The “Non-Traditional” MFA Student: Insights from Susan Bucci Mockler

Some students come to the MFA in Creative Writing program shortly after graduating from college, but we are consistently thrilled when students who have had more life experience decide to join us. As Director Kyle Dargan put it, “Students who fit that profile tend to be some of our more dedicated and successful writers.”

One such writer is poet Susan Bucci Mockler, who found her way to the AU MFA program after pursuing other careers, raising three kids, and building a solid foundation of creative work. “I am happy to know that I don’t fit the profile of the typical MFA student,” Susan said.

We reached out to Susan over email to learn about her life before the MFA and how she has enjoyed her time at AU.


Susan’s Journey to the AU MFA

Susan began her academic studies and her career life with a focus on the sciences. She studied biology and geology in college and, pressured by her professors to pursue a career in the oil industry, she headed to the University of Louisiana and began an MS in petroleum geology. “It was not for me—but I’d made some good friends and started taking some courses I wanted to take—like creative writing,” she said.


Susan in in Fredericksburg, VA, in front of a catalpa tree that inspired one of her in-progress poems. The tree is at Chatham Manor, which was converted into a hospital during the Civil War. Walt Whitman stood in front of this same tree when searching for his brother who had been wounded, and amputated limbs were piled in front of the tree before being carted off.

Susan ended up completing an MA in English with a creative writing track at the University of Louisiana. She developed close friendships with fellow poets. She worked for the university literary magazine and then moved to DC in search of editing jobs. “I envisioned myself as the cool poet hanging out at coffee shops in Dupont Circle, which I did,” she said. “I went to readings and took some classes at the Writer’s Center, but the career track was taking priority. I worked nine-to-five jobs at the American Geophysical Union—a very cool building at twentieth and Florida—and at the National Research Council.”

Then life called her away from the city. She said, “Fast forward to a husband, a move to the suburbs, and three children, which made writing challenging, to say the least.” Through it all, Susan stayed connected with the DC writing community, worked on her poems, and took workshops at the Writers’ Center and through the Jenny McKean Moore seminars at George Washington University. “I found other writing moms, and we’d get together to write and talk while the kids played,” she said. She led poetry camps and became a poet in the Arlington Public School system, and she continues to visit Arlington classrooms each spring.  She volunteered in her children’s classrooms and led poetry projects for their classmates from the time they were in kindergarten.

Her chapbook, Noisy Souls, was published a few years ago, and her work has been published in a number of literary journals. It was time to take another step forward in her writing career by pursing her MFA.


The AU MFA Experience

“People have asked me why I wanted an MFA, and why I need one, et cetera,” Susan said. “Some of my reasoning is purely selfish—I want to be part of a writing community, to be inspired by ideas, to be challenged, and to learn from others. I keep meeting the most interesting people.”

While Susan has had different life experiences than some of the MFA students—such as having children and a career—she doesn’t think she brings much that is different to the classroom. “I may have more contacts in the literary community, but from what I see of the AU MFA students right out of undergrad, they have life experiences to write about, too,” she said. “They are thoughtful and careful in their writing and feedback in workshops. I learn from them.”

Susan has enjoyed her poetry workshops and fulfilling the literary course requirements. “The students are bright, supportive, and offer thoughtful feedback,” she said. “The community is very positive and noncompetitive. People are willing to share publishing and reading opportunities and are generally happy for others’ success.”

She has also enjoyed the different learning experiences provided by poets and instructors David Keplinger and Kyle Dargan. “Their personalities and teaching styles are very different,” she said. “David is the extroverted, often effusive supporter—and he’s very talented at finding what is working in the poem and very kind about the parts that are not. Kyle, on the other hand, is quieter, more reserved, but, he, too, gets right at what is and isn’t working in your poem. They both push you and challenge you to turn in your best work and to take risks with your writing you may not have taken.”


Where Susan’s Writing Goes from Here

Susan has already experienced a great deal of success in her writing career. In addition to publishing her chapbook, her work has appeared in journals including Poet Lore, The Paterson Literary Review, Sow’s Ear Poetry Review, The Cortland Review, and Voices in Italian Americana. She also has a poem in the anthology, My Cruel Invention, and a book review forthcoming in The Florida Review.

Susan recently won the Arlington Arts Moving Words Poetry Competition – for the second time – which means her work will be displayed inside Arlington’s ART Buses, she will receive an honorarium, and she will be invited to give a public reading in the spring. Susan wrote her poem with bus commuters in mind, considering what someone would like to see while journeying between work and home. “The poem was a memory, a sentimental piece about my mother’s old rolling pin—one of the items of hers I kept after she passed away,” Susan said. “I hardly use it, although she used it quite a bit—and I can still see her rolling out the pie crust dough. That memory and image form the root of my poem.”

For Susan, the Moving Words Poetry Competition serves a vital purpose for poetry. “The more that poetry gets out there in the public, the more it can do its work—whether it is simply giving someone a short break from their own thoughts, or helping to heal an individual or even a community or nation, or just providing the feeling that someone else has had a similar experience or feeling. Poetry can be a tremendous unifier,” she said.

Susan is currently a second-year student in the program. She has been working part-time as an adjunct professor for composition courses since her children were young, and she plans to continue that work after the MFA as well, though she is also open to other possibilities. “Opportunities just keep popping up at AU and in the lively metropolitan DC literary community,” Susan said. “I definitely plan to keep moving forward.”

Our students’ experiences in the MFA in Creative Writing program lead them to new interests and passions. Find out more about the MFA in Creative Writing program.

Director Kyle Dargan

A Look Inside the District’s Only Creative Writing MFA

The multi-genre focus. The vibrant location. The engaged community of writers with diverse backgrounds and rigorous insights.

For more than 30 years, the District’s only creative writing MFA program has fostered the talents and ambitions of writers who have gone on to make their mark in poetry, fiction, and nonfiction—and to make their mark on their communities.

In the video below, Director Kyle Dargan reads from his own work and offers his take on what sets our program apart.

Interested in joining our community? Start your application or learn more about the MFA in Creative Writing.