BY ERIC KILLELEA
Jayne Anne Phillips is the Director of the Rutgers-Newark Master of Fine Arts Program. She is the author of several works of fiction — her latest novel "Lark & Termite," published in 2009 by Knopf, was selected as one of the five finalists for the National Book Award. Five years ago, Rutgers-Newark hired Phillips to design a Master of Fine Arts Program and, now, in its third year of operation, that program is thriving.
An educator for 30 years, Phillips was attracted to working with graduate students. As for location, she thinks Newark, being rich in its diversity, is a hotbed of creative inspiration.
According to the Rutgers-Newark website (www.mfa.newark.rutgers.edu) Newark is experiencing a political and cultural Renaissance. "Our MFA Program is very much identified with Newark, an exciting Renaissance city in which all worlds meet," reads the university web site. The university identifies Cory Booker as Newark's visionary new mayor. His brother, Cary Booker, heads the Rutgers-Newark Educational Opportunity Fund Program which supports local high school students in their transition to Rutgers.
"We are very interested in community outreach," said Phillips. The MFA Program runs The Writers at Newark Reading Series, which brings nationally prominent writers to campus - the readings and discussions are free and open to the public. It reaches out to local high schools, works with English teachers, supports writing contests, reading groups. "Literature saves lives," said Phillips.
The MFA Program can be completed in a two or three year time frame. It's a 48 credit hour program, requiring 21 credit hours of graduate courses in literature, 20 credit hours of Writing Workshop in a declared genre, and seven thesis hours in which students work one-on-one with their mentor professors.
Students fulfill 6 of the required 21 elective hours by choosing one of the three Electives Concentrations. Literature/Book Arts: students work photography to design and publish a chapbook of their own work. Performance/Media Studies: the study of writing for television or stage, learns the skills of journalism, or indulges in the lessons of jazz influence. And Cultural/Political/Ethical Studies: allowing students to choose courses in an array of subjects — examples being, History, African-American Studies, Urban Education, Women's Studies, and Global Affairs.
"Virtually no other program in the country gives students the opportunity to work in such a wide range of genres for elective credit," the Rutgers-Newark website raves.
"Literature comprises the consciousness and conscience of a culture, and our MFA for the 21st Century is designed to nurture many voices," the site proclaims. The Program encourages diversity, not only race and ethnicity, but age, gender, class. "Most of our classes, workshops and readings will begin at 5:30 p.m., Monday through Thursday, allowing students to commit to rigorous daily writing schedules, work day jobs, or raise families. The program offers a variety of financial aid, including Teaching Assistantships, Part Time Lectureships, and Half-Tuition Scholarships."
"At first level, the MFA is an artist degree," said Phillips. "Our program is an opportunity to practice art in a supportive community, and have mentors working with you." Many graduates go on to law school, become teachers; for the MFA is a credential to teach creative writing at the university level. Phillips acknowledged the opportunity for work. She also spoke about the writing itself: "The prime reason that people apply, and commit themselves to 2-3 years is because they are writers - they love writing, making sense of the world -their choice is one of passion."
On March 23, Rutgers-Newark MFA Program will host its Writing at Newark Reading Series; there will be readings from both Mark Doty ("Fire to Fire: New and Selected Poems") and Paul Lisicky ("Lawnboy").