Student Spotlights

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Aaron Banks

BA in English, 2017 

What drew your attention to the creative writing program?

I was drawn to the English program first. I’m a product of Rochester, so I’ve always known about the University of Rochester and the tradition here. But there’s this myth that if you want to write, you have to go out west, go to the schools out west; they’re a lot better for writing, more opportunity for publication, whatnot. I had a buddy who recently graduated from UC Berkeley who was trying to get me to go out there a few years ago. So, I was leaning toward the west coast thing. I had another buddy who was going to the U of R at the time, and before one of our routine trips to the Highland Diner, he told me he had to drop off his final paper for a course I ended up taking my first semester here — Modern Poetry. So, we were walking around the campus, and he was just pitching me the English program because he knew I was interested in the major. He and I went to Monroe Community College (MCC) together, and I was taking a year off to figure out where exactly I wanted to go after I got my Associate’s Degree. He said Rochester is right in your backyard. It’s a great, small English program where you become close with the professors, and you’re not in a lecture hall of 300 people being given an instructor's interpretation of a text — you’re in a room with at the most 20 people discussing the novel, poetry, etc. Like I said, I was first drawn toward the English program here. I thought of writing as more of a hobby of mine. I thought people wrote just to clear their head, so I didn’t realize that I was pursuing an interest in poetry until I decided to take Advanced Poetry Workshop with Professor Longenbach, and that’s when my interest was sparked.

What have been some of your favorite classes?

I’ve taken both the Advanced Fiction Workshop with Professor Scott and the Advanced Poetry Workshop with Professor Longenbach. I feel that those two courses provided me with the best hands-on information when it comes to writing. Outside of the workshop setting, I’m more interested in the novel — in fiction. Just for pleasure, I’d rather pick up a novel than poetry, but I’d rather write poetry than fiction. So, my preferred courses here were the literature courses, but at the same time, I love the workshop setting. The U of R has given me opportunities to be in the workshop setting both on and off campus. I received scholarships funded by the U of R as well as the New York State Writers Institute and had the opportunity to attend the New York State Writers Institute this past summer. I was able to go and work with other poets from all over the country for an entire month. Because of that experience, I’ve learned to appreciate and enjoy the workshop more so than studying the poetic tradition — which is essential, though. I didn’t start writing material that I took seriously until I started taking courses on the poetic tradition and the craft (such as Modern Poetry), so it’s a necessity. It showed me that my poetry wasn’t something I had to hide and keep to myself. I was able to see the poets we studied as artists who mastered their craft, and I was just keeping up the tradition.

You mentioned the New York State Summer Writers Institute at Skidmore College. How was that experience?

It was one of the most intense things I’ve done in the world of writing. It gave me a good idea of what a low-residency MFA program would be like, because after graduating, that’s what I’d like to do — a low-residency MFA. I just bought a house in Irondequoit with my fiance, so I’m not going anywhere; I have to do a low-residency. I was at the Institute for a month, going to all the readings, the Q&A’s in the afternoon, the workshops in the early afternoon — a real bombardment. I don’t know exactly how it was for the fiction writer; I’m pretty sure they were just reading through manuscripts, and that’s just as daunting as reading through a manuscript of poetry. However, we were asked to produce an original piece that would be workshopped during the next class. So, there was a lot of pressure to produce new material. Also, you would meet with the instructor one-on-one to go over the manuscript you sent in for each two-week session. Every day you just had to keep writing new poems to keep up with deadlines and submissions, and I had to do that three times a week for a month. So, in the end, you leave with a small body of work. But it was a useful stress and gave me a good sense of what the next level will be like. It was great working with all different kinds of students of the craft. There were undergraduates, students who are in MFA programs — there was this one lady who is a lawyer in Washington D.C., and she took two weeks of her vacation time to do the Writers Institute at Skidmore. So, it’s people from different backgrounds and different ages coming together to workshop their material with some of the best writers in America. I didn’t get a chance to take it all in while I was there because there was constant work that needed to be done, but thinking back on it, it was essential to me wanting to take that next step for an MFA program.

How do you feel your poetry or writing, in general, has developed over the course of your time at Rochester?

I’ve learned to take it more seriously. Before I was doing it because it was more so relaxing, and it’s a chance to be completely honest, brutally honest — sometimes you can’t be brutally honest with the people closest to you because they’ll take it the hardest. So, you can be brutally honest in your writing, whether it’s specific or metaphorical. But being here I learned to actually take my writing seriously, and it’s not just something that I go and relax and do, but it’s something that you’re continually doing, so you have to be constantly prepared, you always have to have something to write with, something to write on — you can’t let things escape you. I’ve learned to take language very seriously — being an English major you’re asked to produce essay after essay and that’s your grade, versus just regurgitating information in other majors — nothing against other studies, but it’s different — there is a lot of pressure on language, your entire grade is based on how well you can construct language into an eloquent comprehension and/or argument concerning particular texts. With that, different difficulties come with it. Just learning to take language seriously, and not to waste your words. I think that’s the main thing that I’ve come away with from being in the Creative Writing program and in the English department.

Who are some writers that you admire?

I own a good number of books of poetry, some from the courses I’ve taken here, and some because there are poets you should be reading because they’re in the canon or important contemporary writers. You have to know what they did stylistically, so you know where things are coming from — you’re not the originator of this, you have to pay your dues and read them. But I would say the writers that I read the most of happen to be writers of fiction. My fiction collection is starting to overwhelm my shelves, but I have my favorites: William Faulkner, Toni Morrison, Cormac McCarthy, James Baldwin, Philip Roth, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Carson McCullers, Jose Saramago, Denis Johnson, who just passed away in May 2017— he came to Rochester my first semester when I transferred in. I was taking a class with Professor Scott, American Moderns, and it was early in the semester, and she asked, “Are any of you going to the Denis Johnson reading?” And nobody said anything, and then I said, “Are you serious? Denis Johnson? Like Angels Denis Johnson, Jesus’ Son Denis Johnson?” At that time, I was not familiar with the Plutzik Reading Series; I didn’t know authors like that strolled through UR. I was very excited — I took off work that night. I will never forget that reading and the many others I’ve attended during my time here. Going to those readings allowed me to have the strange and very simple realization that writers are humans too — so that means since I'm also human, I can be a writer. Even though I love fiction, I love poetry just as much. If I had to pick one poet who continually inspires me day in and day out, it would hands-down be Mary Ruefle.

What are your goals after graduation? I know you mentioned a low-residency program.

I’m not in a rush to apply to any programs yet. I’ve heard from others interested in getting their MFA or already doing so that Warren Wilson is an excellent low-residency program. I’d want to prepare myself a little more before applying anywhere, though — continue building on my body of work. During these last weeks of the semester, besides the constant revisions to my creative thesis, I feel I have been ignoring my writing a bit. It has been a hectic semester since I’m graduating this month (December); I’m doing the honors seminar, I’m taking my other classes, I’m doing my thesis, I just bought a house, and I’m getting married in May. Just so happens that I am getting married on Commencement Day, so I can’t even walk to get my diploma. So, I don’t know how that’s going to work out. But my goal is — it doesn’t have to be Warren Wilson, but a program where I can develop comfortably as a writer. I’ve heard horror stories of MFA programs, and at Skidmore over the summer, that was one of the central questions the younger students had: what about MFA programs? And a lot of professors and instructors gave ambiguous answers, like, “They’re okay. If you’re going to do it, do this or do that”— just not giving you a definite answer. At first, I went to MCC, I didn’t know what I wanted to do, dropped out, went back a year and a half later, took a lot of literature courses, some writing courses, took a year off after I got my Associate’s, trying to decide where I wanted to go. So, I’m not a person to rush into things, and I don’t think there’s a reason to put that kind of stress on myself. But the goal is to find my way into a good low-residency MFA program, complete that, then begin teaching — in a workshop setting, poetry and/or literature courses, and hopefully one day be published. That’s the long and short-term goal.