Making it big

In August, PSU students Nico Alvarado and Janine Oshiro will enter the poetry-writing program at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa.

Admission to the Iowa program is the most highly sought ticket for student poets in the United States. If Harvard Law represents a pinnacle destination for aspiring lawyers, MIT for engineers, and Julliard for musicians, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop – “Iowa” for short – is the mecca for students of poetry and creative writing.

Iowa admitted 20 poetry students for the coming year, and PSU capturing two of those spots is almost unprecedented.

“When I was trying to figure out where to go for an MFA [master of fine arts], I made a list, and Iowa wasn’t even on it,” Oshiro said. “It seemed so mythic, like it wasn’t within my grasp. But then [Portland State English professor] Michele [Glazer] saw that it wasn’t on my list and said that it had to be.”

Alvarado nodded in agreement. “I’d looked into it, but the more I looked, the more I was put off. It seemed really clubby and elitist, and not me. I decided that if I got in, I’d tell them no just for the heck of it.”

But both were admitted, and neither said no. They visited Iowa and liked what they saw.

“It seemed like such a fevered, intense place,” Oshiro said.

Alvarado agreed. “The people were all stark raving lunatics! All they wanted to do was talk about poetry. It was terrific!”

“I’m not really clear if it’s going to change my life,” Oshiro said. “But I have a clear vision of what it’s going to do for my poems. I’ll learn a new language, new ways to approach poetry.”

The Iowa Writers’ Workshop was the first creative writing degree program in the United States and is the model for contemporary writing programs. Iowa alumni have won a dozen Pulitzer Prizes and a long list of other honors. Four U.S. Poets Laureate are Iowa graduates, and the list of graduates and instructors reads like a who’s who of modern U.S. literature, including Flannery O’Connor, Wallace Stegner, Raymond Carver, John Irving, William Stafford and Robert Frost.

Hear graduate poets read

Portland State graduate student poets are having a public reading Friday, May 13, at 7 p.m. in SMSU 333. Nine poets, including Nico Alvarado, will read from their work.

“Both Nico and Janine could go to any other program in the country and do very well,” Glazer said. “They would write their poems and publish their poems. They would grow as writers.”

“Iowa doesn’t promise anyone a successful literary career,” she said. “But it offers opportunities that smaller programs can’t. Janine and Nico can look forward to a couple of intensely stimulating and challenging years where unexpected pollinations will happen.”

“Iowa starts to feel like a gatekeeper,” Alvarado said. “A shockingly high number of published poets are Iowa grads.”

“I’m not under any illusion that it’s going to be a ticket into instant poetry stardom,” Oshiro said, “but it’s a great chance to learn from some amazing poets.”

Both Alvarado and Oshiro were also admitted to the prestigious master of fine arts program at Washington University in St. Louis.

“It’s funny because Washington only admits five or six poetry students each year, so the fact that we were both accepted into that program is even more startling than the fact we both got into Iowa,” Alvarado said. “But Washington just isn’t the same story.”

“Iowa’s a hurdle all by itself,” Oshiro agreed. “It’s mythic and kind of intimidating.”

“Washington’s program is more traditional,” Alvarado said. “You write poetry, but you also take lit classes and write papers. Going there would have felt like going away to school all over again. Going to Iowa means that we get to focus two years on just poetry.”

Oshiro nodded. “I’ve been a grad assistant for three years, which has included teaching and working in the writing center,” she said. “I taught an intro to poetry class once. That was really fun.”

“All of her students hated it,” Alvarado joked. “They all left and became bankers.”

After poking Alvarado, Oshiro continued. “I’ve loved it, but all the work hasn’t left much time for writing and thinking about poetry. At Iowa we’ll have two years to be completely self-absorbed and self-indulgent, to think about nothing but poems.”

In December, Alvarado graduated from Portland State with a bachelor’s in English. He will attend Iowa with a Maytag Scholarship and stipend.

Oshiro is a third-year student in the master’s writing program at Portland State She has won a prestigious Dean’s Graduate Fellowship to Iowa, the proverbial “full ride.”

Their program begins at the end of August. Now, both students wax philosophic in considering Portland State and their teachers.

“PSU has made all of this possible. Everything I know about literature and language, I’ve learned here,” Alvarado said. “If it weren’t for Michele Glazer and Henry Carlisle, I’d probably still be working at a convenience store.”

“The writing program at PSU is just getting better and better,” Oshiro said. “Working with Michele has changed my life. She’s a rare breed of an amazing poet and an amazing teacher.”

“What Nico and Janine’s success says about our state and city is particularly important,” Glazer said. “It underscores the need for an MFA program at PSU.”

During the two-year Iowa program, Oshiro and Alvarado will complete a master’s in poetry. It is a terminal degree for writers, analogous to the dictorate in other disciplines.

The Iowa program takes a somewhat unconventional approach to its proscribed course of study. Students don’t take traditional lit and writing classes, and don’t earn grades. All of their time is spent in poetry seminars and workshops.

“One of the most important things about poetry is community, having other poets around,” said Alvarado. “Someone brings in something they’ve written, and it knocks you on your ass because it’s so amazing, and you hate them because you wish you’d written it yourself.”

“Right now, we spend lots of time sitting around reading poetry and writing poetry and talking about poetry,” he said. “In the real world, that cuts into a lot of other things. At Iowa, we won’t have to worry about that. Poetry will be all we have to do.”

“We’ll actually work harder in the seminars than we would in traditional lit and writing classes. We won’t waste any energy,” Oshiro added.

The culminating project at Iowa is a creative thesis – for poets, a collection of poems.

“We’ll have a nervous breakdown,” Alvarado said, laughing as he considered the first thing he and Oshiro would do upon arrival at Iowa.

“I’m really glad Nico and I are going together,” Oshiro said. “We’ve worked together and inspired each other for quite a while now. It’ll be good to go into this new experience and know that we share this experience from PSU.”

“Having Janine around has been significant. I do the opposite of what she does and it comes out great,” Alvarado said. Oshiro grinned.

“Seriously, you learn from the people you study with,” he said. “You have to suspend judgment – read everything, try everything.”

“It’s important to always set up challenges for yourself,” Oshiro said. “You can’t be satisfied with what you think a poem should be. You have to stay committed to the search, to reaching out and finding out what might be possible.”