The Deep Longings of Emigration: A Conversation with Poet Carol Hobbs, Author of New-found-land

Carol Hobbs carries herself with a quiet competence that I associate with Canadians. The fisheries collapse of the Maritimes in the 1990s forced her and many other Newfoundlanders to emigrate, but she carries her homeland with her, in her mannerisms, and in her poetry. Newfoundland, her debut full-length collection, is a testament to perseverance and an continued commitment to honing her craft. This has been a difficult year for Carol–the COVID pandemic found her scrambling to adapt lesson plans to the new realities of online learning, and she has been undergoing treatment for breast cancer. In spite of these difficulties, she found some time to talk to me via email about her craft, her book, and the writing life.

Frances Donovan: What first brought you to poetry?

Carol Hobbs: I’ve written poetry as long as I can remember. Poems have been a way for me to see the world around me and to understand my own place in all of it. In fifth grade I wrote a poem based on a story my teacher Mr. Hayhearst told of leaving his family farm in Arkansas to come to Newfoundland. I was moved by his isolation and nostalgia and gave him the poem. When I graduated high school, he gave me the copy I’d given him. I still have it and sometimes call it my first poem. I continue to write.

Frances Donovan: Tell me a little about your development as a poet. Did you pursue formal training or are you self-taught? Do you belong to a workshop or writing community?

Carol Hobbs: I studied English and history as an undergrad and then took a master’s degree in English. I also did my professional degree in Education. So study of English literature was formal, and in there I took as many writing classes as I could. I studied creative writing in poetry with Mary Dalton and Roberta Buchanan, and fiction with Larry Mathews at Memorial University of Newfoundland. Over the years I’ve been involved in many workshop groups, most importantly with Barbara Helfgott Hyett of PoemWorks: The Workshop for Publishing Poets, based in Brookline and Newton, Massachusetts. Barbara became my most important teacher as an adult poet. She had a genius way of both nurturing and challenging her students. Through Barbara I met most of the poets I now know and love here in my adopted home in Massachusetts. Barbara sees writing as a community working together to help, to question, to support, and to celebrate each other. I hold deep love and gratitude for her presence in my life.

Currently, I am working with two workshop groups that grew from the PoemWorks community, Grey Held’s Poetry RoundTable in Newton, Massachusetts, and Alexis Ivy’s forms workshop, held currently on Zoom from Massachusetts. Both Grey and Alexis are working poets with excellent books and a deep knowledge of what makes good poetry.

Cover image of New-found-land by Carol Hobbs

“Any immigration has its deep longings. I think mine are written into this book.”

New-found-land, by Carol Hobbs, available at Main Street Rag

Frances Donovan: What poets do you keep returning to again and again?

Carol Hobbs: Eavan Boland, Kay Ryan, Seamus Heaney, Louise Gluck, Mary Dalton, William Butler Yeats, Carol Ann Duffy, Michael Ondaatje, Ilya Kaminsky, Ocean Vuong, Shakespeare, Kaveh Akbar, Martin Espada, Margaret Atwood, Wislawa Szyborska and of course Barbara Helfgott Hyett and so many, many more. I feel the guilt of not saying everyone I’ve turned to again and again, but then this answer would go on and on. There are so many poets to read and be astounded by and so many who have taught me how words make a poem.

Frances Donovan: What are you reading right now?

Carol Hobbs: Postcolonial Love Poem by Natalie Diaz, Mothers of Ireland by Julie Kane, Felon by Reginald Dwayne Betts, Taking the Homeless Census by Alexis Ivy, Muddy Matterhorn by Heather McHugh, Erratic Facts by Kay Ryan, and Counting Descent by Clint Smith. Books of poetry need to be read, reread, and shared. I also picked out from my shelves Citizen by Claudia Rankine and American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin by Terrance Hayes to help me envision curriculum for my students in September. I’m also reading some novels: The Cruel Prince by Holly Black (recommended by several of my students), and The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates. And I have lined up to read on my desk The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel, Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips, and The Guest Book by Sarah Blake. One more big read I’ve purchased for this summer is How to Be and Anti-Racist by Ibram X. Kendi.

Frances Donovan: Very few poets can make their living solely through book sales or reading fees. What’s your day job?

Carol Hobbs: I teach high school English and creative writing at Hudson High School in Hudson, Massachusetts. My main teaching assignment is sophomore English. I love being a teacher. These last three months of remote learning have been challenging—and in many respects heartbreaking—work. I realize I have been in mourning for the loss of my students and classroom.

Frances Donovan: Tell me about New-found-land.

Carol Hobbs: New-found-land is my first book and it has been many years in the making. I won the New England PEN Discovery Prize for the original manuscript back in 2004, and it was just published in its present form in 2019 (November). There has been much revision and reimagining of the book in those years and quite a bit of living and growing that happened along the way. The book is in two sections: I. Perfect World, and II. Exile. The first section contains poems of growing up in my family and community on that island, and is set in the love, sometimes fear, and always wonder of that place. The second section is told from another perspective, that of having left the island, existing in a longing for home, and returning to an altered relationship with the place and people of Newfoundland. In the mid-1990s Newfoundland experienced a traumatic alteration of economy and culture owning to an ecological crisis, depletion of the cod stocks and the shut-down of the fishery which drove the economy. Many young families were forced to leave as there was no work and little hope for economic recovery. My husband and I moved to Massachusetts with our baby daughter at that time. It was economic migration and we left our family and our known culture behind. Any immigration has its deep longings attached. I think mine are written into this book.

Frances Donovan:  One of the poems that really stuck with me was the one about the narwhal. Was that an easy poem for you to write?

Carol Hobbs: The emotion was easy to recollect in tranquility but writing a small poem like this requires precision. It needs careful revision and a willingness to let things go that do not serve the poem. So, from initial writing to final version, may have been a course of a few years. Narwhal is based on a childhood experience of seeing a narwhal which was trapped in the ice of the bay near my hometown, Springdale, Newfoundland. That winter, we had a quick freeze of the bay and the surface ice was thick and frozen solid for miles out through the narrows to the open sea. Three whales, two humpbacks and a narwhal, were trapped in that quick freeze and were struggling for air at a rapidly freezing-over breathing hole. The men of the community went out and chopped open the ice to allow for a larger breathing hole for the whales until the Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker could come and open a passageway for the whales. It was many weeks of maintaining that breathing hole. As children, we would skate on the frozen ocean. I skated out to see what the men were doing and came face to face with the narwhal. Astonishing.

Frances Donovan: What do you do to be a good literary citizen?

Carol Hobbs: I teach creative writing for teens. I also serve as teacher-advisor to our school’s literary magazine, The Scribbler. I try to introduce my young student writers to a wide variety of poets and writers. I encourage them to take chances with their writing, and to send out their work for publication so they understand that their voices have real value in the world. I take part in workshops with fellow poets and work to make our work better. I attend poetry readings, literary readings, and I buy the work of my fellow writers when I can. For many years I also worked for PoemWorks: The Workshop for Publishing Poets to help administrate that workshop group, and plan and organize workshops, readings, and Poetry of Place travelling workshops.

Frances Donovan: What does your writing practice look like now? Has it changed?

Carol Hobbs: This is a tough question, and I am trying to establish new routines for working. Quarantine during this pandemic has necessitated a switch to online workshops and readings. I am participating in two workshops currently, and I am working in a free-write group with several poet friends each week. I try to spend a part of each day with poetry, writing, revising, reading published poets, and preparing work for submission. Lately, with the demands of remote teaching, my writing life has had to take a few steps back as I worked to revise curriculum for multiple student needs in the remote format. It’s been time-consuming and tough on many levels. I am now returning to the daily practice of do-something-with-poetry-each-day.

As for change, this is a constantly evolving thing. Throughout my life parenting, family life, emigration, career, and so on have stepped in to require my attention, so I’ve had to adjust my writing practice. This year has been especially challenging as I was diagnosed with breast cancer and I’ve been moving through surgery, treatments, and all the emotional turmoil cancer can bring. I’m doing well and hoping to continue so. This summer promises to allow me time to focus on poetry again.

Frances Donovan: So sorry to hear about your breast cancer. Sending good wishes your way.

Artists often talk about the importance of refilling the creative well. How do you refill yours?

Carol Hobbs: First and foremost, making that decision to give time and space to my writing is crucial. Because I could not feed my cat on what I earn from writing, I do need to have a job that pays the bills. I also have obligations, as we all do, to family and community. I often push aside my own need for time and space to write for what is most pressing. It’s only recently, maybe since cancer focused me more clearly on valuing the now, that I know my writing is as essential to my life as every other important concern. My poetry is essential to my life. I’ve established an office in my home dedicated to this work. I reach out to other poets through workshops and readings to help sustain my own practice. I make sure I get out in nature to help clear my thinking and make me more mindful of my relationship to the natural world around me. I read good literature. I listen to music. I also bake. Baking is very methodical and therapeutic. It also produces something yummy to eat. I was once told my plum cake is a good as a poem. Maybe.

Frances Donovan: What do you wish someone had told you when you were just starting out in your poetry career?

Carol Hobbs: I think people said the right things to me when I needed it. Mr. Hayhearst told me I was a writer in fifth grade. My friend Medina, whom I met in college, told me I was a poet. My teachers, Mary, Roberta, Larry, and Barbara told me revise, murder your darlings, seek the best words in the best order, publish. I needed all of this. They also introduced me to great writing by amazing writers. I needed that too. I guess I would pass all that along. I guess I would also tell anyone beginning their poetry career to believe in your work and approach it with love and respect. I’d also stress finding a writing community like a great workshop group. This will help you in myriad ways.

Frances Donovan: What’s next for you?

Carol Hobbs: I’ve been writing through some pretty dark stuff — cancer, Covid-19 pandemic. I’ve also been revisiting some of the imagery of fairy tales which contain a kind of road map through darkness. I think something is developing in that. I found a character who showed up in my first book, the Giant, who is a sort of transformative force for good in his three poems. I feel I need to explore that world some more. I am so grateful to be writing now.

Frances Donovan: How can people find you?

Carol Hobbs: I have a website that requires some updating since pandemic shut down the world. Please go to read samples of my work and to find out where I’ll be reading: https://carolhobbspoet.com/

My book New-found-land is available at: Main Street Rag.

I’m on Facebook and Instagram.

People may also email me at carol.hobbs@verizon.net.

Justice for George Floyd: What I Can Do to Help

I don’t post nearly as much personal content on this site as I used to, but from time to time I feel the need to veer off the poetry path. Now is one of those times. I feel like I’ve been watching my country slowly disintegrate since 2016, but I know that the underlying conditions that have led to today’s crises far predate the Trump administration. Overpolicing of Black communities — and in particular Black men — dates back hundreds of years. The Black Lives Matter movement dates back to the Obama administration, and the George Floyd protests make it clear that we still have a lot of work to do as a country. Trump’s not-so-tacit endorsements of white supremacist groups hasn’t helped, and neither has the continually growing wealth gap. The COVID-19 crisis and its resulting effects on the economy have created even more stresses for communities of color, who have been hardest hit by them.

I’m glad that the protests over the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd are calling attention to these issues of racial inequality. I hope that people will look behind the headlines about riots and arrests and consider the peaceful protests that vastly outnumber them. Nonviolent resistance requires discipline, self-control, and bravery. Not everyone does it well, and there are people on both extremes of the political landscape more interested in creating mayhem than in enacting lasting social change.

I’ve attended protests and demonstrations both as a young woman and a middle-aged one. I don’t have the stamina or the crowd-tolerance I used to though, and I’ve learned that it’s important to care for myself if I want to be of use to anyone else. At the moment, even a trip to the grocery store feels overwhelming, let alone rubbing elbows with protesters at a large demonstration. Masks only work so well, and they really don’t work at all if people don’t wear them properly. There are other ways to support the BLM movement that don’t involve direct action. As a white woman, I’ve had to acknowledge the privilege I’ve enjoyed throughout my life, and I’ve had to learn how to listen to and amplify the voices of people of color. There are many articles online about how to support the BLM movement and become a better ally to people of color.

Martin Luther King did an excellent job of explaining how peaceful protests can turn into riots. “A riot is the language of the unheard,” he said:

I think America must see that riots do not develop out of thin air. Certain conditions continue to exist in our society which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots. But in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice, equality, and humanity. And so in a real sense our nation’s summers of riots are caused by our nation’s winters of delay. And as long as America postpones justice, we stand in the position of having these recurrences of violence and riots over and over again. Social justice and progress are the absolute guarantors of riot prevention.”

A friend of mine suggested that quoting MLK is not enough and that I should donate to organizations actively working to dismantle racism. I do donate regularly — I consider it my duty since direct action is often not an option for me.

If you are able to send monetary support, may I suggest the following:

June Generative Workshop via Zoom

Photograph of a hand writing in a notebook.

Creative expression is a balm in troubling times. Take some time for yourself and your work and join a writing workshop I’m hosting on Wednesday evenings (7pm to 9pm Eastern) in June. We will use all five senses and plumb our memories and imaginations to sprout seeds of new writing. A few seats remain. All genres — poetry, fiction, memoir, or combinations thereof — and all experience levels welcome. Open to teens and adults. Sign up here.

Dispatches from an MFA: Semester Three, Final 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 third semester, I studied with poet Adrian Matejka. We spent the semester working on my craft essay, a long term paper that does a deep dive into a particular craft element–in my case, poetic line and how Adrienne Rich and Gwendolyn Brooks have influenced contemporary intersectional female poets. This is the cover letter to the final packet.

Dear Adrian:

I tend to have mixed feelings when sending in the last packet of the semester. It’s a relief to come to a break in the work. But once I’ve turned in the packet, despondence overcomes me as I realize the end of the semester means no more school for a while. School has generally been a refuge for me. And this work I’m doing has such intrinsic value that even when I’m on the edge of burnout I prefer it to my non-poetry, non-academic life. Without a school deadline, the future appears like an unbroken line of dull days clocking into my corporate job, writing status reports and functional specs, hiding my artistic side in favor of businesslike necessity.

The truth is quite different from these end-of-semester goggles, of course. I’ll have the pleasure of composing my faculty evaluation, and I plan to attend the June residency to watch my cohort’s graduation readings. May is also a glorious season to be in Boston (usually anyhow – the Weather Gods are fickle in New England), and I’ve been looking forward to further planting out the new perennial bed we dug in the garden last year. I’ll also have the time to spend with friends and take advantage of Boston’s cultural offerings (both highbrow and low—have you seen Avengers: Infinity War yet?).

None of that can happen until the final packet is complete, of course. I’ve implemented the revisions you suggested in the last packet’s feedback and worked on smoothing the transition between excerpts. I was concerned that the paper would end up clocking in longer than 18 pages, but after a number of revisions I managed to keep it well within the limit.

You said that it would be all right for me to send just three poems with this packet. I split the difference and included four. These are a continuation of the series of princess poems I’ve been writing—you’ve seen three of the others. I did a free write just coming up with titles, some of which emerged into prompts and some of which haven’t.

“Dirt Princess” depicts a character messing around in the garden—she is more concerned with minutia than with really getting much done. The focus is on the miniscule rather than the big picture. Mode is mostly lyric, although there is a narrative element to it. Despite the title, this poem risks being too twee.

“Mermaid Princess” describes a character who has been removed from her natural element. Its mode is narrative. The mermaid removed from the ocean runs in parallel to the Californian removed from the coast. This poem uses such oft-used subject matter, it risks cliché.

“Lettuce Princess” hides the name of its narrator until the last line of the poem—it’s a retelling of the story of Rapunzel. Its mode is narrative. There are two risks in this poem: first, the lineation of the second stanza, and second, ending the narrative before the famous scenes in the tower.

“Pegasus Princess” is a lyric poem describing a character from the My Little Pony toy line and TV series. I struggled with this poem; I cut a lot from the original draft and am risking that the poem is thin rather than spare.

Even though it meant compressing my study schedule, I’m glad that I attended the Mass Poetry Festival this year. The Lesley residencies primed me to get more out of this year’s festivals than I have in years past. I very wisely booked a room in Salem so I wouldn’t have to make the drive back and forth each day, and I was able to connect with some other poets I know through a Facebook group. It’s counterintuitive, but being around the foment of the festival inspired me to write some new pieces rather than exhausting me and preventing me from writing anything at all. Sonia Sanchez was the headliner on Saturday evening, and seeing her perform (she really does PERFORM her work!) is a memory I’ll carry with me for the rest of my life. So much energy from such a tiny frame! She’s a shining example of the power of the Black Arts movement. Thanks again for giving me an extension so that I could attend.

Thanks also for your encouraging and helpful feedback on last month’s packet. I’m embarrassed that you had to see such a horrible poem as “How Do You Approach Race?” but am grateful for your take on it. I’m also glad we were able to connect in real-time in spite of our schedule conflicts.

In terms of a final video call, I’ll be visiting my mother this weekend and on vacation the next. If you’re available on Saturday or Sunday the 19th or the 20th, I should be able to call you from the hotel—not sure if their bandwidth will accommodate a video call, but at least we can speak in real time. I’m also available on Wednesday the 23rd in the afternoon. Please let me know what works best for you.

And thanks again for a great semester.

All my best,

Frances

Dispatches from an MFA: Semester Three, Third 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 third semester, I studied with poet Adrian Matejka. We spent the semester working on my craft essay, a long term paper that does a deep dive into a particular craft element-–in my case, poetic line and how Adrienne Rich and Gwendolyn Brooks have influenced contemporary intersectional female poets. This is the cover letter to the third packet.

Dear Adrian:

What a relief to be able to change the thesis of my craft essay. Our conversation on Friday helped all the pieces of the puzzle fall in place. My early thesis just didn’t stand up to the light when it was time to do close readings, especially in the case of Morgan Parker. Connecting Parker with Brooks’s voice makes so much more sense than trying to argue that her work was more regularly patterned—it’s just not. I expected to have to rewrite the entire paper from scratch, but I found that most of the close readings I’d already done worked well with new argument—I just needed to tweak a few of the arguments.

The extra couple of days have given me an opportunity to polish up the whole thing. Hopefully it meets with your satisfaction. I’m sure that if I revisited it, I could find further tweaks to make, but as my poetry-sister Wandajune says, it’s never going to be perfect.

The poetry in this packet is a mixed bag. Two of the poems – “Brendan, Summer, 1993,” and “What Remains” are drafts from years ago. They say you should never abandon your poems entirely, so here I am picking them up again. “Brendan, Summer, 1993” is definitely a lyrical poem. The speaker remembers a simple exchange with a “you” whose relationship to the speaker is undefined. The risk I am taking with this poem is presenting a moment so unadorned and without complexity that it may fall flat with the reader. I’m not sure that there’s anywhere else to go with this poem, but I can’t tell if it’s done.

“The Path to the Inner World” contains both lyric and narrative elements. There is a general forward motion, but the use of extra white-space make the journey tentative and airy. As the title implies, this poem depicts a journey to an inner space. The poem still feels very personal to me, so the risk I’m taking here is exposing something delicate and almost abstract to a reader who may or may not be sympathetic.

“She Has Always Lived in the Tower” picks up where the previous poem left off, but in quite a different form. The risk I am taking here is working with longer lines, moving into hybrid prose-poetry territory. Historically I’ve abhorred prose poetry and am just beginning to learn to appreciate it. As usual, attempting it myself gives me a whole new appreciation for the skill involved in doing it well. This poem describes in concrete detail one piece of the inner world that is the destination of the previous poem. Its mode is narrative in that it concerns itself with scene-setting, but lyric in that not a lot happens in the poem.

“What Remains” is a lyric poem in which the speaker catches an image of herself in a particular posture, which mirrors the stance of an abusive ex-girlfriend. This poem doesn’t take many risks.

“How Do You Approach Race?” is a narrative poem that attempts to convey the clash between different kinds of oppression and bullying experienced by a child. The speaker is older than the child in the poem. I hesitated to include this poem in the packet at all, since I think it’s so disjointed and half-formed that it’s barely a poem at all—after a revision, I feel a bit more confident about it. This poem runs the risk of being too preachy—of lapsing into a voice that Kevin used to call “this is what Frances thinks now.”

In our study planning session, you noted that the draft of the craft essay in Packet 3 might be sufficient for the semester. With typical pre-semester ambition, I mentioned that I’d like to see about getting it published someplace. If this current form meets the coursework requirements, I’d welcome suggestions on how to adapt it for publication somewhere like The Writer’s Chronicle. I found their submission guidelines here: https://www.awpwriter.org/magazine_media/submission_guidelines. Do you think it’s feasible to repurpose the current essay for this or other publications? Do you have any suggestions for other publications? Second-tier lit mags, for instance? I highly doubt I’d have any chance of getting something like this published in Poetry or APR.

I was surprised that I was able to finish the work in the time allotted and hope that you find it acceptable. I’m curious as to your expectations for the final packet. If another draft of the craft essay isn’t necessary, should I send ten pages of poems?

We’re not quite to the end of the semester yet, but I wanted to express my appreciation for all the work we’ve done so far. Your consistently positive vibe is a welcome foil to my sometimes melancholy disposition.

All my best,

Frances

Dispatches from an MFA: Semester Three, Second 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 third semester, I studied with poet Adrian Matejka. We spent the semester working on my craft essay, a long term paper that does a deep dive into a particular craft element–in my case, poetic line and how Adrienne Rich and Gwendolyn Brooks have influenced contemporary intersectional female poets. This is the cover letter to the first packet.

Dear Adrian:

It’s worked out that the majority of my semesters for this MFA program are going to take place in the Winter/Spring term. I feel particularly lucky that you are on sabbatical next semester, since it means we’ve been able to work together. I have mixed feelings about doing actual academic work during the Winter/Spring term, though. My fondest memories of school are in September, when the world and the school year seem full of possibilities. As a grown-up living outside the groves of academe, I sometimes find a wave of melancholia overtakes me in the fall. A good friend of mine once said it’s because I’m sad that I’m not back in school. Regardless, my memories of the Winter/Spring term have more to do with gasping toward the finish line than setting off on a new, exciting venture. And late winter can be especially difficult. All this to say that the second packet tends to be rougher and thinner than I would generally like it to be.

This month, life distractions mushroomed. We finished up a major project at work, and I spent the next week and a half wanting to do nothing but sleep. My partner and I had the opportunity to buy the other condo in our building before it went on the market, which means that I am currently in the midst of real-estate-buying hell. On top of that, we’ve needed to replace our furnace and repair a blocked sewer line. My annual late winter cold is in its third week, and my job continues to get in the way of my creative life. I am also turning in my leased vehicle to the dealership on April 1 and have some legwork to do around that. All of the stress has been making me a bit speedy mood-wise, so I’ve been doing my best to get back to the basics of self-care. These take an annoying amount of time and energy. Stress probably isn’t helping with the lingering head cold, or the nausea, or the insomnia either.

Someone in the Lesley MFA Posse on Facebook once talked about how her cover letter seemed like a giant apology to her teacher. That’s kind of how I feel about the two paragraphs above. But it is a reflection on my overall process and an explanation of why I’m not as happy with the work I’m sending as I might be.

The craft essay took the bulk of my time this month. I’d forgotten the way that research works: you read and you read and you search through catalogs and you read some more, and you take notes, and then all that reading doesn’t necessarily make its way into your paper. As you pointed out, this topic could easily generate 60 pages of material. I could in fact write about nothing but the career arcs of Rich and Brooks, and look at how their own poetic lines have evolved. I definitely had to remove some of the material from the first half of this draft, because it was turning into more of a retrospective of the two of them than the paper I had set out to write. Too much summary and quoting from journals, and not enough close reading. More to the point, I really do want to delve into the many amazing poets I had the chance to read in my first month. I’m sad that not all of them might make it in. So far, I’ve only addressed Natalie Diaz’s work. I definitely want to include Gabi Calvocoressi’s work as well, and I’ve fallen in love with Trethewey’s Bellocq’s Ophelia. I didn’t connect with Bashir’s Field Theories much the first time I read it, but upon rereading – and upon considering one of Annie Finch’s categories of free verse – I’ve come to appreciate it in a whole new way. And of course, there’s Morgan Parker’s second book, which makes me feel as though the top of my head has been cut off and a wind is blowing on it.

If it were up to me, I’d do nothing but read poetry and talk/write about how great it is. I’d much prefer to be an appreciator than a critic. Alas, that’s not the mission for Semester Three.

For the past few hours I’ve been stuck in that magnetic-repulsion struggle with procrastination. I’d like to continue the comparison of two passages from Brooks and Diaz, focusing this time on meter in addition to the rhyme/line length section that follows. Instead I’ve written emails, changed the laundry, scanned some documents for the mortgage application, read some more poetry, worked on my bibliography, and considered once again the best way for me to get my hands on The Line in Postmodern Poetry without actually ordering the physical book off Amazon (it would take 2-3 weeks to arrive and I’m not sure I would ever open it again once this paper is finished). I’m just far enough from both the Boston Public Library and the Lesley Libraries to make a trip to them for one book seem rather wasteful.

Mostly I’m just feeling the usual prose-writing angst I know and love/hate.

In creative news, I’ve been generating some new notes/images/text on childhood memory-type poems. I’m rather hesitant to send what I have as-is for two reasons: first, the subject matter is difficult and I’m not sure I can separate the sensitive-poet part of myself from the text; second, because it doesn’t feel finished enough to show. Your policy of not allowing multiple iterations of the same poem has forced me to generate more new work than I have in the last four months. It’s exhilarating and exhausting in equal measure.  Working with you is such a gift because you are unfailingly positive and encouraging in your feedback. There’s a part of me though who always takes praise with a grain of salt, given my own experience of reading others’ work. A good teacher can always find something worthwhile in a poem, some thin seedling they can encourage with light, warmth, and water. I’m not always a good teacher, especially when it comes to my own work. Fortunately, I don’t have to be my own teacher.

On to the poems:

The first draft of “Midwinter Nocturne, Roslindale” came from the poems we created in your music seminar. I feel confident about it, which is why I’m leading with it. Its mode is lyric. The speaker contemplates the interior and exterior world she inhabits with her beloved. The primary driver of the poem is its music, and I found myself wrestling between my desire for the poem to mean one thing and the poem’s desire to sound like something that didn’t quite mean what I wanted it to.

I wrote the next three poems that follow in quick succession – they’re based on recollections from my early childhood of our move from California to Connecticut. The speaker is the same for all three poems. The first poem uses the wedding china as a metaphor for the broken marriage between the mother and father characters. Its mode is narrative, although I did my best to punch up the language in lyric fashion. The risk in the poem comes in the third stanza, where I break from a more omniscient narrative voice and attempt to enter into the voice of the small child who actually witnessed the scene. “The Wedding China” is a spin-off from “St. John’s Towers – Poem 1.” I felt that the wedding china and the father’s visit really needed their own poem, but I left in that same stanza that became the kernel for “The Wedding China,” because it was still relevant to the poem’s structure. “St. John’s Towers – Poem 1” is a lyric poem describing the new home the speaker’s mother has created for her children. I don’t know what its major risk is. “St. John’s Towers – Poem 2” is a narrative poem that moves from the interior world of the speaker’s apartment to the exterior world of the housing project that contains it. I’m not sure it’s a risk exactly, but I’m attempting to say something about class, condescension, and charity in this poem. It’s not done yet, but I haven’t had time to do any more work on it. I think the biggest risk I take with these poems is sounding too much like Gwendolyn Brooks.

“Rewrite” is a draft from my first semester – I can’t remember if I included it in that residency’s workshop packet or sent it after. The subject matter is similar to other poems in this packet, which is why I included it. The mode is a mix of lyric and narrative—the general feel is one of lyric, but the images and details serve to tell a story. It has an entirely different tone and voice than the other childhood poems in this packet, so the risk I’m taking with this poem is including it in spite of that difference. I feel as though the poem is lacking something, but I’m not sure what exactly. I’d like your suggestions on where I can expand or round out the details.

“January, Eating an Orange” is a draft I first brought to Barbara Helfgott Hyett’s workshop a few years ago, and which I also brought to Kevin last semester. It’s also lacking some sort of emotional center, some frisson that would give it what it needs to transform itself from a flat narrative into a compelling poem. Eating an orange in a freezing car in January sets off a wave of recollection in the mind of speaker as she realizes how much time has passed since a difficult marriage. I removed the lines “and cried / because you didn’t love me / the way I wanted you to love me” because it was way too much telling rather than showing, but I’m struggling with how to evoke that sense of feeling unloved in a materially comfortable relationship. The irony of going all the way to the Keys in January—a dream vacation—only to be miserable there. Hmm. I hadn’t thought of it that way until I wrote that last sentence. Maybe that’s the key (no pun intended) I need to unlock this poem. I feel like it’s not taking enough of a risk right now – maybe including some dialog, or a scene with the “you” of the poem interacting with the speaker, is what I need to make it really come alive.

Last winter, Kevin described my second packet as “thin.” I’m afraid that’s what I’m sending you this time – weak tea. Still, it’s better to send what I’ve got than to wait until it’s perfect and completely miss the deadline. Thank you for giving me an extra day to get it done. I needed a little more time to contemplate the poetry I’m sending. Your “artist statement” requirements are new to me, and I wasn’t quite sure how to answer the “biggest risk” question for the last three poems. Would you mind expanding on what you mean by the risk a poem takes? I’m not sure all of my poems are big risk-takers.

Thanks as always for your generosity of spirit and for the extra 24 hours. I hope you enjoy Paris.

All my best,

Frances

Dispatches from an MFA: Semester Three, 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 third semester, I studied with poet Adrian Matejka. We spent the semester working on my craft essay, a long term paper that does a deep dive into a particular craft element–in my case, poetic line and how Adrienne Rich and Gwendolyn Brooks have influenced contemporary intersectional female poets. This is the cover letter to the first packet.


Dear Adrian:

 Thanks for taking the time to respond so thoughtfully to my emails this month, as well as for the additional reading suggestions.

It’s funny—my first semester, I did the craft annotations ahead of the poetry revision and writing. This semester, I did my revisions and new writing first, all while stressing out about the craft essay thesis and outline. Either way, the critical work still stresses me out more than the writing and revising. I suppose this is why I’m getting an MFA instead of a PhD in literature.

I was surprised at how quickly I managed to work my way through the stack of poetry books. Some of the collections definitely spoke to me more than others. As you know, I was immediately taken with Morgan Parker’s There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé. I went ahead and order her first book as well, but I just couldn’t connect to it the same way. Natasha Trethewey’s Bellocq’s Ophelia was a quick read – the language is so beautiful, the narrative so clear and sequential, and the forms of the poems so similar that it reads almost like a novel in verse – in fact, it was an easier read than David Rakoff’s novel in verse.

Reading theory about poetic line was tougher going. I got through the Longenbach in about a day, mostly through extreme effort of will and because it’s a relatively small text. My main takeaway was the notion of the annotating versus the parsing line. He argues that enjambment “annotates,” or calls attention to a word outside of the usual phrasing of a sentence, whereas a parsing line merely ends where there would be a natural pause. I discovered A Broken Thing: Poets on the Line, a treasure trove of many different poets’ theories and opinions about poetic line. I rented it as an ebook for a few months rather than paying three times as much to own it. As a result the reading has been slow going. When I read on screen rather than on paper, I find it harder to absorb the material. I’ve been keeping a Word window screen minimized next to the ebook so that I can take notes while I read. I’m about two-thirds of the way through the thing now. The tone of the essays varies a great deal, some of the poets writing almost entirely from personal experience and others trying to make more general pronouncements about the line and what it means. In the introduction, Anton Vander Zee sums up the Levertov essay on the line better than I could: that the line tracks the stress of inner thought, and that the line is a script for performance.  Three other takeaways:

  • Annie Finch’s comments that lines that resonate the most with readers often have interesting meter, and that it would do well for contemporary writers to steep themselves in the study of meter as previous generations of poets did. She used an example from Audre Lorde’s “Coal.”
  • Arielle Greenberg’s concept of the hyperextended line, using Rachel Zucker as an example. I did an annotation of Zucker’s The Last Clear Narrative last semester and immediately knew what she was talking about. She points out that the hyperextended line can take many forms, including enjambment or visual use of the whole page, but that “the effect is always once of muchness, of multitude … an anti-stream of consciousness: a careful but cluttered working through of a complex thought.” This is something that I struggle with as a poet: making an idea or a narrative clear to the reader while still working through a complex thought. I can think of at least one poem where I might try the hyperextended line as a way of evoking this complexity.
  • Camille Dungy’s beautiful metaphor of prose as a vista of the ocean, and poetry as a vista that includes the shore, with line breaks being “the predictable moment of physical return, the abrupt interruption, the edge, the beach, the tide break, the line-break, the shore.”

What my reading of both the Longenbach and A Broken Thing make clear is that the concept of poetic line is slippery. Like so much of poet-craft (and indeed of physics), the closer you look at the thing, the more slippery and ill-defined it becomes. A kind of quantum.

At your suggestion I did some more research on Rich and Brooks. There are lots of retrospectives about the arc of Rich’s career in the popular press but fewer about Brooks. I spent some time with the Lesley online library searching for academic journal articles. The last time I remember searching through academic journal databases was at Vassar in the 1990s. It’s odd – I can access some materials directly from my study at home, but if it’s not available online I don’t have the luxury of perusing the stacks for the paper article. My biggest complaint about the low-residency model is the lack of easy access to a library.

As instructed, I’ve included an aesthetic statement for each of the poems in this packet; they are included with the contents page of the main “poetry” document. Because one of the poems includes extremely long lines, I had to save it as a separate document with landscape instead of portrait layout.

While revising “On the Ferry to Spectacle Island,” I decided to use the stepped line as a cue that the narrative is moving back in time, and to signal the return to the present moment with new stanzas. In terms of lineation, I’ve been focusing on ending lines with stronger words and avoiding beginning them with prepositions. As I’ve said – and as you know – the rules of poetic line are slippery. But I feel as if I’m able to intuit more easily what makes a strong line versus a weak one.

I’ve been wrestling with “The Marigolds, the River, the Oaks” for years now. It was in my application sample, and I’ve worked it with both Sharon and Kevin – possibly worked it to death. I finally decided to explode it from a sort of ghost sonnet into this new cross-out form. I’d gone in the direction of saying too much, but the original seemed to say too little. So I figured I’d show my work this time. Let me know what you think.

Originally, I’d included “The Window,” another poem I’ve worked quite a bit, but decided to switch it out with something very raw. I wrote “thirty-five years later..” just a couple of days ago and this is only the second draft. Once I have more distance, it should benefit from the music-oriented revision technique from your seminar. I’m curious to hear what you think of the form. I’d like to experiment more with use of white space – in my teens and 20s I used stepped and triadic lines a great deal more, but moved away from it, mostly because it’s so difficult to get the spacing right with the new web content management tools.

As you can probably tell, “Assembly Square” is my paean to D.A. Powell. I was struck by how Morgan Parker managed to replicate the rhythms of his lines in her latest book, and thought I’d try for a similar cadence. It may or may not become part of my own voice, but I think it’s a worthwhile endeavor regardless. I recently reviewed some of my packet material from first semester and see that Sharon and I agreed that I should focus on line. It was after reading C.K. Williams that I began writing longer, looser lines. D.A. Powell also does such innovative things with it.

When I started this cover letter I feared that I wouldn’t have enough to say, but now I see that I’ve almost written a book. I hope that you find the craft essay outline satisfactory. I’ve revised it a number of times and am simultaneously anxious that it is too granular and that I’m leaving out something important. I look forward to your feedback.

Hopefully we will be able to speak on the phone – or better yet via video chat – in the next couple of weeks. Mark and I are celebrating our 10th anniversary the weekend of Feb. 16th to the 19th, so I will be traveling, however we can still arrange to speak during that window is that is what works best for you. In general, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday are the best times for me to speak in real-time. I can also make a Monday or Wednesday evening work if necessary. Monday is Presidents’ Day, so perhaps we could try speaking that evening?

I hope all is well with you in Indiana (or on the road) and that you are accomplishing what you’d hoped to during your sabbatical.

Best,

Frances

May 2020 Online Poetry Readings Based in Massachusetts

Many reading series have gone to ground during the COVID-19 crisis. A few have moved online. Many are hungry for poetry during this difficult time. I’m aware of the following events. If you know of others, please fill out my contact form or comment below.

Dire Literary Series, Fridays at 7pm. Kim Addonizio reads May 22. Read an interview with the organizer Timothy Gager here and connect with the series on Facebook here.

Lily Poetry Salon, Friday May 8, 7pm. Features: Valerie Duff and Jacob Strautmann. RSVP on Facebook or contact Eileen Cleary via her website for the Zoom link

New England Poetry Club, Sunday May 10, 3pm. Features: Cathie Desjardins, Susanna Kittredge, Eve Linn, Open mic to follow. Email president[at]nepoetryclub[dot]org for the Zoom link. View all NEPC events here.

Rozzie Reads, Thursday, May 28, 7pm. Features: David P. Miller and Dorian Kotsiopoulos. Open mic to follow. Email hguran@aol.com for the Zoom link.

On a related note, my generative writing workshop goes into its second session this June. If businesses are open, we will meet in person with appropriate social distancing. Either way, participants will also be able to attend via Zoom. Sign up for the workshop here.

The Branch Will Not Break: Poet James Wright

I find it difficult to separate James Wright the poet from James Wright’s poetry. I wonder if such a thing is truly possible. A poet’s body informs their work. It certainly informs whether their work gets read. Wright reminds me of Hemingway: stoic, deceptively simple, un-self-consciously macho. When I first discovered Hemingway, I fell in love with his style and emulated it. But once my eyes opened to the dynamics of gender, I wasn’t able to experience his work with the same unconscious enjoyment that I had before. I discovered James Wright’s work after that awakening. And, as with Hemingway, cognitive dissonance arose. Wright’s race and gender no doubt eased the way for his success. And yet the work itself merits that success. Wright says with confidence and simplicity what I would like to say. His spirituality is rooted in silence and the natural world, as is mine. He thinks and sees in metaphors, as do I. He uses surprising language, as I strive to. “The Jewel” embodies perfectly our shared world-view:

There is this cave

In the air behind my body

That nobody is going to touch:

A cloister, a silence

Closing around a blossom of fire.

When I stand upright in the wind,

My bones turn to dark emeralds.

Wright grounds the reader with the image of a cave before he ventures into the intangible, airy heart of the poem. The cave exists “in the air behind my body.” While the heart of the poem is cloistered, airy, silent, Wright surrounds it with imagery we can grasp: “a blossom of fire,” bones turned “to dark emeralds.” Last semester, I wrote a series of poems about the void and discovered a problem that Wright solves here. In order to evoke the void, the cloister, the silence, you must surround it with non-void, non-silent things. Negative space doesn’t exist without positive space around it. Wright manages that dichotomy in this poem: the cave, the blossom of fire, and the bones of emerald surround his void. Cloister here seems a particularly appropriate word: cloisters in monasteries held spaces for quiet and contemplation within walls, often beautifully crafted ones like the Cloisters in New York.

Wright’s approach to poetic line and meter has a lot to do with the contemplative pacing of his poetry. He end-stops almost all of his lines, which slows them down. And he capitalizes the first letter of each line—a usage which generally fell out of favor in the 20th century—so that even when he does enjamb lines, the reader’s eye slows at the capital letter. Wright also understands the various nuances of white space and punctuation—the different pauses that happen with line-breaks alone, with commas, with periods, with stanza breaks, and with numbered stanzas. He often starts lines with prepositions to heighten the feel of silence and stillness. But the pacing of his poems isn’t monotonous: he uses short and long lines and differences in meter to vary it. Consider the first stanza of “Fear is What Quickens Me:”

                                                                                                Line #

Many animals that our fathers killed in America                   1

Had quick eyes.                                                                       2

They stared about wildly,                                                       3

when the moon went dark.                                                     4

The new moon falls into the freight yards                              5

Of cities in the south,                                                              6

But the loss of the moon to the dark hands of Chicago          7

Does not matter to the deer                                                     8

In this northern field.                                                              9

Each line break in this stanza comes at the end of a phrase. In the first two lines, the break is between the subject and the verb of the sentence; in the third and fourth, between the action of the sentence and its subordinate clause. The period at the end of fourth line serves as a transition from the past to the present. The poem speeds up with an anapest at the end of line 5, but the shorter line that follows, started with a preposition and ended with a comma, slows it down. On line seven, three anapests speed up the poem with their running meter. The rhythm breaks with the even stress on “dark hands” before returning to its anapest-ish rhythm, one that spills over into the next line. The anapests in the following line keep the pacing moving, but the line breaks earlier than its predecessor, creating a pause. And the final line, with its two trochees and final stress, bring the poem coasting to a halt.

Wright’s poems often feature motion, but always with stillness at its center. I see that paradox clearly in the second part of “Two Hangovers:”

In a pine tree,

A few yards away from my window sill,

A brilliant blue jay is springing up and down, up and down,

On a branch.

I laugh, as I see him abandon himself

To entire delight, for he knows as well as I do

That the branch will not break.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Wright plucked the book’s name from these lines. The branch is in motion, but at some fundamental level it offers unailing support to the jay—and, by extension, to the speaker. This stanza is one of my favorites, along with “A Blessing,” and “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota.”

In the spirit of due diligence – and because I’m always curious about how a poet’s work develops over time – I picked up Wright’s Collected Poems as well. They gave me some hope. I saw how his work moved away from the formally careful, stilted quality of his earlier books into the confident, simple language of The Branch Will Not Break. If Wright was able to find such a powerful voice, perhaps I can too.

Works Cited

Wright, James. The Branch Will Not Break. Wesleyan University Press, 1963. Print.

Blue jay photo credit: Steve McLeod from Pixabay

Dispatches from an MFA: Semester Two, Final 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 final packet of the semester.


Dear Kevin:

I feel like I’ve learned a lot working with you this past semester. Arranging the packets around narrative and lyric poetry was helpful. I’d never really thought deeply about the distinction between the two modes. My research also shed some new light for me about literary trends that have been developing since my days as an undergrad. The whole notion of “confessional lyric narrative” poetry and the reactions against it made me think about my own work and about the kinds of work toward which I’m drawn. I also learned that a lot of people don’t like Sharon Olds.

Working on my own poetry has shown me the ways in which I’ve grown since the first semester. I have a better sense of what works and what doesn’t, and I’ve been able to go back to old poems and remake them. I’m less inclined to encrypt my work, although like all poets I struggle between saying the thing and saying it well. It’s easy to be expository. It’s less easy to convey information in a way that still pays attention to language and a poem’s overall structure. What I do find though, is that I’ve had the tendency to assume a reader will understand things that are clear to me, but not clearly spelled out in the poem. Your observation that I need to work more on establishing scene is a good one. It’s a lesson I hope I continue to remember going forward.

My energy level has waxed and waned through the semester and that’s been reflected in the quality of the work I turned in—especially with the craft annotations. During my first semester, I spent a lot of time on the annotations and less time on my own work. This semester I struck more of a balance between the two. I work my poems a lot harder than I used to. I hope that you find both the poems and the craft annotations in this packet up to snuff—or at least as not as “thin” as the ones in the second packet. I had to cut a lot from my annotation of Ross Gay’s work in order to stay within the page limit and still have a conclusion. Thank you for turning me on to him. His work is so lush with imagery and music, and he’s fearless in the way that he constructs his poems. I wasn’t able to touch on “spoon” or “catalog of unabashed gratitude” in my annotation, but those two really wowed me. I also loved “smear the queer,” with its gorgeous ending lines, “opening our small / bodies like moonflowers / in the dark.” I was looking forward to seeing him read at the Mass Poetry Festival but had to skip it in order to get my packet done on time.

One of the unexpected blessings of this semester was discovering the newly renovated Boston Public Library. I was really missing the old library at Vassar with its gorgeous architecture and the quintessential long tables with green lampshades. Turns out that Bates Hall in the Boston Public Library has a very similar setup. The courtyard is also a lovely place to study on warm days. Discovering the older part of the library was a revelation. I’d lived in Boston for seventeen years and only visited the newer wing of the library, which was built in the Brutalist style so popular in the 1960s and 70s.

I’ve also felt free to address more difficult topics such as race in my poetry, and to be more ambitious in terms of length and complexity. Interviewers have recently started asking famous white poets why they don’t write about race. Many of them respond with some variation of  “I don’t want to get into all that.” Black poets point out that ignoring the suffering of another race—and the effects of white supremacy—is a luxury that comes of white privilege. They challenge white poets to join the conversation. I still fear the reactions I might get if/when my poems on race go public. I often cringe thinking about ignorant things I’ve said about race in the past. I don’t want to simply espouse the party line today, but speaking about race in a complex way—remaining true to my experience while also affirming the fact of racism in American—opens me up to the possibility of misinterpretation. The firestorm surrounding Tony Hoagland’s poem is a good example of the dangers of speaking on the subject. Reading Martha Collins’s work—as well as Robbie Gamble’s, one of the poets who graduated from Lesley last semester—has given me more courage in that arena.

In terms of my own poetry, I finally worked up the gumption to tackle “Pastoral, Poughkeepsie” again. I did my best to establish the relationship between the two characters sooner, as workshop made it clear I needed to. I also put the lines in couplets, since it’s been suggested as a good way of culling anything that doesn’t belong. My hope is that the narrative is more cohesive now without losing the poem’s complexity. I struggled with whether or not to include the second section. Let me know what you think. I also struggled with whether or not to include the exchange about April’s parents sending her money. Ultimately I decided to leave it out, but I’d like to hear what you think about that. All the other work in the packet is new or is work you haven’t seen before. I said that I wanted to take more risks when sending you work, so that is what I did in this final packet.

I’d be curious to know what you think I should continue to work on in upcoming semesters. Next semester I am taking an IS only, so I will have time for additional reading. I also plan to send out some more of my work. I appreciate your kind words about my work. Your line edits and novel solutions are also most welcome! The hour-long phone sessions really help me in a way that a letter by itself wouldn’t. Thanks so much for all the support and guidance.