Semester One is Done!

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.

Messy Means Creative?

I came across a slide show of famous writers and artists and their work spaces. Apart from Picasso whose art studio looked like an episode of “Hoarders,” and a few other famous Messy-Maniacs , I felt validated that most of the creative spaces looked like the hospital wing for the chronically OCD. Many of the writers obviously require cleanliness and absolute order with a minimalist approach to things in order for creativity to flow. I have always been this way. My creative process is random and willy-nilly and all over the place. I start typing a poem usually with no idea what the first line of the poem will even sound like. I have no agenda. I can’t require much of my Muse except the promise to dust, vacuum, put away all items out of place and then serve her.

Because I am so rigid about my need for order, I have often been labeled by friends and family as Khaki Kerri–the boring person with nothing better to do than dishes. I beg to differ that “Good Moms” have messy stoves. My kitchen has to be spotless with all the dishes and surfaces clean or I will not cook. I respect that Picasso and I could not have worked in the same studio,  and I also respect that his artistic abilities far exceed mine so the man can choose not to make his children wear clothes if he wants to….As for my friends and family who can’t find a path from front door to  living room, whose dining tables look like Craft-o-Rama-Bama, you might just be messier, not more creative than some of us who keep our spaces free of clutter.

The bottom line to living an artistic life or just living a life in general is to be who you are created to be and to celebrate that and to spend most of your time with others who will also celebrate that. Part (perhaps all) of never having time for maintenance and margin in one’s life is…let’s call it what it is…. feeding the Glorification of Busy Monster, and that Monster will take over your brain until you are living from caffeine drip to caffeine drip, gaining pounds around your midsection, and hurrying so fast you can hardly take a breath to actually listen to someone who isn’t on the same treadmill. I have spent my years working for that warden, and I have reaped the futility of it. Not only that, I have trained my up my own children to battle this cultural demon. My daughters especially struggle with allowing themselves to rest.

I say this to my kids from time to time (okay…too often) Do what I say, not what I do. Every day should bring you some measure of joy at the end of it. We spend way too much time debating the definition of joy and way too little time asking ourselves if we have it, because if you have it, every day in your life, you don’t have to ask what it is anymore. You just know. Sadly, in today’s culture, it is impossible to find joy and fulfill all your childhood sports’ practice requirements. How many of us are raising our kids on God’s value that abundance is not quantitative or externally measured?

Creativity is a suspended moment. For some, a suspended moment means you don’t see the cobwebs in your corners or the sink piled high with food-scarred dishes. Some of us can’t navigate the suspension with total disregard. Messiness is not a measure of creativity any more than neatness is.