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

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