By Katie Mertz
As a NEOMFA alumna, I’m here to tell you the small unspokens in the brochure you received with your initial investigation. Surface-level, it’s a cool notion, right; the idea that one MFA program provides a single home to the creative writing programs of four universities? “It’s a real bang-for-your-buck, guys, a real practical choice.”
And though that’s certainly true, it’s not as straightforward as that. There’s still a question of commuting logistics, how to build a strong cohort with four universities’ worth of students, how to find your voice and identity in the midst of such flurry.
Consider first that these pitfalls are actually great one to have. Then consider place. Rather, consider what you will create, and in which place you see yourself creating.
Each NEOMFA campus and its students embody distinct traits, something you figure out along the way. By the end of my tenure, I understood them best as Hogwarts houses and sorted them thusly: Youngstown, Hufflepuff; Kent, Ravenclaw; Cleveland, Slytherin; and Akron, Gryffindor (of course). Sure, go ahead and laugh, but consider it like this—tucked away to our southeast, Youngstown State folks are friendly, humble, hard-working. Under the golden “Wick-effect,” Kent State students are intelligent, creative, and almost always more put together than the rest of us (i.e., notoriously cuter). Students at Cleveland State are ambitious, though gritty, cunning, and self-assured—their city is the largest, the most culturally diverse, and most interesting, as a result. They know it and want everyone else to know it, too. Then, there’s Akron—brave, chivalrous, and determined.
The University of Akron was my campus, Akron is my home. It is the place for which my heart beats. Where I grew and learned most; a city, I admit, whose significance I downplayed for a time; a city that welcomed me back despite it all.
Akron is a name I mispronounced at first. The word itself is a beautiful one, derived from ancient Greek, signifying a summit or peak. I misunderstood—elongated the “a,” confused the “r” and “o”; and turned a high point into something that sounded like acorn. Most who visit will do the same. If there’s one thing to learn about this city, know that it forgives.
It is a town whose history bespeaks great highs and tragic lows, built by the growth and subsequent removal of the rubber industry from its streets. This isn’t something you’ll know going in, but there’s baggage in everything, and, like any broken place, it rebuilt itself into something new, something better. It’s resilient, this city, and found its second life in art created out of that resilience.
A tip: take the town on foot. Let it unfold from each devil strip. Admire its public murals, museums, musicians. Watch it wind through the valley around a backwards river; flow backward with it. Feel the sweep of its cracked hills in the backs of your thighs; make a home at the top, hold it like berry juice beneath the nail. Dig your hands in its soil; palm the clay, the slate, quarried stone. Plant seeds; feed the sparrows who follow. Meet your bartenders; dance your face off at Square. Feed yourself with a famous hamburger, the best Greek food on Thursdays, wineberries growing wild at the park. Blast “Whip It” from your car; watch the townsfolk answer in bright red energy domes. Trip up and down Cadillac Hill. Live and die by PorchRokr; sweat to death in a grungy bar basement. Acknowledge everyone’s famous neighbor; play it cool when you’re both at Mustard Seed later.
Don’t forget pen and paper.