Monday, December 10, 2012

Booklist #5

Last list of the semester: Love, loved, loved Cynthia Huntington. She and Larry Levis are the two finds of this semester for me. Perhaps I should not therefore have been surprised when I realized that The Radiant was the winner of the 2001 Levis Poetry Prize. You can read her work on, Verse Daily, and Orion Magazine, and there's a great interview on the National Book Foundation web site.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Booklist #4

It was prose poem month for packet #4:

The prose poem kind of mystifies me. I thought I'd have a better understanding of what it does and how it works as a result of reading so many and writing about one of Simic's, but I don't. I wrote two of my own this month, just to try something new, and they were both pretty terrible. All the decisions I made about htem felt arbitrary.

I imagine this is how writers of formal verse felt when free verse showed up...

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Booklist #3

It was apparently "women poets" month for this packet. I'd never heard of any of them (no surprise, I guess, since I am such a comparative newcomer to poetry): I wrote papers on Barresi and Rosser and read most of Grahn. I only read a little of Kasischke and wished I'd had time for more; she's on my list to read again in the future.

Barresi was by far my favorite. I love her statement on PoetryNet (probably because it confirms so many of my own prejudices) and there's a very nice interview with her on "The Creative Community." If this interests you, you can read some of her work on West Branch and Poetry Daily.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Hi there!

Remember me? The one who was going to blog her way through her first semester? The one who disappeared in September?

What the hell happened?

I'm still not sure, but I think it involved the trifecta of life, work, and the semester. My plan is to make up for it in December (a plan that also extends to exercise and eating something besides takeout) and try to do better in the new year. I turned in my last packet on Monday and I've got a few end-of-semester tasks to do this week. Once that's out of the way, here's how I plan to spend my "free" time:

  • Organizing. Organizing my office, my filing cabinet, my jewelry box, my sock drawer. Nothing in our house doesn't look like a hurricane hit it. I don't care if everything's filthy, but clutter drives me crazy.1
  • Cooking ahead. Making and freezing spaghetti sauce. Making and freezing chicken and vegetable stock. Making and freezing chili2. Making homemade granola.
  • Reading for pleasure.
  • Reading prose for pleasure.
  • Sleeping. This weekend, for example, I have not ruled out the possibility of going to bed tonight and not getting up until Monday morning.
  • And, of course, blogging. First up: my reading for the last three packets.

Talk to you soon!

1 My friend Hal likes to say, "But, Kathleen, why drive when you're close enough to walk?"
2 Reorganizing the freezer.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Two Different Views on Poetry

Ben: What are you reading?

KT: A Dictionary of Poetic Terms

Ben: Does if have a definition for poem in there?

KT: "poem (from Greek for 'thing created'): an artistically organized use of language that cannot be replaced by paraphrase...." What's so funny?

Ben: Oh, I think I could paraphrase.


Ben: "This sure is a good urn. It makes me happy."

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Booklist #2

I'm behind on everything, so this posting will just be a crummy picture (sorry!) and a list. This month's books were:

I read all of the first three and part of the fourth and liked them in roughly the (alphabetical) order they appear. I wrote essays on Engman, Halliday, and Matthews.

I am not writing or reading—or sleeping—enough.... but more soon, I promise!

Sunday, August 19, 2012


Because some of you1,2 asked, I'll be posting my reading lists here each month. I'm not required—or even supposed—to read all the books on the list for each month ("If you read all of them you're doing it wrong"). I'm also expected to read them interleaved with each other, an approach that makes me more than a little dizzy—four poems from one poet, then four poems from another, and I end up with no idea which is which. I'm hoping to get better at it with practice.
My first month's selections were:

I read Wright, Goldbarth, Levis, and some of Gallagher. I liked Wright and fully expected to, and liked Goldbarth more the more I read him. I'll whine more about my problems finding women poets I love in another post.

But the gem, for me, was Levis. I have the vague sense that I've heard of him somewhere (when I say his name I hear it pronounced affectionately by a former teacher), but I can't remember any poems. As I read through each book, I left sticky notes on the pages with poems that I might come back to at essay-writing time. In The Selected Levis this was close to half the pages in the book. My favorite, and the one about which I wrote an essay, is "Slow Child with a Book of Birds." I can't find it anywhere online, but you can read a selection of work by this poet who takes my breath away here and here.

1 Hi, Ed (I know I owe you an email)!
2 Hi, Mark!

Sunday, August 5, 2012

What Elizabeth Bishop and I Have in Common Besides the Fact That We Were Both Born in Worcester, Massachusetts

Packet #1 is wending its way southward, even as we speak1 and I'm having the expected let-down: everything could have been better. I expect to feel this way a lot over the next two years. It's hard on my grade-grubbing, perfectionist little heart to have sent things that I'm not thrilled with, even when I know it's probably good for me.

When I'm blue about the state of a poem, especially in the early innings, I go looking around the internet for early drafts of Elizabeth Bishop's magnificent One Art. You can see, in those early versions, the glimmer of what is to come and why the poet was excited about this material. But you also see how flat and prose-y it starts out, how it's a lousy first draft just like anybody else's lousy first draft. Just like my first drafts. And I smile, because if even freaking Elizabeth Bishop wrote terrible first drafts, then there's hope that with time and effort my ugly little poems may one day be at least presentable.

I try not to remember that she spent 20 years revising The Moose.

1 Actually, it's still sitting in the bottom of the mailbox, since the next pickup isn't until 6:30 tomorrow morning, but, metaphorically speaking, it's on its way.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Conversations with My Advisor

I've been talking with my advisor a lot this week.

Well, not actually talking, since these conversations are taking place inside my head.

And not so much with my advisor, really, as with my idea of my advisor, since we've previously met for the grand total of an hour.

One of the significant ways in which the low-residency model differs from a traditional program is the manner of communication. My advisor and I exchange long letters (or MP3s) once a month. In between, I can call in an emergency or ask quick questions about logistics via email, but that's it. All the questions I want to ask, anything I want him to understand about my work or about me—I need to make sure I get them in my letter.

People used to write letters like this all the time, of course. But I think the last time I wrote a letter—a real letter—was in college when I was studying in Italy (and then only because transatlantic phone calls were too expensive). So I started working on my letter at the beginning of this month, adding things as I think of them. I'm struggling with tone in the letter even more than in the poems or essays; it's the self-evaluation all over again.

The strangest thing, though, is the realization of how one-sided this conversation is. My advisor takes up a lot of space in my thoughts right now, and I'm sure that I take up comparatively little in his. He's probably ramping up for his fall semester, happy that to have another week until the packets from his low-residency advisees start to arrive. Meanwhile, I'm obsessing over whether it's OK to by funny in my cover letter and, if so, how much, and will he like the jokes or think they are a waste of his time or that that I'm unserious or ....

Maybe I should work on my essay instead.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Week 1: Still Standing (Just)

My advisor and I have agreed on the following deliverables1 for the semester: 12-15 brief critical essays, 12-20 new poems, and 12-20 revisions spread out over 5 packets. In a probably futile effort to avoid a once-a-month frenzy of last-minute packet-finishing and its attendant despair, I've broken it down into weekly goals: 1 new poem, 1 revised poem, 1 essay, and 1 book read. I get to skip the essay the last week of each cycle.2 The expectation in the program is that students spend about 25 hours a week on their course work.

The good news is that I met my goal for the first week. The bad news: I met it by the skin of my teeth at 10:30 Sunday night. I kept a spreadsheet of how I spent my time on poetry-related tasks3. I only got to 20 hours this week, but that's twice what I used to spend pre-MFA. The majority of that—almost half—was spent on the critical essay.

Despite the fact that I was an undergraduate English major and wrote nothing but these kinds of papers for four years (plus a few in Italian), the essays have been my big worry. The grade-grubbing perfectionist in me wants to write brilliant gems for the approval of my advisor. That will not be happening, as I don't yet have nearly the technical understanding of poetry to do it.

And besides, I keep reminding myself, the whole point of getting an MFA, for me, is to take risks, try new things, and grow as a poet. So, for perhaps the first time in my education, I'm writing essays that actually are essays—attempts to think about something on paper, to learn by writing. I am consciously trying to stretch myself: to use terms and ideas I'm not yet fully comfortable with, to state conclusions with conviction, as if I knew what I was talking about. My first essay, on a poem by Albert Goldbarth, includes a mention of meter (the specifics of which I have to look up every time I want to talk about it). This week I plan to write about a Larry Levis poem that I like very much and don't understand at all; I'm hoping to change that.

The results may not be great essays, but I'm starting to understand the many ways in which that is not the point.

1 Why, yes, I am a software engineer.
2 Woo!
3 Yes, really, I'm an engineer. Also, spreadsheets? WAY more fun than actual writing.

Thursday, July 5, 2012


I've been incredibly fortunate this residency in my roommate draw. Rebecca and I are about the same age and keep roughly the same hours. She is neat, but not crazy about it. We both like a fair amount of quiet1 time. She does not seem to mind that I swear like a longshoreman. She is a fiction writer, so it's interesting to get a perspective on that part of the program. But best of all, she is nice and fun and really interesting to talk to. Also, she shares her wine.

Since I only had a roommate for one summer in college (and it was someone I already know and liked), this was another aspect of the residency that I was worried about.2 I would have settled for not-a-total-disaster, and instead I was lucky enough to meet a new friend.

Earlier this week we were getting ready to head out to another afternoon of lectures, when she said, "I know it's early, and it's fine if this is not something you want to do, I understand completely, but I'm wondering if next residency you might want to room ..."

"Yes," I said, interrupting her. "Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. I've been trying to work up my courage to ask you the same question."

We may even ask if we can get the same room again.

1 FYI, I appear to have ended up in the non-social wing of the dormitory, and that turns out to be a very good thing.
2 I know, I know: was there any aspect of this residency I wasn't worried about?3
3 Ben says, no, there was not.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

That's the Plan

I met with my advisor on Monday to discuss my semester plan. Each faculty member does things a little differently, and mine had me submit a self-evaluation in advance of our meeting. I was supposed to give a little background about myself, write about what I thought the strengths and weaknesses of my poetry were, discuss influential authors and teachers, and tell anything about myself that I was comfortable sharing.

I confess I let a little of the crazy out on the page and a half I turned in. We're not going to have a lot of real-time interaction, and there are things about my current process—the cramped perfectionism in particular—that I really want to work on early in this program. I slid the paper under his door late Sunday afternoon and then spent the evening worrying that I had portrayed myself as even more high-strung than I actually am. Which is a lot.

It was, of course, fine. We met for about an hour and talked a little about the authors I had read and what I wanted to accomplish this semester. He said he liked my poetry (I think they pretty much have to say that, but it was still nice to hear), and went over the books he was going to suggest I read and the reasons behind his choices. As we talked, he would pause and think for a second or two, and then add or remove books from the list. When it came time to fill out the plan document, he would fall silent and stare off into the middle distance for a few moments before articulating each bullet point. It felt kind of like he was meditating over me.

I was reminded of a lecture I attended here about writer's block, given by a graduating student who is also a psychotherapist. He talked about having his own block treated by bringing his laptop into his therapist's office, where the therapist just watched him as he wrote for 30 minutes, and he talked about how helpful he found it.

I think something similar was happening in my meeting with my advisor. There is something about that quality of sustained attention that feeds the soul, and I suspect this is one of the intangible but real benefits of an MFA program. I could feel some clenched-up parts of my brain let go just a little, and I started to look forward, hopefully, to the work ahead.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

The Sorting Hat Has Spoken

OK, so assignment of advisors is not actually like the Sorting Hat at Hogwarts (too bad). Preference forms were due to the program office yesterday at 2:30, the committee met yesterday afternoon, and assignment sheets were posted on bulletin boards around campus by the time I got out of a visiting author's reading at 8:15. We first-semester students were assured (again) that the process was all about logistics, and not about personalities.

Given that, I am really happy about the advisor I was assigned. He was not originally on my short list based on the teaching statements (faculty descriptions of how they work with students) that I received prior to the residency: although I really liked what he said about his approach, he also stated that he responded to student packets with an mp3 recording and I thought that would make it hard to remember what was said. But I met with him during speed dating and asked about it, and came away reassured. His lecture at this residency was also great, and I'm looking forward to working with him.

Our first meeting, a group meeting with all of his assignees for this semester, is at 11:45.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Day 3: Nothing at Stake

Two big anxieties got crossed off my list today: the interviews with faculty as potential advisors (referred to around here as "speed dating") and the first day of workshop.

Halfway though this residency, students will be matched with a faculty advisor for the semester. There are 12 poetry faculty members taking students this time around, and first-semester students specify 6 names of people that they would like to work with. The program office does the matching (the faculty have no say), and since it's such a big pool, I felt that the the best I could really do was make sure that I had six people I was compatible with. The first couple of semesters are for experimentation and exploration, and everybody works a little differently, but we were assured (repeatedly) that we'd all be fine with whoever we got. Forms are due on Saturday, but I turned mine in today; match day is Sunday.

Workshop was great. The leaders—two writers I like very much—spent a lot of time at the beginning talking about process and expectations. The highlight for me was when one of them said, "I know it doesn't seem like it, but there is really nothing at stake here." He pointed out that we can try out advice from the workshop and, if we don't like it, we can go back to the way we had it before. I found this very freeing (at least until I started freaking out about critiquing other people's work again) and I'm going to try to remember it for a long time.

Day 2: Already Toast

Yesterday I got oriented. Four times. Administrative orientation. Academic orientation. New student orientation. Library orientation. Throw in a campus tour, a lunch with faculty, a critical writing discussion, and the first lecture I attended. I had to make myself go to dinner instead of going straight to bed.

The advice I heard repeatedly: "Pace yourself." "Don't go to everything." I resisted this advice on Tuesday because (a) I'm so freaking tough, they don't know how tough I am, and (b) I want to get everything possible out of my time (and money!) here.

But I learn fast. I skipped the faculty reading last night and followed my roommate's advice to color-code my schedule.1 I marked lectures and events that I'm required to attend or really don't want to miss, things I'm definitely going to skip, and things I'll go to if I'm not completely wiped out. I feel moderately in control.

Today is my first day of workshop. My roommate (a fiction writer) and I both agree that we're not so much worried about having our own writing workshopped as we are about giving feedback to others. I feel so much less confident about my critiquing skills as a poet compared to my non-fiction days, but I guess that's part of the point of being here.

Also on tap today: faculty advisor speed dating!

1Why yes, I did bring three shades of highlighter. I'm me, remember?

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

First Day of School

I've arrived at my first residency. I stopped off in Hanover to have lunch with an old college classmate, and to pick up a blanket and sweatshirt at the Co-op, having forgotten that "summer" in northern New England is not equal to "hot" or even, necessarily, "warm."

I told my friend that I was as nervous now as I was the first time I went to college. For me, anxiety about fitting in always manifests itself as a preoccupation with clothes. My subconscious apparently believes that if I can just get the externals right then all the other things that feel wrong will take care of themselves.

This anxiety is most effectively alleviated with a short course of retail therapy. For college, I insisted that my mother buy me an astonishing number of chinos in all shades. Had to have chinos. Which I wore for a week and then never again (Sorry, Ma).

This time, Sunday found me making an emergency L.L. Bean run for ... chinos. Evidently I still believe that preppy clothes are what all the Cool Kids are wearing.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

"Tell a Dream, Lose a Reader"

If the Henry James quote above is correct, one of you will abandon me upon reading this post.1

I've started getting information on my upcoming first residency, and recently had to turn in poems for my first workshop. Last Sunday morning a nightmare woke me from a sound sleep. In it, I arrived at my residency without my luggage. Not because it had gotten lost in transit—I drove myself there—but because I had somehow failed to bring it. So I was there with only the clothes I stood up in. I also forgot to attend the mandatory dinner for new students on the first night, and I lost my laptop because I left it in a computer lab and couldn't find my way back.

Do you think I might be anxious?

My dreams frequently crack me up (as this one does) because they are such English major dreams: heavy on symbol and allegory, begging for interpretation, as if my emotional state were interchangeable with "Sailing to Byzantium."

Farewell, you fainthearted reader, you...

1 Please don't let it be you, Mom!

Sunday, April 29, 2012

How Do You Celebrate Getting into Grad School?

Not by going to Disneyland. At least not if you're me.

Nope, I celebrated by writing a terrible, terrible poem. An execrable poem. A poem for which a call to FEMA would not have been out of order.

I sat reading my terrible poem, swooning with humiliation, seeing no way out of the hash I had made of a promising subject, when it hit me: I had no business in an MFA program. My acceptances were a fluke, a mass hallucination across multiple admissions committees, and the only thing to do was change by name and move to Iceland. I am entirely unsuited to life in the cold and dark, but at least I would be able to cross "Northern Lights" off my bucket list. Eventually.

Fortunately, cooler heads (Ben's) prevailed, and I realized that the delusion was mine. Not my judgement about the poem—it was terrible—but about the magical properties of an acceptance letter. It turns out that admission to an MFA program does not, after all, cause the Poetry Fairy to whack you over the head with her silver wand. It turns out that you still have to write an unbearably awful first draft; that you have to figure out some way to make that dog a little better; that you rewrite until you can't even see the poem anymore; that you then realize that it is still awful and you have also created a whole new set of problems. And just like before, you repeat this process over and over, until you can look at your poem without cringing, until it looks nothing like the poem you were originally trying to write but at last looks like the poem it wanted to be all along.

Who knew?

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Big Decisions

I received the first bit of paperwork for my upcoming residency in June: the Housing Form. Most of the questions were pretty easy. Do you smoke? No. Do you require a room on the first floor of the dorm, which has no elevator? No. Roommate preferences. Hmm, I don't know anyone yet. Is there a check box for "Just nobody crazy, please"? No? OK, leaving that one blank.

Then came the question that gave me pause: Do you prefer to stay in a quiet or more social wing of the dorm? That "more social" leaves a lot of room for interpretation. What does it mean in the context of a low-residency program where the median student age is in the mid-thirties? That people hang out in the halls and talk about the Black Mountain poets after 10:00PM? Or that people are having drunken brawls about the merits of language poetry and throwing up in trash cans at 2:00 in the morning?1

I took a deep breath, reminded myself that one of the main reasons I wanted to get an MFA was to have more poetry friends, and checked social. It's only 10 days, after all...

On a completely unrelated note, Jenny Factor wrote this post on the Best American Poetry blog yesterday that made me very happy all over again that I am doing this.

1 Since my undergraduate degree is from the school whose fraternity system inspired National Lampoon's Animal House, this requires exactly no effort of the imagination for me. Except for the poetry part.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Back to School!

At an age1 when most people are contemplating the rising contribution limits on their 401(k) plans, I've decided to invest in what is probably the most unprofitable profession ever: poetry.  With a lot of help from teachers and fellow-writers, I've been accepted into a low-residency MFA program, and so for the next two years I'll be reading and writing up a storm and (somehow) continuing to work a day job that I also love2,3.  I'm pretty much thrilled.

A friend4 asked to be kept informed about how I was doing and what the program was like, and so here, for your reading pleasure: the narcissistic, neurotic ramblings of a full-time employee, part-time student, and all-time stress case.

This is going to be awesome.

1 None of your damn business.
2 Also exercising.
3 And maybe sleeping.
4 Hi, Ed!