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Rejections Update: Abandon expectations, all ye who enter here

  • Rejections so far: 57
  • Acceptances: 4
  • Total submissions: 87
  • Total submissions last year at this time: 5

I was pretty confident, in the depths of my Eeyore-esque soul, that I was going to finish out 2017 with no other acceptances, but then I got 3 in one week and now I have to do the other kind of reality testing. I.e., rejections are a part of life, but so are acceptances. (So are three thousand dollar plumbing fixes that have to be re-done, at great damage to one’s dining room ceiling and one’s sanity, but that’s another topic.)

I will not achieve that goal of 100 rejections in 2017. Whereas submitting a packet is something I have control over, whether I get a rejection in any particular time-frame is something I have no control over. Once I hit “send,” it’s in the hands of editors, readers, and slush piles; some of these processes are speedy, others are ponderous, and it’s not up to me how that works; I have to let it progress in its own time. So in thinking about this, I’m now recalibrating my goals. I don’t care so much if I get the rejections, but I’d like to get to 100 submissions this year. It’s doable, and I’ll be really happy to achieve that milestone. And as for 2018? I’m thinking 150 submissions.

The thing that holds me back the most from submitting is a lack of confidence. I have windows of positivity where I feel strongly “I’ve got five good poems,” and I put the packet together, and the only thing that keeps me from sending it out is a time constraint. But what’s much more likely to stop me in my tracks is feeling that I need to revise some more, and not trusting myself to know how to do it, or not able to concentrate, or not possessing a belief in the work and an excitement about it. And that’s a different challenge from just not being able to make the revision work or not being happy with the result. Looking back on my writing career, an insufficient ego has probably been my biggest stumbling block. I think in the project of pushing to get rejections, I’ve been able to confront this to some degree.

Sending out a lot of submissions has also forced me to finish poems faster, to let go of them sooner. I think overall this has been really good for me. But in some ways, I’m also kind of pushing back against it. Sometimes a poem really does need to sit for months or years before you can look at it with clear eyes and see where its structure needs to be rebuilt. A writer friend of mine said recently “I’m a slow writer and I need to understand that and be okay with my process.” I don’t ever want to publish something that I feel is not whole or ready. So my 2018 tactic needs to take that into account. After all, my end goal isn’t just to publish anything; it’s to create a small and lasting structure of meaning.

And that’s all the news from my Spreadsheet of Doom.

Just kidding, I love my Spreadsheet of Doom. 😀

The very, very, very long view.

Rejections Update or: The Speadsheet That Ate My Life

Where I’m at:

  • Rejections: 22
  • Acceptances: 0
  • Total submissions: 48
  • That breaks out to 23 poems being read by editors (or undergrads in charge of slush piles) a total of 207 times.
  • Total submissions last year at this time: 0

Meanwhile I am still doing a one-week-per-month “poetry cleanse,” and that’s the main way I’m generating new work and working through revisions.

Reader, may I be perfectly frank about this experience?

It’s fucking exhausting.

Some organizational issues that have come up:

  • It’s getting harder to keep track of versions. There have been a couple poems I sent out where I find I’m relieved when it gets rejected, because I’ve since revised it. I suppose this is a known hazard of Poet Life.
  • The spreadsheet has become a bit unwieldy. In the process of putting together packets that are appropriate to each journal, I’ve gradually lost my neat “Group A / Group B / Group C” logic. At this point I’m just keeping one poem at no more than 10 places, though, in looking at Duotrope’s data on acceptance rates, I am highly unlikely to have to pull a poem. Here’s a bird’s eye view of the spreadsheet now:

“Hope: A Conceptual Artwork”

But you know, I can deal with all that. The real issue is that I feel I’ve lost any sense of joy in this process. I feel beaten down. I’ve often approached burn-out in my day job, but to come up against it in my writing practice is a fun new experience.

I was watching a documentary on the making of Sense8, and the cast and crew were talking about the way the Wachowskis work:

“It’s really incredible to watch how they work. When they show up on a set, they use everything.”

“They are constantly open to inspiration, and taking inspiration from wherever in the atmosphere, the soil, the people, whatever that’s there at the moment, and take what they have on the page… as a blueprint. They allow it to come to life and be alive in that moment.”

“They enjoy putting things together; they enjoy trying things. We, often times, we’ll cut things one way, it’ll work, but let’s try this way. Let’s try something like this. Let’s try it like that.”

“Let’s just try things, because that’s what we do.”

“We try things. Yeah. Let’s try this.”

As I listened to this (and rewound it like three times) I thought, yes, this is what the work looks like. And what I’m doing now feels like the exact opposite of this. And I realized that I don’t need to keep up with some arbitrary goal. And I felt a weight lift off of me, a weight I didn’t even acknowledge I was carrying.

What is creativity? It’s labor, for sure, sometimes difficult labor. But it leaves you with more satisfaction and ambition, not less. In the past months, I’ve really lost that lightness in the midst of my dark, stressed “submit all the time” mood. “Let’s just try things” implies a sense of deep confidence in your process. It says that possibility is as important as the numbers. That progress is not always linear or planned.

Being rejected repeatedly is also a kind of labor. It’s good to approach it as a game, for sure. But it’s also demoralizing, and I have to acknowledge that.

Am I just not cut out for this?

I could do with less torture, and more trust.

Film editors discussing Wachowski sisters’ process

Rejections Update or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Spreadsheet

While I’m not yet on track to hit 100 rejections in 2017, I do have exponentially more submissions out than I did last year at this time.

What my submissions spreadsheet looks like:

 

  • Rejections so far: 3
  • Acceptances: 0
  • Total submissions: 21
  • Total submissions last year at this time: 0

I currently have three separate groups of poems out to journals/contests; each packet has between three and five poems. I guess you could call this cheating as far as the 100 rejections project goes, but I figured it’s more important to get things circulating than to have each packet be the maximum possible size.

As I send poems out, I’ve been putting them on a master list called “finished.” (Let’s accept on faith for the moment that anything is ever finished.) I added a column for category or theme… which is cool.. now I can see, for example, that I have more Greek myth poems than I thought I did. I have no idea if this means I’ll ever have a themed manuscript. I generally feel that I write too catholically to ever produce such a thing, despite how popular they are right now. But as far as the next iteration of the/a book, well, it’s not exactly “in progress”… but I’ll call it “closer to existing” than it was a few months ago.

What my “finished poems” tab looks like:

What I look at when I start to lose energy:

In other news, a poet friend made this book cover art out of my recent hand x-ray. In honor of International Women’s Day:

Progress

Text: The Art of the Deal; Erasure: Me

Friends, 2017 is here. Is it ever. And each day brings some new offense against democracy, good sense, and human kindness. The kleptocrats insist they will make everyone rich; the body police say they will free us from government intrusion; the grandchildren of immigrants are deporting other immigrants; and the biggest fake of all keeps calling real journalism “fake news.” And as if that weren’t enough, there is growing evidence that our executive branch has been compromised by a foreign dictatorship. We’re living in The Upside Down, complete with Cold War flashbacks. Maybe a few of us will find out we are super-powered like Eleven, but in the meantime, we have to get on our bikes and fight the monsters with little more than unearned confidence, friendship, and breakfast foods.

Eleven, with the Waffles Of Victory.

 

I will admit that I got to the point of exhaustion way too quickly. Having a day job and a job-for-love is already a juggling act; now I’m also integrating my responsibilities as a citizen. One way is to put my money where my mouth is, by supporting institutions like The Washington Post and the ACLU. Another way is to raise my voice. Although I’m sure my regular letters to my weaselly Republican senator go ignored, it does help me to be a high-information voter, aware of legislation as it unfolds. It also feels urgent to put this historical moment into words, and I’m honored that my work has found a home in Thank You For Swallowing and Cleaver’s Life As Activism series.

My recent writing has become much more “political.” But something I think we often forget is that every poem – every piece of artmaking – is a political act. We live in a culture that does not value art except as a commercial endeavor, but creativity has a profound value outside the marketplace, in the lived experience of Americans. Poetry says “what I do matters” and “how I feel matters” and it says “I am paying attention to the world.” Through poetry we have the power to see each other, to practice empathy, to recognize injustice and call it out. The poet and the reader of poetry is not a consumer; she is a citizen; this is our honored role going back to Whitman and Dickinson both.

Many days, I wake up saturated with a feeling of vague horror. But what I try to ask myself is: “how do you want the next four years to look for you?” As writers, we are called to record this moment in time; if all you are doing is writing it down in a journal, you are part of the resistance. Among my writing goals for 2017: be a witness; read more poetry, even just one poem a day; continue with monthly poetry accountability exercise; and collect 100 rejections in 2017.

In solidarity,

Jeanne

50,000 people at the Women’s March in Philadelphia

 

Resistance flair. Because jewelry is never not relevant.

What’s next?

I’m still in a state of desolation and shock. And, if we’re being honest, I’m also afraid. The number of anxiety attacks I’ve had in the last day alone… sheesh.

But I like order and I like lists. So here are my plans as they’ve evolved in the past week.

“What you can do, or dream you can, begin it” – Goethe

Take action.

And this is important: take action in a way that you can sustain. Not everybody is cut out for the kinds of action extroverts feel comfortable with. I’m all for stretching my abilities, but choosing a method that goes against your essential personality will make you miserable, and miserable people give up. I truly believe that introverts and high sensitivity folks have something unique and necessary to contribute. Stay open to the ways you can leverage your particular strengths. (I’m so sorry I used “leverage” as a verb. We’re in dire times, okay?)

Choose some things you can do and keep doing. Set up recurring donations – some good organizations are mentioned at the end of John Oliver’s show (and he has other bracing things to say as well). Volunteer, in any capacity at all. Get engaged in local politics. Put your representatives on speed dial, because emails and social media might feel good, but don’t seem to impact much.

“Garbage in, garbage out.” – Apocryphal

Stop reading, and sharing, crap news sources.  Keep your critical thinking skills honed. Try not to get sucked in to either too-optimistic or too-pessimistic predictions.

“The Founding Fathers gave the free press the protection it must have to bare the secrets of government and inform the people.”  – Hugo Black

Support the free press.

Donald Trump has shown a consistent hostility towards journalists and the free press – his campaign revoking press passes willy-nilly right up to the moment I’m writing this. He has stoked actual physical violence against journalists. That’s in keeping with his intentional policy of obfuscation (eg, the non-existent tax returns, his ridiculous cribbed doctor’s letter). So fight back by supporting transparency and good reporting. Buy a subscription to a newspaper – national, local, or both.

“Put on your own oxygen mask first.”

Get enough sleep. Get enough to eat. I know there are approximately four thousand articles to read and ten thousand comments to make and eleven bazillion mansplainers out there on social media, doing their mansplainy thing. In the long run, though, 85% of that will fall by the wayside. Better to read a book or watch TV and gather your strength for the next action.

And by the same token…

Resist predictions. I know there’s an entire industry built on breathlessly predicting what will happen next. NPR and everybody else is spending a ton of time talking about the kind of president Donald Trump might be. I understand journalists have to have this discussion, but I don’t. I want to stay informed, but there’s a fine line between informed and wasting my energy freaking out about things that haven’t happened. We don’t know exactly what will happen. And for sure some of it will be very bad. But the best way to be prepared for very bad is to stop anticipating it, and instead build up our reserves of energy and determination.

“What you focus on expands” – Oprah Winfrey

Here’s an unpleasant truth: We’ve given Donald Trump way too much attention. I’d even argue that that attention is what got him where he is. The sheer spectacle of rightwing batshittery; those stupid, sixth-grade-reading-level tweets. He’s had practice being a character in a reality TV show; it’s his favorite role.

I have given Donald Trump all the focus I intend to give him. I don’t want to spend any more time thinking about him; I don’t want to spend time looking at him or listening to him. There is nothing he’s going to say that will be outside his norm, which I’ve become an unwitting student of. Have you heard this man speak or read his tweets? His communication skills are, how best to say this… streamlined. He seems to use about a hundred words tops, and unlike a poet, he hasn’t even gotten the good out of those hundred. On any given day, you can get the news about what he and his professional hatemonger buddies are planning in about five minutes. Is there nuance? Sure. But not nearly as much as we’ve been conditioned to believe by the 24-hour news cycle.

Here is who I am paying attention to instead: our Democratic leaders. The ones who have been fighting this a lot longer than I have. The ones who have read the briefing books, written their own books, taught law school, community-organized, put in the intellectual and emotional labor necessary to have some thoughts worth listening to: Barack and Michelle Obama, Hillary Clinton; Elizabeth Warren, Nancy Pelosi, Bernie Sanders, Cory Booker, Tammy Duckworth. And all the other leaders I don’t know about yet, who are going to emerge from this crucible.

“some chick says thank you for saying all the things I never do / I say you know the thanks I get is to take all the shit for you
it’s nice that you listen / it’d be nicer if you joined in / as long as you play their game girl / you’re never going to win” – Ani DiFranco

So you’re a member of the “majority” and you want to be an ally. Put on a safety pin, don’t put on a safety pin. I think there are legitimate reasons to do both. But white people: The point here is not to imagine yourself as Social Justice James Bond, swooping in to save the day so you can feel great about yourself. Of course you should research de-escalation and peaceful intervention techniques. (And this wise cartoon on how to defuse harassment.)

But what’s equally important is to be the white person who speaks up to other white people. Be the white person who disrupts the dominant narrative of whiteness. There are times when I’ve heard things that are just not okay. And I was so surprised by it, each time, that I didn’t say anything. Because I wasn’t prepared. I can get prepared. I can figure out some standard phrases to address sexist / racist / xenophobic comments. I can wear a safety pin, but also a Black Lives Matter pin. Because the place where I might have the most impact is in conversation with other white people, with other white women.

Standing up for the underdog and being a hero is such an appealing notion. Engaging your own people in difficult conversations is a lot less appealing. And here’s where I’m gonna go against my previous point and say: focus on the hard thing and not just the easy thing.

“This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.” – Toni Morrison

Writers: keep writing. Write how it makes you feel. Write what you see. If you’re white, write how whiteness informs you and break it down. Write how misogyny informs your life and disassemble it. Re-read all of Angela Carter’s short stories and remember how to be subversive. I know this comes naturally to you. And know this: Poets and outsiders have always been essential to the health of the body politic. Writing is self-examination and is action. As Nigella Lawson put it in an interview recently, “I prefer to be paid to think, not to worry.” Don’t worry; think. Don’t worry; make art. (Don’t boo; vote.)


A man with fascist tendencies just got handed the most important job in the world, after a campaign in which sexism, racism and xenophobia were a feature, not a bug. A man who felt fine stoking racist and anti-Muslim hate and has made no apology for it to date. A man who explicitly said he feels entitled to sit down  next to a woman and put his hand up her skirt. That guy. All of our worst nightmares. The Pussy Grabber in Chief. He’s probably going to go down in history as the worst president of all time (sorry, W, to knock you off your pedestal). I’ve known people like him and they don’t change, because they simply don’t value change. We’ve seen the real him. So here’s my last piece of advice:

Don’t ever, ever, let this become normal. Maybe you were always in this fight or maybe you just started or maybe, like me, you’ve always felt useless. But if you were useless, then why were he and his merry band of misogynists so eager to knock you down?

When you’re lying in bed, trying to fall asleep, thinking,”Oh my god, what are the next four years going to bring?” ask yourself instead “What do I want the next four years to look like?” Because like Hillary Clinton said,

our constitutional democracy demands our participation, not just every four years but all the time. So let’s do all we can to keep advancing the causes and values we all hold dear; making our economy work for everyone not just those at the top, protecting our country and protecting our planet and breaking down all the barriers that hold any American back from achieving their dreams.

… This loss hurts, but please never stop believing that fighting for what’s right is worth it.
 
… I believe we are stronger together and we will go forward together. And you should never, ever regret fighting for that. You know, scripture tells us, “Let us not grow weary in doing good, for in due season, we shall reap if we do not lose heart.”

From a heartbroken poet

I feel physically ill. I feel like my soul has been punched. I feel the worst cultural disappointment I have ever experienced.

I am not alone in these feelings.

Hillary is me; I identify with her. The hardest working, most earnest, passionate and compassionate girl. Trying to make something good. Driven by an inner light. Seen truly half the time; reviled and abused the other half.

I do the only thing I can do. I grieve.

I reaffirm who matters: women, children, people of color, people working for minimum wage, people with disabilities, LGBTQIA people, migrants, refugees. People who occupy those spaces and more. This is the body of my country.

I do the only thing I can do. I hold them precious.

I do the only thing I can do in this moment. I take care of my house. I wash the dishes kindly; I thank them for being serviceable and beautiful. I husband my space and the things in it.

This is how I make meaning.

I take pictures of small things I find beautiful. Flowers, berries, a crescent moon. I am open-hearted to beauty and I create beauty in many small ways, over and over.

Beauty is not frivolous. Remember: bread, but also roses.

I do not engage with angry and hateful people. Not even if they’re related to me. That’s not my job right now.

I understand the deep heart of this error for what is: a cancerous, self-hating id. He doesn’t love himself. He doesn’t love anything. He seeks power and attention because it’s all he has. And it’s less than nothing.

You have more than him. You are more than him in even your smallest moments. Because you are real to yourself.

I cherish my family and friends. I give kindness and compassion and I see it reflected back to me.

I do the only thing I can do. I take care of myself.

I look for the ones like me. Artists, sensitives, radicals, thinkers.

I remember we are spirits in bodies. The spirit is invisible but it is not fragile. We’re not done. We will get up again.

I do the only thing I can do. I write.

The one thing you can do, do it.

In each humble and particular moment, do it.

Poetry accountability project #3

still

 

You know what’s a clever thing to do when you’re working a lot of 12-hour days? Start a poetry accountability project with some friends.

Really. It’s SUCH a good idea.

But my usual Instigator Friend said let’s do it. So here I am on the other side of a very sleep-deprived week, and I have seven new drafts.

See, I have a real problem. My problem is, I often wait to write new stuff until the mood strikes me. You know the mood I mean – the “let’s write something!” mood.

Let me tell you about the mood. The mood is very nice to have, in those golden moments when it presents itself.

The mood is also:

  • surprisingly rare
  • misleading
  • easily crushed by anxiety and depression
  • fickle
  • unreliable
  • and generally an asshole.

Seriously, fuck the mood.

In my experience, writing sometimes happens when you wait for it to happen.

But when you plan for it to happen, it happens a whole lot more. Sometimes what you produce sucks and sometimes it’s a workable draft, but you need both of these to happen in order to build the body of work.

I’ve done two poetry “grinds” previously (see here and here). (And here’s another great post about the practice.) This time my Instigator Friend called it a ‘”cleanse” and suggested we do it for a comparatively brief seven days.

A week really seems perfect – it’s long enough to produce both some junk and some good stuff, without too much pressure. But it’s not so long that the sleep deprivation will actually kill you. In fact we liked the outcome so much that we are planning to do it once a month. So in theory every month would look like this: one week for generating new work; the other three weeks for revising and submitting.

This time around, I came into it with a lot more intention. During the day I would focus on something and think “I want to write a poem about that.” (These were not grand topics of import to the humanist project. These were like “I’m going to write about that bird outside my office” or “I’m going to write about my neighbor’s dog.”) Then at about 9pm, when I should have been going to bed, I’d open a Word doc and start the poem. Let me tell you, the first things I write are always crap. I mean, always.

Here – for your amusement – are some opening lines:

I don’t LIKE pantoums, that’s all

I’ve never ever had one work at all

eve, eva, ever, either

is she  never never neither

eva, evita, evelyn, evie,

write something sexy

about a man and a woman

who aren’t supposed to be together

 

And then: I kept going. I wrote something. Something at least passable. Because I had to. Because I said I would.

 

Major recurring topic: [birds]

BIRDS!

New Year’s

Today is the first day of a year without my oldest nephew in it. That’s been coming for six months. He was 23. He should be 24 now. In June he killed himself. One is reluctant to say that. One feels they are doing a violence to the listener to even say it.

Yes, the initial shock diminishes.

You can’t really think about it all at once. You think about it for five minutes, and as you comprehend the reality, your brain kind of shuts down. Then you take your body to the next thing. Wash dishes or read an email or something.

A lot of my friends had a year marked by losses. People keep saying how they hope 2015 will be better. But why should it get “better”? “Better” would be if he had his life still and his life improved some – even a little. “Better” is not time passing. “Better” is not what we graduate to. There is no better. There is only dumb persistence.

If I seem to be silent on this topic, it’s not because I’m better or anything is better. It’s because I lack the words to describe despair.

Maybe it’s like walking through a desert. There’s water, there’s food. There are, often, beautiful things in the desert. You’re not in danger of dying from the desert, but you also know you’ll never come out of it. The light is harsh and too bright and ceaseless.

I am angry at time for passing. It seems to me the world should have halted on June 16. That time should not keep moving forward without my nephew’s existence. It should have just stuttered to a stop. Thanksgiving comes along and I think, What are you doing here? I didn’t ask for you. You’re missing something. Go away. Then Christmas shows up and I think, Didn’t you talk to Thanksgiving as you passed in the hall? Now New Year’s. They never seem to get the message. They have no grace.

I wake up and I don’t move. It’s hard to surface from the feeling of dread. I don’t remember my dreams. I wish I would. But coming to wakefulness is such a long shoal. By the time I get there, those pieces have washed out to sea.

Maybe comprehending suicide is like an asymptote. The line that gets closer and closer to a horizon it never touches.

 

 

Better Poems for Ferguson

The Paris Review, in a presumed effort at topicality, recently published Frederick Seidel’s The Ballad of Ferguson, Missouri – a kind of semi-ironic, chilly, not very good poem about the unrest in Seidel’s home state. And they are, rightfully, getting some blowback for it. Here’s hoping they hear the criticism, think about it, and publish something better in the coming months. Or how about several somethings better? How about a whole issue devoted to Black voices? Now that would be a thing, Paris Review.

Some have  said that white people shouldn’t say anything at all about Ferguson. Then there’s Danez Smith’s Open Letter to White Poets, which takes the exact opposite tack. If you are a white poet, there might not be a perfect solution. But here are some things:

1) Listen, listen, and listen again before speaking.

2) Just sit with your discomfort; it will prove instructive.

And 3) For God’s sake, don’t write a poem about how you’ll never have to worry about your children being gunned down in the street. We know already.

Without further ado: recent poems by poets of color (ie, the Paris Review Antidote)

Roll Call for Michael Brown by Jason McCall

alternate names for black boys by Danez Smith

not an elegy for Mike Brown by Danez Smith

Rules for My Future Son Should I Have One by LaToya Jordan

How Do I Love Thee? A love poem from the Ferguson, MO police dept to Black residents: An informal emulation of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnet 43 by Aya de Leon and Like flowers in the sky by Vanessa Huang

I Feel Most Colored When I Am Thrown Against A Sharp White Background: An Elegy by Morgan Parker

Sonnet Consisting of One Law by Lynne Thompson

a work in progress by Mahogany L. Browne

Survival Guide For Animals Born in Captivity by Camille Rankine

How to Not Get Killed by the NYPD by Metta Sama

The Gun Joke by Jamaal May

Two Poems to #StandWithFerguson by Nancy Bevilaqua and D.M. Aderibigbe

#BlackPoetsSpeakOut on Tumblr

And this Twitter feed is basically functioning as one long poem at the moment. (Dec 3 11pm)

Poet Claudia Rankine on the violent deaths of black men at PBS NewsHour (Rankine reads an excerpt from Citizen). And Using poetry to uncover the moments that lead to racism (video).

bitter crop by Kelli Stevens Kane

Transition Magazine at the Hutchins Center I Can’t Breathe series

Winter Tangerine Review’s Hands Up Don’t Shoot edition

Posts of interest

#BlackPoetsSpeakOut, But Is America Listening? by Minal Hajratwala

The Spontaneous Overflow of Powerful Feelings: Poetry as a Political Response by Jonathon Sturgeon at Flavorwire

Teaching Ferguson and Failing (to whom I owe many of the above links) by Caolan Madden at Weird Sister

Open Letter to White Poets by Danez Smith at Squandermania and Other Foibles

An Open Letter to the Paris Review and After the Ballad by Shannon Barber at About that Writing thing

Poems That Are Better Than “The Ballad of Ferguson, Missouri” at Miss Fickle Reader

The Stand With Ferguson series at Apogee

The Bearing Witness to Ferguson series at Entropy

After The Ferguson Decision, A Poem That Gives Name To The Hurt by Syreeta McFadden at NPR

Who’s Writing the Real “Ballad of Ferguson, Missouri”? by Annie Finch at HuffPost

If you’d like to try your hand at writing an actual ballad to Ferguson, see The Real Ballad of Ferguson Missouri Ballad Challenge. (Deadline Dec 15.)

I’ll continue to update as I find more.

To MFA or not to MFA…

… that is the question. And I’m not the first to ask it, obviously. There’s a near-continual debate, in writing circles, about the MFA – is it good for poetry? is it bad for poetry? – who cares! can we even afford it? What happens to a person of color in an MFA program? I’m strangely relieved that the debate is still a lively one. And I don’t see it dying down anytime soon.

I had a friend who was in school for her MA/PhD, and she had a classmate who had already completed an MFA from Iowa, and was getting an MA in art history at a prestigious liberal arts college. I was like, dude, you’re telling me he goes from highly regarded program to highly regarded program, just collecting degrees that interest him? Yep, he was. He was – and I feel like you can see this coming – from a well-off family. I wished, fervently, that I was him. Well, not a dude – but intellectually curious, gifted, and rich. You get the idea. A life of studying things I love? Sign me the fuck up!

So if I were independently wealthy, I’d get an MFA. If I wanted to teach, I’d certainly do it. And I think it would be awesome. But so would all of life be kind of awesome if I didn’t have a day job, worries about retirement, and all the various constraints on my limited life energy that most of us have.

I used to spend a lot of time thinking about how much I wanted more freedom. But in day-dreaming, I kind of shortchanged the freedoms I do have. I can’t throw all my structures away and go live in a yurt. But I can make choices, find out they’re right for me, or all wrong for me, abandon one path for another, abandon one path for no path, start over, double down, doubt everything I’ve ever written, send it out anyway. And maybe it’s the cynicism of encroaching middle age, but I spend a lot less time fixated on the pie in the sky these days. I suspect that a certain amount of pragmatism is a necessary step to actually getting what I want.

So here’s my life: I have a non-literary day job, and I squish poetry in wherever it will fit. Poetry, for its part, is remarkably agreeable about this. It understands my need to do sometimes a little, occasionally a lot, go down plenty of blind alleys, and on some days ignore it completely (mystery leak in kitchen, evening spent crying, important episodes of Gilmore Girls to watch, etc.)

It’s true that I often feel like less of a Serious Poet because I don’t have an MFA. I’m continually impressed by people who pursue them, whether full-time or on top of a job, or with small children at home, because they want to teach or because they just feel like it’s the right thing. We’re a tribe. I want success for every writer. I support every writer doing what she most wants to do. But I also accept that some things are not me, or not me at this moment.

At this moment, I think my writing benefits more from small, persistent actions than from grand, sweeping commitments.

And poetry holds, generously and gently, the imperfect life. The life of compromises. The life of the worried, the hopeful, the confused. I’d even go so far as to say poetry welcomes it.