John Wood, founder of McNeese State’s MFA program and its director for more than two decades, retired from the school in July, 2007. He and his wife Carol have moved to Vermont of all places, where they are still hard at work doing all the things they love.
John’s legacy is impossible to describe. Everything good that’s ever come out of the program-or that may come out in all the years to come-can be credited to him. He built this program with wit, intelligence, fierce loyalty, and above all an unbridled belief in the power of art. The generosity he showered on those in his classes was the kind that can never be honestly reciprocated, only passed on to others.
Both Morri and I were trained by John, and we will endeavor to carry on the traditions he established here. We miss him dearly and remain, forever, his students.
John Wood is the author of several books of poetry, including Selected Poems 1968-1998 (1999), The Gates of the Elect Kingdom (1997), and In Primary Light (1994) and a two-time winner of the Iowa Poetry Prize. His poems have appeared in Poetry, Antaeus, the Southern Review, and elsewhere. He has also penned over a dozen volumes on photographic history and criticism, including The Photographic Arts; The Art of the Autochrome; and books on such contemporary artists as Jan Saudek, Luis Gonzalez Palma, and others. His books have picked up awards from the New York Times Book Review, the Wall Street Journal, the American Library Association and the American Photographic Historical Society. He also co-curated the Smithsonian Institution’s landmark 1995 exhibition Secrets of the Dark Chamber and co-wrote the book of the same title.
In addition to teaching, Wood holds the position of editor of 21st: The Journal of Contemporary Photography. Most recently he and photographer Joel-Peter Witkin have collaborated on a new edition of William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience.
A Letter from Dr. John Wood, Professor of English, Director, Program in Creative Writing
Dear Person Who Wrote Me About the MFA Program,
First of all, please forgive this form letter, but I’m sure you understand that there are a great many enquiries and this is the quickest and most efficient way of getting back to everyone who writes. So let me tell you a bit about the Writing Program, McNeese, and Lake Charles.
The MFA here is a sixty hour studio-academic degree. We do not believe that workshops and writing courses alone train or prepare a person to write unless coupled with extensive reading in the history of literature and a sound knowledge of the tradition. Therefore, only fifteen to eighteen hours are spent in Workshop; six in the Form and Theory of the student’s major genre, fiction or poetry, and three in the other; three hours in Contemporary Poetry or Fiction; and the other courses are electives, with six hours being given for the thesis, a novel, collection of stories, or book of poems. One can easily pick up the MA while pursuing the MFA.
This is a good place to come and write. Workshops here are small, and the student-teacher relationship is close. There are usually six to eight visiting writers each year who come for a few days to give a reading, hold a workshop, and give you an individual, private, one-on-one conference over work of yours we’ve sent them a month earlier. And, of course, there are always parties and other opportunities for visiting with the writers. In Fiction Workshop two of the guests will usually be major editors or agents. Among writers visiting here in the last few years have been Richard Wilbur, W. D. Snodgrass, Ann Beattie, X. J. Kennedy, William Trowbridge, Dana Gioia, Scott Ely, Dave Smith, Paul Zimmer, Oscar Hijuelos, Susan Ludvigson, Frederick Turner, James Dickey, Z.Z. Packer, Ron Carlson, Tim Gautreaux, Antonya Nelson, David Baker, Andrei Codrescu, and many others.
You will get an excellent graduate education here. The success of our past students proves that. They have won Poetry magazine’s $15,000 Ruth Lilly Fellowship for a poet still in a graduate program, probably the most prestigious prize a young poet can win; they have had stories in Scribner’s Best of the Fiction Workshops and published in most every major literary journal; one even established a fine, still-running, international literary journal in London; and again and again they have found teaching positions at the university level.
McNeese has about 8500 students and is in a city of some 100,000. Lake Charles is between New Orleans and Houston down in the bayous of Cajun country. French as a language, Cajun cooking, and zydeko are all alive and well here. The bayous and swamps are beautiful; you can go down the Creole Nature Trail out from town and see gators, waterbirds, and nutria; and if you take some string and chicken necks, you can easily catch enough crabs for dinner off any bridge. This is an interesting and good place to work and be; however, I don’t want to paint too idyllic a picture; Lake Charles doesn’t look like the New Orleans French Quarter. It’s a small city like other small cities, and it is terribly humid here in the summer. Most of the year, though, it is really lovely. Winters are mild, and February and March are gorgeous as wisteria, camellia, and azalea break out in bloom all over town. Lake Charles also has a fine symphony and civic ballet, and McNeese sponsors an annual month-long arts and cultural festival that brings in artists, poets, taiko drummers, string quartets, pianists, philosophers, and so forth. But New Orleans at about three hours and Houston at about two and a half are close by for those wanting more of the charms of a big city. There are, of course, many great places to eat in Lake Charles, as there are all over South Louisiana.
Poet Morri Creech, a winner of the Kent State Poetry Prize and a Ruth Lilly Fellowship, and I teach the poetry courses. Morri’s collection Paper Cathedrals was published in 2001 by Kent State University Press, and Listening to the Earth, a collaborative collection of photographs by the famous photographer Robert Parkeharrison and accompanying poems by Morri, is forthcoming in May, 2004 . My books In Primary Light and The Gates of the Elect Kingdom both won the Iowa Poetry Prize and my Selected Poems 1968-1998 was published in 1999. Novelist Neil Connelly’s short stories have appeared widely and his second novel, Buddy Cooper Finds His Way will be published by Simon and Schuster in 2004.
If you are interested in the Program here, all you need to do to apply is send us samples of your work; however, I should mention that we accept very few students each year. We keep the Program small in order to have a close, personal relationship with each of our students and also to insure that our students have individual conferences with the guest writers, which, of course, is not possible if the workshops are too large. We’ll worry with forms later, since they waste your time and the actual application to the Registrar costs money. In your letter be sure to include a number where we could reach you both during the day and in the evening. If you are in fiction, write directly to Neil, and to Morri if you are in poetry. Assistantships pay $9000 and include a waiver of all tuition. They involve work in the remedial lab and the teaching of remedial and freshman English. Some schools do offer more money, but it’s not as expensive to live here as in many other places, and you can always get a chicken neck and go crabbing.