Q&A with Jeanetta Calhoun Mish
By Erika Dreifus
I spent a wonderful weekend in January visiting the Red Earth Creative Writing MFA (REMFA) program, a low-residency program based at Oklahoma City University. This program is directed by Jeanetta Calhoun Mish, whom I had the pleasure of meeting at the 2015 Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) conference in Minneapolis. Jeanetta continued to impress me throughout our correspondence in the months between AWP and my visit to the Red Earth program; during my days in Oklahoma City, it became increasingly obvious that I was not the only one to be dazzled by her many talents. And I became eager to host her for a Q&A.
Jeanetta Calhoun Mish is a scholar, poet, and prose writer; she completed her PhD in American Literature in 2009 and has published critical articles on Lorna Dee Cervantes and Demetria Martínez, among others. Her most recent books are OKLAHOMELAND: ESSAYS (Lamar University Press, 2015) and a poetry collection, WHAT I LEARNED AT THE WAR (West End Press, 2016). Her 2009 poetry collection WORK IS LOVE MADE VISIBLE won the Western Heritage Award, the WILLA Award from Women Writing the West, and the Oklahoma Book Award. Her 2002 chapbook TONGUE TIED WOMAN won the national Edda Poetry Chapbook for Women contest sponsored by Soulspeak Press. She is editor of award-winning Mongrel Empire Press and contributing editor to the literary journal SUGAR MULE and to OKLAHOMA TODAY. She is Director of and a faculty mentor for the Red Earth Creative Writing MFA Program at Oklahoma City University.
Please welcome Jeanetta Calhoun Mish.
ERIKA DREIFUS (ED): Jeanetta, I can attest from direct experience that you have something very special in the Red Earth MFA program. Please tell us a bit about your vision for the program.
JEANETTA CALHOUN MISH (JCM): Our vision for the program (I say “our” because our English department chair, our dean, our faculty, and our students actively endorse it) is to create a true writing community — supportive, amiable, and engaged (both within the program and in the surrounding communities) — where writer-relationships that last years can be formed. We believe that it’s possible — preferable — to be rigorous in academics and craft while at the same time nurturing a supportive community. I think “rigorous” is often interpreted as requiring hostile competitiveness; we choose not to interpret it that way. Moreover, the Oklahoma cultural insistence on “good manners” goes a long way toward easing the often uncomfortable experience of a bunch of creative individuals learning how to get along with each other. I promote this communal aesthetic based on my own writing-life-history: I did not have a writing community for many years and when I found one (first with other Oklahoma writers and then in our MFA program), I was awed by how it improved my writing and my attitude to life in general.
ED: I know that it’s not uncommon for MFA program directors to telephone admitted students to welcome them/encourage them to attend. But I understand that you have a conversation with every applicant before the admissions decisions are made. Please tell us more about that.
JCM: The practice of visiting with applicants began accidentally: when someone queries about the program, I send an informative email, and in that email I offer to answer any additional questions or concerns by phone appointment. It turned out that talking to applicants was the best way to explain how a low residency program works and to ease worries about fitting a graduate program into their already busy lives (most of our students are nontraditional; most have full-time jobs and families).
I soon learned that talking to prospective students on the phone was a good way to gauge how they would blend into our community — to get a feel for those qualities of amiability and supportiveness. I also describe the ambiance of our program to prospective students — it could be that we’ve had prospects who weren’t interested in engaging with a new community during their MFA and so chose not to apply. I imagine our communal atmosphere is not everyone’s cup of tea. Have we ever turned anyone down based solely on those conversations? No, not yet. Would we ever turn down prospects whose writing samples were good but who seemed as though they might not thrive within our community? Maybe. We (faculty and students) are both protective of our Red Earth MFA community and concerned for every individual writer’s well-being.
ED: Since returning from my visit to the Red Earth MFA program, I’ve read your powerful book WORK IS LOVE MADE VISIBLE: POETRY AND FAMILY PHOTOGRAPHS (2009); next up is OKLAHOMELAND: ESSAYS (2015). Please tell us a bit about any current project(s) you’re working on these days.
JCM: Well, at this very moment, I’m taking a little bit of a breather, because my new poetry collection, WHAT I LEARNED AT THE WAR, will be out any day now from the wonderful people at West End Press. I have a very strange writer-tic: When I put a book to bed, I don’t write for about a month, and having two books out within a few months means that I haven’t been writing much lately although I’m dutifully flagging submission calls. I am on the board of an Oklahoma literary nonprofit that is putting together an OKC LitFest for April — I’m helping identify and invite readers. I’m also doing book tours: Oklahoma in April, Texas and Oklahoma in the fall, and I hope to get to New York at some point for a working-class writing reading series a friend has started.
ED: As if you’re not busy enough, I learned while I was in Oklahoma City that you also run a small press! Details, please!
JCM: We (my husband and I) started Mongrel Empire Press in 2007, after a conversation with another Oklahoma poet — fueled by my husband’s monumental margaritas — about the difficulty of publishing vernacular Oklahoma writing. At the time, Village Books Press (owned by my friend and Oklahoma literary icon Dorothy Alexander) was (and is still) publishing Oklahoma-centered books, but there were more authors and books than she could keep up with. I discovered that I loved typesetting books and designing covers — it scratches the visual art itch. Our publications are in poetry, creative nonfiction, fiction, regional/cultural history, and regional literary reprints. We are dedicated to developing and publishing regional authors, but we have also published writers from Oregon, Michigan, California, and Missouri. We just published our 38th book, by Greenfield Center (New York) Abenaki author Joseph Bruchac.
ED: What is perhaps the most significant “lesson learned” about the craft and/or business of writing that you’d share with our readers?
JCM: You don’t have to do it alone. Not any of it: writing, publishing, editing, promotion. Be a good literary citizen in your community — and your community will be good to you when you need help.
ED: Anything else you’d like to tell us?
JCM: I would like to say one more thing about the Red Earth MFA. I’m extremely proud that we have presented, since the program’s third residency, a free, community-service writing workshop. Initially, the workshop was held at a shelter for homeless women and their children. For the past two-and-a-half years, we’ve presented year-round weekly workshops at the Ralph Ellison Public Library in Oklahoma City, in an underserved community. The workshops are currently facilitated by three great writers: our assistant director, Rob Roensch, and two community volunteers, Timothy Bradford and Chad Reynolds. REMFA student volunteers do the teaching. It’s just another way The Red Earth MFA expresses its engagement with community and support for writers.
ED: Thank you, Jeanetta!
A version of this Q&A appeared in the February 2016 issue of The Practicing Writer.