Just wanted to remind everyone that I’ll be at the Mass Poetry Festival in Salem this weekend May 1-3 on the panel From Zero to One: First Books and What We Wish We’d Known. The panel is at 12:15 on Saturday in the Hawthorne Library. Please take note of the new location if you’re planning to come. The location was previously (mistakenly) listed as the Peabody Essex Museum Library. Also, don’t be daunted by the fact that the event is posted as ‘full’. I have it from seasoned MaPo festival goers that there’s usually plenty of room and a handful of no-shows. My panel mates: Amy Dryansky, Susan Kan, Karen Skolfield, and I will discuss our own experiences getting our first books into print (and, in Susan’s case, a poetry publisher’s point of view) what went well and not-so-well, some things to expect, and what you can do to ensure your book and experience are the best they can be. The bulk of the time is allocated for Q&A, so come prepared with your questions. Amy, Karen and I are poets with one or more books in print, Susan Kan is the director of Perugia Press.
Just a reminder that I’ll be the ‘Celebrity Mentor’ this week (April 20-26) on the Tethered by Letters forum. I’ve already posted a poem by Traci Brimhall to get the ball rolling. Bring your poetry questions, discussion, pet peeves, word preoccupations, etc. and we’ll talk shop. I’ve been fascinated lately with words that have origins in Gaelic, old English, Celtic, Welsh, many are nature oriented. These words somehow sound beautifully sharp and thin (lots of s, n, th, r) while also carrying a heft of meaning. If that makes sense. Anyone with more knowledge in these things than I have is welcome to start a discussion, and educate me, about the etymology of the region. I’m considering learning Gaelic, a language my Scottish Highland ancestors would have spoken. I’m that much of a history/etymology/genealogy geek that I’d learn a language because it probably sounded beautiful spoken by my 11th great grandmother. I better get busy, I also have Portuguese, Greek, and French ancestry.
I like to play around with poetry prompts, approaching the muse with averted eyes and veiled intentions as I do with my cat when I need to catch him for any reason. Whenever I post a writing prompt, or open up a discussion about the usefulness and fun of writing prompts, the classicists, fountain pens in hand, claim it’s a form of cheating. A real poet (fiction writer, essayist) shouldn’t need prompts to be creative. A real writer just sits down and distills brilliance from all the daily verbiage vying for prominence. Well….. suffice it to say, I disagree. I love writing prompts and I use them regularly. I don’t use writing prompt collections, a prompt a day for instance, as much as I seek out unique ideas, project-based ideas, prompts that get my creative blood pumping. I have no interest in dredging up memories of kindergarten and writing a sonnet about the colors, smells, sights. The prompts I’m drawn to are little poems in their own right. I often create my own, combine two or more prompts, change a prompt to suit my needs. And, this is the most important facet, I never stick religiously to a prompt, I never end up with a prompt-poem. The minute I know a particular prompt is likely to spark a poem, I go where the poem leads. This is probably why all my poems in form have the disclaimer: ‘deconstructed pantoum’, ‘loose pantoum’, because if I sense the poem would be better in a ‘broken’ form, I’ll break it. I imagine this will also infuriate the classicists. So, if I’m using a prompt that has a word list and the poem gains momentum away from it, I’ll throw the list out the window, the prompt already served its purpose. The other day, I discovered this thing called The Text Mixing Desk, which cuts and ‘echoes’ a piece of text when it’s pasted into the generator. I began writing on the generator itself, intending to mix up my ‘poem’ from the original and see what I got. For fun. I took the first lines, moved them into a document and wrote a full poem. I then took the poem, put it into the generator and ended up liking some of the repetition created. So I went back to the original poem and targeted those few lines I wanted to repeat, but I altered them slightly through repetition. I revised several times and only used the generator one time. It allowed me to see the poem in a different way and that altered view was invaluable as I went forward. The process wasn’t vastly different from writing a poem without any ‘intervention’. I think the key to writing a poem that has legs from a prompt, a poem you want to keep and claim as your own, is to use judgment as you would in any writing process. Writing to a prompt is no excuse for bad writing. But bad writing can be generated by an online poetry generator, or can spring whole from your consecrated poet-brain. So beware!
This is all a very long-winded preamble to a few cool sites I’ve stumbled across and want to share. Check them out, even just for fun.
Text Clock (this isn’t a prompt, it’s just a cool invention)
Write a Cento (the classic prompt)
Story Generator (This one has a twist: it garbles your coherent original)
Erasure (I’ve listed this one before, but just in case you missed it…)
Rewilding Language (A great article from The Guardian. This could be classified as a ‘prompt project’)
Found Poetry Review (A blog article, but check out the entire Found Poetry site. It’s one of my go-tos)
In 2009, I got my MFA in poetry from the Bennington Writing Seminars, a low-residency program (one of the first established) at Bennington College in Vermont. I was 36, homeschooling an 8 and a 10 year old in a rural state, the primary caretaker and homemaker while my husband supported us financially with his own creative career. I had been writing seriously since my undergraduate days, had published in some small literary journals, placed in a few contests, and had compiled and submitted a chapbook; a finalist in a few contests before my enthusiasm for it petered out and I stopped submitting. In short, I was writing, but in fits and starts and without much focus. I had always intended to get my MFA, the terminal degree in poetry. I applied to a couple full-residency programs after getting my BA, but they were the best of the best, I was a fairly undeveloped poet and I didn’t get accepted; within five years I had two small kids to distract me. I’ll say upfront that the MFA price tag wasn’t a deterrent. My husband was happy to support my further education, believed in my talents, and, most importantly, we could afford it. This isn’t a luxury everyone has. There are many, many talented writers who would probably choose the MFA, but can’t justify the cost or just plain can’t afford it. Several of my Bennington classmates were stretched thin paying tuition. My classmates were a diverse lot, not as culturally diverse as some other schools, a fact which Bennington is working to change. Ages ran the gamut from early 20’s to early 70’s, writers with several books under their belts to recent BA graduates, writers from all over the country and a few from other countries. We came together twice a year for a couple weeks of intense workshopping, attending lectures and readings til’ we dropped (at least I dropped: daily naps), meetings with teachers and of course, dance parties and poets vs fiction/non fiction baseball games. I don’t know why the poets had to go it alone. We’re no good at sports! The residencies were intense, challenging and a ridiculous amount of fun. The five to six months in between each of us spent back in our daily lives, caring for families and working jobs, with the addition of a whole lot of writing and reading. So, why did I choose to get my MFA and was it worth it?
– A commitment to my craft and myself as a poet. (instead of saying ‘mommy wants to write’, I could say ‘mommy has to write. For school.’)
–The next logical step in my evolution as a poet. (I hadn’t yet written a book-length manuscript and felt a little lost at the prospect)
– I had reached a plateau. (Though I’d been writing and submitting pretty seriously since my early 20s, read and studied avidly, and considered myself a ‘poet’, I also sensed I was spinning my wheels, needed to expand my insular writing world)
–It was a challenge I had to take. (A 34 year old stay-at-home mother of two, living in rural Maine, may feel a bit insecure when contemplating a workshop with Major Jackson, April Bernard or Tim Liu, not to mention giving a 40 minute lecture you expect them to sit through and hopefully enjoy.)
–The poet/teachers. (Critics of MFA programs like to suggest that MFA graduates have unfair connections in the poetry world because we studied with prominent poets who are also judges in contests, etc. I wanted to study with these poets because their work is great and I hoped they would impart some wisdom. The poetry world is very small, hang around for a while, or attend one AWP conference, and you’ll have similar connections. I’ve never submitted work to a former teacher, but I have enjoyed a broader network of poet friends.)
WORTH IT? (Definitely, but not for the obvious reasons)
–Met great people (I’m still in touch with MFA friends, I can’t imagine never having known my classmates. My world was expanded by my peers most of all)
–Wrote two books! (My first published collection began as my creative thesis. I revised, it morphed, but the basics were written and developed at Bennington. My critical thesis and lecture were based on a 19th century diary I found at an antique store in my second semester. I went on to publish the transcribed diary with my own research and critical writing)
–Hold an MFA (For better or worse, it’s the name of the game: I have an MFA! Yes, I paid for it, but I also worked hard for it and transformed into a more full-fledged writer in the process)
–Gained confidence (Not just in my writing, but as an individual apart from husband and children. Women of all interests and backgrounds know how it is to become identified almost wholly as mother and wife. No matter our talents, it just happens, and the only way to change the balance is by stepping out the door and assuming your individual identity)
–Learned to trust my voice and judgement (This is a big one because the major criticism of MFA programs (like this and this) is that they produce cookie-cutter writers, ‘MFA writers’. I can see this happening more readily to fresh BA graduates in their early 20s, entering the atmosphere of a full-residency program. I don’t know how the MFA would have changed me as a young writer. By the time I reached my mid-thirties, my voice and style were pretty distinct and I was an adult with responsibilities and a life outside of writing. I had also workshopped quite a bit as an undergraduate and at conferences. So, what happened to me and my attitude toward criticism and advice in the workshopping process is the polar opposite of the frequently lobbed criticisms. I became more confident in my writing judgement, more sure of my voice, better able to discern when criticism would be useful for a particular piece or when I should discard it, this extended to my ‘famous poet-teachers’ as well. If I felt a criticism or suggested change was unwarranted I became a tad inwardly belligerent and determined to figure things out my own way, in my own voice. I honestly can’t imagine how an MFA program could produce a certain kind of writer. I can’t write a good poem unless I’m excited about my subject, the form, something aural that’s happening. No program of study can package and sell that.
So, is the MFA worth your time and money? In most cases, I’d say ‘yes’. For someone with a home-based lifestyle, the time spent away from home with other writers, doing what I love and learning, was invaluable. I would do it again 100 times over. Plus, I believe that education of all kinds is eminently worth your time and money. But, if you don’t have the money or the time for a two or three year MFA program, that doesn’t mean you can’t be a writer, that you’ll be missing an essential element. There are plenty of people who don’t want or need an MFA. The MFA is a fairly recent invention; Walt Whitman got by just fine without one, as did Emily Dickinson, though she did have a room of her own, servants, and no potty training to distract her. The MFA isn’t going to make you a writer just like running camp won’t make you a runner. I’m a radical homeschooling mother at heart so I say: go to poetry readings and literary/book festivals, read poetry old and new, read fiction, read Poets and Writers Magazine for publishing opportunities, advice and to learn about the business, just read everything (sometimes I read clock repair manuals), check out local writing workshops (they’re often free or inexpensive and not your usual fair), work on a small literary journal or start one of your own, and of course write! Write, write and write some more, and be adventurous in your writing, experiment, test your voice, try out different styles, use writing prompts, make up your own writing prompts. Treat poetry like painting. Try painting too! Try quilting, photography, dancing and chair caning. Be creative willy nilly, that at least is free. So I guess my advice is this: If you can’t afford the MFA for any reason, get inventive, hack the MFA!
A couple weeks back I missed the Berkshires Festival of Women Writers book expo due to something bordering on pneumonia, or plague. To make up for that, and because I hate to waste my over-preparation, I’ll be at the Easthampton Bookfest Literary Market tomorrow, Saturday April 11, from 2-4:30 at Eastworks, a great renovated mill where my hairdresser happens to reside. If you’re in the area, drop in, and check out the full day of literary activities with local writers stationed all over Easthampton.
The week of April 20-26 I will be the guest ‘celebrity’ mentor on the Tethered by Letters forum. I’ll be popping in to field questions and engage in dialogue about writing, publishing, the suffering inherent in both. Come on over and we’ll chat about poetry. We can chat about fiction too, I’ve written that, I’m just not as good at it. Plot, dialogue, conflict, character development…. oh look at the pretty bird, the bird died with its wings outstretched, I wonder if there’s a word for that arched bone, or maybe it’s a muscle…. You get the idea. In the comments’ section of my elementary school report cards, all my teachers wrote ‘daydreams too much’. What the hell! I was working!
In 1898, America’s World’s Fair took place in Omaha, Nebraska. Called the Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition, the 1898 fair sought to depict the ‘settling’ of the west, from the Mississippi River to the Pacific coast. The Indian Congress was a major feature of the fair and a big draw for crowds. Twenty-one tribes participated in the congress, which included sham battles between ‘cowboys and Indians’, parades, displays of Native American tribal culture and most importantly, a living diorama, where tribes camped and ‘lived’ for the duration of the fair as they would have before reservation life stripped them of tradition. Visitors were encouraged to mill-around the living diorama, view and interact with tribal members. The irony of the Indian Congress was that it sought to to document a Native American lifestyle that had been eliminated by the government’s heavy hand in manipulating tribal culture. The following poem appears in my second collection Split the Crow. The poem is not double-spaced but WordPress can’t understand that, apologies.
Indian Exhibit; The Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition, 1898
The Indian band strikes up Stars and Stripes Forever—
familiar distress signal of circus performers everywhere.
Down the midway waving scalps cut from cow-hide.
The Improved Order of Red Men play friendly
Indians to the white man’s clever cowboy. The sham
battle; a march to the reservation. Wander through the living
diorama, open day and night: this is how they cook
on open fire, this is how they cry.
Three Indians die and one attempts suicide
behind the scenes. This grass house and tipi and windbreak;
the only authentic artifacts says the ethnologist
James Mooney on arrival from Oklahoma
with 106 authentic Kiowa and their ponies.
He carries his grass house like a social studies project.
This lead buffalo, these miniature Indians
holding twigs for arrows. Real sized Indians
brandishing blanks. See
these once formidable enemies
of white man
camped together in a frame—