Current MFA Students

Julia Bilek

Graduate Assistant [ENGL]
Julia Bilek traveled the circumference of the globe for forty days in 2001. En route, she discovered the crimson-sapphire-gold-leaf icons of Russian cathedrals, meditated with Mongolian Buddhist monks, and watched endless fields of wildflowers scroll by her window on the Trans-Siberian Railroad. She wondered, for the first time, what it meant to be a pilgrim.
In the years since, Julia has earned a bachelor’s degree in world religions and art history, as well as a master’s degree in cultural anthropology. She writes creative nonfiction and ethnographic accounts of American religious spaces, including urban religious architecture, traditional Native American cosmographies, wilderness as sacred space, transnational religious placemaking, and pilgrimage practices.
Her work as appeared in the blog Pilgrim on the Potomac, CRUX literary magazine, as Teachers’ Guides for the Smithsonian’s Discovery Theater, and in stage productions by Germantown Stage, Landless Theatre Co., and Figure-Ground Arts Collaborative. She is a poet, playwright, curator, photographer and lover of nature, culinary enthusiast, teacher, and wanderer.

Zachary Calhoun

Graduate Assistant [ENGL]

Zachary Calhoun is an MFA candidate in Creative Writing and Environment. A graduate of St. John’s College and Tulane University, he has published and presented papers on philosophy, environmental ethics, and the history of math and science. He taught undergraduate philosophy courses at Tulane and teaches English courses at Iowa State. His fiction is typically set in the American Southwest.

John Carter

Graduate Assistant [ENGL]

John Carter is a current student in the MFA in Creative Writing and Environment program and Midwestern to his bones. Born, raised, and educated in East-Central Indiana, he received both his BA and MA in Creative Writing from Ball State University where he also taught, both as a graduate assistant and later as a contract faculty member.

His writing is primarily influenced by his experiences as the fifth generation to live and work on his family’s Indiana farm and aspects of the Midwestern Gothic genre. His work focuses on using creative writing to help others see the beauty he sees in the rural American Midwest, haunted by its empty cornfields, skeletal barns, and collapsing homesteads. More information about him and his work can be found at his website ( ) or by following him on Twitter (@jekcarter).

Jordan Castinado

Graduate Assistant [ENGL]

Jordan Castinado is a first-year student in the Creative Writing and Environment program, and a Pearl Hogrefe Fellow for 2019-2020.

Jordan earned his BFA in creative writing at Prescott College in central Arizona, where he fell in love with the high-desert forests, dark skies, and red-hued rocks of the liminal landscapes between the Sonoran Desert and the Colorado Plateau. Prior to attending university, Jordan served in the United States Marine Corps as an infantryman, completing two deployments to Afghanistan's Helmand Province near the end of Operation Enduring Freedom.

A nonfiction writer and memoirist particularly fond of the lyric essay, prose poetry, and other dances betwixt prose and verse, Jordan seeks to integrate —and interrogate— his combat-zone experiences while engaging the existential implications of an American age marked by anomie, uncertainty, rapid change, and alienation from self, environment, and the divine.

In addition to literary pursuits, Jordan enjoys sunny days, forest strolls, long-form discursive rants, white tea, road trips, the company of animals, and winding dérives through interesting spaces.

Natalie Deam

Graduate Assistant [ENGL]

Natalie Deam is an Ames local, happy to be back in the Midwest after studying in France and California. She received a PhD in French literature from Stanford University in 2019 and completed her BAs in French, English, and Comparative Literature from the University of Iowa in 2013. Her work on the intersections between science, literature, and visual culture focuses on queer ecocriticism and critical gender, race, and sexuality studies to challenge the limits of the natural. Across her creative and academic work, Natalie explores the ways that nature and the environment upset notions of literary genre, gender, and the human animal. She is currently working on a collection of short stories examining adolescent experiences of rural ecology and technology and is especially interested in connections between children, robots, and animals. In addition to pursuing writing and teaching, Natalie is a mixed media artist who works in oil and acrylic paint, wood burning, and photography.

Benjamin DuBow

Graduate Assistant [ENGL]

Benjamin DuBow is a first-year MFA candidate in CWE. An obsessive reader his whole life, Benjamin only realized in his second year as an undergrad at Columbia University (Class of '18) that he could actually major in books (shout out to LitHum!). With nary another thought, he threw his half-baked ideas of studying chemistry or astrophysics to the wayside and dove head-in. His favorite writers and thinkers and literary inspirations include: Virginia Woolf, Toni Morrison, Chuang Tzu, Leslie Marmon Silko, Patrick Rothfuss, David Abram, Frederick Nietzsche, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Michael Pollan, and, of course, Shakespeare.

Even more recently, he came to understand that he could even write the books (he is only first learning, however, that this part is not cake). Benjamin is interested in exploring the stories humans tell themselves about their place in the world and the nature of relationships--with the planet, with each other, and with themselves--that result. (He tends to think we could use some new ones.)

Aside from bookish things, Benjamin likes to hike, walk, scuba dive, eat, wander in unfamiliar places (he's spent a sizeable chunk of the two years since graduating traveling the world), forage, and cook (which accounts for most of the other chunks). Embarrassingly recently, he learned that music is cool, too.

Jordan Dunn

Jordan Dunn is the author of several chapbooks including Common Names (Magnificent Field), The Greek Herbal of Dioscorides (Oxeye Press), and The Land of Little Rain (Well-Greased Press), as well as various pamphlets and broadsides. A full-length collection, Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action, is forthcoming from Partly Press and the Lynden Sculpture Garden. His writing explores landscape history, ecology, and the public domain. He is the founding editor of Oxeye Press, which publishes limited editions of handmade books and assorted ephemera. He lives with his family in Ames, Iowa.

Zoë Fay-Stindt

Graduate Assistant-Teaching [ENGL]

A first year student, Zoë Fay-Stindt (she/her/hers) is a bicontinental poet with roots in both the French and American south. Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, and has appeared in fields, The Indianapolis Review, Winter Tangerine, and others. After earning her BA at Emerson College, she fled to Austin to shelter in the heartland’s warmth, where she worked for Clemente-affiliate Free Minds, coordinating community writing workshops and helping adult students find academic renewal.

She has served many joyful roles: translator, grape picker, river dog, voter registrar. Writing has offered her many of these, including Texas Book Festival moderator, co-editor for the Texas Poetry Calendar, and coordinator for Literary Women in Action, a group harnessing the power of narrative for social justice.

Due to her split roots, Zoë is particularly interested in the ways language and landscape shape our stories, and has spent a long time writing through her birdwatching obsession while unearthing the violence played out on both the human and earth’s body. In all realms, her priority is building community and finding levity, strengthening her delight radar à la Ross Gay.

Emily Golden

Graduate Assistant [ENGL]

Emily Golden is a Seattle native with a Bachelors from Willamette University in English and Theatre. She splits her time between fiction and playwriting, attempting to tantalize readers with dark and intriguing premises, psychological exploration, and a little bit of humor – all things which she also brings to a DnD game. Her plays have been produced all over the country including Bethany Sees the Stars, which was included as part of Theatre 33's summer of new plays, Lobstermen in Love, which was produced by Gadfly Theatre Productions, and most recently Basic Accounting which was included as part of Theatre Cedar Rapid’s 2020 Underground New Play Festival and was awarded runner up for both best script and most creative use of the prompt. Most importantly, she is the dog mom to the world's sweetest german shepherd, Magnolia Champion.

Peter Haleas

Graduate Assistant [ENGL]

Peter Haleas is a writer and Iowa State University MFA student from Western Springs, Illinois. He spent the last four years living in Mizokuchi, Tottori, Japan as an English teacher on the JET Program. His favorite writers are Herman Hesse, Romain Rolland, and Leo Tolstoy. He loves reading, camping, traveling, and astronomy.

Alana Jones

Graduate Assistant [ENGL]

Alana Jones is passionate about corn, a gas station pizza enthusiast and eager to try deep fried butter at the prestigious Iowa State Fair. This California native completed her undergraduate degree at the University of Iowa in genetics and also holds a certificate in creative writing. After two years of coaching, a brief stint as a barista, and longer stint as a scientist, Alana decided to see if the grass really is greener in the Reiman Gardens.

She also competed on the University of Iowa’s track and cross country team. Due to an injury, she has taken a break from training, and now enjoys modeling part time (but will probably have to keep her normal job). In March 2018 Alana wrote and published an article on overcoming challenges as a post collegiate athlete for Gymshark’s International Women’s Day campaign. Out of the six women selected to write of the campaign, she was the only writer from the United States.

Alana has a deep respect of nature and draws inspiration from the crossover between science and the arts. She is thrilled to be part of an MFA program that supports both of her loves.

Ginnia Kovach

Graduate Assistant [ENGL]

Virginia Kovach is a native Midwesterner, having lived in either Wisconsin or Iowa her entire life. She writes fiction as well as poetry. She writes to shine a light on the people and other forms of life we tend to forget in the exhausting pursuit of empty, materialistic goals.

Virginia loves being a part of the creative community in Ames. She loves the supportive, inclusive community that is the Ames Poetry Revival, a local group that puts on monthly poetry slams. She and her husband, Scott Kovach, celebrate local music by inviting musicians to perform on their radio show, "Road Trip Iowa," broadcast by KHOI Community Radio.

In all her work, she values creativity, empathy, and community. She draws strength and inspiration from faith and a sense of wonder.

Kentaro Kumanomido

Graduate Assistant-Research [ENGL]

A native of St. Louis, Missouri, Kentaro Kumanomido is a conceptual artist and writer whose process-oriented research results in a wide range of creative outcomes.

Kentaro holds a BA in Anthropology from Washington University in St. Louis, as well as an MFA in Art Theory and Practice from Northwestern University. In 2018, they were awarded a European Media Art Platform Residency at Stegi Onassis.

They are currently an MFA candidate in Creative Writing and Environment at Iowa State University where they are also a 2020-21 Pearl Hogrefe Fellow.

Tara Labovich

Graduate Assistant-Teaching [ENGL]

Tara Labovich is an MFA student. Tara is interested in studying liminal spaces and exploring the boundaries between land and body. In particular, she writes about body in relation to healing from trauma, sexuality, and spirituality. Although in the past she has specialized in poetry, her future projects include fiction and creative non-fiction as she continues to explore genre and form.

Tara grew up in a small farming town in Germany before moving to Colorado for her high school and undergraduate studies. She recently graduated from Colorado College with a BA in Creative Writing with a specialization in poetry and went on to establish a small business in creativity coaching.

A’Ja Lyons

Graduate Assistant [ENGL]

A'Ja Lyons was born and raised in Sunnyside, the oldest African-American community in southern Houston, Texas. She graduated from Iowa State University with a Bachelor of Liberal Studies. A'Ja was a book reviewer and column contributor for Pennsylvania Diversity Network's Valley Gay Press, as well as an article contributor for Gallaudet University's The Buff and Blue. Her short stories and poems have been published in Sinister Wisdom 85's Youth/Humor issue, Lucky Jefferson's Digital Zine Awake, Decolonial Passage, and others.

In addition to writing poetry and fiction, A'Ja is passionate about reproductive rights and presented on state telemed abortion rights at the inaugural Iowa Undergraduate Human Rights Research conference.

A'Ja is the proud mother of an athletically gifted and animal-loving child.

Ana McCracken

Graduate Student [ENGL]

Ana McCracken holds an under graduate degree in fashion merchandising from Iowa State University. Her personal essays are published in The California Writers Club Literary Review, and the anthologies Nothing But The Truth So Help Me GodThe Joy of Adoption, and Chicken Soup for the Adopted Soul, and her poetry in Telepoem Booth® Iowa. She is a former columnist for Maui Vision Magazine, and her articles have appeared in various publications around the San Francisco Bay Area.

An Amherst Writers & Artists Affiliate, Ana leads writing workshops that inspire writers one word at a time. She also teaches creative nonfiction courses for OLLI (Osher Lifelong Learning Institute) at the Iowa State University Alumni Association.

A road-trip enthusiast, Ana has developed a love for driving the back roads of Nebraska, Kansas and the eastern Great Plains of New Mexico. A sometimes blogger and active photo essayist, Ana’s workshops, writing and her photography can be found on her website at

Emily Riley-Smith

Emily Riley has lived, worked, and studied abroad in a few countries (but mostly her own) before joining ISU's Creative Writing and Environment program. In doing so, she was lucky to experience the intersections of language and culture firsthand while simultaneously learning to navigate new places and languages. She brings this spirit of adventurous exploration to her time at Iowa State as she throws herself into the murky waters of her fiction as well as the new friendships she has nurtured with her fellow writers.
Primarily a fiction writer, she's currently exploring Greek society in the Late Bronze Age and the mythologies that followed it to understand the ways many ancient stories reverberate through our world today. Her favorite authors are Margaret George, Jhumpa Lahiri, Madeline Miller, and Naomi Novik. When she isn't reading or writing, you can catch her admiring and attempting art, conducting cooking/baking experiments, and playing D&D with her friends.

Emma Roles

Graduate Assistant-Teaching [ENGL]

Emma Roles is a writer who explores themes of entrapment, gender, sexuality, and trauma through fiction, contemporary fairy tales, and non-fiction. She is particularly interested in the ways in which environment and place embody and reflect these themes. Roles has worked as Managing Editor on the internationally-distributed literary magazine, Silk Road Review: A Literary Crossroads and has worked as Marketing and Event Coordinator for the Pacific University Visiting Writers Series. Her creative work has been published in PLUM: Pacific's Literature by Undergraduate Magazine. Roles received a BA in Creative Writing as well minors in Editing & Publishing and Spanish from Pacific University in Oregon. She is completing an MFA in Creative Writing & Environment at Iowa State University.

Taylor Sklenar

Graduate Assistant [ENGL]

Taylor Sklenar is a playwright, poet, and theatre artist pursuing his MFA in Creative Writing and the Environment.  He received his Bachelors’ degrees in chemistry, English, and performing arts from ISU and his MA in Theatre from the University of Missouri, Columbia, where he served as the managing director of the Missouri Playwrights’ Workshop and the Mizzou New Play Series.  He is the resident playwright at a Minneapolis based theatre company, 2140 Productions, and the founder of Ames based theatre collective, Focal Theatre Lab which explores new and experimental work.  His writing, which explores the intersection of science, poetry, and theatre, includes Of Madness and the Electric Dream, Dead Silence, Baby I’ll Turn the Sky Green for You, Inheritance, Fission, and {AV:VR:RL}, and has been work-shopped or produced at Tallgrass Theatre’s Iowa Playwrights’ Workshop, StageWest Des Moines’s Scriptease, Theatre Cedar Rapids, Focal Theatre Lab, Minnesota Fringe, Scene One Theatre, the Missouri Playwrights’ Workshop, The William Inge Festival, and the Kennedy Center Undergraduate Playwrights Workshop.

Kelsey Zimmerman

Graduate Assistant [ENGL]

Kelsey Zimmerman is a poet and first-year student in the MFA in Creative Writing & Environment program at ISU. She originally hails from Ann Arbor, MI, and holds a degree in English Language & Literature from the University of Michigan. She has spent the intervening years between undergrad and starting her MFA working in social sciences communications at the University of Michigan and the University of Wisconsin-Madison.


While primarily a poet, she looks forward to expanding into non-fiction at ISU, exploring the ways places shape us into who we become.