Friday, June 06, 2008

MFA Reflections #1

Beyond basking the the blush of graduation, I’ve been reflecting on learnings from the MFA and will do a few blog entries on that this summer. I’m not going to talk about the obvious learnings, but what I hope are some more nuanced reflections of the degree and how it shapes poets and writers. I started thinking about this when madly searching for Christa Wolf’s Cassandra (which I have come to believe was eaten alive by my house as it is frankly no where and my book group is now nearly done reading it. Sigh. I proposed it and was looking forward to the reading and discussion with a group.) I came across Lisa Lewis’ book of poetry, Silent Treatment. I purchased this book of poetry shortly after it came out and treasured it. A few years later, Stan Plumly told me to read it. To study it. To make it a model for my work. I reread and reencountered the book. Stan also told me to study C. K. Williams. Both of them were about understanding line length and line break as well as how narrative structures works in poetry. Both of them, also, were in many ways foreign to what I was reading - to the poets that I love and return to time and time again (Rich, Hacker, Rukeyser, Bishop). C. K. Williams, in particular, is not a poet whose books I would have picked up and studied without the exhortations from Stan. This to me seems to be an important part of an MFA: the informed recommendations from a mentor of what to read and the immersion in reading all of the work of a poet. The benefits of this are multiple. First, there is the craft and technique perspective for which I was directed to encounter Lewis and Williams. This was significant, but less significant than I thought at the time. When I encountered these poets, I was looking first for a simple and easy application of their work to my own. I never found it. (Earlier Stan had directed me to Merwin to study his punctuation. In a nutshell, in his mature work, Merwin doesn’t use any punctuation. This was incredibly frustrating to me, at first; then, over time, it was profoundly illuminating.) What I found in the work of Lewis and Williams instead of a craft seminar is a process of encountering a contemporary poets work and immersing myself in it as a writer. A consequence of that is learning to think of one’s own work over a lifetime of writing. I started to think about my work in different ways. Studying Lewis’ first book and the progression of Williams’ poems over many books was incredible. Partly because I began to think of my own work in relation to theirs. Not in content, partially in form, but mostly as one poet to another. This may be one of the most significant learnings of the MFA: being told that this poet is a guide for you and then discovering over time, how that poet will guide you. The path was never as I expected, but it was always a worthwhile path. In retrospect, I find my immersion in Lewis and Williams satisfying and meaningful. I’m not sure that over my lifetime I will say that they were profoundly influential on my work. I don’t think that Stan has some particular key to my soul and can provide the perfect match for my intellectual and emotional writing needs. I do think that he has a profound intuitive insight that brings information to bear that I would not find without him. I’ve learned to appreciate that in ways that I didn’t anticipate. Mostly, I appreciate him directing me on a path that helped me to think about myself as a poet and to find a mirror for that poet self in unlikely places.

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