Oregon’s rural university and a storied Wallowa County writers’ retreat are teaming up to revive a degree program and cross-pollinate each other’s programs.

Eastern Oregon University, based in La Grande, has re-established its writing track, after a one-year hiatus. It signed a memorandum of understanding Wednesday at the Summer Fishtrap gathering, so that its Master of Fine Arts students can benefit from the wealth of talent that convenes at Wallowa Lake each summer and winter.

Fishtrap, the annual gathering of writers in Wallowa County, draws writers and writing teachers from around the West.

Fishtrap, the annual gathering of writers in Wallowa County, draws writers and writing teachers from around the West.

Stella White/OPB

Fishtrap executive director Shannon McNerney says her organization had wanted to reboot an academic program that provided college credit for high schoolers attending its gathering. She got to talking to an EOU English Professor, Nancy Knowles, over beers at Enterprise’s popular brewery Terminal Gravity— as McNerney calls it, “the official meeting spot for all partnership initiations in Wallowa County.” Their conversation ultimately resulted in the Memorandum of Understanding.

Like several Oregon writing programs, EOU’s MFA is a low-residency course. It only requires students to be on campus in eastern Oregon for a few weeks per year, as they work on fiction, non-fiction, or poetry. The revived curriculum focuses on wilderness, ecology and issues specific to Western communities.

Fishtrap, founded in 1988, has a long history of concentrating on those same issues. McNerney says it was a natural to explore how the two groups could complement each other.

Under the agreement, MFA students will spend two residency weeks at Fishtrap, learning from high-profile guests like Pulitzer-finalist Luis Alberto Urrea, one of the Fishtrap headliners this year.

For David Axelrod, the English Department veteran who leads the EOU MFA program, this is the culmination of long negotiations.

“There are a lot of reasons to want to be here,” Axelrod said. “I think we can provide a lot of educational opportunities.”

EOU has been on a mission, under the leadership of President Tom Isko, to reverse a decline in enrollment and expand degree programs, and take a more prominent place at the table in rural affairs.

Nate Lowe, dean of arts, humanities, and social sciences at Eastern Oregon University, says the University's MFA writing program shares an interest in rural ecologies and communities with the writers' gathering Fishtrap.

Nate Lowe, dean of arts, humanities, and social sciences at Eastern Oregon University, says the University’s MFA writing program shares an interest in rural ecologies and communities with the writers’ gathering Fishtrap.

Stella White/OPB

Nate Lowe, EOU’s Dean of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, says, “Our hope is that by creating more access and opportunity from grade school to graduate school for clear thinking and good writing in and about the West, our communities can find ways too address those most persisting global issues.” 

But McNerney has even higher ambitions. As the talks between the two sides progressed, she recalled someone suggesting northeastern Oregon could become the literary hub of the Pacific Northwest.

“I think that’s very possible,” she hoped. 

The partnership was sealed with a signing ceremony, featuring a reading by Oregon poet laureate Kim Stafford, one of the co-founders of Fishtrap.