14 Aug

by Jesse Kalvitis and Rebecca Doverspike


Jesse and Rebecca at the Annual Graduate Colloquium welcome table, before presenting. Spring 2013.

In the spirit of collaboration, Jesse and I decided to write an article together about our time in WVU’s MFA program these past two years as we head into our third and final year. We each wrote intros for the other, and then played a question and answer game. First, we each responded as we imagined the other would, and then we ranked one another’s answers and filled in the missing components as ourselves. We hope you enjoy!

Rebecca’s Intro. to Jesse:

Jesse and I have collaborated since the beginning of our graduate school endeavor as office-mates and fast friends. Our first semester teaching composition, we developed an activity that sent our students out into Morgantown to interview local businesses and nonprofit organizations for feature article practice—an attempt to bridge academia and local diversity, to open the space for reflection about what it might mean to be part of a community. It seems to me that Jesse exemplifies what it means to be a vital part of a community, just by being herself. She holds so many connections to Morgantown as a place (“See that yard over there on Pietro Street?” she’ll ask as we’re crossing the Walnut St. Bridge. “That’s where I used to grow raspberries, Jerusalem artichokes, some perennial herbs, and about eleven pots of basil per summer.”) and to people (just sit outside Colson with her and see how many stop to hold meaningful conversation with her!). In Colson Hall, she keeps an open office full of plants, an adorable coffee pot, food, and post-it-notes that hold several purposes, including scribbled notes and drawings to put on her office-mate’s desk when she’s having a trying day. Other GTAs come here for a moment of pause—to sit, talk, breathe—that’s the kind of space Jesse creates. I think I’ve also developed a particular Jesse-induced laughter, as her insights often pierce through in the form of delightful humor.

Jesse pours her energy into a myriad of interests and makes them bloom. While working toward an MFA in creative nonfiction, Jesse’s simultaneously completing a certificate in women’s and gender studies. She loves to garden, cook (her gluten-free pumpkin rolls are forever the taste of November to me now), make lists of her interests (psychology, literature, farming, etc.) in order to find their overlaps, and create amazing gifts catered thoughtfully to her fiancée, Catherine’s, interests (I’m talking a real-life Dungeons & Dragons character sheet and personalized M&Ms). She’s naturally nourishing to whatever and whoever she’s around, ever ready to provide sound advice or delicious soup or a fitting book title. The details to which she’s attentive as a friend and person also show up in her essays: she writes gorgeous, precise, that’s-just-it-yes sentences. Just as Jesse’s resourcefulness and knowledge make her a vital part of this city and academic community, so too does she render personal experiences and observations so well on the page that its importance expands beyond those specifically wrought moments and takes one out into the larger world.

In the past two years, Jesse’s become one of my closest friends, and yet the more I learn about her, the more my admiration deepens. She reminds me that sometimes the more we know someone, the further that person’s mystery expands—that knowing can mean ever-more to explore rather than closing the door on something already understood. It’s my favorite way to know a person, and a place, and Jesse has a knack (as a friend and a teacher) for reminding people of those most genuine aspects of themselves, and for drawing them out.

Jesse’s Intro. to Rebecca:

When I first spotted Rebecca two years ago, across the room in our graduate teaching assistant training, I had already identified a few colleagues I was sure would be my favorites. The guy with the bandanna and the sarcastic tee shirts. The one with the unironic trucker cap. The one with the cool dreads and booming laugh. Rebecca was a stealth addition to this list. She radiated calm and poise with every movement, self-assurance with each quiet glance and thoughtful smile. I was prepared to be utterly irritated by sharing an office and a genre with someone so put together, so chill.

That turned out all right. This is not to say that the cover was inaccurate, per se, but rather than the book was infinitely more complex than that first glance implied. Rebecca’s calm poise and self-possession comes through both in her life and her writing, yes, but it is far from irritating. The shifting layers of contrast only highlight and add poignancy to her moments of passionate indignation, her powerful words. I couldn’t ask for a more interesting, better suited office-mate, and her writing consistently knocks my socks off.

My favorite Rebecca-moment, which I hope and suspect she’ll leave in while editing this, occurred during our second semester. We were roaming around downtown Morgantown, speaking in person with people we wished our students to interview during their feature article field trip. In the sandwich shop on Walnut Street, I mused that the sandwich called the Fat Bitch “just sounds tastier to me than the Fat Bastard.” Rebecca replied without missing a beat, “That’s just ‘cause you’re gay.” I laughed so hard I nearly collapsed. She pretended to be suddenly very interested in the draft of our assignment sheet.

That, of course, is not true. Oh, the story’s true, yes, and the fact that it delights me is undeniable. The idea, though, that I can isolate one favorite Rebecca-moment is nonsense, as is the expectation that I can encapsulate and describe her brilliance any more clearly today than I could two years ago. I am a better writer than I was then, but some things are still beyond my reach.

1- What have you gotten most from WVU’s MFA program thus far?

Jesse Answering As Rebecca: Many, many opportunities to over-schedule myself to the point of exhaustion.

Rebecca: 3/5 Ha. Yes, although those opportunities bring real joy and life-nourishment to the point of out-weighing tiredness (mostly). This program has shown me what I value about community and continues to teach me how the practice of writing relates to the practice of living. The people I’ve met here have enriched my life, and expanded what life can hold.

Rebecca Answering as Jesse: Many, many opportunities to over-schedule myself to the point of exhaustion (I’m cheating.) [Jesse replying to Rebecca’s cheating: No fair!]

Jesse: Zero out of five! It’s totally my cool renegade department tee shirt.

2- Do you foresee a way to bring all your interests together in life down the road? Or, the big “What’s next”?

Jesse Answering As Rebecca: I’d like to teach at a smaller school in a rural but progressive area, or in an urban area—somewhere with at least as many trees as Morgantown but even more cultural opportunities. I’ll continue to write both creative nonfiction and poetry. I know that no matter where I go, Jesse will text me often to nag me about sending pieces out for publication.

Rebecca: 5/5 (And I also plan to make rainbow cupcakes for Jesse and Catherine’s wedding.)

Rebecca answering as Jesse: I’d eventually like to farm with my lovely by-then wife, our cats Coriander and Basil, and our later by-then amazing children—you know, with the likes of goats and chickens and a huge garden. I want to keep writing creative nonfiction but also study working class literature from an academic angle. In fact, I’d like to study almost everything both quantitatively and qualitatively. I’ll finally write that list-essay Rebecca’s been attempting to cajole out of me, and it’ll spark so much motivation and excitement that I’ll churn 5 or 6 memoir-style books that blend nonfiction (gardening stories interwoven with life experiences and reflections) and academic interests. I will also initiate a composting plan for the entire country.

Jesse: 4 out of 5! It makes more sense for composting plans to be worked out locally, to accommodate each area’s geographical and social quirks. Other than that, sounds about right. Also, hell yes to the cupcakes!

I also intend to nag Rebecca about sending pieces out for publication . . . heh. Aside from that, my future looks like one of those “choose your own adventure” books. My ideal next step would be into an M.A. program in American studies in Youngstown, Ohio, with a graduate certificate in working class studies. After that, who knows? A Ph.D. program? The long and arduous trek of the academic job search? A family? Full-time small-scale organic agriculture? Likely yes, yes, yes, and yes. And writing, of course. I’m reasonably certain that Ethel Morgan Smith, Kevin Oderman, Jaimy Gordon, and Rebecca will email me periodically to see how that’s going. That’s a fierce and dedicated group of people, and not one I intend to disappoint.

3- How does landscape influence your writing?

Jesse Answering As Rebecca: The overlapping landscapes of a place’s physical and emotional existence fascinate me. It’s difficult to speak of one without the other.

Rebecca: 5/5 (She’s good!). I’ve lived in Morgantown for two years now, and its steep hills and narrow, winding streets have become a kind of home to me just as the flat southern WI cornfields and open sky are. Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities is one of the books that made me want to write most.

Rebecca Answering as Jesse: I explored the woods a lot growing up and that sense of solitude and its connection to wilderness stays with me. My knowledge of plants range from what’s medicinal and what’s edible, what kinds of soil’s needed for a particular plant to thrive, etc. Landscape shows up a lot in my writing, but naturally so—I don’t make a point of it, I just feel it’s not separate from my life nor from allowing me to understand my place in it. Sometimes I feel most myself with a pen writing an essay about working with the land, and other times I feel most myself with my hands full of dirt, nourishing something to life.

Jesse: 5 out of 5, though my completely contradictory original answer below is also accurate. Yay for multiple truths!

Not as much as you’d think. In my writing, I often find myself wandering remembered landscapes, landscapes of the past that may not even exist today. Maybe the landscapes I see every day will show up in my writing ten years from now. Hard to tell.

4-What drives your writing?

Jesse Answering As Rebecca: Curiosity and compassion.

Rebecca: 5/5 (Couldn’t have put it better myself.)

Rebecca Answering as Jesse: It’s a way not only to process experiences that have shaped who I am, but a way to give those details, how I see them, to the larger world. I’d say passion and being compelled drives my work.

Jesse: Stubborn compulsion. [I stand by this answer, though Rebecca did re-frame it nicely, above, which gets her 4 and a half out of 5 on this one.]

5-How has teaching composition and/or women’s and gender’s studies affected your writing work?

Jesse Answering As Rebecca: Working with composition students in the classroom and in the writing center I have become a kinder, more effective editor of my own work, able to see and reveal the core ideas of a piece.

Rebecca: 5/5 (I feel as if I needn’t talk ever again!). I’d add that engaging with students’ writing and providing feedback feels like dancing with writing/reading on another level, and it’s an exchange I value. I value attentiveness and, having 44 students in a semester, I’m practicing how to balance attention with efficiency—letting it bloom in brevity.

Rebecca Answering as Jesse: Teaching allows me to use personal anecdotes to get students not only to relate to the work, but to think about those ideas long after they leave the room. I like to keep them in the loop as far as campus opportunities for volunteering, advocacy, and different student groups that might interest. It affects my writing in that it widens my sympathy with their struggles, and as I learn what sustains my interest I bring it in the classroom in hopes that it’ll also sustain theirs

Jesse: 2 out of 5, because Rebecca’s being an optimist. I may do all those things, but it’s mostly in the interest keeping them awake, off their phones, and facing in roughly my direction. Anything beyond that is an added bonus!

Teaching is storytelling, and students in any field are the toughest audience. From them, I’ve learned to rope in my tendency to ramble. Well, mostly.

On any given day of the school week, Jesse and Rebecca may be found typing away at their essays while a Mary Chapin Carpenter Pandora station plays in the background, grading whilst taking frequent breaks for Phase 10 and Desk Ping-Pong, sitting outside the steps of Colson discussing literature or waiting for students during office hours (one of the many purposes of the post-it-notes is to let them know when we’re on the steps, at least until the snow comes), or venting amidst laughter and watering the plants.

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