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.