Old School: Interview with Sophia Starmack of The Fine Arts Work Center Provincetown Fellowship

In the world of fellowships, The Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown enjoys name recognition among writers and artists. The program is internationally known as a fantastic center for developing visual and literary art, and offers a 7-month residency granting fellowships to 20 emerging writers and artists. Their upcoming deadline for writing applications is Dec. 2nd, and February 1st for visual artists. Below is an interview with Sophia Starmack, the program’s writing coordinator, about her experience as a coordinator, fellow, and writer with the program. The interview took place by phone with the minnesota review fiction editor, Mirri Glasson-Darling, on Saturday, November 10th.

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Mirri: Can you tell me a little bit more about the history of the program? I’ve seen the basics on the website, a bit about the grounds, and who’s been through, but I don’t see a lot about how the fellowship itself specifically came about. Could you go a little bit into that?

Sophia: I wrote a couple articles for our local paper which I can pass on, but it’s actually really interesting. Since the early 1900s a lot of different artists have been coming to Provincetown as a kind of get-away and far-off outpost from New York City. Of course, the light here is a draw for a lot of painters, we’re far out on the ocean, pretty far north and east. So, early on you had this atmosphere where people could come to get away from the city. And on top of it, it was cheap. There are all these pictures from the 1900s of around 100 people all painting on the pier at once. Also, the Provincetown players and Tennessee Williams were here. So, being so far away, Provincetown had the reputation of not only being beautiful and cheap, but being a kind of “anything goes” kind of place. So, the Work Center comes into that around the 60s. Before that painters come and rent a studio for $50 for the entire winter and it was cold but you know, you could do it. In the 50s and 60s some of those people who had benefited from that first wave were already thinking it’s getting too expensive and they were already seeing the change in this community from a fishing outpost and kind of bohemian secret, into a commercial tourist epicenter. They were really concerned about that. They knew that what young artists need is time and space. For painters, New York can be a great place to be, but in order to generate work sometimes you need to be away from the gallery scene. So, a group of people got together and tried to figure out what they were going to do about that. I’m always impressed with how, even in the 60s, people could see that gentrification was going to come and make life harder for everybody. Anyway, this group of people was able to purchase this really cool piece of property, which is where we are now. The lumberyard property they were able to get had been used as artist’s studios for a long time, the Days family had their hardware business there, but would rent their studios out to painters. So, that’s when we acquired the property and the way the Work Center has been able to keep going. That and just a really dedicated group of people who cared about young artists, and really believe in giving them intellectual freedom and space. I know, for example, that in those first years the stipends used to come out of the pockets of the founders. They didn’t want it to be a school, they wanted the emerging artists and writers in this space to have more freedom than that.

Mirri: Thank you so much. That definitely flushes things out. My next question relates to fellowship applications. As I’m sure you know, hundreds of MFAs and alumni out there are getting ready to apply for fellowships and all that. So, can you let me know a little bit about Provincetown’s process as you go through these applications?

Sophia: I think our process is pretty unique. The first reason for that is that we don’t have any preliminary readers.

Mirri: Oh wow, that is unusual.

Sophia: Yeah. We have two juries that do the selecting. On the visual arts side it’s a little different, but for poetry and fiction we each have one jury. Are you a poet or in fiction or nonfiction?

Mirri: I’m in fiction.

Sophia: Cool. Yeah, I’m mostly a poet but I do a little nonfiction too. So, we have two juries, eight people who decide on fiction applicants and eight people who decide for poetry applicants. And those juries are an anonymous group. We reveal who they are after all the applications are in. That’s because we don’t want people to write to a perceived aesthetic, we want them to submit their best work and to preserve the integrity of the process as much as possible. Once we get the manuscripts, we divvy them up and every single application is read by at least two decision-making jurors. Our wonderful jurors are volunteers made up of distinguished writers in the field, former fellows, friends of the Work Center, people whom we admire etc. They do this incredible volunteer work, you know, sometimes the fiction people are reading more than 130 manuscripts, which is just so much labor. I think it’s really great though, because so many competitions you’re just trying to make it through the slush-pile of those preliminary readers, and you don’t even know if you got to be read by someone with decision-making power. But in ours, right from the beginning you have that. After that first stage of reading, we have two meetings where we “old-school” just sit down for a few hours and talk about the merits of the manuscripts. One is in March, and then one in April. It’s a diverse group and lively discussion, we try to have a variety of ages, tastes, aesthetics on the panel. As you know, I’m a former fellow, so the first time I saw the discussion process, I was really impressed with how seriously our jurors take the work. They really read and discuss as if they are talking about their peers, and give the work thorough consideration. It’s also a nice chance for our jurors, you know, they get to get back in touch with old friends, and talk about the things they love the most. It’s a huge labor of love. It really speaks to how much people care about the Work Center, and how much people appreciate that gift if they’re been given as fellows before, and want other writers to have the same opportunities.

Mirri: All right. Thank you. So just a quick question. I know people who might be reading the blog post and thinking about applying will be wondering: are there any pitfalls or mistakes you see applicants commonly making?

Sophia: You know, honestly the only one that people make is just reading the directions. Our fellowship is for people who have not published a full-length book in any genre. So, if you have published a novel of fiction, you still can’t apply for a poetry fellowship. And that’s really all I can consider a “mistake.” I don’t think we really look at it that way, you know, we judge almost entirely on the merit of the manuscript and we want people to send the work that they believe in. When it comes down to that, I don’t know what you could consider a mistake. Really, it’s just basic things. The sooner you submit the better, so you don’t have technical issues, a credit card not going through or something. But I can’t think of anything else that could be considered a mistake. It’s a good idea to get things in early, in case you do accidentally have your name on a blind submission or something, so an administrator has time to catch it, and possibly get back to you, to give you another chance. Really consistent blatant spelling errors or something that is racist or offensive, you know, that’s not going to be good. But that’s about it.

Mirri: Thank you so much! So, you’ve had the fellowship before. Do you mind talking a little bit about your personal experience with it?

Sophia: Definitely. I actually applied twice before I got in. I always like to share that with people. I think, especially when starting out while you’re in that middle range, and you’re just applying and applying and never getting in anywhere, everything can feel so disheartening. I got some really good advice from Nick Flynn years ago, when I took a workshop with him. He had not only been a fellow, but also briefly had this job. He just said, you know, he had applied a couple times and pointed out the value of applying with new work. Our jury evolves every year, but sometimes there is some crossover and I think, in general, jurors notice an applicant who they at first thought oh that’s interesting in year one, and then in year two can see oh this person’s really grown. That disposes someone to thinking that this applicant would really make good use of their time. They’re working, they’re not just submitting the same work over and over. To show growth is good; this is a fellowship for emerging writers and someone who grows in one year or two years is going to keep growing.

Mirri: Yeah, that makes sense.

Sophia: So, I had applied twice, and I didn’t really expect to get the call. I had been in a real rut of not having much luck with things; working a bunch of dead-end jobs. But Matt (former coordinator and award-winning fiction writer and novelist Matthew Neill Null) called me in person. I was out at a restaurant, and that call was just… incredible. I think what I would say about the fellowship is that it really gave me the time that I needed and financial support. Also, just getting to meet other writers and visiting mentors. Getting the chance to be a part of the Fine Arts Work Center community. But it more than anything gave me that confidence in myself. I really hadn’t published much at the time. I was a little bit older when I dedicated myself to writing—about 30—and just knowing that people believed enough in me, and cared enough to give me this gift was a big deal. It really changed my outlook on my own process. That confidence was the greatest gift.

Mirri: I could definitely see how that could be a thing. As anyone who writes, I think the validation threshold is just, well… it’s just so low.

(both laugh)

Sophia: Yeah, oh my god. I mean these days especially. You get a rejection letter with your name on it and you’re like oh my god someone actually read my work, they gave me a personal note! Any validation, especially when you’re starting out, just means so much.

Mirri: Do you mind talking a little bit about the experience of being in the fellowship too?

Sophia: Oh, not at all. It’s a lot of time on your own. One of the things that was amazing for me is that I’d never lived by myself before. So, there I was in this tiny, shabby, lovely little place by myself. Just having the independence was so amazing. I was doing a series of work that had a lot to do with memory, and I got some paper from the artists, drew these big maps and posted them all over the walls. You can thumbtack your work up, and you have this whole apartment covered in your own process. No one’s going to be like hey, I need to make dinner. (Both laugh) It was also amazing for me because I’d always, like most of us have, had multiple jobs. Ever since I was a teenager I’d had so many jobs. It was just a big shift for me. The fellowship allowed me to make better habits and have time to try out a style or piece that didn’t work, but still feel like that’s okay. There’s so much time when your focus can be just on writing to get back on the horse and try things again. Also, it just gave me a lot of time to read. Because I had come to poetry and creative writing a little later, I felt like there was so much I hadn’t read yet. There I was, with this great library system that would order anything for me, and lots of time. I could do whatever I needed to do and catch up on reading. I mean I did do a lot of writing, but for the first half what I needed was just to be with myself and read. And that was such a gift. Nobody was knocking on my door being like hey, what did you do with your fellowship this month? Let’s see some productivity. You really had the freedom to do what you needed to do.

Mirri: That sounds very ideal. I know, just personally, even just being in an MFA program, sometimes—ironically—it can be very hard to find time to read.

Sophia: Yeah. I think a lot of us do reading for contests or other kinds of things, but if you’ve never read the Canterbury Tales, per se, and you think you need to learn more about narrative poetry through that… it’s hard to find the time.

Mirri: Yes. Okay, so out of curiosity, have you ended up doing any other fellowships or had other experience applying for those things?

Sophia: I haven’t really applied for much in the way of residencies. My life is scheduled now and having this job, it’s kind of like having an ongoing residency. I’m in a pretty remote area, living in an artist’s colony, so I don’t really feel the need to get away to another one. But I have had some experience for grants and that kind of funding. And that has been some learning in practice and persistence. You know, the more you do of it, the better you get at it.

Mirri: Makes sense. Since you are a former fellow, how did you come to decided to apply and get this job here?

Sophia: Well, I had come from New York City, and during my time here I just loved it. At the time, New York City just really wasn’t helping my artistic process in the way that I wanted it to, and I didn’t want to leave Provincetown. I kind of just had it in the back of my mind:  One day. Matt has this amazing job and I love this town. One day… I wonder… but I didn’t take it so seriously because, of course, Matt had the job. But then Matt won the Rome Prize! Which is amazing, and just one year after I had left Provincetown, the position came open. I debated applying because, you know, I have a partner and I’d lived in New York City a long time. I think when the thing you’ve dreamed about actually appears, sometimes you feel more afraid.

Mirri: (laughs) oh yeah.

Sophia: You’re kind of like: Oh! I didn’t actually mean, like, now! But Matt and my partner really encouraged me to take the leap, and its been a fabulous experience. I hope that anyone who is interested gets a chance to visit Provincetown and visit the Work Center. We have summer programs as well, week-long workshops. That’s how I first encountered the Work Center through the workshop with Nick Flynn. We’re able to give more scholarships for those each year. I would definitely encourage everyone to give it a chance, and see if you can come for a great week in the summer. If not the full winter experience.

Mirri: And finally, is there anything else that you want to add? Having to do with those things or talking about your own experience with writing and work-life balance?

Sophia: Well, you know one of the things that people have asked me a lot is how do you use your time well when you’re in a fellowship. And I think that a lot of fellowships are short duration, so we put so much pressure on ourselves to write and be productive and generate. We really beat ourselves up if we’re not at the computer. One of the things that I’ve learned from my own fellowship though, as well as watching a couple years of other fellows come through is that, when you are feeding your imagination, everything you’re doing is feeding that artistic process. No one ever believes me, but I always tell them: even if you came here for seven months and all you did was every day get up walk to the ocean… you’d still be a different writer then you were when you came. So, of course, I hope people write during their fellowships. I know everyone wants to do that, but I think sharing a meal with friends, being in a new location, exploring a new community, being in the wilderness, meditating, reading, drawing… there’s so much that, which is a part of writing and not necessarily just typing. I want people to not beat themselves up if they’re on a residency and it just doesn’t reach the page-count they were hoping for. I’m sure somewhere back there it’s ruminating and going to bear fruit later on.

Mirri: Is there anything else you would like to add before I let you go?

Sophia: No, that’s about it. Thank you so much for your interest in the fellowship. Is there anything though that you would want to know for you?

Mirri: Oh man. I’m trying to think. I know I have all the questions that I wanted to be sure of for the blog. But, I guess, being where you are in your life as a writer and having that dream job and all that. When you look back, how does this compare to where you imagined you’d be or will be in the future?

Sophia: Well, the first thing that comes to mind is just extremely cheesy. It is a dream come true. But to push a little deeper, I think you were hinting at this when you asked earlier about work-life balance. I think it’s important to have boundaries in everything that you do, even if you are doing your dream job, right? Because this is a role where I spend a lot of time facilitating things for other people. I do love that, I’m a big organizer and I love planning parties. I’m the kind of person who loves shouting out others work. But, I also have to be sure that I’m taking time to do that for myself. The thing that helps me most is having a person, or people, that I have creative accountability with. I have a long-time friend with whom I do just a two-person writing workshop, and we’ve done that for years. She’s on the West-Coast: Luiza Flynn-Goodlett, the editor-in-chief of Foglifter, over in the Bay Area. We just meet for a couple hours every other month and workshop our work. We check in with each other about where we want to go and our goals. I think that relationship is what has helped keep me the sanest in terms of balancing what I do for other people’s practice and myself. Being a part of the Work Center has given me a chance to see how many amazing dedicated writers they are out there, and how many different ways there are to make a life like that. I know its easy to look at someone who is maybe just out of their MFA program, the kind of person who has deal with Harper Collins or something, and is already making the circuit and think well if I don’t have a deal like that, I’m not making it. But I think so many people have made a life of writing, and maybe people reading this blog haven’t heard of them, but there are so many amazing writers out there who do have these great communities. You really can do it without your life looking that way and it’s no less valid. There is no right way to do this, and the biggest flashiest way to do it isn’t always what’s actually best for you. My mom is a singer, and when I went into an MFA program the best advice she gave to me was to tough it out. She told me the first five years you’re just throwing yourself out there all the time and you’re so paranoid that there is never going to be another gig, but eventually you just build the muscle memory where you realize there is always going to be another gig. Over time you build a little more sense in yourself that you can pull it off. The Work Center has definitely been a big part of that for me.

Mirri: I guess I do have one more question, but I suppose it’s kind of personal and just for me really.

Sophia: Yeah! No problem! Go ahead.

Mirri: Well, I’ve spent all my adult life in Alaska and I’m probably returning to rural or at least not-Anchorage Alaska after this. You’re at the center of such of beautiful literary community, and for some of us who have spent a fair amount of time pretty far flung from that kind of community—well, that is kind of the dream. But having that community hasn’t always been your experience before. So, what are some of things that you do when you can’t have a literary community around you? Ways to foster that sort of thing and keep it beating and alive? I’m 31, I waited quite a bit between my undergrad and MFA and lived in the Arctic for four years—

Sophia: Oh my gosh I’m so jealous! That’s amazing! Do you know this poet, Elizabeth Bradfield?

Mirri: (laughs) I know who she is, but I’ve never met her personally.

Sophia: Because she lives here, and I’m always just thinking “I want to be Liz in my next life.”

Mirri: (laughs again) Yeah, from what I know of her she sounds pretty incredible. And I mean, it was a really incredible experience for me living in the Arctic. I really love Alaska. But I’ve been kind of torn about going back to the state. There is a great artistic community in Alaska for sure, and I’m very into mountains and backpacking and all that, but I didn’t have that in the Arctic. There weren’t exactly that many people around who liked to read. People just had other stuff to do, you know, and me trying to make big a deal of that would have been very other of me, and not very considerate people around me. And all of that is good for writing in a way, because of course it keeps you very hungry. But it was very isolating. There are a lot of areas in Alaska where that kind of isolation is kind of the name of the game. Or at least in the literary community sense. Is there anything you might suggest in terms of what to do about writing in isolation?

Sophia: Yeah, I mean, I know what you mean. It’s a different experience for me, but it comes from a similar place. I taught for a long time and I can remember teaching summer school through the week and just feeling like I’m so alienated from my creative-self right now. A lot of the people I teach with, when I tell them I work at an arts residency, they’re like: what do you do there, do you do a lot of drugs? And that can definitely make you feel like a freak. It’s not an easy life to choose. I guess I would say two things. That we live in a scary time, but one of the great things about that is we have skype, and facetime. I can’t say enough that my friend Luiza and this workshop with her has been so good for me. And yeah, she’s just one person, but she’s known me for years now. Just having someone that invested in my work: she understands me. If I’m sending things out and it’s hitting the wall, I know that Luiza still loves it, and that gives me encouragement. So, I would say you can still cultivate those kinds of relationships. I guess the second thing is that a lot of it just comes down to self-knowledge. Everyone needs different things. I see people come through this residency and some of them are super-party-people and if they don’t have regular daily stimulation they’re just depressed and off-the-wall. What they need is to really just go out dancing. But then you get the people who are like: oh my god I went to one party and now I have to rest for a week. And neither is bad or good or bad for writing, you just need to cultivate self-knowledge, so you know what to do when you’re struggling. You don’t want to get down on yourself and think oh I’m depressed, what if I never write again. You just need to learn that when you’re upset there are things you can do individually for yourself, what you as an individual need, and how you can take care of that. I know for me, even with residency, I get lonely after a while. It’s great but it can also be weird to be around people who have the same values as you all the time. So, going to Queens and teaching gives me kind of a jolt that makes me feel connected to a bigger part of the world. And I need that in small doses. Value all of your experiences, and be sure you get enough of what you truly need, but be sure that you know what those things are.

Mirri: That makes sense. Thank you, I really appreciate it.

Sophia: Absolutely. I feel for you, I mean, I don’t know you, I don’t want to be presumptuous. But I know as much as I love being alone. It can make me a little bit whacky if I get too much of it.

Mirri: Thank you so much, I really do appreciate that. And thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me. It was really lovely talking to you and I hope your next meeting with Luiza goes wonderfully.

Sophia: Oh, thank you so much. And thank you for taking the time to make the interview personal. Take care!

 

Links to more on the Fine Arts Work Center and fellowships’ history:

http://provincetown.wickedlocal.com/entertainment/20180524/marking-50-years-of-arts-fellowship-fine-arts-work-center-part-one—early-years

http://provincetown.wickedlocal.com/entertainment/20180629/fine-arts-work-center-at-50-then-and-now

Link to Fine Arts Work Center program, and application:

http://fawc.org/web/program

The deadline to apply for writing fellowships is Dec, 2nd 2018.

 

Interview bios:

Sophia Starmack received an MA in French and Francophone Literature from Bryn Mawr College, and an MFA in Poetry from Sarah Lawrence. Sophia was a 2014-15 Poetry Fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, where she currently serves as Writing Fellowship Coordinator. Her poetry and essays have appeared in Barrow Street, Best New Poets, The Threepenny Review, and other publications. Her poetry chapbook, The Wild Rabbit, was published in 2015. 

 

Mirri Glasson-Darling is in her thesis year as and MFA in Fiction at Virginia Tech. She moved to Appalachia for the program from Utqiagvik, Alaska. Work of hers has appeared in Gulf Coast, Crab Orchard Review, Willow Springs, Passages North, South Dakota Review, Dr. TJ Eckleburg Review, Bosque, and many others.

 

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