The program emerged from community outreach done by the late Kurt Van Wilt, a longtime professor of English at Saint Leo University Campus. Dr. Wilt recognized the need for programs that supported local writers throughout Pasco County and the greater Tampa Bay area. The original program design was done by Gianna Russo, assistant professor of English and creative writing, who also included a unique focus for war literature. Dr. Steve Kistulentz was hired in 2015 to be the program’s founding director and administrator and fulfill Dr. Wilt’s vision.
The first cohort began in July 2016 with a weeklong inaugural residency held at University Campus. Students come to university campus for an intensive week of study each summer, then return home to do the bulk of their work. The low-residency degree requires 36 graduate credit hours taken over the course of four semesters and two summer residencies; at the third and final residency, students submit a master’s thesis, a book-length collection of creative work in their chosen genre of study. Saint Leo offers tracks of study in fiction, poetry, and nonfiction.
“Everyone has a story to tell, whether it’s a deeply imagined one, or a family story that they would like to preserve for children and grandchildren. The low-residency model gives students the tools to tell those stories without neglecting their existing commitments to family, work, and community,” said Dr. Kistulentz.
One of the benefits of the program is the diversity of its students, an observation made by Dawn Sandoe-Henshaw, a member of the inaugural cohort, discussing a student population that ranges from recent college graduates to students well into retirement age. “We draw students from all walks of life, and from all areas of the country,” Dr. Kistulentz agreed.
The weeklong summer residencies also bring luminaries in the creative fields to University Campus for intimate workshops and discussions. The July 2018 roster of visiting writers is headed by award-winning author Adam Johnson (at right), whose book Fortune Smiles won the 2015 National Book Award; his 2012 novel The Orphan Master’s Son, a fictional account of the personal and political in North Korea, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. Poet and memoirist Beth Ann Fennelly, poet Carmen Gimenez Smith, and novelist Tom Franklin also will be featured visitors.
The program design jointly examines the relationship between the knowledge of literature and its creation. Students pursue two courses each summer, one doing the intensive reading of a graduate program in literature while another focuses on the student’s own creative work in fiction, poetry, or narrative nonfiction.
Perhaps the most unique quality of the master’s program is its optional track of study in war literature, and writing by and for veterans of the armed services. The program builds on the long-standing relationship between Saint Leo and the armed services; nearly one-fifth of the students currently enrolled in the creative writing program are veterans or remain on active duty. Students learn the fundamentals of writing alongside strategies for putting their writing skills to work, regardless of their career paths. Current students in the program include Army officers, career Marines, and recently separated veterans of the Army, Navy, and Air Force.
Writing about their experience is not the only factor that drives those students with previous military service. Said student Jennifer Holt, who serves in the U.S. Marine Corps, “I want to spend my time on something that enriches my life and allows me to explore my creative side.” Student Jennifer Harman, a Navy veteran, agreed: “Regardless of industry, good writing is a skill that not everyone possesses, so I could use my master’s in whatever path I took.”
Focus on Faculty
The year 2018 will see not only the graduation of the master’s program’s inaugural cohort, but also the release of several new books by creative writing program faculty.
In addition, nonfiction writer Brooke King ’12 will have her memoir Full Battle Rattle published by the Potomac Books imprint of the University of Nebraska Press. King has written about her experiences in combat for a number of magazines, including The Atlantic and War, Literature and the Arts.
Header photo: (Left to right) Steve Kistulentz, Anne Barngrover, Brooke King ’12, Gianna Russo, and Patrick Crerand. Russo, a published poet who teaches at the undergraduate level, designed the graduate program.