Erica Reid, a 2022 graduate of Western’s Master’s of Fine Arts (MFA) in Creative Writing program, speaks with Top o’ the World about returning to school, the Western MFA community, navigating the often labyrinthian publishing world, and trying to carve out a writing and poetry community on TikTok.
Reid’s forthcoming book, “Ghost Man on Second”, has earned the 2023 Donald Justice Poetry Prize, an accolade reserved for more formalist, or structured, works.
You can now preorder Reid’s book, slated to be released in March 2024, for the poetry lover in your life.
“I’ve always been a writer,” said Reid. “I feel like everybody says that, but it’s true.”
When Erica was young, she remembers writing parodies of popular Christmas songs, a habit she now views as an early foray into poetry.
Reid would go on to complete her undergraduate degree in English and Creative Writing at Miami University of Ohio in 2005.
“I took a break and then 15 years passed, and I am hellbent on that not happening again,” relays Reid, who has poured herself wholeheartedly into the craft of writing over the last three years.
This March, she got word that she had won the Donald Justice Poetry Prize — and the associated book deal with Autumn House, which has propelled her into uncharted waters as she awaits edits, marketing, and distribution for her forthcoming poetry collection.
“I really want to make sure that the writing stays at the center of my practice,” explains Reid. “I came to poetry for a reason, and it wasn’t to publish a book … it was to express myself, to really understand what’s in my own heart.”
In those intervening years after completing her bachelor’s degree, Reid flexed her creative muscles in other avenues, working in marketing, as a copywriter, and as a freelance writer reviewing theatrical productions.
Then, in the fall of 2017, she made the move from Cincinnati, Ohio to Fort Collins, Colorado.
When she soon began her search for MFA programs, Western’s program — which at the time offered an emphasis in formal poetry — immediately appealed to Reid, who often writes in a more structured, formalist style.
Back in 2019, Dr. Tyson Hausdoerffer took the reins of the MFA program.
In these past five years, Hausdoerffer has remade the MFA, tailoring its coursework to student’s individual learning goals and allowing students the freedom to work creatively — and to discover and invite their personal poetic inspirations and influences into the classroom.
For Reid, that meant the course instructors allowed her the intellectual freedom to explore formalist poetry, integrating formalism into the program’s coursework.
To help further hone those formalist roots, Reid was assigned to Dr. Julie Kane as her thesis advisor. Kane is a renowned formalist poet based in Louisiana who has published five books and collected a slew of poetic accolades, including being named the Louisiana Poet Laureate from 2011 to 2013.
“Especially in the second half of the program, I felt like I was being asked all the time: ‘Who are your influences? What are your poetics? What do you care about?’” details Reid.
“At the beginning I was saying: ‘I don’t know,’ but by the end I was saying ‘This is who I love, this is why, this is what informs my poetry.’ Understanding that about your own work — I cannot overstate how important that is.”
That ability for students to guide their own curriculum creates broader opportunities to learn from the creative lodestars selected by their peers.
“You tend to be reporting out on these things — like ‘here are my influences, here is what I love about them, and here’s a favorite poem by this person … and when you’re hearing that from six different people and they’re so different, you’re picking up names of poets you’ve never heard of, [and] you’re learning how to read your peers work in a deeper way,” said Reid.
“Ghost Man on Second”
As part of Western’s MFA program, students are required to complete a thesis, which, in the context of the MFA, means a publishable manuscript.
In the process of writing poetry as part of her coursework, Reid narrowed in on a hyper-personal theme that kept reappearing in her work, eliciting strong responses from her colleagues, and serving as the starting point for conversations:
“[My] manuscript is about my estrangement from my parents and trying to find a place in the world following that estrangement. That is not a theme that I came to Western expecting to write about,” explains Reid of her decision.
About half of “Ghost Man on Second” is written in a formalist style — centered around a sonnet crown (a crown is a poetic scheme featuring 14-line poems with a strict rhyming structure), a sequence of sonnets narratively building around a shared theme — Reid’s estranged relationship with her parents — and the ensuing fallout.
Stay tuned to Erica’s website and social media for more news on her forthcoming book “Ghost Man on Second”, coming early 2024.
Reading Erica’s work
In addition to her culminating work “Ghost Man on Second”, Reid has published more than two dozen poems in journals, anthologies, and alongside associated visual and creative projects since starting Western’s MFA program in 2020.
One of her poems, “Security”, was published by Able Muse in their 2021-2022 winter edition:
I chose the house with no places to hide.
My husband never saw me do the math:
just how much space a man could tuck inside
while I was on the phone or in the bath;
how high the patio, how strong its clasp.
When home alone at night (a stubborn fear
I bite my lip through, though he never asks)
just how much noise before the neighbors hear?
Does every window’s latch seal nice and tight?
Can anyone peer into our ground floor?
How quickly could I check the locks at night?
Is there a way to bolt this sliding door?
And this is being a woman: pushing through
the morbid calculations that you do.
Finding inspiration in the Centennial State
A budding Colorado explorer, hiker, and camper, usually with her husband in tow, Reid was invited to participate in NatureCulture’s Writing the Land project, where Reid was paired with the Colorado Cattlemen’s Agricultural Land Trust in their work to “conserve Colorado’s western heritage and working landscapes for the benefit of future generations.”
“The goal is to promote the land and support organizations like these land trusts … and support the work that they’re doing to conserve land in contemporary ways,” said Reid.
As part of that project, she trekked out to a ranch in Merino — tucked into the far northeast corner of Colorado, where she spent the night in her camper van.
Reid’s time on the trust’s ranch expanded her understanding of conservation, and how it can extend beyond simply designating parks and limiting human impact.
“I spent a lot of time researching conservation easements and the way that agricultural trusts use working land, like ranches, that have conservation at their heart … there are other ways we can live on land and work with land,” she said.
As the culmination of the Writing the Land exchange, selected poets pen three works pertaining to their paired organization’s conserved land, which are later published in anthologies designed to promote conservation — and expand the conversation about what conserving land can entail.
Always a critic: How criticism and review refine and amplify writing
One underrated element that is invaluable to the ecosystem of creative writing and literature — powering journals and literary magazines — is criticism and review. At Western, Reid was afforded the opportunity to delve into poetry criticism, despite some initial hesitation.
“At first, I didn’t think I would like it because I thought that criticism was about having an authority, and telling people whether something was good or bad,” explains Reid.
“What I came to understand is that [criticism] is really about illuminating the text, and welcoming people into the text. I prefer to write reviews on books that I love and think others should read, authors who are emerging, or coming from a new perspective,” she says.
The act of reviewing, analyzing and critiquing a fellow writer’s work can have a deep, yet sometimes imperceptible influence on one’s own writing.
“When I’m writing criticism and let’s say I’m writing 1,200 words about somebody’s book, I am reading it so closely, and so deeply — and absorbing all of that knowledge and that craft … which then comes through my pen the next time [I write],” attests Reid.
Since 2020, Erica has served as the assistant editor for THINK Journal, a formal-learning publication which previously had a formal affiliation with Western’s MFA program, and still maintains a strong, informal linkage.
“I’m reading so many of today’s really strong formal writers,” says Reid of her work reading for the magazine, which grants her an inside vantage into the state of formal poetry.
“I really like reading what contemporary writers are doing with form and how they’re moving the ball forward. I take so much of that into my writing, even just subconsciously.”
Navigating Western’s MFA
A key component of Western’s growing MFA program — which has more than 60 students currently, but just nine residing in the Gunnison Valley — are the three summer intensives in Gunnison, each lasting one week.
The intensives assemble the full cohorts together across all five emphases: Poetry, Nature Writing, Genre Fiction, Screenwriting, and Publishing.
Those intensives, Reid says, are primarily intended to build community, while giving students to convene, reflect, and attend creative craft talks, engaging with the other writing disciplines.
“There’s really a focus on spending that time together because it’s the only time you have to do so,” said Reid. “I’ve found it really enlightening to have that week where you’re learning from the other concentrations, because you can get really siloed in poetry.”
Another aspect of Western’s program that Reid appreciates is the diversity of students seeking their MFA.
“I [first] expected that it would all be students who were coming out of undergrad, and I would be on the outside somehow — and I would really feel like a non-traditional student,” explained Reid.
Instead, when she began the program, she found a cohort of fellow writers from all stages of life and career, all of whom simply wanted to become better writers — and support their new colleagues in their chosen pathways.
Even within the same discipline, Reid notes that MFA students are often striving for divergent goals — some, like Erica, want to publish, but other students are more interested in teaching, or simply attaining a higher level of creative expression.
Western’s MFA program is more than flexible enough to accommodate these wide-spanning goals, and Reid encourages students to trust the program’s accomplished faculty, and to make your voice heard.
“For me, [what I wanted] was the formal poetry aspect, and when I asked for it people bent over backwards to help me get what I wanted,” said Reid.
Smashing barriers in literature: Colorado’s new Women Who Submit chapter
Soon to be a published author herself, Reid started a Colorado chapter of the literary advocacy nonprofit Women Who Submit (WWS) back in January. WWS’s national headquarters is in Los Angeles and the organization has associated chapters across the U.S., and the world.
“They’re responding to the Vida Count, a nonprofit survey that shows that men submit their work more often than women do, which contributes to an imbalance in the voices being heard in literary journals and [other] spaces,” explains Reid, who has made it her personal mission to invite more people into the world of formalist poetry.
“Formal poetry gets such a bad rap about being old and antiquated, and it is not. It is just another approach to poetry, and it has just as much room and space and vibrancy as free verse does,” offers Reid.
Women Who Submit provides a space for women and nonbinary individuals to discuss the difficulties of getting published — and to encourage each other as they submit their work for publication.
“You do some of the publishing right there — you sit there with your laptop” says Reid of the group’s events, which in Colorado take place both in-person in Fort Collins, and virtually over Zoom.
The national group’s mission, as stated on their website, is “to empower women and nonbinary writers by creating physical and virtual spaces for sharing information, supporting and encouraging submissions to literary journals, and clarifying the submission and publication process.”
“It is so opaque, labor intensive, and emotional,” voices Reid of the submission and publication process, which can wear down even the most passionate writers. “There are so many obstacles.”
She advises writers to get involved with literary journals they admire as volunteer readers — an experience that has taught her how truly impersonal the publication process can be.
“There’s such a glut of content, you cannot take it personally. At some point, it really is [just] a numbers game,” she advises.
When she goes to Colorado WWS’s in-person meetings, Reid hauls a bag of literary journals she’s subscribed to — and some she’s been published in — serving a dual purpose of inspiration and research material.
“This is a support group where you can bring your goals, your hopes, your dreams, and we can talk about them, and trade notes about them, and be a network for each other — and hold time to do that work,” Reid concludes. “All women and nonbinary individuals are welcome to attend.”
Readers interested in getting involved with the Colorado chapter of WWS can email Reid at email@example.com.
Meditations on writing
A self-described staunch advocate of Western’s MFA program, Reid believes the program’s curriculum stretched her writing, transforming it beyond her recognition in the short span of two years.
“It really leapt my writing skill forward with the intensity of [the program]. I feel like it was night and day — before and after [the MFA], in a good way,” she relays.
“I’ve always been a writer, and I worked hard to be a good writer, and a good reader. But Western’s program is the one that really made me a publishable writer — that taught me how to write a book and [then] get it into the world.”
In addition to her writing, review, and criticism, Reid has taken steps to build out her teaching portfolio, staging a series of poetry workshops and craft talks, including several upcoming, online events.
Then, on June 7, Reid will be presenting another free, online workshop — a beach-themed guided meditation for writers called “Guided Meditation for Writers: On Stranger Tides.”
The inspiration for the event came from a teaching requirement in the MFA course, where Reid had to present a workshop late in the evening.
“Everyone was exhausted, mentally tired, just drained,” she explains.
So, she advised her classmates to find a comfy spot — a couch, their bed, a blanket — grab a cup of tea, or a candle, and really set the mood for class.
The only requirement was to stay online to hear Reid’s voice as she guided her cohort in a writing meditation, provoking memories and spurring new ideas.
“Really the point is to be alone together in this meditation,” Reid says. “The structure works really well, especially for people who are Zoomed out.”
Over the past month, Reid has also been experimenting with TikTok as a vessel for poetry community and promotion in a lane adjacent to the massive BookTok community.
She started her account about a week after she got her book deal, and has begun sharing writing tips and prompts, favorite bookstores, poetry recommendations, and more at her handle @ericareidpoet.
“I thought, okay I have one year until this book comes out … I have this opportunity to try to build a new audience in an authentic way over the course of the next year [and] they will be there for me when I have a book to offer them,” explained Reid of her decision to join the platform, which is exceedingly popular with Generation Z.
“I’m not a very sales-y person so my hope is that I can build a new audience that is not my grandmother, a new audience of people I don’t know, who over the course of a year getting to know me and seeing my writing life and my reading life … [really] get to know me.”
Her ultimate goal is that as her book publication approaches, she’ll be able to provide a unique window into the publishing world.
“I’m hoping that I can talk about the backend of the process of going through the traditional publishing model toward having a book: What are all the steps and what do they look like? Because I don’t know, and I’d like to use [TikTok] to illuminate [that world],” concludes Reid.
You can learn more about Reid’s upcoming event schedule, listen to her interview episode on the MFA Writers podcast, and peruse her creative CV on her website.