MFA News

April 2014



Laura van den Berg

Laura van den Berg, MFA alumni and part-time WLP faculty, has been recognized by The American Academy of Arts and Letters for her collection of short stories, The Isle of Youth (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). She received the Rosenthal Family Foundation Award, given to a “young writer of considerable talent for work published in 2013,” and a prize of $10,000.

The Rosenthal Family Foundation award was established in 1957 and has been awarded annually to young novelists and short story writers for a book published that is a considerable literary achievement. Former award recipients include Alice Walker, Marilynne Robinson, Thomas Pynchon, and John Updike. The American Academy of Arts and Letters is comprised of composers, painters, writers, and architects, and awards prizes annually to established and emerging writers of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry.

From Laura van den Berg: “Over the years, I have become keenly aware of just how many books are published annually and the struggle for each new work to find its audience. For Isle to have been chosen for the Rosenthal Award is an extraordinary honor and also just feels like a lightening-strike of good luck. But the most moving and exciting part for me is the list of past Rosenthal recipients, which includes so many authors I admire. When I think about that list, it’s inspiring and intimidating and encouraging and makes me want to work harder than I ever have before, to keep earning the privilege to keep that kind of company.”

Read more about Laura’s award »

March 2014


Bill Knott in the classroom at EmersonBill Knott, poet and professor at Emerson for over 25 years, passed away on March 12, 2014 from complications with surgery. Here, John Skoyles, Associate Chair of the Department of Writing, Literature, and Publishing, remembers Bill.

I foolishly thought Bill would always be around—I think many of us did—because he’d always been there to remind us of some folly taking place in the world of literary prizes and blatant careerism. Always there to heckle the poetry establishment with high wit and devastating humor.

Bill was a great teacher, and not only in the classroom. His blog was full of perceptive and startling observations about poets and poetry. His postings on Facebook pointed followers to arcane treasures. Just two weeks ago, Bill cited the translation of a poem by Martin Opitz (1597-1639):

Thieves I attacked; for lovers I kept still;
And so performed my lord’s, and lady’s, will.

He gave the citation as coming from To Be Plain: Translations from the Greek, Latin, French, and German, by Raymond Oliver. I never heard of the book, and ordered it, as I have done with so many of Bill’s suggestions. It arrived just days before his death last week, a small, terrific book from an obscure publisher. Like so many of us, I continue to learn from him.

He loved poetry in all of its forms and taught “Forms of Poetry” for years. His own poems included sonnets, haiku, and fantastic one-line poems, such as:

Cueballs have invented insomnia as a way to forget eyelids

He was also the master of the short poem:

The only response
to a child’s grave is
to lie down before it and play dead.

A generous and gentle man, Bill hated to see students go broke buying books, especially books for his class. Having been poor for much of his life, he did not want to impose financial burdens on others. His solution was to buy copies of every text for every student in his classes, lending them out for use during the term.

One day on the tenth floor of the Ansin building, I heard the elevator door crashing and crashing. I finally went to see what was causing the ruckus. It was Bill, with two students, unloading carton after carton of books, books from his own library. He had moved to a smaller apartment, and had to downsize his collection. He recruited two students to help him, promising them first dibs on the selections. The rest he donated to the library we had in the lounge at that time. I looked over the books—they were all classics, each one a keeper.It would never have occurred to him to sell these books. It was his nature to be generous.

That said, Bill could be a tough on undergraduates. A senior once wrote me: “Please allow me to take your poetry workshop. I don’t want Bill Knott to throw another thesaurus at my head.”

One of the first times I met Bill was in 1976 at the Grolier Bookshop in Cambridge. I had written my MFA essay at the University of Iowa on his work two years before (he had three books at that time) which Granite magazine published. Bill insisted on taking me to Mr. Bartley’s for lunch, insisted on paying, and insisted I take the copy of his new pamphlet of poems, For Anne, which he had heavily annotated with that green ink he loved. From glancing at the edits, I knew it was the copy he used at readings, and tried to hand it back, but he wouldn’t think of it. I can still see him leaning across the table, pushing his palms at me, happy, very happy to be giving something away, and happier still because the gift was irreplaceable.

I never thought then I’d have the good fortune to be his colleague for over a decade.

Bill Knott paintingMany of us were recipients of Bill’s generosity over the years, receiving his one-of-a-kind books with original artwork, on paper he made, with bindings he stitched himself.

A few years ago, after Bill retired, Jonathan Aaron and I found huge USPS Priority cartons for us at the reception desk. They contained original oil paintings and numerous hand-printed books of all sizes and shapes, each inscribed with a touching dedication.

Bill was very proud of his art, and so I attach a painting to this remembrance. I never saw him so pleased as when I told him that I had shown his work to an older, accomplished artist, Paul Resika, whose work he admired, and he beamed when I reported that Resika complimented his paintings.

Bill’s sense of the absurd was unsurpassed. The copy I have of his collected poems, which he sold last year on Amazon for less than nine dollars shipped, weighs in at over five-hundred pages. Its title: Dropping Sylvia Plath on Hiroshima and Other Poems. He called his collected blog postings, "Mary Karr’s Ass and Other Prose Conjectures."

In May, Bill published New Poems from the Past Six Years. I was happy to read that he was fond of this work, he who was relentlessly self-deprecating. He wrote in the introduction: “I may be deluding myself, but I think some of the poems here or hopefully a few of them are as good as the best ones I wrote in any 6-year period prior in my career…” But then he continued, in a vein familiar to his friends, “back when my books were published by real publishers like Farrar, Straus & Giroux and BOA and Pittsburgh University Press and others, before I was blacklisted by AmeriPoBiz Inc.” Bill wouldn’t be Bill if he eliminated the kicker.

Last week there were hundreds of comments on social media sites recalling his influence, as a poet, a teacher and person. I’ll end with two of his short works. I always thought Bill would be around, and in many ways, he is.

If you are still alive when you read this,
close your eyes. I am
under their lids, growing black.

Going to sleep, I cross my hands on my chest.
They will place my hands like this.
It will look as though I am flying into myself.

Read more about Bill Knott »

Michelle bailat-jones (Fiction, 2005)

winner of Christopher Doheny award for fiction

Michelle Bailat-JonesMichelle Bailat-Jones has won the inaugural Christopher Doheny Award for her novel Fog Island Mountains. The award recognizes a book-length work of fiction or nonfiction exploring the experience of serious illness, whether the author’s own or that of someone close to them, and includes a $10,000 prize as well as publication and promotion of the book in print and audio editions. It is awarded by the Center for Fiction in New York and supported by Audible, Inc. and the friends and family of Christopher Doheny.

Fog Island Mountains follows a South African expatriate living in rural Japan, and the reactions of himself and his family to his diagnosis of cancer. Told by an elderly village storyteller and woven with Japanese folklore, the novel explores the fragility and risk that enter lives struck by grief, and the healing power of storytelling.

Bailat-Jones also recently published her translation of Beauty on Earth (La Beauté sur la Terre) by the major Swiss author Charles Ferdinand Ramuz (1878-1949), marking the novel’s first appearance in English. Her short fiction, translations, and reviews have appeared in journals including The Kenyon Review, Cerise Press, Hayden’s Ferry Review, and The Quarterly Conversation, among others.

Read her interview with literary magazine Spolia »

January 2014

January 2014 brings the publication and early acclaim for three debut novels by Emerson MFA alumni

Kirsten ChenKirstin Chen was born and raised in Singapore, was an undergraduate at Stanford, and received her MFA from Emerson in 2009. In Soy Sauce for Beginners she tells the story of Gretchen Lin, who returns from San Francisco to Singapore to contend with, among other issues, the fate of a family soy sauce business. A reviewer in Booklist writes, “Gretchen’s journey of self-discovery forms the backbone of this story about family, tradition, and honor. Foodies will appreciate the behind-the-scenes look at the world of artisanal soy sauce, while others will enjoy Chen’s tribute to her native Singapore.”

James Scott attended Middlebury College and received his MFA from Emerson in 2007. The Kept has earned starred reviews from Kirkus and James ScottBooklist. In a New York Times review, The Kept is described as a “dark and mysterious first novel,” and as a “reimagining of a western novel artfully transposed from the conventional dangers of the desert and Plains to the snowbound northern frontier…a haunting narrative, salvaged by precise language that never overreaches or oversells.” And, “The plot unfolds with a weighty languor reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy.”

Andrew LaddAndrew Ladd’s What Ends was the 2012 winner of the AWP Award Series for the novel. Andrew grew up in Edinburgh, Scotland, received his MFA in 2010, and is presently the blog editor for Ploughshares. He began writing What Ends in a “Writing the First Novel” course while at Emerson. Judge Kathryn Davis described the book as a “remarkable, haunting novel,” in which, “‘time isn’t passing, it’s circling,’ and the story of one family’s life on a Hebridean island becomes an apocalyptic vision of what it means to live in time, that ‘blink of stone on a giant sea.’”

Congratulations to three writers of commendable talent.

December 2013

Laura van den Berg (Fiction, 2008)

One of NPR's best books of 2013, a selection of's top 10 short story collections

Laura van den BergThe Isle of Youth, a short story collection by Laura van den Berg (Fiction, 2008) is selected as one of the Best Books of 2013 by NPR, and appears on sixteen “Best of 2013” lists. The Isle of Youth (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) was named one of’s top 10 short story collections of 2013, and one of The Oprah Magazine top 10 books of 2013.

“Laura van den Berg writes risky stories about the secrets we keep from each other, and from ourselves,” writes Jane Ciabattari on NPR’s Best Books of 2013. Topping The Boston Globe’s Best Fiction of 2013, critic John Freedman calls Isle “tremendous” and writes, “If the decade-long wait between Lorrie Moore collections is causing you hives, here’s your cure. Teenage bank robbers, lovers on the lam, and head cases of all types speak hilariously to the losses that make them lonely.”

Laura calls the eight pieces of The Isle of Youth “existential detective stories.” In a November 17, 2014 review, NPR’s Rosecrans Baldwin compared Laura’s style to that of Joan Didion, Mary Robinson, and Haruki Murakami, that each female narrator “has the same vulnerable self-reliance—her private-eye detachment from events.” Writing for The New Republic’s Best Books of 2013, Mimi Dwyer says, “Van den Berg is most comfortable when she traces this ennui across the wilted American backdrop where it belongs. But her book’s strongest moment is when its terrain grows detached and treacherous too….She dares the reader, afterwards, to ask something so simple as who these women really are.” Selecting The Isle of Youth as their #1 best short story collection of 2013, Jason Diamond of Flavorwire writes, “It has become quite clear that Laura van den Berg possesses a scary talent that is only growing by the day.”

Read NPR's review »

Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich (Nonfiction, 2009)

NEA Fellowship, Best American Essays 2013 NOtable Essay Selection

Alexandria Marzaono-KesnevichAlexandria Marzano-Lesnevich (Nonfiction, 2009) wins a National Endowment for the Arts creative writing fellowship and receives a Notable Essay selection in Best American Essays 2013.

Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich has received an NEA grant for 2014. This highly competitive award was given for writing that was the subject of her MFA thesis and stemmed from an internship experience while a student at Harvard Law School.

During the internship Alexandria worked at an agency in New Orleans that advocates against death penalty convictions and executions. Her writing on this topic combines memoir and literary journalism while investigating the meaning of a Louisiana murder and death penalty case.

In addition to the NEA grant Alexandria has received a Notable Essay selection in Best American Essays 2013 for “Origins of a Murder: Investigating the Crimes—and humanity—of a killer,” from the Oxford American. In support of her book, she has previously won a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer’s Award, and fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, Yaddo, and the Millay Colony for the Arts. While a student in the Emerson MFA program she won the 2009 Annie Dillard Award for nonfiction writing from the Bellingham Review. Alexandria teaches memoir at Grub Street in Boston and is an adjunct lecturer in public policy at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, where she teaches writing for policy and politics.

Read her Oxford American essay »

Matt Rasmussen (Poetry, 2003)

National Book Award Finalist, Walt Whitman Award and Pushcart Prize

Matt RasmussenThe MFA program and the Department of Writing, Literature and Publishing extend congratulations to Matt Rasmussen for his outstanding success with his debut poetry collection. Black Aperture won a Walt Whitman Award from the American Academy of Poets in 2012 and was published by Louisiana State University Press in 2013. The collection, which deals with his brother’s suicide, was a National Book Award finalist for 2013. Matt has received a Pushcart Prize for 2014 for his poem “After Suicide,” from Black Aperture.

In an interview on the National Book Award website, Matt states that he wrote his first poem about his brother’s suicide in Bill Knott’s workshop at Emerson, after Knott pushed him to “write a poem with some personal investment.” He wrote more poems about his brother for his MFA thesis, which he worked on with John Skoyles and Gail Mazur. “Slowly, as I wrote more and more poems that dealt with grief or suicide, in one way or another, that section grew and basically took over the book.” The collection was ten years in the writing. Matt now teaches at Gustavus Adolphus College and the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis.

Jane Hirshfield, judge for the Walt Whitman Award, wrote: “Black Aperture addresses, with meticulous balance, a single event from multiple directions. Autobiographical, speculative, imaginal, at times bitterly comic, often lyrically surreal, Matt Rasmussen's transformative poems look outward—they are built on the observable leaf, field, hand, bird, and act. But this book's central task is the alchemizing of experience by language….”

Matt Rasmussen reading at National Book Award finalists’ ceremony »

Megan Marshall (associate professor)

one of New York Times best 100 books of 2013, the Boston Globe's #2 nonfiction book of the year

Megan MarshallMegan Marshall's Margaret Fuller: A New American Life is named one of The New York Times best 100 books of 2013, makes Times critic Dwight Garner’s list of top 10 books of 2013, and is selected #2 nonfiction book of the year by The Boston Globe.

Margaret Fuller was published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in March 2013 and has since received significant attention and praise from the New York Times Book Review, the New York Review of Books, The New Yorker, NPR, Booklist, Kirkus Reviews, Publisher’s Weekly, The Boston Globe, and elsewhere.

At the center of the transcendentalist movement, Fuller was Thoreau’s first editor, Emerson’s close friend, a feminist, and the first female foreign correspondent. Garner reviewed Margaret Fuller early in 2013 for The New York Times. “In Ms. Marshall, Fuller has found what feels like her ideal biographer,” he wrote. “It has the grain and emotional amplitude of a serious novel…[and] pushes Ms. Marshall into the front rank of American biographers.”

In a November 27 interview with The New York Times, when novelist Tom Perrotta was asked to name any book that he thought should be made into a film, he selected Margaret Fuller: “Somebody should make a Downton Abbey-style mini-series about romantic intrigue among the New England transcendentalists. The central characters would be Fuller and Ralph Waldo Emerson, who shared this intense, passionate, but gruelingly chaste friendship.” Additionally, on December 28, 2013, The Boston Globe named Margaret Fuller as the #2 selection among the Best Nonfiction of 2013.

Read the New York Times book review »

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