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Dennis Nurkse, MFA Writing Faculty
How would you describe your formative years?
My dad was Estonian and my mother was born and raised in France. I grew up in a culturally mixed household in the long shadow of World War II. My parents came here in 1940 and to them everything was a little unreal compared to disasters they never talked about. I had the sense that daily life was haunted by the unspoken.
What led you to become a writer?
I've always wanted to be a writer. When I was seven, I found myself wondering how I would write about my father's death. Shortly afterwards, he died suddenly. Being a writer means you do everything else to survive: in my case, construction worker in Iceland, human rights representative to the United Nations, program officer in a service organization, fish factory worker, steel factory worker, grant writer, forklift operator, street musician, kindergarten teacher, translator, journalist, bus boy, bartender, harpsichord builder.
What led you to teach writing to others?
I’m not qualified to do anything else. But starting from a position of skepticism, I’ve come to have faith in the process. You can’t teach inspiration, but that’s a small part of writing. Technique is not just received opinion, it’s a challenge everyone confronts with different goals. A teacher can support originality, and that can matter.
How do you approach the art of teaching?
My style of teaching is, I hope, exploratory—walking into unknown territory, rather than transferring fragments of knowledge from one storehouse to another. Reading a poem should be an amazing experience.
Having taught in many different writing programs at many other colleges, how does Sarah Lawrence College differ?
After 10 years, I still think of SLC as a benevolent place. I think we have a strong faculty with a pluralistic aesthetic and no guru-ism. Students help each other rather than racing each other to an imaginary finish line. Once, SLC faculty and student poets were invited by the administration to read to the trustees of the College, to underline the importance of our work. That wouldn’t have happened anywhere else I’ve taught.
In the MFA Writing program at Sarah Lawrence, students spend lots of one-on-one time with their professors. What is that like?
It’s intense. But I think it’s a necessary complement to workshops. I worry about writers getting formulaic responses to their ideas. Group dynamics are not culture. Individuation is especially important in the arts. I have no doubt that a chemist develops her own style of chemistry, but a poet is only as good as her own style of poetry.
My students' goals have been sharply personal: one writer wanted to change from an ironic style to a visceral voice, and did so. Another student agonized over the personal content of her work, studied other models, and invented wild personae. A student who wanted to write political poetry, avoiding righteousness and touching on the insidiousness of social media, found a new palette. Students have written crowns of sonnets, explored new poetic forms based on the graphic novel, created edgy creation myths. Since everyone has a unique project, group discussion is pluralistic, and, I hope, more rigorous and less competitive. We're all racing, but in different directions.
What is it like to be in a small class around a round table?
That round-table is important. It means one person is not the center, another the periphery.
How would you describe the personality of the program?
I’m amazed every year at our Poetry Festival. It’s student run. Students invite poets from around the country or world. They also read their own work. Students handle logistics, aesthetics, and funding. I think it’s one of the premiere venues in the country, and perhaps the only one that’s entirely run by students, not experts, not bureaucrats, not the in-crowd. Other events, often inspired by our tireless Jeff McDaniel, include the Dead Poets’ Slam—a festival of memorized and theatrical poetry, and many undergraduate and graduate readings.
How do students in the MFA Writing program benefit from being so close to New York City?
It’s safe to say that every style of writing, theater, art, music, and sheer personal quirkiness is thriving in New York City. Students have found internships with publishers and jobs in literary non-profits in Manhattan. Organizations like Poets House are tutorial residencies in themselves. And the city is a writer's laboratory of cultures and idioms.
What do you do when you aren’t writing or teaching?
I play jazz, go for long walks and, complain about life in general.
What advice do you have for future MFA students?
If you expect your work to last, expect a long haul. Read. Don’t put yourself in a position that would compromise your love for what you do.
By Daniel Ross '13