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.
3 Yes, really, I'm an engineer. Also, spreadsheets? WAY more fun than actual writing.