Sunday, March 17, 2013

First year MFA student

Dear Blog,

I'm still alive. I'll skip over all the usual apologies/excuses, because I know you're just darn glad to see me and all is forgiven.

What a crazy week it has been. In the last ten days or so, momentous things have happened in my writing life. No, I didn't get that long-lost-in-the-email letter from the agent who (STILL, after 18 months) has my novel manuscript—the novel I could hardly even remember well enough to paraphrase when someone asked me about it last week. Or anything like that. But still, some big stuff.

First off, I went to AWP. This is the annual conference of the Association of Writing Programs, which was held in Boston this year. BYU kindly provided funding for this trip, thanks to some vigorous advocacy on the part of the Creative Writing faculty, who claimed that since the college funds MA students to go present papers, it should fund MFA students to go feel the vibes at AWP. And they were SO RIGHT. Because at AWP I began to finally feel like I am one of the community. I am a poet. I participate in the conversation (and I'm finally learning what the conversation actually is). What is going on in the world of poetry affects me, and I can affect it, or respond to it.

As I may have expressed here, I have not always (ever?) been solid in my belief that I really am a poet. Having limited success in poetry (and how was I even defining that? I am, after all, a beginner, and yet I've been published quite a bit) and what seemed like more potential for success in other genres, I dithered. But during my time at AWP (and probably because I was so sleep-deprived from staying up late with my perky roommates), long-forgotten memories of my childhood and adolescence came bubbling forth to remind me that yes, poetry was my first love. (I had totally forgotten, for example, that I had laboriously copied several poems into an old journal in high school because I loved them so much. And the snatches of poetry I had memorized from my junior high English teacher's walls—"Come live with me and be my love," etc. And the Carol Lynn Pearson poems I read over and over and over again. In my more "muture" [read "snobby"] years I had looked back on this last fact with embarrassment—of course, I had chosen the less sophisticated Pearson poetry to memorize—but now I am both less embarrassed [there's some good stuff in there!] and also more forgiving because I realized suddenly that the Pearson books where the only books of poetry we had on our shelves so of course they are the ones I memorized. Anyway, the point of this long parenthetical meandering is that I actually ALWAYS LOVED POETRY.) And though I will never confine myself to JUST poetry, I am willing to fully embrace the fact that yes, I am a poet, first and foremost, even when I don't know what the heck I’m doing, even though it will never get me fame or (heaven forbid!) money. I do it. I love it. I want to invest in it.

So, yeah. AWP hit me over the head and set me straight. Also, it was really good. I loved hearing Tony Hoagland argue that there is still a place for "soul" in poetry, and that those who put others down for asserting the opposite should be ashamed. I loved developing my own opinions about the work of the poets I heard and realizing (with the help of Lance, my professor) that my opinions were well-founded and not naïve—or, at least, not too naïve to be worth discussing. I loved being exposed to "new" (to me) poets (hello, Terrance Hays!). One of my favorite sessions was on the work of William Stafford, a poet and writing teacher who advocated a kind of instruction in which teachers never praise or criticize a student's writing. Not sure how I feel about all of his teaching ideas, but I loved his claim that the best thing a writer can do is "Lower your standards." That's my new mantra.

It's funny, because that idea (not exactly the lowering of standards but the importance of proceeding fearlessly or at least courageously in the face of fear) has become a theme for me this year in school. Because I arrived on campus to discover exactly how far I have to go as a poet. A good thing—I never want to feel like I've arrived—but discouraging. You get into a program (hurray! I must be doing OK!) only to encounter Workshopping (yes, a capital W), in which you spend twenty minutes being told in great detail why your work stinks in ways you never even imagined before. So I was discouraged. Then I had a tiny little jolt when I took one of my failed "too-narrative" poems, made it into a paragraph, and showed it to a visiting writer who is the editor for a flash nonfiction magazine—and he praised it highly. Wait! Maybe I’m not a poet after all! Maybe I've been writing flash nonfiction all this time and calling it poetry! So I began to doubt my calling.  That's when I read excerpts from Dean Young's The Art of Recklessness and realized that if I could find a way to trust the process and take more risks, leaps, jumps in my work, that was my path to my next step as a poet. This idea of practicing recklessness, combined with "lower your standards," has unstuck me, and I am excited, rejuvenated. And—for this moment at least—I have pushed fear back into its corner.

So, AWP was good.

It was a crazy week after that, trying to catch up on my work as a teacher (papers to be graded) and as a student (Annotated Bibliography due for my term paper) and my mothering (missed these little guys, and then two of them left again for a week with Grandma in St. George) and my church work. I had a great catch-up lunch with Margaret and Cheri, dear friends from Berkeley days.

But all of this was overshadowed by something terrifying: I was scheduled to read my poetry in the English Symposium on Friday. I've read at readings before, but somehow this was different. Even though it was really just an undergraduate conference, it was a big deal to me because it was my first reading since being in school, and thus my first reading since committing to be a Poet. (Before this, I could always claim that I just dabble.) Also, I was scheduled to read with my two "older sisters"—the two other poets in the MFA program, Emily Ho and Katie Wade Davis, who are in their second year and who are both AMAZING poets, way better than I am (or may ever be). I hadn't volunteered to read but had been asked because they needed a third to round out the panel. I knew it would just be like, "and here's Darlene. Let's tolerate her." (Not that THEY made me feel this way. They are only gracious.) So I was nervous. Very.

But something happened, which I'll tell more about in my next post, the day before the reading. I got an email with some good news about my poetry. And it made ALL the difference. Suddenly, I was confident. Suddenly I felt that maybe someone, somewhere would enjoy what I had brought to share.

So I relaxed and enjoyed the reading, and it went REALLY WELL. People responded, asked me questions. It felt good. My poems are not perfect. They are not as good as Emily's and Katie's. But there is something there. I will keep working.

In other, less happy, news, a friend is moving away. I am sad to see her go. I'm also angry with myself, because she has been in the ward a few years and is a friend, but not as close as I had planned to make her. I have let time get away from me. I am faced again with my own awkwardness about taking friendship to a deeper level. How do people do it? Why am I so bad at it? I don't think she—or a few other women in the ward—knows how much I love her, how I had thought of her as a future very close friend, how I had planned to grow closer over the years. And she is leaving.

Sadder than that was a terrible tragedy in our ward: an 18-month-old baby died this month as a result of aspirating food while laughing. A horrible thing. A bittersweet, tender time. I love being part of a ward, even when it hurts. So many thoughts and prayers for the Carroll family.

And that, plus a lot of interesting stuff regarding life with teenagers, has been my life this past month.


Tobi said...

I'm so glad to hear you are developing the confidence to match your talent! You go girl - you poet, you!

Shannon Baker said...

I am so glad and say to developing on your won life.

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