Award winning poet, and author Rodger Kamenetz pioneered the MFA in Creative Writing Program at LSU, gaining LSU Board of Supervisors approval in 1984, thus becoming the program’s founding director. In the first installment of a series of Q & A interviews representing past, present, and future of LSU Creative Writing, we asked Dr. Kamenetz about his tenure at LSU, developing our graduate studies program, and how teaching influenced his career.
LSU CWP: When did you realize the need for a graduate degree program in Creative Writing at LSU?
RK: When I was being interviewed in the summer of 1981 for a tenure track job teaching poetry and non-fiction at LSU, Gale Carrithers, the chair of the department, was very interested in creating an MFA program. He’d been chair at SUNY-Buffalo which had a successful program. LSU had a very good undergraduate program at the time, stemming from the leadership of David Madden who was writer-in-residence, and with the work of Warren Eyster, Jim Bennett and Kit Hathaway among others. I liked the idea. I thought that with the Southern Review and LSU Press already nationally prominent, an MFA program would be a good fit for LSU.
In our early years, the younger faculty, me, Moira Crone, Jim Bennett, Pat Geary worked really hard to invigorate creative writing and there was a lot of excitement that built a base for the MFA. We had a sense that students would be part of a literary culture, which included writing, publishing, editing magazines, and lots of poetry and fiction readings. The MFA program emerged out of this invigorated undergraduate program as a group effort with lots of energy and excitement. We had a number of excellent poets who’d been hired as instructors including Sandra Alcosser and David Rigsbee. Andrei Codrescu came along. We were bringing in major poets through the Gathering of Poets program at the LSU Union including Robert Duncan, Carolyn Kizer and Alice Notley. The Dean’s Office also supported us and we brought in John Ashbery, and some visiting prose writers, including John Barth. Most of the new creative writing faculty were focused on the national scene, at the time we all aspired to publish in New York with trade houses, and most of us succeeded, so we shook off any sense of provincialism or regionalism.
LSU CWP: What were some of the biggest challenges in establishing the MFA in Creative Writing Program?
RK: I was director of the undergrad program and charged with writing the MFA program to get departmental approval. There were just a whole lot of meetings, and many documents that had to be written in order to prepare a proposal for the LSU Board of Supervisors and the Board of Regents. We also had to create a bunch of new graduate courses, including “forms of fiction” and “forms of poetry” and get those approved. So a lot of meetings, and a lot of paperwork. The Board of Supervisors approved the program in the spring of 1984, and then that next year, as we were waiting on final approval from the Board of Regents, I continued to serve as director of creative writing while we conducted a search for a permanent director and also brought in our first class. In our original design for the program, we thought we’d bring in a series of big names as visiting professors, but some felt that we needed a senior person to run the program. We were all a bunch of assistant professors. So we ended up hiring Vance Bourjaily who came on board in the fall of 1985. Meanwhile we were shifting students out of an existing MA program into our MFA so we were already building our first class.
LSU CWP: In what ways did pioneering, and directing a creative writing graduate program influence your career?
RK: I don’t know that directing a program really influenced my writing career, if anything it can be a real distraction. It’s the kind of job that should be cycled around if possible if only to keep people from losing track of their focus on writing. And to keep things fresh. I believe the passion and intensity that go with good writing are not qualities that necessarily work very well in bureaucratic situations. I don’t believe poets are put on this earth to “get along”, and the old LSU culture we came into in the early 80’s was definitely defined as ‘go along to get along’ which was anathema to me. It was kind of an old boy’s school. So someone with a lot of intensity and energy was needed to get the thing started and that was my role. And over time the department itself shook off its moss and became more diverse, and more nationally and globally oriented.
I had been hired originally at LSU because I could teach both poetry and non-fiction, and the non-fiction led me to write The Jew in the Lotus an account of the first recorded dialogue between major Jewish and Buddhist religious leaders. That book became a best-seller and is still in print twenty years later, so I think that was probably the most decisive thing that happened in terms of my career as a writer. It took me way out of the confines of Allen Hall into a world of very open-minded religious dialogue. However, a little Louisiana demon David Duke came along and I ended up organizing faculty against him, and the next thing you know, that led me to be the founding director of the Jewish Studies Minor, and to end up with a dual appointment in the Religious Studies department. So I helped start two programs at LSU.
I also played a strong role in many of the important hires. I chaired the committee that hired Laura Mullen, which I’m proud of, and also served on the committee that hired James Wilcox. I think I’m good at starting things, but then I get restless, and other people are much better than I am at keeping them going and they deserve most of the credit.
LSU CWP: Undoubtedly you inspired and influenced your students. In what ways did your students inspire you?
RK: When I first came to LSU, teaching undergrads, I was so excited to be teaching poetry at the university level, I think I got a bit evangelical. I believe my very first sophomore poetry class, about 25% of the people went on to try poetry as a career. One of those very first students, Martha Serpas, has gone on to a truly distinguished career as a poet. I wasn’t much older than they were. When you are teaching students who are enthusiastic, they make you enthusiastic. In my early years I had a very strong focus on the subject matter, on helping students improve their poetry and their prose. I’d been influenced by urban poets, and antithetical poets, like New York School and Black Mountain, and at that time, this was counter to the more academic poetry being written. I’d come from an urban scene in Baltimore and also tasted New York and San Francisco, so I didn’t think poetry should be confined to the classroom. So I was passionate about the content. In later years—I think I became a better teacher because I appreciated the energy and openness of the students more and more, and I realized what a privilege it was just to be hanging out with brash, talented, eccentric, witty people who shared the same dream I had.
LSU CWP: What advice would you offer to current, and prospective graduate, and undergraduate students?
RK: Be impractical. That’s the most practical thing you can do if you are a poet or a writer.