Having survived the first few jam-packed weeks of grad school, the first-year MFA candidates are already looking back on August with a nostalgic glow, remembering a different era when they could read purely for pleasure. We asked two fiction students, one nonfiction student, and one poetry student to discuss the books that they were reading and re-reading as they started the MFA program, the ones that made them excited and inspired, and the ones that perhaps they’ll pick back up in December.
I’ve been working my way through a small pile of pastoral literature as research for a piece I’m working on. All were set before 1950 and I wanted to add something more contemporary to the mix. I picked up Evie Wyld’s All The Birds Singing and found a realistic, harsh, yet beautiful rendering of surviving on a farm. The story traverses landscapes, from a small British Island to the Australian Desert, connecting place to the narrator’s personal history. It’s a story that doesn’t shy away from cruel or vulgar situations. Instead, it embraces them and pinpoints the beauty that can be found there.
—Suzzanna Matthews-Amanzio, MFA candidate in fiction
A particularly bookish friend told me I must read Max Porter’s Grief is the Thing With Feathers, so off to the bookstore I went. The setup to this 114-page novel is fairly straightforward: a recently-widowed father and his two young sons are visited by a shape-shifting, mischief-loving Crow (the titular “thing with feathers”), who takes up roost in their London home while they grieve. What isn’t straightforward is how Porter chooses to tell his tale, mixing poetry, prose, play, and essay, cycling frequently between the viewpoints of the father, his boys, and the crow. It’s a bizarre and deeply beautiful book, and left me wondering how a happily married, thirty-something, first-time novelist can so masterfully capture what it’s like to be ensnared in such crippling grief. But also: where was this voice and what will it say next?
—Jeff Oloizia, MFA candidate in fiction
I’m reading A Field Guide to Getting Lost, a book that first intrigued me as a fan (read: President of the fan club) of Rebecca Solnit, but also caught my attention for its title, posing as a type of manual for losing oneself. Solnit seems to peer so deeply into moments that feel undiscovered, or unnoticed, or simply ambiguous in their beautiful, human complexity, that she actually gives these ideas a type of directional clarity. But the way in which she muses on the idea of being lost itself allows her readers to lose themselves with her, to feel a comfort in what we don’t know or have yet to discover, and to rejoice in where we arrive together as the exploration unfolds. And we trust her as our guide because she so eloquently blends her personal narratives with cultural and historical examples, finding nuance and meaning in our shared human experience. This book feels important not only for the strength of her craft, but for the value in what we can take from it, as writers and thinkers, delving into uncharted territories of our own.
—Nicholl Paratore, MFA candidate in nonfiction
This summer I reacquainted myself with Larry Levis through The Widening Spell of the Leaves. The title is an effective metaphor for the way his best work operates, beginning in scene and then expanding imagistically outward and ever-outward to include politics, place, and history. Like the visual trope of the molecule that expands into a galaxy that expands into a molecule as the perspective widens its scope, the poem eventually leads us back into a single moment, with all new layers and resonances. Instead of a poet’s usual sonic tricks and repeated symbols to create patterns, Levis creates rhythm from scenes and images in precise, journalistic writing that recalls Carver’s “Cathedral” and Didion’s Salvador.
—Elliot Smith, MFA candidate in poetry