In 1936, the University of Iowa established the nation’s first master of fine arts in creative writing, thus launching a thousand wine-soaked conversations about whether, in fact, writing can really be taught. That question may never truly be answered, but that has not stopped hundreds of other colleges and universities from following Iowa’s lead — about half a dozen new MFA programs open up each year — and the one at UMass, nearing its 50th birthday, is now one of the granddaddies of the field.
Begun in 1964, the UMass MFA program is the ninth most popular in the country, according to Poets and Writers Magazine (an unofficial bible of the writing world). But those who know the UMass program well talk less about its selectivity ranking and prefer to focus on its atmosphere of creativity and the faculty’s ability to draw the best out of the approximately 20 new aspiring poets and fiction writers who come to Amherst each fall.
Dara Wier, a poet and faculty member since 1985, thinks that what sets UMass apart from its peers is “a complete openness to a variety of aesthetics’’ — the notion that there’s no one way to write good poetry or fiction. She credits long-time faculty member James Tate with “creating the original atmosphere of the place,’’ and says he was key to building a faculty that could inspire and attract talented emerging writers.
One of the most talented writers to emerge from the UMass program now holds one of the most prestigious writing posts in the country. But for that, you have to flip to letter “T.’’