Alan Ziegler, acclaimed poet and author, received the Presidential Award for Outstanding Teaching at Columbia University, where he is Professor of Writing and Chair of the School of the Arts MFA Writing Division. The Rail’s Suzanne Dottino speaks with Alan about the politics, perils and passions that come part and parcel with running one of the country’s foremost MFA Writing Programs.
Suzanne Dottino (Rail): Tell me about your background and family and how they did or didn’t influence your decision to become a writer.
Alan Ziegler: I’m the first in my family to go to college. (Although, when my father was four he was told that his father was away at college; turned out to be Sing Sing, where he was enrolled in a four-year program for bank robbery.) When I was a kid in Brooklyn (East New York), my father was a milkman. Later (on Long Island) my mother worked as a waitress at Woolworths. There weren’t a lot of books, but they told stories from their daily rounds. Mostly, my father was the talker and my mother the listener—a writer needs to be both, so I think they made equal contributions.
I was one of four kids in the entire fifth grade not selected for the chorus. In a stroke of utilitarian compassion the teacher turned to us and said, “And you children are going to write the newspaper!” I edited the high school newspaper, wrote for the college paper, and worked, briefly, as a reporter—a terrific apprenticeship for any kind of writing.
Rail: Not all writers want to grow up to be teachers of writing—you are an accomplished author yourself—so what event(s) compelled you to want to teach others?
Ziegler: When I was in graduate school at City College (I went there because I couldn’t afford Columbia), I heard about the work Kenneth Koch and Phillip Lopate were doing with children. It sounded like great fun, and meaningful. It was also a scary concept—to go into a public school classroom armed with nothing but the title of poet. Then a classmate at City told me he was running a program in Brooklyn and asked if I would do four Wednesdays with three classes. After the first day, I went home exhausted and disheartened, but I perked up when I read through the incredible poems the kids had written. When I returned the following week the kids applauded and someone shouted, “Yay, it’s the poet!” I was hooked. After graduate school I started a long affiliation teaching kids for Teachers & Writers Collaborative, and also began teaching as an adjunct at Bronx Community College. The college students didn’t applaud, but I was being paid to talk about writing and literature, and no matter what was happening with my own writing I felt like I was doing good work. A friend told me I was living a “fool’s paradise” to think I could get through life writing and teaching writing. I’ve been in paradise ever since.
Rail: The CA/T program helps dispel some myths about the realities of the publishing business (i.e. land a book contract, give up your day job), Can you explain what CAT is about and its benefits?
Ziegler: I started CA/T (Columbia Artist/Teachers) to train students in the art and craft of teaching creative writing, and to provide them with real-world teaching opportunities. We’ve just finished our third year, during which about 80 MFA candidates taught more than 500 students—at all ages and levels—on and off campus, including non-credit creative writing workshops for first-year Columbia undergraduates. We work with such institutions as: Wadleigh High School, the Bronx Academy of Letters, East Village Elementary School, The Manhattan Country School, Bank Street, and Columbia’s Program in Narrative Medicine. Many of our positions pay modestly, either through fellowship or work-study, and some CA/T veterans have landed jobs based in part on this experience. As part of our training, I teach a seminar/practicum called The Writer as Teacher.
Rail: Columbia’s high tuition and the process of who receives a fellowship has been a palpable source of tension amongst the students, and some would argue it breeds a Darwinian sense of competitiveness. Is this in some way intentional?
Ziegler: Any Darwinism takes place before a student gets here, during the admissions process. That’s when the applicants’ simulacra exist in green folders that get read, reread, probed, dissected, and put back together. It truly is survival of those we think are fittest to be in the program. But that’s where it should end. Once students get here, they can plan on getting their MFA. We do not reduce fellowships between the first and second years (though we may add to them)—there should be no anxiety that if you take risks with your writing you might lose some funding. Students who are unfunded for the first year will get something the second year. MFA students put enough pressure on themselves, and the very nature of the workshop is stressful, so the program should be as supportive as it is challenging. I tell students at orientation that mutual back-scratching is all right in small doses, but back-biting is never good. That said, there are some competitive prizes and positions (just as there are in the post-MFA world), and rejection always stings. We try to be fair and humane (there isn’t a sling or arrow that hasn’t been endured by some member of the faculty).
Rail: Just one of the appeals of the faculty at Columbia is that they are successful writers publishing great books. As awe-inspiring as that may be to a first year student, in many cases those achievements don’t make for an experienced and available workshop leader. How do you feel about that trade-off?
Ziegler: The fame-value of a writer lasts about two weeks into the term. I’ve read thousands of student evaluations, and no one has commented that a teacher’s deficiencies were offset by his or her literary success. Being in New York, we are fortunate to have access to a large population of terrific writers who are also wonderful teachers, which isn’t to say that every writer is the right teacher for every student or that there aren’t some teachers who are more “available” than others. The faculty review process takes teaching into account.
Rail: What would the utopian Alan Ziegler MFA Writing Division look like?
Ziegler: In Thomas More’s original "Utopia" those “marked out for literature” were obliged to attend public lectures “every morning before daybreak.” I like the idea of having something every day to bring the community together, even if it’s just social, though we’d need to change the time, and I wouldn’t make it obligatory. (There are some weeks when we come pretty close to this.) There would be lower tuition and higher fellowships, of course. As the program now stands, students do the thesis workshop in their second year and then have up to three years to turn in the manuscript, during which they are pretty much on their own. I would like students to have the option of taking the thesis workshop in the first term of the third year, after which they would work closely with a thesis advisor and have the opportunity to teach.
Rail: Columbia’s tuition is rising and financial aide and fellowships are fewer than other MFA programs. These are determining factors for many talented writers with either families to support or economic hardship issues not to enroll. Do you feel your student body lacks a certain kind of diversity as a result? What are students really paying for besides the Columbia brand name when they enroll in the Writing Division?
Ziegler: There is no aspect of my job more painful than the financial situation of the School of the Arts. Yes, our diversity suffers somewhat as a result—and that is quite worrisome—but equally troubling is the debt that students leave the program with. We are constantly lobbying the university to do better.
We have, arguably—and I am sure there are those who would argue – the best overall program in the country. The Writing Division is a component of the School of the Arts: our students interact with artists in film, theater, and visual arts. (To subsume a creative writing program in an English Department—which is typically the case—is equivalent to placing painters in Art History.) We design and teach our own literature seminars and lectures, created for writers by writers, and these courses vary from year to year to keep up with the current interests of faculty and students. These courses are shared by students in the three concentrations (Fiction, Poetry, and Nonfiction), so there’s a lot of “cross-training.”
We offer many “value-added” opportunities, including the aforementioned CA/T; the national magazine Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art, which is edited and managed entirely by students; the Hertog Research Fellowships Program, which enables six students a year to work as research assistants—and be mentored by—authors working on major books; the writers-of-color group Our Word; the Life After the MFA series of panels curated by Binnie Kirshenbaum, featuring agents, editors, and other literary professionals; and internship opportunities with New York literary publications and organizations. All of these opportunities comprise what my colleague (and previous chair) Richard Locke refers to as the kind of literary apprenticeship writers used to create for themselves in Paris in the 1920s.
Rail: What does it take for a woman to get tenure?
Ziegler: Here are the statistics: We have four tenured members of the faculty and two are women. The School of the Arts also has a category called Professor of Professional Practice (POPP), which is similar to tenure but requires follow-up reviews every five years (after the seventh year Major Review). There are currently six Writing Division faculty who have passed Major Reviews as Professor of Professional Practice, and two are women. No women who have gone up for either tenure or POPP have been turned down.
Rail: Could you describe your typical day, mid-semester?
Ziegler: Once a week I have a morning meeting with the Dean and the other Divisional chairs or with the Committee on Instruction; otherwise, I tend to work at home in the morning (both Writing Division work and Writing Alan work). One or two afternoons a week I teach (I do one course in the fall and two in the spring). It’s not unusual for there to be two or three evening events each week—panels, guests, readings, student groups, etc. If it’s mid-semester in the spring, we’re doing admissions and planning the curriculum and adjunct hiring for the following year. Always emails, which procreate like bunnies (but I like bunnies, and I like emails). I have formal office hours a couple of days a week; but I keep my door open when I’m not in a meeting (lots of meetings) and several students and colleagues will stop by, either just to chat or with some business to discuss. Like in the TV show West Wing, much gets done via spontaneous meetings in the hallways and stairwells. I might touch base several times a day with Anna Peterson, the Division’s invaluable Program Coordinator.
Rail: When I now walk into the Columbia MFA Writing Division there are trays of cookies, fruit, pots of tea and coffee! This is VERY different from when I attended. This welcoming atmosphere is really nice—and not to sound like a suspicious New Yorker—but it begs the question: what is it you want me to know about you personally and the program in general?
Ziegler: When I started directing the undergraduate writing program (in 1988), we put out a coffee pot and some cookies. As is typical in many offices at the time, we had a cup and a sign asking for change to support the service. There was something so sad about that cup at the end of the day, with its motley crew of coins. One day I just said “The hell with it,” turned the sign around and wrote: “Free Coffee.” (As an homage, the students started a magazine called Free Coffee.) When graduate students came over to take classes, they commented on the coffee and cookies, so when I became chair of the MFA program we set aside money in the budget for coffee, tea, cookies, and fruit. The first week, students were very suspicious (“This isn’t for us, is it?” “Are these leftovers from a meeting?”) Eventually, they got used to it, and a couple of years ago we even added a water cooler. What does this say about me? I like to feel I “belong” someplace, and one sign of belonging is having the option to pour yourself a cup of coffee without asking permission. People also tend to talk to each other when there’s food or drink involved. In part, an MFA program is a kind of “green room” for writers—and what’s a green room without refreshments?