Category Archives: creative writing

No Place Like Home

oxfordIn the month (!) since writing here last, a lot has happened.  I graduated (at last!) with my Master’s in Literature from Middlebury College’s Bread Loaf School of English summer program.  It’s a journey that’s been four years in the making.  My experiences at Bread Loaf’s three campuses, in Vermont, in Santa Fe, and in Oxford, England, have been life changing.

It was during my first summer that I met and worked with Tracy K. Smith, who encouraged and helped me to apply for an MFA in poetry.  Bread Loaf was the first place I read my poems aloud to a group of peers.  It was the first place I was able to feel a community of likeminded educators who bonded together in love of pedagogy and poetry.  It was where I gained confidence in my ability as a speaker, a scholar, and a writer.  It was where I won my first poetry contest.

A lot of people don’t know that I applied for PhDs twice–and was rejected twice–before I decided to give myself over to the MA and MFA route instead.  Bread Loaf lead me to UNCW, and both lead me to realize that it was actually a good thing I was rejected from my so-called “dream.”  It helped me create a new path for myself–one that’s been less straight forward, but still unforgettable and important.  I’ve met some extraordinary mentors, friends, and colleagues along the way.

I’m, however, exhausted.  I’ve essentially been attending two Master’s programs at once.  I’ve learned a lot this past year about over-extending myself.

This therefore is the year I say no.  No to odd jobs.  No to social engagements that make me stare at the clock.  No to extra responsibilities.  No to extra classes.  No to trying to plan everything ad nauseum.  And yes to my writing.  Yes to reading.  Yes to thesis.  Yes to Ecotone, where I participating as the non-fiction editor and honing my skills in publishing and editing and behind the scenes.  Yes to my mental health.  Yes to whatever comes.

I’ve never been more grateful to be where I am.  I am home.  I have an apartment that is clean and (mostly) quiet.  My cat has mellowed out a ton.  I know who my friends here are.  I know where to buy discount organic groceries and how to find the cheapest, best yoga classes.  I am a stop away from some of the most beautiful waterfronts this country has. I have everything I could possibly need.  And I have a third year free from any distractions other than my thesis and my teaching and my work on the literary magazine.

During orientation, we were asked to share our greatest gift.  I didn’t say it at the time, but having a third year to do my MFA thesis right is the best gift I could imagine right now.  A gift of time.

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Filed under creative writing, literature, positivity

An Update

ccI haven’t written here since March, and for good reason.  My health sort of blew up in early April, right around the time I was heading to the Associated Writers and Publishers Conference in Minneapolis, MN, which also happened to be the time my busy semester was coming to a head.  I’ve struggled in that time with anxiety, insomnia, migraines, nausea, muscle pains, and weird nightmares, to the point where my doctor sent me to a neurologist to rule out a tumor [side bar: not sure it was the smartest practice for her to use the T word with someone struggling with anxiety, but I digress].

After some preliminary tests, so far it seems there’s no real reason to worry–that what I really need to do is better figure out how to relax so that I can sleep better.  It’s amazing how much of our health depends upon sleep–and how hard it actually is for me to relax, despite trying so hard [Second side bar: I recently had the epiphany that it’s perhaps that I’m trying too hard that is in fact what is preventing it from being natural.  What is relaxing about your mind screaming, “RELAX?  Why can’t you just relax?”  Nothing, actually.  Nothing.  I recently had a horrible experience with a massage therapist who actually took that approach.  She seemed frustrated that she wasn’t strong enough to dislodge some of the knots in my back, and therefore kept exasperatedly asking me to “let go,” to which I got angry and anxious and couldn’t help but retort, “I’M TRYING.”].

To that end, I’ve decided, after prompting from my doctor, to abstain from drinking alcohol (for the most part–I cheated on my birthday and at my brother’s graduation), to restart taking my daily vitamins, to restart a twice daily yoga and meditation practice, to create a bedtime ritual devoid of screens, to try to eat more veggies as the basis of my plate, and exercise every day, supplementing the hard pounding of running with lighter activities like biking and swimming or even just long walks.  It’s amazing how tight my muscles are because of nearly fifteen years of running.  I sometimes catch myself with taut muscles even just sitting at my chair, and once I catch myself, I can coax myself into softening.

Part of the issue is that I just had an overly busy semester: four classes, full load of teaching, belligerent male students, a second job tutoring undegrads in Spanish, lots of travel, helping my brother move, a persistently sick cat, freelance deadlines, applying for the non fiction editor position for our literary magazine.  I am just burnt out.

Throughout all this, my lovely boyfriend has been super supportive, more so than anyone I’ve ever met, and I remain ever grateful that he walked into my life last August.  He is so good to me, so kind, thoughtful, and funny.  I love laughing with him and feel so at home in his company.  At his and my mother’s coaxing, I took the six weeks I had in between my spring semester at UNCW and my summer semester at Bread Loaf’s Oxford campus (where I am now) forgoing new opportunities in exchange for relaxation.  I leisurely read some (not as many as I probably should have, but enough of that) of my books for Bread Loaf at the pool, at the beach, in my apartment on some of the more steamy, humid days.  I worked out twice a day, doing lighter activities, deeper stretches.  I did more with less, and it felt wonderful.

I guess though I’m glad I had the busy spring semester I had, if only because I needed that second job to save up for England, and because I have now arranged to give myself the gift of a third and final year of my MFA [Side bar: I have no idea how anyone does their MFA in TWO years], when I only have to concentrate on my teaching, my thesis, and participating in the editorial work for Ecotone (I got the non fiction editor position, to my surprise and delight).  I will be able to continue to do more with less.

I’m also grateful to be back in Oxford for my final summer with Bread Loaf.  It’s so beautiful here.  I studied abroad in 2008 at Oxford, at Worcester College (for those who aren’t aware, Oxford University is comprised of many colleges that function together much like a federal state under the umbrella term “Oxford”).  It’s just as magical as I remember, if much more congested with obnoxiously large and fundamentally slow tourist groups that make getting from point A to point B a painfully drawn out labor of patience.  I am relieved also to have experience with this city.  I’m amazed at how much is flooding back into my memory as I walk the streets and remember short cuts and favorite haunts.  I’m particularly grateful also to have already done many of the touristy things here so that I can use my time outside of class to focus on my reading and writing.  For example, today a group is heading to Blenheim Palace, the grand family home of Winston Churchill, and I’m staying behind to write here and catch up on work (and to save money for excursions that I haven’t actually tried before).  I also happily feel as confident as I’ve ever felt as a student, thanks to all that has brought me here–a good thing given that I have a ten page paper due next week, and two 18-23 page papers due in three weeks.

I had a hard time getting here, though, which undid a lot of the nice relaxation I managed to gift myself with before leaving Wilmington.  I decided to fly out of Raleigh, to save money, and to book a non-direct flight via JFK to Heathrow.  My flight out of RDU ended up being hours delayed due to weather, which whittled my three hour layover down to minutes.  Having never been to JFK’s airport before, I didn’t realize that I would have to switch terminals and that that was the reason for having a three hour layover in the first place.  I nonetheless sprinted, at 11PM, through terminal 7, dragging my impossibly heavy carry-on behind me (I was instructed it was important to bring all the books I needed for the term on my person in case my luggage was lost and because there was not a bookstore in Oxford guaranteed to have the editions I needed for my primary texts).  My legs were shot by the time I reached Terminal 8 huffing and puffing, only to have an airline employee scoff at me and tell me to just go straight to ticketing to be rebooked, because there was no way I was going to make the flight, since I would have to re-go through security after taking a train ride from one terminal to the next.  I also nearly got on the train to the city proper instead of the terminal, because they are right next to each other (of course) with no signage I could see.  I leapt off at the last second, sweating, after bellowing to the passengers, “WHERE IS THIS TRAIN GOING” in a panic.

After being rebooked on the next flight available–which was to be ten hours later at 9 AM–I meekly asked the ticket agent where I was supposed to spend the night.  “We can’t give you a hotel,” I was told, because my flight over to JFK was American, yet my flight to LHR was British Airways/Iberia.  I’d have to go back to Terminal 7, which I could not do because the trains were no longer running and most employees except the cleaning staff had left, and besides the point, the ticketing agent was deeply doubtful I would get a hotel voucher for a weather-related delay on a “code share” flight (a flight where two or more airlines share in the profits and therefore can shirk responsibility as to who is responsible for putting up delayed passengers).

At this point, I simply burst into hot, soft tears, apologizing to the ticketing agent for crying (side bar: WHY DO WE AS WOMEN FEEL THE NEED TO APOLOGIZE FOR OUR FEELINGS), saying, “I’m just so tired. I don’t know what to do or where to go.”

Somewhat pityingly, the man pointed to a plush arm chair in the business class lounge, telling me it was actually quite comfortable, and that I only needed to wait four hours before I could get in line to get checked-in for my new flight.

Still sobbing quietly, I called my mom and boyfriend, both of whom were still up, and both of whom tried to urge me to find a hotel.  My boyfriend was especially adamant that it might not be safe for me to sleep in the lobby of a terminal, not being through security, in NYC, but he backed off when I started to work myself up into a perfect panic not knowing where I would go or even how to get to a hotel.  I was also just exhausted at this point, not having slept well the night before my trip, and having sprinting while carrying a heavy carry-on bag for what felt like 30 minutes, all with a fist of panic around my heart regarding missing my flight.

My boyfriend then lulled me to sleep (after calling the airlines to give them a piece of his mind for not putting me up in a hotel) with sweet reassurances that I was safe, that he wished he were with me, that he had his arms around me.  I managed to doze in the arm chair next to a Spanish family in the same boat, only to be woken up by an unsympathetic cleaning crew member telling me I had to vacate the business class lounge because he needed to vacuum.  Wanting to retort, “you can’t just vacuum around my snot streaked person, jerk face?  It’s 2 AM for god’s sake,” I nonetheless got up and moved to the middle school esque desk like chairs right by the door that was blowing in cold air from outside and decided I might as well write a blog for Ploughshares that was due that weekend since there was no sleep to be had.

I got through the next day in a blur, only to arrive to my hotel in London very late, where I was overjoyed to discover my room had a large tub.  I took the hottest bath I could manage before drifting off to a deadened sleep after having been awake for nearly 24 hours.

I got to Lincoln College, Oxford (where Bread Loaf hosts their summer session over here) and unpacked, delighted to have my own private little room and bathroom overlooking a grove quad.  I was also delighted about England’s lush green hills and cooler summer weather–a relief after North Carolina’s swampy 100 degree humidity.

I then dashed back to travel mode, having gotten through orientation quickly so I could take a three and a half hour train ride up to Liverpool to participate in a conference on Silence and Meaning Making, at which I’d had my project on  silence and women’s poetry accepted.  The travel there was likewise fraught, as it turned out to the hottest day on record in the UK, and I got lost, only to discover my accommodation was 30 minutes outside the city center and not easily accessible to the conference site, so I arrived quite late.  The ordeal stressed me out so much I decided to come back a day early to Oxford, though I’m glad I presented and had the experience of meeting academics from all over the world who are interested in what I am interested in.  I also am submitting my paper for publication in a book on silence that the conference committee is editing.

Since settling back into Oxford, my favorite moments have been the quiet ones I spend on my own, either at writing at my desk listening to the bells, reading in my little armchair, walking in Christ Church Meadow and looking at the cows (yes, cows), staring up at the spires, sipping tea, wobbling on the cobblestones, waltzing past the tourists into the private, grandiose libraries, or running past the beautiful lush gardens alongside the river at University Parks.  Not to say that there aren’t wonderful people here and social moments–we have BBQs, pub quiz nights, formal hall dinners, lectures, receptions, excursions to London and Stratford to see Shakespeare–but after the semester I’ve had, those quiet moments are the ones I relish the most.

My classes are extremely interesting–the American Novel since 1945 and an independent study on women writers and the sonnet.  My professors are sharply smart and keep stunning me into new ways of thinking about literature and are very encouraging of my interest in creative writing, even going so far as to allow me to do a creative component to my final research papers–something I wasn’t sure I’d be allowed to do at Oxford, but that will set me up nicely for my return to my thesis in the fall.  Furthermore, I was nominated by my graduating peers to the executive committee to help plan Bread Loaf Oxford’s graduation ceremony (a nice vote of confidence in my eloquence, dependability, and organization skills) , so I’ll be doing that here as well.

I miss my family, my Daisy, and my boyfriend something fierce, however, and can’t wait for them to come visit me for the graduation, followed by a week trip up to the Lake District.  After my parents leave, Jason and I will stop off in London for a few days to stay with friends.

All in all, of the 15 resolutions I made in 2015, I have been successful at keeping all but five, and as we’re only halfway through the year, I still have time to work on 1. developing a better editing routine for old work 2. writing more poems 3. submitting work 4. maintaining my twitter and 5. blogging here more regularly (though my Ploughshares gig does mean I’m regular in one venue, even if not here).

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Filed under creative writing, positivity, self-esteem, self-help, vacation, women, writing

Back again

Well, I all but abandoned this blog lately, but for good reason: I got a second job!  I’m now a TA in the Spanish Department, as well as in the Creative Writing Department, working 9 hours in the Spanish Conversation Center, helping undergraduates figure out how to twist their tongue around answers to basic questions, like, Where are you from?  And, is your roommate annoying?  Describe to me your least favorite chore from childhood.  We also make lots of small talk.  If I had a penny for every student I asked what his/her major was… Brings me back, y’all.  To awkward house and dorm parties with peers I didn’t know.

It’s very divertido and exhausting to speak Spanish 9 hours a week, but gratifying as I remember that I actually started out my professional career as a Spanish teacher, then an English teacher abroad in Andorra to Spanish-speaking students.  I feel I’m getting less rusty, and it’s always enjoyable when, in any language, someone younger than you looks at you wide-eyed and asks you to describe the magical time you had, after graduating, in the workforce in places as glamorous as Philly and Andorra (I usually have to point it out on a map), and when they, in despair and in English, ask how you EVER learned Spanish because it’s SO HARD OMG IMPERFECT (answer: I personally think every university should adopt the RC from U of Michigan’s campus model by having morning grammar lectures in Spanish, lunch table conversation centers, and afternoon literature discussion circles in Spanish–8 credits in total PASS/FAIL to take the pressure off getting “everything right”–which is impossible when learning a foreign language at first, since you are basically a toddler developmentally in the language).

The extra money in my bank account does not hurt at all as I try to save save save for effectively being unemployed come June/July and simultaneously living in Oxford, England, where I’ll be taking an independent research tutorial on lady sonnetiers and a course on American Fiction since 1945. I’ll also graduate with my Master’s in English Literature from Middblebury College’s Bread Loaf School of English.  It’s really hard to believe I’ll be graduating, since that means it was four years ago that I was in Andorra teaching and trying to figure out how to break in the English literature teaching market back home in the States and thus elected to spend my first summer doing Bread Loaf in Vermont with other English teachers of the U.S. looking to up their resume/content know how.

It was at my first summer at BL that I took a poetry workshop with newly minted Pulitzer Prize winner Tracy K. Smith, who mentored me and gently suggested I consider applying for an MFA in poetry once I told her what I wanted to do (teach writing, have more time for my own writing, read great works of literature), and, well, the rest led me to where I am now.

On top of double TA’ing at UNCW, I’m still blogging regularly at Ploughshares writing their literary round down every other Tuesday.  Thanks to those who read and shared–I get a bonus if my views go up, so thank you. I’m also still teaching yoga at Pineapple Studios downtown and enjoying developing “regulars” each week.  I’ve been there officially a year, which is an amazing anniversary to me.  A while back I imagined my dream life, and it included author, yoga teacher, and outdoor enthusiast, so it’s pretty great that I’ve had the opportunities I’ve had lately to explore my passions and bring them to others.

Things with Daisycat are great.  She’s currently snuggled in my lap.  Sometimes (read: all the time) she wakes me up in the middle of the night, so I haven’t been sleeping all that well, but could you resist this face?

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I didn’t think so.

Additionally, in the service of making more money for the summer/Europe, I may also be subbing for a local academy here in Wilmington, to keep my teaching fresh.  If any people in the MFA program are wondering why you never see me perhaps this post will explain.  I’ve also been suffering from insane allergy attacks lately which on top the not sleeping well have made me feel somewhat of a zombie.  But a happy zombie who finally likes what she’s producing in her workshops.  And who falls asleep at 10:00PM on Saturdays.

My boyfriend continues to be a lovely stud who cooks AND cleans, even when he’s been at work longer than I have, and when I ask if I can help, he shoos me out of the kitchen and tells me to take a nap/have a glass of wine/take a bath, etc.  He’s a gem and a keeper and I’m so glad we had the various twists and turns that brought us together.  His humor keeps me laughing and his goodness keeps me growing.  His pretty sky blue eyes don’t hurt neither.

Anyway, that’s it for now: I will try to be better at putting something up here.  Perhaps not Saturdays anymore that I agreed to support Arsenal Football Club (read the above paragraph), but maybe I’ll start Wednesday posts, since I don’t have much but an evening class that day.

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Gratitude and Self-esteem

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how we talk to ourselves.  I don’t mean in a crazy voice in my head kind of way, but in the way our background narration of our lives carries us through the day without most of us tuning in too closely.

I woke up this morning thinking about the time I did community service learning with Alternative Spring Break in Detroit (side bar: my favorite part of the experience was the ways in which we were sternly lectured NOT to embody a “white savior” complex but instead to consider the service “learning” on OUR parts–learning about the grace and dignity of the grassroots movements already in place in the city most have written off).

One of the days we, a bunch of college-aged females, were directed to run a self-actualization workshop in a middle school for young girls who had had some trouble fighting and generally being mean to one another. We decided to have them write positive attributes about one another so that each girl would go back with a list of things the others admired about her.

A talk with one girl who felt stuck turned to me asking her what she liked about herself.

She was horrified.  “I can’t talk about what I like about myself because then others might think I’m full of myself.”

Even to this day, I recognize that feeling even as it makes me sad and I want to condemn it. I wonder too at the gendered implications.  Is it still hard for women to proclaim what they like about themselves?  I think about the parody of that in Mean Girls, where Cady, having not been raised in the United States, awkwardly offers up that she has bad breath in the morning when she is unable to think of something to hate about herself in the mirror with the rest of the plastics.  It’s certainly been something I’ve been aware of lately: how little I tend to applaud, admire, or thank myself, how easy it feels to in fact do the opposite in my self-talk somehow without even paying much attention to what I’m doing.

Last week was Thanksgiving, so it seems appropriate this morning that I try to start with myself to start changing that negative self-talk, to be confident without being conceited.

Here’s a list of things I’m grateful to myself for:

1. My resilience.  I’ve lived in three states and two countries.  I’ve taught ESL, Spanish, and Creative Writing in tough schools with little guidance.  I conquered countless rejections and career changes and am in the process of earning three Master’s Degrees.

2. My sense of humor.  There’s nothing like having a little pun.

3. My body.  it’s changed a lot over the last ten years, but I feel strong.  I eat what I like.  I work out.  I lift weights in Body Pump twice a week and have run so many Half-Marathons and 10ks I’ve lost count.  I’m curvy and need high waisted pants, but damn it, I look good even if I got junk in my trunk.

4. My face.  I like my smile.  My (sigh) ever-browning blonde, sometimes straight, sometimes wavy hair.  My hazel eyes, sometimes gold, sometimes green, sometimes brown.  My small pores and acne prone T zone and chin.  My thick eyebrows that I’ve never bothered to pluck after I made myself cry the first time I tried in middle school.

5. My tiny, skinny ankles.  Boys used to call me chicken legs in middle school because of how disproportionately skinny they are.  They make me clumsy and make it impossible to find slip on shoes that won’t slip off, but they also make me look great in boots and belie a ton of strength to run many miles.

6. My compassion. I don’t have many friends.  I find it exhausting to be surrounded by crowds.  I don’t always feel many people get me or have the patience for my neuroses.  But to those I do count in my circle, I have a lot to offer in terms of my empathy and my grace and my willingness to drop whatever to talk, cook, or drive you to the ER.

7. My temper.  It’s taught me a lot about restraint.

8. My creative brain.  It lights up in the presence of a good poem or novel. I am the perennial teacher’s pet–except when I’m trying to teach the class for them. I love to write and cook and knit and paint.

9. My drive. What I seek to accomplish gets done.  My planner is a sight to behold.  I am organized to a fault.  I plan out each day by the hour.  I don’t always get things done as quickly as I plan, but I do get the job done.

10. My love of adventure has brought me countless exciting experiences, from learning to snow shoe and then alpine tour (i.e., ski UP) the Pyrenees, to zip-lining in a rainforest, to hiking solo in the dark and camping out above the tree-line, to scaling rock face up to the Kitchen Mesa, to swimming with Dolphins in Hawaii, to snubbing a wreck in the Caribbean, to white water rafting down the Rio Chama, to surfing the Atlantic, to flying across the world to hike down the Taroko Gorge to bathe in natural mineral hot springs alongside a rushing river.  The only thing that I will probably never do is learn to scuba dive because for some reason the thought of relying solely on a tank for air freaks me out (that and prohibitive costs also likely rules out ever climbing Everest).

Though I certainly could have more easily come up with 20 things I don’t like about myself, and though I certainly have faults and lots to learn in layers with all of the above, I want to encourage everyone, especially gals, no matter how young or old, to take a minute to write out ten things you’re grateful to yourself for, and to challenge you to be full of gratitude for yourself without feeling bad or apologetic about it.

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The Lost Art of Discussion

I fear that we have lost the art of discussion, and most especially, that of rhetorical listening.

Oh we talk, and plenty. But most often I fear we as a culture are preaching to each other’s choir.  Those who feel a certain way about political topics read certain magazines.  Keep a certain realm of friends on social media.  Tune into certain news outlets.  While the rest, who feel oppositely, subscribe to different outlets.

And if things get heated, if we dare to cross our ideological lines, well, there’s that “unfollow” or “defriend” or mute button on our various devices.  Or there’s leaping out of a moving vehicle as your father rolls through a stop sign in the neighborhood of your adolescence on the eve of Thanksgiving. There’s savagely attacking one another’s intelligence and basic humanity.  There’s rioting.  There’s police brutality.

There’s the parade on tv, with balloons and floats and shivering and hot chocolate.  Or there are protesters bringing up the rear with the police firmly telling the news outlets not to cover this section of the parade route.  Or there’s a die-in at a mall on the busiest shopping day of the year supplanted by non-stop commercials for Black Friday deals.

There is not, however, any rhetorical listening.  Instead, you decide which views you are more comfortable seeking out and surround yourself with that noise and turn up your own volume if you encounter a competing channel.

Krista Ratcliffe, a scholar whose book Rhetorical Listening: Identification, Gender, Whiteness I’ve used for my project on silence as poetry, writes this of rhetorical listening: it is “a trope for interpretative invention and as a code of cross-cuItural conduct . . . [which] signifies a stance of openness that a person may choose to assume in relation to any person, text, or culture” (p. 1). In the book, to demonstrate what she means, she examines gender and race cultural logics to explore how we might invoke listening to create better cross-cultural relationships.

And I say this as someone who has not practiced rhetorical listening very well herself in the past.  Just because someone speaks about a political or racial topic in a way that I find abhorrent, that does not make them less of a person.  That does not mean I should attack them, verbally or otherwise, and call into question their very humanness.  That does not mean that I should immediately adopt their view and dismiss my own, either.  But rather, that I should attempt to listen.  To hold the space of active silence.  To turn it into art.  To showcase respect.  And then, when I have fully inhabited that stance of openness, to use and communicate what I have learned about my audience’s humanity to speak back in a way that does not denigrate their dignity and therefore allows that person to fully listen to me, rather than shut down and attack.

I know of many people on both sides of the political spectrum who think listening means trying to persuade the other of their inherent wrongness.  Which implies an aura of inherent rightness around their head in a halo that causes the person they are trying to convince so stridently to stop listening.  To resent. To defend.  More noise.

I am worried this holiday season about what is happening in Ferguson and what it symbolizes for this country in its fraught and troubled race relations.  But I am grateful for the discussions that are being started (and here are some tips for keeping things in the realm of open exchange) and it is my dearest wish that more of us in America would adopt this stance of openness across gender and racial identification lines to the other side.  To rhetorically listen to one another–and to especially, if you are in a position of power, to extend your listening to those who have historically been silenced and otherwise violently oppressed– before it’s too late and more senseless acts of violence and indignity occur.

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Is Poetry For Everyone? Is Sentimental Writing Stupid?

This article on whether or not poetry, creative writing, and MFAs are part of a capitalist, cultural, exclusive elite really stuck me this week.  I encourage anyone who considers themselves an artist to read and weigh in.  Is it true?  Has art in this country become so commodified that we ascribe cultural currency to those who would be artists in such a way that grants social legitimacy to them when we would not do the same for, say, an assembly line worker, who may in fact be making more money than a graduate teaching assistant?

The article gets really depressing for someone halfway through her MFA, but the ending had the kind of redemptive quality to it that I admire in terms of explaining to myself and others why poetry can be powerful.

If we want to bring those critics and those masses to our poems, if we want poetry to matter to those outside our classrooms and conference halls—and there may be some poets who don’t; bully for them—then those others, their lives and their language, have to matter to us first. The only way they will is if we disrupt the culture of privilege that insulates us. And we need to disrupt it, not for our egoistic desire for a larger audience, but for the sake of our art. The only job of the poet is to destabilize and expand language. This is how poetry changes the world—not by grand ambition or the lauding of critics. It takes the plodding, unending effort of many to alter line by line, phrase by phrase, word by word the way we describe ourselves and everything around us. This is how we change perception. This is how we change the mind. We can’t do it while isolated by our privilege. There are too few of us. Our language is too limited. We need more words. We need more than ourselves and each other. We need every brokeshoulder to the wheel.

I have been kind of annoyed lately regarding the stuffiness of workshop.  Sometimes it really does seem as though poetry is written for other poets, rather than for the masses.  There’s been a recent trend lately too for more esoteric, allusive poetry, which I find myself more and more impatient with the older I get.

I got slammed last week for being sentimental in my writing.  I wanted to argue, but of course, workshop is not a place to argue.  What’s wrong with a little smaultz from time to time, especially if the audience and writer is aware of it?  What’s wrong with “ordinary language” so long as it is precise and clear and conveys a feeling, puts a picture in one’s head?

Enough of the rat race already.  I want a poetry that’s for the masses.  I want to write poems for everyone.  Ones I can bring home to my family and have them understand (unlike the research projects I’ve shared with them in the past).

And that doesn’t make me any less educated or smart.  I resent the implication that it might.  Especially as a woman.

Again, I’m not sure why I think Taylor Swift fits into this–but she does.  This other article I read a while back perfectly summed up for me why people who go out of their way to criticize her art belong in the same camp as those who would say that poetry should be for a cultural elite only.

Swift countered critics by saying,”For a female to write about her feelings, and then be portrayed as some clingy, insane, desperate girlfriend in need of making you marry her and have kids with her, I think that’s taking something that potentially should be celebrated – a woman writing about her feelings in a confessional way – that’s taking it and turning it and twisting it into something that is frankly a little sexist.’

Snaps, girlfriend.

And to round it out, I’ll end with a quote from an essay put on Viriginia Quarterly, excerpted from a wonderful book, The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison, a writer I deeply admire.

“I think dismissing female pain as overly familiar or somehow out-of-date—twice-told, thrice-told, 1001-nights-told—masks deeper accusations: that suffering women are playing victim, going weak, or choosing self-indulgence over bravery. I think dismissing wounds offers a convenient excuse: no need to struggle with the listening or telling anymore. Plug it up. Like somehow our task is to inhabit the jaded aftermath of terminal self-awareness once the story of all pain has already been told.

The wounded woman gets called a stereotype, and sometimes she is. But sometimes she’s just true. I think the possibility of fetishizing pain is no reason to stop representing it. Pain that gets performed is still pain. Pain turned trite is still pain. I think the charges of cliché and performance offer our closed hearts too many alibis, and I want our hearts to be open. I just wrote that. I want our hearts to be open. I mean it. “

The way she dares to be sentimental at the end strikes this writer, anyway, as a profound act of bravery in today’s academic, allusion lovin’, irony driven readership.

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Writer’s Week UNCW

This past week, UNCW hosted writer’s week, a special yearly event where writers from all over are invited to give craft talks, panels, and readings for the Wilmington community.  Professors of creative writing give their students time off from regular classes in order to encourage students to attend the events.  For me, it was a nice break from the usual slog of grading, teaching, and homework and helped remind me why I’m here–not to fulfill requirements, but to try out being a writer, see if it fits.

My favorite event was the poetry craft talk given by Patrick Phillips.  I had actually not come across Mr. Phillips work before that day, but I’m thrilled he was brought to my attention.  His forthcoming collection, Elegy for a Broken Machine, is one I’m excited to get my hands on–and I’m apparently not the only one, as I noticed Amazon smacked an editor’s pick award on it.

His talk was giddy, goofy, self-mocking, and joyfully, unabashedly smart.  He spoke of what makes a poem end–of closure, stating that he was partial to poems that, as Yeats said, “clicked shut.” He mentioned several poems that follow a rhythm or pattern, deviate, and then bring the poem home, using both meter and rhyme in order to signal to the reader that a finish is coming.  He likened certain metrical variations to the way a drummer cues the audience to the coming close of a song with a big flourish, that creates a sense of anticipation in the listener.

I always appreciate poets who can skillfully liken their craft to music.  Music somehow seems more approachable to people, young students, especially.  It can be a way in to an art form most often considered too elite (which I hate! Poems should be for everyone).

Additionally, after, when I went up to him to chat/thank him, Phillips encouraged me to keep a PhD in mind for a next step in my career.  Even though I’ll have three master’s by the time I’m 29, which, someone pointed out, is like the equivalent of a PhD, and even though I’m weary of the hoops of academia, I do still dream about being Dr. Shubert.  Always have, ever since I knew what a PhD was.  But I’m glad I’m getting my MFA, if only to rest on the other side of the creator/academic coin.  Phillips pointed out often PhDs get taken more seriously as teachers, and, well, my goal is to keep teaching at the college level.  He also affirmed my belief that an academic understanding of literature can be inspiring, though the flip side of that is to watch out for an overly analytical tone in one’s poetry, something I’m struggling with right now, to the point where maybe a PhD isn’t the best idea right now.  But I appreciated that he believed enough in my story to encourage me to go for it.

In other news, my students are starting to write their own poems this week, and I already had a panicked email from a student telling me she was lost and too scared her poems weren’t as a poem “should be.”  I directed her to Billy Collin’s “Introduction to Poetry” and Ruth Forman’s “Poetry Should Ride the Bus” and asked her what she thought those poets were saying about people who thought poetry “should” be a certain way.  I then gave her a bunch of prompts, told her poetry was possibility and encouraged her to have fun with experimenting and to stop being so hard on herself.  To find something she cared about to bring to life on the page, while still adhering to our core tenants of clear, precise, image-driven, non cliched language.

It makes me sad when students, especially college students, like her come to me in this state of panic, this state of “poetry cannot be for me, I must somehow inherently suck at it” in a way they do not do with non-fiction or fiction.  I’m not sure what kind of horrible experience they had with it in high school or middle school.  Right now, my middle schoolers take to it much more easily and without self-judgment or hesitation.  I try to call them poets early.  To urge them not to let any stodgy professorial type bar them from something that is as odd as civilization and should be as accessible as music. To that end, I almost find teaching middle school creative writing easier.  They have not quite yet learned to filter out their inner muse, to question it’s validity and worth.

I wish I still wrote like a middle schooler: much less self-conscious, more driven by the thrill of it.  I’ll try to keep that in mind when, next semester, as a poet, I tackle fiction, a genre I devour, but have not tried to write since high school!

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