Vassar’s Creative Writing Program – Pros and Cons

Below is a comment I posted on the “Don’t Let Vassar Silence Writers” Facebook page in 2010, a group that was trying to prevent deep cuts to the Vassar Creative Writing program. I’ve also included (with permission) the comments of some of my fellow alums, all of whom were active with me in the student-run literary magazine Helicon. Students a year or two ahead of me founded the magazine. I served as Helicon’s Managing Editor during my senior year (1994-1995).

I had aspirations to become a published poet and “woman of letters” when I enrolled at Vassar. I was very confident — perhaps even arrogant — about my writing abilities. Vassar’s English department completely destroyed that confidence. This was in the early 90s, when the entire extent of the Creative Writing program consisted of Composition, Narrative Writing, Verse Writing, and Senior Composition. I took them all except for Senior Comp. That year, the only slot given to a poet went to a young man I’d never met.

The education I got at Vassar was very good, and the English literature program is rigorous and outstanding. On reflection, I’m not sure that I would change my decision to study at Vassar. But it definitely stifled my ability to write creatively. As a writer, I’m still recovering from that experience almost 15 years later.

Sarah Fnord Avery: My experience in the classroom at Vassar was overwhelmingly positive…until the Senior Creative Writing Seminar. The professor teaching it that semester was clueless about poetry, actively hostile toward genre fiction, and occasionally offensive to women in his choice of assigned model texts. All three of the poets in the seminar that year were consistently frustrated. I learned far more from my classmates than from the prof.

Strangely, the thing that happened at Vassar that came closest to silencing me as a writer was that my professors encouraged me to go to grad school. They thought they were helping me establish a writing life, but the academic job market and the process of preparing for it had changed so much between the 70s, when they got their degrees and positions, and the 90s, they had no idea what they were urging me into.Vassar I would definitely choose over again, but not grad school. Rutgers was a mitigated disaster, but a disaster nonetheless.
January 11, 2010 at 08:08pm

Sara Susanna Moore: I took only one writing course at Vassar, a required course for my degree– I think it was Composition. It was taught by Heinz Insu Fenkl, on whom I had a terrible crush. So of course I took his critiques of my work very personally and was terrified to talk to him. Plus, I was the only senior in a class of first-years, so we mostly sat in silence, as everyone was terrified to talk. It was possibly the worst class I had at Vassar, not entirely Prof. Fenkl’s fault, though it might have been his first teaching position. At the end of the semester, right before graduation, I screwed up my courage and went to his office hours, and put one question to him: “What kind of job would a PhD in English give me in the current job market?” He answered: “*Maybe* a position at a community college.” And then proceeded to layer on more things that were intended to discourage me from pursuing that degree, at all, ever.

So I never went down that road, though later I applied to Bennington’s “low impact residency” poetry MFA program (“rhyming by mail” as one friend put it) and didn’t get in. Another friend applied to the Bennington MFA in memoir, got in, and was disappointed. So, altogether I’m glad I pursued poetry on my own terms and instead went to grad school for something that looks like it will be pretty marketable. (Check back in with my later in the summer about that.)Back to Vassar: I took two classes in poetry, namely modern and romantic poets. I took them at the same time, the first semester of my senior year. I think we were doing Blake and Pound at the same time when the US invaded Haiti, using the 10th Mtn. Division (whose home is the army base near where I grew up) as the lead force. The combination of those poets and that event nearly gave me a nervous breakdown. I’m not kidding. But that’s not the fault of the professors.The Vassar English Department did me one solid on the poetry front: Eamon Grennan agreed to see me on a semi-regular basis and discuss my poetry with me. So I kind of had a non-credited tutoring arrangement with him, which I enjoyed. But I really got my poetry nurtured and improved by Helicon (tipping my hat to Sarah and Adriane). That was an amazing collective.
January 12, 2010 at 12:24am

Karen Schmeelk-Cone: As one of the scientist members of Helicon, it was great to be able to write and get encouragement since even getting into English classes was difficult. I wanted to take a creative writing course, but ended up in Expository Writing, I think in my Junior year. Interestingly taught by Dr. Joyce (I think) – he used a computer program which was somewhat like the web – you could link parts of your writing back to other parts or to things others had written. And the class used a program that seems a lot like FB – students commented back and forth during the class – so you could have 2-3 discussions at a time. And he was quite liberal with his version of expository writing. I remember coming up with a college catalog version of the requirements and courses in a fictional Homicide major. It was lots of fun to write.

But it really seemed like an impossible task to first get into English classes, then to achieve anything greater than a B if you weren’t an English major. Really one of my few frustrations at Vassar. But then, I was there for biopsychology and not writing.
January 12, 2010 at 10:18am

National Poetry Month in the Year of the Horse

crocus-yam-2014It’s national poetry month again. My website was briefly down because Gmail did such an amazing job of sorting my email for me, I never got the notices reminding me to renew the domain registration for Gardenofwords.com. That was a killer way to start off national poetry month.

I noticed the outage when I was pitching a website redesign to a poet whom I greatly admire. I’m fortunate to be able to pick and choose my clients in a way I wasn’t always able to in the past. As a result, my very short client roster is full of interesting, creative women. This latest client would probably point out that I am an interesting, creative woman myself, to which I respond “pshaw.” It’s nice to have friends who say complimentary things about you. In the Po-Biz, that’s how you get blurbs for the back of your book.

April has been surprisingly un-cruel in the past couple of days, especially given March, February, January, and December, all of whom I want to roll up into a big ball, flatten with a giant rolling pin, dry in the sun, and then fold into lots of sharp corners and stick up the posterior of  this past winter. It’s very easy to forget that things are exponentially better for me today than they were this time last month, and the month before. Just the other morning I forgot about it while packing my lunch. M. and I got into a lively discussion* about his tactical decision to forgo buying lettuce on Monday night rather than buying me non-organic lettuce which I might not eat. It wasn’t about lettuce, of course. It was about my own severe anxiety at having less than $10 in my checking account the day before I got paid. And the very uncomfortable dynamic that develops when two people fall in love and move in together, and then one of them takes a hefty pay cut.

On the plus side, we worked it out, as we always do. I’m continually amazed at M’s ability to handle situations that have baffled me for most of my life. Emotional intelligence comes in all kinds of packages — some of them former infantrymen. Also on the plus side, I’m steadily plugging back up the hill toward a full-time work schedule. Also also on the plus side, I took a walk yesterday afternoon and TOOK OFF MY COAT. And didn’t put it back on once. Which just goes to show you anything is possible.

Spring is late this year, but it’s here. The hills are still grey and brown with bare trees, but the moss has turned bright green and the grass won’t be far behind. Snowdrops have been out for weeks now, lingering in the cool spring air. Crocuses are here, and may even be gone in another week. The daffodils in my back garden have been poking their little green heads up. Ralph chases the squirrels until well past 6:00 pm.

Poetry-wise, I’m doing less and more than I’ve done in years past. Whereas in past years I’ve adhered to a strict regimen of a poem-a-day, I find myself moving more fluidly now. I’m making inroads into new techniques for revision, attempts to cut away the dross and find surprising turns of phrase. A sort of Orb-style remix, but with random poems instead of sound clips.

The bout of illness and the 40th anniversary of my birth made me stop and think about what I’m doing with my life, and if it’s what I want to be doing, and what I can do about all that. When I’m very ill, I will often decide that This One Big Change is what will fix all of my problems. Past experience has taught me that it usually just creates more instability and makes it harder to get back to a baseline. A cursory search of the Intartubes (“year of the horse” plus “horoscope” plus “2014” plus “water ox”) gives me highly scientific** evidence that this is not the year for me to make any sudden changes. In the Year of the Horse, things gallop along. You might find yourself miles from where you started, only to discover you’ve gotten on the wrong horse. For a person born in the year of the water ox (1973), it’s not a good year to be moving and changing. But it is a good year to send out hidden feelers under the earth, gathering information through the mycelium that binds us all together.

The seed inside unfurls with the longer days, reaching toward the light. I watch it, worry, pray it won’t be killed in an early frost. April is cruel in a different way every year. I am curious to know its cruelty this year, in the year of the horse. Maybe there will be a kindness to its cruelty, as I slog and toil and trudge into something warmer, something sunny, something else.

 

*which our neighbor could hear through the walls, no doubt

** and by “scientific,” I mean the opposite, of course

The Burden of Bearing Fruit

Two years ago I read a piece in the Sun Magazine by a woman named Brenda Miller called The Burden of Bearing Fruit. It was the sort of article one finds there a great deal: a personal essay, contemplative, sometimes rambling, with a flash of beauty  — a surprise tie-up, an effortless making-sense of daily objects and events. The making-sense of art, which tells the true but tells it slant.

These essays often shame me in their seeming effortlessness in the same way that Martha Stewart shames wives and mothers all across America, or the way Oksana Baiul shames 12-year-old figure skaters. In my saner moments I remember that the authors of these essays (often English professors or professional writers) probably went through multiple drafts, worked and worked on each word and sentence, considered the form and flow of the piece, perhaps the thesis and the theme. In my less sane moments I wonder why my own work doesn’t appear in The Sun’s pages. Never mind that I’m focusing on honing my craft in poetry right now, not personal essays. Or that I have a full-time job writing meeting minutes and functional specifications. Why am I not better at it by now? Where is my Harvest-themed centerpiece? Where is my triple lutz?

But let me, for the sake of this moment, put aside those inner critics. Let me even put aside the notion that I might beat that little hater. And let me return to that phrase which has stayed with me for two years and more: the burden of bearing fruit. Miller describes her own complicated relationship to the cherry tree that graces her property. You’ll have to read the essay to catalog its full meaning, but what stays with me is the notion that as the tree ages it is released from the burden of bearing fruit. Approaching 40, years into an artistic recovery I can barely discuss without weeping, I’m well aware of this burden. The terrible secret of farming and gardening is that bringing in the harvest is just as difficult as the plowing, the sowing, the planting, and the tending. Once the fruit arrives it must be picked, it must be eaten, it must be shared, it must be preserved and set away for the winter.  Some of it always rots.

My tree has blossomed and begun to bear fruit. This evening I read at the Newton Free Library and the day after a brand new workshop begins meeting in my home.  It’s not the first time I’ve read to an audience, not the first time I’ve led a workshop, but the burden of bearing fruit remains. Perhaps this time the harvest will be more sustainable.

Butcher, Baker, Candlestick Maker: Okelle’s Career Path

A gentleman I’ve never met but would like to some day asked on Facebook, “What was your strangest job?”

It wasn’t my strangest job, but my most memorable and also my first real-paycheck job: ushering for the Palace Theater in Stamford, Connecticut. The pay was crap — some people actually just volunteered in exchange for watching the shows — but its rewards have stayed with me through the decades. I saw Ella Fitzgerald (twice), Chuck Berry, Herbie Hancock, Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, George Carlin, and countless plays, operas, ballets, and symphonies. And I didn’t appreciate it a bit. Well — maybe a little bit. God knows I do now.

Continue reading “Butcher, Baker, Candlestick Maker: Okelle’s Career Path”

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