This fall, the Rutgers-Camden MFA in Creative Writing launched a new fellowship for admitted students, the Interdisciplinary Fellowship. For two semesters, Interdisciplinary Fellows meet with a faculty mentor from a discipline that interests them and pursues an independent course of study that supports their creative work. While most writers take for granted that they will explore subjects new to them while engaged in a creative project, this is the only MFA fellowship we know of that formalizes the relationship between creative writer and research. Our Writers House coordinator Leah Falk asked our first two fellows, Dani Oliver and Alexandra Luke, to talk a bit more about their experience with the fellowship in its (and their) first year.
After the jump, an interview with Dani.
Start by telling me a little about what you expected from the interdisciplinary fellowship. How have things have been different than you expected?
My interest in the fellowship — which was a huge reason why I ended up coming to Rutgers — was because we’re allowed to use this research time to complement the creative work that we’re doing, and for me, that’s so important. I’ve consistently sought out free lectures on different topics outside of the literary world so I can go home and write a poem that incorporates subject matter from other disciplines. A lot of the lectures I’d end up at and use material from were science-related. So in my admissions interview, I asked Pat and Greg if it was all right if I went the science route for this fellowship, and they said that not only is it okay, it’s encouraged.
I think that often sticking to one topic, or one creative endeavor, kind of bogs me down, so this is perfect for me.
What are you going to look into, scientifically? I know you mentioned physics.
I’m going to do it in two parts. It’s amazing they’re letting me do this, because I think the idea originally was that we’re supposed to stick with one professor for two semesters, but I have two questions that I wanted to explore that touch different disciplines. The first one is: What are the structures of language that we use to talk about things that are really difficult to talk about? Which, for me, the most ineffable subjects are god, or the divine, and the universe. So linguistically, structurally, what do we do to create and discuss those things? There are a lot of avenues I’m going to explore with my advisor, Dr. Richard Epstein, but one of those things is metaphor. It looks like my reading will fall into areas of cognitive linguistics and cognitive science in general. And then my second question is: What are the physical ways that we explain the same things — god and the universe? So for the second semester of the fellowship, I’ll hopefully be working with a physics or astronomy professor.
How have you and Professor Epstein been structuring your sessions?
Well, we’ve only met once so far since the work isn’t supposed to start until next semester, but he actually seems really excited. I’m really lucky because he said this set of questions is something he’s been wanting to explore for a long time. He gave me a couple of introductory books, because I was really insistent on that: I wanted to have a basic understanding of the vocabulary used in linguistic study so I could read these books and not feel stupid since I have absolutely no background in this. He also gave me a book on metaphor, and one I believe was written by a linguistics scholar and a Buddhist scholar working together. I’ll read those over the break to get started.
What I’d like to do with him is, once every two weeks, sit down and talk with him about my lines of inquiry and see if he can keep pushing me in different directions.
What do you hope the second half will look like? Do you have a science background at all?
No, I don’t. And I didn’t take physics in high school.
It’s funny, poetry and physics go together, don’t they?
They really do, in a way!
What I’d also like to do is apply for a little additional funding, for a research grant, to see if I can find and go to a series of lectures about these subjects. A few years ago I attended a discussion at the Los Angeles Library between a cosmologist and a theoretical physicist. So the cosmologist talked about the giant mirrors used in telescopes and how discovery, in her field, meant finding physical, observable evidence. Whereas, the theoretical physicist was like, I don’t need to see what’s up there! I can make a discovery without observation, through math and an understanding of how the universe works.
I really loved the ways that their thinking diverged. I really want to attend more of these lecture series, where someone explains different ways of thinking about the universe. I’ll see what I can follow, and how I can use it in my creative work.
One of the challenges of this new structure is that students coming in don’t necessarily know what specialists are out there, even if they know their interests.
None of the physics classes being offered at Rutgers-Camden are quite what I’m interested in, but what I found out is that I don’t necessarily have to do research that’s tied to a class. Lots of these professors are scholars in areas that they don’t always get to teach. So I kind of have to do some digging and be like, what do you do, what do you like? And, this is what I told Professor Epstein, I said, I’m sorry I’m not going to hand you a paper at the end, I’m going to give you a bunch of poems. And he was like, that’s great! But I don’t know if a physics professor is going to have the same reaction of wanting to read sixty poems.
That’s a special physics professor.
Yes! So I kind of have to figure out what will work. But I love the freedom we get throughout this process.