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.

Boston-Area Readings for February and March 2019

Image of candle lanterns with the caption "Poetry like a candle in the darkness" Photo credit: Jill111 via Pixabay. https://pixabay.com/en/lights-christmas-luminaries-night-1088141/

February 1, also known as Candlemas, marks the halfway point between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox. Attend a reading to light your way from winter to National Poetry Month in April. Thanks as always to Daniel Bouchard for compiling these listings.

Of special note: Regie Gibson Feb. 13 at the newly opened Bedlam Books in Worcester; Morgan Parker (one of my poetry crushes) Feb. 12 at Brookline Booksmith; Martha Collins Feb. 27 at Suffolk University; Gloria Mindock Feb. 28 at Rozzi Reads; Layli Long Soldier March 5 at Smith College.

Friday, February 1, 7 pm
Linda Lamenza and Francis Lunney, Open Mic
Workshop for Publishing Poets
West Suburban YMCA
276 Church Street
Newton, MA

Friday, February 1, 7:30 pm
Kevin McLellan
Unearthed Song & Poetry
Home.stead Bakery and Cafe
1448 Dorchester Ave.
Fields Corner
Dorchester, MA

Sunday, February 3, 1 -3:30 pm
Lisa Sullivan and Iain Haley Pollack
Poetry: The Art Of Words
Plymouth Public Library/Otto Fehlow Room
132 South St
Plymouth, MA

February 3, 2 – 4 pm
Zvi A. Sesling
followed by open mic
Temple Sinai
50 Sewall Ave.
Brookline, MA

Continue reading “Boston-Area Readings for February and March 2019”

Blast From the Past: April 2011

So back when this was more of a personal blog than a poetry-related one, this is a thing I wrote. Sometimes I like to go back and read my own journals. Is that so wrong?

What I Learned During National Poetry Month 2011

  1. Haiku improves with practice.
  2. Poetry is real work.
  3. Sometimes work is gentle, easy, and takes hardly any time.
  4. Sometimes work is hard and grueling and difficult.
  5. Sometimes I forget to do things I said I was going to do
  6. Instead of hating on myself or giving up, I can just start doing them again.[read more]

Dispatches from an MFA: Semester One, Third Packet

Here’s the cover letter to the third packet I sent to my teacher Sharon Bryan during the first semester of my Lesley MFA.

Dear Sharon:

It was such a pleasure to meet up with you in person last week. Written correspondence is a thing to treasure but there is no substitute for a face-to-face meeting. And it’s always great to have an excuse to sit and chat at the Algiers.

As I said to you via email, I really enjoyed Heather McHugh’s playful approach to language – especially the way that she plays with the multiple meanings and connotations of a single word. Picking her up reminded me that working for an MFA is something I undertook for the pleasure of the task rather than the obligation of the schoolwork. Here’s one example of her wordplay that I didn’t include in my craft annotation: Continue reading “Dispatches from an MFA: Semester One, Third Packet”

Boston Area Poetry Readings for February and March 2018

Enjoy the thaw while it lasts and go see some poetry before the snow comes back. Thanks as always to Daniel Bouchard for these listings.

All readings are in Massachusetts unless otherwise noted.

New this week:

Anne Waldman in Cambridge (2/15)

Paula Bonnell, Tom Lyons, and Michael Todd Steffen in Somerville (2/20)

Elizabeth S. Wolf in Amesbury (2/27)

Philip Nikolayev and John Hennessey in Cambridge (3/3)

Jonathan Aibel, Ben Berman, and Wendy Drexler in Jamaica Plain (3/9)

Martha Collins and Joan Houlihan in Newton (4/3)

James Whitley and Maria Termini in Roslindale (4/24)

Barbara Siegel Carlson in Roslindale (4/26)

Matvei Yankelevich, Lisa Fishman, and Laynie Browne in Cambridge (5/5)

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

Boston Area Poetry Readings for Late February and All of March 2017

It’s easy to get cereal-aisle paralysis in Boston, especially in the spring, when the already robust list of events swells. I’ll let you in on a little secret: I rarely get to more than one or two events in any given month. But the longer days and unseasonably warm weather gave me the energy to go to not one but two poetry events in the past week. I feel refreshed and revitalized. Leave off your mind of winter and brave the mud this month. I guarantee you’ll be glad you did.

Thanks to Daniel Bouchard for the bulk of the listings and to Sandee Story of the Jamaica Pond Poets for the extra listings in Suffolk County. All events are in Massachusetts unless otherwise noted.

Monday, February 27, 8 pm
Martha Rhodes and Josh Bell
Blacksmith House
56 Brattle Street

Tuesday, February 28, 6 pm
Kirun Kapur, Open Mic
Amesbury Public Library Poetry Series
149 Main St.
Amesbury, MA

Tuesday, February 28, 7 pm
Oswald Egger and Laura Mullen
McCormack Family Theater
70 Brown St.
Providence, RI

Wednesday, March 1, 5 pm
Arthur Sze
Morris Gray Poetry Reading
Forum Room, Lamont Library
Harvard University

Continue reading “Boston Area Poetry Readings for Late February and All of March 2017”

Boston Area Poetry Readings for December 2016 and January 2017

Without further ado I present the latest missive from poet Daniel Bouchard: a listing of most of the poetry happenings in Boston and environs. All towns are in Massachusetts except where noted. Give the gift that keeps on giving, and help a starving poet or two and buy their book. They make great holiday presents and the Muse will love you.

Wednesday, December 7, 6:30 pm
Adam Scheffler and Clint Smith
Cambridge Public Library
449 Broadway
Free parking available in garage accessed from Broadway

Continue reading “Boston Area Poetry Readings for December 2016 and January 2017”

Dispatches from an MFA: Nonlinear Time

As so many writers do, I’ve been letting the perfect get in the way of the good when it comes to these dispatches. I thought it would be a simple matter to re-purpose some of the prose that I sent along with my monthly packets, but the work involved in creating the packets (along with all of my less writerly responsibilities) makes even that relatively easy task more difficult than anticipated. I’m sure I’ll share that work at a later point. But for right now, let me discuss a thorny problem I’ve been having when it comes to my own poems — a craft element, as one would call it in the creative-writing MFA world.

The great problem I’m working on this month is the use of nonlinear time in a single poem — how to transition from one scene to another and to another or back to the first while making the poem feel all of a piece. There’s a lot of talk about keeping the reader in the “moment” of the poem, so this feels like an advanced technique to me, and one that I really want to master.

I did a lot of hunting for poems that use this particular technique and finally had to resort to crowdsourcing (thank God/dess for one particular Facebook community of women poets) to find relevant poems. So far, most of my work this packet has been of the thinking, reading, and researching variety, so it’s a relief to have at least half of one craft annotation finished. I’m trying not to think about the relatively short time remaining before the entire thing is due. As Anne Lamott would say, you do it bird by bird.

Here’s a listing of the poems I’ve found so far, with links where appropriate and bibliographical references where not:

So far, the key seems to be anchoring the work in one particular image or phrase, especially by beginning and ending with it. While I’ve been aware of Robert Pinksy’s work since I moved to Boston 16 years ago, it wasn’t until I read “Shirt” that I became aware of the depth of his own craft. This poem in particular swings back and forth from the moment of putting on a shirt to all the implications of the object itself — stitched together most appropriate with the poetic technique of cataloging and the metric iambs he uses in his lists.

Do you know of a particular poem that also deals with nonlinear time?

Two clock faces photo credit Ron Kroetz via Flickr, Creative Commons 2.0

Dispatches From an MFA Program: The First Packet

Creating my very first packet for the Lesley low-residency MFA program was both easier and more difficult than I thought it would be. It’s difficult to get over that voice of self-doubt in the back of my head, the one that says both “your work must be perfect” and “your work will never be perfect.” In one of her seminars, Erin Belieu observed that the voice of self-doubt is just as much ego as the voice of complacency and overconfidence. And it’s impossible to get into the flow state so necessary for writing when the ego is up.

Listening to the program’s professors reflect on their own practices as writers was a tremendous help to me. In a getting-to-know-you session with our mentors, I asked “what was the most difficult poem you wrote?” Their thoughtful answers led to some wonderfully deep discussions about the very reasons for writing. My mentor Sharon Bryan made a comment about a poem’s emotional truth that resonated with me. Even though poetry is a powerful tool that uses words in semi-rational ways to appeal to that emotional mind, it’s not something I’d ever heard talked about in previous workshops.

I came to Lesley with a certain amount of emotional baggage.  Continue reading “Dispatches From an MFA Program: The First Packet”

Poetry Reading: Small Animal Project this Friday October 2 in Cambridge, MA

Stephanie Ford, Kevin McLellan, Annie Won

Small Animal Project invites you to its first fall reading, featuring Stephanie Ford, Kevin McLellan, and Annie Won.

Outpost 186
186 1/2 Hampshire Street
Cambridge, MA
Friday, October 2
8:00 pm (doors open at 7:45)

About the readers 

STEPHANIE FORD is the author of All Pilgrim, forthcoming from Four Way Books in 2015. Her poems have appeared in Boston Review, Fence, Tin House, Harvard Review, Gulf Coast, and many other journals. Originally from Boulder, Colorado, she now lives in Los Angeles.

KEVIN MCLELLAN is the author of Tributary (Barrow Street) and the chapbook Round Trip (Seven Kitchens), a collaborative series of poems with numerous women poets. The chapbook Shoes on a Wire (Split Oak Press) and the book arts project [box] (Small Po[r]rtions) are both forthcoming. THRUSH Poetry Journal and The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts nominated his writing for the Pushcart Prize. Kevin has taught poetry workshops at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education and at the University of Rhode Island.

ANNIE WON is a poet, yoga teacher, and medicinal chemist. She is a Kundiman Fellow and a Juniper Writing Institute scholarship recipient. Her chapbook with Brenda Iijima,Once Upon a Building Block, was recently published with Horse Less Press (2014) and individual chapbook, so i can sleep, is forthcoming from Nous-Zot Press (2015). Her work has appeared in or is soon to appear in the following venues: New Delta Review, Entropy, Delirious Hem, TheThePoetry, TENDE RLION, Similar:Peaks::, and others. Her critical reviews can be seen at American Microreviews and Interviews.


Outpost 186 is located on Hampshire Street, between Prospect & Amory streets. There’s metered parking on both Hampshire & Cambridge streets, as well as permit parking on the side streets nearby.

The closest T stop is Central Square on the red line. Exit station & walk up Prospect 0.5 miles to Hampshire Street (intersection with 7-Eleven & Hess). Take a left onto Hampshire. Take first left onto path just behind 7-Eleven & walk to the brown shingled house behind another (bigger) brown shingled house.

The 83 and 91 buses run from Central Square & stop at the intersection of Prospect & Hampshire.

The 69 bus runs between Lechmere & Harvard Square, with a stop at the intersection of Cambridge & Hampshire, just in front of 1369 coffee shop.


Jessica Bozek at smallanimalproject@gmail.com
See also http://smallanimalproject.tumblr.com/readings


Editor’s Note: This notice is re-posted from the Small Animal Project email newsletter. To subscribe, email Jessica Bozek at smallanimalproject@gmail.com.