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On Women Composing a Writing Life

Apr 10 2012

Old Dominion University M.F.A. Creative Writing Program student Wendi White attended the 2012 Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) national conference in March. She queried a diverse group of women writers on how they have navigated the rocky waters of composing a writer’s life. She spoke with women authors of varying genres and ages about the empowerment strategies they have used to break through the barriers that women writers still experience. These conversations also explored what is needed for women to make continued progress in the profession.

Recently, I have pondered how fortunate I am to have that pen, paper, or iPad lying next to me on the table, ready to catch any fresh meaning I might squeeze from life. I realize that such easy license to write hasn’t always been available to women. In the not too distant past, a woman who wished to write was considered an oddity or a nuisance by her male peers. Nathaniel Hawthorne described the female authors of his day as those “damn scribbling women.” Samuel Johnson most famously shot down women speaking publicly with this critique, “Sir, a woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.”

Why was Johnson so surprised to hear a woman’s voice in church? Because 18th century English girls were rarely educated outside the home and thus were effectively silenced. If they learned to read (but not to write) in Puritan New England’s common schools, it was only so they might open the bible.

It used to be, not long ago, if you were a woman lucky enough to have a liberal arts education, raising your voice to engage the issues of the day through essays, novels or poetry was very dangerous business indeed. A lady risked her reputation; she might be deemed un-marriageable, divorced, or separated from her children and sent to an institution where she and the books that caused her “nervous anxiety”, her strange desire to stand on her principals and speak, would be locked away.

Despite this history, there have been exceptions across cultures and epochs where women’s literary contributions were encouraged. Naturally, such inclusive times produced some of the greatest literature, by both men and women. At this year’s Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) Conference, which took place in Chicago during the first week of March, I interviewed the accomplished poet and professor of creative writing at Illinois Wesleyan University, Joanne Diaz. She kindly reminded me that it stands to reason that Sappho was not the only female Greek poet of the 6th century. If we have her fragments, she must have flown from the shoulders of other women writers. No doubt she shared a sisterhood with other artists that allowed her to imagine herself as an author, and certainly the ancient Greeks and we, their cultural descendants, have been enriched by the permission to write Sappho enjoyed.

Diaz also offered the English Renaissance as an example of “a period when women were writing all the time…they were also literary patrons…so that there was culture where women were very prolific. I don’t presume that social sanctions have been the story of every woman writer’s life.” And to back this statement up with examples, Diaz referred me to Queen Elizabeth, Mary Sidney, Mary Wroth and Aemilia Lanyer. These powerful literary fore-mothers are well remembered when I feel tempted to succumb to a victim’s mentality, “Oh, how can I ever have anything to say, no one ever listens to women!” And I don’t have to draw my courage to pick up a pen from the Classical era and Renaissance alone. I have more recent role models to thank who struggled and succeeded in being heard, making my life as a writer much more likely.

For example, in Mary Wollstonecraft’s, “A Vindication of the Rights of Women” written two hundred and twenty years ago, Wollstonecraft argued compellingly against the “nattering naybobs” of her day, who saw women as fit only for the domestic joys of diaper-changing and husband-helping. She radically opined, “. . . that women are capable of rationality; it only appears that they are not, because men have refused to educate them and encouraged them to be frivolous.”

Today, in liberal arts classrooms across our country, you can draw a direct line from Ms. Wollstonecraft’s courageous refutation of gender bias through the first and second waves of feminism to an undergraduate student body that is now more female than male. The line that separates those who may speak from who may not has clearly shifted.

Diaz affirmed women’s progress, especially for the middle class students she teaches, by sharing that not only are her creative writing classrooms’ gender demographics at a 50/50 split, but also that the achievements of the young women she mentors are second to none. “They are incredibly focused, confident, attentive and engaged . . . They are meeting their male peers or exceeding them.” Diaz’s concerns are not for white middle class women authors “In the United States, white middle-class women have been the direct beneficiaries of a wide range of educational and cultural opportunities. My bigger concern is whether women of color and working-class women have the same access to these opportunities.”

In another interview, this time with women’s rights activist, poet and founder of the lesbian press, Arktoi Books, Eloise Klein Healy, I was cautioned not to assume that complete parity for women writers has been achieved. Healy responded to my data on women making up the majority of undergraduate and writing student as a sign of gender equity in the writing profession with the following caution: “To have more women in creative writing classes is not the same thing as being equally published. In fact, I can’t think of any journal where women authors predominate . . . and if you do get published, they don’t review you as much.”

I agree with Diaz that I enjoy a great deal of privilege as a white, woman writer from the middle class. No doubt the fact that I can hop on the internet and shout my truth to the world without fear of reprisal is a sign of great progress, but after speaking to Healy, I wanted some hard numbers. I went directly to the VIDA website to browse The Count. VIDA is a literary association that, according to their website, was “founded to address the need for female writers of literature to engage in conversations regarding the critical reception of women’s creative writing in our current culture.” The Count is an annual spreadsheet compiled by VIDA tallying the number of women’s essays, books reviews of women’s work and women’s poems that are published in the leading American literary journals.

What I found there confirmed what Healy had intimated, though it did not break out women’s publication numbers by ethnicity or class. Nonetheless, out of 13 publications not one had an equal number of women writers as men. You should check it out yourself, but to give you a taste, The Count pegs the New York Review of Books at 143 women authors to 627 men in 2011. After reading the count I concluded that women may have “come a long way, baby,” but not far enough to get them even a 25% publication share.

Healy has taken women’s unequal access to the publishing field seriously. She says that such inequity persists because of barriers to “networking, familiarity, and knowing the right people…The suits are not seeing women as writers because women are not being invited in to their clubs.” Her sense of the struggle was formed in the seventies when she claimed permission to write from reading and working with women like Audrey Lord, Margaret Atwood (the keynote speaker at this year’s AWP conference), and Adrienne Rich. “They gave me a sense of community and literary history. We taught ourselves to press our own books.”

Now she urges second wave writers like herself to “seek friendships with younger women, to create some dialogue so there is a place for (young women) to start from,” so they remember the victories won in their name. “After the first wave of feminism, much ground was lost because women did not recount their struggles and pass the baton to the next generation”. To avoid repeating that mistake, Klein Healy, of the second wave, mentors and publishes women from the third wave (and beyond), nurturing their belief in themselves because “the bigger rewards still go to the brothers.” (VIDA has those numbers, too.)

In mentoring, publishing, and teaching, both Joanne Diaz and Eloise Klein Healy are actively developing the next round of women’s voices headed for the stacks. But beyond their work with young writers, both poets have through their craft exemplified the best of what I would dare to call a woman’s aesthetic. Diaz’s poems are sensual and grounded in the body’s way of knowing. When I asked why her poems imagine the taste, smell and feel of things more than their appearance, she responded, “The body is how we know our world.” Healy’s poems, on the other hand, map out territories and divisions between genders, spheres of work, and realms of power often using the Greek goddess Artemis as a figure of womanly struggle.

In my final analysis, both poets lay claim to important aspects of a woman’s way of knowing and writing and their perspectives on our progress as writers complements rather than contradicts each other. After all, when you are up against boneheaded views of the sort that Samuel Johnson once spouted, you need confidence rooted in past victories, but you also must know that the struggle won’t be won in your lifetime. In both cases, there’s a story that has to be told, a poem that must be written, and a space that must be preserved for women, their words and the future.

Wendi White is an M.F.A. candidate in the Creative Writing Program at ODU, and the 2011 recipient of the ODU Graduate College Poetry Prize. She writes poetry about our only planet, imagining how we might live more mindfully upon it.

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Best-Selling Author Steve Almond to Speak at ODU October 27th

Oct 18 2011

ODU’s Creative Writing MFA program and the Friends of the MFA Program invite you to an afternoon with author Steve Almond! Almond’s new short-story collection God Bless America arrives in bookstores on October 25th, and on October 27th he’ll be reading selections, as well as answering some questions and signing books (as time permits). Almond is always an entertaining presence, and has been a real friend to the creative writing program over the last several years. The reading will take place in ODU’s Batten Arts and Letters building, room 1012, from 4:20 – 5:20 p.m. We expect this to be a popular event, so arrive early to make sure you get a seat!

Free parking is available in Garage C, located at 43rd and Hampton Blvd, from 3:00 to 6:00 PM on 10/27/11. Cars parked in other reserved spaces, or in Garage C at other times, are subject to towing.

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ODU – Poetry Society of Virginia – Academy of American Poets 2010-2011 COLLEGE POETRY PRIZE Winners

Mar 28 2011

The MFA Creative Writing Program thanks all the fine poets who participated in this year’s College Poetry Prize, Co-sponsored by the MFA Creative Writing Program, the Poetry Society of Virginia, and the Academy of American Poets. The College Poetry Prize is one of the longest running poetry prizes offered to college students in the nation; many of our best poets received a College Poetry Prize as their first literary recognition in their careers. We hope you will send us your best work again next year!

Sarah Goughnor (Undergraduate Winner) and Wendi White (Graduate Winner)

Honorable Mentions:
Sarah Goughnor and Elizabeth Dwyer (Undergraduate); Wendi White, Jeffrey Turner, and Heather Weddington (Graduate).

Adrian Matejka


The 2010-2011 contest was judged by Adrian Matejka. Matejka’s first collection of poems, The Devil’s Garden, won the 2002 Kinereth Gensler Award from Alice James Books. His second collection, Mixology, was a winner of the 2008 National Poetry Series and was published by Penguin Books in 2009. Mixology was subsequently nominated for an NAACP Image Award. He is the recipient of two Illinois Arts Council Literary Awards and fellowships from Cave Canem and the Lannan Foundation. His work has been featured in American Poetry Review, The Best American Poetry 2010, and Ploughshares among other journals and anthologies. He teaches at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville where he is the William and Margaret Going Endowed Professor for 2010-11.

Below are Matejka’s selections with comments:



“Thin Ice” by Sarah Goughnor is a lovely mediation on personal history and the way it relates to memory. What is so wonderful and surprising about the poem was the clarity of image. Moments like “My feet would glide over the glossy ripples / in the frozen water” and “I kept walking on thin ice just by believing I could” are engaging in their imaginary and stunning in their fragility, like the very ice itself.

Honorable Mentions:

“Mango” by Sarah Goughnor — The attention to detail and the tactile moments in this poem are striking. The imagery is reminiscent of one of my favorite William Matthews poems, “Onions.”

“Décor” by Elizabeth Dwyer — Really powerful allusions and surprising resolution in this poem. The tone reminds me of some of Charles Simic’s earlier writing.

“September, closet raider” by Elizabeth Dwyer — I love the play with tropes and emotional clarity in this poem. The tone is insistent while still maintaining its imaginative narrative.



“Galilei’s Glass” by Wendi White is a graceful and balanced poem that ruminates on our “proper position” in this sometimes unimaginable universe. The poem is full the kinds of linguistic revelations that bring the reader close like “the sidelines of the firmament” and “Jupiter festooned with moons.” Through these imaginative images, the poem reminds us to praise the smaller moments because it is through them that we understand the bigger world.

Honorable Mentions:

“Benediction” by Wendi White — This is a lovely poem of appreciation and reverence. The individual images are powerful and the linear rhythm is nearly a song in itself.

“Punctual” by Jeffrey Turner — I really appreciate the associative connections in this poem and the playfully expansive diction. It reminds me of some of Mary Jo Bang’s work in that way.

“Chosen Ancestry” by Heather Weddington — The way this poem weaves the historical and personal into one narrative is really wonderful. It draws its intellectual strength from the exterior and the emotional power from the poet’s insides.


Elizabeth Dwyer


Elizabeth Dwyer (two Undergraduate Honorable Mentions) is a senior at Old Dominion University and studies English with an emphasis in creative writing. She plans to attend graduate school and hopes to become a college Professor. She agrees with what T.S. Eliot has said about how genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.


Sarah Goughnor


Sarah Goughnor (Undergraduate Poetry Prize Winner plus Honorable Mention) is a native of Herndon, Virginia and a sophomore at Old Dominion University. She is majoring in English with a concentration in creative writing, and hopes to minor in vocal performance. The College Poetry Prize is the first writing award Sarah has received since the sixth grade, and is a deeply appreciated boost to her self-confidence.


Jeffrey Turner (Graduate Honorable Mention) grew up in Plymouth, MA. He completed a baccalaureate degree in philosophy at Dickinson College. He is a first year MFA Creative Writing student at Old Dominion.

Heather Weddington (Graduate Honorable Mention) is a third year student in the MFA Creative Writing Program, and the recipient of the Sutelan Scholarship. In summer 2010 she received a work-study scholarship to the Juniper Writers Instutite at the University of Massachussetts in Amherst.

Wendi White


Wendi White (Graduate Poetry Prize Winner) comes to Norfolk, Virginia after an odd assortment of sojourns in Austin, Boston, Mexico, Guatemala, The Philippines, and originally, The Adirondack Mountains of New York. She was drawn to Tidewater by a siren song promising crab cakes and fried oysters on a regular basis. At home she keeps one husband, two sons, a dog named Charlie, and too many books to count.


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Kristin Naca Q&A with John-Henry Doucette

Mar 11 2011

John-Henry Doucette, an MFA student at ODU, got the chance to interview poet-in-residence Kristin Naca last June on issues of craft in relation to her book of poems, Bird Eating Bird. John recently posted portions of that interview on his blog–check it out.

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Mar 11 2011

Kristin Naca, our writer-in-residence this semester, will be on campus next week. Check out the news posting for more.

Old Dominion University visiting poet-in-residence Kristin Naca, the author of “Bird Eating Bird,” will give a poetry reading and book signing at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, March 17, in the University Village Bookstore.

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Senior Scholar Lecture: Sheri Reynolds

Mar 07 2011

Sheri Reynolds, one of our professors in the MFA Creative Writing Program, will be giving the College of Arts and Letters Spring 2011 Senior Scholar Lecture this year on Tuesday, March 22, 2011. She’ll be giving the lecture, titled, “A Story Untold: One Writer’s Exploration of Anxiety and Imagination” in the Burgess Room (9024) of the Batten Arts & Letters building (BAL).

The reception will begin at 3:30 and the lecture will start at 4.

We’ll see you there, right?

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This time tomorrow,

Feb 01 2011

the pilgrimage of the ODU MFA faculty and students to DC for AWP 2011 will be well-underway. You can find us at table F31 in Hall A (check this nifty map if you want to hunt us down more efficiently). You can also catch our MFA faculty at the “Barely South: Writers from the MFA Program at Old Dominion University” panel, which will be held on Thursday, February 3rd from 1:30-2:45PM in the Hampton Ball Room located in the Omni Shoreham’s east lobby (details @ Facebook).

Speaking of the MFA faculty–we’ve got a real treat for you; drop by our table on Friday for book signings. You can catch John McManus, Luisa Igloria & Blake Bailey at 11AM, and Sheri Reynolds, Mike Pearson & Tim Seibles at 2PM.

If all else fails, just look for the cool kids.

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Why, aren’t you a crafty bunch?

Jan 17 2011

Welcome, you street-smart, word-wily masterminds–BSR’s timely craft issue is here. Way back in October, we had the good fortune to make the acquaintance of the readers for the 33rd annual ODU Literary Festival; not only did we have the good sense to sit down, shut up and silence our cell phones, but we also talked our way into a real coup–craft interviews with almost all of the authors who came in for the event. While we were at first inclined to spirit this treasure-trove off to our very-own deserted island, we’ve instead decided to share it with the lot of you. So go on, quit wasting time–hit up the craft-interview bonanza (plus poems, stories and excerpts from the visiting writers!)

P.S. Those of you with submissions in, now that our third issue is in the bag, we’ll be turning our attention towards pending notifications.

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Pushcart nods in the ODU family

Dec 03 2010

Congratulations to ODU MFA Alumna Princess Perry on receiving a Pushcart nomination from Kweli Journal and current MFA Creative Writing Program Director Luisa Igloria on her nomination from Asia Writes.

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The MFA Creative Writing Program at ODU

Nov 30 2010

Behind the production of the Barely South Review are the students and faculty of the MFA Creative Writing Program at Old Dominion University. If you’ve thought of joining us, we encourage you to look closely at our outstanding faculty roster in the different genres – core faculty members Sheri Reynolds, John McManus and Janet Peery (fiction), Luisa Igloria and Tim Seibles (Poetry), and Michael Pearson (Nonfiction). We also have a Writer-in-Residence Program which brings one writer of national reputation to campus each semester for two weeks. Writers-in-residence have included Bonnie Jo Campbell, Blake Bailey, Brian Turner, Denise Duhamel, Maribeth Fischer, Greg Bottoms, Kent Nelson, Richard Jones, Eloise Klein Healy, Sandra Scofield, Earl Swift, and Marilyn Chin.

Applicants to the MFA Creative Writing Program must have completed a bachelor’s degree from an accredited institution with a minimum GPA of 3.0 AND a minimum of 24 credit hours in English with at least a B Average. The GRE is also required. Students who have not yet completed 24 undergraduate hours in English may be admitted provisionally and make up the required number of undergraduate English credits at ODU.

Admissions & program links:
General (degree) admission process
Non-degree admission process
Additional Program information

The MFA Creative Writing Program at ODU typically has 10 competitive, funded assistantships (which include tuition waivers — in the past we have been fortunate to have the waivers cover most if not all of the tuition) from the College of Arts and Letters.

Students must indicate at the time of application to the program that they are interested in applying for funding. Students who eventually wind up in these positions must be registered for a full graduate load (9 credits a semester). Typically, assistantships are for teaching (at least 1 class per semester); or for working in the Writing Tutorial Services; other assistantships are research assistant positions. Again, please note that these numbers are average and may vary from academic year to year depending on the availability of college funds. Assistantships require 20 hours of work per week.

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