A Decade of Distinction

Featured / September 5, 2014
The new director of PLU’s Rainier Writing Workshop, Associate Professor of English Rick Barot. (Photo courtesy of Rick Barot.)

Rick Barot Named New Director as Innovative MFA Program Turns 10

By Sandy Deneau Dunham
Ten years ago, when Stan Rubin and Judith Kitchen founded the Rainier Writing Workshop at Pacific Lutheran University, there was only one other low-residency program like it in the Northwest. Now there are closer to a dozen—but probably still no other program quite like PLU’s.

Rubin and Kitchen built PLU’s Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program from scratch- and now, after directing it since its inception, they are stepping away from leadership roles.

And now, PLU Associate Professor of English Rick Barot is stepping in—with excitement, and with gratitude.

“Stan and Judith have been an incredible force,” Barot said. “They created a program that is very intricate, with a lot of moving parts, and it’s also very successful. It’s generated alumni who publish books, who are visible and who are carrying the name of the program and of PLU out into the literary world—that’s a serious accomplishment.”Barot is no stranger to accomplishment—or to the workshop concept: Now in his ninth year at PLU, Barot is the author of two award-winning collections of poetry: The Darker Fall (2002), winner of the Kathryn A. Morton Prize in Poetry, and Want (2008), a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award and winner of the 2009 Grub Street Book Prize.

(His third collection of poems, Chord, will be published by Sarabande in 2015.) And, for the last 10 years, he taught at the low-residency MFA program at Warren Wilson College, the oldest program of its kind in the country.

A Program of Distinction(s)

Still, in the world of MFA workshops, PLU’s 10-year-old program has seniority. “One of the distinctions we have is simple longevity,” Barot said. “The low-residency program is a fairly new innovation in the MFA scenario, in that it’s 25-30 years old. Ten years ago, when ours started, there were maybe 20 all over the country; now it’s up to around 60. It’s a huge boom.”

Low-residency programs differ from the potentially more-familiar full-residency programs (think University of Iowa or University of Washington) in several key ways, Barot said: In full-residency programs, students have to attend classes, much like an undergraduate situation. But participants in PLU’s innovative three-year, four-residency program—52 to 55 of them, counting all three years’ cohorts—come to campus only every August for 10 days, along with highly distinguished faculty.

“It’s like if you mash up a boot camp and a summer camp,” Barot said. “It’s fun, but it’s incredibly rigorous.”

Impactful Poetry

Current MFA student Lena Khalaf Tuffaha wrote a heartbreakingly humanizing look at the Gaza conflict – Running Orders. Truthdig calls it “as gut wrenching as it is important,” and the Daily Kos calls it “soul-shattering.”
Read Poem Daily Kos Story

Barot Named to Another Prestigious Post

New PLU Rainier Writing Workshop Director Rick Barot named to prestigious post as poetry editor of the New England Review.

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Each student is paired with a faculty member, and from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., they attend workshops, talks, readings and “hang out with people of their tribe,” Barot said. The rest of the academic year, students and faculty work together through correspondence.

“It’s very intensive independent study with faculty,” Barot said. “It’s literally one-on-one faculty mentorship.”

A Record of Success

PLU’s Rainier Writing Workshop also distinguishes itself by the graduates it produces—about 150 so far.

“It has a very strong community,” Barot said—“not just when students are here, but alumni communities we’ve generated. They keep up and support each other, and not in a competitive way. We’ve fostered a sense of people being in writing communities, regardless of whether they’re publishing, writers who are really contributing to the literary world at large with public and private success.”
Some of that success is especially public. Notable Rainier Writing Workshop alumni include:

• Kelli Russell Agodon ’07, whose third book of poems, Hourglass Museum, was published by White Pine Press.

• Nonfiction writer Jennifer Culkin ’07, author of the memoir A Final Arc of Sky and winner of the prestigious Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award.

• 2012-14 Washington State Poet Laureate Kathleen Flenniken ’07 (Plume).

• Carrie Mesrobian ’13, whose book Sex and Violence (also her thesis) was honored in Publishers Weekly’s Best Books 2013.

• Deborah Moderow ’13, whose thesis recently was acquired by a major New York publisher.

The Future of Writing

Success is laudable and tangible, but there’s much more to writing than publishing, Barot said- even these days, when not-so-literary phrases such as LOL and YOLO increasingly creep into our vocabulary.

“I think the value of literature and writing is even more paramount as we move forward, because it’s acting as kind of a resistance to forces in our culture that want to reduce or simplify experience,” Barot said. “What literature does is restore complexity to the things that people feel and do and think, and celebrate complex emotional, social, intellectual experiences.”

As for the future of the Rainier Writing Workshop, Barot looks backward and forward, always with the founders’ vision—and achievements—in mind. He especially finds inspiration in Rubin and Kitchen’s deep commitment to creating communities for writers at PLU- communities that in turn create even larger communities.

“I’ve had so many conversations with them now, I feel as though I’ve organically metabolized their objectives and rationales and just their dreams for it,” Barot said. “I want to keep propelling the program in the ways that Stan and Judith have been doing, and I want to innovate in directions that are coincident with their own best hopes for the program. It’s going to be RWW 2.0.—more of the same and better of the same.”

I want to innovate in directions that are coincident with their own best hopes for the program. It’s going to be RWW 2.0.—more of the same and better of the same.”

Sandy Deneau Dunham has worked as a reporter, a copy editor and an editor and team leader for The Phoenix Gazette, The (Tacoma) News Tribune and The Seattle Times, and as Communications Manager for Town Hall Seattle. She graduated from the University of Iowa with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and has volunteered at the Washington Soldiers Home & Colony (and maintained the website SoldiersHomeStories.com) since 2009.


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