Dispatches from an MFA: Semester Two, 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 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 third packet.

Dear Kevin:

As you pointed out, the critical work in my last packet was a little thin. I hope I’ve redeemed myself with this one. It’s always possible to do more with grad school work, but I feel confident that I’ve given sufficient time and attention to James Wright’s and D.A. Powell’s work. I read your essay on Powell, and am glad that I did so after finishing my own paper. It can be difficult for me to approach a text with any kind of original thinking after reading another’s interpretation. I think you managed to say with more perspective and eloquence some of the things I was trying to say in my own paper. I especially appreciated the parallels the death-dancing German painting and Powell’s exuberant music. I hadn’t really paid attention to Powell’s exploration of spiritual redemption in Cocktails – especially in the Bibliography section – but can see it clearly in hindsight.

I approached James Wright before Powell and found his work simultaneously uplifting and frustrating. I wish that identity politics didn’t affect me so profoundly when it comes to literature. And yet it’s always there, whether I wish it or not. Last semester Sharon Bryan mentioned separating the poet from their poetry. I think that’s possible to a certain extent, but there’s a limit to it. On the one hand, there are universal themes, such as the search for meaning, or loneliness and the desire for connection. On the other hand, one’s relative status within a culture profoundly affects the way that one experiences those themes. I’m skeptical of the body/spirit dichotomy in general. The best literature elides the two. And James Wright does so beautifully. I love his descriptions of pastoral scenes, stripped of the flowery, romantic notions heaped on them by poets in previous generations. I suppose it’s gauche of me to say, but my heart swells when I read “A Blessing.”

I also picked up an anthology Rachel Zucker co-edited with Arielle Greenberg: Efforts and Affections: Women Poets on Mentorship. It reconnected me with the feminist perspective I find so helpful in my study and practice of poetry, and it also made me aware of some trends I’ve missed in the past 20-30 years. I’ve ordered a couple of other anthologies referenced in the preface, including Stealing the Language, edited by your recent guest Alicia Ostriker.

I appreciate your encouragement of my own work and your helpful suggestions for how to improve it. I want to continue to meet your high expectations. It’s motivated me to work my poems harder and longer than I’ve ever worked them before. Eileen Cleary talked about developing and exercising new writing muscles in the second semester, and I see now what she’s talking about. I can tell much more clearly when a poem isn’t up to snuff – such as “Moths in December” from the first packet. And I’ve learned how to reinvent them, often from scratch. “Animus” is a good example. The first draft (which I haven’t included) was elliptical and melodramatic. With the second draft, I felt brave enough to say more explicitly what I’d only alluded to in the first. I’m not entirely happy with its narrative tone, though. I feel like it falls flat with the music. So I tried a technique I learned last year in my IS, “Creativity and the Unconscious Mind.” I cut up bits from my poem and also from a couple of poems by Adrienne Rich and moved them around like a puzzle. I’m not sure that I’ve ever worked a poem that long or that hard before – I literally spent the entire day with it. And I’m not sure whether the third draft is better than the first, or how exactly I can send it out for publication. I believe it would fall under the category of a palimpsest, and I say as much in the poem’s epigraph. I’m eager to hear what you think of each of them.

As with “Animus,” I think I was finally able to say clearly what I’d been encrypting with the marigold poem. It may be overwritten or unnecessarily expository, but I feel like it’s a necessary step in its evolution. “I Hope to Come to You with Nothing but Light” and “On the C” are both risks for me – I haven’t changed them substantially from their first drafts which I wrote years ago. “Out of Her Head” is another poem I reworked from an oblique first draft.

One of my concerns is that I haven’t really generated any brand-new work since the beginning of the semester. Reworking old, flabby poems does feel like generating new work, but it’s not the same sort of from-scratch poetry that I sent to Sharon in packets three and four last semester. I also keep wanting to revisit “Pastoral, Pougkeepsie,” but every time I approach it, an invisible forcefield repels me. I’m setting my intention now to send a revision in the next packet, along with some truly original drafts – even if I’m uneasy about their quality. I have returned to some dream journals and have gotten some interesting material, some of which may produce a second draft worth sending.

The final packet focuses again on the narrative mode. I’m worrying less about defining the whole lyric-vs-narrative divide than I was earlier in the semester and am trying to focus more on the poet’s craft than on more theoretical considerations. Returning to Frances Mayes’s The Discovery of Poetry was tremendously helpful when I was trying to decide on my focus for these two craft annotations. I’d definitely love some suggestions from you on craft elements I should address in the final packet. In terms of reading, I’d like to focus on Martha Collins’s trilogy White Papers, Blue Front, and Admit One. I’m also reading Derek Wolcott’s Omeros as an example of a modern epic poem, although I’m not married to writing about it. Do you have a suggestion for a second text?

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