By Luisa A. Igloria

2024: a milestone year which marks the 30th anniversary of Old Dominion University’s MFA Creative Writing Program. Its origins can be said to go back to April 1978, when the English Department’s (now Professor Emeritus, retired) Phil Raisor organized the first “Poetry Jam,” in collaboration with Pulitzer prize-winning poet W.D. Snodgrass (then a visiting poet at ODU). Raisor describes this period as “a heady time.” Not many realize that from 1978 to 1994, ODU was also the home of AWP (the Association of Writers and Writing Programs) until it moved to George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.

The two-day celebration that was “Poetry Jam” has evolved into the annual ODU Literary Festival, a week-long affair at the beginning of October bringing writers of local, national, and international reputation to campus. The ODU Literary Festival is among the longest continuously running literary festivals nationwide. It has featured Rita Dove, Maxine Hong Kingston, Susan Sontag, Edward Albee, John McPhee, Tim O’Brien, Joy Harjo, Dorothy Allison, Billy Collins, Naomi Shihab Nye, Sabina Murray, Jane Hirshfield, Brian Turner, S.A. Cosby, Nicole Sealey, Franny Choi, Ross Gay, Adrian Matejka, Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Ilya Kaminsky, Marcelo Hernandez Castillo, Jose Olivarez, and Ocean Vuong, among a roster of other luminaries. MFA alumni who have gone on to publish books have also regularly been invited to read.

From an initial cohort of 12 students and three creative writing professors, ODU’s MFA Creative Writing Program has grown to anywhere between 25 to 33 talented students per year. Currently they work with a five-member core faculty (Kent Wascom, John McManus, and Jane Alberdeston in fiction; and Luisa A. Igloria and Marianne L. Chan in poetry). Award-winning writers who made up part of original teaching faculty along with Raisor (but are now also either retired or relocated) are legends in their own right—Toi Derricotte, Tony Ardizzone, Janet Peery, Scott Cairns, Sheri Reynolds, Tim Seibles, and Michael Pearson. Other faculty that ODU’s MFA Creative Writing Program was privileged to briefly have in its ranks include Molly McCully Brown and Benjamín Naka-Hasebe Kingsley.

"What we’ve also found to be consistently true is how collegial this program is — with a lively and supportive cohort, and friendships that last beyond time spent here."

— Luisa A. Igloria, Louis I. Jaffe Endowed Professor & University Professor of English and Creative Writing at Old Dominion University

Our student body is diverse — from all over the country as well as from closer by. Over the last ten years, we’ve also seen an increase in the number of international students who are drawn to what our program has to offer: an exciting three-year curriculum of workshops, literature, literary publishing, and critical studies; as well as opportunities to teach in the classroom, tutor in the University’s Writing Center, coordinate the student reading series and the Writers in Community outreach program, and produce the student-led literary journal Barely South Review. The third year gives our students more time to immerse themselves in the completion of a book-ready creative thesis. And our students’ successes have been nothing but amazing. They’ve published with some of the best (many while still in the program), won important prizes, moved into tenured academic positions, and been published in global languages. What we’ve also found to be consistently true is how collegial this program is — with a lively and supportive cohort, and friendships that last beyond time spent here.

Our themed studio workshops are now offered as hybrid/cross genre experiences. My colleagues teach workshops in horror, speculative and experimental fiction, poetry of place, poetry and the archive — these give our students so many more options for honing their skills. And we continue to explore ways to collaborate with other programs and units of the university. One of my cornerstone projects during my term as 20th Poet Laureate of the Commonwealth was the creation of a Virginia Poets Database, which is not only supported by the University through the Perry Library’s Digital Commons, but also by the MFA Program in the form of an assistantship for one of our students. With the awareness of ODU’s new integration with Eastern Virginia Medical School (EVMS) and its impact on other programs, I was inspired to design and pilot a new 700-level seminar on “Writing the Body Fantastic: Exploring Metaphors of Human Corporeality.” In the fall of 2024, I look forward to a themed graduate workshop on “Writing (in) the Anthropocene,” where my students and I will explore the subject of climate precarity and how we can respond in our own work.

Even as the University and wider community go through shifts and change through time, the MFA program has grown with resilience and grace. Once, during the six years (2009-15) that I directed the MFA Program, a State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV) university-wide review amended the guidelines for what kind of graduate student would be allowed to teach classes (only those who had already earned 18 or more graduate credits). Thus, two of our first-year MFA students at that time had to be given another assignment for their Teaching Assistantships. I thought of AWP’s hallmarks of an effective MFA program, which lists the provision of editorial and publishing experience to its students through an affiliated magazine or press — and immediately sought department and upper administration support for creating a literary journal. This is what led to the creation of our biannual Barely South Review in 2009.

In 2010, HuffPost and Poets & Writers listed us among “The Top 25 Underrated Creative Writing MFA Programs” (better underrated than overrated, right?) — and while our MFA Creative Writing Program might be smaller than others, we do grow good writers here. When I joined the faculty in 1998, I was excited by the high caliber of both faculty and students. Twenty-five years later, I remain just as if not more excited, and look forward to all the that awaits us in our continued growth.

This essay was originally published in the Spring 2024 edition of Barely South Review, ODU’s student-led literary journal. The University’s growing MFA in Creative Writing program connects students with a seven-member creative writing faculty in fiction, poetry, and nonfiction.