A committee of alumni worked closely with Professors Steven Leyva and Marion Winik to coordinate the event.
It doesn't matter who you are or what you do—you need to connect. In your personal life, your occupation, in your daily routines or toward your highest aspirations—you are looking for ways to find something in common with others. This is one of the reasons why alumni from The University of Baltimore are so committed to their alma mater. And it's why, even during the difficult times brought on by the pandemic, graduates young and old (plus their counterparts who are still in school) get together: to share stories, talk about successes and challenges and make plans. To connect.
With all of that passing as a simple truth, imagine being a graduate of the University's M.F.A. in Creative Writing & Publishing Arts. That's a solo endeavor, right? Writers don't (use your air quotes!) meet up and hang out. They don't like trading business cards. They're not known for sharing. But could it be that these writers, editors and publishers are, in the UBalt version of reality, some of the most sociable people around? And was their recent officially sanctioned gathering, held at a café in Parkville on a brisk, sunny Sunday afternoon in October, a sign that these alumni are seriously committed to showing their stuff and having a great time in the process?
The answer is a hearty yes, according to Profs. Betsy Boyd, Steven Leyva, M.F.A '12 and Marion Winik, the MFA faculty who coordinated the event with support from the Office of Alumni Relations. The event was a "Sweet 16" celebration, they say, in recognition of the 16th anniversary of the program, and in keeping with the program's annual book party and readings from the latest graduates.
"The inspiration for this event was to recognize and celebrate our graduates, who collectively have so many impressive achievements," Leyva and Winik say. "Wouldn't they love to re-connect, and meet some of the many other grads they might not know? We asked a few, and enthusiasm was high. Our idea was to gather them in a safe and celebratory way, capturing some of the magic that was lost to a year of quarantine."
They add that the 16th anniversary was happenstance—but "it dovetails with our feeling that our quirky, collaborative and relatively new M.F.A program is growing up and moving out of its adolescence."
The Ivy Bookshop sold books by graduate of the program. Pictured: Owner Emma Snyder and Professor Jane Delury.
Until this event, some of UBalt's best (and best-known) writers and publishing professionals were relying on their own informal, yet robust networks of fellow grads. Now, thanks to the gathering, an alumni directory is available for the program's hundreds of graduates to access. The M.F.A's real reach—which extends across the country and even into a handful of other places around the globe—is better than ever.
"University of Baltimore MFA graduates are everywhere. They're an essential part of the literary community in Baltimore," Winik and Leyva say. "They work in libraries, local bookstores, for publishers, magazines, websites, reading series, book festivals and writing programs. Independent publishing companies founded by our graduates have won national recognition, Publishing Genius and Mason Jar Press, particularly. In just about every creative sector of central Maryland you’ll run into UBalt Creative Writing & Publishing Arts alumni."
As various alumni and supporters moved from book table to the microphone, where they read from works new and familiar, the joy of the day was obvious. Who wouldn't want to be part of a community, sharing in what you love to do with other like-minded folks? Who isn't searching for that kind of affirmation, that chance to demonstrate self-confidence and competence in your chosen field?
The featured readings captivated a crowd of 150.
"Honestly, the alumni network feels more like a family reunion," says Emily Hansen, MFA '20, who leads the English department at the National Academy Foundation in Baltimore City and is the author of Hush Girls, a collection of short stories. "Events like the Sweet Sixteen allow me to market myself and share my book, but more than that, I am inspired daily by the alumni community. Anytime I go to a reading, I always do my best work in the days after. I feel like good writing is contagious."
Prof. Boyd, who directs the program as well as teaches within it, said she was delighted to meet up with graduates and current students who were getting to know each other during the event.
"It was lovely to see so many current students, including a couple of poets in their first semester of the MFA," she says. "They told me they were having a lot of fun and very glad they'd come, and they assured me they'd done their homework that was due the next day. There's such connectivity among and between the MFA classes, such a great community within our program. It's growing all the time."
It's not wrong to imagine the solitary writer, scratching away with pen and ink on some masterwork while tucked away in a dark corner of a public house. But that's just one picture—there are others, many of which are quite a bit more inviting.
"It's similar to the experience of going to see a movie in the theater versus watching it alone at home," Leyva and Winik point out. "Both experiences have their pleasures, but the power of a communal and participatory event is unique. It makes everything more tangible, more legible. For a writer, the thrill of experiencing one’s connection with one’s readers in real-time is unequalled."
"I have a pretty close group of other writers and alumni that I still share work with often," she says, noting that she is currently writing "a campy novel about two college students who are murder mystery podcast hosts" obsessed with a local crime. "Some of us send poems and small fiction pieces at random. It's one of my favorite things. Like, in the middle of a hard day, I love getting a surprise poem. It feels like being in on a secret. Once you get your degree, it is doubly important to find the joy in your work."
International slam champion and MFA graduate Lady Brion emceed the event.
For the professors, the gratification runs just as deep:
"Getting to see everyone together sharing stories, making plans, asking about what writing projects are upcoming, feeling the love and family vibe of the event, made us feel honored to have played a part in all those journeys. To look at the table of books by our graduates for sale by the Ivy Bookshop, to hear the reading by our featured alums, was an affirmation of all our hard work and commitment as professors. It's a legacy and it reminds us how much the world needs artists and writers."
That need is about connection—the need to be part of something larger, greater, smarter, more long-lasting.
"Literary community and literary citizenship are nothing more than the sum of all the conversations, events, publications and projects that writers and readers create together," they say. "The Sweet 16 was all about that. What a day!"
To learn more about the MFA in Creative Writing & Publishing Arts, go here.
Chris Hart, MFA '21, is the director of Communications at The University of Baltimore.