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