MFA Program for Poets and Writers at UMass Amherst Among Tops in Nation, Says <i>Poets & Writers Magazine</i>

AMHERST, Mass. – The Master of Fine Arts Program for Poets and Writers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst is among the best graduate creative writing programs in the country, according to Poets & Writers Magazine.

“This high ranking is wonderful news, but not surprising,” said Joseph Bartolomeo, who chairs the English Department at UMass Amherst. “It confirms what we already know: the extraordinary talent and dedication of our MFA faculty and students is a source of great pride to the department and the university.”

“The past 10 years especially have seen an explosion of productivity for MFA program candidates and alumni,” said Pushcart Prize-winner Lisa Olstein, associate director of the program. “Our poets and writers are winning major awards—from the Pulitzer Prize to the Berlin Fellowship—and publishing books at unprecedented rates. They’ve founded some of contemporary letters’ most important new journals and presses and they contribute to the field in myriad other ways from teaching to literary arts programming. Most importantly, they continue to write vital, original, outstanding poetry and prose.”

The rankings, which appear in the magazine’s November/December issue, place UMass Amherst 4th in poetry and 5th in fiction to tie with the University of Texas at Austin for No. 4 on the list of top 50 programs.

Founded in 1963, the MFA Program for Poets and Writers has just seven faculty members, but their honors include a Pulitzer Prize, given in 1992 to poet James Tate, four Guggenheim fellowships, a PEN/Faulkner Award, a National Book Award and two Pushcart Prizes for poetry. Two years ago, alumna Natasha Trethewey won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry, adding to the reputation of the program.

The rankings are based on an online poll of more than 500 current and prospective MFA applicants between October 2008 and April 2009. The survey was conducted on the two largest online communities for MFA applicants, Suburban Ecstasies and MFA Weblog. UMass Amherst garnered 132 votes and was topped only by the University of Iowa (253), University of Michigan (169) and the University of Virginia (144).

The magazine also ranks the top 50 MFA programs according to total funding, annual funding, selectivity, and the postgraduate placement of alumni in highly regarded, short-term fellowships. Other data is provided for the length of programs, the number of students admitted each year, cost of living, financial aid packages, teaching loads and whether programs emphasize poetry or fiction.

“Because there are 140 full-residency MFA Programs in the United State, any school whose numerical ranking is in the top 50 in any of the ranked categories—the overall rankings; rankings in the poetry, fiction, or nonfiction genres, or the rankings by funding, selectivity, and postgraduate placement—should be considered exceptional in that category,” writes the article’s author, Seth Abramson, a doctoral candidate at the University of Wisconsin.

Fiction writer Sabina Murray, who directs the MFA program, said, “The ranking only confirms what I see in the classroom. Our MFA students are dedicated and innovative, critical thinkers and consistently surprising writers. A dedicated faculty helps, but responsiveness and effort on the part of our graduate writers and poets has really started to bear fruit. It gives me no small satisfaction to know that our students and graduates—despite their dedication to a difficult profession—can enjoy this recognition now.”

Like his colleagues, poet Peter Gizzi gives a lot of the credit to the nearly 80 students who pursue their craft during their MFA studies.

“Our program is filled with writers who are intelligent and passionate about writing and are open to a myriad of approaches to the art,” said Gizzi, “I like the feel of the place, no bells and whistles. Just the basics. Integrity, passion, hard work and more hard work.”