My post-MFA-graduation year

January 18th, 2018

I graduated from my low-residency MFA program at Pacific University a year ago. (Shameless plug from a happy graduate: if you are considering low-residency programs you have to look into Pacific. You have to at least research it. Especially for poets, the faculty is drop-dead fantastic.) I officially completed the program and received my MFA in January of ’17, but returned for the June ’17 residency to participate in the official graduation ceremony. (I’m so glad I made that choice, but that’s another post.) And now it’s been a year, and our private Facebook group is full of students posting pictures of their stacks of books to read for the coming semester and full of the excitement-bewilderment-joy-fear of students entering thesis semester and full of pictures of graduating students standing at the lectern delivering their graduate presentations. And though there are many things I miss about Residency, and above all I miss the dear friends I’ve made along the way, I also feel ready to be on this side of things, the post-program side.

I won’t pretend I didn’t have a rough landing in June when teary-eyed and maybe a little hung-over I boarded my Portland-Amsterdam-Zürich flight for the last time. I won’t pretend I didn’t land here in this non-English speaking country wondering how in the hell I was going to maintain my writing life. Would I continue to read as widely and as critically? Would I keep up my creative output? Now that nobody was watching, how hard would I keep working?

The best thing I did, and something I urge everybody who’s closing in on graduation – whether from a full-time or low-residency program; whether you live down the block from three writers or an ocean away from everybody; whether you write prose or poetry – was to become part of a small group of writers who continued to exchange work after graduation. This is my number one piece of advice for the post-graduation year, perhaps the only useful piece of advice I have. Before you leave your final residency, sit down with a small (altogether I’d say any larger than 5 is going to be hard to manage – my group consists of 4 poets) group of writers who you connected with during the program and make a formal arrangement about exchanging work. Seriously, no casual oh we should keep sending work business in the hallways. Have a meeting, get out your calendars, and set your first deadline. Make a plan. Agree among yourselves in advance what kind of feedback you want (this can always be re-negotiated); what date of the month you’re going to send your work; set an expectation about how much work to send (poets, set a number of poems; prose writers think about a page- or word-count); decide in advance if you want to share writing prompts each month or give each other reading assignments. Basically, set out the kind of arrangement those of you in low-residency programs are already used to with expectations for what will be sent in each “packet” and when they’ll be due.

This plan was a life-saver for me in many ways. It keeps me in touch with the people who have become my most important first readers and colleagues and conversation mates. I get to keep reading their poetry. It holds me accountable to continue creating new work. I’m not alone. I keep learning as my friends mention books they’re reading or poems that inspired them or add epigraphs to their poems that make me think, “oh, I should read that.”

I’ve found my post-graduation writing a bit riskier, a bit bolder. Some of it has to do with current events and the stories I’m reacting to, the things I can’t stop thinking about. Some of it has to do with knowing My Advisor is not going to read this. I never had anything other than positive, encouraging interactions with my advisors. Critique was delivered fairly, with the intention of improving my work, calling my attention to writing habits I rely on that I may not be able to see myself, and encouraging me to move more deeply into the work. I never felt shut-down or disrespected. If an advisor and I disagreed about a series of poems I wrote – and one did – this disagreement happened openly and above board and in the spirit of pushing me outside of my comfort zone. I felt safe in my program, I really did. (Since this is the internet and you can’t see me, I need to say I’m an upper-class conventionally attractive white woman so take my experience of feeling safe in the workshop space and in the packet exchanges with that fairly large grain of salt in mind.) And yet. There were things I couldn’t write, knowing it would go in the packet to my advisor. That’s on me, not my advisors, but it’s a thing that I’m only aware I was doing now that I’ve been writing for a year post-graduation. But the writing group we formed feels wildly safe in a whole different way, and that’s sent my writing in interesting (to me, anyway) directions.

The other post-graduation decision I made was to be The Person Who Shares Stuff. I post calls for submissions, fellowship opportunities, contests, you name it, to our program’s Facebook group. I email friends about opportunities that I think are particularly well-suited for them. I say, Hey! I don’t live in Portland but you do so apply for this! I retweet calls on Twitter. My experience at Pacific was of a very supportive and non-competitive student body (again, other people might have had other experiences but I found us to be a supportive bunch within and across genres and cohorts) and I want to hold on to that spirit of community as I move out into the larger poetry world which is – um, sometimes not that. This decision keeps me connected to the larger writing community in a spirit of generosity.

I’ve kept writing. I wrote a lot in the year since graduation, especially in the sixth months following the June ceremony. Leaving a structured program can be scary, but leaving with a plan can ease the transition and turn it into an opportunity to experiment and explore.



On revision

January 23rd, 2013

As I cull poem after poem from my chapbook, I’m drawing strength from these lines by Annie Dillard (in The Writing Life).

The part you must jettison is not only the best-written part; it is also, oddly, that part which was to have been the very point. It is the original key passage, the passage on which the rest was to hang, and from which you yourself drew the courage to begin.

I had thought my chapbook was about an event in the narrator’s life, but it’s not. It’s about the aftermath, and all the poems about the event are just background in my head. Only the aftermath poems matter.

The dangerous edge

January 19th, 2013

How set yourself spinning? Where is an edge – a dangerous edge – and where is the trail to the edge and the strength to climb it?
          Annie Dillard, The Writing Life

I’ve had a poem accepted at Heron Tree – it’s not up yet; I’ll be sure to link to it when it goes live – but this isn’t about that. It’s about the earlier version of that same poem that a different journal passed on (and I’d like to thank those editors for passing on it; they were right, of course) and the revision that made the difference.

It’s a tricky thing getting that notification back from a journal: sorry, we’re unable to use this piece. So far, in my short experience in sending out work for publication, the rejection letters/emails I’ve received have almost always been of the form rejection variety. I understand that and don’t begrudge editors one bit for not commenting on the whys or hows of the rejection process – editors are busy, generally unpaid, doing their best to keep up with what I understand to be a steady increase in the number of submissions they receive. They can’t comment on every piece and I don’t expect them to; it’s wonderful when it happens, but I understand why it’s not common practice. Once or twice I have received feedback from an editor: one editor commented that the particular poems she read aren’t for her but she liked the voice and would I please send new work in the future (taking the advice of Kelli Russell Agodon from this post, I did submit again and sooner rather than later) and once I received the comment that a translation of a Swiss phrase I used in a poem would have been helpful. But for the most part, I’m never sure why a particular journal passed on a particular work.

I always take a hard look at my poems after a rejection letter. Generally, after looking the poems over, I still believe in them as they stands and assume that they just weren’t right for the journal for whatever reason but not that the poems are on their face artistically unsound. I’m so slow about submitting my work that I rarely send out something that hasn’t been worked over and over (which sometimes can be the problem, I suppose, if I edit the poor thing to death, dousing the initial spark that set it off in the first place). Sometimes I do see that I sent the piece out one draft too soon: I’ll see a place where I could push a little harder; a word that could be fresher or more precise (perhaps use “vestiges” rather than “traces” or the other way around); an image that isn’t working. And sometimes, I can see that I was just holding back.

That’s the case with this poem, and I’m not sure why I didn’t see it in the earlier submission. (Well, that’s the Holy Grail, isn’t it, to read your own work as clearly as your best critique partner reads it? Clearly I’m still on the quest…) The earlier version used lovely language but it was…reserved. Careful. The revision brings the narrator more clearly into focus, and the narrator has something at stake. I’m even willing to say that Imight have something at stake in this poem now. I thought there was something at stake in the earlier version, I must have believed that or I wouldn’t have sent it out – I generally don’t go off half-cocked when it comes to my work – but looking back at that version now, I can see how it skirted the issue. It leaned heavily on language to disguise the fact that it was still keeping its secret; the revision (I think) lets the reader see past the language to the truth.

This goes right to the heart of my writing resolution for the year: to take greater risks in my writing, greater emotional risk, to go as I said in my writing goals post “closer to the edge and to stay there a beat longer than is comfortable.” I think the later version of this poem does that, and I think that’s why it was picked up this time around. Now, to learn how to recognize that sooner.

Now, to learn how to climb the trail to that dangerous edge.

Protecting the instrument

April 16th, 2012

I’ve been working a lot, writing what is for me a lot of poems. I’m in the middle of a project that’s exciting me, a project that has the work bubbling up from below. It’s got its own agenda, so although I am writing down all the prompts for the April Poem a Day challenge run by Robert Lee Brewer I’m not writing to any of them. There’s this project, and it has got its own agenda.

However, I am taking a peek at the platform building challenge Robert is running over on his personal blog, though I have to say I’m peeking at it with a somewhat jaundiced eye. Writers want to be read, of course, and I love when people find my blog; if I can do things to make it easier for people to find my blog I’m happy to do them – to a point – but I’m very wary of “driving traffic” for the sake of driving traffic. There is a very difficult to define line in my head at which point on-line activity seems to me to take on the characteristic of looking for clicks regardless of the engagement behind them. I’m…wary. In an inarticulate sort of a way; clearly I need to think this through more fully, need to find the right words for my discomfort.

There are, however, some extremely useful tips over at My Name Is Not Bob, and for anybody interested in dipping your toes into social media, platform building, and possibly “branding” it’s very much worth a peek. Frankly, it’s worth a peek if you think you’re not interested in all of that if only to give yourself a minute to think about why you’re not interested in it and what your feelings about the point of your personal on-line presence are.

As I work my way through this platform building challenge, the phrase I keep recalling is: “Protect the instrument.” That’s what Colin Harrison, an editor with Scribner Simon & Schuster, said at a Q&A session at the Geneva Writers’ Conference back in February. The instrument is the writing. Anything that damages your instrument – by crowding out writing time, by introducing distractions, by putting the cart before the horse (for the best platform in the world is worth nothing if you never actually finish your book), by turning your attention away from the hard and lonely work of hammering one word next to another – anything that damages your instrument is getting in your way.

My instrument requires a quiet place in my head. My instrument takes a long time to warm up. My instrument needs space and time and the trusted voice of a few well-chosen first readers. My instrument is skittish, wary of bright lights and loud noises. My instrument is high-maintenance and high-strung. My instrument is capable of producing fine, fine work but it needs me to shelter it. It needs me to know when to shut the door, turn off the radio, disconnect the internet, delete my account for whatever New Shiny Thing popped on the internet last week. My instrument needs me to protect it. My instrument trusts me to protect it, and when my instrument knows I have its best interests at heart, when I protect my instrument, it rewards me with words, words, words like birdsong.

So here is my challenge to all of you participating in the platform building challenge: sit down and think about your instrument. What makes it tick? How much can it handle? What does it thrive on? What wounds it? What conditions does it need to produce its finest work? Then every step you take, ask yourself: are you protecting your instrument?

Here I am again…

April 12th, 2012

I started listing out my specific writing goals in 2009, the year I decided to give myself one year to see if I was any good at this poetry thing. Every year, one of my goals is a renewed dedication to my blog, and every year that’s the first goal to go south. It happened this year earlier than usual, but it’s because I’m in the middle of something exciting, a poetry project right now that’s got me by the neck and won’t let go. It started in mid-January and so far I have twenty poems in various states of completion; that’s a blistering pace for me, an exhausting pace, a burning the candle at both ends pace but I’m afraid to let up because I can see this whole project in my head: a collection of poems, a narrative arc, a beginning, a middle, and an end. Conflict. Resolution. Three characters, two voices. It’s a complete story in my head and it’s taking up all of my extra writing minutes right now. It’s exciting. I can’t say if it’s good – oh, I know some of the poems are really solid and I know some aren’t there yet, but I don’t know – won’t know until it’s done – if the idea I have in my head works on paper. But it’s got me by the neck, so there’s nothing to do, is there, but let it drag me around like a cat with a bird until it’s done with me.

What are you working on right now? And when you’re in the middle of something that really excites you, do you also feel like you’re not the one in control?

Words in the night

February 3rd, 2012

Sunday nights I lie in bed with SB until he falls asleep. Most nights I climb into bed next to him for a while – ten minutes or so – but Sunday is “snuggle night” and I stay in bed with him until he’s asleep. Last Sunday night, I had been in bed with him about five minutes when a line of poetry came to me – not just a line, but a way into a persona I’ve been wondering if I can possibly write convincingly. I sat straight up and whispered “Sorry, I’ll be right back,” and grabbed a piece of blank paper and a pencil (a colored pencil, it turned out, dark red) from SB’s desk and jotted down the line. I climbed back into bed and SB asked me if I had thought of an idea for a poem.

I love that he knows this about me.

“Yes, I thought of something that I had to write before I forgot.”

“What did you write?” he asked, and I told him. It’s a line in the third person, about a “he” figure, and SB asked who “he” was.

“I don’t know yet, I’m still figuring that out. Sometimes things come to me in pieces and I have to put them together like a puzzle.”

“Is the he me?” he asked.

“No, I don’t think so. I think it’s a grown man remembering being a boy.”

“Okay,” he said and we curled up again.

Five minutes later, another line. The closing line, probably; it felt like a closing line. I jumped out of bed again.

“Another idea?”

“Yeah, I’m sorry. I’ll be right back.”

I jotted down the line and climbed back into bed. Then SB sat up.

“Wait, sorry, I forgot something,” he said and climbed out of bed. He went to his desk, found a pencil and a scrap of paper, and jotted down some letters. He got back into bed, then said “Oh, wait,” and did it again. Then he came to bed and curled up and slowly fell asleep, my son who seems to understand, a little bit, what it is that I do.

Leaving my desk

January 6th, 2012

I came across a comment on Twitter that I’m never going to find again and thus will never be able to quote accurately or properly attribute, but basically it said: The poetry world would be a lot more pleasant if all poets took up a non-poetry related hobby. (If any of you recognize that tweet, please by all means let me know the source in the comments.)

This is my dilemma again and again about how to use my limited child-free time. There are other things I should be doing (maybe actually moving my body sometimes) and want to be doing (more with the garden, photography, getting back on the bike, learning to knit), but every hour I spend doing something that’s not writing is one less hour I have for writing. And yet I know that I’m happier, more interesting, and a better writer when I actually do more than write.

The hockey school turned out to be a great decision and it’s hard to believe now that I had stomachache-inducing angst about it. I have, for the first time since I quit teaching before I even got pregnant with Small Boy, work friends. Sometimes, after the Thursday night training, we go upstairs to the stadium restaurant and have a drink. Parents recognize me and the kids, even the ones who I’ve never worked with because they already knew how to skate, say hi; this afternoon at Small Boy’s Bambini training The World’s Cutest Hockey Player sought me out three times to say hello (her older brother is on SB’s team). (And I’m not joking, this girl is THE WORLD’S CUTEST HOCKEY PLAYER EVER!) All the other trainers, and the vast majority of the parents, are Swiss and it feels like I have a Swiss life for the first time. It only took me ten years. And because it’s my job – seriously, they even put money in my bank account – I have to do it and I have to be there and it forces me to do something other than hole up and write.

Holing up and writing is great, and I excel at the holing up aspect of it, but when you sit in the same place all the time you always have the same view; I mean that literally and metaphorically. I think most writers can relate to the feeling that there is not enough time in the day – and there is never enough time in the day – and the temptation to chain ourselves to our desks is powerful. Certainly if there is a deadline looming we have to chain ourselves to our desks, especially if there is a paycheck involved, but most days I think I would be better off if I did the counter-intuitive and left my desk behind for a bit. Most days I don’t do that; I think “I should go for a walk” but never get up or I think “I should try to meet up with a friend one Monday” and then never schedule it. This is why the hockey school has been so good. Twice a week I go do something radically different, mildly physical (it’s not so strenuous down at my end of the rink), highly social, and all mine. And non-poetry related.

And that last aspect of it is turning out to be the most interesting of all. Hockey school ends the last day of February (the unpredictable playoff schedule of our professional team makes scheduling practices in the Arena nearly impossible, and the outdoor rink closes mid-March, so we use March 1 as an easy end date) and I’m going to need to find something else to do. Something physical and preferably outdoors. Writers, what are your non-writing passions? How important are your non-work related hobbies to you?

Writing goals: 2011 wrap-up and 2012 goals

January 2nd, 2012

I took a look back at my writing goals for 2011 and I see that I didn’t accomplish a single one of them. I started the year intending to:

  • Write 52 new poems. How did I do? It’s possible, if I count all the jottings and rushed drafts that are clearly going nowhere, that I wrote 52 drafts in 2011, but I think the real count, still a bit generous, falls at 42.
  • Submit to 20 journals. How did I do? I sent out fifteen packages last year.
  • Attend a juried workshop. I didn’t attend a live workshop last year, but I workshopped twice on-line with Kim Addonizio and both workshops were amazing, challenging, and extraordinary helpful. I’m starting another eight week session with her on the ninth, and for anybody out there looking for an on-line poetry workshop that’s really going to kick your butt and be worth the money, Kim’s is it.
  • I wanted a contest ready chapbook by September, and here I fell furthest from the goal. Not even close. In fact, now I have two half-way chapbooks instead of one finished one because half-way through the year I started writing a series of poems on a theme.
  • Two blog posts a week. Also, no. I had 77 posts in 2011; twice a week would have been 104.
  • Read 52 poetry collections. I read 32 books for the first time and re-read some old favorites.

And yet I feel like it was, on balance, a good year. I got a lot done, even if I didn’t reach my target numbers on, well, anything. I learned a lot, had some mild successes, and got better at what I do. It feels like a win.

Not having a chapbook together is starting to sting; it seems like that’s something I should have put together by now. Maybe the problem lies in not knowing how to put a collection together; perhaps I’m trying too hard to have everything relate to a theme; perhaps I’m simply not ready to be thinking about collections yet. I don’t know. The chapbook goal, that’s the wild card every year.

My goals for 2012 are essentially the same:

  • Produce 52 decent drafts
  • Continue to strive for a daily writing practice
  • Post to my blog twice a week
  • Enter poems in one contest
  • Send out 20 packages
  • Participate in two writing workshops, either live or on-line
  • Finish the in progress chapbook (if only in terms of sheer number of poems). I’ll eliminate the requirement that it be “contest ready” but dang it, I want to finish this project at this point if only for the sake of finishing the project.
  • Build relationships with other writers

Watching the Small Boy at hockey practice is one of my greater joys; I love to watch him give his honest best, to work so hard. I tell him, honestly, to just keep doing what he’s doing. If he continues to work as hard as he does now, improvement will come and he’ll be fine. He’ll surely be ready for the next age group up when he ages out of Bambinis if he keeps doing what he’s doing. He’s vastly better than he was in September, and he was making really rapid progress until he was side-lined by his concussion. Just keep doing what you’re doing, I tell him, and you’ll be fine. That’s the ultimate goal, to be as clear-eyed about my own progress as I can be about his, as I’m trying to teach him to be about his own self.

Whenever Small Boy has to play a team he’s lost to before, I tell him: “That game is over. Today is today. You play today’s game.” I think that’s going to be my motto for the year.

There’s something happening here

November 8th, 2011

Something is happening with my writing, something I’m afraid to look at too closely lest I scare it off. It’s as though I’ve changed gears – I spend less time circling around and around the subject, warming up with an hour of rambling before the poem finally takes off. It’s – smoother. I won’t say easier, because it’s not, but the work comes more readily. It’s like the half-wild cat my mother-in-law has courted these past two years to the point where it’s not afraid of her anymore. It’s still skittish and half-wild, but it doesn’t hide anymore. My poems – they are skittish and half-wild, but they don’t run off and hide anymore.

More than that I’m almost afraid to say. Things like this shouldn’t be examined too closely.

What I do on baby-sitter days

October 25th, 2011

Draft a poem.
Read a dozen.
Eat chips straight from the bag.
Look at my watch.
Hurry, hurry.
Gobble down lunch.
Look at my watch.
Hurry, hurry.
Work, work, work.