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!

Organizing a Poetry Thesis, Part 2 of 1,000

My thesis adviser gave me back my rough draft yesterday and suggested I start figuring out how to organize it, arrange it by theme, motif, etc. As he pointed out, my poems are violent. More than half of them deal with a literal death and a third of the remaining deal with some sort of violence (emotional, physical, sexual, etc.). I don’t know what that’s about, but I’ve heard once that we all write about sex and death. I guess I’ve got death covered.

There are many ways to organize a draft of poems or of any work. I’m grateful that just last month I laid out all the pieces for the Spring 2012 issue of The Pinch, so I have had some practice in intuiting location, harmonies, pieces that ring or build on/off each other. The important thing about this rough draft, is getting the poems to build off each other in such a way that it drives at something bigger. Lofty goal? Oh yes.

Jeffery Levine has an interesting article on how to organize a manuscript posted here.

Some things I’m taking away from that article:

1. Just because someone published/didn’t publish one of your poems doesn’t mean it’s better/worse than other poems. Just because something got published doesn’t mean it definitively has more worth than anything else. Sometimes our masterpieces take a little while to find a place. Include poems you really like and think are good in your manuscript. Definitely include those in the front. Don’t let your idea of which poem is “good” be influenced by which one’s have been published. Leave out the weak ones entirely.

2. Revise, revise, revise.

3. “Make sure the poems that begin your collection establish the voice and credibility of the manuscript. They should introduce the questions, issues, characters, images, and sources of conflict/tension, etc., that concern you and that will be explored in the book.”–Many of my poems deal with predators/attackers, etc. and prey/victims. My thesis adviser suggested I call it “Predator’s Tongue,” since many of my poems also include speech, tongues, mouths, etc. As I was sitting around last night trying to play with the order, I put one of my poems where a hawk tears out a swallow’s tongue at the beginning of the manuscript, followed by a sex poem where a woman runs off at the end “as if chasing prey.” Those both inform the dichotomy of the real and the sexual with physical violence and for me, make the beginning really evocative.

4. “Once you have created an order that you love, think about dividing the book into separate sections.”–This seems TOTALLY daunting. I have to find an initial order and then divide it AGAIN? He makes a good point though. Choosing to divide a work into sections forces us to not only make the poems interact at a more personal level, but also see how they might be revised to inform the greater trajectory of the work. Oh God. SO MUCH WORK AHEAD OF ME. When I interviewed Beth Ann Fennelly for The Pinch in Fall 2011, she talked about how every time she placed as a finalist for a contest or overall lost, she re-organized the work, constantly playing with a new order until she finally won the Kenyon Review Prize in 2001.

Those of you lucky enough to have already tackled the hefty prospect of organizing a thesis, what tools or tricks have you used? How many times did you submit/have you submitted?  What keeps you going?

Thesis Rough Draft

Today I turn in the rough draft of my thesis. I’d like to say my rough draft has a firm thread through it and that it is shaping up to be a coherent manuscript, but it’s not at the moment. There’s a good thirty poems in there I feel pretty good about: either I already like them or I have an idea of how they could be revised more. The other twenty-five poems are there for kicks/filler. My thesis only needs to have 48 pages of poems, so I have at least seven poems I can kick out completely.

Right now, my title is Oral Lore, which I like for both its use of the word” oral” (since many of my poems include the word “mouth” or something mouth-related) as well as the folk aspect of lore and legends (since many of my poems have mythic characters or premises). We’ll see how this collection develops after a run through my thesis director’s ringer.

Wish me luck!

Changing Poems for a Thesis: “Cleveland, Ohio, 1964”

On Thursday, I had a meeting with my thesis adviser which has had me thinking for days. I noticed that I use “mouth” or one of its synonyms in nearly all of my poems, so I mentioned this to him.

(Some examples:

“…not girls that would become
dreamless mouths, disaffected burdens.”

“When her mate took off for an old mud nest
above the maw of a drainage pipe…”

“François goes walking one evening,
the honeysuckle as sweet as Mrs. Berkley’s tongue,
her mouth as lovely as a daffodil…”

“The trail down past the river birches always muddy,
the ground flecked with sheets of the trees’ skin,
my mother always calling my name at the mouth
of the path as I pedaled and pedaled.”)

He told me about Maura Stanton’s poetry book, Snow on Snow, that won the Yale Series of Younger Poets Prize in 1975. She noticed she had written a lot of poems that included the word “snow,” so she went back in and added snow to her other poems and then titled her book by that. It’s an interesting concept that was successful for her.

He also suggested I stick to the myths: either by creating my own or building off the Greek ones.

One such option is to change the title of the poems and fiddle around with them.

This poem was published in September 2011 under the name “Cleveland, Ohio, 1964.”

The automobile plants
insure the snow
falls like ash,
clumps like thick spiderwebs
in the drainage gulleys,
in the eyes of the manhole covers.

The town is aging;
most of the young women leave
in search of men
without gnarled thumbs,
blackened fingers,
a mild deafness sure
to grow worse.

Each year,
another graduated class:
clean-collared boys
needing jobs
sign up at the plant.
Soon, they all walk
home together in the evenings,
silted to their bones.

My mother and her four sisters,
pale blue eyed, blond haired women,
too fresh to have shocks
of gray at their temples,
look as delicate and lovely
as crocuses emerging from snow.

By changing those final 2 lines to “emerge as delicate and lovely/as crocuses from snow,” it makes it sound more like a creation myth. From there, choosing a title like “A Creation Myth” makes that jump to something that both fits along with the myth aspect of my thesis as well as includes the industrial language I so enjoy using. The final poem, with just those changes would be the following:

“A Creation Myth”

The automobile plants
insure the snow
falls like ash,
clumps like thick spiderwebs
in the drainage gulleys,
in the eyes of the manhole covers.

The town is aging;
most of the young women leave
in search of men
without gnarled thumbs,
blackened fingers,
a mild deafness sure
to grow worse.

Each year,
another graduated class:
clean-collared boys
needing jobs
sign up at the plant.
Soon, they all walk
home together in the evenings,
silted to their bones.

My mother and her four sisters,
pale blue eyed, blond haired women,
too fresh to have shocks
of gray at their temples,
emerge as delicate and lovely
as crocuses from snow.

There’s a pretty big change that happens when 1.) the title is changed and 2.) those last lines. There is definitely more that could be done to this poem to make it more of a “creation” myth, to have these women arise from the landscape like Aphrodite from the waves, but I feel like the above is a good start.