Comps

I can now officially look around and exhale a sigh of relief. All of my major MFA duties are completed. All I need to do is wait to hear whether I passed and then run around campus getting all of those signatures (graduation isn’t real until you’ve done a lot of paperwork).

Comps was particularly painful. For other people, it might be easy, but for me, it wasn’t. Our program gives you seventy-two hours to answer four out of six essay questions, in about six pages each. So, over a weekend (usually), you have about three full days to write about twenty-four pages of coherent argument.

I agonize over papers. I go back over them again and again and again. On Friday, the first day of my comps, I just sat in front of my computer writing, writing, writing until a merciful fog settled over my brain, and I could do nothing but sit next to my husband and watch reality TV. That was not the way to go about it. I should have  sat down and figured out the examples from my reading list I wanted to use for each essay question and type those up and get a clear sense of an outline. Instead, I thought that if I just write enough, I’ll figure out what I’m arguing and then be able to go back and hack things down.

In that fog, thoughts started running through my head like, “I don’t need that piece of paper! I can just give up right now! Then I wouldn’t have to write anymore! I already have my book. I won’t be able to get a job with an MFA anyway, so who cares?? I WOULDN’T HAVE TO WRITE ANYMORE! I COULD GIVE UP NOW!”

Thankfully, I put myself to bed and woke up much more clear-headed. On Saturday, three essays came together easily. All of the writing I had done had helped, and I had a clear vision for how to approach each one. Before signing off to watch Gray’s Anatomy episodes, I typed up the examples I wanted to use in my fourth essay. Sunday, I finished the fourth essay by 2pm. I came home from a meeting and spruced up the other three (did MLA citation, added some to ones that were a little shy of the six page limit), and sent them off.

On Sunday, I actually started to enjoy the writing. My Comps questions required me to specifically engage with my own work while also referencing the work on my MFA Reading List.

One of my questions was, “Myth plays a large role in your poetry. And yet many writers today avoid it for reasons such as the feelings that it seems unauthentic, unmodern, dishonest, remote emotionally, and/or artificial. Poetry since the time of the Romantics, and especially since the advent of Confessionalism, seems to be moving in the direction of placing a high priority on the poet’s own life more than traditional things like myths. How does a poet go about making myth her own? How can it become authentic and honest and close to poet emotionally? Use examples from your list as well as from your own poetry to answer this and to provide specific support for your answers.”

This question, like the others I answered at my Thesis Defense, really required me to explore the why behind my writing. Why do I do things a certain way? What emotions do those things create? Do other poets do similar things? I ended up using Brigit Pegeen Kelly’s poem, “Rome,” and Sandra Beasley’s “Another Failed Poem about the Greeks” to back up my reasoning for taking myths out of their historical contexts in order to create emotional rifts that point at modern concerns.

Comps really grounded my choices. I had to apply an academic lens to my own writing, so writing is not something isolated and mystical, but something that can have theory and weight behind it. For me, having this blog really helped me in preparing for this exam. I was already used to talking about my writing and some of the whys behind it, that it wasn’t such an extension to apply that to this exam. There is also this quote by W.H. Auden: “It is a sad fact about our culture that a poet can earn much more money writing or talking about his art than he can by practicing it.” Having to read not only critical work written by poets about poetry, but also lots of poetry by lots of different people, really got me thinking about the art of writing and the art of writing about writing.

Now, I get to wait to hear the official verdict and start packing for Spain. Yup, I’m doing a creative writing study abroad program in Alicante, which I leave on May 31st for and return on June 26th. All in all, it’s been a great semester and looking to be a great summer too.

What are your summer plans? How is your writing ritual holding up?

Thesis Defense: Another reason why you should get an MFA

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)!

Thesis: The Order (Maybe? Hopefully? Please?)

In my post-AWP fatigue, I was still able to make huge strides on the final draft of Predator’s Tongue I’ll be turning into my thesis committee. While at AWP, I finally figured out the themes I needed for the section breaks:

Animal

-Focus on poems that have animals in them or deal with animalistic brutality.

Daughter

-Focus on poems that point at daughter/parent relationships

Woman

-Focus on poems that deal with adult women/adult relationships (a lot of these poems also point back at the animal or daughter themes, which helps the building of the arc)

I really like the idea of the evolution of the sections, going from animal to child (daughter) to adult woman. I also think these sections help me really focus on how to make the poems resound off one another in smaller groups. I’m also spending a lot of time thinking about each section as a new “book” that compliments a “book” after it. What would be the best ending poems? The best beginning poems for each section? I’m also realizing I could incorporate the animal poems into the daughter or women sections, which I may decide to do later.

I am having to cut and re-work several poems, which is, in some cases, easy, while in others, really difficult. I am also adding the myth poems that I’ve been writing currently, since they work well in this framework, and I could always pull them out to put in a different manuscript altogether.

I’ll keep working at this, but I feel really positive that I figured out these section breaks and have some clear idea on how to edit things from here. Hurrah!

Predator’s Tongue Re-order, Take Five

Today, in between working on my application for Bread Loaf and editing “Daphne as a Housewife”, I again tried to re-order my manuscript, Predator’s Tongue. This manuscript woefully has both mythic/farm type poems, as well as really realistic poems. My thesis adviser suggested that I alternate, maybe 3 or 4 mythic/farm poems and then 1 or 2 realistic poems, or divide the manuscript into sections.

For some reason, I’m not  a fan of sections. He suggested just having a page separating two poems with a quote on it or something, not even roman numerals, so they’re not clear sections, but pauses. I don’t even know if I like that.

The problem with this manuscript at the moment is that, when I really look at it, I have a lot more realistic poems than mythic/farm poems, or too many of the poems could be transitional–they’re not quite one or the other. Most of my poems could also be considered real downers: people die, get injured, feel disconnected, alienated, etc. Then, I have these two happy poems. Something definitely needs to be done with those (either to make them darker or to cut them).

Right now, I’ve cut two poems. One just wasn’t working in terms of style. One was set in Cleveland, Ohio, and there’s not many “city” poems, so it sticks out too much. I want to add the four mythic poems I’ve been writing, but I also don’t want to do that, since I’d like to include those in a whole other manuscript. I also don’t know how adding those will help, other than in maybe balancing the mythic/realistic poem ratio. I’m also discovering that my poems fall into relationship categories: lust, love/marriage, family, mother/daughter, father/daughter. While organizing by relationships might be another possibility, some categories just don’t have enough in them. There’s maybe three lust poems, a good chunk of love/marriage poems, and maybe 5 or 6 in the mother/father and daughter categories.

I have cleared up some places in the manuscript. The first 28 pages seem really solid to me right now. I moved some poems to a place much earlier in the manuscript, and they’re resonating off/informing each other in a way I really like. I also have the ending. Well, really the last two poems. This may entirely change, but I’m glad to have some sense of a framework, an idea of “this is where I started, and this is where I’m going.”

I pushed through to the end and have another draft of the order. Some places I think are really strong, while others need some fine-tuning, more shifting, etc. For the moment, I don’t have the new poems I’ve written included. I’m going to try to  re-order what I currently have and only add those poems as a last ditch effort. If anything, I’m so glad I sat down and went through these again. The order is definitely a problem, but less of one now. I do have more fine-tuning to do, but it’ll work out. I have a little hope now.

Working more on Predator’s Tongue

Last week, I was the most ill I’ve been in my entire life. I have since learned that I have a benign tumor that needs to be removed and that my gall bladder isn’t processing as it should, so I need to have surgery and change my diet. Thankfully, the rest of me is beginning to feel normal, so my writing and all that entails can resume.

I got my thesis draft(Predator’s Tongue) back from my adviser yesterday, and I need to do more organizing and tweaking. Overall, I’m pretty annoyed with the idea of revising it again. The last couple of days I’ve been doing more research into several of the lesser known Ancient Greek myths, and I’m discovering this slew of myths where the Gods took pity on some woman and turned her into a tree (Please God(s), do not take pity on me and turn me into a tree. Teleport me to some gorgeous island first.), and I’m more interested in writing poems about those scenarios instead of trying to reform this mish-mash of farm/myth/realistic poems. I really just want to cut out all of the realistic poems and work on combining the myth poems I’m writing now with the more mythic poems from this  manuscript. My adviser suggested that I just do a little tweaking to make the more realistic poems a little more mythic/fairy-tale-ish, but I’m not all that interested at the moment.

I guess I’m coming to impasse when it comes to this project. My original intention was to have a really polished manuscript by the time I graduated that I could immediately start sending out. Right now, I think it needs some more work and some more time. It may even need some more forming as I think several of the poems need to be replaced, so the overall manuscript has much stronger veins. We’ll see how the process goes. I may just be despondent because I’ve been ill, this is my last semester, and all that needs to be done between now and April seems a bit overwhelming. I have another meeting with my adviser tomorrow, and we’ll see how I optimistic I feel after that.

In other news, the set of poems I worked on for non-simultaneous submissions that I talked about here has already come back to me from Beloit Poetry Journal with a kind rejection. Not only are they amazingly efficient, BPJ also gives little personal notes about each submission, which is always nice. I was a little disheartened to get their rejection (mostly because I also got three other ones in the same day), but I did what I set out to do, I immediately turned around and sent the work off to North American Review. Right now, I’m doing a lot of waiting as my fiction is tied up in top-tier journals, and a lot of my poetry is tied up at a lot of different places at the moment. We’ll see what turns up!

MFA Reading List

I don’t know how many of my readership has completed an MFA, but compiling this lofty reading list has been the only thing I’ve disliked heartily about the wonderful nearly three years I’ve spent in this program.

For those of you not familiar with this practice, most MFA programs require students to complete a thesis (either a book-length collection of poems, novel, or a short story or essay collection), plus draft up a reading list (with the help of an adviser), and answer 4-5 essay questions applying those bodies of work (both critical and creative) to assessing and interacting with your own work. This reading list must be composed of both critical and creative work, both as an survey of the history of your genre, and your own literary precursors and contemporaries. It can be composed of whole books or just an essay or poem. My thesis is composed of mythical premises and characters, sometimes in the pastoral tradition, plus lots of animals and lots of violence, so my reading list focuses a lot on poets who have employed myths, the pastoral tradition, and animals and violence.

The following will probably go through a couple more rounds before being finalized, but here it is in its raw form.

Reading List:

Coleridge “Biographia Literaria”
Aristotle-Poetics
Sidney, “An Apologie for Poetrie”
Shelley, “A Defense of Poetry”
Frost-On Writing and “The Figure a Poem Makes”
Poe, “The Poetic Principle” and “The Philosophy of Composition”
Whitman, “1855 Preface to Leaves of Grass”
Arnold, “The Study of Poetry”
TS Eliot- “Hamlet and his Problems” and “Tradition and the Individual Talent”
Pound, “A Retrospect”
Keats- essay on negative capability
Paul Alpers- What is Pastoral?
Stein, “Narration: Lecture 2”
Stevens, “The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words”
Ralph Waldo Emerson- “The Poet”
Harvey Gross & Robert MacDowell-Sound and form in Modern Poetry
Richard Hugo-The Triggering Town
Adrienne Rich- Blood, Bread and Poetry
Robert Hass, “Listening and Making”
Olson, “Projective Verse”
Wordsworth, “Preface to the Lyrical Ballads”
Pope- Essay on criticism
Virgil-Aeneid
Dante-Divine Comedy
Lucretius- The Nature of Things
Chaucer-“Troilus and Criseyde”
Homer-Iliad
Ovid-Metamorphoses
“Lord Randall”
Donne-“Good Friday,” “Holy sonnets”
Ben Jonson- “On my First Son,” “Epitaph to Elizabeth,” “L.D,” “Upon Julia’s Clothes”
Lovelace-“To Athena, from prison”
Marvel- “To His Coy Mistress;” “The Garden”
Milton-“Lycidas”
Thomas Gray “Elegy on a Country Churchyard”
Shakespeare-selected sonnets
Blake- Songs of Innocence and Experience
Pope-“Rape of the Lock”
Samuel Jonson- “vanity of human wishes”
Swift-“A description of a city shower,” “verses on the death of doctor swift”
Wordsworth-“An evening walk,” “resolution and independence,” “the world is too much with us”
Shelley-“Hymn to intelluctual beauty,” “Ozymandias,” “Ode to the west wind”
Coleridge-“Kubla Khan,” “The Lime-Tree Bower My Prison,” and “Christabel”
Keats-“Ode on Melancholy” and “Ode to a Nightingale”
Bradstreet-“Contemplations,” “before the birth of one of her children”
Dickinson-some selections
Emerson-“Concord hymn”
Poe-“sonnet–to science” and “The Raven”
Edward Taylor-“Upon a spider catching a fly”
Arnold-“Dover Beach”
Browning- “My last duchess,” “Porphyria’s lover”
Hardy-“I look into my glass”
Rossetti- “Goblin Market”
Tennyson-“Lotos-eaters” “Ulysses
Yeats- “Leda and the Swan”
T.S. Eliot
James Russell Lowell – “The Sirens”
Pound- “letter to a river merchant’s wife”
Cummings-“the cambridge ladies who live in furnished souls,” “in just-“
Wallace Stevens
W C Williams
Russell Edson
Lawrence Ferlinghetti
Christopher Marlowe
Edmund Spenser- “The Faerie Queene” and “Epithimalion”
Milton- Paradise Lost
Maxine Kumin-“Woodchucks”
Daniel Waters- “The Hawk”
Philip Sidney- Arcadia
Alan Dugan- Poems: Seven, “Plague of Dead Sharks”
A.E. Stallings- Archaic Smile and Hapax
Norman Dubie- “February: The Boy Breughel”
Robert Frost
James Dickey- The Whole Motion: “The Shark’s Parlor,” “The Sheep Child”
Ted Hughes- Tales from Ovid, “Pike”
John Clare- “The Badger”
John Ashberry
Galway Kinnel- Book of Nightmares and “The Bear”
Brigit Pegeen Kelly – O Blessed Dark and “Rome”
Who are your literary precursors and contemporaries?

Thesis hours

Spring 2012 will be my final semester at my MFA program. I’ve been debating with myself for two weeks now whether I should take advantage of the fact that I can just take thesis hours for my final semester OR choose to take thesis hours plus two classes.

So, here are my pro and con lists:

PROS & CONS OF TAKING THESIS HOURS PLUS 2 CLASSES

Pros:

-Deadlines. I’d be required to turn in 11 poems, plus two short stories. I could also turn in revisions of the poems for my thesis, so I could get more feedback on my overall thesis.

-Criticisms. I’d get comments on all work turned in.

-I’d be able to take a fiction workshop from the Richard Bausch.

Cons:

-Less time. The final draft of my thesis is due in March. Taking two classes, plus TEACHING two classes, would leave me little time to give that the attention it needs. I also wouldn’t have much time to read to prepare for my comps.

-More stress. Less time means I’d be more stressed to get things done.

-Reading and critiquing other people’s work. While I enjoy doing it, it takes up a lot of time outside of class.

PROS & CONS OF JUST TAKING THESIS HOURS

Pros:

More time. I could work on my thesis more, plus plan my lessons, grade, have time to go to the gym, wrote on my own time, etc.

-Less stress because of above.

Cons:

-No deadlines. There’s nothing like deadlines to inspire me, which means I’d be all on my own, and I have some worries about not producing without this “deadline” hanging over my head. I’ve done pretty good over break, but it’s still a concern.

-No critiques. I’d actually need to start getting together with my outside workshop group more or finding folks online to help me out.

 

Seeing this on the screen helps. It’s obvious that I should seriously consider just taking thesis hours this semester. I wasn’t able to dedicate a lot of time last semester to my thesis and extra time next semester could really be put to some good use toward that. My other concerns, like not producing, are going to be my concerns after I graduate anyway. Maybe now is the time to try being consistently independent with that.

 

Thoughts? For those of you who did an MFA, did you have the option of just taking thesis hours? Did you take advantage of it? Why or why not?