JJ McNiece is Earth’s only silverback gorilla snapping turtle. Most days, he stays in his shell, locked in the Reptilian Monkey House. But if you rattle the bars, he’ll bite your finger, escape his cage, and then destroy the zoo.
Rachel Hoge: Hi JJ, thanks so much for agreeing to share your thoughts on our MFA program. One of our program’s best attributes is flexibility—both in genre, class structure, interactions with faculty, and more. In what ways have you specialized our program to suit your goals and needs?
JJ McNiece: The program’s flexibility is certainly one of my favorite things about it. Even now (nearing the end of my second year), I am unsure how to classify my writing: i.e. a poet with a yen for creative nonfiction; a memoirist with a flair for pantoums and similarly oblique poetic forms; an asshole trying to get back at his father; etc. The UCA Writer’s Program allows me to continue whittling away at these possibilities…while also instructing me in pedagogical theory (sigh). (Other students are more interested in pedagogy than I, and the Program allows the same flexibility in forming one’s theory of pedagogy as it does in honing one’s craft.)
As far as how I, personally, have specialized the program: primarily by focusing heavily on poetry, thus far. The Program’s flexibility has allowed me to complete four poetry composition/workshop classes in my first three semesters.
Another thing about our program I’ve latched onto is that most semesters there are a couple of workshop classes with both graduate and undergraduate students. I love receiving criticism from both types of students at once, as they often reflect two very different kinds of reader reaction. I don’t know if other programs have these types of classes, but I’d be surprised if it’s common.
RH: How has our MFA program transformed you as a writer, artist, or professional?
JJ: I wouldn’t say the program has transformed me as a writer or artist. Rather, it has nurtured me—helped me grow. In the sense that I’m now a more mature, self-actualized version of the writer/artist who began the program, one could argue I have transformed. But to me, the program has been more of an oven than a cauldron. As for me as a professional? I think I’ve probably devolved there a bit.
RH: How has the quality of your own writing been further developed and challenged by our program’s faculty and students?
JJ: This is a tough question to answer because it requires me to assess the quality of my own work (as well as accurately analyze changes to said quality). I never know if anything I write is any good. Nevertheless, I do find my poetry far more presentable than it used to be. And I can thank UCA for that.
Rachel: Artistically speaking, what do you find most appealing about our program?
JJ: So far, my writing has been mostly personal, whether poetry or prose. For me, there is no better situation, artistically, than our program because my mother graduated from and then worked her entire career at this university—I have been on this campus in one way or another since my birth in 1980.
- I attended the UCA Child Study Center from 1983 to 1986, across the street from where our program currently resides, Thompson Hall. (I met that Thompson guy, too);
- I first touched a computer in the building now called Mashburn Hall (I was a rabbit chasing a carrot in a maze—it was awesome);
- I have lived in various dormitories on campus (State Hall, Wingo Hall—people used to live in that building—and Arkansas Hall) for various summer camps during the 80s and 90s;
- I have performed on the saxophone in the auditorium of the Snow Fine Arts Center;
- I have square danced on the stage of Old Main. (Also, in the basement, I cried the first time I saw My Girl—nobody caught me though, thankfully…oh shit!);
- When I was ten, I won the coveted “Hot Shot Champion” trophy (for my age group) at a basketball camp in the Farris Center (on the same court where I had watched Scottie Pippen unsheathe his monstrous, two-handed reverse jams before he was selected the fifth pick in the 1987 NBA Draft. The “Hot Shot Champion” trophy, sadly, remains the pinnacle of my own basketball career);
- I once took Composition classes here for English credits during my senior year at Conway High School (one of those professors still teaches here);
- Right now, twenty years after the Comp. classes, I am taking a class in Memoir (for which I may have been secretly writing this self-absorbed list the entire time…oh shit!);
- I even worked on the grounds crew here for a month this past summer. (My back said, “oh shit!”)
I guess my point (if I have one) is that UCA facilitates my own art significantly. I can’t imagine a better situation, for me. UCA is like a womb.
RH: Why would you recommend the Arkansas Writers Program to an MFA applicant?
JJ: Here’s my best pitch: simple pragmatism. Our program is only five years old. It isn’t too well known outside of our region yet. Therefore, any serious candidate who applies here, for the time being, has a decent shot. We are still “launching” as a program, really.
Eventually, talent wills out, as the cliché goes, and somebody or bodies in our program will publish some big hullaballoo. (I’m pretty sure we just had our first Pushcart.) Then, it’ll be way harder to get in here. So, why not try to get in now, while it’s a little easier? Maybe you could be that asshole that makes it near impossible to get accepted here!
Considering we have one of the foremost scholars in Creative Writing Pedagogy, Stephanie Vanderslice, leading our program, (a humble Rock Star), and her supporting cast has won awards in just about everything you could think of (poetry, fiction, playwriting, creative nonfiction, translation, editing lit mags, Mad Libs, academic writing…hell, just look ‘em up), our program has all the infrastructure in place. It’s ready to erupt. You’d be a fool not to apply. (And did I mention the due date is super late?)
Stop by next Friday to meet another graduate student from the Arkansas Writers Program.