Dispatches from an MFA: Semester Two, 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 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 second packet.

Dear Kevin:

For some reason, finishing this packet was very difficult. I’ve been suffering under the specter of self-doubt – both with the craft annotations and with the original work. I hope you don’t mind that the Zucker annotation runs a bit over. She uses a lot of white space, and word placement and white space are integral to the meaning of her poems. So quoting her meant that I had less space than usual for the actual annotation. I feel like I was able to delve into the text of Zucker’s work, but am less sure about the annotation on Matejka’s book. I found myself fascinated with the conversation about “lyric narrative” poetry in the essays I cite in the Matejka annotation, and I’m afraid it took over the paper a bit. But these meta-issues were important for me to consider: the legacy of Confessionalism, the narrative “I,” and the current literary trends toward language-focused work and away from narrative. One of the thing that I liked best about Dante Di Stefano’s piece was the way that he put into context the arc of poetry in the 20th century, from Imagism to High Modernism to Confessionalism, and beyond.[1] When I studied poetry as an undergrad, the latter half of those shifts were still underway. I didn’t have the perspective to consider them from Di Stefano’s point of view.

And I was still getting an important foundation in English literature. My undergraduate education was mostly focused on the classics – Beowulf, Chaucer, the Romantics. I didn’t end up in the 20th century until more than halfway through my degree. The modern poetry courses I took ended with Eliot, Pound, William Carlos Williams, H.D., and Marianne Moore. And I somehow missed the fact that there even was an Imagist movement. I was aware of the Confessional school, but my exposure to it began and ended with Sexton and Plath. I found Plath’s poetry impenetrable at the time, although I connected with Sexton’s work quite a bit. I’d heard of Lowell but never read him.

And then there were the poets that I considered truly contemporary, with Adrienne Rich and Audre Lorde at the head of the pack. Both of them were still publishing when I was in school, and while they were big they hadn’t reached the luminary status that they have today. I wrote my thesis on Rich, but I remember almost nothing about the larger literary context of which she was a part. Maybe the Women’s Studies department was teaching all of those classes.

And while I was certainly learning what good poetry was, I was studying from the perspective of a student of English literature. The difference between that perspective and the one I have earning my MFA is as big as the difference between an art student and an art history student.

Compiling the poems for this packet, I realized something. When I came in to the program nine months ago, I thought I had tons of material to work with. But now I’m painfully aware of the difference in quality between my pre- and post-Lesley work. That’s not to say that I can’t salvage the earlier things. But it is rather sobering to realize I have more work to do on old drafts than I thought I did. Especially since I haven’t really been generating as much new poetry as I did in my first semester. Of course, there’s a much more positive way to look at it. Namely, I know now that a poem needs a kind of engine, and I can see that much of my previous work was lacking one. Reworking a couple of the old drafts for this packet has made me see that it’s possible to inject new life, even if it requires effort.

“Pastoral, Poughkeepsie” continues to haunt me, but I can’t seem to find my way back into the poem. I keep taking it out and then putting it aside. “I Won’t Be Coy Now” was supposed to be a way back in, but it ended up being a stand-alone piece. I keep meaning to free-write about it – and I have on a couple of occasions – but nothing is gelling. I hit a similar wall with the previous iteration of “Elegy for Two Black Boys I Knew in Junior High.” I set it aside in September, and the solution appeared quite clearly in January. But it’s hard to trust that that will always be the case. And I really would like to revisit the poem again before the end of the semester.

The poems I did include are a mix of drafts I feel good about and ones that most definitely need work. “Dyke March” and “Two Deaths” were quite horrible as first drafts. The second drafts I enclosed are less horrible. And the work that you, Clarissa, and I did with “Other Rooms” in small-group workshop lead me to believe you’ll be able to help me with these. I’d thought “Other Rooms” was unsalvageable. Let me know what you think of the new iteration. I feel like “January, Eating an Orange” and the marigolds poem have already been workshopped to death, but I would like one final (fresh) pair of eyes on them.

In terms of the next packet, I’d like to look at D.A. Powell and James Wright. Reading Aaron Smith’s essay about Sharon Olds also made me want to revisit her work, which I’ve read before for enjoyment but never with an eye to craft. She may be more appropriate for narrative, though. Thoughts?

Apologies if this cover letter is brief and not as introspective as my last one. I’m trying not to let the perfect get in the way of the good.

[1] Especially the bit about how Lowell and the rest of the school hated the term “Confessional.”

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