Writing the Next Chapter in Anchorage’s MFA Narrative by Emily Tallman

In June 2020, shortly after the University of Alaska Board of Regents voted to cut UAA’s master of fine arts program in creative writing, David Onofrychuk filled out paperwork to launch a new MFA in Creative Writing program at Alaska Pacific University.

As associate professor of creative writing and composition at APU since 2010, and a 2007 graduate of UAA’s MFA in Creative Writing program, Onofrychuk knew firsthand how vibrant and successful the UAA program had been.

“I saw how the program really helped inspire people, and it definitely opened doors for me. It led me onto the right path and I want to give that same kind of opportunity to other students through the APU program,” Onofrychuk said.

“There was concrete proof that [UAA’s MFA program] worked and was a positive thing for the community,” he added. “It was an easy sell to APU’s leadership.”

The vote to cut the UAA program in June 2020 came as a devastating blow to a wide community of individuals who had taught, learned, been inspired and found lifelong community in the program.

“The MFA at UAA was a once-in-a-lifetime gathering of stellar faculty colleagues deeply committed to teaching, students with amazing life experience and talent, and inspiring introductions to each residency from David Stevenson,” said Zack Rogow, who taught in the UAA program’s poetry track from 2008-2018.

David Stevenson directed the low-residency MFA program from its inception in 2008 through its discontinuation in 2022.

“We graduated about 120 writers over twelve years and those writers have published, so far, a total of about 65 books, an astonishing record,” Stevenson said.

Chaun Ballard, 2017 graduate of UAA’s MFA program and now-mentor in poetry for APU’s MFA program, was first introduced to the UAA program while his wife, Tara, was a student there. He found deep inspiration at the annual Northern Renaissance Reading Series during the program’s summer intensive — a showcase for the faculty to read their work — and eventually enrolled in the program, launching his career as a writer.

“I attended all of the evening readings … and I laughed, I cried, I got lost in imagery, and I fell in love, not only with the stories, but with the many voices communicating them,” Ballard said. “It was, for me, the heyday of [UAA’s] Low-Residency Program. Mentors and authors traveled into UAA’s little hub from various locations inside and outside of the state to share their words. It was truly a Renaissance.”

In a letter written to the UA Board of Regents after the acting dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, the acting provost and the chancellor (who had already accepted a position at another institution) signed off on discontinuing the program, then-program director Stevenson wrote, “I think it is profoundly short-sighted to discontinue a program that has demonstrated a longstanding high demand, a history of high effectiveness, and whose curriculum is purposely designed to be delivered at distance. My goal is to protect this legacy for future Alaskan writers, who will continue in the tradition of this program to provide the lifeblood for the literary culture of Alaska.”

Erica Watson, who graduated from UAA’s MFA program in 2014, says she feels real sadness and frustration about the way the program ended.

“I see Lower 48 writing programs share their alumni’s accomplishments, and it’s sad that we don’t have that kind of support, that the state and the university basically just said they don’t value our work or the time we put into the program,” she said.

Despite substantial evidence that the program was sustainable and successful, the UA Board of Regents voted to eliminate it, along with dozens of other programs in an effort to save funds as part of a spending reduction plan signed into action by Gov. Mike Dunleavy.

“UAA’s choice to dismantle the impactful, self-supporting [MFA program] was a senseless shame. The move was performative at best and defied all practicality. That travesty worsened both UAA and Alaska itself as a place,” said Jeremy Pataky, Anchorage- and McCarthy-based author and publisher of Porphyry Press. “I’m glad that Alaska Pacific University is making an effort to fill the void …They’ve recruited some terrific faculty authors, and the legacy of UAA’s program proves that the demand is strong enough.”

Fall 2023 marked the first year of the MFA in Creative Writing program at APU — with a small faculty and student cohort enthusiastically blazing the trail, and immense support from APU’s leadership.

“Onofrychuk has reestablished a vital part of a literary scene that was removed from the community, and the city of Anchorage is once again showcasing Alaska’s talented writers … with the APU community and the public,” said Ballard. “I am excited for the opportunity to participate and learn with the community, just as I am excited for what lies ahead.”

In the program’s first year, each mentor is paired with one student. Ballard works with Anchorage writer Kelly Aurora Beltane, who says that the program “has reminded me that I have a voice and an ability to use it to find connection.”

Similar to UAA’s program, which was converted to a low-residency program in 2008, APU’s MFA in Creative Writing program allows students to study remotely throughout the school year with a two-week summer convening comprised of intensive workshops, seminars, lectures, panels, and readings. Three tracks are offered for students: Poetry, led by Chaun Ballard; Fiction, led by Jamey Bradbury; and Literary Nonfiction, led by Corinna Cook.

“The APU program is more concentrated than UAA’s program, allowing students to graduate in just over two years, instead of three,” Onofrychuk said.

The first summer intensive featured panels and lectures by the MFA faculty along with accomplished Alaskan writers including Heather Lende (the current Alaska State Writer Laureate), Don Rearden, and Allison Akootchook Warden, an Iñupiaq rapper known as AKU-MATU.

For prospective students or community members curious about the program, the “MFA for a Day” offered during the summer intensive provides an opportunity to experience the program ahead of applying. This summer’s first “MFA for a Day” track hosted ten community members for a residency that featured 17 guest speakers.

Individuals interested in learning more can visit the program’s website or reach out to David Onofrychuk at donofrychuk@alaskapacific.edu. Applications for the 2024-2025 school year are due by Monday, April 1.

 

 

Emily Tallman is an Anchorage-based graphic designer, writer and musician. She has a Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing from the University of Alaska Anchorage.

3 thoughts on “Writing the Next Chapter in Anchorage’s MFA Narrative by Emily Tallman”

  1. Jennifer Wingard

    This is a thorough and thoughtful reflection on MFA programs in Anchorage. As a participant in last year’s “MFA for a day” program last ear, I can attest that it was an inspiring and thought-provoking introduction to an intriguing program.

  2. A less popular perspective, my experience with UAA’s MFA program was that it was great if you were part of faculty’s clique. For those of us who weren’t, there was very little support and zero outreach. I’m glad APU picked it up and am hopeful they will support all students equally.

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