Sometimes life is just good. I received news that my poetry mentor for my thesis semester is the great poet Angie Estes (my top choice) and this news brings relief because with her guidance I believe I actually have a legitimate shot at getting a book of poems put together by May 1. I have probably close to a thousand drafts of poems in various stages on my hard drive, but these 40 to 60 poems must be “finished.” Angie Estes is not only one of the great poets of our time, she is an incredible teacher. She’s efficient, she brings high expectations to the table and she knows how to assign essays and poems which move her students toward a desired end. I am attempting to take a break from writing to enjoy the holidays and refresh before my thesis semester begins in early January. I say attempting…I can’t seem to keep my eyes out of my folder of possible thesis poems!
Semester One of my MFA program is in the history books. It sounds like the ticking morning clock is applauding me as I write this. Yes, I am excited about the growth I have seen as a writer through this intense semester of creating and considering and revising. It’s nice to have a period of time over the holidays to take a deep breath and watch some mindless television, but i have to admit I am already feeling the excitement and anticipation in my almost-always typing fingertips at the prospect of studying next semester with the great poet Angie Estes.
I have learned so much from this semester’s poet-mentor–Ruth L. Schwartz. In addition to reading her work in-depth, I studied the following poets: Dan Bellm, Larry Levis, Patricia Smith, Natasha Trethewey, Cynthia Marie Hoffman, C.K. Wright, Charles Wright and Jan Beatty. It’s amazing how reading these poets with careful consideration regarding my own craft and aesthetic has shaped my writing this semester. I am writing even better first drafts and I have developed the key and previously missing skills of revision, good news to the thousands of first drafts hiding on my hard drive.
Most importantly for my work and for my life, I have discovered that I have something to say and this is the arena which I choose to say it in. This first book of poems I will complete as my thesis project is very personal, but at the same time, evolving into interesting relationships with my faith, with history, with universal experiences. My poetry seeks imagery–my mind thinks that way and it always has. It is satisfying that this semester I have learned it is much more satisfying to create an image-heavy poem which works for readers, which coheres and makes some sense. I enjoy poets such as Eliot, Angie Estes, Charles Wright, who I “get” but I don’t fully understand at all times. Wallace Stephens. Those who have that “something” extraordinary illuminating or creating a shadow of though, illusion, allusion, myth.
I have been called “strange” many times this semester! I have learned that “strange” in poetry can be a good thing. Now someone please write me a note verifying that “strange is good” that I can hand to all the ordinary people in my ordinary life. I have learned that I compartmentalize my poetry pursuits from the rest of my life in my thought processes. I keep it separate. I am a different person when I am putting words on a page. I hope by the end of this program that Writer Kerri and Ordinary Kerri can share more peacefully the same skin. I hope I alienate all those in my life who refuse to take me as least half as seriously as I take myself.
I have learned so much from Ruth L. Schwartz, from her patient and constant attention to my poetry, to the many hats she wears as she enters our fledgling poems and seeks to know the writers better so she can find that jumping off point for us to learn to soar. It is different for each one of us. It is a kind of poetic parenting…this mentoring. Through her ability to find a slow peace in the living out of her personal convictions and her own poetic creations, I have learned to slow my pace somewhat as a writer. I have learned the value and the rush of staying with an image or a poem until it really feels complete, and then looking at it again the next day and the next day after that. For me it’s a process of tweaking away until I see a little light. Revision is the hard work of writing poetry. Ruth has steadfastly stayed with me and encouraged me to enter my work as the poet, and this was the main goal I expressed to her at the beginning of semester. She never forgot that, even though I handed her some of the most outlandishly disconnected drafts she has possibly seen as a poetry professor. She never flinched. At the end of this semester, I feel that I can begin to write from a place of accomplishment. Perhaps live there, too. I don’t feel that I am clawing and scratching and auditioning anymore. I feel I belong in this MFA program. It is an incredible amount of hard work to produce a book of poems. I am thankful for my community of Ashland writers who get that and who deeply through the experience of pursuing the same end really understand.
Home. There is no place like it. Kansas. I feel I have the right to paraphrase Dorothy because Kansas is home to me. There is nothing like landing at the Kansas City Airport and viewing that wide expanse of sky with nothing to serve as a geographical interruption to the horizon….and I mean that, not in a sarcastic way. Whatever others feel when they arrive “home” to their Philly Cheesesteaks or Great Lakes or miles of ocean-views, or Chinese food or Indie-music, or Rocky Mountains or favorite bistro where he proposed to her, or In-and-Out Burgers, we Kansans feel that exact same feeling when we open our eyes and see the open prairie. Ah. I am home. My heart can relax and breathe again. I can see forever again. I can let down. I am home.
I am still processing all that I learned from my two weeks at Ashland University. Poetry work-shopping has much in common with heavy weight-lifting. The body gets broken down. Toward the end of the experience, I am sure I was not alone in feeling like a complete poetry imposter with no business spending money on attaining an MFA when I felt like I didn’t even want to write my name anymore, much less write a poem, much less talk about a poem, read a poem, comment on someone else’s poem. Growth and building chops in anything always presents itself as the monster we would much rather avoid. I like to refer to poetry workshops as the root canal I just signed up for.
The last day of workshop, I sat in my oversized chair that was causing my spine to crook, feeling like the weakest link. I don’t like that feeling. I hadn’t completed the one assignment of the week in an acceptable manner. I had not followed the directions of the assignment but had gone off, as I am apt to do, on a tangent of my own. Part of the struggle involves my attempt to write from a foreign image bank. I want to write my thesis project about the Native American tribes in southern Oklahoma. I am so immersed in thought about this project that my poetry right now sounds like poorly planned prose. Clarity is impossible. I have no idea what I want to say. It is too early. I don’t even know what I want to know about all of this yet. It is somewhat like attempting to write in a foreign language before learning the language. I know that, being part Native American myself and having grown up in this area of Oklahoma, that I know much more than I realize I know at this point, but writing to know (I think Frost says this is why we write) doesn’t work as well for me as writing from what I know. I lack a voice.
After the last workshop I kidnapped myself for the remaining hours I had at Ashland and re-worked the assignment which was to copy as closely as we could the form of a Beckian Goldberg poem. I forced myself to leave Oklahoma and to write about something I do know much about–Walt Whitman. I emailed it to Angie Estes, poetry mentor at the workshop, and left Ashland feeling at least as though I had given it my best try.
I felt so pleased today to receive an email back from Angie Estes, who started her comments with the word “WOW.” First of all, it is amazing to me that a poet of this stature took the time to email me after the class ended on a poem which is clearly a late assignment on my part. All the poets I worked with at Ashland have shown me that kind of attention for the entire two-week residency. And not just to me. To all the graduate students.
I am home, still enjoying that beautiful let-down, not writing much, not thinking much. Cleaning and cooking and hugging my family a lot. My books are ordered for fall semester. Today’s email from Angie was a real boost of encouragement. Maybe I do belong in this program after all. One thing is certain. I am having the time of my life.