Dispatches from an MFA: Semester Two, First Packet

This is part of a series called Dispatches from an MFA, which details my experiences in the low-residency MFA program at Lesley University. In the second semester, I studied with poet Kevin Prufer. We spent the semester looking at narrative versus lyric poetry. This is the cover letter to the first packet.

Dear Kevin:

Thanks for being so generous with your time, both during the residency and via email this month. I’ve been particularly crazed during this first packet. I constantly had the feeling of playing catch-up. Somewhere in there I forgot that I’m doing all of this because I enjoy studying and writing poetry. Last semester, I had a moment sitting under a tree in our back yard reading Sylvia Plath, and I thought, how is this grad school? I’ve had a moment or two like that in the past month, but they’ve mostly been overshadowed by OMGIHAVETODOALLTHETHINGS RIGHTNAOWWWW. Perhaps this is just how it feels to be in one’s second semester. The winter blues don’t help.

Regardless, I know that I can do the work, because I have done the work. Reading Dickinson during seminars gave me some new insight into and appreciation of her work. Reading her solo though – and especially with the intention of reading through all 1775 poems – wasn’t nearly as inspiring. More suffering. As you can hopefully tell from the annotation, I did find enjoyment in the end though.

I found the story of her correspondence with Higginson foreword very helpful though. I’d heard a bit about it, but hadn’t know all the details. I’ve always held her up as the paragon of the posthumously famous poet. (Yes, I’m going to leave that alliteration as-is.) I’m not sure that fame is necessarily the thing that would have brought me the most happiness, but I would like to think that someone will read my work even after I’m gone. I suppose it does no good to focus on that.

The thing about Dickinson that continues to inspire me is the fact that she clearly was working toward something that other poets of her day couldn’t understand. It’s a good example of how important it is to listen to that still, small voice inside that tells the truth about the kernel of a poem. It’s something I struggle with, since I know it’s also important to be open to suggestions. Each time I participate in a workshop, I feel like I’m learning a little bit more how to walk that line.

The weekend that I read Finch was a good illustration of why it’s so important to take study breaks. My partner sprung for a room at a little hotel down the coast that’s not very fancy, but is so close to the water that you can open the screen door and hear the waves shushing against the shore. I’d read Finch’s book prior to interviewing her, but that was there I read and re-read it cover to cover. That was where it really sunk in. Thank you for your suggestion that I go ahead and do a close reading of her elegy. My annotation on Finch’s poem ended up focusing almost exclusively on her use of meter. It wasn’t until re-read your email that I saw these two questions: “how does she make use of narrative qualities? And how does it participate in the lyric tradition as well?” So I’m going to address those two questions here instead. Both you and Sharon Bryan have described lyric poetry as “moving at the speed of thought,” I think this sums up nicely the issue I often have with nonlinear time in a poem. So it seems to me that narrative poetry works with time in a more external way. As you said, narrative poetry manipulates time to create a sort of forward momentum. Forward momentum is what I see in Annie’s poem. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end.

The poem participates in the lyric tradition because it is an elegy, because it expresses the strong feelings of the speaker –in the case of the elegy, the mournful feelings – and because it does focus on one moment, or at least on one scene. So I’d definitely call this a lyric poem, but with some narrative elements.

I’m never quite sure of whether to pull focus wide on a poet’s body of work in order to prove that I did all the reading, or whether a close reading of a single poem or set of poems would be the more valuable thing. Given the brevity of the annotations, it’s difficult to do both. After reading some of my annotations from last semester, I also noticed that I tended to tack on the bit about relating the reading to my own work. I’m curious as to your thoughts on the matter.

In terms of my own work, I noticed a huge shift in voice last semester. I still have lots of poems written in a very restrained, lyrical voice. I’m not willing to abandon them entirely, but I’m wondering whether I should just put them aside for now and concentrate on this new narrative voice that’s been coming forward. Or is it narrative? We may not be able to clear away all of the gray, but I think there will be less of it by the end of the semester.

If you had to pick, which of the five poems I sent would you focus on reworking? Are any of them done, or done enough to start sending out? I’m inclined to think that “Eve and the Snake” is there, and that “Elegy for…” and the Void poems are a draft or two away. I’m also curious about whether you think the elegy poem is actually an elegy. My first attempt at the subject focused only on the second half of the poem. I was grappling with both the feelings of the hurt, terrified little girl and those of the grown woman who can see the larger societal context of the event. Race is an important factor, as is class. I didn’t want to lose either one of them. I called it an elegy because for me it is a mournful, meditative reflection on events from the past – even though the boys in question are probably still very much alive. I’m too close to this draft, so I really need an objective opinion.

“Moths in December” is one of those chickenshit little nature poems: descriptive, lyrical, but missing that something-to-say part that my more recent poems seem to be getting right. “I Won’t Be Coy Now” is my attempt to get in there and actually just write about all that awesome lesbian sex I (–excuse me, “the speaker”) had with the April character in “Pastoral, Poughkeepsie,” since it was apparent from workshop that I needed to emphasize the romantic/sexual connection between the two. It’s interesting to me that I find it so difficult to say in poetry what I’m pretty outspoken about in my day-to-day life. The Juno poem from residency was the exception that proves the rule. Perhaps because one needs to show it, not say it, in order to make good poetry.

In terms of the next packet, I’d like to look at Adrian Matejka’s The Big Smoke and Rachel Zucker’s The Last Clear Narrative. I’ve been dipping in and out of Maggie Nelson’s Argonauts as well, but the jury is still out. I’ll peruse one of these essays as well – both, if I can’t get anything useful out of one.

“The Very Act of Telling: Sharon Olds and Writing Narrative Poetry,” Aaron Smith, Poets.org.

“A Defense of Train Wrecks: Lyric Narrative Poetry and the Legacy of Confessionalism,” Dante Di Stefano, Shenandoah

In terms of a phone call, I think you said Fridays after 4pm work well for you. I’m free between 3pm and 5:30pm next Friday the 10th, or we could do something on the weekend if that’s better for you.

Hope all’s well in Texas.



Photo credit: Nilufer Gadgieva via Flickr, CC 2.0