Tuesday, November 30, 2010

hi(gh) again

This is just to say*

Thanksgiving was wonderful. The flights to and from Thanksgiving were not. I have decided I love traveling, hate flying. New plan: the train. No sudden change in cabin pressure.

I found an email in my inbox today from one of my letter writers for PhD apps asking for two or three of the poems I wrote for letter writer's course. The problem is that as much as I enjoyed letter writer's workshop, I had to spend the next quarter learning to write like me again. Which is to say that only one (revision) of the poems from that workshop had survived into my portfolio. So I just spent two hours revising a second poem to send letter writer.

The Dean I work for sat me down again to say that I should be considering my career trajectory, if I don't get into a PhD program. Or if I choose not to go. We're going to have a longer conversation in the next week to discuss this in depth.

I am sick and cold and my PhD applications are starting to feel like not-fun hallucinations. (I'm going to pretend that I've experienced fun hallucinations.)

Reg sat me down yesterday to discuss creating depth in my poetry. This was round two. I think he and I find depth in different places/ways. But he did have some interesting suggestions, which I will ponder like a good student, and then modify to suit my poetics. I did put two poems in direct conversation with each other with promising results. Promising results that will require at least two new poems--two poems that I'm excited by and have started in the midst of my agonizing revisions.

Work Holiday Parties begin this week. First up is the staff lunch on Friday. A nice/edible spread, and then we are "surprised" with the afternoon off to get Christmas shopping done. Too bad all of my Christmas shopping is already done. Too bad I'm going to go shopping anyway. I am an obedient employee.

*with apologies to William Carlos Williams

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

a friend for eg

I really don't like the movie Must Love Dogs. Except for the parts with John Cusack and the parts with Diane Lane. But not the parts when they're together. It never makes sense to me. Except the scene when she runs out of the beauty parlor in the middle of a manicure/pedicure to talk to him and he's with another woman.

There is a point to all this. Early on in the movie, Diane Lane's character Sarah is told by her family that it's time that she stop being alone. One of her sisters says something like "Don't you have a friend for Sarah?" And Sarah's response is "A friend for Sarah. I sound like an episode of Little House on the Prairie."

I steal this line every once in a while. I wouldn't have to if people would just believe I have friends and a social life. Tonight I had a dinner with lots of friends. Or at least a few friends and a few acquaintences. But I think one could be a new friend, so. . . what was the point of all this? Mostly to say that sometimes I steal a line from a movie that no one else will ever recognize. It's not like it's Say Anything.

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.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

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.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010


The thought of it actually makes me kind of sick. Can I really go through another round of this?

Not grad school. Grad school I'm good with. But the application process. . .

Four applications. Due December 15, January 1, January 15, and February 1. You need a degree just to navigate the sites to figure out how to apply.

You need writing samples (check), GRE scores (check), letters of recommendation (checking), money (check-ish), transcripts (.5 check). And you need a letter/statement of intent/purpose. No check yet, but it has to be done by the weekend for those letters of recommendation to happen.

That letter/statement kills me every time. I don't like writing about myself. I am awkward and nervous and scared they won't like me. I come across desperate. Please don't make me join the human race! Please let me stay in school forever!

It's not about school. I love learning, I love classes, but after a decade of a college education. . . there is no good way to end that sentence. I have grown old taking class after class. And I will keep taking class after class. There's no stopping me. I've actually considered another masters if the PhD doesn't happen again. So why the PhD?

I have an MA in literature. In June I'll have an MFA in creative writing. Each of those degrees teaches you do one thing very very well. (Read/talk lit, write/talk poetry, just in case you were wondering.) In lit courses you talk about "what it's about." In creative writing classes you talk about how that same lit works. What only happens in very rare classes (Kim Johnson, John Bennion, Mary Kinzie) is that you talk both about what it's about and how it works and how the craft and the criticism need each other. Kim's creative writing theory class got me thinking about this (what form is appropriate for what argument), Bennion's English lit courses presented it from a different angle (creative writing assignments in a lit course), and Kinzie just insists on speaking both languages at once. I first discovered it in my own work when I realized that the only theory/criticism that would work for my MA thesis was Grossman's Summa Lyrcia, which is on the craft of writing a lyric. And at NU, I come at texts from a new perspective that lit profs aren't expecting because I'm considering what the text says about the craft, and how the craft makes the argument. I have this crazy toolbox to talk about and teach literature and writing, specifically poetry, and I want to use all of that toolbox. And a PhD seems the best way to do this.

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