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.

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