For Teacher/Writers, A Joyful Balancing Act

Author Emily Raboteau, author of the new nonfiction book Searching for Zion, teaches at City College.
Peter Carey, executive director of the Hunter MFA program, used to think that writing and teaching didn't mesh. But his students changed that. "I used to think that teaching took away from my writing." He says. "At Hunter, I really know that it gives back to it."

He speaks with great joy about his students, including retired Marine Capt. Phil Klay.Carey speaks of Klay's "will and discipline." But he adds that the Hunter program is filled with students like him, that Klay is emblematic. "Although they don't look like Phil or talk like Phil, they all have that quality."

Other Hunter MFA professors -- as well as their colleagues throughout the University -- also emphasize how much their students inspire them.

"When I get a student who's really hungry for it, who's hungry the way I was hungry, it really invigorates me," says Tom Sleigh, Hunter's senior poet and the program's director. "It makes me feel that I am still a young writer, that I will always be a young writer."

He believes professors should be looking for students who are "resolutely interested in doing their work." In other words, students who want to write for the sake of it not because it will bring them fame and fortune, which elude most writers anyway. And Sleigh believes he has found writers like that in the Hunter program.

Hunter's Colum McCann, who won the National Book Award for his novel Let the Great World Spin, adds: "I see what preoccupies them[the students]. I see how the language is changing. I see how they use cell phones, fractured narrative, technology. I see what the next generation of writers is doing. It extends my own command of writing. It keeps you fresh."

At Brooklyn College, playwright Mac Wellman cannot contain his joy when speaking about recent graduates whose plays are being produced. They are perhaps the current-day incarnations of Jack Gelber, one of the iconic dramatists of his generation who started the playwriting program at Brooklyn almost 30 years ago. Now, included among Wellman's former students is Annie Baker, whose play "Circle Transformation Mirror" was presented at Playwrights Horizons in Manhattan. Another graduate, Young Jean Lee, runs her own theater company from Brooklyn and has toured internationally.About his students' work, Wellman says, "It's cutting-edge. It's not mainstream, but it is affecting the mainstream in a big way." The kinship CUNY's writing professors feel with their students was evident at the Turnstyle Readings, where they shared the same stage.

"It's really nice to have a gathering of the CUNY tribes," says Emily Raboteau, who teaches at City. Instead of only reading from her new work of nonfiction -- Searching for Zion, forthcoming from Grove Press -- she warmed up the audience with funny titles from country and western songs, including what she calls "my personal favorite: 'You're the Reason Our Kids Are Ugly.'" With laughter in the air, she launched into a section of her new book, which she researched in Jamaica. It was a searing but far from humorless account of an encounter with Rastafarians, part of a story she says was propelled by her own interest in Bob Marley and told from her point of view as a biracial American.

Many other members of the faculty of the University's MFA programs balance teaching with writing and, indeed, a collective reading of their recently completed works -- as well as those in progress -- would be nothing short of a glorious marathon.

Novelist Joshua Henkin, who teaches at Brooklyn, is working on a novel that takes place over 32 hours with scenes in Park Slope, where he lives, and in the Berkshires and revolves around the theme of grief. Queens College's Kimiko Hahn, the guiding light behind the MFA Affiliation Group, is also the recipient of the 2008 PEN/ Voelcker Award. Her new collection of poems -- Toxic Flora (W.W. Norton) -- includes many inspired by articles from The New York Times science section.

This is the beginning of a poem about a concept that confounds many writers -- space.

I don't understand space -- the emptiness,
the distance measured in light.
Take the protostar: I can't grasp
how clouds of dust and gas can collapse
then suck up more stuff and expand
to over twenty times the size of our sun.
In all this heat and shadow

About teaching, Hahn says, "We are very, very hands-on." As for his teaching philosophy, Carey says: "We don't have a lot of people to look after, and we look after them very well. And although 'polite' is not helpful, 'respect' is always helpful .... We have a balancing act of complete honesty and candid support. In other words we'll catch you if you fall."