Vassar's Creative Writing Program – Pros and Cons

Below is a comment I posted on the “Don’t Let Vassar Silence Writers” Facebook page in 2010, a group that was trying to prevent deep cuts to the Vassar Creative Writing program. I’ve also included (with permission) the comments of some of my fellow alums, all of whom were active with me in the student-run literary magazine Helicon. Students a year or two ahead of me founded the magazine. I served as Helicon’s Managing Editor during my senior year (1994-1995).

I had aspirations to become a published poet and “woman of letters” when I enrolled at Vassar. I was very confident — perhaps even arrogant — about my writing abilities. Vassar’s English department completely destroyed that confidence. This was in the early 90s, when the entire extent of the Creative Writing program consisted of Composition, Narrative Writing, Verse Writing, and Senior Composition. I took them all except for Senior Comp. That year, the only slot given to a poet went to a young man I’d never met.

The education I got at Vassar was very good, and the English literature program is rigorous and outstanding. On reflection, I’m not sure that I would change my decision to study at Vassar. But it definitely stifled my ability to write creatively. As a writer, I’m still recovering from that experience almost 15 years later.

Sarah Fnord Avery: My experience in the classroom at Vassar was overwhelmingly positive…until the Senior Creative Writing Seminar. The professor teaching it that semester was clueless about poetry, actively hostile toward genre fiction, and occasionally offensive to women in his choice of assigned model texts. All three of the poets in the seminar that year were consistently frustrated. I learned far more from my classmates than from the prof.

Strangely, the thing that happened at Vassar that came closest to silencing me as a writer was that my professors encouraged me to go to grad school. They thought they were helping me establish a writing life, but the academic job market and the process of preparing for it had changed so much between the 70s, when they got their degrees and positions, and the 90s, they had no idea what they were urging me into.Vassar I would definitely choose over again, but not grad school. Rutgers was a mitigated disaster, but a disaster nonetheless.
January 11, 2010 at 08:08pm

Sara Susanna Moore: I took only one writing course at Vassar, a required course for my degree– I think it was Composition. It was taught by Heinz Insu Fenkl, on whom I had a terrible crush. So of course I took his critiques of my work very personally and was terrified to talk to him. Plus, I was the only senior in a class of first-years, so we mostly sat in silence, as everyone was terrified to talk. It was possibly the worst class I had at Vassar, not entirely Prof. Fenkl’s fault, though it might have been his first teaching position. At the end of the semester, right before graduation, I screwed up my courage and went to his office hours, and put one question to him: “What kind of job would a PhD in English give me in the current job market?” He answered: “*Maybe* a position at a community college.” And then proceeded to layer on more things that were intended to discourage me from pursuing that degree, at all, ever.

So I never went down that road, though later I applied to Bennington’s “low impact residency” poetry MFA program (“rhyming by mail” as one friend put it) and didn’t get in. Another friend applied to the Bennington MFA in memoir, got in, and was disappointed. So, altogether I’m glad I pursued poetry on my own terms and instead went to grad school for something that looks like it will be pretty marketable. (Check back in with my later in the summer about that.)Back to Vassar: I took two classes in poetry, namely modern and romantic poets. I took them at the same time, the first semester of my senior year. I think we were doing Blake and Pound at the same time when the US invaded Haiti, using the 10th Mtn. Division (whose home is the army base near where I grew up) as the lead force. The combination of those poets and that event nearly gave me a nervous breakdown. I’m not kidding. But that’s not the fault of the professors.The Vassar English Department did me one solid on the poetry front: Eamon Grennan agreed to see me on a semi-regular basis and discuss my poetry with me. So I kind of had a non-credited tutoring arrangement with him, which I enjoyed. But I really got my poetry nurtured and improved by Helicon (tipping my hat to Sarah and Adriane). That was an amazing collective.
January 12, 2010 at 12:24am

Karen Schmeelk-Cone: As one of the scientist members of Helicon, it was great to be able to write and get encouragement since even getting into English classes was difficult. I wanted to take a creative writing course, but ended up in Expository Writing, I think in my Junior year. Interestingly taught by Dr. Joyce (I think) – he used a computer program which was somewhat like the web – you could link parts of your writing back to other parts or to things others had written. And the class used a program that seems a lot like FB – students commented back and forth during the class – so you could have 2-3 discussions at a time. And he was quite liberal with his version of expository writing. I remember coming up with a college catalog version of the requirements and courses in a fictional Homicide major. It was lots of fun to write.

But it really seemed like an impossible task to first get into English classes, then to achieve anything greater than a B if you weren’t an English major. Really one of my few frustrations at Vassar. But then, I was there for biopsychology and not writing.
January 12, 2010 at 10:18am

Bisexual Visibility Week: On the Definition of a Lesbian

In honor of Bisexual Visibility Week, I present to you an essay I first posted to the Garden in my early twenties. It’s gone through many iterations since then. Over the decades, the details of my love life have changed, but the fact of my bisexuality — or my queerness, if you reject the binary gender model — remains constant. Continue reading “Bisexual Visibility Week: On the Definition of a Lesbian”

The Paradox of Body Acceptance

Image of street art reading "Love your fat body"
Photo credit: Green Kozi, via Flickr

Fat acceptance isn’t always about loving your body. It’s not always about standing up and proclaiming that fat is flabulous. Sometimes fat acceptance is just about accepting your body as it is at this moment.

My road to fat acceptance has been a long and winding one. Unlike some of the larger voices in the movement, I’m not a lifelong fattie. I’ve fluctuated up and down in body size since childhood, although I’ve been holding steady at my current size for the last decade or so. My first introduction was back in 1996, when my mother gave me a book called Nothing to Lose: A Guide to Sane Living in a Larger Body, by Cheri Erdman. This was long before the fatosphere — even before the blogosphere — and it was the first time I was exposed to the idea that fat people shouldn’t be ashamed of their bodies. I’d already gone through two large fluctuations in weight at that point: once in the sixth grade, and once again in college. In the sixth grade, my mother took me aside one day and told me that obesity ran in our family, and that I “had to be careful.” I joined the YMCA and began to run every day. I still remember one of the neighborhood kids looking at me incredulously and saying, “You can’t run!” I went ahead and ran anyway. Puberty caught up with me and I grew out of my ugly ducking phase.

Over the next few years, I continued a regular exercise routine. Like most teenaged girls, I was ashamed of my wobbly bits, but looking back now I can see that I was — like most dewy-skinned teenagers — quite attractive. Plenty of boys seemed to think so. At the end of my senior year, I came down with a chronic illness that runs in my family. I spent the last six weeks of high school in the hospital, missed my prom, and almost missed my own graduation. The drugs used to treat my illness made me foggy-headed and sluggish. They also gave me intense cravings. Over the course of two months, I gained about thirty pounds. HMO coverage being what it was in the early 1990s, the follow-up care I received was negligible. I spent my first semester of college seriously overmedicated, nodding off in classes and uncomfortable in my own skin.

A photograph of the author at age 19
Skinny and depressed at 19

That January, I discontinued the medication and joined Weight Watchers. Every Wednesday evening, I’d drive from campus to the local strip-mall, line up to get weighed, pay my $10, and sit in a meeting where a skinny lady taught us fatties how to take better care of ourselves. It wasn’t a diet, it was a lifestyle change! Nine months later, I was 60 pounds lighter. People on campus were nicer to me. My love life resurrected itself. And I was terribly, terribly depressed. Depression following a major weight loss is actually a fairly common occurrence — and many women would, apparently, rather be depressed than overweight. Three years later, I’d gained all the weight back and then some.

When I picked up Erdman’s book in 1996, I was at one of the low points in my life. My post-college ambition to move to New York had failed, as had my first live-in relationship (she left me for a man 20 years our senior). I was 23 years old, living in a shitty little town in central Connecticut, with no friends and no job. Reading Erdman’s book was a real revelation to me. It energized me and gave me permission to stop postponing positive changes in my life until after I lost the weight. After I found a job, I overcame my body shame enough to join a gym and become more physically active. I began to look in the mirror and say, “It’s the only body I’ll have, so I might as well learn to love it.”

And here, for the first time, I experienced the paradox of body acceptance. While I was busy loving and enjoying my body, I lost about sixty pounds without any conscious effort or intention.

When I met Quick in 1998, I’d become slender enough to shop in “normal” clothing stores. My collarbone, ribs, and hipbones had become visible again. My butt would hurt when I sat on a hard surface. I came by all these changes organically, and I had mixed feelings about them. I was uncomfortable with the extra attention and praise that people gave me, because inherent in it was a condemnation of what my body had been before. As Margaret Atwood wrote in one of her novels (I think it was Cat’s Eye), it was as though I always carried around two bodies — a fat one and a skinny one.

When I moved to Boston, I found a job at a company with headquarters in Sweden. Surrounded by Nordic beauties — we all worked out at the same gym — I couldn’t help but feel inferior. Looking back, I can also see how Quick’s crazy fat-phobic attitudes eroded at my sense of self. For a variety of reasons I won’t get into here, my weight began to creep back up again. I also began to look at my eating behaviors. I joined a 12-step fellowship for people with eating problems. While this fellowship does seem to help a lot of being, my body shame and crazy ideas about how I “should” be eating exploded during my membership. There’s no official position in the organization on what kinds of food people should eat, but Boston area meetings have a long history of insisting that people cut out all forms of sugar and flour.

People would proudly declare how many years it had been since they’d last eaten bread or pasta. They’d say that they no longer had the capacity to know when they were full or when they were hungry. Many people weighed and measured everything they ate – even at restaurants. I tried and failed to follow every variation of food plan these women used, all the while becoming more and more obsessed with food and ashamed of my body.

A photograph of the author at a larger size
Fat and happy on the beach at 39

For the next several years I suffered through a living hell of judgment, denial, secret eating, and shame. Looking back at it, I see how needless all of that suffering was. The irony of all ironies is that the more I tried to deny my own hunger, the more my weight crept up. Then in 2009 I began working with a nutritionist who specialized in eating disorders. The first thing she did was tell me to eat more food — not more chocolate in secret, but more healthy, nutritious food more often than three times at day. She encouraged me to enjoy my food, a concept that had become utterly foreign to me by then. It took a good year, but I slowly began to experience some relief from the constant obsession, hunger, and shame that dogged my thoughts. And the longer I nurtured my body with good food on a regular basis, the more my weight gain slowed. For the first time in years, I began to maintain a consistent weight.

Reading fat acceptance literature has been an important part of my ongoing process of loving and accepting my body as it is. I recommend Marilyn Wann’s book Fat!So?, Lesley Kenzel’s Two Whole Cakes, Linda Bacon’s Health at Every Size, and Hanne Blank’s ample oeuvre – especially Big, Big Love and The Unapologetic Fat Girl’s Guide to Exercise and Other Incendiary Acts. Hearing the voices of other people with a similar experience has always been helpful for me. Hearing voices that challenge the mainstream belief that fat=death is revolutionary.

Contrary to all the dire predictions surrounding America’s so-called obesity epidemic, I have never developed diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, or any of the other illnesses people like to blame on being fat. My chronic illness is not related to my body size, although some of the drugs I take to control it probably contribute to my being overweight. I’m not the healthiest person on the planet, but I’m also not the sickest. This body has walked ten miles in a single day, climbed mountains, and bench-pressed close to 200 pounds. It’s held babies in its arms, made delicious meals for my friends, given me a rather breathtaking variety of sexual pleasure, written volumes, created art, planted gardens, worshiped the goddess, and housed my spirit for 40 years. I try to treat it with the same dignity and respect that I would any close friend.

The subject of fat is a highly divisive issue. It’s difficult to talk about it in the public sphere; to do so opens one up to an avalanche of hate speech. Lesley Kinzel’s co-moderator at Fatshionista found the constant online battling so draining that she quit the fatosphere. As with all controversy, the loudest voices seem to be the most extreme. It’s probably for this reason that people still find my website because of a letter I wrote to a catalog company about their plus-size offerings back in 2012. It’s definitely the reason I had to close comments on that post. But my body is not an issue for public debate. It is not a battleground. It’s just my body – special, delicate, sexy, frumpy, sweaty, meaty, and mutable. It’s the only body I’m going to get in this lifetime, so I might as well enjoy it while it’s here.

[NOTE: This post was featured on Gender Focus on September 15, 2014. Shout out to Jarrah Hodge, its creator and moderator, for all her work in the feminist blogosphere.]

What Lokito’s Death Reminded Me About the Gifts of Being Present During Painful Moments

photograph of a cat and a kitten on a suburban lawn
Old man Walter and young pup Loki

I was visiting a good friend in Hartford, CT on a fine spring day in 1998 when a passel of kittens tumbled across her neighbor’s driveway and onto the grass, mewing and scratching and generally working their kitten magic. From that litter I adopted Loki, a tiger/calico mix with kohl-like markings around his eyes. It seemed appropriate to name a kitten after the Norse god of mischief.

He lived up to his name. On Saturday mornings he would skitter over the hardwood floors of my apartment and under my futon, scratching the underside of it and then running away again. Continue reading “What Lokito’s Death Reminded Me About the Gifts of Being Present During Painful Moments”

In Memoriam: Trayvon Martin

I’ve been largely silent regarding the issue of Trayvon Martin’s death and Zimmerman’s acquittal. As a white woman living in Boston, I don’t see the ongoing effects of racism in the same way that I did when I was living on the north side of Poughkeepsie, or growing up in a housing project in Stamford. But racism still affects me and those I love. I’d like to take a moment to honor the friends and loved ones whom I know deal with racism on a daily basis — and the friends and loved ones I never met or never got to know well because of the racist and segregated society in which I live.

From a New York Times editorial published July 14, 2013:

While Mr. Zimmerman’s conviction might have provided an emotional catharsis, we would still be a country plagued by racism, which persists in ever more insidious forms despite the Supreme Court’s sanguine assessment that “things have changed dramatically,” as it said in last month’s ruling striking down the heart of the Voting Rights Act.

Butcher, Baker, Candlestick Maker: Okelle’s Career Path

A gentleman I’ve never met but would like to some day asked on Facebook, “What was your strangest job?”

It wasn’t my strangest job, but my most memorable and also my first real-paycheck job: ushering for the Palace Theater in Stamford, Connecticut. The pay was crap — some people actually just volunteered in exchange for watching the shows — but its rewards have stayed with me through the decades. I saw Ella Fitzgerald (twice), Chuck Berry, Herbie Hancock, Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, George Carlin, and countless plays, operas, ballets, and symphonies. And I didn’t appreciate it a bit. Well — maybe a little bit. God knows I do now.

Continue reading “Butcher, Baker, Candlestick Maker: Okelle’s Career Path”

Henrietta

I remember very little from the years between 1973 and 1980. There’s a simple reason for this, but one that omits a large part of the story. In the years between my birth and our unintentional immigration to the East Coast, I was busy learning how to eat, how to walk, how to use the bathroom, how to dress myself, and how to talk. I was learning about the world that surrounded me, and about my place in it. I was learning what kind of a person I was, and what kind of people had brought me into this world.

In the first decade of the 20th century — a decade variously referred to as the ’00s, the naughts, the oughts, the aughties, and the naughties — the big buzzword in psychological circles was resilience. Resilience was the word used over and over again in the days following the Boston Marathon Bombing of 2013. It’s a word that contains within it a kind of boundless optimism often lacking in the discussion of trauma, PTSD, and recovery from same.

Continue reading “Henrietta”

Beltane 2013: Union and Loneliness

Beltane fell on a Wednesday this year. It’s my favorite holiday, but even though it is a holiday of union, this year it leaves me feeling rather lonely. On Sunday I’d intended to rise early and make the trip across the river to my old church for the annual Beltane service — a tradition I resurrected when I was a part of the congregation and the Women’s Sacred Circle. It’s good to know that it still happens without me, but bittersweet. Even before M and I took the plunge and moved in together, I’d begun to pull back from the community at First Parish. It’s hard to say exactly why, although it’s definitely for more than one reason. Since the church is in Cambridge, there’s a regular turnover in membership. People finish their schooling and move away, or they pair up and move off to more affordable parts of the world. Once I’d looked on those people with disdain, but like so many of the people whom I’ve judged in my life, I came to find myself following that same natural progression.

I still remember the incredulity and joy I felt the first time I walked into the First Parish Cambridge Meeting House on a Sunday morning and heard an old, white man in a black robe saying things from a high pulpit that I actually agreed with. Things about the inherent worth and dignity of all people, the interconnected web of existence, the importance of social justice, the free and responsible search for truth and meaning. There was a banner above the door that said “Support Marriage Equality — We Do” — and this was long, long before the tipping point of public opinion on that issue.

Before I ever made it to the Meeting House on a Sunday morning, I’d attended the CUUPs rituals in the Barn Room. Two warm and wonderful Texans I’d met at a public ritual on the Boston Common brought me to my first Yule in the Barn Room. Then later, after I’d left Quick and moved to Cambridge, after I’d reveled in my freedom for a while and dated lots of people, after the rather disastrous end of a rebound relationship, I found myself sinking deeper into depression and isolation.

A woman I met on Craigslist–a recovering Southern Baptist–took me to the rounds of potlucks and parties in the winter. It sounds trite, but those potlucks and parties saved my life. At the time, I was looking up the lethal dosage of my medications, seriously considering death as an option. But I had a party to go to instead. One night, the movie I Heart Huckabees convinced me not to end my life. That same woman started rousting me out of the house on the third Friday of the month for Women’s Sacred Circle. I’d known about the group for years, but was intimidated by the fact that it was closed to new members except for once a year. And Fridays are tough in general, but Fridays in October, the month they open to new members, are brutal.

The community at First Parish was so cohesive and yet so varied. College professors, software developers, non-profit do-goodniks, menstruation rights activists, environmentalists, atheists, pagans, Buddhists, old-school UUs with Puritan pedigrees, a few token queers (I was one), believers and doubters and  folks who showed up for the community and the cookies — all these people came together to the Meeting House for a service where they sang hymns like “For the Beauty of the Earth,” and listened to sermons about Martin Luther King and the importance of comprehensive sex education. It was a place where anyone, even a woman, even a lay person, even me — sinner and witch and lapsed Catholic that I was — could organize a service. It was the first place I truly felt that I belonged since I moved to Boston from Hartford almost 5 years before.

After a year or so, though, the bloom came off the rose. Some members of the thirtysomethings group decided to invite all the “cool” people to a Christmas party the same weekend as one my girlfriend was throwing. I noticed the stranglehold of the current leadership of CUUPs; they said they wanted new members, but they didn’t actually let the new members participate in any planning decisions. Friends paired off, got married, moved off and had babies, never to be heard from again.

Even the Women’s Sacred Circle, with all its magic and mystery, began to feel like a chore instead of a place of union and spiritual growth. During my stint on the leadership council, it was not unusual for meetings to run for five hours. And I realized, as perhaps all of us realize as we push on into our late 30s, that my time and energy were sadly finite. I wondered where else I might be spending it.

I began to direct it elsewhere. Slowly but surely, M and I began the careful steps to bring our households together. Settling in took longer than I thought. I mourned my old life in Camberville: the friends an easy T ride away, the streets, the back way from Arlington to Harvard Square, the Trader Joe’s at the Fresh Pond rotary, the summer meadow just beyond it, next to the Fresh Pond Reservoir, the water itself enclosed in a chain link fence. Some of them I still keep in touch with, but the meetings require planning, long drives. Weeks and months might pass before we see one another. Sometimes one or the other of us cancels, and so more weeks and months pass. We keep in touch on the Intartubes, but there’s no substitute for physical presence.

Nine months after the move, I joined a poetry workshop one of my circle sisters has been attending for years. The critiques were tough, but I appreciated the focus on concrete results — publication — and the practical tips given and shared to help us all achieve the same goal. In December I had my first success: my work was accepted at Lyrical Somerville and will be published next week. In April I read at Porter Square Books, and I am scheduled to read again at the Newton Public Library in October. After the reading, the workshop leader said “you surprised us!” She’d never seem or heard my finished poems, only the unfinished ones I brought to workshop. Buoyed by the praise I’d coveted for so long, I submitted to two journals.

Finances demanded that I take a hiatus from the workshop for a few months. With the world’s sap rising, I find myself composing more and see how my own eye has changed, my writing more careful — sometimes for the better, and sometimes not.

As I write this, the sun shines in the back courtyard on the forsythia bushes, all yellow in the bright spring light. Birds come and go from the feeder I installed last year; this spring I know most of their names. The leaves and spines of my garden wave in the breeze. The cats wander in and out of the treeline. For the first time ever in my life, I have a room in my home that is three walls open air, the solid brick behind me. The oaks have just begun unfurling their leaves, but for now the sun shines unimpeded on the bed I planted one week ago, on the pots I brought with me from Camberville. A nature-worshipper, I have access to more actual nature than I’ve ever had before. It’s right outside my door, front and back, and yet I’m a five-minute drive from Jamaica Plain, Boston’s answer to Cambridge.

It’s not the same, though. I am too far from my old circles. It’s a distance through both space and time. We’ve scattered and settled elsewhere. The bonds grow weaker. And I’m not sure I have the energy, the strength, or even the inclination, to build another circle from scratch around me here.

I don’t regret the union I entered into when I moved to this new green and alien place. I bathe in it every day, and the water is sweet. But I do regret the interconnected web of existence I left behind in Cambridge.

Lammie

lammie
Lammie, alive and well in 2013

I don’t remember exactly how Lammie appeared anymore, but he probably came in one of the boxes Grandma Donovan would send every few months. Usually, these packages were stuffed with gorgeous clothes two sizes too small for me. But Lammie wasn’t too small at all. He was huge — almost too big for an eight-year-old girl to put her arms around. He must have come in the spring, along with the swiss-dotted Easter dress that I couldn’t zip up and the Easter card with the flowery script and the lilies embossed with gold. He was a rather minimalistic interpretation of a sheep: a rectangular puff of cream-colored fleece with four black stubs for legs and a black snout poking out between two fleecy white ears.

The best thing about him was his bell, a real honest-to-goodness sheep’s bell tied around his neck with a thick ribbon. For months and months that was Lammie’s voice, a ding-ding-ding every time I sent him into the slightest motion. I carried him around in my arms, comforted by the full, round way he filled my embrace. On bright Saturday afternoons the entire family would retreat to beds and couches and immerse ourselves in books. I leaned on him like a pillow, until his great round flanks flattened from the weight of my head.

At night he kept watch at the foot of my bed, a-ding-ding-ding-ing with my every toss and turn. The sound of Lammie’s bell drove my mother’s boyfriend to distraction, kept him awake far into the night. He asked if there were a way I could muffle it, but the mere thought seemed like sacrilege to me. Lammie’s bell was Lammie’s voice, and hearing his gentle ding-ding-dings as I turned under the covers made me feel safe and protected. One day I came home to find Lammie’s bell missing from his neck. I discovered it under a pillow, reattached it with its length of now-ragged ribbon. Eventually his bell disappeared entirely. But I still have him, 30 years later, still pull him into an embrace beneath the covers, and still hear in my mind the distant ding-ding-ding of his voice lulling me to sleep.

The Pill Versus the Springhill Mine Disaster

I was in high school and half in love with a boy from Texas. I was only half in love with him because I thought that’s what you were supposed to do with boys. Well, he was awfully cute. And I was 13 years old and full of hormones. Like me, he was a child of hippies. Unlike me, he was unabashed about it.

He pulled a slim volume from his locker — the locker so close to that other boy who got me into so much trouble. It had a yellow spine and a black-and-white photograph of a girl perched on top of a pile of rubble. It was called The Pill Versus the Springhill Mining Disaster, by Richard Brautigan.

“He’s a minor LSD poet from San Francisco,” he told me. “I thought you might like it.”

Even then, I was known for liking and writing poetry.

It was the first book of poetry anyone ever gave to me like that: spontaneous, easy. With the perspective of time, I can see that maybe he was as half in love with me as I was with him. We ended up embarking on a relationship far more intimate and complex than anything you’d see on Glee. It’s hard to say who broke my harder: him or the other boy I loved at the same time, in a more carnal, conventional manner.

But that’s a story for another time. Right now what I want to think about is that moment when he handed me this slim volume, the same one that sits on my desk beside me now, a little time traveler through the decades.

And the wonder of discovery when I first saw a poem like this in print:

The Pill Versus the Springhill Mine Disaster

When you take your pill
it’s like a mine disaster.
I think of all the people
    lost inside of you.