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MFA in Creative Writing

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Arts & Culture Faithful Creativity

Bringing Poetry to Prose

MFA Grad’s Account of a Chicago Shipwreck Hits The New York Times Bestseller List

By Laura Onstot | Photo by Craig van der Lende

Michael McCarthyMichael McCarthy, MFA ’11, did some of the research for Ashes Under Water at the Michigan Maritime Museum in South Haven, Michigan — one port of call featured in the story.

It was July 1915 when a boat docked in the Chicago River rolled over, spilling its passengers, electric company workers on their day off. More than 800 people drowned that day. Everyone pointed fingers at others and in the end, the courts assigned no blame, despite evidence that the boat lacked the stability to carry the number of people on board that day.

Nearly a century later, Michael McCarthy, then a Wall Street Journal reporter, was having dinner with a friend and heard about the disaster. “I was like, ‘how did that happen and why did no one know about it?’” McCarthy recalls now. “I felt compelled to find answers.”

It took 12 years to put those answers together in a book, Ashes Under Water: The SS Eastland and the Shipwreck That Shook America. This summer, it hit The New York Times bestseller list.

More than a decade elapsed between the idea and the final book, in part because McCarthy took an unlikely detour — two years writing and studying poetry in SPU’s creative writing MFA program

McCarthy, like many poets, came to the genre through an interest in the heart. In his case, though, it was the actual muscle.

One of his final stories of his 22-year career at the Journal was about a new stethoscope developed because the hospital din made it difficult for doctors and nurses to hear a patient’s heart beat.

“There’s a wonderful theme in that,” McCarthy recalls thinking. “The world is so loud we can’t hear the heart.”

He describes the story that followed as “kind of a poem in a business publication.”

He left journalism shortly afterward, in 2006, for an MA in English at Chicago’s DePaul University. While there, “I really just fell in love with poetry,” he says.

McCarthy is a devout Catholic, so many of his poems were infused with faith. An instructor at DePaul suggested he submit them to Image, a quarterly literary journal housed at SPU.

McCarthy got a rejection letter that sparked his interest in the University. In 2009, Seattle Pacific’s MFA program accepted him to the program to focus on poetry.

“I decided to go with poetry because I thought it would be the most challenging thing I could do,” McCarthy says. “I was so afraid I was going to be a complete flop with it.”

For the two-year, low-residency program, students from across the country work at home, reading, analyzing, and writing, and submit their work to long-distance mentors. They meet for two 10-day residencies each year, on Whidbey Island and in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Program Director Gregory Wolfe, who also publishes Image, says that, while students focus on one writing genre during their two years with SPU, he seeks applicants like McCarthy who are “alert to all kinds of great writing.”

Jeanne Murray Walker, a poet and English professor at the University of Delaware, has worked as a mentor with the University’s program for the past decade. She says McCarthy’s journalistic background showed in the analytical works he produced during his time with the program. But he also grew as a poet, focusing on writing devices like metaphor — skills visible in Ashes Under Water.

McCarthy is now writing from his home in Michigan. His current projects include poetry, some of which he has published in The Southern Review, a quarterly literary magazine.

After McCarthy’s shipwreck tale hit the Times bestseller list, he emailed Walker to say “OK, I promise, after this it’s poetry,” she recalls. “And I said ‘Naw, you can do both at the same time.’”