Dispatches From an MFA Program: The First Packet

Creating my very first packet for the Lesley low-residency MFA program was both easier and more difficult than I thought it would be. It’s difficult to get over that voice of self-doubt in the back of my head, the one that says both “your work must be perfect” and “your work will never be perfect.” In one of her seminars, Erin Belieu observed that the voice of self-doubt is just as much ego as the voice of complacency and overconfidence. And it’s impossible to get into the flow state so necessary for writing when the ego is up.

Listening to the program’s professors reflect on their own practices as writers was a tremendous help to me. In a getting-to-know-you session with our mentors, I asked “what was the most difficult poem you wrote?” Their thoughtful answers led to some wonderfully deep discussions about the very reasons for writing. My mentor Sharon Bryan made a comment about a poem’s emotional truth that resonated with me. Even though poetry is a powerful tool that uses words in semi-rational ways to appeal to that emotional mind, it’s not something I’d ever heard talked about in previous workshops.

I came to Lesley with a certain amount of emotional baggage. I’d had my feminist awakening in the middle of studying the canon as an undergrad – a canon I slowly realized was comprised almost entirely of men (and mostly white Englishmen at that). Since earning my English degree from Vassar in 1995, I’ve been carrying a resentment against this same literary establishment. Like all resentments, it robs me of any agency to change the situation. My early success with poetry spoiled me a bit. As other writers have noted, winning prizes and such shifts the focus from the intrinsic value of writing (you do it because you love it) to external rewards. And once those external rewards stop coming and one forgets about the intrinsic ones, it’s far too easy to let a decade or more slip by with only a tenuous connection to the literary world. Rejection hurts. But rejection is a fact of life for a writer. I wish someone at Vassar had taught me that, along with how to do a close reading of T.S. Eliot’s poetry.

The advent of the Internet brought me tremendous freedom. It was possible to publish my work without running the gauntlet of magazine editors and rejections. But while the DIY poetry movements of the 1990s and beyond are inspiring, I’m not able to let go of my need for craft and quality in my writing and in the writing of my peers. Reading the essays in Where We Stand: Women Poets on Literary Tradition helped me realize that I’m not alone in this conundrum. These women—very accomplished, successful women in the mainstream and academic literary worlds—describe a loneliness and unease I’ve been aware of but haven’t been able to articulate.

Rejection hurts. But rejection is a fact of life for a writer. I wish someone at Vassar had taught me that

My first packet focused on the work of Elizabeth Bishop and Sylvia Plath. They were excellent foils for one another: Plath’s work is like gelato: rich, dense, and best taken in small doses. Bishop’s is light and airy by comparison. Both poets write with precision and depth, but Plath’s voice – especially in her later poems – is strongly subjective, depicting the layered symbols within an internal landscape. Bishop’s voice almost entirely disappears into her close observations of the poems’ subjects. In a James Wright seminar with Adrian Matejka, we talked about earning the right to make grand statements through the use of very precise, concrete detail. I see a similar lesson in Bishop. The lines about the sweet sensation of joy in “The Moose” wouldn’t have the same impact of it weren’t for all the minute details that precede it.

Given the outward focus of her poetic voice, I also understand the controversy around “outing” her posthumously. Bishop was a fellow Vassar alumna, and I learned about this controversy long before I came to appreciate her poetry.  As a queer woman, I find it inspiring to learn that some of the greats were also involved in same-sex relationships. I can see hints of her leanings in the poems “The Shampoo” and “Four Poems” (especially number 4, “O Breath”). Although gender is never explicitly stated, the image of the black hairs around the nipple and the “shooting stars in your black hair” strongly suggest the speaker is addressing a woman. It is also important to respect the contemporary cultural mores and personal wishes of the poet. It’s a balancing act.

The issue reminds me of the way in which the feminist movement adopted Louise Bourgeois and her work as a feminist icon even though she herself wasn’t interested in those issues. Perhaps the problem is that Bishop was a contemporary of the confessional school, even though she clearly didn’t belong to it.

Plath’s work is like gelato: rich, dense, and best taken in small doses. Bishop’s is light and airy by comparison.

Both Plath and Bishop are heavy hitters, and their styles still echo the formalism that preceded them. I found Lucille Clifton’s Blessing the Boats a welcome respite. Not that Clifton’s poems aren’t also well made, but their sensibilities are more modern and their structure more simple. Her sequence of poems on to Clark Kent/Superman was in the back of my mind when I penned a sequence of poems about the void during an insomniacal free-write.

Lesley’s program also includes an “Interdisciplinary Studies” course where writers can explore subjects ancillary to their craft studies and genre concentrations. My IS course this semester is Creativity and the Unconscious Mind. It’s been tremendously helpful in keeping me fluent and loose with my own compositions in the face of Plath and Bishop, whose artistry can be daunting when one compares one’s own writing to it. “Look upon my works and despair” and all that.

Free-writing keeps me fluent and loose with my own compositions in the face of Plath and Bishop, whose artistry can be daunting

Packets include both craft annotations (short, tightly focuses papers exploring one element of poetic craft such as poetic line or rhyme scheme) and original work. I’m fortunate enough to have a vast store of old material to work from. I’ve also been generating reams of new work. So my biggest challenge with this part of the packet is separating the wheat from the chaff, and incorporating workshop and line-by-line feedback into revisions that remain true to the poem. I tend to place my poems into loose categories: love poems, childhood poems, nature poems, etc. Most recently, I’d spent a considerable amount of time dredging up memories from my childhood in the 1970s and 80s. I spent most of my 20s trying to forget those decades, so it’s surreal to see Millennials delving into “retro” culture from those periods. A sense memories exercise from a chapter on imagery in Frances Mayes’s The Discovery of Poetry created a steady stream of memories that I’d thought were long buried. I had to be careful about delving too deeply into some of those memories. Fortunately, I have reams of drafts that can be reworked and 42 years of personal experience to work from – not to mention new work that has nothing to do with my life or my past.

Portions of this post come from the cover letter I sent with my first packet, which was due in early August. On Monday, I sent my second packet. There was much less sturm und drang than there was with the first, but I still wonder, am I really doing this? Is this really doable? And possible?

I have a feeling it will be much more challenging now that the lull of July and August has passed.

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