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.

The truth is quite different from these end-of-semester goggles, of course. I’ll have the pleasure of composing my faculty evaluation, and I plan to attend the June residency to watch my cohort’s graduation readings. May is also a glorious season to be in Boston (usually anyhow – the Weather Gods are fickle in New England), and I’ve been looking forward to further planting out the new perennial bed we dug in the garden last year. I’ll also have the time to spend with friends and take advantage of Boston’s cultural offerings (both highbrow and low—have you seen Avengers: Infinity War yet?).

None of that can happen until the final packet is complete, of course. I’ve implemented the revisions you suggested in the last packet’s feedback and worked on smoothing the transition between excerpts. I was concerned that the paper would end up clocking in longer than 18 pages, but after a number of revisions I managed to keep it well within the limit.

You said that it would be all right for me to send just three poems with this packet. I split the difference and included four. These are a continuation of the series of princess poems I’ve been writing—you’ve seen three of the others. I did a free write just coming up with titles, some of which emerged into prompts and some of which haven’t.

“Dirt Princess” depicts a character messing around in the garden—she is more concerned with minutia than with really getting much done. The focus is on the miniscule rather than the big picture. Mode is mostly lyric, although there is a narrative element to it. Despite the title, this poem risks being too twee.

“Mermaid Princess” describes a character who has been removed from her natural element. Its mode is narrative. The mermaid removed from the ocean runs in parallel to the Californian removed from the coast. This poem uses such oft-used subject matter, it risks cliché.

“Lettuce Princess” hides the name of its narrator until the last line of the poem—it’s a retelling of the story of Rapunzel. Its mode is narrative. There are two risks in this poem: first, the lineation of the second stanza, and second, ending the narrative before the famous scenes in the tower.

“Pegasus Princess” is a lyric poem describing a character from the My Little Pony toy line and TV series. I struggled with this poem; I cut a lot from the original draft and am risking that the poem is thin rather than spare.

Even though it meant compressing my study schedule, I’m glad that I attended the Mass Poetry Festival this year. The Lesley residencies primed me to get more out of this year’s festivals than I have in years past. I very wisely booked a room in Salem so I wouldn’t have to make the drive back and forth each day, and I was able to connect with some other poets I know through a Facebook group. It’s counterintuitive, but being around the foment of the festival inspired me to write some new pieces rather than exhausting me and preventing me from writing anything at all. Sonia Sanchez was the headliner on Saturday evening, and seeing her perform (she really does PERFORM her work!) is a memory I’ll carry with me for the rest of my life. So much energy from such a tiny frame! She’s a shining example of the power of the Black Arts movement. Thanks again for giving me an extension so that I could attend.

Thanks also for your encouraging and helpful feedback on last month’s packet. I’m embarrassed that you had to see such a horrible poem as “How Do You Approach Race?” but am grateful for your take on it. I’m also glad we were able to connect in real-time in spite of our schedule conflicts.

In terms of a final video call, I’ll be visiting my mother this weekend and on vacation the next. If you’re available on Saturday or Sunday the 19th or the 20th, I should be able to call you from the hotel—not sure if their bandwidth will accommodate a video call, but at least we can speak in real time. I’m also available on Wednesday the 23rd in the afternoon. Please let me know what works best for you.

And thanks again for a great semester.

All my best,

Frances

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.

The poetry in this packet is a mixed bag. Two of the poems – “Brendan, Summer, 1993,” and “What Remains” are drafts from years ago. They say you should never abandon your poems entirely, so here I am picking them up again. “Brendan, Summer, 1993” is definitely a lyrical poem. The speaker remembers a simple exchange with a “you” whose relationship to the speaker is undefined. The risk I am taking with this poem is presenting a moment so unadorned and without complexity that it may fall flat with the reader. I’m not sure that there’s anywhere else to go with this poem, but I can’t tell if it’s done.

“The Path to the Inner World” contains both lyric and narrative elements. There is a general forward motion, but the use of extra white-space make the journey tentative and airy. As the title implies, this poem depicts a journey to an inner space. The poem still feels very personal to me, so the risk I’m taking here is exposing something delicate and almost abstract to a reader who may or may not be sympathetic.

“She Has Always Lived in the Tower” picks up where the previous poem left off, but in quite a different form. The risk I am taking here is working with longer lines, moving into hybrid prose-poetry territory. Historically I’ve abhorred prose poetry and am just beginning to learn to appreciate it. As usual, attempting it myself gives me a whole new appreciation for the skill involved in doing it well. This poem describes in concrete detail one piece of the inner world that is the destination of the previous poem. Its mode is narrative in that it concerns itself with scene-setting, but lyric in that not a lot happens in the poem.

“What Remains” is a lyric poem in which the speaker catches an image of herself in a particular posture, which mirrors the stance of an abusive ex-girlfriend. This poem doesn’t take many risks.

“How Do You Approach Race?” is a narrative poem that attempts to convey the clash between different kinds of oppression and bullying experienced by a child. The speaker is older than the child in the poem. I hesitated to include this poem in the packet at all, since I think it’s so disjointed and half-formed that it’s barely a poem at all—after a revision, I feel a bit more confident about it. This poem runs the risk of being too preachy—of lapsing into a voice that Kevin used to call “this is what Frances thinks now.”

In our study planning session, you noted that the draft of the craft essay in Packet 3 might be sufficient for the semester. With typical pre-semester ambition, I mentioned that I’d like to see about getting it published someplace. If this current form meets the coursework requirements, I’d welcome suggestions on how to adapt it for publication somewhere like The Writer’s Chronicle. I found their submission guidelines here: https://www.awpwriter.org/magazine_media/submission_guidelines. Do you think it’s feasible to repurpose the current essay for this or other publications? Do you have any suggestions for other publications? Second-tier lit mags, for instance? I highly doubt I’d have any chance of getting something like this published in Poetry or APR.

I was surprised that I was able to finish the work in the time allotted and hope that you find it acceptable. I’m curious as to your expectations for the final packet. If another draft of the craft essay isn’t necessary, should I send ten pages of poems?

We’re not quite to the end of the semester yet, but I wanted to express my appreciation for all the work we’ve done so far. Your consistently positive vibe is a welcome foil to my sometimes melancholy disposition.

All my best,

Frances

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

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.

Wright grounds the reader with the image of a cave before he ventures into the intangible, airy heart of the poem. The cave exists “in the air behind my body.” While the heart of the poem is cloistered, airy, silent, Wright surrounds it with imagery we can grasp: “a blossom of fire,” bones turned “to dark emeralds.” Last semester, I wrote a series of poems about the void and discovered a problem that Wright solves here. In order to evoke the void, the cloister, the silence, you must surround it with non-void, non-silent things. Negative space doesn’t exist without positive space around it. Wright manages that dichotomy in this poem: the cave, the blossom of fire, and the bones of emerald surround his void. Cloister here seems a particularly appropriate word: cloisters in monasteries held spaces for quiet and contemplation within walls, often beautifully crafted ones like the Cloisters in New York.

Wright’s approach to poetic line and meter has a lot to do with the contemplative pacing of his poetry. He end-stops almost all of his lines, which slows them down. And he capitalizes the first letter of each line—a usage which generally fell out of favor in the 20th century—so that even when he does enjamb lines, the reader’s eye slows at the capital letter. Wright also understands the various nuances of white space and punctuation—the different pauses that happen with line-breaks alone, with commas, with periods, with stanza breaks, and with numbered stanzas. He often starts lines with prepositions to heighten the feel of silence and stillness. But the pacing of his poems isn’t monotonous: he uses short and long lines and differences in meter to vary it. Consider the first stanza of “Fear is What Quickens Me:”

                                                                                                Line #

Many animals that our fathers killed in America                   1

Had quick eyes.                                                                       2

They stared about wildly,                                                       3

when the moon went dark.                                                     4

The new moon falls into the freight yards                              5

Of cities in the south,                                                              6

But the loss of the moon to the dark hands of Chicago          7

Does not matter to the deer                                                     8

In this northern field.                                                              9

Each line break in this stanza comes at the end of a phrase. In the first two lines, the break is between the subject and the verb of the sentence; in the third and fourth, between the action of the sentence and its subordinate clause. The period at the end of fourth line serves as a transition from the past to the present. The poem speeds up with an anapest at the end of line 5, but the shorter line that follows, started with a preposition and ended with a comma, slows it down. On line seven, three anapests speed up the poem with their running meter. The rhythm breaks with the even stress on “dark hands” before returning to its anapest-ish rhythm, one that spills over into the next line. The anapests in the following line keep the pacing moving, but the line breaks earlier than its predecessor, creating a pause. And the final line, with its two trochees and final stress, bring the poem coasting to a halt.

Wright’s poems often feature motion, but always with stillness at its center. I see that paradox clearly in the second part of “Two Hangovers:”

In a pine tree,

A few yards away from my window sill,

A brilliant blue jay is springing up and down, up and down,

On a branch.

I laugh, as I see him abandon himself

To entire delight, for he knows as well as I do

That the branch will not break.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Wright plucked the book’s name from these lines. The branch is in motion, but at some fundamental level it offers unailing support to the jay—and, by extension, to the speaker. This stanza is one of my favorites, along with “A Blessing,” and “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota.”

In the spirit of due diligence – and because I’m always curious about how a poet’s work develops over time – I picked up Wright’s Collected Poems as well. They gave me some hope. I saw how his work moved away from the formally careful, stilted quality of his earlier books into the confident, simple language of The Branch Will Not Break. If Wright was able to find such a powerful voice, perhaps I can too.

Works Cited

Wright, James. The Branch Will Not Break. Wesleyan University Press, 1963. Print.

Blue jay photo credit: Steve McLeod from Pixabay

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.

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.

As I reported in a previous essay on the subject of narrative poetry, literary tastes in the poetry world bent toward the associative mode in reaction to the ascendancy of the post-confessional narrative form. But Powell shows how powerful this mode can be as a form of storytelling. Says Powell of his work in the introduction to Repast, a collection of three previous books titled Tea, Lunch, and Cocktails:

Because I was unable to contain the first lines I wrote, I turned my notebook sideways, pushing into what would traditionally be thought the margin of the page. These lines, with their peculiar leaps and awkward silences, became the strangely apt vessel into which I could pour my thoughts. I took fragments and made new statements from them, just as I wished to reshape my life from its incomplete bits.

I first came across the idea of re-membering the dismembered (and the silenced) while researching my undergraduate thesis on Adrienne Rich’s work. It dovetails nicely with Powell’s comments about his words entering the margins of his notebook, word spoken from the margins of society and a community dismembered by the AIDS epidemic.

Powell’s mature poems have a logic of their own; they’re not simply rapid-fire, random phrases. He leaves the majority of his poems unnamed, allowing the first line of the poem to stand in as a title. Lines contain two to three distinct parts separated by white space, and stanzas generally run from one to three lines. You can see him still developing his distinctive voice in Lunch, which he wrote prior to Tea and Cocktails.

I notice a certain Anglo-Saxon alliteration stitching together his lines. From “[epithalamion],” one of the few titled poems in the book:

say amen somebody.     the pews are hickory-hard I’m sick of sitting.     sick of hazy secondhand god

I’m gawky and greedy.     full of longing like frankie in “a member of the wedding,”     here comes andy

alabaster betrothed: his pierced wooden groom casts a doleful glance.         his eye is on the sparrow

Sibilant S’s run through the first line, as do hard H’s. G’s pull together the first third of the second line, and “longing” echoes “gawky.” F’s alliterate the second third of the second line. In the third line, B’s repeat in “alabaster betrothed” and O sounds run through “betrothed,” “wooden groom,” and “doleful.”[i] This poem also has a clear narrative: the title “epithalamion” indicates it’s a celebration of a marriage; it’s taking place in a church (“the pews are hickory-hard”); they are singing hymns (“his eye is on the sparrow”) and performing the ritual of the Eucharist (Powell gives the ritual a twist: instead of bread, “they took my heart gave thanks and brake it.     they are wounded by love”). The narrative takes an unexpected turn in the last few lines: “andy is lifted by outstretched arms,” can be read as either the blessing of the congregation or the act of pallbearers, especially when considered within the larger context of the collection, set during the devastation of the AIDS epidemic. Is this truly a wedding or is it a funeral? “I’m no more afraid / secretly I’ve brought my valise …. together we’ll steal away steal away.” Is the speaker planning to elope with the groom? Or anticipating his own mortality?

Images from club life and disco songs run through Powell’s poetry, most strikingly in the section of Tea called “Tea Dance,” which he prefaces with a list of “Eleven Disco Songs that Equate Sex and Death through an Elaborate Metaphor Called ‘Heaven.’” One that particularly resonated with me was “[now the mirrored rooms seem comic. shattered light: I once entered the world through dryice fog.]” “come let me show you a sweep of constellations,” says the speaker, recounting ages 16 through 20 with the characteristic brief, strobing images, each one tagged with a disco song. In Cocktails, he uses a similar structural tool with sections named “Mixology,” “Filmography,” and “Bibliography”[ii]– although the poems often stray far from their starting points.

Sometimes it’s not just alliteration but also an image that holds a poem together, as in “[he’d make my bed jumble and squeak. a parrot must have lit inside. potty mouthed].” In this poem, the speaker is the parrot, saying “quaquaquaquaqua,” blessing “the beak the tiny beak,” while the “he” of the poem carries darker imagery: “buzzarding,” with “long black lashes like wings.”

In addition to his fractured, layered style, Powell uses wordplay to leaven his work’s serious subject matter. Surprising associations of sound and meaning abound, but also puns: “we rubbed each other out: a pair of erasers,”[iii] “you who have more to spend than the rest of your life: busfare for instance,”[iv] “love in the time of caulifleur,”[v] “o that this tutu of solid flesh,”[vi] “I take my drinks stiff and stuffed with plastic. like my lovers.”[vii]

One of the things that strikes me about Powell’s work is the sheer joy it takes in language, both in meaning and in sound. It’s a quality that first drew me to poetry. I hope I never lose sight of it. He also shows that there is more than one way to include narrative in one’s work, and that alternatives to straightforward narrative can produce powerful results.

Works Cited

Powell, D.A. Repast: Tea, Lunch, Cocktails. Graywolf Press, 2014. Print.


[i] A epithalamion is a poem celebrating a marriage. When you consider the historical context of this poem—written long before the legalization of same-sex marriage in the United States—its alternating notes of snark and longing make it especially poignant.

[ii] The “Biblio” in this case is not just any book book, but the Bible, and he retells the familiar stories in his characteristic strobe-like, layered, and sensual voice.

[iii] [what happened to “significant” out of bed: abolished in the act of standing. like a “lap”]. p. 41.

[iv] [what direction will you take when the universe collapses. you who when you go must go someplace]. p. 45.

[v] [not just that I got starry-eyed—an epidemic of romanced was sweeping around us. a falling]. p. 58.

[vi] [we all carry signs of our obsessions]. p. 131.

[vii] [the cocktail hour finally arrives: whether ending a day at the office]. p. 143.

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.

Continue reading “Dispatches from an MFA: Semester Two, Third Packet”

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…

Continue reading “Ross Gay’s Wild and Sensual Poems”

Rachel Zucker’s Unclear Narrative

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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I’ve been approaching this semester with an alternating focus on the lyrical and narrative modes of poetry. But how exactly does one differentiate between the two? And is it even a valid dichotomy? As with the prose-poetry divide, the more one tries to define it, the more slippery it becomes. In an essay published in 2006, Tony Hoagland writes about “a widespread mistrust of narrative forms and, in fact, a pervasive sense of the inadequacy or exhaustion of all modes other than the associative.” He also acknowledges the difficulty of defining the term: “Under the label of ‘narrative,’ all kinds of poetry currently get lumped misleadingly together: not just story but discursion, argument, even descriptive lyrics. They might better be called the ‘Poetries of Continuity.’”

Published in 2004, Rachel Zucker’s The Last Clear Narrative certainly demonstrates the zeitgeist Hoagland describes. At first pass, the title seems like a joke on the reader. Zucker’s language is disruptive, fragmented. It uses not only syntax but white space and idiosyncratic punctuation – all to skillful effect, but hardly the definition of what most people would call a clear narrative.

Continue reading “Rachel Zucker’s Unclear Narrative”