“It’s Not Nostalgia that Brings Me Back”: A Chat with Terry Price & Marjetta Geerling, Part II


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.

In the first installment of this interview, Terry Price talked about the founding of the MFA Alumni Association, the three ways it keeps alums connected, and the proudest moments and biggest surprises it has delivered over the years.

What follows is the second part of the interview, focusing on incoming director Marjetta Geerling. It has been edited for length and clarity.

Marjetta Geerling

KATY YOCOM: You two are basically swapping roles, swapping titles?

MARJETTA GEERLING: Yes. That was my condition.

KY: Marjetta, what’s it been like for you working with the Alumni Association?

MG: I love the program. From day three of my first residency, I knew that I was in it. So when Terry gave that talk on the day of graduation, I was so relieved that leaving was not leaving forever!

Something I appreciated as a student is anytime I had an idea or a problem and I would go to Karen or Katy or Kathleen, they would say “Let’s figure that out,” and then immediately take action. The Alumni Association works in the same exact manner. I walked up to Terry that day with my idea, that we should have regional alumni get-togethers, and he was like, “Great! Let’s do that.” I was going to be a PGRA in Italy that summer, and he said, “We’ll figure out the details in Italy.”

I was like, “This is the best thing ever! I am never going anywhere else!”

Just from that first interaction with Terry, I learned a lot about him. And I will say working all these years with the both of you, you have become my dearest, dearest friends. When I talk to people about going to Spalding, I say two of my best friends I met as a result of the program, but I didn’t go through the program with them. These friendships and relationships have developed in the postgraduate years.

KY: Which in many ways, I think, are the best years.

MG: Something that Terry says often that I stole from him is, You’re a student for two years, but you’re an alum forever. I really love that feeling. I love seeing the alums who haven’t been in touch for a while when they come back because they need a shot of inspiration or connection, and I love the people who’ve stayed connected all the way through.

The other thing I really love about how our Alumni Association works is that our in-person events always happen at the same time residency is happening, so alums get a lot of opportunity to interact with current students before they become alumni. I love feeling connected to the present of the program. When I go back for Homecoming it doesn’t feel like I’m reliving old times. It’s not nostalgia that that brings me back over and over again to these events. It’s the real, living connection that I have with all these other amazing writers. And it starts right here in this Zoom room with Terry and Katy.

KY: What has working with Terry taught you?

MG: Working with Terry has been a master class in graciousness. I tend to be—you know, Terry said it as a positive that I process quickly—but I tend to be abrupt and quick and, um, perhaps judgmental at times. What I’ve learned from Terry is to sometimes step back and let other people shine.

I feel like every time I’m in a room with Terry and watching him interact with other people, his heart is just wide open. People can feel that love and that understanding and that acceptance. And I certainly have benefited from that in knowing you, Terry. So thank you for the lessons in grace and also in the unwavering support of other people. As much as you are an amazing writer and creative yourself, you promote everyone around you just as much if not more so than yourself.

And that is another product of the alumni association: we get very invested in each other and that leads to this blanket support. You know, my dad and my husband would support me no matter what. If I wanted to raise chickens, they would be supportive. But only other writers really get what it takes to support another writer in the ups and downs that we go through. Being active in this role has kept me writing through times when I might otherwise have given up. So I’m grateful to you, Terry. You said you built this association out of selfishness, but has really benefited lots of people, including me.

KY: And me! Marjetta, I love what you said. Terry, that open-hearted sincerity and goodness just shines out of you. It makes me think of the Thomas Merton quote that you cited during your graduation reading, about seeing everyone shining like the sun. You see everyone as people with incredible value and potential and spirit.

On another note, Marjetta, could you put some words to the values and strengths you see yourself bringing to the director role?

MG: I am a believer in the original vision of staying connected to each other, to our art, and to the program. Something that Terry said early on to me that was very meaningful was, “Anytime that you feel your responsibilities are getting in the way of your art, you need to step back from the responsibilities. The art has to come first.” I’m stepping into this role with the idea of staying committed to the original vision and looking for ways to grow opportunities to stay connected in those three ways.

A strength that I bring is delegation. I’m really good at getting other people to do things that need doing! As much as I want to take on everything myself, I have learned over the years to let other people step up and take ownership of things. Working in the steering committee has really shown me that it’s not all on just me or Terry or you, Katy. There are a lot of people who are eager to stay connected and willing to do the volunteering that it takes to make these events and programs happen.

So recruiting volunteers will be part of my job, and matchmaking ideas and programs and projects to the perfect people to step up and and run them for however long they’re able to.

KY: Do you have specific things in mind, or is it more a matter of seeing what people bring forward?

MG: I think it’s about listening, and creating an environment where people feel confident in coming forward with their ideas. Making sure that they know that they’re heard and that there is support for whatever thing they’ve got crackling in the back of their brain. We’ve run through all my ideas in the last ten years! I see that there’s a lot of interest in having more virtual events, and I frankly don’t have the technical skills to take that kind of thing over, so as more ideas in that arena arise I’ll be looking for people who want to take over those sorts of roles.

KY: Can you talk about the relationship between the MFA Alumni Association and the School of Writing?

MG: Something that I have appreciated is that the leadership of the program does check in with the Alumni Association and get alumni feedback. Part of my role as the director is going to be listening to alumni and conveying people’s experiences and requests and feelings about how things are going and what might be better to the program.

KY: I can say, as someone who works in the office, that there is always a lot of conversation about what the alums need and want and how we can integrate them. Working with the Alumni Association has become a big part of my job and I feel really lucky about that—like, do they realize that I’m having such a good time being a liaison? And I count myself incredibly lucky to work with you two, whom I love and adore.

MG: It’s hard for me to imagine the Alumni Association without Terry as the director. So in some ways this transition is terrifying for me. That is why I said, well, if you’ll be the assistant director, Terry, and make sure I don’t mess everything up in the first year, then we have ourselves a deal.

TERRY PRICE: This will be the easiest job I will ever have if that’s the criterion.

MG: The bar is very high and I don’t want to let anybody down. But I know that I’ve got the two of you to support me, so I think somehow we will survive this transition.

TP: We’re gonna flourish. That’s what we’re going to do.

 

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.