Poetry and prose: Emulating a mastery of fine arts to the community

A behind-the-scenes look into the Thursday night MFA Reading Series

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The University’s MFA in Creative Writing program holds a weekly reading series event at the New Dominion Bookshop on the Downtown Mall.

Elise Kim | Cavalier Daily

Nearly every Thursday night at 8 p.m., small groups of writers and members of the Charlottesville community trickle through the Downtown Mall and into the New Dominion Bookshop. There, light chatter and visible excitement about that respective evening’s readings diffuse through the room in anticipation for the poet or the writer.

This weekly reading event has been administered by the University’s MFA in Creative Writing program at New Dominion since the fall of 2017. This year, the series began Sept. 6. 

The University’s two-year MFA program is highly selective in that it accepts a mere five students from prose and five students from poetry each year — resulting in a very high faculty to student ratio. During their time in the program, candidates are designated specific weeks to present their own selections to the Charlottesville community.

Though the writers spend time in workshop together critiquing and providing feedback for each other’s works, there is something special about sharing original work with people outside of the classroom. 

Bobby Elliott, one of the poets graduating this May with an MFA, has already completed and defended his theses — a collection of approximately 30 poems. He currently teaches creative writing at the University and was most recently the recipient of the 2017-2018 Kahn Prize for Outstanding Teaching in Poetry.

“I think that in some ways, the work begins to live once it’s read out loud and once it is shared in public,” Elliott said. “And I think that’s the big transition and everyone, of course, has a different reading style.… And everyone, in part, is also exploring what that is for each individual writer.”

Elliott gave insight concerning the intentions of each writer when they are selecting their respective piece to share.

“It’s often the goal to share what we’re most passionate about, what we’re actively working through and thinking about,” Elliott said.

Piers Gelly, another student graduating alongside Elliott this coming May with an MFA, has taught four semesters of undergraduate creative writing at the University and has an essay about 20th century French writer Marcel Proust featured in the latest issue of The Literary Review — a distinguished international journal of contemporary writing. He described what factors he considers in selecting excerpts for his respective reading as a prose writer.

“I try to choose something funny because a listener’s experience of a public reading is very different from the private experience of reading words on a page,” Gelly said. “If you’re not giving people a reason to pay attention and stay engaged, their minds will wander — mine does — so it’s important to me that the text be fun in some way.”

Though both Gelly and Elliott partook in workshops as part of the MFA program where constant critique and editing is perceived as the norm, Gelly illustrates the lighter and more liberating atmosphere in the bookstore in terms of sharing an original piece in a more casual environment.

“I think [the reading series] is great,” Gelly said. “If it weren’t for the reading series, I’d never get to hear the poets read. Also, it’s nice to experience others’ work in a non-critical setting. At the reading series, my opinion and aesthetic preferences don’t matter because the story or poem or essay just is what it is, and I’m always glad for that.”

For Gelly, the fine arts transcend boundaries as he relates his involvement in music to how he approaches the reading series’ audience with his prose.

“Public reading has to be thought of as a form of entertainment, or at least I think of it like that,” Gelly said. “I used to play in bands — this may inform my thinking about one’s obligation to be entertaining — and my favorite thing was always trying out a song we’d just written in order to see how people responded.”

This perception reverberates in truth for first-year College student Jennifer Cheung as well. She attended Gelly’s and MFA graduate student Caleb Nolen’s reading March 21, where the former shared an excerpt from his most recent novel in the works as the evening’s MFA candidate in prose. Nolen, the evening’s MFA candidate in poetry, painted a real and raw picture with selections illustrating the recent passing of a friend. Cheung spoke about the unique vibes and impression that this particular MFA Reading Series left on her. 

“It was a very vulnerable moment — just the environment, like it was a very intimate audience and there was no microphone,” Cheung said. “The mediums between the poet and the listener — there was just so few of them, so it felt really private … I spent all weekend thinking about the [excerpt] of Cain and Abel that was read.”

The MFA Reading Series will continue every Thursday at 8 p.m. at the New Dominion Bookshop in Downtown Charlottesville until April 25.

In addition, Elliott will have selections of his poems published in the Redivider and Hampden-Sydney Review, two distinguished literary magazines, later this year. Gelly also has work impending on 99% Invisible and in The Stinging Fly, a popular independent radio show and an established literary magazine, respectively. 

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