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UNT: Getting to the Top Tier by Way of Poetry

by Jerome Weeks 25 Aug 2011 8:53 AM

Seven universities in Texas are shooting for Tier One status — and the state funding goodies that it’ll provide. Mostly, the competition is in high-cost research and increasing endowments. But there are other ways to upgrade – like in creative writing.



In 2009, the Texas Legislature created financial incentives for some of the state colleges to upgrade to what’s called Tier One status. Tier One status mostly emphasizes research. But KERA’s Jerome Weeks reports that efforts at the University of North Texas to reach the top tier include even the creative writing program.

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Two years ago, something unusual happened in liberal arts academia. The UNT English department submitted a proposal to expand its creative writing program by hiring a major new writer for its faculty. But Warren Burrgren, who was then the dean of the college of arts and sciences (and is now UNT’s provost), suggested spending even more money on writers and poets.

Corey Marks (above) is the director of creative writing.

Marks: “The dean suggested, What about a prize? What if we give you money that you can use to establish a literary prize?”

This month, UNT announced the Rilke Prize. It’s a $10,000-dollar annual award for poetry, named after the great German writer, Rainer Maria Rilke.

The prize is somewhat unusual because most awards are geared toward encouraging new writers or honoring old lions. The Rilke is for mid-career poets. It’s a niche UNT hopes will get the award some attention.

David Holdeman (below) is chair of the UNT English department.


Holdeman: “If we were going to start a new prize, it would be good not to duplicate something that everybody else is doing. So we are trying to make this a prize for someone who has already published a couple of books of poetry and on their way to really establishing a distinguished career.”

Many literary prizes are also driven by a wealthy donor. The Rilke Prize comes straight from the university’s budget — although Holdeman says the department would be perfectly happy if someone wished to endow the Rilke.

Burrgren suggested the prize because two years ago the Texas Legislature passed House Bill 51 by Rep. Dan Branch (R-Dallas). It was designed to increase the state’s research capacity in its colleges, helping to ensure the state’s future leadership in higher education — and technology. The bill created a system of financial incentives, dangling them in front of seven Texas universities: Texas Tech, the University of Houston, UNT and the UT campuses in Dallas, Arlington, San Antonio and El Paso. To get the money, the schools had to develop into Tier One colleges. Texas currently has what are considered three Tier One universities: Rice, UT-Austin and Texas A&M. But just what is a Tier One university and how one goes about joining those ranks are not precise matters (consider, for instance, how U. S. News & World Report reaches its famous college rankings — “The methodology that is used to gain these rankings has received the most negative attention and criticism due to the constant changes that are made to the formulas and percentage weights each year.”)

Nonetheless, there’s a lot of state investment involved, so for the legislature’s purposes, Tier One was mostly defined as significant expansion in science, technology and endowments. The colleges have a number of benchmarks to meet, including spending at least $45 million per year on research and graduating 200 Ph.Ds per year. (Last year, UNT conferred 161 doctorates.)

But there are other criteria — ones that actually involve teaching people — including attracting students with high test scores and hiring top-grade faculty members. In fact, all of the humanities programs had been solicited by then-dean Burrgren for proposals on how they could help boost the school’s standing.

The UNT creative writing program is already the only one in North Texas to offer a doctorate in the field (it’s one of only two in the entire state, the other is the University of Houston’s). It publishes the American Literary Review (currently being edited by Miroslav Penkov).  So the Rilke Prize aims to increase the program’s public profile — thus attracting better faculty and students.

fairchildIndeed, the prize was tied to the hiring of a major poet as a visiting professor. B.H. Fairchild (left) certainly suits the North Texas territory: He grew up in oilfield boomtowns in Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas. He’s written about how his poetry was influenced by his father, who worked on a lathe, threading drill pipe.

Fairchild: “I would be walking through the shop with my dad and he would point to some machine work a machinist had done and he would say, ‘That’s good work.’ Which meant actually that was great work. That was a thing of value. If you did that, if you could do good work, then you were a good person.”

Fairchild’s collection, The Art of the Lathe, was a finalist for the National Book Award in 1998. Even so, his writings range far beyond the machine shop and the oil field, regularly traversing the mundane and the esoteric, the spiritual and eccentric, the sweeping and wistful. In 2004, he won the National Book Critics Circle Award for what ranks as a personal favorite of mine among the titles of  poetry collections: Early Occult Memory Systems of the Lower Midwest.

So it’s clear UNT hopes to be a bigger player on the literary scene. Marks, the writing program director, says that other efforts are underway to make UNT’s program a literary leader both regionally and nationally.

Marks: “One of the things we want to do is begin bringing even more writers in our visiting writers’ series, bring more writers in who come for longer, perhaps. And we also have plans to reach into the local community more. We want to continue to be part of this great conversation.”

Inevitably, with seven universities vying for Tier One ranking, the big money will go into high-grade technology research. That’s what House Bil 51 was more or less designed for.

But there’s something to be said for the benefits of a poetry prize and an esteemed poet. For one thing, they don’t cost the way a new particle accelerator does.

Image outfront: apologies to Caravaggio’s Saint Jerome Writing

B. H. Fairchild:

  • On growing up in oil boomtowns like Snyder, Texas

  • On his first encounter with the power of beauty

  • On the moral value of “a small thing done well”

  • On being pegged as a ‘blue-collar poet’ and the glories of cathedrals and Patsy Cline

  • On an excellent job for a beginning poet: technical writer in a nitroglycerin plant

by B. H. Fairchild (from The Art of the Lathe)

“Gesang ist Dasein”

A small thing done well, the steel bit paring
the cut end of the collar, lifting delicate
blue spirals of iron slowly out of lamplight

into darkness until they broke and fell
into a pool of oil and water below.
A small thing done well, my father said

so often that I tired of hearing it and lost
myself in the shop’s north end, an underworld
of welders who wore black masks and stared

through smoked glass where all was midnight
except the purest spark, the blue-white arc
of the clamp and rod. Hammers made dull tunes

hacking slag, and acetylene flames cast shadows
of men against the tin roof like great birds
trapped in diminishing circles of light.

Each day was like another. I stood beside him
and watched the lathe spin on, coils of iron
climbing into dusk, the file’s drone, the rasp,

and finally the honing cloth with its small song
of things done well that I would carry into sleep
and dreams of men with wings of fire and steel.

  • Katherine

    The prize sounds like a great way to celebrate and encourage the humanities. I just want to add some information:

    UNT may be the only program in North Texas that has a graduate degree with Creative Writing in the title, but UT Dallas has both an MA and PhD in Humanities-Aesthetic Studies that let scholars focus on Creative Writing. Students can even write a creative portfolio or dissertation.

  • Jerome Weeks

    Apologies. I was aware of UTD’s interdisciplinary doctorate — I’ve met and interviewed Clay Reynolds, f’r’nstance — but didn’t know it included creative writing.