April has been a crazy month. I went back to work after two weeks off recovering from my surgery and had to hit the ground running. I had to finish my thesis, turn it in, defend it (I passed! Yay!), and finish reading the books on my Comps reading list (I have comps next weekend). Writing has definitely taken the back burner to the things I needed to do to teach and graduate, but I’m grateful that there is an end in sight.
The Defense (or what some audience members have called, My Thesis Offense)
I really had no idea what to expect going in. I had never attended anyone else’s, but I knew I was going to be asked questions, and that since I’d sat with my manuscript for a good six months or so, I’d probably be more than capable of answering them.
The thing I wanted the most out of my defense was a clear idea of how close Predator’s Tongue is to being a book. At AWP, there are always several panels on the differences between MFA theses and books: Can graduate faculty members really help a thesis become a book, or are they too different? Some people go on to publish a finer, more edited version of their own thesis, like Michael Chabon and Sandy Tseng. Some scrap their thesis totally and begin anew, like James Allen Hall, who wrote Now You’re the Enemy after he graduated from his program. I know that the more I’ve worked with this manuscript, the more I’ve really found my own stride and some of the older poems just get shoved out or are re-worked entirely. It has been a continual process.
The defense, for me, really turned out to be a good conversation about why I chose to do things the way I did them: why break it up into the sections I chose? Why did I choose the predator/prey theme to tie it together? what am I saying about gender? what went into how I chose the ordering? why the title? what are the advantages/disadvantages of not writing “confessional” poetry?
Looking back, there are some places where I wished I had formulated my ideas a bit more. For example, I’m still unsure about the title. Predator’s Tongue was a suggestion by my thesis adviser. Originally, I was attached to Oral Lore as a title. As I’ve been working on this manuscript, I began to notice how much I use the word “mouth” or its many synonyms (speech or lack of speech, tongues, “maw,” “jaw,” etc.), so I wanted something that pointed at that. I also wanted something that pointed at a larger motif in the work. Oral Lore points at the fact that many of the poems are myths or mythic, stories of re-making and transformation. While I’m still attached to Oral Lore, I was aware that I should probably choose a different title. Not only is it hard to say (says my husband), but it doesn’t really clearly unify the work like pointing at a major theme would. So, my adviser suggested the title I have now. When asked why I chose the title, I didn’t have a clear answer since I haven’t completely bought it yet. I know it works better than Oral Lore, but there’s something about it that I haven’t completely bought yet. I wondered if it’s because it doesn’t have an article in front of it. I want it to be A Predator’s Tongue or The Predator’s Tongue, but it does sound better without one. Tongue of a Predator also doesn’t sound all that great…I wish I could have owned the title more, but regardless of whether I keep its current title, it did give me a clear unifying structure. The entire book is framed around the predator/prey motif.
All in all, I did get some good pointers on how to move from thesis to book. I need to move some poems from a later section to an earlier section, and I need to look at re-ordering the second section a bit. I also got some good suggestions on inspiration for future poems I could stick in the work to keep pointing at that major theme. The literature faculty member on my thesis committee also gave me great insight from her point of view. She looked at my work in terms of gender, in terms of arc, and her comments were particularly helpful in seeing how a non-creative writer might see and approach my book.
When thinking of the “Get an MFA or not?” argument, I still strongly say, “Get an MFA!” Having a conversation like this about my book really was important. I got to think and explore more about why I did things the way I did. It’s no longer some “magic process” conceived in a windowless, four-walled room; it’s a thoughtful, methodical one, one that has to be tested and re-shaped and re-welded to really stand strong. I got the opportunity to wade through some insecurities, hear some helpful feedback, and engage with members of academia who’ve worked through manuscripts and been published several times before me. This is exactly what I needed to finish shaping this book. I hope that once I graduate (in August!) that I’ll be able to build this sort of supportive community outside of this program, so I can have this same sort of conversation after I draft my next book.
Today, I feel much more confident going forward, and I think once I run my draft through the ringer once again, I’ll be submitting it to the Crab Orchard Review First Book Award open May 15th.
Here’s to endings (and new beginnings)!