Jacqulyn Harper West is a poet of unfinished parts who prefers writing nonfiction. Her heart is in classic country music, especially the Bakersfield sound, and her scholarship ranges from feminist explications of Fort Smith’s cultural heritage tourism sites to code-switching and hip hop as text. She is this year’s nonfiction editor for Arkana and the Assistant Editor for the journal Profane. Jack has made an accidental career of secretarial work, stayed busy with conference presentations across the South in the meantime, and finally made a home in Conway with her daughter Althea after years of living on the border.
Rachel Hoge: Hi Jacqulyn, thanks so much for agreeing to share your thoughts on our MFA program. As a first-year candidate, why did you decide to pursue your MFA? What did you find most appealing about our program?
Jacqulyn West: Hi there! My decision to come to Conway for the Arkansas Writers Workshop came after years of people asking, “So when are you going to grad school?” and stifling snarky comebacks or emergent dark moods in response. I finally finished a Bachelors in English at University of Arkansas Fort Smith in 2007, and started working as the administrative specialist for the College of Languages and Communications a year later, so I was essentially the secretary for my favorite faculty at my alma mater. In that role, I occasionally received promotional material for graduate programs, including this one!
I actually posted the mailer from UCA’s MFA on my filing cabinet before I ever considered making application. Then, a long-ago acquaintance contacted me through social media to promote the Creative Writing program’s application fee scholarship for writers of color, asking me in my role as admin to share the information with as many people as I could because the deadline had been extended to March 1. And then she planted the seed that germinated this whole other blooming of my creative life: “by the way, why don’t you apply?”
It was leap year. I’d have that extra lucky day and two whole weeks to put together a portfolio and make application.
Maybe because the question was framed differently, or because that invitation was just the kind of stars-aligned moment I was literally waiting years for, I honestly considered, why don’t I go get that MFA? I finally didn’t have a good reason not to take a chance on pursuing something I would enjoy and in which I could excel.
RH: Our program offers a unique focus on both publishing and pedagogy. How have these opportunities impacted you professionally and artistically?
JW: While I spent nearly seven years between completing my undergrad degree and matriculating, I kept my mind busy with conference presentations in various fields. However, none of those endeavors accrued publication opportunities. This program has helped me hone my focus in the academic side of my writing, and allowed me to think outside the academy for writing and publication. That’s expanded the way I think about writing creative nonfiction, and allowed me to blend my academic and personal interests into less formal venues including blogging and reviews.
RH: In what ways has our MFA program transformed you as a writer, artist, or professional?
JW: Between the work I’m doing for this program and the graduate assistantship I have working at the Graduate School, I’m in an estuarial wonderland of opportunity and application. My vocational and editorial experience makes me a great fit for the Graduate School. My coursework has allowed me to acknowledge myself as a writer by requiring me to write – simple as it sounds, that was a struggle for me before I arrived. The built-in collegial community of thinkers, writers, and artists in class have helped me understand my positionality, hone my skills, and have fun. This has definitely shown me that I want to explore teaching at the university level, and provided the first steps in making that happen.
RH: How has the quality of your own writing been further developed and challenged by our program’s faculty and students?
JW: First of all, the faculty and students in this program have accepted and encouraged me as a writer – an identity that feels both intrinsic and uncertain. From there, these folks have helped me learn and use techniques of style and form that improve my experience as a writer writing and the strength of the work itself.
My writing starts out breathless and circuitous. I am an associative thinker, and want to show people the connections I see as natural and maybe just beneath the tenuous surface of everyday objects, interactions, and spectacles. But that can be overwhelming on the page without some intervention and revision. Our professors allow us the latitude to explore our own ideas within the flexible framework of genre. Workshops with other students allow for supportive critical responses from a variety of perspectives. For me, this collegiality is invaluable.
RH: Why would you recommend the Arkansas Writers Program to an MFA applicant?
JW: I would (and do) recommend this program to applicants because you will be met with a personal level of engagement from the beginning, you will find a community of writers who genuinely want to learn about themselves and the world – including you – and because you will likely learn more than you realized there was to know about these parts living that make it worthwhile.