“We Came Up with the Word ‘Connection’”: A Chat with Terry Price & Marjetta Geerling, Part I

May 13, 2022


By Katy Yocom


In 2007, Terry Price (F ’06) founded the Spalding MFA in Writing Alumni Association. He has served as its director ever since. At Homecoming this year, after fifteen years of leadership, Terry will hand over the role of director to Marjetta Geerling (W4CYA ’11), who currently serves as assistant director. I spoke with Terry and Marjetta on May 9 via Zoom from their homes in Tennessee and Florida, respectively. What follows is the first part of the interview. It has been edited for length and clarity.

KATY YOCOM: Hello, you two!

MARJETTA GEERLING and TERRY PRICE: Hello!

KY: So here we are, at a milestone moment in the Alumni Association, as Terry steps down as director and Marjetta takes over that role. So let’s talk about where we’ve been and where we’re going. To start, Terry, Marjetta asked for you to re-create the talk you give at the Life After Graduation session each residency.

Terry Price

TP: Sure. I think it’s important to understand how the MFA Alumni Association came about and why.

I was a student in the program between 2004 and 2006. Somewhere in there, a group of faculty and students went out to eat. Kenny Cook started talking about the program from which he graduated, and he mentioned that they had an alumni association. Well, my ears perked up because time was blowing by, and I thought, “I’m not ready to graduate!" The next day I went to Karen and said, “Tell me about our alumni association.” And she said, “We’ve only been in existence a couple of years. We really don’t have enough alumni to have an association.” But later, when I was about to graduate, she came to me and said, “Are you still interested in this alumni association thing?”

I said “Yes, very much so”—because I didn’t want to leave. I mean, this whole endeavor was purely selfish—it was to keep me attached to the program. And it worked! We gathered some people who were of like mind and like hearts. We were trying to encapsulate what we were all feeling, and we came up with the word “connection.” We didn’t want to separate from the program. We were being welcomed home twice a year and we weren’t ready to go.

KY: Can you say a little more about that idea of connection?

TP: One, we wanted to remain connected to the program. I have made some of my very best friends in my entire life, including you two, during this program. Two, we wanted to remain connected to each other. And then three, the reason we came to Spalding in the first place is because of our art. I didn’t want to leave and all of a sudden be separated from my art. So those were the three legs of the mission statement.

One thing that makes us different is that we are an alumni association solely for the School of Writing. (Spalding also has a university-wide alumni association.) Most alumni associations’ emphasis is on keeping you connected to the program. But we also wanted to stay connected to each other and to our art. Everything we have done as an alumni association has been based upon, does it tick those three boxes?

So that’s how we got started. The program has underwritten us every step of the way. I tell people you don’t join the alumni association; when you graduate you are automatically a part of the alumni association. You can leave, but if you do you will make me cry!

KY: When you started the MFA Alumni Association, you said you wanted to be called the director. We thought about President, but you thought that sounded too . . . presidential.

TP: Actually when we first started, Loreen Niewenhuis declared me the Grand Poobah.

KY: Ha! Okay!

TP: That was the first unofficial title. At some point someone said, “Yeah, let’s call it something different.”

KY: You’ve been the director of the Alumni Association for fifteen years. What are you proudest of?

TP: I am proud that we have the longevity. I have never felt that there was a flagging of the passion, a low point. We’ve just continued to add and grow. The homecomings have gotten bigger. Here we are fifteen years later, and we have people from the very beginning and throughout the entire tenure who really want and need to be connected.

When you go to a traditional school, you tend to associate with those within your discipline or your class. But one of the things I’m really proud of is that people who graduated from the program in 2006 and 2008 and 2010—somehow they have become connected with people who graduated in 2017, 2020, people who have studied abroad. At the Write with Me program (Terry runs one of several “Write with Me” weekly Zoom writing sessions open to all alumni), I have people from all over the place. I’ll say “Let me introduce you,” and they say, “We already know each other.” That’s just so amazing! It’s a connection that transcends so many things that I envisioned when we first came up with it.

And we have people who volunteer—I mean with real energy and excitement! We have a steering committee now to give us a broader based collection of ideas, a brain trust if you will, among all the genres. I’m very proud of the steering committee and I love the committee meetings because of the congeniality, the spirit. Someone comes with an idea and everything that is said is in the Spalding model of workshops—it’s meant to bring out the best. And all of a sudden we’ve got this fully formed idea that fifteen minutes earlier we didn’t have.

I’m very proud that we had two pandemic homecomings. The first one, [the shutdown happened] approximately two months before we were supposed to have Homecoming. We said, Well, do we just not do anything this year? Or do we want to try something? Within that two-month period of time, we not only put together an amazing homecoming virtually—it was incredible! And the next year we started enough ahead of time that it was even better. And we’re including a virtual component alongside our in-person Homecoming this year. It’s this broad-based collaboration of people who are creative, who have energy, and they have passion for the program and passion for each other and passion for their art, so they were willing to get in there and dig.

KY: What has been your favorite part of being director?

TP: It’s whatever I’m doing at that moment, because that particular element is keeping me connected to the program.

I love that the program has kept me connected on the three levels—again, selfishly, it’s why I put it together in the first place. I take such great joy in watching things happen, watching people participate, people reading, following their dreams and being able to share that because the program has supported us and we have put together this framework for all of it to take place.

I would be remiss if I didn’t say that one of my favorite things is being a part of the study-abroad programs. That’s been grand adventures that I’ll never forget with friends and colleagues, sharing wine and sharing meals. Sharing readings in the Luxembourg Gardens.

And of course in all honesty getting to work with you two—others but especially you two—that’s been a highlight.

KY: Marjetta has been part of this whole deal since the minute she graduated in 2011—

TP: Actually before.

KY: So, Terry, in a few words tell us what it’s like to work with Marjetta Geerling.

TP: When she was about to graduate, at our Life after the MFA meeting I talked about how everything the Alumni Association is doing is because someone stepped up and said “I have an idea.” And at the end, she comes up to me and goes, “Okay, I’ve got an idea!” And not only was a brilliant idea, she said “And I’ll take the lead.”

She’s got amazing energy. When she comes into a room whether it’s virtual or in person, everything brightens. She’s a problem solver. We’ll throw something out there, and before I can go “Hmm” she’s already put a solution on the table, and people are going “Yeah, that’s good,” and then someone else throws something else out—and fifteen minutes later we’re on our way to a solution. She’s dependable, she’s a consensus builder, she’s funny and brilliant, talented. And like you, Katy, and me I flatter myself, we love the program. We love the alumni. And we love our art.

KY: Absolutely. You two have worked hand in glove with each other for a long time now, Terry as director and Marjetta as assistant director. And now you two are basically swapping roles, swapping titles?

MG: Yes! That was my condition.

In the next installment of this interview, Marjetta Geerling talks about her vision for the MFA Alumni Association as it moves into the future, what working with Terry has taught her, and why it’s not nostalgia that brings her back to alumni events.

 

Katy Yocom is associate director of communications and alumni relations for the Naslund-Mann Graduate School of Writing at Spalding. Her debut novel, Three Ways to Disappear, won the Siskiyou Prize for New Environmental Literature and the Phillip H. McMath Post-Publication Book Award, among others, and was named a Barnes & Noble Top Indie Favorite. With Kathleen Driskell, she co-edited the anthology Creativity & Compassion: Spalding Writers Celebrate Twenty Years. Her writing has appeared in Newsweek, LitHub, American Way in-flight magazine, Salon, Necessary Fiction, Terrain.org, The Louisville Review, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA in Writing from Spalding University.