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mfa in creative writing

MFA student William Conlon, in 1960 and 2016
MFA student William Conlon, in 1960 and 2016

Back when Bill Conlon was an undergraduate at Southern in the early 1960s, he happened to know Walter Tevis, who was teaching creative writing at Southern at the time and later went on to write the novel The Queen’s Gambit, upon which the wildly popular Netflix miniseries is based. Based on Tevis’ 1983 novel of the same name, The Queen’s Gambit is a coming-of-age drama created for Netflix in 2020. Tevis also wrote The Hustler, which was made into a movie starring Paul Newman and Jackie Gleason; The Color of Money, which was made into a film starring Newman and Tom Cruise; and The Man Who Fell to Earth, which also was made into a film, starring David Bowie.

But when Conlon knew Tevis, he was a writing teacher and “a superb storyteller.” Conlon is himself a storyteller, and is now a graduate student in the English Department‘s MFA in creative writing program. Here Conlon shares his own story about his early years at Southern and his friendship with Tevis.

Tell me a bit about yourself. Where did you grow up? Have you lived in the New Haven area your whole life?

I was born at Griffin Hospital in Derby, Conn., on July 8, 1942. The oldest of six siblings, I attended St. Mary’s School and graduated in 1956 with the English prize. I spent three years at St. Thomas Seminary in Bloomfield, Conn., and graduated with honors from Derby High School in 1960.

What was it like to be an undergraduate at Southern in the early 1960s?

I started my studies at Southern Connecticut State College in the fall of 1960. In May 1963, I married and moved to New Haven where I worked, 3-11, at the Hospital of St. Raphael since the summer of 1960. Marriage, employment, and fatherhood impacted my involvement at Southern, scholastically and socially. After SC² became SCSU, I transferred to the class of 1965 to enroll in the B.A. program and escape student teaching. Unfortunately, low grades prevented my graduating, and I didn’t earn my B.A. until 2016.

In what ways is it different to be a graduate student at Southern in 2020?

I am presently retired from the work force and enrolled in the MFA program in creative writing. Devoting adequate time to my studies allows me to appreciate the admirable faculty of Southern’s English Department. I earn the grades that I dreamed of as an undergraduate. I also have time to partake of activities like answering this questionnaire.

I understand that you knew Walter Tevis, who wrote the book The Queen’s Gambit, on which the popular miniseries is based. Tevis taught creative writing at Southern when you were an undergraduate student here. How did you know him, and what was he like?

When Walter Tevis taught at Southern, he was well known as the author of The Hustler. I was never in his class. We did meet and chat on a number of occasions. We lived equidistant from the Yale Bowl Café on Derby Ave. Passing the café on my way home from work, I would look through the window to see if Mr. Tevis was at the bar. I would then check my pockets for a spare half dollar for a couple draft beers and join him. Mr. Tevis was an affable gentleman and a superb storyteller. He enjoyed talking about the pool room he ran, off campus, at the University of Kentucky where he majored in English. He said that the fixes that got the entire UK basketball team banned from the NCAA took place in his poolroom. He later wrote the science fiction novel, The Man Who Fell to Earth. He also talked about making the movie of The Hustler, his role as technical advisor, and hobnobbing with the movie stars. He spoke of being at the home of George C. Scott and Colleen Dewhurst when Liz Taylor and Richard Burton dropped in for cocktails. He suggested that I take his class, but I couldn’t envision finding time to write.

What made you want to enter Southern’s MFA program? Have you always been a writer? Where are you in the program, and what kind of writing do you do?

After finally earning my degree, I took advantage of the generous CSCU program for senior citizens and continued taking courses. I took introductory courses in creative writing because I had often dreamed of writing as I am sure most avid readers sometimes do. My excellent teacher, Jason Labbe, encouraged me to apply for the MFA program. Before taking Jason’s classes, I had never written anything other than school assignments except for a one-page story when I was in second grade. I applied to the program, and I was accepted. Presently, I am about halfway through the 48-credit program. My major is fiction writing. I have been writing mostly stories about after-hours night life in the 1970s. During these past two semesters, I have explored a burgeoning interest in writing poetry.

How are virtual writing classes going?

The virtual writing workshops have gone remarkably well. One misses the camaraderie that is part of the workshop experience, but I believe my writing has improved as it would have in the classroom environment.

Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?

I would advise any aspiring writer to take beginning courses in creative writing to ground oneself in the techniques of craft. Then write and continue writing and write some more.

an early photo of Walter Tevis
Walter Tevis, around 1960

Vivian Shipley

English Professor and Connecticut State University Professor Vivian Shipley, an acclaimed prize-winning poet, recently won a prize for “An Old Husband’s Tale,” one of five prize-winning poems in the 2020 Ekphrastic Poetry Contest, part of the Palm Beach Poetry Festival. Poems entered in the contest were inspired by the ART COUTURE exhibition which was on display pre-pandemic at the Cornell Museum at Old School Square in Delray Beach, Fla. All five prize-winning poems will be featured in the May issue of South Florida Poetry Journal.

An ekphrastic poem is generally a poem that is inspired by, or a response to, a work of art.

To enter, writers were asked to submit up to 30 lines of original poetry inspired by one of eight images featured in the exhibition that focused on contemporary art that is fashion-inspired, and on fashion designers’ couture designs and illustrations. Fashion as art, important works of contemporary art, and couture designs featured on mannequins were all part of the exhibition. The Palm Beach Poetry Festival received 154 poetic entries in this year’s contest, arriving from 30 states and 17 different countries.

Shipley’s winning poem (below) was inspired by “Meghan” by Rick Lazes, a hand-molded acrylic panel.

“An Old Husband’s Tale”
how it takes place/ While someone else is eating
— W. H. Auden

Daedalus was not a man, Icarus no boy. That’s a myth.
Without a husband to bind her, Daedalus turned nature
inside out, taught her daughter to fly from earth; after all,

men couldn’t fence air. Feathering Icarus in sequence
as a pan pipe rises, Daedalus twined quills to mold two sets
of wings sealed in an icing of white wax, stiff as bridal lace.

Daedalus hovered, warning: Keep mid-way; water weights
and sun burns. Always follow me. Icarus rose or was pulled
up, casting her shadow on a ploughman, head lifted from

his rut, who grumbled, A woman’s place is in the home.
The mother tried to lift her arms higher to buffer her daughter
but blue enveloped Icarus who cried, Let’s fly all the way

to Trinacria. Knowing Samos was north and Calymne east,
Icarus ignored the earth’s warning being traced out for her
by the sharded coast of Crete. Filial duty cannot blot desire

as the moon eclipses the sun. Perhaps there was a brilliance
gleaming in Icarus’ green eyes that flashed, mercifully
blocking the sight for Daedalus: her only child encircling

wings, writhing like a corn snake carried aloft by a hawk.
Imagine the girl, her mother’s support failing, the aerial lift
and impulse spent. Dripping to the sea, only the wax

hissed, floating as islands do. Daedalus did not fly again.
Unused, feathers yellowed; wax stiffened in her wings
that stretched out more like a shroud than a swan in flight.

 

 

Pat Mottola

Patricia Mottola, a graduate of Southern’s MFA in creative writing program and now an instructor in the program, was featured recently in the Hartford Courant’s CT Poets’ Corner section. Read the article here: Pat-Mottola-Hartford-Courant-042620

Mottola was hired to teach Introduction to Creative Writing immediately after receiving her MFA from Southern because, as one colleague noted, “She was an exceptional student in our department’s MFA program,” and she has been an extraordinary instructor ever since. Mottola’s adviser and now colleague English Professor and CSU Professor Vivian Shipley awarded Distinction to Mottola’s MFA thesis, “If the Shoe Doesn’t Fit: Poems About Relationships,” something rarely done. Shipley remarked that since 1969, she has “never had a better student or known a more dedicated and inspiring teacher.”

Mottola was the 2019 Recipient of the Connecticut Board of Regents Adjunct Teaching Award. She is co-president of the Connecticut Poetry Society; works online with Afghan women and girls through the Afghan Voices project, encouraging them to write poetry in order to empower themselves; and she works with senior citizens, encouraging them to have a rebirth at a time when they are nearing the end of life.

She earned her MFA in creative writing from Southern in 2011; an MS in art education from Southern in 1990; study in the Art Psychotherapy Institute, SCSU Department of School Psychology, in 1988; and a BS in art education from Southern in 1987.