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A Glimpse at Truth

by Michael Kobre

June 8,2009

When I was asked to contribute this column to Charlotte Viewpoint my first reaction was, well, panic. Of course, I was glad to have the chance to speak to an audience so deeply invested in Charlotte’s civic and cultural life, but the deadline for the column just happened to coincide with the beginning of a new semester for The Low-Residency MFA Program in Creative Writing at Queens University of Charlotte, where I teach and serve as Co-Director of the MFA Program. In a few days, not long before the column would be due, a large and lively population of writers would descend on the campus for the week-long residency that begins the semester: 78 current students from over 25 states and a few other countries; 32 graduating students; and 22 faculty members, all highly acclaimed writers themselves, including Elizabeth Strout, the recipient of the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. 

As a low-residency program, The Queens MFA Program brings together students of all ages and backgrounds who want to study creative writing but can’t uproot their lives for two years to participate in a traditional residential graduate program. After the residencies, our students continue through email to exchange and critique their poems, stories, essays, or scripts, under the direction of a faculty mentor, in Queens’ unique distance learning workshops. But it is, of course, the residency that begins everything, and those two on-campus sessions each year are often the most exciting, fun, and stressful weeks for everyone. Over those seven days, our students and faculty go all out, with daily workshops and seminars, panel discussions, readings and presentations by faculty and graduating students, and, yes, a certain amount of festivities too. It’s an intense week with a lot of moving parts, which was why, naturally, I was a little daunted by the thought of also trying to compose this column while bracing for it. 

And yet the MFA program itself is an important—if not always well-known—part of Charlotte’s cultural life. As far back as the summer of 2001, not long after our first residency, one of our first class of MFA students, Ross Yockey—who was in his own right one of Charlotte’s finest writers and who also knew a thing or two about banking as the author of a biography of Hugh McColl (among Ross’s 21 books)—boldly declared in a column for The Observer that the first Queens MFA residency was “an investment of intellectual capital that could yield benefits for the city in the years to come.” As Ross put it in his own typically elegant prose, “Serious writing is the organized communication of serious thought over time, a rare commodity in the bars and pubs and coffee houses of our town. But under the umbrella oaks and inside the cozily high-tech classrooms at Queens, the process and the application of thought itself are under study.” 

Indeed, the study and practice of creative writing seem even more important these days when so much illusory wealth has disappeared and our endless appetite for consumption has been tamped down. These days—as ever really—literature and art offer a kind of sustenance that material luxuries can never provide. As Ross noted too eight years ago, serious readers “will recognize, in the fictional or poetic questions and lives and relationships, the resonance of their own values and uncertainties. If the writing is good, readers will find, as Joseph Conrad put it, ‘that glimpse of truth for which you have forgotten to ask.’” 

Ross Yockey passed away last summer. He was a warm, ebullient man with a great appreciation for opera and the music of a well-turned phrase. Eight years ago, in his column for The Observer after our first residency, he captured exactly what the Queens MFA Program might bring to the community, and as I write this now in late May 2009, waiting a little anxiously for our students and faculty to arrive for our 17th residency, I’m glad the chance to recall Ross’s words in this column and to engage in a kind of dialogue over the years with him. I can only hope we’ll continue to fulfill his expectations.

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