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.

4 thoughts on “Week 1: Still Standing (Just)”

  1. Sometimes when a software engineering problem has me flummoxed, I open up an editor window and write a little essay about the problem and why I don't understand it and what trains of thought have lead to which dead ends. As often as not, it helps. Maybe your MFA journey will give something back to your software engineering!

  2. I'm so glad you're giving yourself permission to explore and get lost, even if at the short-term cost of perfection. This literary orienteering — it turns out to be kind of fun. And I bet your essays are, in the words of Jane Brox, “better than you think.”

  3. KT thanks for that nuts-and-bolts description of the program. I'm looking forward to seeing your poems (in Poetry mag, or wherever you prefer) but could you/would you share your essays?

    Also, you shame me. You are working full time AND working on your art, while I have backslid (?) fiercely. Working only 40-60 hrs/mo, I have only a few new poems each month. Excuse #1: way too much editing. Excuse # 2: I've fallen in love – with my motorcycle.

    Love your blog! Thanks so much.

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