Dispatches from an MFA: Final Semester, First Packet

This is part of a series called Dispatches from an MFA which details my experiences in the low-residency MFA in Creative Writing program at Lesley University. In the final semester, I studied with poet Erin Belieu. We spent the semester working on my MFA thesis, which became the basis for the manuscript I began shopping in 2019. Graduating students are also responsible for teaching a seminar at their final residency. This is the cover letter to the first packet of the semester.

Dear Erin:

This month I’ve felt like I’m thrashing around in a very shallow pond. At one point I shouted, “I have no idea what I’m doing!” My partner Mark laughed and said, “It sounds like grad school.”

In spite of my angst, I have been making progress. The manuscript has gone through a number of iterations. I’ve put in way too much and whittled it down. I spent a lot of time researching the stories of Rapunzel and Snow White. I read the stories from The Complete Grimm’s Fairytales, and also The Poets Grimm (there are an awful lot of poems about Cinderella in there). I did some online research and found a great exploration of the Rapunzel story by Terri Windling, which gave me some historical context. The Windling article led me to a YA novel by Donna Jo Napoli called Zel that retells the story in great detail from the perspective of the witch, Rapunzel, and the “prince” (in this case a minor nobleman). She doesn’t innovate very much from the original, but it certainly drove home the story in a more concrete way. I also downloaded and printed out lots of different photos and drawings of Rapunzel and Snow White and pasted them next to my desk.

I’ve been trying to figure out what draws me to these two characters in particular. What about their stories is compelling to me, and how do I want to re-tell them? In the case of Snow White, I’m drawn to the elements of her story that have to do with unpaid physical and emotional labor. In my version, I see her as having an eating disorder and body dysmorphia. And her ingestion of the pills (red-and-white, like her) is the beginning of a voyage into the underworld that mirrors Inanna’s. I started the Void poems in my first semester and they’ve gone through a number of iterations. Snow White is a recent addition. Please tell me if she feels pasted on.

Rapunzel’s story resonates with me in that it has to do with the sturm un drang surrounding a young girl’s budding sexuality and the necessary differentiation from a mother figure. I’m also interested reimaging the character of the witch with more nurance. I realize the setting of the Rapunzel poems is inconsistent: in the first, we’re clearly in some medieval setting, and in the later ones in a modern one. All of them need work.

Part of what makes this manuscript so challenging is that I arrived at the princess poems late in the course of my MFA. I only began writing them in the third semester. You may notice that the more finished poems (I hope we agree on what those are) don’t deal with the same themes. Prior to this series, I’d been writing more about race, class, and sexuality, and the speaker of the poems was more closely allied to myself. The princess poems delve a lot deeper. The ones that explore and try to explode the archetype (“Dirt Princess.” “Fox New Princess,” “Xena, Warrior Princess,” “Buttercup, Warrior Princess”) are more public and cerebral, and that’s why I discarded some of the less successful ones. But the deeper I go, the more troubling the subject matter becomes to write about, and the more I feel the need to differentiate between me the poet and the characters in the poems. This is why retelling the Rapunzel and Snow White stories has become so important to me. The little princess poems go even deeper. I’m aware that most of the poems in these series don’t stand very well on their own and would like to do all I can to polish them up so they do. Your suggestion of how to rewrite one of my poems in workshop bore great fruit.

These are the poems I’d like to begin working on:

• the map to the inner world (p. 6)
• Snow White Tries Becoming a Prince (p. 8)
• Fat Snow White (p. 9)
• What Snow White Swallows (p. 10) – This is the rewrite you suggested. I think it’s almost there.
• The Rapunzel poems (pp. 15-20)
• The little princess poems (pp. 21-26)
• homing princess 1 and 2 (pp. 27-28)
• St. John’s Towers 1 and 2 (pp. 31-32)
• The Wedding China (p. 33)
• The rest of the princess poems (pp.37-45)

According to my notes, there’s nothing for the graduating seminar due in the first packet. I did want to begin discussing it though. There are so many poets graduating next residency, I wanted to do something that would appeal across genres. Specifically, I was thinking about the use of white space and how it affects pacing and tone. Texts to include “Hills Like White Elephants,” by Hemingway, an excerpt from Skinny Legs and All, by Tom Robbins, “to the fig tree on 9th and christian,” by Ross Gay, “The Bandleader Calls it the Angel Position,” by Gabi Calvocoressi, “The Window is One-Sided It Does Not Admit,” by Rachel Zucker, “Poetry Machines,” by Cate Marvin. I welcome your feedback on both the topic and the preliminary reading list.

All my best,

Frances

Dispatches from an MFA: Semester Three, 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 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 final packet.

Dear Adrian:

I tend to have mixed feelings when sending in the last packet of the semester. It’s a relief to come to a break in the work. But once I’ve turned in the packet, despondence overcomes me as I realize the end of the semester means no more school for a while. School has generally been a refuge for me. And this work I’m doing has such intrinsic value that even when I’m on the edge of burnout I prefer it to my non-poetry, non-academic life. Without a school deadline, the future appears like an unbroken line of dull days clocking into my corporate job, writing status reports and functional specs, hiding my artistic side in favor of businesslike necessity.

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Dispatches from an MFA: Semester Three, 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 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 third packet.

Dear Adrian:

What a relief to be able to change the thesis of my craft essay. Our conversation on Friday helped all the pieces of the puzzle fall in place. My early thesis just didn’t stand up to the light when it was time to do close readings, especially in the case of Morgan Parker. Connecting Parker with Brooks’s voice makes so much more sense than trying to argue that her work was more regularly patterned—it’s just not. I expected to have to rewrite the entire paper from scratch, but I found that most of the close readings I’d already done worked well with new argument—I just needed to tweak a few of the arguments.

The extra couple of days have given me an opportunity to polish up the whole thing. Hopefully it meets with your satisfaction. I’m sure that if I revisited it, I could find further tweaks to make, but as my poetry-sister Wandajune says, it’s never going to be perfect.

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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.

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Dispatches from an MFA: Semester Three, First 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:

 Thanks for taking the time to respond so thoughtfully to my emails this month, as well as for the additional reading suggestions.

It’s funny—my first semester, I did the craft annotations ahead of the poetry revision and writing. This semester, I did my revisions and new writing first, all while stressing out about the craft essay thesis and outline. Either way, the critical work still stresses me out more than the writing and revising. I suppose this is why I’m getting an MFA instead of a PhD in literature.

I was surprised at how quickly I managed to work my way through the stack of poetry books. Some of the collections definitely spoke to me more than others. As you know, I was immediately taken with Morgan Parker’s There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé. I went ahead and order her first book as well, but I just couldn’t connect to it the same way. Natasha Trethewey’s Bellocq’s Ophelia was a quick read – the language is so beautiful, the narrative so clear and sequential, and the forms of the poems so similar that it reads almost like a novel in verse – in fact, it was an easier read than David Rakoff’s novel in verse.

Reading theory about poetic line was tougher going. I got through the Longenbach in about a day, mostly through extreme effort of will and because it’s a relatively small text. My main takeaway was the notion of the annotating versus the parsing line. He argues that enjambment “annotates,” or calls attention to a word outside of the usual phrasing of a sentence, whereas a parsing line merely ends where there would be a natural pause. I discovered A Broken Thing: Poets on the Line, a treasure trove of many different poets’ theories and opinions about poetic line. I rented it as an ebook for a few months rather than paying three times as much to own it. As a result the reading has been slow going. When I read on screen rather than on paper, I find it harder to absorb the material. I’ve been keeping a Word window screen minimized next to the ebook so that I can take notes while I read. I’m about two-thirds of the way through the thing now. The tone of the essays varies a great deal, some of the poets writing almost entirely from personal experience and others trying to make more general pronouncements about the line and what it means. In the introduction, Anton Vander Zee sums up the Levertov essay on the line better than I could: that the line tracks the stress of inner thought, and that the line is a script for performance.  Three other takeaways:

  • Annie Finch’s comments that lines that resonate the most with readers often have interesting meter, and that it would do well for contemporary writers to steep themselves in the study of meter as previous generations of poets did. She used an example from Audre Lorde’s “Coal.”
  • Arielle Greenberg’s concept of the hyperextended line, using Rachel Zucker as an example. I did an annotation of Zucker’s The Last Clear Narrative last semester and immediately knew what she was talking about. She points out that the hyperextended line can take many forms, including enjambment or visual use of the whole page, but that “the effect is always once of muchness, of multitude … an anti-stream of consciousness: a careful but cluttered working through of a complex thought.” This is something that I struggle with as a poet: making an idea or a narrative clear to the reader while still working through a complex thought. I can think of at least one poem where I might try the hyperextended line as a way of evoking this complexity.
  • Camille Dungy’s beautiful metaphor of prose as a vista of the ocean, and poetry as a vista that includes the shore, with line breaks being “the predictable moment of physical return, the abrupt interruption, the edge, the beach, the tide break, the line-break, the shore.”

What my reading of both the Longenbach and A Broken Thing make clear is that the concept of poetic line is slippery. Like so much of poet-craft (and indeed of physics), the closer you look at the thing, the more slippery and ill-defined it becomes. A kind of quantum.

At your suggestion I did some more research on Rich and Brooks. There are lots of retrospectives about the arc of Rich’s career in the popular press but fewer about Brooks. I spent some time with the Lesley online library searching for academic journal articles. The last time I remember searching through academic journal databases was at Vassar in the 1990s. It’s odd – I can access some materials directly from my study at home, but if it’s not available online I don’t have the luxury of perusing the stacks for the paper article. My biggest complaint about the low-residency model is the lack of easy access to a library.

As instructed, I’ve included an aesthetic statement for each of the poems in this packet; they are included with the contents page of the main “poetry” document. Because one of the poems includes extremely long lines, I had to save it as a separate document with landscape instead of portrait layout.

While revising “On the Ferry to Spectacle Island,” I decided to use the stepped line as a cue that the narrative is moving back in time, and to signal the return to the present moment with new stanzas. In terms of lineation, I’ve been focusing on ending lines with stronger words and avoiding beginning them with prepositions. As I’ve said – and as you know – the rules of poetic line are slippery. But I feel as if I’m able to intuit more easily what makes a strong line versus a weak one.

I’ve been wrestling with “The Marigolds, the River, the Oaks” for years now. It was in my application sample, and I’ve worked it with both Sharon and Kevin – possibly worked it to death. I finally decided to explode it from a sort of ghost sonnet into this new cross-out form. I’d gone in the direction of saying too much, but the original seemed to say too little. So I figured I’d show my work this time. Let me know what you think.

Originally, I’d included “The Window,” another poem I’ve worked quite a bit, but decided to switch it out with something very raw. I wrote “thirty-five years later..” just a couple of days ago and this is only the second draft. Once I have more distance, it should benefit from the music-oriented revision technique from your seminar. I’m curious to hear what you think of the form. I’d like to experiment more with use of white space – in my teens and 20s I used stepped and triadic lines a great deal more, but moved away from it, mostly because it’s so difficult to get the spacing right with the new web content management tools.

As you can probably tell, “Assembly Square” is my paean to D.A. Powell. I was struck by how Morgan Parker managed to replicate the rhythms of his lines in her latest book, and thought I’d try for a similar cadence. It may or may not become part of my own voice, but I think it’s a worthwhile endeavor regardless. I recently reviewed some of my packet material from first semester and see that Sharon and I agreed that I should focus on line. It was after reading C.K. Williams that I began writing longer, looser lines. D.A. Powell also does such innovative things with it.

When I started this cover letter I feared that I wouldn’t have enough to say, but now I see that I’ve almost written a book. I hope that you find the craft essay outline satisfactory. I’ve revised it a number of times and am simultaneously anxious that it is too granular and that I’m leaving out something important. I look forward to your feedback.

Hopefully we will be able to speak on the phone – or better yet via video chat – in the next couple of weeks. Mark and I are celebrating our 10th anniversary the weekend of Feb. 16th to the 19th, so I will be traveling, however we can still arrange to speak during that window is that is what works best for you. In general, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday are the best times for me to speak in real-time. I can also make a Monday or Wednesday evening work if necessary. Monday is Presidents’ Day, so perhaps we could try speaking that evening?

I hope all is well with you in Indiana (or on the road) and that you are accomplishing what you’d hoped to during your sabbatical.

Best,

Frances

The Branch Will Not Break: Poet James Wright

I find it difficult to separate James Wright the poet from James Wright’s poetry. I wonder if such a thing is truly possible. A poet’s body informs their work. It certainly informs whether their work gets read. Wright reminds me of Hemingway: stoic, deceptively simple, un-self-consciously macho. When I first discovered Hemingway, I fell in love with his style and emulated it. But once my eyes opened to the dynamics of gender, I wasn’t able to experience his work with the same unconscious enjoyment that I had before. I discovered James Wright’s work after that awakening. And, as with Hemingway, cognitive dissonance arose. Wright’s race and gender no doubt eased the way for his success. And yet the work itself merits that success. Wright says with confidence and simplicity what I would like to say. His spirituality is rooted in silence and the natural world, as is mine. He thinks and sees in metaphors, as do I. He uses surprising language, as I strive to. “The Jewel” embodies perfectly our shared world-view:

There is this cave

In the air behind my body

That nobody is going to touch:

A cloister, a silence

Closing around a blossom of fire.

When I stand upright in the wind,

My bones turn to dark emeralds.

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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.

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Poems in a Strobe: D.A. Powell’s Repast

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.

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[NOTE: The original version of this paper was set to landscape orientation to accommodate D.A. Powell’s long lines. Viewing this article on a large monitor will preserve the longer lines]

D.A. Powell’s work teaches me about the power of taking risks and trusting one’s own voice. Reading him reminds me of reading C.K. Williams, a poet who helped me break out of tightly controlled lines and hyperfocused subject matter and made it possible for me to write something sprawling like “Pastoral, Pougkeepsie” – a poem that is far from finished, but one that is much more ambitious than anything I would have attempted before I started at Lesley. But where Williams’s vignettes carry within them a consistent narrative, Powell’s move much more at the speed of thought – a phrase I’ve heard used to describe lyric poetry more than once. That’s not to say that Powell’s work doesn’t carry a narrative, but it’s one told via strobe light: short bursts of language, associated by sound or image or seemingly random leaps of intuition that make sense after the fact. I respond to it because it’s the way my own mind works.

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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.

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Ross Gay’s Wild and Sensual Poems

Ross Gay’s poetry is lush with sensual pleasure. He uses strong imagery, musical language, and an unusual approach to poetic line to achieve this lushness. He eschews punctuation in many of his poems, relying almost entirely on white space and line breaks to achieve his phrasing. I’ve tried doing some similar with my own work, but Gay commits himself entirely to this technique, forcing it to do the work of commas, periods, capitalization, dashes. In “to the fig tree on 9th and christian,” —the first in his latest collection, catalog of unabashed gratitude— his short lines stutter down the page, slowing the eye at points both expected and unexpected. With no punctuation and no capital letters, he relies on the reader to suss out where one sentence ends and the next begins. This elision works both in concert with and counterpoint to his line breaks. The opening lines rush forth with enjambment through three separate thoughts:

… probably
rehearsing some
stupid thing I
said or did
some crime or
other the city they
say is a lonely
place until yes
the sound of sweeping
and a woman
yes with a
broom…

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