA as a foundation for a career—especially in cities such as Washington, DC, where a terminal degree is highly valued. My MFA was taken as a qualification for consultation opportunities, and my alumni community continues to provide connections to readings and freelancing. At American University, I was the editor-in-chief for Folio; when I later worked at The American Scholar, I applied the layout and correspondence skills I’d honed at the journal.
What advice do you have for current or prospective MFA students?
Don’t fixate on perfecting the draft at hand. Focus on acquiring skills to revise. The tough thing, after the indulgence of a graduate-level workshop, is learning to be your own best editor. That means conceptualizing the upper level of questions and proofing line by line. Be open to writing and learning in all genres, because you never know where career options will veer. Identify a few friends you might want to keep in touch with beyond the program, to trade manuscripts and moral support. Don’t be afraid to ask your professors frank questions about the publishing world—conference experiences, agent relationships, even finances. That’s not a “dirty” or shameful topic. That’s part of the business at hand, if you aim to support yourself though your writing.
How would you describe your involvement in the DC writing community? How has living in the District influenced or inspired your work?
For me, to be a writer is to be a writer in DC. Washington is where I write poems; it’s the place where I find myself in situations, realistic and surreal, that inspire poems. Sometimes the texture is subtle, in the form of referring to a bus line or a neighborhood cemetery. But where else are you going to find yourself in the same theater as Ruth Bader Ginsburg, taking in an evening show?
Washington is where my readers are, and I’ve been fortunate to receive financial support from the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities. I host a literary series at the Arts Club of Washington, and I try to make as many readings as I can around town. If I’m in Dupont Circle, I swing by Kramerbooks. If I’m up on Connecticut Avenue, I drop in to Politics & Prose. If I’m getting my shoes repaired at Philip’s, I walk across the street to Upshur Street Books. If a local school asks me to visit, I say Yes whenever I can.
If there’s ever a chance to champion this town in print, I do, because DC deserves more credit for what it offers artists. Music, sculpture, dance, theater: it’s all here. And often free.
What advice do you have for writers looking to become more involved in the DC writing community?
DC is full of places in which to participate. There’s no “one” scene. On a given night, there might be readings going on at five different places. Check out Bridge Street Books and the Folger Shakespeare Library’s O.B. Harrison series, if you haven’t already. Workshop with kids at 826DC, step up to the open mic at BloomBars, or absorb a lecture at Georgetown University. Just look around. When you do attend something, be sure to introduce yourself to the organizer or host. We remember your face—and we appreciate making the connection. One last thing: find a friend who agrees to meet up, and hang out for sushi before or a martini afterwards. DC is my home, and there’s tons to do, but even for me it can get lonely. You have to create community within the crowd.
If Sandra’s experiences in the MFA program and in the DC community sound like experiences you’d like to share, please check out the MFA Creative Writing Program at American University.
Interested in working with Sandra? Join her for a poetry intensive on March 13 at The Writer’s Center.