Creative Writing MFA at Colorado State University Fri, 17 Nov 2017 17:33:15 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Considering “The Portable MFA” Fri, 17 Nov 2017 17:33:15 +0000 A friend of a friend is a veteran of an MFA program (not CSU), and is the sort of veteran not especially fond of her service. On hearing that I was going to apply, she sent along a book wrapped in butcher paper: “The Portable MFA.”

In it, one finds in the way of introduction a thorough list of reasons one should avoid an MFA proper. The bolded subheadings read, “Teachers with a Moses Complex,” “Focus on Product Over Process,” and “Highbrow Disdain for Anything Not in the Canon,” among others. One can’t blame “The Portable MFA” for asserting itself as invaluable, but it spends quite a lot of breath preaching to the choir—by the introduction, more than likely the book is already in the right set of creative, self-assured, and structurally disillusioned hands.

To that end, the text was not unlike other sorts of free door-to-door reading materials (think pamphlet foregrounds with smiling LDS families bathed in light, their background neighborhoods on fire): those that make it beyond the cover art are probably already in. “The Portable MFA,” in contrast, felt more proactive than predictive. All the same, the message was clear: insulate yourself from the mainstream. Be better than the others. Repent and reform for ever having thought of a Master’s degree, you lost lamb, and try instead a pithy writing exercise or two.

The book had about it the smell of January 1st gym memberships, half-empty daily devotionals, and diet cookbooks accumulating dust in so many kitchen cabinets—preying on those jaded consumers with hopeful messaging, while still saying from the outset, “We know you’ve been hurt before.”

In spite of (or, more likely, because of) that implied sentiment, I was tempted by the world of “The Portable MFA.” On first perusal, what sprang to mind were images of the 80’s-ponytail dive-bar guy from Good Will Hunting, whose education could have been earned with “a buck-fifty in late fees at the public library.” And here I had a book—a catch-all demi-program—without a penny spent, thanks to one sanctimonious friend of a friend.

Without going into the particulars of the text, it’s worth noting that its potential as an MFA alternative was short lived. While just a few months into the poetry program at CSU, I can attest to the fact that my experience here would not be easily captured in a book, and certainly not made portable (tenured professors, for example, may object to being towed about in tractor-trailers for my benefit).

The Matt Damons of the world notwithstanding, those elements of the MFA that are most vital to its process aren’t delivered in writings, readings, and daily prompts. It’s a community of individuals that support, challenge, and inspire one to write more thoughtfully, more riskily, and more often.

In short: if you’re hoping to stop someone you don’t know from entering a grad program, find a book that’s more convincing than “The Portable MFA.”

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The Questions You Ask Me Sat, 04 Nov 2017 03:07:53 +0000 As a first year MFA student, I deal in questions–in applying pressure to moments fraught with emotion and seeing what that pressure reveals. Consider public spaces: forums for opening dialogue on culturally sensitive topics is an important step towards fostering community, civility, towards making all us of good and happy humans. This is an irrefutable truth. Or should I say, it is something other people have made me know is true when I am in public spaces–bars, restaurants, markets–where total strangers approach me and want to talk to about race. I am a minority, female, and often alone. People approach me with their questions. Questions like,

“If I offered to buy a cup of coffee as reparations, would that be offensive?”

As a first year MFA student, I take your questions to the page. In a character who is me but is not me, in a place that is not this place, I will pose your question again. I can push my character’s dismay to the surface, feel her shrink away from the smoke still riding on your tongue after you expelled the drag of your cigarette. I can show you what she sees: that she is alone outside of a bar, under the glow of a streetlamp that now feels like a spotlight. She is shrinking from not you, but the man lurking over your right shoulder, one who just the week previously had popped Gill Scott Heron on the jukebox, then leaned over her, gripping the wooden edge of the table to get back some of the balance that vodka had taken away. He called her Lady and said that he put the music on to please her. When she walked to the bar to close out her tab he grabbed her arm. She is wondering why the two of you are together, and if that means something.

As a first year MFA student, I can insert some exposition to set the scene: it’s nighttime, and the dark is like an envelope around this moment. She is alone because she is the only cyclist in her group of friends: you waited until she had waved goodbye to the group and approached her as she fumbled with cold-numbed hands for her keys.

There is no moral to this story; that’s not my thing.

If you take something from it, I hope that it is a bit of understanding of my position, since that seemed to be what you wanted in the first place. I hope you take from it that page is where I examine these moments, unfold then, peer through their skins.

As a first year MFA student, that is the best I can do with your questions, the only way I know to honor them.

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Trust the Writer Fri, 06 Oct 2017 15:21:37 +0000 I recently came across a thesis written by Sarah Pitcher McDonough entitled “How to Read Autofiction.” In it, Mx. McDonough writes, “The word ‘autofiction’ was officially created in 1977 by Serge Doubrovsky to describe his novel Fils. Doubrovsky imagined a genre between fiction and autobiography in which the author, protagonist, and narrator share one identity.” Mx. McDonough goes on to outline the various ways in which critics have approached autofiction, including as a genre entirely separate from literary fiction. This got me thinking—what is the best way to critique autofiction in fiction workshops?

In workshops that don’t allow cover letters or some other sort of introduction to a submission, classifying a manuscript as autofiction would be an assumption on the reader’s part. Sometimes that is an easy assumption to make, especially if the reader has a personal relationship with the writer. So, for argument’s sake, say we are absolutely positive that the writer’s manuscript is autofiction—she’s mentioned in the past that she volunteered for Habitat for Humanity and the piece is entirely about a woman in that same position she described. Should the piece be treated as autobiographical? Does it become nonfiction? Would it throw off the ever-so-balanced equilibrium of a fiction workshop?

Well, unfortunately, I don’t have all of life’s answers. I do, however, have a suggestion for this dilemma: trust the writer. If we are indeed challenged with a manuscript that we believe is a smidge too close to reality to be considered fiction, why not accept that challenge? The purpose of a master’s program is not to settle back into that snuggly comfort zone and relax, though I’m sure we would all like to at some point in the semester. We are here to expand our aesthetics and our literary prowess and we cannot do that if we jump to conclusions about every manuscript that crosses our desks (even that one written by our best friend who we just know had a conversation with his boyfriend just like the one that wound up as dialogue on page three). If the writer believes it to be appropriate for a fiction workshop, trust the writer.

I think we fiction writers tend to approach autofiction with hazmat gloves on, as if it needs special detoxification treatment before it can be critiqued. The takeaway is this: autofiction is a form of fiction. It may wear a different label and it may be a (relatively) new category but that does not mean we inherently lose our critiquing abilities. Treat it the same as metafiction, absurdist fiction, genre fiction. Treat it the same as a second-person narration or any one of the thousand other oddities that cross our desks. Use those skills, identify what is working and what needs a little TLC, and trust that the writer will take those suggestions and do whatever they think is best for the piece. That, I think, regardless of fiction categorization, is the best we can hope for in the end.

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Advice To MFA Students From A Jedi Master Fri, 22 Sep 2017 15:16:15 +0000 As a third-year student about to go out into the world I could write about the ups and downs of thesis year. I could write about the monk-like life we third-years seem to lead. I could write about my need to be in a classroom again; an alien feeling.

Instead, I’m going to offer advice to those of you just starting out. It sounds cliché. Wise older student offers new crop advice, but I’d like to think what I’m about to say can help. Full disclosure: I’m not a wise older sage. I’m a swarthy, thirty-year old Romantic whose goal is to make the pages of Glimmer Train. I grapple with issues on a daily basis such as developing my voice, submissions, blah blah blah. But this isn’t about me. So here’s my wisdom to you.

  • Ensure a sense of community – Seriously. You do need time to write, but don’t forget to foster relationships. An MFA is nothing without them. Writing is a monastic life. So keep the tradition of post-workshop beers alive. Go to the readings and picnics and what-have-you. Make some friends in the process.
  • To thine own self be true, as that Polonius guy said (brownie points to anyone who knows what 90’s movie I’m referencing) – Follow your aesthetic. Embrace who you are as a writer. Don’t be afraid to break outside what you perceive as “the norm.” If you like writing about aliens then write the best damn alien story you can. Don’t let anyone discourage you. Listen to others’ perspectives, but remember your MFA is about you at the end of the day. The power of a writing program stems from having a diverse group of voices in it. We can learn from each other’s aesthetics and broaden the conversation about what it means to write. This isn’t Russia. In Russia story may write you, but in the MFA you write the story.
  • Submit like a mother – Send out to magazines. Do it daily. Even if it’s 5-10 places a day, you’ll feel a sense of accomplishment. It can be frightening, but it’s an essential part of the process. There’s a journal out there for you. Trust me. Submissions can be immensely subjective, but you can use that to your advantage. Like metafiction? No problem. Like to pen odes to great dead historical personages? There’s a journal calling you with its siren song.
  • Take advantage of your resources – you have an excellent faculty. Don’t be afraid to ask them for feedback. Try to get them to tell horror stories from their own halcyon days. Writers learn from other writers.


oragami yoda

Much wisdom he has for you.

That’s my wisdom.

I’ll miss being a part of this program. I’ll miss being in class and dissecting stories (in a good way). I’d like to think I’ve taken away new ideas about the writing process and what it means to truly write. I’d like to think I’ve had the time of my life. If I had to go through a Groundhog-Day experience, I think it would be repeating the program over and over.

Peace be with y’all.

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Dying to Start the Semester Fri, 08 Sep 2017 16:06:16 +0000 “I die everyday!” the Apostle Paul writes enthusiastically. What could he possibly mean by such a statement? Regardless of how we understand Paul’s metaphor (dying to self, dying to a behavior, the body in slow decline), if one dies everyday, one must be reborn everyday as well. The beginning of the semester always feels like a rebirth to me. Nothing but possibility lies ahead—the idea of the yet unspoken, unwritten, unread words always thrills me. When I walk into my classes, I am giddy with the anticipation of meeting my incredible students who will uncover the many possibilities I missed while writing my syllabus. It seems perfect, then, to learn that the word “syllabus” emerged as a “misreading” of the Greek word “sittybos,” or “parchment label.” The syllabus acts as a contract that tries to organize the messiness that lies ahead. But the beautiful uncertainty of learning and discovering cannot be tamed, and thus the syllabus will always be misread. We will treat it as a blueprint for the semester, adding due dates to our calendars, but it will never record what is most valuable about any given class.

The poet Mary Reufle writes, “you simply cannot learn and know at the same time, and this is a frustration all artists must bear.” This is the frustration students and teachers must welcome, willingly, at the beginning of each semester. It is the gift of being in the presence of one another. My daughter’s kindergarten teacher called the “exclamation point” an “excitement point,” and this is how I read it in Paul’s statement. There is a deep longing implied in that mark, and it is a longing for what lies ahead, whatever it might be. It always feels somewhat incongruous to me to start the semester in the heat of summer. In Colorado, the seasons here are pushed back a bit—summer stretching into October and spring often not appearing in earnest until June, when we can safely put our snow shovels away. But, when I think of it in Paul’s terms—dying and birthing each and everyday—I see that it isn’t just the start of the semester, or the start of a new season, that offers the possibility of something new. Each and everyday offers us this beauty. It is there on the syllabus in the blank space between each already-scheduled day.

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Novel is the Scariest Word I Know Thu, 15 Dec 2016 00:18:11 +0000 There were very few things I was absolutely sure of coming into grad school. Really, the only thing I was sure of was that I wanted to write a novel for my thesis. I’ve always been sure of that, even though I’ve never written a novel before. But that was why I was here—to finally crack the start of that goal.
My first week here, someone involved in the MFA program (who is no longer here) casually told me that “People don’t really do novels here. It’s not encouraged. You don’t have experience in it,” I was flabbergasted and quickly went into a crises that seemed to be way too premature to be having my first week of my first semester. Although I write short stories, it’s not what I wanted to do with my degree. I didn’t want to work for three year to write a short story collection I wasn’t even invested in myself. That statement also deeply confused me; I know of at least two third year students who were writing novels for their thesis. Getting into grad school and leaving the possibility of an established life and putting down roots on hold was a lot of work already. I was dismayed that the thing I had come here for, my elusive novel to finally get itself down on paper, was already discouraged because I hadn’t written a novel before.
I didn’t go into the acceptance phase of grief after the initial shock. I knew I couldn’t invest myself in a short story collection I had zero interest in creating. I started questioning. Are there really people who come to get an MFA after they’ve already established themselves as a novel writer? I thought of the third year students writing novels; it was the first one for all of them. What made them different than me? The answer was, really, a relief: I wasn’t different from them at all. They’d never finished a novel before, they wanted to take on writing a novel, however daunting that task is, because it was what they were truly interested in writing beyond their grad school years.
Still, I shied away from the novel for my entire first year. I wrote short stories for my workshop and couldn’t get myself to cross from the short story side to the novel side, despite how desperately I wanted to do so. As much as I love novels and wanted to write one, it was as big, scary task that stretched far beyond the twenty-twenty-five pages short stories tend to be. I had to lay out a long, sprawling story that would require scenes of action and scenes of rest. I would need to place small pins of interest in the first chapter that would have to gain momentum and importance and I couldn’t forget to bring them back up in the climax.
I bought a stack of colorful index cards over the summer. The pink ones became the main plot line, each of my alternating narrators got their own colors, green and orange, to track their individual plots. All of the secondary characters got their own yellow card. I stopped thinking about what could catastrophically happen and whether I even had the stamina for a novel. I started plotting instead.
Plotting out the novel has not been easy; even though I’ve written two chapters and turned them into my workshop this semester, the plot is still in the process of changing. The initial plot I wrote out over the summer got ripped up and completely redone in October. As I get farther into it, the plot may change again. I cannot tell right now. I probably won’t be able to tell until a full draft is staring back at me.
I have, however, gained a sense of relief and purpose within my MFA. My thesis novel is by far the hardest project I’ve ever attempted. But I feel a sense of fulfillment when I work on it. Every word, sentence, and page is contributing to a goal I’ve had since I was a teenager. It may change along the way, but it’s taking me with it on each step. I carry my stack of index cards around with me; they are all full now but they add a weight to my bag that’s reassuring.
I write this as I wrap up this fall semester and am at the halfway point of my MFA. It’s a surreal feeling that I’ve somehow already gone through a year and half and am starting down the fast and frantic other side of the hill. Despite the anxieties of the unknown, I know I’ll get everything done, there is no other option. By the time I crash and skid into the bottom of the hill, I’ll be holding a part of a novel, and I can’t think of anything more fulfilling than that.

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In Defense of Grossness Wed, 30 Nov 2016 03:05:29 +0000  


When my friend first read Jenny Zhang, he wrinkled his nose and said “She’s very forthright about her grossness, isn’t she?”. It’s true. Zhang’s work traffics in the gross—in bodily fluids of all kinds, in snot and blood and tears. In her essay “How it Feels,” written for Poetry Magazine, Zhang describes episodes of bed-wetting during spells of depression in which she couldn’t summon the strength to leave her bed. Her poetry deploys anatomical slang, sex acts, and various bodily processes with an ease that can feel jarring to a casual reader. In “How it Feels,” Jenny Zhang discusses her admiration for the film of the same name created by the British artist Tracey Emin. The film delves into Emin’s artistic process, and how profoundly that process was disturbed by a traumatic abortion, which Emin describes in graphic detail. Zhang admires Emin’s ability not only “to be just as ugly as anyone but to emphasize that ugliness over and over again, to let yourself be the subject of your art and to take all the pummeling and the eye-rolling and the cruel remarks.” In other words, Zhang admires Emin’s investigation into her body and its processes, and the continuation of that investigation despite the grossed-out reactions of the male British art establishment.


In Alexandra Kleeman’s eerie novel You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine, two characters with varying degrees of disordered eating maneuver themselves through the minefield of their relationship, against the backdrop of a mysterious eating-centric cult in their neighborhood. The protagonist observes the other eating Popsicles, noting “Sucking sounds came from her mouth as the orange slick pooled around her teeth. She was working at it as though she hadn’t eaten for days.”


Someone once told me that reading my work felt like scratching the surface of an emotional scab. “Just one fingernail, and everything is out in the open.” All the blood yes, but all the grossness of self-doubt and shame that preoccupies a lot of my mind and, thus, my work. I think bringing the body into writing is important, and not just as a filter for perception, but as a battleground crisscrossed by intersecting lines of power, as a patched and pockmarked and, yes, gross place.


In Zhang’s work, grossness is a testament to her existence, to her physicality in her own, unique body, to the physicality of the body writing its way through a discipline whose history rejects her. Flannery O’Connor describes grotesque fiction as the kind in which a reader finds that “the writer has made alive some experience which we are not accustomed to observe every day, or which the ordinary man may never experience in his ordinary life.” The paradox of the gross and the bodily grotesque is that it is precisely our own bodies that we inhabit most completely every day. Perhaps our bodies have become too close to ourselves, to close to what we feel is most intrinsically us, to merit examination for qualities that are undesirable.


The grossness that’s been described here, in eating and excretion and accumulation, strikes to the heart of the gross person’s identity. Zhang uncovers the taboo of mental illness by describing her depression experience. Emin describes her abortion so gross we remember- remember the story yes, but remember that reproductive rights and women’s bodies are even more heavily under siege in this new presidential administration. Kleeman’s viscera of consumption de-familiarizes the act of eating, every day for the majority of the population, and twists it to emphasize the strangeness the act embodies for those with disordered eating issues.


Grossness is unique. We are all of us, individually, a particular brand or collection of gross. I want a literary world with room for all of them.


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Literature in Trump’s America, or Writing Politically Wed, 16 Nov 2016 10:10:25 +0000 When I chose November 16th as the date for my blog post, I thought I was being very clever. That’s the last post before the Thanksgiving break, I thought. I’ll have a lot of non-controversial, relatable things to say about being ready to take a break, I thought. It’ll be easy to write, I thought. I didn’t think about the fact that this date would be about a week after Election Day, which, in hindsight, feels pretty stupid. I also considered not writing about the election but that also feels stupid. So, let’s get into it.
I, like many people, was deeply disturbed by the results of the election. I understand that not everyone felt this way; however, I think it’s important to understand—whether you agree with the sentiment or not—that many people woke up on November 9th feeling less valued and safe than they did the day before. I know I did. Other people in this country have always felt devalued and unsafe and woke up on November 9th to have this feeling confirmed yet again.
I spent the night of the election frantically texting everyone I knew, including my friend Wendy, a poetry MFA student at Syracuse. At one point, after discussing the many social repercussions of this election, Wendy said something very profound and very sad. “I think,” she wrote, “I’m still kind of shocked that my faith in an America that has a place for everyone has been naïve in a way… I feel like this will change my writing somehow.” If you interpret the results of the election in that way, how could it not affect the way you write? If this election fundamentally changed the way you view America, or confirmed your worst fears, this perception shift would have to affect the way you write about people and the world. Even if it doesn’t directly impact your writing, it would have to impact the way you think about your writing. All of these thoughts that have been percolating within me since the election have led me to an exploration of politics in writing and what political writing even looks like.
The mantra, “The personal is political” has always resonated with me. However, at the same time, I’m uncomfortable with the ways in which certain identities are politicized while others—white, straight, male, cisgender, etc.—are viewed as the default. These two ideas would seem to fly in the face of one another. Nonetheless, we can’t avoid the fact that some identities are politicized, no matter how we feel about that. Thus, choosing to write about young, queer women, as I often do, is an inherently political act. Similarly, choosing to omit people of color from one’s stories is also a political act. If whiteness is not the default—and it’s not—a narrative populated exclusively by white characters is sending a political message, whether we want to admit that or not. Thus, I would argue that all writing is political, be it conscious or unconscious.
As writers—and especially as writers trying to make sense of our current political situation—I think we have a responsibility to interrogate the implicit or explicit politics of our writing. We need to examine our own blind spots. I know I have many. This doesn’t mean that all of our writing needs to revolve around “Issues”; it just means that we need to be cognizant of the ways that even our most character-based, non-issue-driven writing interacts with social and political issues. We need to be purposeful and responsible with our choices.
I feel like this is getting a bit lecture-y, which makes me uncomfortable because I don’t like to lecture and because I know that so many of my writing choices have not been purposeful or responsible. I’m trying to be better. For me, one of the first steps will be examining racial blind spots within my writing. I plan to read Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, a book recommendation from Wendy, and I’ll see where to go from there.
So, this election has certainly affected the way I think about my writing. I was already beginning to grapple with these issues but they seem even more prescient now. I’m not sure if the election will change the actual content of my writing or not. I imagine it will, at least in subtle ways, but that remains to be seen. Perhaps this election will affect everyone’s writing. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry when I think of future college courses with names like, “Literature in Trump’s America.”
I’m hesitant to view every life event through the lens of a writer. It feels narrow-minded and self-centered—probably, because it is. My conversation with Wendy was not, of course, all about writing. But, this is the CSU MFA blog so putting a writing spin on this event seemed appropriate. I also think examining the politics of writing provides us, as writers, with one concrete way to move forward. It’s not the only way by any means, but, to me, it feels like a start.

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Gifting Wed, 09 Nov 2016 00:40:22 +0000  


With fall break on the horizon and my first semester of graduate school readying itself to be tucked in I can’t help but do that looking-back-thing and wonder if I’ve best used these past weeks. If I’ve stretched myself enough, leaned in and learned from my initial discomforts, been a thorough and generous reader, if I’ve been thoughtful and purposeful with my time.


I worry this last point most. When the semester started I couldn’t figure out how anyone had time to write. I couldn’t seem to do it. Though I wanted to establish a consistent writing practice I felt stuck. Overwhelmed. I felt lucky, and then worried, to get a sentence down on paper for myself. Like I was cheating somehow either way – I’d made it out to be a choice between course work and my own, and neither choice seemed right. It was a whole guilty spirally mess.


Part of it, I recognize, is rooted in my own disorganization. And stubbornness.


I have long had a problem with the term time management, or to be more precise, not so much a problem as a rebelliousness. Time management – those words are ugly next to one another and worse than ugly I find them abstract. Time, a human imposition of order on the inherently un-orderable, cannot be further “managed”. For much of my adult life I’ve rejected the whole project. Something about the term puts the taste of ridiculous late night infomercials in my mouth, the smell of self-help sections segregated to the stale backs of their chain bookstores as if their overlong and under-punctuated titles could somehow contaminate the rest of the books.


I might have stayed unwilling to engage more deeply with this stubbornness if I hadn’t been fortunate to receive some advice that called out my childish sticking-out-my-tongue at managing my own time.


I was told the story of a wife who, for her recently graduated husband, colored in blocks of his calendar in light blue to schedule time for his writing. Writing that down now seems simpler than it felt. Something about it – the specificity of detail, the intimacy of the gesture – made my understanding the phrase “making time” differently. Made me understand it as a gift. As a gift I could give myself.


Which serves for me, and maybe for you too, as a good reminder of what brought me to the MFA in the first place. I’d been living out in the world, with its unceasing demands on my time, for a handful of years when I decided to apply. I wanted more than to become a better writer. I wanted to give myself this kind of miraculous gift, the gift of time. Of three years I could set aside for myself, my writing. Three years out of the busy busy world. Time to take my own work seriously.


And yeah, okay, I don’t have an established writing practice. Yet. I’m trying to wake up early, make myself coffee, but many mornings in the haze of waking up I can’t convince myself I’d rather write than sleep. And maybe I’ll never be able to schedule my writing like a more organized person; mark my calendar in light blue or hot pink or pale green at specific days and times and stick to that same routine.


But I am negotiating my relationship with the phrase time management. I’m reminding myself that I have as many hours in the day as everyone else does, as even the prolific Joyce Carol Oates has. I’m avoiding the spirally messes I tangled myself up in at the top of this semester. I’m taking my days as they come and finding quiet scraps of them here and there and sitting myself down at my desk/on a bench/under a tree and pulling words out one at a time and arranging and rearranging them. I’m giving myself these gifts.


I’m still not calling it time management. I’m not calling it making time. I’m calling it, instead, gifting. And maybe that’s splitting hairs, a silly rebranding. But hey, it’s working for me. I’m writing.

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Interview with Hannah Jones Wed, 26 Oct 2016 00:47:14 +0000 When I walked jet-lagged and hopeful into the 2016 AWP Book Fair, before the May haze had settled over LA, I found myself gazing over a city of ink, spines, and over-caffeinated writers. Some tiled with business cards, some strung with yarn and origami birds, the hundreds of tables coalesced into a lovefest for the literary that brought together people of all walks of life. Among them, I caught snippets of some of the ways writers, poets in particular, are living in this world: as community organizers, publishers, small presses, teachers, musicians, bloggers, preachers from rooftops. We’re all doing this writer thing alone and yet together at the same time.

Enter Hannah Jones, founder of Primal School, a blog dedicated to interviewing writers to share the love and craft of poetry with all those hungry to learn. I managed to wade my way over to her table the second day of AWP, and our conversation turned into an interview for Primal School and an ongoing discussion about what it means to be a poet living and working in the world today. Hannah is one of the most gracious and generous writers I’ve ever met. She works continuously to share the knowledge and love of poetry with readers as she builds community. She also thinks about and enacts the way we as poets will need to keep engaging with the world and each other in the future. That’s why I decided to interview her for this post.

*                *                *

Kelly Weber: Let’s start off by talking about your interview blog-project Primal School, a blog that’s been such a major source of inspiration and connection for me and many other writers. What is Primal School and how did it begin?

Hannah Lee Jones: I appreciate your generous words, Kelly. Primal School is young and still evolving, but I’m very glad to see it getting read and enjoyed by people who want to read and write poetry. At the moment it’s a blog featuring interviews with poets focusing on just one poem they’ve written. The interviews explore the poet’s inspiration, their process, their thoughts on the poem’s subject matter, and I think most importantly their advice to younger poets on how to bring forward their best work. On the site there’s also a page called the Toolshed, which I update regularly with other resources: free online courses, podcasts, other blogs featuring poet interviews, reading recommendations and the like. I hope to eventually grow the blog into other areas, writing posts of my own on different aspects of the poetry craft and perhaps bringing in guest posts by other bloggers. But for now I’m just trying to keep the interviews coming (roughly every two weeks, a rhythm I occasionally break from), and putting out a quarterly newsletter offering distillations and key lesson takeaways from the latest poets I’ve interviewed.

I launched Primal School at AWP 2016 in Los Angeles, but the seed for it was planted long before that, during my partnership with my friend Rebecca Wallwork on her own blog, The MFA Project. She’d started it as a way to document her journey as a self-taught writer who didn’t have an MFA. When we met at writer’s conference at Hedgebrook, the connection was instant and I teamed up with her to interview some writers for the blog. After a time, we recognized that her focus on general literature and fiction writing and my own interest in poetry called for the birthing of a new project. We parted ways and and I started Primal School. Hindsight tells me that was one of the best things we could have done. Her blog is still flourishing, and I was able to channel my creative instincts into something I love doing.

KW: I think AWP and blog work are, in their best sense, ways for us to connect with other writers and know that A) we are not alone in the world and B) we’re all struggling to learn and get better. Some of the best ways writers learn are in conversation with others (look at all the correspondences between writers historically!) . In a multi-media/global society, writers have the opportunity to make those connections through avenues that are either fringe or haven’t been tried before. So something that I think on any writer’s mind at any given time—at least it’s on my mind a lot!—is how we can create/find a community of writers in the world when we’re not in the environment of a program. How do we make a sustainable creative environment not only for ourselves, but also for others? How can we take the hunger for poetry to all people and into all areas of life, and how can we make poetry a way of living?

HLJ: To answer it feels necessary to mention that I have nothing against the MFA or the path of programs as an institution, as an educational path for writers, and a way of finding community and the structure or discipline many people need and crave to generate new work under the guidance of the pros. At the same time, it concerns me when I hear stories about the amount of debt people are coming away with when they graduate from these programs, the bleak job prospects, the disappointment when writers don’t end up finding the mentorship and support they need. The most compelling reason to earn an MFA is is to eventually teach creative writing, and yet it seems a lot of writers are entering these programs to be validated as “real” writers. In the end, the only validation you need and which no MFA can give you is truckloads of reading and even more practice. This is not the work of a couple years of schooling but a lifetime. Rebecca at The MFA Project blog quoted Ann Patchett as saying that “the history of world literature is weighted heavily on the side of writers who put their masterpieces together without the benefit of two years of graduate school.” The MFA is such a young institution in the scheme of that history. It’s just a smear on the radar. If all a person wants to do is write, they will find models to emulate; they will live their lives, and out of the light of that living they will make time to create.  The blessing, too, of this age of information is that those “models” I just mentioned are available all the time, and overwhelmingly they’re also free. The longer I run Primal School, the more that conviction grows, and the more I’d like to keep doing what I can to be a supportive presence to poets who are teaching themselves.

The greatest and perhaps undersold value of the MFA is the potential it’s created for poetry to be carried into spaces beyond academia. Most graduates of these programs aren’t going to get those tenure-track positions, and the gift of that there’s still a very important place for them in YMCAs, senior centers, prisons, people’s living rooms – spaces of human experience where poetry can show up and where the hunger for it is often greatest. Poet-preneurs like Jason Koo of Brooklyn Poets are bringing poetry into such spaces, and our communities are richer for them.

About poetry as a way of living, though, I think that’s well said. Ocean Vuong said something in an interview with Poets & Writers a while back, which really resonated with me – about how easy it is to tie up our egos with our work, chasing that tenure-track job, prizes, fellowships, whatever. But the heat of living resides in the poem itself, an artifact of the present, carried by way of words and sentences straight into the hearts of people. And the heart is really the only true place for a poem.

KW: I love this: “the heart is really the only true place for a poem.” So true! I think the beautiful thing about being a poet is we get to live an “ampersand” kind of life, which is something we’ve talked a lot about in our Crossing Boundaries class: we can be poets in EVERY area of our life, writers AND teachers AND faculty members AND community members AND eco-activists AND tech wizards AND academics AND friends. We can bring our sensitivity, skills, and profoundly human sense of life to everything we do and are. In a big sense, too, we never really stop teaching ourselves. No MFA, group, or residency lasts forever! I think we have to maintain a lifelong practice and apprenticeship to that–there’s a certain kind of “learning at the feet of the masters” approach, tucking ourselves into libraries and the wealth of resources available on the Internet, that feels so Bradbury-esque and necessary. I know that my time in the classroom is just a small fraction of the time I spend learning. I’m always trying to read even beyond the annotations the program requires, scrolling through websites (like Primal School 😉 ) over lunch hours and practicing over long hours. And that doesn’t count the groups of us sitting around coffee tables with poem copies. For me, the MFA has been a further resource that fits where I’m at currently and provides those great opportunities to learn how to carry the love of poetry into all areas of life. It also provides introductions to literature that might’ve taken me years to find. If we expect an MFA or any short program to be a magic bullet, I think we’ll always come away disappointed. However, if we take a growth mindset to every phase of our lifetime of learning cycles and methods, of which an MFA might be just one season of new influences, I think we can start to separate our validation from whatever means we use to learn. The validation then comes in simply showing up to the page for the great love of it.

And in the spirit of that ampersand life, you manage to maintain a regular schedule while always bringing kindness and the zang to every interview. So enviable! What has your process for working on Primal School been like? Could you provide a little insight on what it’s like to run a blog?

HLJ: You are so kind, and it’s fabulous to hear a bit about how you interlock the lifelong study of poetry into your work as a teacher of writing. As for the blog, this is a tough one because I’m very much still trying to get a handle on my process, and my schedule most of the time feels anything but regular: reaching out to poets, asking if there’s a poem of theirs that they’d like to discuss (if I don’t already have one in mind — a lot of the time I do). Generally, once the ball is rolling I formulate some questions to send to them – and then, depending on their time and preference, either set up a time for a Google chat interview or simply have an exchange by email. I try to keep to a bi-weekly interview schedule, all the while thinking (as every literary production should) about the mix of voices. I try to aim as much as possible for diversity in all areas: age, gender/gender-identity, race, a poem’s subject matter. There’s the newsletter to put together every few months, though a friend is urging me to take it monthly. It’s all turning into a full-time job pretty fast, especially as the word gets out about Primal School and more poets start to approach me about doing interviews, though I still would prefer  to do interviews by invitation. The reason for that is I want to highlight a good mix poets who are emerging and unknown alongside those who are more established, and I see Primal School as a place where I can shine light on all of them. Still, there are the anomalies: Washington State Poet Laureate Tod Marshall recently emailed me asking how he could help, and when a door like that opens  you walk through it, no questions asked. I suppose that’s all to say that Primal School has given me so much already: a way to keep learning my craft; a built-in community of new friends who are poets. I have kept up wonderful  correspondences with many of the poets I’ve interviewed, and that includes you.

I suppose the takeaway in this for others is that if you’re a writer who blogs, and you put something out there with the intention of supporting others by sharing something that they can use, the world of poets and writers is small enough that it’s inevitable the right people will come knocking. And if you don’t have that, and if you’re at least persistent, they’ll still know who you are eventually and what you’re hoping to do.

KW: There also seems to be something of the law in attraction to that: put the positive vibes out there and it’ll come back to you. There’s something beautiful in being able to do that as poets, and I think that’s what distinguishes being a poet as a particular kind of human necessity. I know all genres do it, but (and I’m biased, obviously) there seems a particular need for poets to keep creating this human web of empathy. Supporting each other while holding one another to high critical standards is important. We need to listen and learn from one another as much as write the tough, critical reviews of work that might not be up to snuff, no matter what the dominant aesthetics are. Both enact poetry with a full and generous listening.

In turn, your blog really focuses on making a personal connection with the writer so that, if I may say so, they can in turn make a personal connection with you and your readers in sharing their poem knowledge. Could you talk a little bit about what your experience has been like in working with so many writers?

HLJ: To what you just said about empathy and critical reviews, while that’s a world have never touched and may never get to touch, I feel there’s a lot of integrity in a poet being willing to say, “I can’t rightly blurb/endorse/recommend this book. Here is why.” The same goes with judging contests, where an esteemed poet will do as Richard Hugo once did with the Yale Series, saying that if an entrant had been a student in any one of his classes they were out of the running. A friend recently confided in me that he thought of the poetry world as a cold place. It was disheartening to hear this. I would hope that in approaching our own work and supporting other poets it’s fully possible to do so with generosity and kindness as well conscientiousness and standards that are fierce. As with any good poem, I feel a robust life for a poet is entirely both/and.

But to go back to the blog, the beast of this work is really in the interview questions. When I first started Primal School I felt a lot of trepidation about how I’d come across as an interviewer, wondering what questions to ask; worrying too hard about the things like prosody and whether I was hitting on every aspect of a poem before moving onto other topics. And the ego once again would have me trying to impress the interviewee or your readership with questions that are killer. But it wasn’t very long before I let all that go. These days I cleave to a simple approach: a set of standard questions for every poet, alongside questions germane to the author’s specific experience. I say “experience” rather than “poem” because a poem is really a fragment or crystallization of some aspect of the life of its author. I’ve come to think of my job as simply getting the poet to coax that fragment out of its velvet case, and once they are comfortable, helping them show it off.

On the practical side, there’s definitely a period of preparation,  where I do my homework on the poet and send them some questions, or if we’re doing a Google Chat at least getting them a cheat sheet of topics in advance. But once we’re on the river it’s all about flow, and listening well, and responding deeply to what each poet has to say. I’ve had so many fun conversations, and even when they veer away from the poem or the subject of poetry per se, there’s another kind of poetry to be found in the discovery of the person. On the back end there’s the editing and polishing, of course, and that can be subject to its own quirks. During my interview with Gary Dop, for instance, he proposed that we publish the full transcript of the original interview with all the hiccups and asides left in; the “LOL”s and even the typos. And though I ultimately opted not to do that, I loved that Gary’s personal style sought expression in the process. And with the urging of poets like Keegan Lester I’m now playing with ways to bring the interviews in formats other than written. I’ve had some practice with podcasts, and the “Music Barn” section of the site features Soundcloud recordings of me reading the poems I’ve interviewed people about. So pretty soon here I’ll be playing with using audio and video recordings as a way for poets to provide answers to my questions in alternative formats that are a little less static and hopefully more playful for them.

I feel lucky. Most if not all of the poets I’ve interviewed have been enthusiastic about Primal School or have helped to spread the word about it to those who might benefit from it. And my friendships with many of them have put a lot of air in my own tires on my off-days as poet. That’s been invaluable.

KW: I think, too (and I love the phrase of coaxing the crystal) we love any moment when we can hit true flow as human beings: talking with each other deeply, listening to and writing good poetry, finding the moments when we punch through to something real and something true about the human condition. Those are the moments when we’re fully awake, and as you say, having those moments and those friendships can keep us going when we have our inevitable “blah” days. There are times when just won’t be fully awake, and there’s also a stack of whatever-work on the desk making us feel guilty for even thinking we should waste time playing with words. A jolt of energy, a reminder of what matters in the midst of blahness and busyness, can often only come from that connection with others.

Speaking of busyness, in addition to running a blog and working, you also write and submit regularly (congratulations on your recent publications in Poets Bridge and Cleaver Magazine!), and serve in various residencies. That’s a lot of hats to wear! What insight can you share with us about maintaining that regular practice in the midst of what feels like, as poet Dan Beachy-Quick has said, a beautiful confusion?

HLJ: As the project grows it’s become a lot harder to set aside the regular block of daily hours to write. My Submittable log at the moment, case in point, shows two lines in circulation, which sadly means that it’s been a while. It feels more necessary now for me to periodically get away, and the residencies have helped me with that a lot. My employment is freelance and and unlike many of my peers I don’t have children, and so that gives me a lot of extra bandwidth for my writing, but I’ve really come to appreciate that notion of giving oneself permission – to show up daily if possible, to make a royal mess, and to fail – often. You may remember Kelly how in your own interview your advice to younger writers was to take as many runs at a poem as they want until the right form for it is found. The “beautiful confusion” requires patience. And regular reminders to oneself about why you love creating, which is what the blog has been for me.

KW: Those regular reminders are so important. I know one way we can find that, in addition to someone who’s already gone before us and can offer us as advice and reminders, is to find mentors. Could you talk a little about mentorship and the process—and importance—of finding mentors beyond the school environment?

HLJ: If we were to define mentorship as a connection between an experienced writer and a younger one in which there is steady contact and “long-term investment” in the younger writer’s growth over time, I’ve had no poetry mentors. If I were to go looser with that definition and say that a mentor is a poet who is a few steps ahead of me in their career, perhaps, and is someone with whom I can correspond, exchange ideas and the occasional poem, or contact at any time with a question or idea –  then, well, I’ve had dozens. This brings me to echo the advice Joseph Fasano gave in his interview, which is to not be shy about reaching out to your favorite poets. It helps if you approach them with a specific question, something beyond just “I’m seeking a mentor.” The word “mentor” is freighted with so many expectations that it’s bound to send writers running for the hills. I often tell younger writers to start off by just being real and expressing their admiration, then seeing how the correspondence unfolds from there. Sometimes it’s going to dead-end; writers have busy lives. But then, there’s still your law of attraction: if you keep putting your signal out there, someone is eventually bound to pick it up. And sometimes if you’re resourceful and simply doing what you love to do, others will even come to you and offer their support.

Beyond that, there are wonderful resources for writers seeking more structured guidance on specific projects, whether that’s just generating new poems or putting together a manuscript. AWP’s Writer-to-Writer program is a wonderful way to connect younger writers with established writers who want to give something back by serving as a mentor. And Poets House and PEN America both have fellowship programs for emerging writers who are working outside of the literary establishment.

Setting all that aside, though, the sobering truth is that as writers we’re all ultimately on our own. Some of us poets sing for our suppers; others of us sup elsewhere and write our songs on the side. Either way it’s a lonely voyage. I don’t mean this to be a downer, but to bring the focus back to what’s most important, which is the work. And if you’re serious about your work, your nearest mentors will be the poets you love whose books you keep beside you at your desk and reach for time and again.

KW: Truth! It’s true that no matter how much community we find and build, it’s ultimately still us sitting down at the page every day. I know something that’s helped me in those moments is looking at my own growth so far as a poet, in addition to looking at how even the best writers failed several times and got better over the years. If you had to briefly timeline your growth as a writer on your journey so far, what would that timeline look like? What has your experience been in creating/finding such a community?

HLJ: This is almost impossible to do since I’m so poor at remembering what happened when. It’s probably more accurate to just describe my growth as a writer over the last four or so years as a kind of thrashing in the ocean which turned into dog paddle which has only recently broke out into a full swim. Occasionally I’ll look through old poems of mine, even ones that have been published, and I’ll wince either because they’re just plain bad or because my work has changed. When I’m stuck on a poem or feeling like I’m running in place, these occasional glances backward are helpful reminders that I’ve grown.

My journey has been twisty and challenging and tremendously rewarding because of I’ve had the opportunity to connect with many terrific people. I mentioned Jason Koo earlier. I’ve cut my teeth critiquing and working with writing groups through Inked Voices, the amazing online community run by my friend Brooke McIntyre. I wouldn’t have discovered Inked Voices without the online courses I took through The Gotham Writers Workshop. Because I live on a rural island, my life is more solitary than for most, and my trips into the city to attend readings and other cultural events are few and far between, and a lot of my community-building has happened online. Many writers like to disparate social media and email, but for some of us, these are indispensable tools. I continue to be grateful for organizations that serve poets and writers of all backgrounds and persuasions, and for the means we have available to stay connected with others and keep on learning.

KW: Words of wisdom as we head into a future with increasing opportunities, and necessity, for poets to connect in just that way. Hannah, thank you so much for taking the time to share your thoughts with us.

Hannah Lee Jones founded and edits Primal School, a blog resource for poets who are pursuing their craft without an MFA. Her poetry and fiction have appeared in Superstition Review, Cleaver, Cider Press Review, Literary Orphans, Apogee Journal, Orion, and elsewhere. She lives on Whidbey Island in northwest Washington.


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