Rigoberto Gonzalez

Rigoberto González Named New Director of MFA Program

Professor Rigoberto González has been chosen as the new Director of Rutgers University–Newark’s renowned MFA in Creative Writing Program.

González, who has taught at RU-N since 2008, will take over the program, which he helped build along with other award-winning faculty members and Founding Director Jayne Anne Phillips, who stepped down last year.

González is the author of 15 books of poetry and prose, including novels, memoirs, young-adult novels and bilingual children’s books, and has accumulated a long list of prestigious honors throughout his career, such as Guggenheim, NEA and USA Rolón fellowships. He was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and is a winner of the American Book Award, The Poetry Center Book Award, the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize, and the Shelley Memorial Award of The Poetry Society of America, among others. In addition to teaching and writing, González serves as critic-at-large with the L.A. Times and sits on the Board of Trustees of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs.

We sat down with Gonzáles recently to discuss his vision for the MFA Program.

You've been with RU-N's MFA program since its inception and witnessed its evolution under Jayne Anne Phillips. How does it feel to be stepping into her shoes?
Jayne Anne left an important legacy, and it’s now my responsibility to expand on her vision. I had been acting director a few times before accepting the role of full-time director, and it’s quite a different experience. I have long admired Jayne Anne’s work ethic and her willingness to take risks and to fight for was in the best interest of the program. That is my blueprint as I steer the program into an exciting new era.

We never wanted to be a writing program that simply took up space in Newark without connecting with the people who live and work here.

What makes this MFA Program unique, and why do you think it’s been so successful since it was started 12 years ago?
Certainly our diverse and prominent faculty, but also our commitment to community outreach. We never wanted to be a writing program that simply took up space in Newark without connecting with the people who live and work here. We wanted to shatter the ivory tower model by interacting and communicating with residents and imagining creative ways we could give back. I believe this kind of energy attracts a certain kind of student, and we are thrilled about that. But most importantly, a number of our alums have gone on to have notable success in publishing, and that’s always the best sign that we’re doing something meaningful.

What are some of the positive changes you saw as the program grew in size and stature, and what were some key milestones?
Through Jayne Anne’s leadership we became a fully funded program and standardized the number of admitted students to 16 per year for a total of 32, which helped address student loan debt and offer students more individualized attention from our faculty. We also moved into our own brownstone building on Bleeker Street. We created an undergraduate Creative Writing minor through the English department. Our Writers at Newark reading series continues to attract stellar writers. And prominent literary figures continue to ask about visiting with our students.

How would you describe the students who have flocked to the program over the years, and has it been a diverse and inspiring group?
The students are the heart of our MFA program. They have shaped our community in very compelling ways, from organizing writing retreats to organizing teach-ins to address the current water crisis in Newark. They have established reading series of their own outside the university—one in Military Park and another at an independent bookstore in Jersey City—and have built a supportive and generous environment. Our students are exceptional individuals who have become more and more politically engaged in everything from LGBT rights to immigration reform. They inspire me more than they know.   

Where do you envision taking the program going forward?
This season, we’ll start videorecording our Writers at Newark series so they can serve as resources for future generations of Rutgers-Newark writing students. We’re also looking to develop our Creative Writing minor into a major. And since our motto has always been “Real Lives, Real Stories,” we’ll continue to build on our important outreach programs in the Newark community. In the past, we’ve held a book club for adults at the Newark Public Library, and we’ve been sending our graduate students monthly to six local high schools to run reading and writing workshops, along with an annual writing contest. We’ve also been inviting high school students to our Writers at Newark series and hosting an end-of-year ceremony to honor the winners and runners-up of the writing contest.

Currently we’re partnering with NJPAC to develop structured “poet in the school” residencies at four different high schools, with the hope of expanding the number next year, and again the year after: Perhaps these efforts will also motivate these talented young people to think of Rutgers-Newark as a possible home in the future. We are also designing unique Saturday poetry workshops for entire families that will take place at participating public libraries in Newark and beyond. Finally, this summer we received a generous gift from William Hill U.S., which will be used for scholarships for those incoming students who serve as mentors in our high school outreach program.   

Any final thoughts?
I hope that the MFA program will continue to shine as one of the jewels of Rutgers-Newark, and I’m looking forward to collaborating with other programs in order to find new ways that we can serve the Rutgers-Newark and Newark communities. We have the will and the energy. All we need is a place to get together and imagine.

Thanks for sitting down with us.
My pleasure.