When poet Valzhyna Mort arrived at AU as a student, she already had several accomplishments behind her. She had published a collection of poetry, Factory of Tears, in the United States and in Belarus, and been the youngest person ever featured on the cover of Poets & Writers magazine.
Valzhyna has since published another collection, Collected Body (Copper Canyon Press, 2011), and edited two poetry anthologies, Something Indecent: Poems Recommended by Eastern European Poets (Red Hen Press, 2013), and Gossip and Metaphysics: Prose and Poetry of Russian Modernist Poets, with Ilya Kaminsky and Katie Farris (Tupelo Press, 2014). She has received the Lannan Foundation Fellowship, the Bess Hokins Prize from Poetry, and the Burda Poetry Prize in Germany.
During her time in the AU MFA Program, Valzhyna immersed herself in cross-genre workshops and focused deeply on her craft—much as the program’s new studio track will invite students to do.
Now a visiting assistant professor at Cornell University, Valzhyna is an Amy Clamitt Foundation fellow in Lenox, MA. We reached out to her to learn about how her time at AU fed her work and to discuss how she has spent her time since.
I know that you came into the AU MFA program with several accomplishments already—Professor David Keplinger once described you as having come here “fully formed.” What led to your choice to pursue an MFA?
It’s true that when I applied to the AU MFA I already had my first book published in the States and at home, in Belarus. I was mostly confused about what MFA programs entailed. I was convinced that I had to be a published poet in order to be accepted into one. But don’t be fooled by this “fully formed” statement because even now, and perhaps especially now, after years of writing and reading, I have no idea how one writes a poem.
Let me say this, though. I think one does have to come to an MFA program formed, by that I don’t mean that one should have a manuscript ready or a book published, not in the least. But one does have to have a sense of herself as a writer, a vision of one’s voice, even if in a dream. Otherwise, it could be very distracting to hear 10 other writers say to you in a workshop: “you can do this and that in your text.” There are so many things a poem can do, so many directions it can take, and it’s important to keep your own vision in mind. Paradoxically, people who might be told that they have their writing figured out and are “fully formed” would benefit from going through an MFA most.
What was your primary focus during your time at AU?
An MFA program is a time to learn writer’s discipline. Talent is important but it’s nothing without hard work, without daily discipline of reading, of being attentive. Poetry is a religion. You have to practice it—you have to worship. An MFA teaches you this discipline, gives you tools to establish it against the routines of your daily life. In a way, an MFA is a way to delay your daily life, to create a bubble of timelessness within the mercilessly fast time, to say “pause now, let me hear my voice before you sweep me away.” People talk of it as a privilege—to have these few years of focusing on nothing but writing—but I don’t think it’s a privilege, it’s a right of every artist.
Another thing about poetry is that it’s historic—you are always writing after somebody: after Dante, after Rilke. You have to know these poets you are writing after! My favorite thing about the AU MFA is the never-flinching focus on reading. You come here for your own work, but you stay for Elizabeth Bishop, for Gwendolyn Brooks, for C.D. Wright.
What types of classes did you take while you were in the MFA program, and did any make a particular impact?
I took all the workshops—poetry, fiction, non-fiction, translation, journalism. Poetry and translation—with David Keplinger. He is, apart from being the most beautiful poet himself, a very insightful, generous mentor. I still marvel remembering how precisely he got what I was trying to write. All his comments on my work—as if from my future-self that knows better. Non-fiction workshop with Richard McCann was very impactful. He has that best skill of best mentors: to effortlessly mix wisdom with humor.
Every literature class I took at AU, with MA students and as my two independent studies, changed my life, nothing short of it. There are so many gaps in my literary education, such large empty gaps that are like tumors that would silently eat at your writing if you don’t eradicate them. I feel very strongly that without literature classes an MFA is a waste. You have to learn to be a reader as much as a writer.
How has your writing life looked since you finished your MFA? Do you find it challenging to balance your writing with other work, such as your teaching?
I’m writing these responses from Amy Clampitt’s house in the Berkshires. It’s a writing residency I’m holding for half a year—no teaching, no obligations, just poetry. So the challenge of balance has been figured out, at least for half a year. On the other hand, I do love teaching poetry. I can get quite overwhelmed with my love for a certain poem in class, in front of the students. They become the captive audience to my literary passions, so how can I not feel grateful? In return, I make sure that a workshop remains a space where we allow ourselves bad writing days, a space where, even though we are each other’s captive audience, nobody feels pressured to write poems to please anybody present.
What advice do you have for current or prospective MFA students?
Always read crazy dead poets. They will steer you away from writing that special brand of “MFA poems.” Don’t allow any normalcy, any comfort, to settle in your workshops.
If you’re interesting in studying in a variety of genres, and in focusing intensively on your craft, learn more about the new studio track in our MFA in Creative Writing program.