In honor of The New School’s Centennial, we’ve compiled a list of 100 books by MFA Creative Writing alumni. Robert Polito, professor of writing and the founding director of the MFA Creative Writing Program, shared the following reflection on the program and its history.
My gratitude to Justin Sherwood–Senior Director, Communications and Strategic Initiatives at The New School and MFA Creative Writing alumnus–for convening this luminous roster of “100 Books by Creative Writing Alumni” for The New School Centennial. All of us in the Creative Writing Program could obsess over our own personal, even idiosyncratic recapitulations of exemplary MFA alumni publications, as Justin’s erudite survey inevitably designates just a scintillating fraction of the noteworthy poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and writing for children and young adults created by our graduates.
Our MFA Creative Writing program dates from the mid-1990s, but The New School has been a vital center for writing and the instruction of writing since 1931, when Gorham Munson, a Manhattan editor and influential partisan of the Alfred Stieglitz circle, introduced his legendary workshop in creative writing. Munson’s was a professional writing program, originating not in an English literature department, but instead out of the magazines, newspapers, and publishing houses of New York City and Greenwich Village. “We can’t claim a first,” Munson recalled.
“We led the way in revolutionizing the teaching of writing. For notice that all of us in those years were practicing writers. We washed the typewriter ink off our hands as we started for class.”
“Credit for the ‘first’ goes to Amherst for inviting Robert Frost to be a poet-in-residence. But when The New School began to offer writing courses, the professional writer was a rare animal on the classroom platform. We led the way in revolutionizing the teaching of writing. For notice that all of us in those years were practicing writers. We washed the typewriter ink off our hands as we started for class.”
From the outset, The New School Writing Program accented the importance of working with influential voices of the day. As a result, the historical faculty reads like a who’s-who of 20th-century literature, with instructors spanning W.H. Auden, Kenneth Koch, Stanley Kunitz, May Sarton, Horace Gregory, Wiliam Goyen, Richard Yates, Alfred Kazin, Carolyn Kizer, Daniel Halpern, Gilbert Sorrentino, and David Markson.
When we designed the MFA Program, one of our aims was to touch base with this intensive professional tradition of writing at The New School, although not in any readymade, nostalgic way, but instead to reimagine that tradition’s turn-of-the-century equivalent. If you studied writing and literature here in the early 1960s, you might have taken classes with Robert Lowell, Marguerite Young, Frank O’Hara, Kay Boyle, and Amiri Baraka. Our intention was to assemble a faculty of established and emerging writers that could persuasively be described as the contemporary analogue of this resplendent legacy. A faculty committed to teaching and students-yet also a faculty accomplishing their own creative work in the world.
Decisive to this vision was the notion of reading as a writer. Such reading from the inside out engages craft, language, form, style, and structure, and what across our reading can be summoned and reinvented for our work. But reading as a writer also opens up into the vastest possible challenges and conundrums of politics, culture, and history. A touchstone text for us was Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark. There Morrison writes:
“But then I stopped reading as a reader and began to read as a writer…I began to see how the literature I revered, the literature I loathed, behaved in its encounter with racial ideology. American literature could not help being shaped by that encounter. Yes, I wanted to identify those moments when American literature was complicit in the fabrication of racism, but equally important, I wanted to see when literature exploded and undermined it. Still, those were minor concerns. Much more important was to contemplate how Africanist personae, narrative, and idiom moved and enriched the text in self-conscious ways, to consider what the engagement meant for the work of the writer’s imagination…As a writer reading I came to realize the obvious: the subject of the dream is the dreamer…In other words, I began to rely on my knowledge of how books get written, how language arrives; my sense of how and why writers abandon or take on certain aspects of their project.”
Our MFA Writing Program proposed to honor The New School founding aspirations of the artist as public intellectual. Alongside the writing workshops and literature seminars, we saw ourselves as a community resource, with an extensive, diverse public reading series, and many creative partnerships–PEN America, Cave Canem, the Poetry Society of America, the Academy of American Poets, and the National Book Foundation.
This is a powerful moment to be a writer, since so much impressive work is now appearing across styles, aesthetics, and genres. As Justin’s “100 Books” list manifests, Creative Writing Program alumni are steadily advancing through our complex, volatile, and exciting new literary world, animating their social media, launching their magazines, reading series, and arts organizations, releasing their music and films, and of course-what else?-publishing their books.
Robert Polito is a professor of writing and founding director of the MFA Creative Writing Program at The New School.
Fairyland: A Memoir of My Father by Alysia Abbott (‘03), a recipient of the Madame Figaro Prix Heroine and the Stonewall Book Award by the American Library Association
Tyrell by Coe Booth (‘06), winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Young Adult Literature
Hurricane Child by Kacen Callender (‘14), winner of the Stonewall Book Award from the American Library Association
Girls in White Dresses by Jennifer Close (‘06), a national bestseller
I Was Not Born by Julia Cohen (‘08), one of Entropy Magazine ‘s Best Nonfiction Books of the Year
Having Been An Accomplice by Laura Cronk (‘04), winner of the Lexi Rudnitsky First Book Prize from Persea Books
The January Children by Safia Elhillo (‘15), winner of the 2016 Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poets and a 2018 Arab American Book Award
You Know When the Men Are Gone by Siobhan Fallon (‘00), winner of the PEN Center USA Literary Award in Fiction
Deep: The Story of Skiing and the History of Snow by Porter Fox (‘04), hailed as “a powerful call to action for anyone who cares about the future of our planet” by former U.S. Vice President Al Gore
Check the Rhyme: An Anthology of Female Poets & Emcees by DuEwa Frazier (‘11), Nominated for NAACP Image Award in Outstanding Literary Work — Poetry
The Lake of Dead Languages by Carol Goodman (‘99), a national bestseller and winner of the Hammett Prize from the International Association of Crime Writers
A Generous Latitude by Lenea Grace (‘12), winner of the Walrus Poetry Prize
Watch Us Rise by Ellen Hagan (’03) and Renee Watson (BA Liberal Arts ‘09), called “A highly needed work for the #MeToo movement” in a starred review from School Library Journal
OCD Love Story by Corey Ann Haydu (‘12), recipient of a starred review by Publishers Weekly, a Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books Blue Ribbon Selection, and Junior Library Guild Selection
A Scarecrow’s Bible by Martin Hyatt (‘99), winner of the Edmund White Debut Fiction Award from the Publishing Triangle
The Doctor’s Wife by Luis Jaramillo (‘02), winner of the Dzanc Books Short Story Contest
Instant Classic by erica kaufman (‘03), called “beautiful, thoughtful, a music for the eye, heart, soul and mind” by Thurston Moore
Everything You Need To Survive an Apocalypse by Lucas Klauss (‘07), one of Children’s Book Council’s Best Children’s Books of the Year
Ida, Always by Caron Levis (‘08), a Bank Street College of Education Best Children’s Book of the Year
Blue Hallelujahs by Cynthia Manick (‘07), winner of the Lascaux Prize in Collected Poetry
A Million in Prizes by Justin Marks (‘04), selected by Carl Phillips for the New Issues Poetry Prize
Sold by Patricia McCormick (‘99), finalist for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature
I Don’t Know Do You by Roberto Montes (‘12), one of NPR’s Best Books of the Year and a finalist for the Thom Gunn Award for Gay Poetry from the Publishing Triangle
Livability by Jon Raymond (‘02), winner of the Oregon Book Award
Drowning Lessons by Peter Selgin (‘05), winner of the Flannery O’Connor Award for Fiction
Treat Yourself! by Jessica Siskin (‘16), featured on the Today Show and The Rachael Ray Show and called “genius” by Refinery29
Flings by Justin Taylor (‘07), an Amazon Best Book of the Month
Dear Almost by Matthew Thorburn (‘01), winner of the Lascaux Prize in Collected Poetry
Of Being Dispersed by Simone White (‘06), winner of the 2017 Whiting Award for Poetry
For Single Mothers Working As Train Conductorsby Laura Esther Wolfson (‘07), winner of the 2017 Iowa Prize for Literary Nonfiction
Janey’s Arcadia by Rachel Zolf (‘11), nominated for a Lambda Literary Award
Originally published at https://medium.com on November 26, 2019.