Congratulations to Our Second Graduating Class of MFA Writers!

MFA class of 2019 with creative writing faculty: [Left to right, front row] Emma Stough (Fiction), McKayla Watkins (Poetry), Emily Rosko; [second row] Sarah Mullins (Poetry), John Byrne (Poetry), Christine McSwain (Fiction); [third row] Lindsey Drager, Thomas Coughlin (Poetry); [fourth row] Tony Varallo, Jonathan Heinen, Bret Lott; [top] Gary Jackson

Look out, world!  Here comes an amazing crew of newly minted-MFA students. We’re excited to see where their writing takes them next!

The Paris Review Editor Visits Campus to Talk with MFA Students

In early April, we were absolutely delighted to host Emily Nemens, the Editor of The Paris Review, on campus for the year’s final event in our MFA Professionalization Series. This series was initiated to give our MFA students the opportunity to meet and mingle with publishers and literary agents, editors and writers who have deep experience working in the world of arts and letters. Over the past three years, through these events, our MFA students have learned about career paths in publishing/editing, about the business side of writing and of being a writer, about book reviewing and book-making.

Read more about this event at The College Today, “Editor of ‘The Paris Review’ Lends Advice to MFA Students.”

Editor of ‘The Paris Review’ Lends Advice to MFA Students

Winners of the MFA Creative Writing Prizes

Congratulations to Christine McSwain and Katrina Smolinsky, the winners of the 2019 MFA Creative Writing Prizes! Each will receive $500.

Christine McSwain (MFA Fiction ’19). Her story, “Lash Larue’s Back,” was selected by judge Michael Kardos.

Kat Smolinksy (MFA Poetry ’20). Her poem, “Ecstasy with Caravaggio’s Francis (On Angel),” was selected by judge Jennifer Moore.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Working for the Avery Research Center for African American History & Culture

All year, Thomas Coughlin and Ren Jones worked twenty hours a week at the Avery Research Center learning the art of special documents preservation and reckoning with South Carolina history firsthand. Here are their takes on what they did and learned.

Thomas Coughlin

When the Avery Research Center posted positions for graduate assistants for the 2018-2019 Academic Year, I was excited to learn more about its history and collection. Now in my final weeks as a graduate assistant at the Avery Research Center (and candidate in the MFA program), I am so proud to have worked for this august institution here at the College of Charleston.

The range and depth of my work with Avery and the Race and Social Justice Initiative (RSJI) have exceeded my expectations for the kind of work available to a graduate assistant. Avery has afforded me the opportunity to serve its mission: to collect, preserve, and promote the history and culture of African Americans in the Lowcountry. Through hands-on work in the archival collections and with the public events Avery and RSJI sponsor, I have gained special but essential knowledge and experience: I have developed my editorial skills and acquired knowledge of archival best practices, all toward learning the mutual influences of history and activism.

The history of Avery begins in the months after the Confederate surrender at Appomattox, when former abolitionists from the American Missionary Association founded Avery Normal Institute, a school for Black Charlestonians. The school lasted until 1954, having been turned to a public high school in 1947 and shuttered by the Charleston County school board as part of funding cuts after the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown vs. Board. In 1978, its alumni and other leaders founded the Avery Institute for Afro-American History and Culture, first to secure the old Avery Normal building at 125 Bull Street for the repository that would become the Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture at the College of Charleston.

A daunting honor has descended upon me in my approach to the ongoing archival and outreach projects on which I have been asked to assist. My own very minor contributions to this legacy that spans the post-Civil War history of Charleston, the State of South Carolina, the South, and the United States have been allowed by this very rare opportunity at the College.

With instruction from my supervisor, Aaisha Haykal, Manager of Archival Services, I have learned how to organize archival collections into formal inventories, and how to write their finding aids: abstracts, biographical / historical notes, collection overviews, suggested subject headings based on Library of Congress Authorities, and descriptions for each item in the collection. The processing of any archival collection requires the creation of a finding aid, “a description of records that gives the repository physical and intellectual control over the materials and that assists users to gain access to and understand the materials.”[1] Archival collections span widely, from one box to dozens. Each holds often many folders, or even folders within sub-boxes. An electronic finding aid enables and eases digital access to a collection.

In a project farther along the line of this process, I helped convert a series of existing paper finding aids for eventual digital access. This project touched the breadth of Avery’s collections, through overlapping expanses of time and subject: the Holloway Family Scrapbook, 1776-1977; the Avery Normal Institute, 1865-1954, and the records of those affiliated: artists, intellectuals, educators, clergy members, business owners, activists, et al.; the Zion-Olivet Presbyterian Church Records Collection, 1854-1991; the McClennan-Banks Memorial Hospital Papers, 1898-1997; the McNeil and Richardson Family Records, which trace a history from Toby Richardson, brought as a slave to South Carolina in 1810, and his wife, Jane McNeil, to their lineage through the 1990’s; the civil rights legal work of Atty. Armand Derfner, who has practiced law in Charleston since 1974.

Another big project introduced me to oral histories and audio collections and required my fellow graduate assistants and I to find details missing from incomplete finding aids, conduct research to verify certain details, and create collection inventories for them with different annotations: brief abstracts for oral history interviews and a list of subjects and special notes for audio collections. The difference in these inventories reflects the difference between the recordings. As the Avery Oral History Workshop 2016: From Planning to Preservation manual states, “Oral history is a sound recording of historical information, obtained through an interview that preserves a person’s life history or eyewitness account of a past experience.” Audio collections preserve contemporary recordings of lectures, speeches, group or panel discussions, musical performances, church sermons, etc.

Beyond inventory, I have transcribed a good share of oral histories. These oral histories form parts of several collections: interviews with Sweetgrass Basket makers; interviews, as recent as 2006, from Avery Normal Institute graduates, who provide insights into black family life in the first half of the twentieth century; interviews conducted between 1986 and 1997 of South Carolina civil rights activists on their upbringings, efforts in the movement, and the effects of gentrification. Most recently I have transcribed oral histories of Richmond Bowens of Drayton Hall and Joseph Delany of McLeod Plantation, two men who were born either on or near theose plantations where they grew up and they and their ancestors toiled. Bowens took part in the Second Great Migration when he moved to Chicago after World War II, and the New Great Migration when he returned to Charleston in 1978, where he eventually became gatekeeper of Drayton Hall.

This position has also exposed me to the work of digitization and metadata, all the data necessary to enable researchers to find materials online, for photographs and negatives in Avery’s collections. The materials Ms. Haykal assigned the graduate assistants came from the Boags Modern Arts Photography Studio, once at 32 Spring Street, and the Coards Studio, once at 78 Line Street. This work starts with quantifying a collection and qualifying it based on size, pigment, and type, i.e., print or negative. Ms. Haykal further qualified these collections by prioritizing those negatives in deteriorating condition due to age or exposure. With training from Leah Worthington, Digital Projects Librarian at College of Charleston Libraries, we scanned the negatives from these collections into a clear 16-bit gray scale for eventual display on the Lowcountry Digital Library (LCDL). The group of images I was assigned are memorials, for the most part: funeral portraits, gravestones, cemetery landscapes, the contemporary architecture of buildings and whole streetscapes in Charleston, and landscapes just outside Charleston.

As an extension of the archival work to collect, preserve, and promote, I have assisted Avery’s outreach, often through the College of Charleston’s Race and Social Justice Initiative (RSJI). With financial support from Google, The College was able to launch RSJI as a response to numerous acts of racist violence in the Charleston area. Both Avery Research Center and RSJI sponsor events throughout each semester, hosting talks, panel discussions, forums, and lectures from historians, artists, activists and community organizers, et al., in an ongoing effort to join campus and community together to make always known and advance African American history and culture. Toward these ends, I have helped publicize these events and other goings-on at Avery through social media.

My work at Avery has helped me understand the demands the present makes on the past. I am forever grateful to Dr. Patricia Williams Lessane, Ms. Haykal, Georgette Mayo, Daron Lee Calhoun, II, Savannah Frierson, and Ms. Worthington at LCDL for their leadership and lessons. Led by this staff of dedicated archivists, historians, and activists at Avery, I hope to have helped avail and advance resources from the past vital to informing enduring efforts toward justice and equality.

[1] “A Glossary of Archival and Records Terminology.” Society of American Archivists,

www2.archivists.org/glossary/terms/f/finding-aid

Can I Write About This?

As the school year winds down, MFA mentors Matt Manco and Kat Smolinsky took a minute to reflect on their experience teaching creative writing to high school students at Saint John’s as part of the Gibbes’s art and literary arts outreach program.

Kat Smolinksy (MFA Poetry ’20)

Teenagers ask plenty of hard questions about poetry, but their favorite question is an easy one—​can I write about this?​ ​Can I write about my dirtbike? My grandmother? About the time I ding dong ditched my neighbor? About Thanksgiving dinner? About how much I do not want to write? T​he answer, of course, is always yes. That is the most important lesson I have gleaned from my time as a poetry instructor at St. John’s High School, just how far a little affirmation can take a student. How time spent at the side of one student’s desk is just as important as time spent in front of the room, dissecting a poem.

With the help of the staff at St. John’s and the Gibbes Museum of Art, we have been able to shape students’ understanding of poetry, art, and themselves. Every week I watch them make more and more connections and come to realize the value of their own experiences. I have witnessed students who once struggled to put pen to paper stand up and read their work out loud for the whole class. It is the voices of those students’ peers that mean the most to me, to hear them lifting each other up with snaps and applause. Poetry is a craft rooted in empathy and community, and it is a privilege to see those values continue to thrive at St. John’s.

Conversations with Cassettes

All year, Ren Jones and Thomas Coughlin worked twenty hours a week at the Avery Research Center learning the art of special documents preservation and reckoning with South Carolina history firsthand. Here are their takes on what they did and learned.

Ren Jones (MFA Fiction ’19)

When I applied for the Graduate Assistantship position at The Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture, I had a radically different definition of what it meant to preserve history. For some context, I blame the Agrirama. If you haven’t heard of the Agrirama, it is a 19th century “living history” museum located in Tifton, Georgia. Boiled down, the Agrirama is a backwoods version of Colonial Williamsburg, only the reenactors are wearing dirty overalls and planting peanuts instead of marching around with fifes and drums. At the Agrirama, you don’t even have to squint through the trees to see the Shoney’s on the other side of I-75. Here is my point in all this: Once you have heard the voice of Mrs. Modjeska Simkins, called the “matriarch of Civil Rights activists” in S.C., describe her parents’ tireless struggle to provide her with the best possible education in the segregated South, apathetic Abraham Baldwin College students plowing dirt in poorly replicated costumes can no longer be considered “living history.”

Often times, working at Avery feels a lot like convening with spirits. While I have aided in processing numerous collections—scanned a slew photographic negatives of gospel groups clad in seventies velvet suits, pulled funeral programs from well over a thousand mortuary files, proofed countless digital finding aid entries—I have been most moved by the Oral History Collection. Previously unprocessed, the Oral History Collection is shelved somewhere deep in the caverns of the special collections library. (That was a bit melodramatic. It’s fairly well lit room, and the climate control humidifiers are a must.) Recorded on reel-to-reels, cassettes, and compact discs, sorting through the available recordings is a bit like opening a Russian nesting doll—large blue box, smaller gray shoe box, plastic tape case. Each recording is then labeled with a non-descript MSS# (e.g. 500.027.002). The MSS#s are a welcome mystery. Because each tape is catalogued by the MSS# rather than the subject, the content of each tape comes as a surprise. It could be anything from an interview concerning the cultural relevance of sweetgrass baskets in the Gullah Geechee community to a New Year’s Eve ‘Watch Night Service’ from 1968 to an oral history interview given by a former Avery Normal School student.

One of those interviews given by former Avery Normal School student Edna Richardson brought me to McLeod Plantation. According to the organization’s mission statement,

McLeod Plantation was built on the riches of sea island cotton – and on the backs of enslaved people whose work and culture are embedded in the Lowcountry’s very foundation. It is a living tribute to the men and women and their descendants that persevered in their efforts to achieve freedom, equality, and justice. (McLeod)

I had been transcribing this particularly lengthy interview for weeks. (For a frame of reference, it takes approximately one hour to transcribe fifteen minutes of audio, and that’s if the quality is clear.) Though she was born in the early 20th century, Richardson had spent her entire childhood living on the grounds of McLeod plantation in cabins previously inhabited by enslaved families. A native of James Island, Richardson watched as the ancestral land she called home was developed around her. She talks in great detail about a life before commercial businesses—when she visited a family run grocery store instead of the Piggly Wiggly constructed on the sight where her mother’s house once stood. In the background, John Richardson, Edna’s husband, could be heard throughout the tape answering phone calls and excitedly making plans for an upcoming family reunion. After spending hours with the Richardsons’ voices, it felt like I knew them—only I didn’t and I never would.

Unfortunately, the Richardsons had passed away by the time the twenty-four-year-old interview made its way to my desk. I read their obituaries—beautiful obituaries filled with nicknames and accomplishments and grandchildren. I wanted to pay my respects, but I didn’t know how. Somehow, I felt like visiting McLeod was my way of letting Mrs. Richardson know I had heard her story, and I was thankful to her for having preserved it so someone like me could gain a sliver of perspective. Though her birth home had been demolished to make way for Charleston’s growing suburban sprawl, I visited those cabins on the McLeod grounds, those cabins that were inhabited by the ancestors of formerly enslaved people until the 1990s for the price of twenty-seven dollars a month. I saw the white columned house looming heavy over the smaller cabins. Centuries may have passed, but that house continues to cast a shadow that can not and should not be ignored.

McLeod is already in possession of some of Mrs. Richardson’s interviews. Historical interpreters use them to accurately detail the lives of James Island natives who grew up tethered to the plantation—the sons and daughters of African-American farmers who called the land home. While the historical interpreters had already met Mrs. Richardson in person or via interviews, I had a new tape packed with previously unheard details, details that will someday be used to better inform the thousands of guests who visit the historical site each year. As long as the Avery Research Center continues to preserve these stories and as long as contributors like Mrs. Richardson continue to tell them, “living history” will never die. It will continue to evolve until the whole story, not just pieces of it, are told.

Works Cited

“McLeod Plantation Historic Site.” Parks & Facilities, Charleston County Parks, 2019, www.ccprc.com/1447/McLeod-Plantation-Historic-Site.

St. John’s Reflection

As the school year winds down, MFA mentors Matt Manco and Kat Smolinsky took a minute to reflect on their experience teaching creative writing to high school students at Saint John’s as part of the Gibbes’s art and literary arts outreach program.

Matt Manco (MFA Fiction ’20)

Our work at St. John’s High School through the Gibbes Museum of Art’s Workshop program has given us the opportunity to connect with an enthusiastic set of students.

It took a few weeks, but the students really embraced the forms and the opportunity to write the program provides. The literary magazine and the chance for publication was a big draw for them. They encouraged one another, bragged about how many pieces they placed in the 2018 edition of It Starts with a Dot, and worked hard to elevate their own work over the course of the program.

After our own adjustment period we found our footing with the students. There was a little bit of resistance at first to some of the more challenging work we put in front of them, but they rose to the challenge and rewarded us with excellent work.

Students had an opportunity to see and interact with artwork currently on display at the Gibbes. The Gibbes’ collection of local artists had an impact on the students. Seeing their landscape celebrated by local artists gave them a burst of confidence that was noticeable in their work.

I believe we provided the students space and permission to explore a part of their creativity they may not have accessed otherwise. It has been tremendously rewarding to see them grow in their work and engagement with new art forms, something we hope will last a lifetime.

Meet Dakota Reed, Woodfin Fellow in Poetry

Dakota Reed is our Woodfin Fellow in Poetry (2018-20). She is an Editorial Assistant at Crazyhorse and a Teaching Mentor in the Bahrain Program. We asked Dakota to tell us a little bit more about about her story and about her experiences in the first year of the MFA Program and in Charleston.

Q: Where are you from, and what school did you attend for undergrad?

DR: I’m from Georgia. I grew up just north of Atlanta and got my Bachelor’s degree from the University of Georgia, where I studied English and interned for The Georgia Review.

Q: What made you decide to come to the College of Charleston for your MFA?

DR: My dad often took us on trips to Charleston when I was growing up and I always thought (and hoped) I’d live here someday. When it came time to apply to different graduate programs, College of Charleston felt like an obvious choice. I also had an old professor approach me about applying for MFA programs in general, and when I asked him what schools he’d recommend, the College was the first place he mentioned. It instantly sparked my interest.

Q: What are your thoughts on the program so far? What’s your favorite thing about it?

DR: I’ve been here just shy of six months, and the program already feels like home in so many ways. All the professors are incredibly encouraging of our work and are eager to help us hone our craft and find the right places to submit our writing. We’re really lucky, too, to have such an array of opportunities at our fingertips. I work as an Editorial Assistant for Crazyhorse, which has been a fantastic learning experience. Additionally, this spring semester, I’m going to be teaching creative writing at the University of Bahrain via Skype. Then in April, the College will be flying those of us teaching these classes out to Bahrain to actually meet our students and have a week of in-person teaching sessions and ceremonies. I am beyond thrilled and thankful to be a part of something so momentous.

Q: What’s your favorite thing about Charleston?

DR: The food! I love to cook so it’s great being able to go to a nearby fish market and buy fresh local seafood. Living downtown, essentially all restaurants are within walking distance from my house, which is just a dream. It’s just so nice being able to walk to dinner, or to grab a drink. The weather is also an enormous blessing! That may sound trite, but being someone who goes into total hibernation mode as soon as it drops below fifty degrees, I really feel as if I thrive here. It certainly won’t be easy to leave once I finish the program.

Q: What are your plans after you earn your MFA degree?

DR: I’m not entirely sure yet! One opportunity the program offers is a post-MFA teaching fellowship, which is an idea I’ve been giving some thought. I’ve also considered the possibility of trying to get my Ph.D. so that I could maybe go on to be a professor of English and writing. I am young, though, so I still have quite a bit of traveling I’d like to do—and with it I’m certain will come some prime writing inspiration!

Meet Grace Timko, Woodfin Fellow in Fiction

Grace Timko is our Woodfin Fellow in Fiction (2018-20). She is an Editorial Assistant at Crazyhorse. Her short story “Witching Season” appeared recently in HitchLit. We asked Grace to tell us a little bit more about about her story and about her experiences in the first year of the MFA Program and in Charleston.

Q: Where are you from, and what school did you attend for undergrad?

GT: I grew up in central New Jersey, about five minutes from the beach. I graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in English with a Writing Concentration from Gettysburg College in Gettysburg, PA.

Q: What made you decide to come to the College of Charleston for your MFA?

GT: I was drawn to CofC because of how young the program is. I felt that the faculty and students would be excited to shape the program for future emerging writers, which made me excited to potentially be a part of the process. I could definitely feel this motivation and enthusiasm when I spoke to Bret Lott on the phone during the decision-making process. Then he mentioned the sunny, seventy-degree weather while I was stuck inside in rainy Pennsylvania. The program was the change that I was looking for as a restless soon-to-be graduate.

Q: What are your thoughts on the program so far? What’s your favorite thing about it?

GT: I’m constantly challenged by my professors and encouraged to move outside my comfort zone as a writer. While leaving the northeast seemed like a big enough push, I found that there was much more—enriching—discomfort to be had in the program. My professors and peers have been incredibly supportive in urging me into a space where I can experiment and take risks with my writing style. I’m so thankful to be a part of this community of writers.

Q: What do you like most about Charleston?

GT: Mainly, I love that I’m never bored here—there’s always something to do, whether it’s eating out or exploring the city or something that just happens to fall into my lap. Many people had told me that Charleston was full of inspiration for writers like myself. Prior to this year, I preferred to shut myself away in my room to write. But I’ve found that I like the city’s background noise and writing outside. It’s busy here, but I can always find a little nook under some Spanish moss within walking distance. My appreciation for being outside and in nature has really grown since being here, and I believe this has also filtered through in my writing.

Q: What are your plans after your earn your MFA degree?

GT: The short answer is I’m not sure! My experience as an editorial assistant at Crazyhorse has only solidified my interest in editorial work. I would love to pursue something in this field after graduation. I’m excited to discover what these plans will be and where they will take me, but I’m enjoying the time I have now in Charleston.

MFA Students’ New & First Publications

Big congratulations to our MFA students who are garnering some publishing “firsts” by placing their stories and poems in some wonderful literary journals:

Emma Stough‘s (’19) story “Happy Birthday Parker” is forthcoming in Third Coast.
John Byrne (’19) has two poems, “cuddleslut” and “Flower Boy,” forthcoming in Roanoke Review.
Christine McSwain
(’19) has a story, “Imagine Explosions Here,” forthcoming in Rock and Sling.
Grace Timko (’20) has a story “Witching Season” in HitchLit.
Kieran Kramer‘s (’18) short story, “Bubbles Here,” appeared in Chattahoochee Review (Dec. 2018).