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.

Documentary Poetry

http://www.bostonreview.net/blog/smith-drone-poetics

This poet is on faculty at Ashland University and I plan to request her as my mentor for spring semester. She lectured during summer residency on documentary poetry and the above link presents an article she published on that topic. What is the responsibility of poetry to tackle social problems/issues? What is the best format for literature to grapple with accurate history? I see documentary poetry as a means of engaging an audience that stretches beyond those who read poetry as art for art’s sake. Documentary Poetry is also a way to transport the poet from the exclusively confessional as far as subject matter.

Beautiful Let-down

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.

Judging the Beauty Pagaent

It’s “crunch time” around here. In the next four days I must select 15 poems to be dissected and hopefully, like a beautiful mosaic, glued back together as stronger versions of themselves during my summer residency at Ashland. The important thing is to select poems which have some “wiggle room”– the ability to change and grow. Much of what I write feels very finished after the first draft. The writing isn’t great yet, but like my personality, it ineffably is what it is, and no amount of tweaking fundamentally changes anything.

I am thinking of starting a nonfiction piece entitled “How to Get Anyone Besides Your Husband Who is At This Moment Terrified of You to Take You Seriously During Menopause.”

Yes. Good luck with that. Truthfully, The Change has not even started for me, but at 50, I am at that age where no matter what I do and say…that is the overriding assumption. Works great unless you are attempting to accomplish something outside of yourself like publishing a book of poetry and earning a MFA degree. We all know poetry is never written outside of one’s true self.  I am just finding that for 50 years,  I have been parading around as a fictional character…no wonder success hasn’t followed me like a bloodhound!

It seems, even in my inner circle of friends and family, I have attracted a bunch of wing-clippers. (That sounds so menopausal, doesn’t it?) Perhaps more accurately I have focused too intently on being the wind beneath everyone else’s wings. I take responsibility for this. After all, I trained them. I do believe we lay little bread crumbs of instructions (nonverbal and verbal, in thought and action) which teach others how we want to be treated while they are on their merry ways to us. Some of us know we deserve more, but at the same time, feel that we don’t.

A little at a time, I am feeling more secure in who I really am. I know I have a voice and that I have always had one. I am beginning to believe if I find the right audience, my voice will make a difference and will be heard. I can’t spend all of my time keeping other people in the air only to be told when I exhale that I am a Debbie Downer. I am excited to develop through Ashland University, a group of support persons who take the writing of poetry as seriously as I do.  Now I must begin to select the 15 beauties who will make this trip with me.

Lazy days of summer….

I am headed to Kansas City overnight on a business trip with my husband and I am hoping the luxury hotel atmosphere, and most importantly, the privacy away from my house, kids, and to-do lists, will inspire me to get some writing done.

 

Here is what I hope to accomplish: 1. Select poems for my summer residency at Ashland; 2. Write some on the novel I started on a whim 3. Read, read, read! 4. Work on a couple of essays in the works.

Perhaps some poetry will get written as well.

I will report back.

To do list…

I am in one of those dreaded states of paralysis in which I have the time to work but no work is getting itself produced. I feel like President Bush attempting to hold a press conference about a natural disaster. I could blame myself, my lack of discipline, my laziness, but it’s easier to just say this unwelcome state of mind and heart has just come upon me like the weather. I have been here before.

I usually find it helpful to listen to lots of Mumford and Sons and to make a writer’s to-do list. Here is the list (with Credence Clearwater Revival playing in the background….) Readers will have to supply your own imagination for the music as I am keeping this blog simple, like me….

My Writer’s To Do List:

1. Finish and send registration for Summer Residency at Ashland.

2. Complete editing of my “Middle People” essay and determine which lucky journal gets a crack it first. Editing a prose article ranks among my least favorite activities in the whole world. Writing the first draft was fun.

3.Finish reading the kindle poetry of Maurice Manning that I ordered weeks ago and have not started.

4.Finish last month’s bookclub book and start May’s selection so I can actually attend bookclub in May.

5.Put one word in front of the other and write some poetry.

6. Start selection of poems to be work-shopped at summer residency.

Part of the reason the writing is not happening is my life is in flux. We are moving again. I am excited about the move to a better neighborhood and to a completely beautiful and finished Tudor-style house. It’s just some of my poetry books are already in boxes for the move. I am not sure I can write without my pile of poetry books always accessible to me. I also have a massive non-writing to-do list that relates to the move. This too shall pass. I am starting to imagine where my writing spot will be in the new house. I don’t even want to write the non-writing to-do list. It’s massive.

MFA jitters….

I knew this would happen. I found out recently that I have been accepted into my top-choice MFA program at Ashland University and I suddenly feel like the master of the simple sentence. All the little critics in my head are harping their responses to my exciting news.

What do you think you are doing? You aren’t good enough. You don’t have any thing to say or a voice to say it with!

Luckily, I have some time to regroup and get my confidence back before the summer residency in July. I know that I am writing too much, revising too little, and reading much too little. So this week I am starting a reading regimen (after I get through the Grisham book for my book club this week…a girl’s got to have some fun) which will include reading a book of poems by one poet each week. I will probably start by re-reading some of the chapbooks I already own. I want to focus heavily on Native American poets–Sherman Alexie, Ai, Joy Harjo, Natasha Tretheway, and others.

I will start, of course, with Seamus Heaney (poetry god).  I plan to jot down some thoughts while reading with the particular task of determining for myself how each poet achieves the living thing he or she creates upon the page.

Nothing shuts up the Little Critics like a dose of Heaney. His poetry is unattainable, but it is so beautiful, so gripping, that it gives me cause to participate in the art in whatever meaningful way that I can.

Heaney and Yeats, the two greats in my opinion who tower above all other poets, have a way of turning a poem on a single line. I will post some of those lines as I read them this week. What about you? Which poets have you discovered or re-discovered this week?