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University of Texas at El Paso

By Jessica Berthold, Fri., April 21, 2000

University of Texas at El Paso
University of Texas at El Paso

Ask the students and faculty of the University of Texas at El Paso what makes their M.F.A. creative writing program so special and the answer is often the same: location, location, location.

"We live at the edge of America, and it doesn't look like the rest of America," says professor, poet, and fiction writer Benjamin Saenz. "A thoughtful person who comes to the border is forever changed by it. They revise their writing and the way they look at the world, and a good writer has to be a good revisionist."

As the largest urban center located directly on the U.S.-Mexico border, El Paso offers the chance to experience the meldings and clashes of two distinct cultures. It is here that one can witness the human result of immigration policy made in Austin or Washington, here that one sees the starkest face of socioeconomic difference. More than one local has described the area as raw and uncharted, a last frontier in inspiring the artistic imagination.

"You go to major cities, and there's just this feeling that it's conquered territory, it's been commercialized," says David Romo, director of El Paso's Bridge Center for Contemporary Arts. "There's something real funky about El Paso, a lot of intense, vibrant culture that's not obvious. ... It's not Texas, it's not New Mexico, it's not Mexico. It defines itself by not defining itself."

The kind of student who chooses UTEP's M.F.A. program is attracted by not only the atmosphere of El Paso, but by the multicultural spirit of the program itself. The only program in the nation to offer Spanish, English, and bilingual components, UTEP allows students to work in either language exclusively or to fulfill requirements by combining courses in English and Spanish. For those who want to focus systematically on border issues, the newly formed bilingual border track lets students apply electives such as Chicano History or Cultural Anthropology to their degrees.

Students come from all over the United States and Mexico, as well as Argentina, Colombia, and Spain. Many are bilingual, and freely incorporate both languages into their writing, sometimes by peppering their English work with Mexican slang, sometimes by code-switching -- writing alternately in Spanish and English within a piece, and sometimes by writing some works in English and some in Spanish. The freedom to explore the interplay of different languages extends beyond Spanish and English as well: Third-year student Chris Meyer Ponsford uses Yiddish and Hebrew in her English poetry, while second-year Mike Mullins occasionally works German into his fiction.

The students praise the flexibility they have to experiment with language in their workshops; they are not so quick to praise the literature side of their program. UTEP's students are required to take 18 hours of literature courses along with 18 hours of workshop, six hours of thesis, and six hours of electives. While most believe a background in literature is important and do not bemoan the extra year the literature requirement adds to a standard two-year program, some are dissatisfied with a perceived lack of variety in course offerings.

"Probably the only weakness I have a personal gripe with is that we take a lot of hours in literature and a lot of that literature is old literature," says Ponsford. "I understand how we need to study Pope and Dryden, but I like contemporary voices. That said, we are heading in a direction where we are starting to study more contemporary writers."

Irma Chavez, a poet who graduated last December with a Spanish creative writing M.F.A., says there is a similar problem with the Spanish literature classes.

"I think there needs to be more Latin American literature because most of it is Peninsular, you know, literature from Spain," Chavez says.

Program director and faculty poet Leslie Ullman says she is working on developing more English special topics courses which focus on contemporary issues such as ethnicity and gender. Such willingness to tailor the program to student needs is illustrative of what many see as the program's best attribute: a responsive and accomplished faculty.

"I've run into nothing but kindness from [the faculty]," says Ponsford. "I came out of a hole in the wall, but now through the nurturing of talented people, I can call myself a poet."

"The professors are very good, excellent," says second-year poet Alejandrina Drew of the Spanish faculty. "Every class I have taken I have enjoyed very much."

Another area of the program which students say could use improvement is the interaction between those writing in Spanish and those writing in English. Because the Department of Language and Linguistics, which includes Spanish, is located on the opposite side of campus from the English department, there is little casual contact between them. Few students take classes outside their primary language, and the Spanish M.F.A. program's active reading series rarely sees the English M.F.A. students in attendance.

"I don't think the program capitalizes enough on the fact that there are people here writing in both English and Spanish," says Favela. "Seldom do the [English] people show up to hear poets read in Spanish, even though we have teachers and students who could interpret. The students should take more initiative, and the teachers should push them more to do that sort of thing."

Established in 1992, the M.F.A. program is relatively new, and the faculty admit that the kinks are still being ironed out. Whatever the wrinkles, UTEP offers an impressive number of options. Several of the M.F.A. students are teaching assistants and work closely with faculty mentors in a structured teaching program rich in feedback. Zapata frequently brings Latin American writers to the school for readings. Saenz recently secured a three-year grant through which M.F.A. students work on writing projects with public schoolchildren. It is this energy to revise and improve the program that leads its students to declare UTEP's creative writing M.F.A. one of the best-kept secrets in the state's education system.

"There are problems here like at any university, but the people and the location make up for that," says Mike Mullins, the second-year fiction writer. "It's a great place to live, to learn, and to write."

How to apply: Address inquiries to Leslie Ullman, who will ensure that applicants receive the necessary information to apply both to the creative writing program and the UTEP graduate school. Creative portfolio should include 20 pages of prose, 10 pages of poetry, or both if desired. Include a statement of purpose not over three pages, and three letters of recommendation. You can get an application to UTEP Graduate School at http://www.utep.edu/graduate/forms/grad-pre.html.

Deadline: Feb. 1; admission is for fall semester only.

Address: Leslie Ullman, English Department, University of Texas at El Paso, 500 W. University Ave., El Paso, TX 79968-0526

Number of students: 30 in English; 15 in Spanish

Average age: 31

Contact: Leslie Ullman, 915/747-5529; lullman@miners.utep.edu; fax, 915/747-6214

Web site: no site for the M.F.A. program but the general UTEP Web site is http://www.utep.edu.

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