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.)