Should you do the MFA?
The BW INSIDER SERIES: Part 6
“Good writers have the humility for the gift that it is to give birth to words that heal and return us to a joint silence, rather than an isolated one. Good writers, for all of us, trust in other good writers to help to teach us.”
In Part 6 of The BW INSIDER series, we share the wise words of Dr Page Richards – Director of the Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing (MFA) at the University of Hong Kong. Discover what an MFA really consists of and the importance of working hard at improving your writing craft.
How did you become the director of the MFA at the University of Hong Kong?
I was fortunate to study, first, with Helen Vendler for my Ph.D. at Harvard University. Her courses and advising had an ever-widening reach among the poets.
When I was a child, I heard poems, very early, from my mother and father. I even felt, briefly, that it was the common language, rather than prose, amongst us. Or it came as a surprise-in-passing that we had to go about in prose most of the time. I felt close to the sound of words, and non-words. From that early fall into the well, I crawled more widely, thankfully, studying under Helen Vendler, many years later. The landscape of sound in poems expanded, and I studied Robert Henryson as well as Henri Cole, The Dream Songs of John Berryman and the sonnets of Rita Dove. I finished a dissertation that focused on Wallace Stevens, with branches reaching back to Geoffrey Chaucer and Walt Whitman (and later completed a book on history of the “inexpressible,” especially its kinship with poems).
I still wanted to put my ear to the ground and listen to unfamiliar syllables, so after graduation I went west to Los Angeles to work in a different vernacular. I worked in Hollywood on script development and drove across the landscape at the level of lizards in low-slung cars. After growing up on the east coast alongside skyscrapers, and performing vaudeville as a child, I loved the change in rhythm, heat, and sound patterns of vowels in LA.
Then I received an offer to return to Boston: a place in the MA program in Creative Writing at Boston University. I studied with Robert Pinsky, Rosanna Warren, and Derek Walcott, poets whose travels began even in commutes from Boston to D.C. and New York as we studied. The Favorite Poet Project was initiated, and the Poets’ Theatre was in full swing!
After I graduated, I received offers from universities for assistant professorships in the U.S., but, generally, on two sides of the fence: either in Creative Writing or in critical studies. One opening explicitly supported my work on both sides, sliding between critical and creative studies. The offer came from the top university in Hong Kong: The University of Hong Kong. There, I was given the chance to pull together not just two but three of my histories: creative writing, literature, and performance. I was a performer of vaudeville, living and working on stage for almost twenty years - beginning as a child. The academic position at HKU imaginatively let me work across these histories, my own, and, more widely, the spectrum of intellectual history, where creative writing, and critical studies, and performance are one: thinking, as I am here, of Shelley’s delicate pivot, “Where music and moonlight and feeling / Are one.”
In a roundabout, crossing through stages, literally, and Hollywood, and even an undergraduate degree in mathematics, I came back to poems, poetry, research, and drama at HKU in the extraordinary city of Hong Kong. As a lecturer here at HKU, I can continue learning of such intersections, including expanded questions of language and poetry, drama and creative writing in new developments of what we still often call, in residual overstatement, the East and West.
B is for...book. What is your favourite childhood book?
A is for… animal. If you could transform into one animal for one week, what would you be?
N is for… necessary. If you were banished to a desert island and could only bring two items, what would they be?
The Rattle Bag, and a pen
A is for… authentic. How would you describe yourself in three words?
Passionate, curious, full of “negative capability,” for better and for worse
N is for… novelist. Which writer do you most admire?
For their writing? No single one, novelist or poet or playwright, but inclusive of Alan Paton and Rita Dove
A is for… appetite. What is your favourite banana themed food?
Black Box Bananas! (more on that later…)
What would you answer to someone who argues that writing is something that cannot be taught – you are either a good writer or not.
Creative Writing, like all the arts, draws from the history of mentorships and guilds, going back to the Middle Ages, and earlier, as we are now discovering. Creative Writers fundamentally study and learn from fellow writers, whether reading fellow writers or learning from mentors, who join them to pass along the beauty and history of learning the craft, from one generation to the next.
The body of knowledge important to any writer in any literary genre, including its birth, its frames of expectation, its evolving forms and experiments, is vast. Expectations, for instance, of what constitutes narrative and “transformation” of character in the English language has roots running from Biblical history to the rise of Protestantism, where such lines fall nowhere on the map for expectations of narrative time in Chinese history and storytelling.
Here in the MFA at HKU we look comparatively at form, at the “birth” of genres and their evolutions, and at edges of expectation across cultures when we consider form. The writer Yusef Komunyakaa insisted that each of us must “know the forms,” as a writer, studying writing, to “become an innovator or risk taker.” To look at form is to look not only at craft but history and design, and the university offers an ideal location to situate such studies and mentorships across readings and writings, across literature, history, craft, and performance.
Writers who join the MFA, therefore, not only work on masteries of form and comparative histories as living soil of innovation but join together to discuss new shapes and discoveries of writing in Asia as well as in the West. New writers all together can suddenly in an MFA feel, strangely and comfortably, despite all the clichés of what can’t be taught, the utter joy in the volume and pitch of material necessary to study and practice in form and creative writing - more than one can initially imagine, just as architects come together internationally and learn from one another about materials, design, structure, and more.
The MFA, then, takes up the part of individual mentorships long practiced by writers, equally offering the chance for writers to forge life-long relationships well after the program has ended.
What topics can students expect to cover when studying for an MFA?
The MFA here thrives in the context of working writers. Since most of our writers work full-time, the MFA offers courses and workshops on the weekends, especially on the large share of Saturday afternoons. Our part-time program, which I run with my colleague Aarti Hemnani, who is also the new Black Box Theatre Manager, builds with those lives already in full swing. The program honors these fully engaged experiences, helping to bring the stories and dreams of those lives into vivid form and widening circles of creative writing.
Since all of our writers are also multilingual, the classes build on questions of expanding the notion literary genre in new and fluid developments of contemporary writing.
What frames of reference change on narrative or time-passing, when Chinese histories or Indian histories, whether religions or storytelling, for instance, are brought to bear on English-language legacies of craft and writing?
What expectations of “change” does narrative in English carry as legacy, and how do such legacies intersect the vivid, new writing from writers working in English, Cantonese, Mandarin, and more?
Each Saturday during the semester, our writers gather together in the new HKU Black Box, a spectacular new studio and “home” for MFA classes, workshops, and readings, a refuge and threshold of surprise. In the first year, as part of this unique MFA program, writers focus on foundations of history and craft, comparatively, and across literary genres; they also attend early workshops designed to elicit for discussion and review questions of craft, history and practice.
In the second year, longer manuscripts are brought to specialized and smaller workshops, as each writer selects a genre and project for the thesis. Our workshops flag the processes that writers will engage at publishing houses with editors; further, the Black Box hosts at the end of every semester readings by the MFA writers, as they develop their voices for public presentations in their years at literary festivals, conferences and residencies.
Throughout the MFA, the writers also work individually with Advisors, consulting with them on coursework and the developing thesis, as they experiment across genres and find their raw materials increasingly taking shape and material form of individual voice and pattern through revision upon revision: in the magical light of the Black Box they go that magnificent and terrifying and bewildering and beautiful stage of giving light and polish in writing to what remains otherwise invisible.
How are people graded at the end of their MFA?
The program is assessed on 100% coursework, across several kinds of courses: lectures, workshops, and independent study courses. In the second year, the students build directly toward a large and original manuscript, the Creative Thesis.
All enrolled writers have also completed coursework through the first year, including a mix of lectures and formative workshops. While they work on the thesis in the year-long capstone course, they continue, therefore, to take one advanced workshop per semester during the second year. Thus, by the time they have come to the end of the second year, the students have received grades of assessment for each course, whether lecture courses, workshops, or the capstone course on a scale of Pass/Fail/Distinction. At this time, if a student receives, finally, the grade of Distinction over a majority of the coursework, the student receives Distinction for the overall program.
There may be small changes to assessment in the coming years, as we have recently amended the curriculum and joined with the Black Box and Creative Studio for coursework, but the framework is in place. Our aim in assessment is the simulation of work toward self-assessment that a writer performs after graduation: namely, building an increased awareness of the choices a writer can frame when looking at a page to revise.
The diction that we build as writers, the frames of reference in craft that offer choice if we know how to recognize them, and the self-conscious state of knowledge as we “direct” our manuscript during periods of revision---all these blueprints begin in studying form, history, craft, and practice extensively over time. Our workshops simulate experiences that a writer will have with an editor, when working toward publication. The year-long capstone course simulates the process, drafts, and deadlines that a writer will encounter when under contract to complete a book. The work of self-assessment for a writer is also, therefore, in effect simulated during the long and transparent processes of assessment that every writer encounters across the course with lecturers and advisors.
The collaborative work of assessment between writers and editors will grow with time, as writers enter fields of publication, and the collaborative work of self-assessment between the writer and himself or herself is even more simply and fundamentally life-long. The models of assessment that we engage are those, we hope, that offer at best both wisdom and practice to the writer in the end, serving the writers’ life-long practices both at home and in the field.
Ten years ago, everyone had their eye on being published in America. In recent years, there has been more interest in conquering the Chinese market. Have you noticed any trends in the sort of books Chinese people enjoy reading?
If we are thinking here about literary works, we are also thinking about works published originally in Chinese, and those written in English. Across that spectrum, there has recently been a rise in crime fiction published here, such as the work by A Yi, as well as continuing interest in fiction of romance and martial arts, such as the fiction of Wang Dulu.
Mo Yan, of course, won the Nobel Prize in 2012. Su Tong remains very popular, as are Han Han and Yan Geling, while Eileen Chang remains a favorite in Hong Kong, especially.
Among emerging writers in Hong Kong, we see new and profound interest in narrative nonfiction and historical nonfiction. This interest in history and memoir is coming to life not only in print but on stage and in film.
Questions of temporality remain at the heart of this surge, as perception of time-telling and telling history have Buddhist and other local histories informing what constitutes a life cycle, and where each of us, and any of us, depending upon our affinities and perceptions, begins to tell life stories, whether in memoir or historical fictions, short or long. To “tell” a life offers no immediate assumptions, we know, across cultures, religions, and periods, since the intervention on that life shapes the life it presumes to tell. Will “telling” of a life focus on “progress” or progression, or does it represent ever continuous life cycles based not on achievements but on what is given away?
Even in the academy, “Life Writing” is beginning to take hold strongly, for instance, in Hong Kong, and there are experiments in film, visual exhibition, and drama, crossing Cantonese and English, that are exploring local lives and geographies in the art and act of telling and shaping them. Further, more and more writers in Hong Kong are exploring not translation, but “bilateral self-translations,” so to speak, as decisions to write in English here, a city with three languages (Cantonese, Mandarin, and English), can carry the unique complexities of moving across literary legacies of English with new instruments and voicings of Chinese cultures and histories, all of a piece. There is of course much more to this subject, that suggestively is touched upon here, and which we explore extensively in the MFA and Black Box, but it is a thrilling and electric moment in Hong Kong for creative writing.
Are there are any tips you can share with readers who are applying for an MFA?
The core of our application remains the writing sample, of course.
Writers, we know, apply from all backgrounds and personal histories of study and work. The writing sample offers us a glimpse of the drive, the passion for language, the sensitivity to design and form, rather than, of course, to message or polish. A writing sample may still remain amorphous in these early stages, but there is bite to it, a compelling presence that takes shape across the sentences and paragraphs or stanzas, as though never having seen such things before, never taking such staging for granted.
In a good writing sample, the language is the landscape, not the vehicle carrying anything across; as readers and watchers, we enter that landscape as newcomers, while we come out transported, changed, part of the scene ourselves. This of course cannot happen all at once in writing samples, since many are fresh and new, and that’s a beautiful stage too. Yet the feel for language as landscape for writers is that of paint as language for painters. Precisely that feel, just the hint of that landscape, exactly the seed of such emotional immediacy comes through on writing samples: so a writer may focus especially on taking time and slowing down, when submitting a writing sample, rather than focusing on completing a work with a beginning, middle, and end, so to speak.
It is important for an applicant to our program, too, to consider submitting in more than one genre, especially if the writer has not yet fully decided on a preferred history. Again, the pieces in each genre may not be complete. Yet, those experiments of genre, which a writer feels already echo different parts of herself or himself, are crucial to the fluidity of choice and openness creating a wider spectrum of choice and freedoms ahead. We celebrate that early openness. We know, too, that some writers famously have even “switched” genres, such as Philip Larkin (from novels to poems) or continued to work extensively in two genres, such as Thomas Hardy (novels and poems). More centrally, the writers in our MFA are often, as I mentioned, revisiting what constitutes new engagement with “narrative” or “prosody,” in the first instance, when looking at such historical bandwidths with eyes across English and Chinese, for instance. Therefore, remaining open to genre is a redundancy in our program, while exploring the fluidity of evolving form locally and internationally - and joining together in the experimental Black Box studio to do so - is part of the pure and ongoing excitement of our program.
The writing sample lets us see early hints of that level of engagement with language, that degree of openness to the acts of discovery in writing itself, which none of us in creative writing can live without.
A Western newspaper reported that “Hong Kong is clamping down on creative writing.” Do you think that is a fair representation of the HK publishing industry? Is censorship really as terrible as people report?
This question is, in some ways, too complex to fit, even inside this generous box. That said, I’d like to add a few thoughts, very briefly, to this ongoing discussion. Hong Kong is not, so speak, clamping down on creative writing. This period is one of the most vivid and profound periods in Hong Kong for creative writing. Writers across the city, especially those writing in English, for example, have more opportunities to study, including our extensive program at the MFA; there are more local literary journals, including those publishing in English or Chinese or both, including Yuan Yang, Cha, and Fleurs des Lettres. There are book clubs and writing events around the city, including seminars on writing at local arts clubs, talks by authors, and festivals for writers and artists in Soho.
Our HKU Black Box studio is a new member on the block, dedicated to the work of local writers, scholars, and artists, and there are several new small theatre studios across Central, Wan Chai, and Kowloon, which host readings, dramas, movement classes, seminars, or literary events, including Theatre du Pif, Peel Street Poetry, and many more.
The rise of interest in narrative non-fiction, more recently, has also offered a formal “space,” of a kind, to tell and present and celebrate local stories, rather than having authors and readings, whether of CNF or fiction, imported from outside into the city.
The issue of censorship, of course, though has a climate here, a condition that is present and has presence, just as “identity politics” has a named and felt presence in the U.S., for example. As a climate, it suggests as many indirect consequences for creative writers, as it does suggest direct ones, more immediately. For instance, writers here speak of “agglomeration,” a working translation, of course: one writer described it this way, “Agglomeration is a deeply rooted Hong Kong phenomenon of comfort: it can touch ‘practical’ Hong Kong, the agglomeration of businesses, such as shared dried seafood shops in Sheung Wan on Sutherland Street; ‘familial’ Hong Kong, built on a history of close family ties that can make common the agglomeration of strangers at lunch-hour in a sharing of tables and overlapping family stories or worries; or even Hong Kong Eastern legacies of pooled energy…summoned through geomancy for health and longevity.”
Such experiences, if not mistaken and misunderstood, by those outside its range of familiarity, as a form “crowdedness,” also speak to both pragmatism and comfort, specifically, of joining together, conversationally and physically, and sometimes under the conditions and climates of social uncertainties; the space of intimacy is one of exchange and currency and nearness, a form of short-hand and communication and comfort in conditions that might otherwise appear compressed. There are always weighed disadvantages and weighed advantages in the city, along with the well-publicized protests of the fall; and there are subtle scales too, and experiences to learn, wherein the roots for the scale in the first instance are sometimes coming from altogether different sources from those we might first expect. It is an important time for the city, and an important time to learn more. The writers in the city are among the many weighing in, on all sides, with insights and energy.
Do you think it is possible to make a full-time living as an author in Hong Kong or will you also need to have your books published overseas?
It is difficult, as we know, to make a full-time living as an author anywhere, especially in literary works. It is occasionally possible, we also know, in popular fiction, young adult fiction, or certain kinds of creative non-fiction. We just met with a local literary agent, who mentioned how difficult it is, increasingly, for authors to be self-supporting, whether in Hong Kong or overseas, and of course it has always been difficult in literary publishing.
Many writers, of course, here in Hong Kong are publishing in Chinese, and many of those are publishing in translation in English markets overseas, just as more authors writing in English are moving toward publication in the Asian literary market. The next generation of writers, however, from Hong Kong, who are choosing to write in English, stand right in the middle of a new and crucial juncture of history, and their stories break the threshold of translation or carry-over. Their work represents a new set of voices never yet widely represented or mapped, bringing us cultures and languages, rather than them. These authors are defining an exciting time in history for all us to hear not only new stories but new ways of understanding how we move through time and place.
To read and hear such things in new writing, and in new ways of writing, in particular, is a gift. The MFA is learning from them, as they study here with us, forging a new kind of curriculum and program to support their unique demands and needs--all of which changes us, as writers, around the world.
Author Eileen Chang By: Feng Ya
In what capacity do readers in HK support their local authors? Is more support needed?
Readers in Hong Kong are at complex crossroads of language and cultures.
Most of the education in Hong Kong, of course, takes place in Cantonese. Mandarin is introduced early as well. English is an official language of course, too, and Cantonese, we know, is language of deep oral, rather than written, histories. So, students in Hong Kong often grow up reading in several languages, including English as a main language, but of course conversing predominantly in Cantonese, and studying historical texts frequently in Mandarin.
At the same time, the internet intervenes on acts of reading books world-wide. The fusion of three main languages with the culture of the internet, therefore, shapes a trajectory of reading that forges its stories and self-reflections in Hong Kong less across a body of written texts, or a shifting body of core written texts, including religious texts, than across a vast intersection of stories and cultures, from Southeast Asia to the U.S. to the U.K, and more. Therefore, Hong Kong supports its writers in unique ways.
Conversations between the writers of Hong Kong and the readers often originate just so, in performative conversations, whether in convenings across the city or through social media. The deep joy of sharing stories occurs in private kitchens and outdoor food stands and chat forums. Book signings, for instance, do not thrive to the same degree as would a night on the town, or art walks, with the author. There are also many standing instances and venues of support across the city, including the Hong Kong Book Fair, book clubs, and literary journals.
Of course, most of the local authors are writing and publishing in Chinese, and there are some grants, especially for works in Chinese, from the arts council to help with books, film, and drama. At the same time, the decision, drive and passion to write in English, from many compelling directions, co-exists but historically with fewer paths of encouragement and opportunity.
We are thrilled that the MFA can now offer writers who, for personal reasons, are choosing to write in English the chance to study and practice extensively with fellow writers right here in Hong Kong; it is an honor to see the new forms and practices of writing in English emerging in their hands. Writers growing up or living in Hong Kong are in a unique position globally, politically. It is a unique moment in history for the city as well, and the MFA is here to support the emerging work of the writers, the deep joy for readers, and the entire city. Then, we are lucky around the world, too, to have a chance, increasingly now, to read, hear and watch the stories and poems and plays of the city never before in print or produced.
What attributes does a great writer have?
Seamus Heaney said that all poems are “born out of infancy,” the “unspeaking” one, “moving from the unspoken need to the word.” That instinctive need to move from silence, and then back into to rest, is echoed in Ted Hughes’s feeling for art, including writing, as a form of healing: “However it comes out—whether a design in a carpet, a painting on a wall, the shaping of a doorway—we recognize that medicinal element because of the instant healing effect, and we call it art. It consoles and heals something in us.” That “something,” that “infancy,” that silence that tears at words and heals again for rebirth once more connects all living things, and good writers have the humility for the gift that it is to give birth to words that heal and return us to a joint silence, rather an isolated one.
Good writers, for all of us, trust in other good writers to help to teach us. We learn. We move in deep trust of other writers whose words recognize the gift that it is to find pattern, even briefly, where there was none, and move through pattern toward one another.
Good writers, then, trust in learning, in studying their art, in practicing endlessly, in taking not a beat for granted, whether a word, or absence of word, or rhythm, but overhearing each one as part of a potential design, if we have studied and practiced enough to know the plural and multitudinous legacies and histories of pattern and expectation of form and experimentation that we enter, whenever we write.
Good writers understand the gift that comes from increasingly combining knowledge with instinct, as both expand with one another. Writers study from other writers, and good writers, therefore, read widely and listen closely to fellow writers, whether in MFA programmes or other forms of mentorship.
Can you recommend some good books that will help a writer improve their craft?
There are, of course, too many good ones to name, but here are some of my favorites, across genres. For fiction, Joan Silber’s short book The Art of Time in Fiction is essential. It has stunning and helpful passages especially toward the beginning. The Art of Fiction by John Gardner continues to offer important passages for writers of fiction. In “The Art of” series, including Silber’s work, Donald Revell’s short book on poetry is beautiful: The Art of Attention. Dinty Moore’s book on creative non-fiction is one of the best: Crafting The Personal Essay: A Guide for Writing and Publishing Creative Non-Fiction. And Lajos Egri’s The Art of Dramatic Writing continues to be important for playwrights. Janet Neipris’s book To Be a Playwright is excellent. And there is a book that can still be ordered called Versification: A Short Introduction by James McAuley that is a gem for poets.
Why should people write books? Why is the written word vital?
There is no “should,” I think, behind this question. Language for all of us strikes the heart of narrative, including song and in poems, that is, the reach through silence to one another, and back again to expand ourselves, what Walt Whitman names our ever-present width: “I contain multitudes.”
Oral poems and stories are equally important, offering especially shared experience, and immediacy of communal improvisation, just in the acts of exchange and performance of voice. Written poems and stories and books are also shared, but Pablo Neruda put his finger on the particular gift of exchange for the written word, through the quotidian “fence” of usual separation, each to each: “To feel the intimacy of brothers is a marvellous thing in life. To feel the love of people whom we love is a fire that feeds our life. But to feel the affection that come from those whom we do not know, from those unknown to us, who are watching over our sleep and solitude, over our dangers and our weaknesses---that is something still greater and more beautiful because it widens out the boundaries of our being, and unites all living things.” He concludes by saying that the written word, crossing over to “those unknown to us” and that we do not see, is the gift of exchange: "That exchange brought home to me for the first time a precious idea: that all humanity is somehow together...”
We come full circle to the importance of all poems and storytelling, whether in oral performance or written form: we are all somehow together.BW