Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Interview With Danielle Deulen

The following interview appears in the winter issue of Cornerstone, the magazine for alumni and friends of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences. Please visit the alumni page here. You can read the rest of the magazine here in PDF form.

A special thank you to Brooke Braun, Director of Communications, College of Humanities and Social Science, who initially contacted us about hosting the interview online. And also thank you to Katie Clare, who conducted the interview. Katie earned her MFA in Poetry from George Mason University in 2005. Her writing casts an observant eye on our shaky relationships to the natural world, the spiritual, visual art, and love. She is the Assistant to the Dean in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Mason and will teach an Honors course in the arts in the spring of 2008.

I've gone ahead and added a few links to the interview, but otherwise the text is unchanged.


Ten Questions with Danielle Deulen, MFA Poetry ’05

By Katie Clare, MFA ‘05

As a recent graduate of Mason’s graduate creative writing program, people often ask me, “What are you going to do with that?” or “Your parents must be thrilled with that career path, right?” After all, in today’s culture we equate happiness and success with fancy cars and big houses. How could someone choose a less certain and more creative path? Frankly, what it comes down to is the uncertain earning potential and the need for an employer. After all, who will hire someone with an MFA? It might be a cliché to consider Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken,” yet it’s worth mentioning. The poem is a commentary on the choices one must make and where those choices lead. Frost’s point is that one road is not better than the other, it’s simply different.

While there are some PhD programs in the arts, the MFA provides the norm for the field. As a terminal degree, an MFA is a serious undertaking that requires significant time and attention. Mason’s nationally recognized creative writing program is no exception. In addition to craft classes, the program has a substantive literature component designed to provide students with a set of strong examples to work from in their own writing. Whatever the degree requirements of an MFA in creative writing, the degree prepares students for a variety of careers by building skills in reading, listening, communicating, and creative thinking. These skills are useful in almost any field, and one cannot deny the utility and importance of the written word as a communication tool. Furthermore, as David Fenza, executive director of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs, housed at Mason, writes, “We turn to literature to make our lives bigger.” Indeed, through literature of all sorts, readers expand their world by learning of different travelers, roads, and possibilities, and this, inevitably – or shall I say hopefully – leads to new ideas and fresh perspectives. Again, an ability to locate, respect, and respond to innovative ideas and fresh perspectives is a skill valued by many employers.

The Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, housed at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, promotes the importance of the creative path. The institute offers six fellowships each year to young, emerging writers, and the competition for these prized fellowships is fierce. As in previous years, hundreds of applications were submitted, and as in previous years, a Mason alumna has earned one of these coveted spots.

Danielle Deulen completed her MFA in poetry in 2005. She taught as a graduate student and an adjunct, and served as the graduate programs manager in the English Department before heading off to Wisconsin in August to serve as the Jay C. and Ruth Halls Poetry Fellow for the year. She returned to Mason to participate in the Fall for the Book Festival in September, and I took the opportunity to chat with her about her experience at Mason and her new life in Wisconsin.

Q: What attracted you to Mason’s MFA Program?

A: Ah, the question everyone loves to ask. At the time I applied to Mason, I was miserable in my job as a receptionist in Manhattan and knew only that I felt called to write and teach. The best way to do both seemed to be to enter a graduate program. I just happened to enroll in a program that was a good match for me. Once I arrived, I discovered many great reasons to apply to Mason, though obviously this is hindsight.

Q: Overall, what was your experience as a Mason student?

A: Mason’s MFA program has a reputation as one of the more academically rigorous programs in the country, especially in poetry. As you might guess from my previous answer, I wasn’t quite prepared for this, so there was some initial scrambling. Even while scrambling, I realized that this kind of rigor was important to understanding my craft. By my final year in the program, I felt I was on solid ground. I suppose this is always the way learning happens for me: a headlong dive followed by great confusion or frustration, and then, finally, illumination. During this process, I found brilliant and engaging faculty who were wonderfully generous with their time and support.

Q: What did you think of Mason’s graduate teaching assistantship (GTA) program? Has teaching played a role in your development as a poet?

A: Mason’s GTA program prepared me for work in the classroom in a way I don’t think a lot of other programs do. I’ve had friends in programs at other schools who complained about being thrown directly into the classroom their first semester. Between classes, such mentors as Terry Zawacki and Zofia Burr, and discussions with MFA faculty about pedagogy, Mason provides the training necessary to becoming a successful teacher. I took my training very seriously – and it took over my life. Learning to temper my impulse to spend all my time and energy on teaching – and none on my poems – has been difficult. Teaching made me a better reader of poems. It has also affected my subject matter, as students show up in my poems quite a bit.

Q: When you were in New York, you realized you wanted to write and teach. What drew you into the world of writing and why poetry?

A: I’ve always loved reading and the different worlds it allows you to inhabit, so it seemed obvious that I would try to write myself. To be quite honest, I don’t know if I’m more attracted to poetry than any other genre; it’s just the genre I found some small amount of success in…. If I believed I could write a beautiful novel, I’d give it a shot. But it seems disingenuous to think I could write a novel out of nowhere.

Q: Everyone is familiar with the idea of writer’s block. What do you think about this? Where do you find inspiration for your work?

A: I don’t really believe in writer’s block; I believe in incubation. Writers have periods in which they are less productive in the quantitative sense; that is, they’re not producing anything they could show someone. But the mind is always at work. When you’re not writing, you’re gathering or just listening. Eventually, you put these pieces together, and they become something. Personally, I’m inspired by what I read.

Q: So, you’re the recipient of one of the prestigious writing fellowships from the University of Wisconsin, and you’re the fourth Mason alumna* to garner this honor. How does Wisconsin’s atmosphere differ from Mason’s? Do you feel any sort of pressure?

A: There are many similarities between the English departments of Mason and the university of Wisconsin-Madison. They are both large departments in large universities – many kind and brilliant people all in one place. The biggest difference, I would say, is in the atmosphere of Madison itself, a small college town of about 300,000 people. Outside Madison, there is mostly farmland. You don’t have to drive very far to feel as if you are in the middle of nowhere, so Madison feels very contained. It has almost anything you could want in a small radius. It’s a pedestrian- and bike-friendly town. People here don’t seem to drive much. Where I live, I’m within walking distance of the university, a lake, museums, restaurants, coffee shops, bars, you name it. In this way, it feels like a city, but it has the friendliness of a small town. It doesn’t have the international flair of Washington, D.C., but it doesn’t have the stress either. As for pressures, my only anxiety is to make sure I take full advantage of the opportunity I have been given.

Q: Is there a specific component of the Wisconsin fellowship that you are looking forward to putting to use?

A: I like that there is a teaching component. All fellows teach one creative writing class a semester, which keeps us in touch with a community of learners. The program’s directors are concerned with this – inviting us into the community. Mostly, though, I’m looking forward to reading. Before I received the fellowship, I was working full time and teaching one composition course at night. Between my weekly schedule, commenting on students’ work, and planning for class, I had little time or energy left for reading. I have a long list of books to read and reread, and I’m happily going through them. Reading is an important part of the creative process for me, so this is important to me.

Q: The fellowship is designed to give young writers the opportunity to work on a manuscript for publication. What’s your manuscript like? Did it grow out of your graduate-level thesis, or did the thesis simply play a developmental role?

A: I feel as if I’m starting over. I’m focusing more on producing new work than I am salvaging old poems. Who knows what I’ll have by the end of the year. The manuscript I’m trying to pull together is currently titled “Dangerous Fruit.” I’m interested in the biblical story of Genesis, mostly in the role woman plays and how it affects our understanding of the story. For better or worse, at least for the time being, there’s a feminist slant to the manuscript.

Q: Where would you like to be in five years?

A: My main aim is to have a book published; everything else is secondary. Before that, there’s not much of a possibility for any career in the literary world.

Q: I know this is an impossible question, but what role do you think the arts should play in contemporary society? How do you think the general public feels about creative writing?

A: This is an impossible question, and any answer might come out sounding idealistic or pretentious. In my classroom experience, though, it seems students often have some misconceptions about poetry that I’m constantly working against as soon as I enter the room. They seem to believe that poetry is and should be confusing, esoteric, and autobiographical. While it’s true that poetry condenses and plays with language in a way that colloquial speech does not, this is what makes it a pleasure to study. Some poems require more study than others, but that doesn’t mean they are intentionally confusing. Whether a poem is difficult or accessible, it’s important to understand the aesthetic and the time in which the poet is working. This is why we have literature classes. It does no good to read out of context. For example, without a background in physics, you can’t walk into the middle of a physics lecture and expect to understand it. Poetry is the same way, but it seems people don’t apply this logic to the study of poetry.


*Previous Mason recipients are Juanita Brunk MFA '85, Rebecca Dunham MFA '01, Cynthia Marie Hoffman MFA '03.

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