James Kastely, director of the University of Houston’s Creative Writing Program for the past 14 years, sits in his campus office holding a nine-page list. The bearded, soft-spoken professor runs his finger down the seemingly never-ending index of names of UH students and alumni who’ve been published: Matthew Salesses (The Hundred-Year Flood), Marisa de los Santos (The Precious One), Christopher Bakken (Goat Funeral: Poems) and on and on. Kastely looks up. “It’s not uncommon for students to get published while they’re here,” he says.
Out of about 350 applicants each year, the competitive and nationally heralded program admits just 15 or so, which means its MFA and PhD students work closely with their professors, whose ranks include Antonya Nelson and Robert Boswell. “There’s this stereotype of the creative writing professor who has an open office for only about 15 minutes late at night because they want to focus on their writing,” says Kastely. “Our faculty members really do work with students. They want to be here.”
Strangely, even though the UH program, which was led for a time by revered short-story writer Donald Barthelme, is often mentioned in the same breath as Iowa and Columbia, it isn’t as well known, in the city or across the country. “Part of what I like about Houston is that it doesn’t have a strong sense of hierarchy, and that’s nice,” says Kastely. “There’s a certain pleasure of flying underneath the radar. You can’t take yourself that seriously … and it’s a program that’s ready to take risks.”