If I were a young poet looking to apply to an MFA program, one of the places most attractive to me would be the Creative Writing Program at the University of Montana, and not only because Missoula is so convincingly beautiful.

 the literary magazine at U of Montana, has become a dependable and delightful place to pick up on conversations in American poetry. Besides Greg Pape, the poet who has been in the Creative Writing Program the longest and who writes crafted, conventional but exacting poems that often particularize his experience in rural landscapes, there is Bob Baker (in English) who teaches philosophy and writes about contemporary poetics. And then there are three terrific younger lyric poets, Prageeta Sharma, Joanna Klink, and Karen Volkman.
Volkman’s newest book, Nomina,
 (BOA, 2008) is a tour de force exploration of the sonnet. At once formal and innovative, baroque and emotive, each poem ignites the next. Within the intensely musical structures of the poems, the richness of Volkman’s lexicon and the novelty of her syntax are thrilling.
Sharma’s most recent book, Infamous Landscapes
 (Fence, 2007), splashes a contagious, nervous, urban energy onto fragmented meditations on gender, intimate relationships, control, and cultural conflict. The poems in this collection are characterized by quick-shifting implicative associations and swooping changes of register.
Joanna Klink’s Circadian
 (Penguin, 2007) might be considered an eco-poetics in as much as Klink renders porous the borders between the world and the self. Although the book is made of distinct poems, rhizomatic words and themes run through the collection, giving it the power of a long lyric meditation.

Originally Published: October 5th, 2008

Born in California’s Mojave Desert, poet Forrest Gander grew up in Virginia and attended the College of William & Mary, where he majored in geology. After earning an MA in literature from San Francisco State University, Gander moved to Mexico, then to Arkansas, where his poetry—informed by his knowledge of...

  1. October 7, 2008
     Aaron Fagan

    The first poem I ever read by Karen Volkman was translated by you. It was in J. D. McClatchy's Vintage World Poetry anthology.

  2. October 7, 2008
     Linh Dinh

    Hi Aaron,
    You're thinking of Veronica Volkow. Karen Volkman is at least as American as me. I've talked to her many times and can vouch for this fact. Even with several beers, she speaks English very convincingly. Some samples] of her work.

  3. October 7, 2008
     Aaron Fagan

    Haha .. Oops-a-daisy. Thank you for the correction! Apologies to all. But, hey, Veronica Volkow gets a shout out!

  4. October 7, 2008
     forrest Gander

    Aaron, an interesting connection. Yes, Volkow is also riveting and I'm glad you remember her work. (She gets mentioned, by the way, in Roberto Bolano's The Savage Detectives-- a must read for poets).

  5. October 8, 2008

    I saw Karen Volkman read in 2001 while I was still at the University of Pittsburgh, and remember being really taken with the energy of her poems, and her reading of them. While I don't recall the words, the sensation of someone dillgently working their way forcibly into the mystery was there.
    I also had a friend leave Pitt to do his MFA at Montana, and he loved it.
    Also, I love Missoula....hmm, maybe I'lll (once again) reconsider applying for some MFA programs.

  6. October 10, 2008

    Is this an advertisement? In the past couple of years since Forrest Gander last visited, my MFA program has undergone some rapid transitions---Joanna Klink, an amazing teacher, no longer works here. Also, the department took on a new director.

  7. October 11, 2008
     Brandon Shimoda

    One of the interesting, because strange, things about this post and its comments is the approbation handed over to Montana's MFA program and the work of the respective professors, with a simultaneous and complete lack of anything mentioned about the program itself --- which is likely part of what inspired the "advertisement" comment above. I raise this issue for the deliberation and benefit of the projected "young poet" out there, who might be reading the Harriet blog, while chewing upon the potentials and attractions of various MFA programs into which to cast his or her die ---
    This might be beyond the purview of the post or its intentions, but I wonder why the professors' poems and books are mentioned, yet not a single word about their teaching --- which is --- in addition to the community formed by the students and their concerns and energies --- a significant part of the blood of a Creative Writing program, that might engender a positive appraisal --- not the collective strength and value of what the faculty has achieved in their writing. How, for example, might a prospective student go about assessing a program by way of the published works of its faculty? Can any correlation between the two things be read into or through the writing? What other considerations of an MFA program might make it not only conceptually "attractive" but actual, exemplary and of substantive use to the developing writer? Question both aged and old, but urgent, if such programs have drive to attract and continue ---

  8. October 13, 2008
     Forrest Gander

    Lisa and Brandon bring up good points. Is it an advertisement? Well, like my short book reviews, it's an enthusiasm, a recognition, in this case, of a program that has several terrific poets and a community of student writers who edit a good journal in a stimulating place. Brandon's comment about teaching is pertinent, but I'm not qualified to evaluate the teaching there. I'm not doing a detailed program evaluation. I visited once, years ago, before most of the current faculty were hired. My understanding is that Joanna Klink is a faculty member on leave. I DO think the quality of the writing of the poet/professors at a university and the aesthetic range represented, etc. is a signal considerations for anyone considering applying to a program. I think you go to graduate school to study with someone. And I think that if I were a young poet looking at programs, the work of the poets at this place would certainly be a draw for me.

  9. October 13, 2008
     Forrest Gander

    P.S. The fact that the Montana poetry program has been energized by three smart, younger women also seems significant to me and relevant to prospective poets. Although I visit a lot of writing programs, I can't think of any others that are characterized by the same dynamics.

  10. October 13, 2008
     bill knott

    this raises the question again of whether
    regional poetry
    (in the sense that Stafford and Hugo understood and practiced it)
    still exists anywhere,
    or has cosmopolitanism overwhelmed even
    the tiniest podunk . . .?–
    is poetry everywhere subsumed in blanket sophistications emanating
    from NY and SF and other clusterfuck poetrytowns?
    as Gander points out, those "three smart younger women" poets at Montana
    are outstanding in their poetic accomplishments and promise,
    but he doesn't mention that none of them are from Montana––
    does Montana have no indigenous poets to teach in its schools, and so it has to import these cityslickers?
    Or––the larger question––do indigenous poets even
    exist nowadays?
    are there any "hometown" poets left, anywhere in this country?

  11. October 13, 2008
     bill knott

    yes, i spent a semester there as "the Richard Hugo Visiting Poet"
    and was astonished to find the young MFA poets indifferent or
    indeed hostile to Hugo's verse––
    they considered him a hick––
    they all wanted to write like Jorie-Jorie, or Michael bloody Palmer, or
    whatever prestigious post-avant they were reading that week––
    with the exception of two or three, the students
    seemed to me to be the same as I would have encountered
    at Columbia or Iowa or Brown or table flopping the KBG Bar . . .
    . . .
    but my question: are there any regional USAPOs anywhere anymore?
    can an ENCLAVE exist? is every poet everywhere so dis-localized,
    so dis-regionalized, dis-distanced from where she lives????

  12. October 13, 2008
     Catherine Moore

    Rest assured, the legacy of Richard Hugo still lingers at Montana; however, it would be entirely false to assume that we all imitated his gravelly pitches, narrative drama, and machismo. He wrote gorgeously about the place we called home, and I think we loved him for it (at least I know I did), but that didn’t wed us in any way to his aesthetic. Instead, we spoke of decorating his looming photograph in one of the English classrooms with Hawaiian leis and a glass of scotch (he holds a large one in the photograph), topped up every week like some curious local god.
    As a group, we were as various as the contours of the mountains. We each had our own individual topography, culverts un-mapable and irreducible to any set of dimensions. We lived in the confluence of valleys and abided by what washed up on the shores of the river. Given the astonishing variety in our work, this Place was more than enough to keep us whole.
    Montana is a Place you can go to *almost* forget entirely about the whole "business" of poetry. In that sense, it harkens back to a time...etc. In Montana, it’s you and your poems. And a friend and a saloon. It’s still a Place, not a place--in that sense I guess there is an intact regionalism there, but maybe not in the sense you mean. We didn't write lyric poems with trout and grizzly bears, but we visited Kicking Horse because, well, you know. I couldn't help but be influenced by the Place because it is a Place--and it's fucking beautiful--and that is important to me. Plus the nurturing, in-no-way-competitive writing community there made me feel like I belonged to a band of something, something intact, local, and breathing.
    And yes there are Montana writers there--Dee McNamer teaches fiction/nonfiction and Judy Blunt teaches nonfiction. Until recently, Kate Gadbow, directed the program and taught fiction. Greg Pape is practically a native--at least he is embraced as such.
    But the program is changing, as someone else mentioned, with a new director and the loss of a great teacher. It will be interesting to see whether it is able to maintain this spirit. At least the mountains are still there. (For now...Mt. Sentinel burning: http://www.newwest.net/images/thumbnails_feature/IMG_5242.jpg)
    I have hope that it will...

  13. October 14, 2008
     Forrest Gander

    Bill, I know what you mean, but... Of course, for one thing, there are lots of poets whose work is pronouncedly influenced by region. Greg Pape at Montana, Arthur Sze in New Mexico, Joe Milford in Georgia, Ted Kooser in Nebraska... I could go on forever. My own work is very influenced by Virginia landscape & CD Wright's work is very influenced by her life in Arkansas, despite that neither of us have lived in our home states for years. Your own wonderful work has never seemed to me particulary situated in a stable geography. You mention the kind of work you "would have encountered at ... Brown," but I think you actually have no idea what kind of work Brown MFA students write. The current students come from all over the country-- south, mid, east, west-- and their work is as various as the places from which they've come. But it seems to me something of a nostalgia to suggest that poets, students or not, should not travel out of their regions or should apprentice themselves only to the regional writing of their home state. Should they not read and be influenced by translations of work from other countries either? I think you take whatever water you can from wherever you can get it to feed the burning tree.