Dispatches from an MFA: Semester One, Second Packet

Below is the cover letter for the second packet of my first semester at the Lesley MFA program. I was fortunate enough to work with Sharon Bryan that term.

Dear Sharon:

Receiving your feedback on the first packet was inspiring. It managed to set just the right balance between encouragement and challenge. I agree with you that I should focus on free verse line for the rest of the semester. I did want to try my hand at some forms I’d seen in Plath’s and Bishop’s writing – especially the aba / bcb tercets with long-short-long alternations in addition to the rhymes. They were forms I hadn’t worked with before, especially with the use of off-rhymes. It’s so easy to want to emulate the style and voice of the poet one is reading rather than applying some of their craft to one’s own voice.

I had difficulty settling into the second packet. Fortunately, my IS course (Creativity and the Unconscious Mind) involves a lot of free-writes, which keeps me loose and fluent with my writing, even if it’s not terribly good to start with. And I followed the lead of one of my professors from Vassar – Susan Zlotnick, I looked her up and she’s still there – who said she always gave herself permission to write a terrible first draft. My first draft of the first craft annotation was mostly a rant about gender and the difficulty I have with separating the gender of the poet from the poet’s work. I’d cleared the pipes I was able to write a paper that focused on craft instead of politics. In writing the paper on William Carlos Williams and his use of poetic line, I finally learned the term for that stepped-down tercet

 

that looks like this

and which I used to

use quite a lot in my teens and 20s

 

It took some hunting to find the term: triadic line, or stepped line.

I enjoyed reading Levertov and CK Williams as well. During my first read-through of Flesh and Blood, I fell asleep about three-quarters of the way through and had a strange dream about his poetry and my fingers being asleep.

Choosing the topic for the second paper was difficult. I considered emailing you for a suggestion but decided that I should look at the list of craft elements I’d collected during the residency instead. That notion of argument and rhetoric as an element of poetic craft kept rising to the surface. I wasn’t sure how to apply it to either Levertov’s or CK Williams’s poetry, though. CKW’s work – the music of his long lines, the range with which he uses that eight-line poetic form, those urban vignettes he does so well – really spoke to me. But I couldn’t quite figure out how to speak back. I decided to concentrate on Levertov because the starkness of her lines stood out for me, and because she’s been someone I’ve wanted to read more closely since the 1990s. As I mentioned in the craft annotation, it was a real challenge to figure out exactly how to examine argument and rhetoric in her poems, because they’re both so submerged in the language.

My work on a collection of childhood poems continues. The workshop suggestion that I write a series of poems about the “character” of the Old White Ford has stuck with me. I’ve written down some early drafts on that theme, doing my best to let it percolate without forcing it. During my revisions last month of “Aaron Was a Black Boy,” I was definitely forcing it. I set that draft aside, but have been noticing that memories of that era (the early to mid 1980s) keep bubbling to the surface.  I spent some time on YouTube with the early hip-hop songs we used to listen to on the school bus. Two in particular remain memorable. These were the street versions of Marlowe’s and Raleigh’s poems: Slick Rick’s “La Di Da Di,” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zM0KAh5w7Rs – the song really starts at 1:16),  and “Roxanne’s Revenge,” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J9IFs13w_JQ) a brilliant four-minute impromptu response track a tossed off by a young rapper named Roxanne Shante.

In terms of the original work included in this packet, I went back and forth about whether to list each of the void poems separately or as a whole. I decided to put them all together as a whole, in part because they’re so new and could do with quite a bit of pruning, and in part because I had other work both new and revised I wanted to include in the packet. It’s unusual for me to write so many small poems on a single theme at once, so I’m not sure it will come up again, but I’d like to hear your feedback on the matter.

The void poems themselves emerged from a bit of free-writing I did during one of my (blessedly infrequent) bouts of wee-hours insomnia. Void is an interesting concept: it’s both the terrible thing we must look into (and which looks back) and the very necessary vacuum (the God-shaped hole) through which inspiration and wisdom arrive.  In keeping with the void/spirit theme I included two other poems about spiritual seeking. Hopefully that theme holds up. “Wild Turkeys in Late March” extends that theme a bit but in a more concrete way. Finally, I included three revisions of poems from workshop and the first packet.

I appreciate any feedback you give me on my work. In particular though I’d like to know what you think of the endings of the last four poems (“Wild Turkeys in Late March,” “Sunnyvale 1973-1978,” The Marigolds, the River, the Oaks,” and “Two Trees”). I often think about something Rita Dove said in an interview during her stint as poet laureate in the 1990s – that she was working on letting a poem end with a bit of breathing room instead of tying it up with a bow. That doing the former allows the reader to enter the poem more easily.

The latest issue of Poets & Writers focuses on MFA programs. In it there’s an interview with Ellen Bryan Voigt about the origins of the low-residency model, how it was made for people who had jobs and families and other obligations they couldn’t leave behind for a full-time program, but who still wanted to put writing at the center of their lives. I was especially moved by her description of people who came to the programs with a certain urgency, a sense that their time was running out. It made me realize my own sense of urgency, which I mentioned in one of my emails to you, isn’t unique to me. Sort of, “take a number and sit down,” and also “you’re not alone” at the same time.

In terms of the next packet, I’m at a bit of a loss about where to go next. I’ve finished reading Hayes’s Wind in a Box and would be interested to see what sorts of craft lessons I could learn from him. In terms of other poets still on the reading list, I’m thinking that Heaney, McHugh, or Szymborska might be good companions. I rely on your opinion on the matter, though[1]. In Mayes’s book I believe the only two chapters I haven’t explored are “Meter: The Measured Flow,” and “Subject and Style.” Perhaps I could concentrate on meter in Heaney’s poems? I recently received two other craft books as well: The Triggering Town and Poetic Meter and Poetic Form. Are there particular elements covered in those that I should study?

All my best,

Frances

[1] Here’s a full list of the other poets from the reading list on whom I haven’t yet written: Rilke, Heaney, Clifton, Hayes, Harjo, CK Williams, Lowell, Szymborska, McHugh.