Creative Writing Program
Cal Poly’s English department houses one of the best undergraduate creative writing programs in the West. The university’s excellent academic reputation and the exquisite natural environment of the central coast attract creative students from all over California and the nation. Surprisingly, it is often more difficult to enter Cal Poly as a humanities major than as a science major: In the past, only a small percentage of freshman applicants have been accepted to the College of Liberal Arts, which maintains rigorous academic standards. Many of Cal Poly's creative writing students continue on to prestigious graduate writing programs, accept internships as editors and writers for national publications, and eventually teach writing at universities.
Creative Writing Courses
The English Department teaches the following creative writing classes: introductory non-fiction (386), fiction (387), poetry (388), and drama (389); and senior-level fiction (487) and poetry (488).
In introductory workshops, students read widely, sampling and imitating many different voices, styles and idioms and developing a helpful vocabulary as well as fundamental analytical abilities. Many students choose to go on to an advanced course in their special genre. At both levels, students work in a friendly but intensive atmosphere where trust and constructive criticism flourish.
The introductory courses are thorough. In fiction, students learn via short exercises about character development, scene setting, and dialogue before bringing the many aspects of narrative into full-length stories. Student poets learn their craft by practicing a gradation of exercises which stress imagery, specificity, metaphor, implication, structure, and sound―and they eventually produce a minimum of seven or eight increasingly complex poems in the quarter-long class. Before completing one-act plays, student playwrights explore character, dialogue, plot, and staging through a variety of dramatic techniques that draw on acting methods, improvisation, observation, stage direction, technical and production elements of theatre, and detailed consideration of language.
The advanced workshop helps to develop and refine skills in a smaller and more sophisticated classroom environment. Students proceed through a series of mandatory and optional exercises designed to encourage more complex works. The syllabi rely on a greater number of books by contemporary authors. Students also become more familiar with elements of the literary culture: publications, stylistic trends, critical tropes, and opportunities in graduate schools.
Teaching and Publications
Recognizing the direct relation between sustained professional development and good teaching, all creative writing faculty are active writers who have published widely, most in multiple genres.
English students may do their senior project in fiction or poetry writing, provided they complete the appropriate courses. A student wishing to complete a senior project in fiction should complete ENGL 387 as a sophomore or junior, ENGL 487 twice as a junior or senior (with the project typically completed after the second workshop). A student wishing to complete a senior project in poetry should complete ENGL 388 as a sophomore or junior, ENGL 488 twice as a junior or senior (with the project typically completed after the second workshop). ENGL 487 and ENGL 488 can be taken twice for university credit. It is essential that students wishing to complete a senior project in creative writing finish ENGL 387 or 388 no later than spring term of their junior year; ideally, they will complete it earlier..
Creative Writing Emphasis
The English Department offers a series of courses that allow student to complete an English major with an emphasis in creative writing. The emphasis path includes (1) all the requirements for the senior project plus (2) one senior-level literature course in their chosen genre. (Poetry students, for example, should complete a senior-level course in contemporary or twentieth-century poetry.) Emphasis students are also strongly encouraged to (3) complete one course in a writing genre outside their emphasis area, particularly students wishing to gain admittance into a graduate writing program. (Fiction students, for example, should take a writing course on poetic technique or the poetry workshop, specifically ENGL 388 or 488.)
For nearly 40 years, the English Department sponsored the campus wide creative writing contest named after writing professor emeritus Al Landwehr who started the contest in 1970. In each genre, three department faculty members from outside the creative writing program choose the winners in a blind judging.
The winners of the creative writing contest are published in Byzantium, Cal Poly’s prize-winning literary annual. Students compete to become co-editors, which itself is a four-unit senior-project activity. The Art & Design Department chooses an Art Director who works under the auspices of the co-editors. For their senior project, the editors work all year long on all aspects of editing and production, frequently parlaying the end result into jobs in publishing.
Since the early nineties, the creative writing program has organized the Academy of American Poets contest in late spring. Winners receive a $100 prize and the winning poem is published on the English Department website.
WriterSpeak, The Writers-at-Work Series, and the Summer Reading Series
The visiting speakers programs consistently brings nationally famous authors as well as emerging writers to read and to meet with students. Past visitors include: Robert Olen Butler, WS Merwin, Tim O’Brien, Sandra Gilbert, Ishmael Reed, Adam Johnson, Tobias Wolff, Joy Harjo, Stanley Plumly, Charles Wright, and Ai.
Students Accepted at MFA Programs
A comparatively high percentage of students use their senior project as a portfolio when applying to grad schools in creative writing. Our students have been admitted to many prestigious graduate programs in creative writing. Many receive liberal financial packages, some full scholarships offers. Recent Cal Poly students have pursued creative writing at the graduate level at Fresno State, Florida State, UC Davis, Indiana U, Western Michigan U, Pacific U, Arizona State, Columbia, Sarah Lawrence, Emerson, U of Colorado, CSULB, Western Washington U, San Diego State, Louisiana State, Rainier Writing Workshop, and UC Riverside at Palm Springs.