2 things i’m wondering
1. I met with a student to give advice on his MFA sample writing portfolio. Since I read these portfolios for my university and wrote one for my MFA, I felt ‘qualified,’ but with Tao Lin quotation marks. Some of the student’s poems had images and word-play. Tropes. Alliteration, at least one spondee. The first page was strong. I told him, “Good. You showed on the first page that you have read poetry and care some about words. The first page is important. Thoughts are being made.” I said, “You have images immediately. A lot of people sending in won’t have any images. They won’t get in. A lot of people like to write poetry, not poems. I mean they write about pride or love…” (trailing off. not quite sure what I meant here)
Content: The poems were about hangovers, beer, marijuana. I said, “These are sort of derivative ‘beat’ poems. That’s OK, write what you want once you’re in graduate school, but I think you should play the game a little. Get in grad school first.” I told him many readers would groan when they read poems about hangovers, beer, marijuana. “People are going to think you read some Bukowski. They’ll think you’re a type.” The phone rang 4 times and I ignored it. I said, “Do you have poems about any others things?” He did. Put some of those poems in the sample, I advised. I said again, “This isn’t a criticism of your work. Any subject is fine. Write what you want. I’m just trying to help you get into grad school.”
I pulled out two of his poems, one about marijuana and one about beer. I said, “Let me compare and contrast here. These are both cliché subjects. But most subjects are cliché. In this second poem, the beer one, you twisted the cliché, you cared about words, you have rhyme and alliteration and thoughtful enjambment. You’re doing weird things with white space. You took the ordinary and did something with it. Now this other poem, the marijuana poem, isn’t even a poem. You don’t get points for it being about marijuana. This is just a bunch of words here. You have to show that you care…not just any word. Show that you’ve read a lot of poetry. So rewrite the marijuana poem or get rid of it.”
I said, “Relax. These people are looking for potential. Show them potential.”
One of the poems was clearly in a voice and clearly homophobic. I said, “This poem might be a problem. Some people won’t get that it’s a persona, a voice.” He said, “That’s what Michael said.” (another professor down the hallway) I said, “Someone will quickly read this in your packet and won’t get it. They’ll be offended. I’m not saying it will happen, I’m saying think about it.” He said, “I might leave it out.” I said, “That’s one option. Or you could add an epigraph or other device so the reader knows it’s a voice. You could also just leave it in. It’s your call.”
His writing sample had a prose poem, alongside all the free verse. I said, “This is good for the application. You know more than one default form. A lot of people applying don’t know any formal forms. They haven’t read many poems. They don’t know the history. They write things about their life and think it’s a poem. Do you have any other forms?” He said he had haiku. I said, “Might want to throw a small sample of haiku. Not too much, but you know…”
I said, “I wish you luck.”
The student said he wanted to go to school near Brooklyn. “I’m done with the Midwest,” he said. I said, “Why not just move to Brooklyn now? Get a job and write after work.” (weirdly, i was thinking about all the HTML MFA chatter the last few days while saying this aloud) He said, “That’s my backup plan. I’m doing this first for my parents.” I said, “Do your parents ask your advice when making huge life decisions? You’re an adult now.” He said, “They paid for my college.” I said, “OK, I hear you, but go to New York, whether you get in school or not.” He nodded. “I’m going to.”
A few moments passed. I was looking for a book of French prose poets I bought cheap at Chicago AWP to show the student a point on form, but couldn’t find the damn book on my bookshelves. I kept squinting at all my shelves. It dawned on me I probably looked stupid scanning my shelves for so long, minutes dripping away, but then again maybe it showed the student that writers have a shit-load of books. Who knows? I never found the book.
I turned to the student and said, “You know, this is kinda like workshop: you can ignore all my advice. You have to have some ego, so don’t change things if you don’t want to.” He said, “OK.” He thanked me and stood to leave. He said, “Should I leave your door open?” I said, “Sure.” A rush of excitement for a moment, though I have no idea why. I blurted out, “Hey! You know Bukowski wrote a lot of poems that weren’t at all about beer.” The student didn’t say anything. I said, “Well, either way, go to New York.”
I’m wondering if any of this was good advice.
The second thing I’m wondering happened five minutes ago, right here in Muncie, Indiana. The doorbell rang. I did the thing where you freeze in place and hope it goes away, wish it never happened at all. Humans are weird. It rang again. I sat here in this chair. Everything seem transfixed, like the whole world was trapped in ice. No sound. Finally, I went to the door. No one there, but no footsteps at all in the snow. How the fuck does that happen? I was wondering.