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

Take Time for Your Own Writing and Support a Small Business

Photograph of a hand writing in a notebook.

Wherever you are, I hope that you are weathering well and staying safe and healthy during this pandemic. I’ve found it quite stressful, especially as my partner works in an emergency room. He takes precautions when he comes home, but I worry about him every day. For myself, I work from home regularly but I miss the days when I do go in to see my colleagues.

On the bright side, I’ve been getting outside for more walks than ever before (staying six feet away from everyone, of course) and have been especially grateful for Zoom, which helps me feel more connected to friends and colleagues than the phone alone does. In some ways, this physical distancing has meant that I reach out and connect with good friends even more than before.

If you are looking for some additional connection, please consider joining me for an online generative writing workshop. A new creative space called Create Art in Community just opened in Roslindale Square in February. I was delighted to connect with Gena Mavuli and to offer this course in her studio. As with many small businesses, closing has created some real difficulties for her–especially since it’s such a new business. She asked me to take the class online. We will use the five senses and other prompts to grow new seedlings in our very own garden of words. Feedback for these new first drafts will be exclusively positive. A few spots remain. Please consider signing up, to support your own writing practice and also a small, local business.

The two-hour workshop meets for four sessions in April: April 1, 8, 15, and 29. Cost is $165. Sign up here.

Some folks are intimidated by trying this new technology. If you’d like to learn how to use Zoom, I’m happy to give you a tutorial, whether or not you sign up for the class. It’s a great way to stay connected in this time of social distancing. Just comment on this message below, use my contact form, or send me a DM on Twitter.

An Embarrassment of Riches

Silhouette of a woman with arms outspread and head thrown back. Photo credit: Jill Wellington via Pixabay.

The only thing you need to do to be a poet is to write poetry. But occasionally, if you do the footwork and let go of the results, you get rewarded with some accolades. I’ve had a string of successes recently and wanted to share:

  • In March, the Lambda Literary Awards selected my chapbook Mad Quick Hand of the Seashore as a finalist in the bisexual poetry category.
  • On April 24, Athena Dixon interviewed me for the New Books in Poetry podcast. We had a great conversation about the writer’s journey, how things have improved (or not) for marginalized voices, and how writing practice can change over time.
  • On April 29, new Boston Poet Laureate Porsha Olayiwola selected my work, along with that of 17 other poets, to be displayed at Boston City Hall as part of the Mayor’s Poetry Program.
  • On April 27, I performed alongside a slew of talented poets, musicians, and actors in the Solidarity Salon, an event started and organized by fellow Lesley poet Lisa DeSiro. The crowd that showed up to Third Life Studios in Union Square, Somerville was wonderfully warm and appreciative, and True Story Theater brought three poems to life–including one of mine!
  • On May 10, three of my poems appeared in the Heavy Feather Review #NoMorePresidents online feature.
  • On May 13, The Rumpus published my interview with Kwoya Fagin Maples about her moving book of historical persona poetry Mend (University Press of Kentucky, 2018).
  • On May 15, the Harriet blog on the Poetry Foundation website picked up the article, thus causing something rather unlikely: my name on the Poetry Foundation website. It’s a far cry from having my poems up there, but it’s still pretty cool.
  • On May 18, I walked in the Lesley University commencement ceremony with a brown hood to signify Master of Fine Arts. Lesley won’t award me the degree itself until I complete my graduating seminar at the June residency, but taking part in the ceremony was quite moving. My mother, brother, and sort-of-mother-in-law all traveled from out of town to celebrate with me and Mark, my partner and biggest fan.

Yes, Dispatches from an MFA are not up-to-the-minute coverage. More to come.

The interesting thing about po-biz success is how short-lived the good feelings can be. Lesley faculty member Tracey Baptiste has talked about the moving goalposts, and others seem to agree with her. I’m sure I’ll be eyeballs deep in existential angst soon, but for the moment, anyway, I feel like the Poetry Gods are smiling upon me.

Thanks to you, dear reader, for supporting me in these endeavors.

On Celebrating National Poetry Month While Earning an MFA

National Poetry Month is April, the cruelest month according to T.S. Eliot. And I get where he’s coming from, especially in Boston, where lilacs may or may not be breeding out of the dead ground. This month, everything bloomed late because the Weather Gods decided to send us temps in the 40s for most of March and April, and then bust directly into summer on May 2 with a high of 87. I should be used to this by now, seeing as I’ve lived in Boston for 18 years. But California spoiled me in my toddler years, and on some level I’ll always mourn weeks and weeks of room-temperature weather. The temperamental temperatures affect my mood as well, leading to unpredictable amounts of spoons.

The good thing about National Poetry Month is also the bad thing about National Poetry Month: everyone is celebrating poetry. As anyone perusing the listings I post can see, Boston has a thriving po-scene. There are open mics and slams and performances and launch parties and panels and exclusive hoity-toity readings every week and twice on Sundays. In April the listings just explode. And those are just the ones I know about–I hear about other ones all the time that don’t make my list. And then there are the informal writing groups, as secret and desirable as lesbian potlucks.

Continue reading “On Celebrating National Poetry Month While Earning an MFA”

Dispatches from an MFA: Semester One, Final Packet

Read on for the cover letter to the final packet of my first semester at the Lesley MFA program, written to my teacher Sharon Bryan. The cover letter of a packet is meant to be a meditation on your writing and study process over the course of the previous month — a sort of “making of” the finished work that accompanies it:

Dear Sharon:

How strange to think that this is the last packet I will be sending you. The semester has gone by so quickly. I was really worried about being able to finish all the work on time, but it turned out to be possible after all. About halfway through each packet I would get incredibly anxious. I worried that I wouldn’t be able to finish the work on time, and that what I sent wouldn’t be good enough. It’s natural to want to get the most out of a degree program as possible, but it’s also important not to let the perfect get in the way of the good. The fact that the course work is pass/fail helps, but ultimately it’s a question of whether I think I am doing the best that I can. Continue reading “Dispatches from an MFA: Semester One, Final Packet”

Boston-Area Poetry Readings for January and February 2018

In my unbiased opinion, the one must-see reading this winter is happening on Saturday, February 3 at 2pm. Come see me (Frances Donovan), Erica Charis-Molling, Sonja Johnson, and Heather Derr-Smith read for free at the newly renovated library in beautiful Jamaica Plain.

Others might argue that honor goes to Nikki Giovanni (!) at Brookline Booksmith on Friday, February 2.

Also a shout-out to Regie Gibson and the other fine poets performing at the Gwendolyn Brooks tribute this Saturday, January 13 in Lexington, Mass.

All readings are in Massachusetts.

Friday, January 12, 7:30 pm
Alan Smith Soto, Tim Suermondt, and Pui Ying Wong
Loring-Greenough House
12 South Street (across from the Monument)
Jamaica Plain, MA

Saturday January 13, 3 pm
Chris O’Carroll and David Davis
Powow River Poets Reading Series
Newburyport Public Library
94 State St.
Newburyport, MA

Saturday, January 13, 4 pm
Tara Skurtu
Porter Square Books
25 White Street
Cambridge, MA

Saturday, January 13, 7:30 pm
Contemporary Poets Celebrate Gwendolyn Brooks
Nancy Boutilier, Robert Carr, Jennifer Clarvoe, Tom Daley, Regie Gibson, Krysten Hill, Dorian Kotsiopoulos, Julia Lisella, Kathy Nilsson, Sabrina Sadique, Lloyd Schwartz, Joyce Swagerty, Cammy Thomas, Jonathan Weinert
Munroe Saturday Nights series
First Parish Church
7 Harrington Road
Lexington, MA

Wednesday, January 17, 8 pm
Valerie Duff and Musical Guest
Unearthed Song & Poetry
Home.stead Bakery & Cafe
Fields Corner
1448 Dorchester Ave.
Dorchester, MA

Continue reading “Boston-Area Poetry Readings for January and February 2018”

At What Price Poetry?

A fellow poet recently had the courage to complain about the expense of our chosen vocation. It’s a sad fact that the net proceeds for poets are usually negative. We often have to pay to develop our craft and get ourselves read. Perhaps it’s not unlike many art forms in this way — especially the “fine” arts like ballet. In the case of poetry, schools, workshops, conferences, book tours, and contest fees all add up. Those of us who publish books may end up making little or nothing on them. Readings at most venues don’t offer remuneration, while the poet usually ends up having to pay for gas and dinner. If you sell a few books, you’re lucky to break even.

Payment — or lack thereof — is difficult subject to speak about in public settings, partly because of the unspoken taboo on discussing money matters at all, and partly because of the notion that artists must do what they love for free, or have to suffer for their art, living in garrets and shivering next to wood stoves. It’s easy to sound bitter, and no one wants to publish — or read — a bitter poet. It is possible to make a living as a writer of prose, but not with poetry. Not in American society, where most mentions of poetry in mainstream society joke about how awful it is to have to listen to it.

This double bind is why I went into web development in the mid 1990s. I didn’t have parents who could support me or supplement my income and I didn’t have the connections that make it so much easier to break into publishing. Zines and websites used to circumvent the snooty literary establishment, but the fact is that my education and inclinations have given me champagne taste when it comes to literature in general and poetry in particular.

After 20 years in an industry that’s taken me further and further away from my literary roots, I’m embarking on a low-residency MFA program that will allow me to keep my job while I focus on honing my craft in my off-hours. An MFA is not cheap. I was fortunate enough to qualify for a merit scholarship, but I’ll be paying for the bulk of tuition with student loans. Once I graduate, my monthly payments will equal about half of mortgage. Worst case scenario is that I end up saddled with so much debt that means I can’t afford to make a career change more in line with my passions.

All of that being said, I do believe there are bright spots in the cloudy future. Grants do exist. Paying gigs (mostly teaching, but also prose writing) do exist. Scholarships do exist. Free artist residencies do exist. Lesley awarded me a scholarship and I’ve won awards in the past so I know it’s a possibility for me. The key is to not get sucked in to the maw of the pay-for-play mentality of some literary circles. And that’s hard because sometimes the people in those circles are the poets I really admire and want to be like.

I’ve spent so much time avoiding dedicating myself to the arts because I’ve been too afraid of failure. I’m taking the leap this time — or, more accurately, I’m taking a measured, clear-eyed walk along a rocky and difficult path that hugs the side of the mountain.

Succeeding in the end might require a revision of my definition of success into outcomes I can directly affect rather than those that depend on the whim and tastes of judges and editors. When I look at it that way, success is inevitable.

Photo credit: slgckgc via Flickr, CC 2.0