New Experiences in an Old Country: UNO Creative Writing Workshops Move to Ireland
Article by Edie M. Talley
For almost 20 years, students participating in the University of New Orleans Writing Workshops Abroad have spent their summers in places as exciting as Prague in the Czech Republic; Madrid, Spain; San Miguel, Mexico; and most recently, Edinburgh, Scotland.
"To invoke Hemingway," says Professor Rick Barton, director of UNO's Creative Writing Workshops Master of Fine Arts (M.F.A.) program, "the summer study abroad program for creative writing has been a moveable feast."
This summer, students are feasting at a new table: Cork, Ireland.
"It's a lovely place to spend the summer, and it's fun," says Barton.
The fun started on June 10 when 47 students began classes in an Elizabethan gothic castle on the campus of University College Cork (UCC).
In addition to the Hogwarts-like atmosphere in the classrooms, students enjoy a climate that is cool and refreshing in contrast to the oppressive summer heat in New Orleans. The days are long – there is daylight from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. - and the nightlife in Cork rivals that of New Orleans. Cork City Centre is home to scores of pubs offering a variety of food, beverages, and music every night.
"Everywhere we've been, the Irish people have shown us incredible warmth and hospitality," says Larry Wormington, a third-year M.F.A. student who will defend his thesis this fall.
In addition, Ireland is a country rich in literary heritage, boasting writers as varied and storied as W. B. Yeats, James Joyce, and Oscar Wilde.
"The Dublin experience alone was worth the whole trip," says Wormington.
He attended similar workshops in Edinburgh the past two summers and is enjoying Ireland even more.
Though Dublin is the capital and largest city in the Republic of Ireland, Cork, known as Ireland's second city, is the more attractive venue for the UNO program. Barton explains that Dublin is as close as an inexpensive bus ride from Cork, and students can visit the capital on the planned excursion, on their free weekends, or both.
"But Cork is an interesting city on its own, with its own history," Barton says. "It's a little less expensive than Dublin. And we've got a very good relationship with University College Cork, which is an absolutely beautiful campus with historic buildings and green quads. "
Most of the UNO students in Cork are seeking an M.F.A., via either the low-residency or the full residency program.
The two are not interchangeable. Students in the full-residency program take all of their classes on the UNO campus. For them, studying abroad during the summer is optional. Those in the low-residency program take their classes online from UNO professors via Moodle. They meet their residency requirements by attending the Writing Workshops Abroad for at least two summers.
"I chose the low-residency program because of its flexibility," says Wormington. "I'm married and have four kids, and all the other trappings of the domestic life. UNO's low-res program, ranked as one of the best in the country, allows me to balance family with creativity. I get access to a community of exceptional writers and my wife and kids still get to see me every night. It's a beautiful thing."
According to Barton, the Creative Writing Workshop's MFA program is one of six designated by UNO as a Program of Distinction. Students from England, South Africa, Malaysia, Italy, and practically every state in the Union have benefited from it.
However, one need not be an aspiring writer to study in Cork. A number of students participating this year are undergraduates majoring in areas as diverse as political science, computer science, and interdisciplinary studies.
Two students, Shannon Orgeron and Tara Hebert, are high school teachers from south Louisiana who decided to take a couple of classes in Ireland just for the fun of it.
Spencer McCandless, who is completing his degree in political science this summer, thinks taking his final class in Ireland is the perfect way to end his undergraduate career.
"Writing better is an asset regardless of your career path," says McCandless. "And it is wonderful being around people with a true appreciation for the versatility of language. There are plenty of other activities as well, and it's simply a great chance to be immersed in another culture."
The program makes cultural immersion possible with courses like Contemporary Irish Travel Writing and Irish Literature and Culture, which is taught by Mary Breen, a UCC professor.
"For anyone interested in the writing of James Joyce or the poetry of W. B. Yeats," says Barton, "this would be terrific place to study that literature and be able to walk the streets that they walked and see the places where they lived."
The acting, stage writing, and contemporary European cinema classes interest students seeking careers in theatre and film. However, there are several students taking acting for the first time because it's fun and can help them improve their public speaking skills.
Where the program will go from here is "undecided," according to Barton, but in Larry Wormington's opinion, moving it from country to country is vital.
"Part of the attraction of UNO's program is the cultural experience an up-and-coming poet or writer receives while learning the craft," Wormington says. "Giving students access to different cities and peoples results in a larger world view. This can only add to one's creative pallet."
Program Coordinator Jarred Marlatt agrees that part of the allure of the Writing Workshops Abroad is the opportunity to explore new locations, and Cork has provided a great fit for the program.