But! Check out this video about the great aspects of the University of Memphis’s MFA program!
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?
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)!
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.
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
-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.
-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
–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.
-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?
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.
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?
It may only be the second week in November, but this semester is nearly over. The Spring 2012 issue of The Pinch is officially full and we send our files off to the printer a week from tomorrow. I’ve got a big chunk of my thesis together and more I know will be going into it soon. I’m also on the third round of edits for the cover letter and project proposal I’m writing for the fellowship I’m applying to.
Overall, things are falling together.
I’ve been hearing more and more about “life after the MFA.” As in, what the heck do you do? James Allen Hall, who I had the pleasure of having breakfast with when he was in Memphis for The Pinch’s Fall 2011 release party, told me it normally takes some people 10 years to publish a book after they graduate and it may or may not be anything close to what they wrote for their thesis. It took him 8 years and everything in his book (Now You’re the Enemy) was new (as in, new after his MFA thesis). Mary Molinary, a graduate from the University of Memphis MFA program, took 9 years. Her manuscript won the 2010 Tupelo Press/Crazyhorse award and is now forthcoming in Spring 2012.
Many recent graduates I know are teaching at the college level. Others are teaching at the K-12 level. Some are getting new degrees in new fields. One amazingly lucky person has already had her book accepted for publication.
Many people have told me that after they graduated, they just stopped writing for a year. All that productivity and trucking along for so long and then a dead stop once they graduated.
Right now, I’m applying for a writing/teaching/editing fellowship. These kinds of things are highly competitive, and I’ve already put a great deal of work into my application.
The thing I’m trying to keep in mind at the moment is that 10 years may seem like a long time, but it’s about dedication. This business is not easy. Publications, jobs, acceptances, etc. are not easy to come by. It’s all about the work, about the writing, about the editing, about the sending out, and you have to really love writing to put up with all that work.
Ten years, in a way, is pretty comforting. I don’t have to exit my MFA program and immediately get published and successful and be a star at AWP. I can get the chance to settle out, see what I really want to do, and just keep chipping away at what I really want.
Keep the love alive, folks.