Honors graduates now classmates again while pursuing MFAs in fiction, poetry

New MFA students Marie Carol Kenney and Jessie Eikmann

Marie Carol Kenney (at left) and Jessie Eikmann are each on track for back-to-back UMSL degrees. Both women are now graduate students in the MFA in Creative Writing program after finishing their undergraduate studies earlier this year. (Photo by August Jennewein)

In some ways, Marie Carol Kenney and Jessie Eikmann seem like polar opposites. Their responses to some of the typical questions writers get bring out the contrasts between them.

For instance, when asked when they first started writing creatively, Kenney’s answer is sophomore year of college, while Eikmann says all she did as a kid was write.

But the two University of Missouri–St. Louis scholars have a lot in common, too – particularly as they embark on their graduate studies in UMSL’s MFA in Creative Writing program this fall. Both recent graduates of the Pierre Laclede Honors College with newly minted bachelor’s degrees in English, their undergraduate experiences at UMSL have placed them on a shared path.

Among the most pivotal of those experiences – and the biggest reason each of the St. Louis natives cites for immediately following up a BA with an MFA at UMSL – is their interaction with university faculty members.

“I’ve always wanted to do an MFA, and I had already had the professors here, and I respected them a lot,” says Eikmann, whose concentration is poetry. “They taught me to do a lot of things like squeeze all the sentimentality out of my writing, which I really appreciate. I hadn’t really experienced a good workshop until I got to UMSL and was in Shane Seely’s intermediate poetry workshop as an undergrad.”

It was still a big decision for Eikmann, and as of December 2015, she remained unsure of her next steps and sought out the advice of another trusted faculty member, the director of the MFA program.

“I went up to see Steve Schreiner and I said, ‘So, should I do this?’ and he didn’t push me one way or the other,” Eikmann recalls. “But he said, ‘Well, if poetry is the thing that is most important to you, then you should do it.’”

For Kenney, who is on the fiction track, UMSL professors have been similarly influential. She remembers one key moment during a meeting with her undergraduate adviser in the honors college, Birgit Noll.

“We were going over my course schedule one day,” Kenney says, “and she said, ‘You just have to take this course with John Dalton. You’ll love him.’ I don’t know if I would have taken it if it wasn’t for her. And I did love it – it was the best class I’ve ever taken.”

At the graduate level, of course, the two students will benefit from further guidance by such faculty members – plus the perspectives of fellow students in their cohort. In fact, they already are.

Reflecting on a recent class session where her peers discussed a newly drafted sonnet of hers, Eikmann describes the graduate workshops as “intense.”

“It got picked apart with a scalpel, and I was used to being, like, the poet in my class, the poet’s poet, and now everybody is a poet’s poet,” says Eikmann, who published her first poem, about the ocean, in Parkway School District’s literary magazine at the age of 11. “I was not used to that.”

Kenney agrees that the graduate workshops feel different. They also feel like the perfect fit.

“I walked out of my first workshop really, really excited about working on that story that I had just gotten workshopped,” she says. “I had gotten such good feedback and positive comments about what I can do moving forward that I just was really excited to be working on it.”

Home-schooled before college, Kenney has found her niche at UMSL. The more she got involved, the more one opportunity led to another – from studying abroad in England, to working in the Study Abroad office upon her return, to now working as a graduate assistant in the Graduate School and as the student liaison for the Writers in the Schools initiative.

She’s made a point to make the most of campus resources available – and been continually impressed with the UMSL community as a whole.

“The classroom scene was really new to me as a freshman, but I was really excited for it, and I didn’t feel underprepared,” Kenney said. “And no one at UMSL ever made me feel like, ‘Oh, you’re not ready for this because you were home-schooled,’ or things like that, which I thought they might.”

Eikmann transferred to UMSL primarily for financial reasons, as it was more affordable for her to attend the university here in St. Louis than continue on at the University of Missouri-Columbia after her first year there. She remembers being less than excited about the shift – but soon found pleasant surprises at UMSL.

Once on campus, she discovered people who shared her passion for poetry. She started writing for Brain Stew, the honors college’s bimonthly publication, alongside Kenney. And Eikmann also learned a lot about herself.

“I didn’t know who I was at all when I came to UMSL. While I was here, I came out,” she says. “For me that was big, in the fall of 2014. In the course of that, I changed the sorts of thing that I write about. It changed everything.”

Eikmann is now secretary for PRIZM, the queer-trans-straight alliance on campus. She also works at Schnucks and writes for The Current.

“I was a little ‘eh’ at first about getting into journalism, but I really like it now,” Eikmann says. “It teaches you to be professional about your writing, and you learn a little bit about working on deadlines and stuff like that that’s real-world experience you need to have.”

She even won a Missouri College Media Association award for her story on Gallery Visio’s 2015 show “From the Spectrum.”

Asked about their goals as they enter this new phase of their UMSL experience, Eikmann and Kenney speak of things like growing their networks, submitting to (and getting used to some rejection from) journals and reading a lot.

But one word keeps coming up again and again.

“Write and write and write and write,” Kenney says. “This is my time to write, and it’s a really good setting to do just that. Obviously, I have to work – I have two jobs and so I work a lot, but outside of that I’m just writing. And that’s the only thing I’m putting pressure on myself to do.”

The UMSL Experience

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