Dispatches from an MFA: Semester One, Final Packet

Read on for the cover letter to the final packet of my first semester at the Lesley MFA program, written to my teacher Sharon Bryan. The cover letter of a packet is meant to be a meditation on your writing and study process over the course of the previous month — a sort of “making of” the finished work that accompanies it:

Dear Sharon:

How strange to think that this is the last packet I will be sending you. The semester has gone by so quickly. I was really worried about being able to finish all the work on time, but it turned out to be possible after all. About halfway through each packet I would get incredibly anxious. I worried that I wouldn’t be able to finish the work on time, and that what I sent wouldn’t be good enough. It’s natural to want to get the most out of a degree program as possible, but it’s also important not to let the perfect get in the way of the good. The fact that the course work is pass/fail helps, but ultimately it’s a question of whether I think I am doing the best that I can.

When you first proposed that I work on structure this semester, I had very little idea what it meant. But I believe that I’ve learned a lot in this arena – issues like more clarity around point of view (the “I” and “you” of the poem), voice, poetic line, poetic music, abstraction versus imagery, and time. My primary focus for this final packet has been time. During my latest round of revisions I found myself making conscious choices about the tense I used and also the ordering of events in a poem. As you pointed out, all poems deal with time in one form or another. Now that I’m aware of the issue of time within a poem, I do see it dealt with in every poem I come across. In particular, I notice how many contemporary poems stick to a single moment, often in the present tense. Or maybe it’s just that those poems resonate with me the most. I’m not alone in rebelling against certain poetic “rules” that I come across, such as the concrete-to-abstract aesthetic promulgated by the imagist movement, or the interdiction against words like “love” and “death” in poems. The admonition to say within the “moment” of the poem is another rule against which I wish to rebel. After examining the issue of time and structure though, I see how the moment of the poem doesn’t necessarily mean a particular moment in time. In fact, many, many poems move backward and forward in time. As I noted in the craft essay on Szymborska’s work, I also noticed that she often elides over particular moments in favor of flashes of imagery over an indefinite time period. In other words, the focus is not on one particular scene, but on a series of vivid images connected by the argument of the poem itself – usually a meditation on an abstract subject. The one exception to this pattern I found is “Photograph from September 11,” (p. 344 of her collected poems), which focuses completely on the frozen moment of the photograph, a few people falling from the burning towers. The speaker makes a conscious decision to stay within this moment, too: “I can do only two things for them – / describe this flight / and not add a last line.”

I also found Szymborska’s dry humor a real draw. And her ability to meditate upon abstract ideas without seeming obtuse is definitely a skill to emulate.

When we first met together at the residency, you suggested that I cut up lines and stanzas and play with their order. It sounded like a great idea to me, but I found it difficult to bring myself to do it. I have an aversion to making a mess while doing creative work, even though most creative work requires it. Our sixth-grade teacher taught us to literally cut and paste sentences and paragraphs using scotch tape while crafting essays. I resisted it then as well, preferring to create a clean copy every time — which is, of course, quite laborious, and discourages more radical revision. That’s why the cut-and-paste feature of early word processing programs was such a godsend for me. But cutting and pasting solely on the computer also doesn’t allow for the same flexibility that moving physical pieces of paper does.

The IS course I took this semester (Creativity and the Unconscious Mind) included “literary collage” and cut-ups as one of its exercises. Having it as an assignment finally made me do it. I definitely noticed new possibilities emerging from the temporary, easily rearranged quality of cut-up pieces of paper. So far, I’ve used the method on about four poems, including “Two Trees” and “Pastoral, Poughkeepsie.” The first couple of exercises I did actually incorporated lines from many different poems of mine, as well as some text from a Nature Conservancy newsletter. Two poems in this packet (“Literary Collage No. 1,” and “Literary Collage No. 2”) are the results of these mash-up cut-ups. It most definitely helped me with the structure of “Pastoral, Poughkeepsie,” as well. I still don’t think it’s quite right, but there’s a lot going on in the poem, and I think it flows a bit better now.

In Barbara Smith’s chapter on literary collage in The Writing Experiment, she notes that this technique can be used with other texts as well – provided that they’re attributed correctly. She points to Eliot’s “The Wasteland” as an example of this type of literary collage.

Thank you for saying that “Pastoral, Poughkeepsie,” sounded more agile, confident, and fluid. I definitely took a risk putting it in the last packet. It was a very new draft, and most of the other pieces in the earlier packets were poems that I’d polished again and again. Reading Plath, Bishop, and other poets this semester – as well as some of the pieces in the latest issues of Poetry Magazine – gave me the confidence to take some risks and to go on past my initial instinct on where to end a poem. A poet-sister of mine from the same workshop I’ve attended made a suggestion that I end “Two Trees” about halfway through the second draft. I took it as a challenge to better integrate the two halves rather than simply scrapping the second half. When I was working on my own, I feel like I carved and carved my poems down to the point of complete obscurity, and when I worked with Barbara’s workshop, I feel like I improved in many ways but that I became more limited in ambition for single poems. The last long poem I’d written was in about 1998.

Your suggestion that I read up on the Imagist movement also proved very helpful. I think I have a much better understanding of the major shift in poetry at the beginning of the 20th century. It helped to place a lot of things in context for me. Re-reading Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” with this context in mind gave it a whole new meaning. It helped me understand why it reinvigorated my interest in poetry at the age of 13. Reading W.C. Williams’s earlier works with this context in mind – the movement away from more traditional rhyme and meter and into the murky realm of free verse – also gave me some more insight into this evolution. In the process of reading up on the Imagists, I came across the Imagist anthologies that came out in the 1910s. The list of Imagist principles – from which I quote in the Szymborska annotation – made a tremendous amount of sense for me. They seemed to sum up the lessons I’ve been learning in workshops since I first started writing. Reading the poems in the anthology also drove home for me the variety of ways in which the principles can manifest. It was particularly helpful to revisit H.D.’s work, which I hadn’t read since the course on modern poetry I took as an undergraduate.

My hope is that you’ve seen some progress in the poems I’ve sent over the course of the semester. I definitely feel that I’ve been able to grow and change, to fill some of the gaps in my poetic education, and to further refine my own craft. Of course, I feel as if I’ve barely scratched the surface.

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