Tuesday, November 09, 2010

it's all about the disclaimer

Disclaimer: This post is again about poetry and the PhD process. This is not about the events of Sunday, November 7. Those deserve a post all their own.

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I don’t like writing about myself. Maybe that’s why I chose poetry over creative non-fiction, although when I started writing, I didn’t know what creative non-fiction was. I was nine, maybe ten. I couldn’t tell you why I was writing, just that I was. After a (short) lifetime spent reading, it seemed like a natural next step. As for poetry. . . who knows how that happened.

First collection: "I'm Friends with the Birds. Imagine That!" Illustrated. Sometime in elementary school, fourth or fifth grade. Rather dreadful. Probably tucked away in a box for safe keeping and memory lane.

The day my fifth grade teacher told us we were going to write poems in "free verse," which meant they couldn't rhyme. I couldn't imagine writing a poem that didn't rhyme and I told my friends that she couldn't do that to my poetry.

Memorizing "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" and being pretty damn sure it was about stopping by woods on a snowy evening. (Fourth grade)

The first time I found Milosz's anthology A Book of Luminous Things. I sat in the stacks of the library and read Szymborska's "Four o'clock in the morning." And I wanted to write like that.

Those were my beginnings. And then poetry became habit. I sat in the back of classrooms, writing long free verse poems down notebook pages. There weren't that many of us writing in junior high, in high school, so it was something about me that made me different. I was introduced to my first (only-ish) boyfriend because we both wrote poetry. Mine was better.

I made it to college, still thinking that I was special and ususual because I wrote poetry. But I learned pretty quickly that what I was writing wasn't very good poetry. (Insert humiliation when a professor had me share a poem with the class. . .) I don't like being not very good at things, and I decided I would make a better editor. I joined Inscape, spent one semester on the poetry staff, and then became poetry editor for over two years.

I couldn't stay away from poetry. It started with a lit class in contemporary poetry. Kim Johnson came to speak to the class about her poetry. I was fascinated, memorized her poem "Persephone," and read Leviathan with a Hook so many times that I could have recited the order of the poems. I signed up for Kim's workshop. And it was hard, and I wasn't very good, and I met Kristen. Kristen made me realize that poetry/writing can't be done in isolation, as much as we all admire Emily Dickinson.

Kristen joined Inscape, and then Kristen and I joined in a conversation facilitated by Kjerstin Evans, who named the conversation "April." When Kjerstin left Provo to serve a mission, I inherited April (must use that line in a poem sometime). Suddenly there were six of us who loved writing and language and poetry and it was okay if we weren't always good--we were writing together. There is nothing on this earth that feels as good as participating in that friendship/conversation.

Even with Inscape and April, I still wasn't ready to embrace the idea of "me as writer/poet" when I applied to the MA in English at BYU. My nickname was editorgirl and for good reason. I started the American literature track, with a thesis on contemporary American poetry. I found out that I loved teaching writing as much as I loved writing. And I used my thesis topic as an excuse to still take poetry workshops.

It was Kim who woke me up again. She gave a reading at BYU. It was awesome, naturally, and afterward Aaron, one of my April friends, asked me to introduce him to Kim. I wasn't sure if Kim would even know who I was. But she did and she signed that copy of Leviathan that I had memorized and asked me if I was going to take her creative writing theory class.

That theory class is the point everything else radiates from. My confidence as a writer. My realization that I am more engaged, happier, talking about how a text works than what a text means (although I think those conversations should be happening together). My decision to apply to PhD programs in creative writing. I was finally ready to claim that as my place.

If you've been around this blog much, you know what happens next. I apply to three schools, get waitlisted by one, and don't get in. I don't finish my thesis on time, don't get the teaching position because my thesis wasn't done, and somehow everything I had just achieved seemed to collapse around me. But I finish my thesis (thanks to Kim and Lance Larsen), and apply to PhD programs again. This time I doubled the number of schools to double my chances. And I got waitlisted twice and didn't get in to either. In an effort to regroup I retreat to Bountiful and a job as receptionist at my dad's law firm. And Kim emails me a link to a new MFA at Northwestern. I apply in July, get accepted in August, and move to Chicago in September.

I know that last paragraph doesn't seem like it's about poetry, but it's just as much a part of this as writing poems in the back of the classroom or the sonnet-kick I went on my sophomore year of college. Because for once I didn't give up when it seemed like I wasn't good enough. I've given up on a lot of things in my life--piano, voice, driving, dating, math. That community, of April, and then FOB, of Kim and Lance and Muhlestein and professors and friends and family who believed in me when I wasn't giving them any reason to believe in me--this is turning into a Hallmark card. But they kept me in the conversation, kept me writing.

This will be the last time I apply to PhD programs. I've had an amazing two years at Northwestern, and I'm finishing a third that makes me so happy. After a rough start, our MFA poetry group is tight (although not named after a month) and I've added friends and professors to my community of writers. My poetry finally deserves those votes of confidence I've received over the years. I'm going to end my degree with a thesis that I'm proud of and with workshops with two of my favorite profs--Ed Roberson and Simone Muench. This is what I was looking for, and what I needed. I wasn't ready for a PhD three years ago. But I am now. I want to continue to build this community. I want to use my MA and my MFA to not just add to the conversation, but help direct the conversation. I love poetry and I want to talk about it.

I know that I might not get in. It's competitve and it's taken me a long time to get here. I still question myself. But I'm not sure you can be a good poet and not question yourself. If I don't get in, I still have my MFA. I can teach. I can write. I have my friends (maybe not after this long post) and I'll be okay.

But I still really really want in.


Th. said...


I hope your future biographer is taking notes.

Lekili said...

You've always deserved us believing in you...and you've always kept moving forward. Some times with a few pauses, but you've never given up. You deserve brilliant paired with your name regardless of how many degrees you have accumulated.

I'm kind of loving the idea of printing and binding your blog.

Renaissance Girl said...

I want to continue to build this community. I want to use my MA and my MFA to not just add to the conversation, but help direct the conversation. I love poetry and I want to talk about it.

my fave part of this post. these are declarations of power. your power. with you declaring. don't forget that.

Lauren said...

I love you. With all my heart. Love you, love your post, and I can't WAIT until you're home for Thanksgiving. And I really really want you to get in to a program as well. You are spectacular. :)

stevesie said...

i feel like i just barely got to know you

The Weed said...

Your blog has all the character arc and storyline of a good novel. And you're at an awesome part of the story. And as a reader of this "novel" I'm rooting for the protagonist real, real hard right now.

You'll be fine no matter how the next six months go, of course. But if you can get the intellegence of this post and its clear demarcation of your trajectory and purpose into your letters of intent successfully, I can see it making quite a splash. (Not that I know what I'm talking about, because I don't. But seriously, you're so obviously on a journey. You've defined and articulated what you want to do as a artist/scholar. You have a clear direction. You are talented. There seems to be no reason, other than fate itself if it so dictates, that this shouldn't happen for you.)

Maryn said...

You rock.

"In the way . . ." said...

You'll get in and you'll be a star. And, then you can look back and remember that Neal Maxwell never did get a Ph.D.

Kristen said...

Renaissance Girl is right.

& I loved April.

Chimera said...


Cassie Keller Cole said...

I agree with Renaissance Girl and Kristen. I've never thought of you of anything but a powerful poet and contributor. You (and your blog) often remind me why I keep scribbling. Thanks.


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