Mason’s English MFA Program kicked off a yearlong celebration of its 30th anniversary earlier this year at a new two-day springtime writers’ conference that featured representatives from each of the program’s three decades: the program’s first alumnus, Robert J. Flanagan, ’81; novelist Dallas Hudgens, ’92; and current student, poet Aubrey Lenahan. Other highlights included a remembrance by professor Stephen Goodwin and readings by guest writers Lorraine Adams, Mary Kay Zuravleff, and Sandra Doller.
Thirtieth-year festivities continued this fall as Mason welcomed back one of the program’s founders, poet Peter Klappert, who retired in 2006. He returned to Mason this month to teach a visiting writer’s workshop and read from his work. He is the author of six books of poetry, ranging from Lugging Vegetables to Nantucket, which won the Yale Younger Poets Prize, to two volumes published while at Mason: The Idiot Princess of the Last Dynasty and Chokecherries: New and Selected Poems, 1966-1999.
Klappert first came to Mason in 1978 and directed the Graduate Writing Program during its inception and again from 1985 to 1988. He directed the MFA in Poetry Program and coordinated the undergraduate poetry concentration. In 1987, he received the Distinguished Faculty Award of the College of Arts and Sciences, and in 1988, he received the Faculty Member of the Year Award from the George Mason University Alumni Association.
Though Klappert played a pivotal role in the formation and continuing success of the program, he needed some persuading to be brought to Mason at first. Furthermore, he initially didn’t encourage the idea of a new MFA at all.
“I didn’t know much about the university or its ambitions. I was only interviewed in 1977, and when someone asked, ‘What would you think of creating an MFA program?’ I replied ‘Good God! The last thing the world needs is another MFA program!’” And then with the dry slyness that is entirely Klappert’s own, he said, “Maybe they liked my candor.”
As Klappert explained, plans for a graduate writing program were under discussion, and some students were already, optimistically, maneuvering their credits toward the possible MFA degree. Today, MFA programs have proliferated widely across the country, but back then, the mid-Atlantic states couldn’t boast even one. Klappert described the lack as “a big hole in the map” between Ohio, North Carolina, and New York.
“The desire to offer the degree, a constituency of future students, and an opportunity based on geography” all added up to a confluence of factors in Mason’s favor, said Klappert.
Despite his initial reluctance toward the idea of a new MFA, Klappert brought a clear vision and impeccably high standards to the formation of the curriculum.
“From the beginning, we wanted a program that combined intensive work in writing with a serious study of literature—or a study of serious literature,” he explained. “We thought them inseparable. ‘Literature’ meant both the tradition and the best work being produced in our time.”
–Art Taylor, MFA ’06
This article appeared in a different form in the English Department’s newsletter Between the Lines.