Thursday, August 04, 2005

How do you feed it?

Got together with an old friend of mine, S., after work today. She was in my writing group, the one I started, that met weekly from 1985 to 1994 or so (and continued to meet sporadically for several more years after that); and she went to Provincetown for a workshop a couple weeks after I did, so I was eager to compare notes. Unfortunately her experience wasn't as good as mine, though she did get something from it. Summer workshops can be a bit of a crapshoot, especially picking a teacher -- even if a teacher has had rave reviews from other people, it's impossible to know whether this will really be the right teacher for you, will give you what you need. I've been extraordinarily lucky; I've been to ... hmm ... 8 or 9 summer workshops, and two of them have blown me away, sent me home completely fired up and ready to leap off the cliff and go somewhere new/deeper with my writing. And the rest were pretty good.

S.'s experience, which she'd hoped would be just the kick in the pants she needed to vault to the next level with her own work, has made her think long and hard about the next step in feeding her writing. Like me, she's considered low-residency MFA programs, but she's never seemed quite certain that was what she needed to do. (In fairness, I was never certain until the prospect of possibly doing one at FAWC arose -- and yes, I will apply to several other places as well, but I think I'm waiting to send out applications until FAWC gets their program underway and starts taking apps -- depending on how long that takes; I'm not sure what their time frame is.) S. hasn't done as many summer workshops as I have, but she's done some, and as our contrasting experiences suggest, you can't be guaranteed you'll get what you need -- and a week of working with someone, really, just isn't that long. Not when what you need, or part of what you think you need anyway, is a mentor -- someone who will kick you in the pants, push you, challenge you, in ways that a peer just can't. When you workshop with peers, you have the responsibility of challenging them right back -- and, selfish as it is, I just want someone to challenge me; I don't want to have to give back what I get. Just for a while.

Anyway, a mentor is only part of what I think can help my own work, and that was a bit of a tangent anyway. Mainly, I wanted to ask: how do you feed the beast that poetry is? You write; you read; but what else? Is there a point when you permanently step away from the "student" role, or more precisely, should there be such a point? (I have one friend who's been writing for longer than I have, she's been writing seriously for 35-40 years, and she still takes classes and workshops, several of them every year, as well as peer-workshopping with 2 different groups -- and I wonder sometimes whether it would be better for her to spend some time trying to trust her own sense, her own voice. But what's right for her may, of course, be different from what's right for me.) When you start publishing a lot, do editors start to provide the "pushing" that teachers give in the early stages of a career? (O funny word, "career," implying as it does a mappable trajectory and, well, a paycheck...) What else feeds the beast? Travel? Love? Fine wine? Can you bribe the Muse?

It's pretty clear to me that a low-res MFA would give me the biggest shove in the right direction right now, but it's not at all certain that I will be financially able to do that. And hell, who knows if I will even get accepted anywhere. So it can't be the only path I consider.

I figure I've got about a year "window of opportunity" before I fall back into complacency -- so I have some time to mull this over, and hopefully by next spring/summer I'll be able to start working on some applications.

And I am sorry that my friend didn't have the radiant experience that I did in Provincetown -- but talking to her reminded me not to take what I got for granted, reminded me how fortunate I am, reminded me how much work I did to make myself ready to be pushed & to take myself to a place where that was likely to happen.

(Carol -- Katie was in my friend's workshop too! Sometimes I like it when the world gets small.)


early hours of sky said...

Well I’ve been thinking about your question a great deal and I think there is a huge difference between reading poetry and studying a poet so I guess that is how I feed my beast. I read the entire works of someone, listen to how their styles changes. I read the masters. To learn fundamental art of anything you must first be able to recognize the foundation. I think some MFA programs offer that and of course, some do not. Like anything that deals with creativity they kill as many poets as they create, I am sure.

Have you considered an on line mentorship program like Split Rock has? I have been doing my mentorship with Carolyn Forche. There are advantages and disadvantages to this. But it may be a good place to start if you do not want to do a low residency program.

I’ve had this talk with Carolyn many times, one does not need a MFA to be a great poet but there still, I think needs to be a level of commitment and discipline. God, am I a lazy ass. I fight the discipline more than any other beast.

Anne said...

T - very good point about reading poetry vs. studying a poet. My plan for when I get more disciplined (ha! ha!) is to always be reading one master, like spend a month on someone, as well as reading newer poets -- maybe spend a half-hour reading a master and a half-hour reading others every day and then writing for an hour or so. I need to do that.

I have thought about the online mentorship thing, but I don't think you can get nice low-interest student loans for that since it's not a degree-granting program. After my Provincetown trip is paid off maybe I should just put it on my credit card and try not to whine about paying off the interest and everything. Depending on how much bad news the dentist gives me next time, maybe I could do it next summer.

I want to do a low-res program, it's just the money that stops me... sigh. I do agree you don't need an MFA to be a great poet, not at all, but I see how much the one week at FAWC did for me and I imagine having that kind of interaction with teachers and fellow students over a longer period and it nearly makes me weep. I really gotta win the lottery. :)

Charles said...

Having just finished my MFA, I feel like I'm mostly working in isolation. I have my blog and blog friends, which I find wonderfully supportive (and can enter into/pull away from as they or I need), and I have the teachers and mentors I've connected with over the years, but that's about all.

early hours of sky said...

There are some grants that offer assistance for education. A couple of the grants I applied for would have paid for a low res or the mentorship program. Of course I applied for them to get a nanny and/ or beer.

Charlie is right about the isolation thing, the fact is, even if the workshop is great, if you worked day in and day out with the same people the honeymoon would in some ways wear off. What writers do they do mostly alone.

However I feel like I have the same longing but I’m not quite sure what I would name it. I want something more as far as a peer group then I have right now. Grants are the way to go and I think there are quite a few in Indiana, that is where you are, isn’t it? It is not the lottery but it is pretty damn close.

Anne said...

I think isolation is an inevitable part of the writing life -- there's no way around that. I know that the times when I haven't been writing have been times that I've distracted myself too much with human companionship -- there's got to be a happy medium somewhere -- but that's probably an entirely different question...

There are some grants in Indiana, but not as many as in a lot of other states. Indiana is not so much supportive of arts, education, or anything good like that. But my friend S. did get a grant that paid for most of her Provincetown workshop, and I'm going to talk to her about how she got that; maybe I can get one next year. It would not pay for any costs of a low-res -- that particular grant, like a lot of others I've looked at, explicitly can't be used to cover expenses in a degree-granting program -- but it might send me to a summer workshop which is the next best thing.

Charlie, I've heard from a lot of post-MFA folks that sometimes the sudden isolation can be crushing -- you grow to depend on the program to give you motivation and then when you're finished you don't know what to do. That doesn't seem to be happening to you but I would think the transition could be difficult. In my mind that's one of the biggest potential failings of an MFA program -- I think a lot of them don't try to teach people how to live as a writer without having that community to depend on.

If you want to write badly enough I think you'll find a way no matter what -- and I certainly feel like I'm going to write forever, no matter what -- but how to get pushed past the places I know how to go by myself? I guess part of making a life as a writer is that you're always, always trying to answer that question...

Trista said...

For me, it's less about feeding the beast than starving the insecurity. I know I'll always have stuff to write about, it's just will the Godzilla of my insecurity rampage through my Tokyo of writing? Jeez, It's attacking right now just re-reading that sentence. Tokyo of writing, indeed.

Great discussion, great comments. Glad to hear other people working through this, as well.

Artichoke Heart said...

My first five years post-MFA were, in many respects, absolutely definitive in terms of my growth as a writer, I think. Tough, but definitive. It felt like free fall at times, but I grew a lot and learned a lot about myself as a writer--my processes, my needs, my commitment. Of course, the MFA experience was exactly what I needed first in terms of instruction, audience, feedback, deadlines/assignments, learning to become a better reader, etc. It gave me certain tools I desperately needed, and also a much-needed community. (And as has been noted above, not everyone always needs these things and, furthermore, one can find excellent tools and/or community in other places as well). But really, it was the years after, when I had to teach myself how to put these tools into practice on my own, where I think a lot of the really important growth took place.

Anne said...

Trista -- yep, that's in there too, for sure. Feed the poetry beast, starve the insecurity beast (or is it feed a cold, starve a fever?) -- I tend to go back and forth between cocky-bastard mode and "oh god everything I've ever written is crap" mode. In Provincetown I found myself in this amazing space where I didn't much like anything I'd ever written before, but felt strongly that there was good work in me just waiting to come out -- and I did what I think was some really good writing that week -- if only I could bottle what I had there and parcel it out to myself, a sip or two a week. I guess we all have to figure out how to brew up Godzilla-repellents in our own kitchens, to take your sentence and go even farther in the bad direction. *grin*

A.H. -- I've talked to a lot of MFA folks and many of them felt that their programs did little or nothing to address that post-MFA free fall. Maybe there's nothing you can do to prepare people for it -- maybe you just always have to figure it out on your own. I think there's a lot that can be said or written about how to live as a writer, though, and what it takes to teach yourself those things -- there's certainly something involved beyond craft and talent. Roger Mitchell once said to me that anyone could learn to be a poet, but you have to really want it -- I think that free fall period is maybe where you learn whether or not you really want it. And I bet most of us have been through a similar period, MFA or no.

Lots to think about here. Thanks to everyone for your comments.

Brian Campbell said...

Cut yourself off. Avoid any sort of human contact, any sort of stimulation whatsoever. Live alone in your room, which hopefully is several miles underground or up in the air, which you have emptied of all but a writing desk, some blank paper, a pen or pencil, and yourself. Revel in the isolation, the splendid isolation "built in" to this rarified activity of writing poetry, but to which so few allow themselves access. Have faith. The mind fills a void. It fills it. It does fill it...

(My tongue firmly pressed in the void of my cheek as I write this...)

Cheers! ;)


Anne said...

Brian: The sad thing is that I have moments when that sounds really really nice. :P

Lyle Daggett said...

This post is a few days old now, but the discussion is fascinating, so will add a comment for what it's worth.

I've never been in an MFA program. The undergrad program I was in was very non-traditional, and I was in a writers' group that was part of the program -- we had no instructor as such, though we could get money from the department to hire guest poets and instructors if we wanted to.

The three things I've found most important to continue being a poet are 1) writing as much as possible, 2) reading a much as possible -- especially poetry, though not just that -- and 3) having a few other poets to talk to now and then, either face to face or on the phone or in the mail (on paper, and very recently now in email).

If you're a poet I think your life and poetry have to be grounded firmly in something, an anchor or pivot -- it could be a place (as with Gary Snyder or Thomas McGrath or Lorca or Mary Oliver) or an occupation (as with Tomas Transtromer or Miroslav Holub), or a political or philosphical outlook, as with Neruda or Muriel Rukeyser or Langston Hughes or Emily Dickinson. Some source of ground water that you can keep coming back to, to renew the place the poems come from.

Anne said...

Good thoughts, Lyle. I've thought about that "anchor/pivot" idea a lot -- there are some poets whose source seems so obvious -- as if it had been given to them just so they'd have something to write about. I've wrestled with wondering what my true "ground water" is -- I'm not fortunate enough to have something that feels given to me -- I do think it's possible to work from several sources and for those sources to change over the course of one's life. That, hmmm, may be fodder for another post. :)