Poetry and PowerPoint: An Interview With Katherine Bode-Lang

Bode-Lang+Author+Photo+for+web

Let’s start with chronology. You’re now an IT trainer at the Office of Research Protections at Penn State, and have a longer history of nonprofit administration. At what point in your career did you decide to get an MFA?

Poetry has always been a part of my life, if not my pay-the-bills career—I actually earned a small creative writing scholarship to attend college, where I majored in English and Women’s Studies. I’d been active in women’s philanthropy and nonprofit work throughout high school and college as a volunteer, intern, and eventually as a Program Officer for The Michigan Women’s Foundation, but I was always writing. The semester I worked full-time as an intern at the United Way, I also took an independent study for poetry. Continue reading

“I Knew I Wasn’t Going To Be an Academic Poet”: An Interview with Carrie Murphy

carrie murphy

Before we get into your post-MFA life, what made you decide to get an MFA? What were you expecting before you got the degree, and how had those expectations changed by the time you finished?

I’d been thinking about getting an MFA since I was an undergrad. Once I learned what an MFA was, it was just always something I wanted to do. I applied in the fall of 2007/spring of 2008, and I began at New Mexico State University in the fall of 2008.

I had a terrific experience in the MFA program at New Mexico State University and I started to think about what I was going to do I guess about a year before I graduated in 2011.  To be honest, I’m not 100% sure I always expected to go into academia when I was finished. I vaguely thought, early in my MFA, of eventually getting a Ph.D. in comparative literature or cultural studies, but after a while, it didn’t seem like something I really wanted to pursue anymore.

I taught during my three years in grad school, which I enjoyed, but I was pretty sure I didn’t want to apply for Phds, not in creative writing, not in comp lit, and not in cultural studies. It just didn’t seem like the right path for me. All of my friends who were interested in pursuing Phds were a lot more passionate about the academic life than I was, so I think that was one of the clues that made me think hey, maybe I don’t want to become a professor. I feel like you should really want it and know it’s the right path for you, and I didn’t (and still don’t) feel that way.

In your essay on Rachel Zucker, you write “As I neared the end of graduate school in 2011, I knew I wasn’t going to be an academic poet. I love poems and I love teaching, but I realized I wasn’t cut out for a career in academia. What would I be, then, if not a teacher of poems?” You go on to talk about how reading Rachel Zucker (I love her too) helped solidify your decision to become a doula/ poet, rather than a professor/ poet. What made you feel/ realize that you “weren’t cut out” for an academic career?

This is going to sound weird, but in some ways I feel like I’m not enough of an intellectual. I like learning and thinking and learning about thinking, but I don’t think I would be good at being a full-time scholar. I don’t have a desire to talk literary theory, and write papers, and go to conferences, and peer review journal articles, and do all of those kinds of things. I mean, I still do some of that, sure….but, it’s work that I choose to do, when I choose to do it, and it’s not necessarily connected to my livelihood.

Also, to be blatantly honest, I have no interest in competing in the crazy academic job market! It seems like getting a tenure-track job in English or Creative Writing is tantamount to winning the lottery. There’s some healthy competition in my line as work as a freelance writer and as a doula, but nothing like what newly minted academics are dealing with today.

I do really enjoy teaching, and I still do it. I have deeply complicated feelings about adjuncting (who doesn’t?), but I do it because I like it, and because teaching helps supplement the rest of my cobbled-together freelance/doula income.

It sounds like in becoming a doula, you were very much aware that it was work that dovetailed with your work as a writer – the sensibilities of attending births and new mothers seem aligned with your sensibilities as a poet. Big question: assuming some version of this is true for many, but not all writers (that a “day job” is out there that supports and aligns with their writing better than a university teaching job could), why do you think there are such high expectations for creative writers to compete in academia?

For poets, at least, being an academic is the kind of the only way you can be a poet and really make money, right? I mean, be a poet as your sole “occupation,” as it were (although it’s worth pointing out that poets who work in academia do quite a lot of work that is not related to poetry). I think there is also a high degree of legitimacy attached to being a professor, like you’re finally seen as legit if someone hires you to teach other people how to write. It also seems to be the most respectable thing to do if you’re a writer, as least to people outside of the literary world. As I mentioned, I still teach and I weirdly feel that it gives me a little bit more “cred” among my peers (and even some of my grad school classmates) even though I’m doing the often lowly (yet, of course, necessary!) work of adjuncting comp classes, not the OMG dream of teaching upper-level poetry workshops. 

That sense of legitimacy that comes with being a professor applies to the thinking of people outside of academia, as well. You know, the whole, “Oh you majored in English, what are you going to do, teach?” type of thinking…as if teaching is the only logical way to make a living with words. I remember having dinner with my friends when I finished my masters and they were like, “Oh, so you’re going to be a professor now?” And I said “Um, even if I wanted to be a professor, it’s incredibly hard to get a tenure-track job teaching writing. It would probably take me years.” And they were like “Oh, we thought that’s what everyone did!!”

But yeah, everyone doesn’t do that. And everyone doesn’t WANT to do that, either. For me, having several somewhat flexible jobs gives me the ability to make space in my life for my poetry. Others achieve that in other ways, but the life and career I’ve carved out over the last few years is what’s working for me now. 

What tensions, if any, do you feel between writing as an expert, as you do in “Why I’m a Pro-Choice Doula,” where your expertise in a subject is what drives the writing, and writing as a poet, where your expertise in a subject is less important than how you say what you do? What purposes does each serve for you? Do you enjoy one more or less than the other?

I don’t know that I am an expert in being a doula—or that I am not a expert in being a poet. I’m am an expert in myself and in my own experience, so that’s what I try to bring to my writing, whether it is about birth-related topics or whether it’s my poetry. I am always learning, in both spheres, which makes things fun and interesting, whether it’s a new massage technique for a person in labor or a discovering an awesome new book of lyric essays.

I am HUGELY passionate about maternity care and birthing choices for people in the US, so it’s my certainly my passion and my convictions that drive that kind of writing for me. If I’m writing something about birth or about being a doula, I usually want readers to have their assumptions challenged or come away having learned something new, so it’s important to me to write in a way that’s extremely clear, organized, and evidence-based.

But for my poems, I can just be weird and flip and dramatic and funny and it doesn’t matter because it’s MY poem and I don’t have to “prove” it to anyone—except myself, maybe. Readers are welcome to take whatever they want from my poems.

How do you feel about “Call the Midwife”? (I had to ask).

I love it! It’s the best. I cry during every single episode. I love it especially because it shows women giving birth safely, in their homes, attended by caring, well-qualified, and professional medical staff. The midwives (and the doctor!) on the show are essentially offering holistic care that takes into consideration the mother’s personal life, emotional state, and more, just as much as the medical aspects of her pregnancy, labor and postpartum. That’s a model of care that is hopefully coming back into vogue, but one I think that has been largely lost in our age of ten minute obstetrician appointments and induction dates. I’m happy to see this model of care demonstrated, and hopeful that others can see that it works, even if the show does take place during the 50s. The midwifery model continues to work for families and communities all over the world.

Even though the people on the show are obviously acting, I’m sure that Call The Midwife shows some of the only unmedicated births some viewers have seen, so I think that’s a benefit. And that’s not to say that medicated birth isn’t also wonderful and life-changing….but I appreciate the work the show is doing to make it clear that birth can be a normal, joyous event that doesn’t necessarily have to happen while you’re lying in a bed, in a hospital gown, with monitors strapped to your belly.

I also love how honest the show is about the emotional and mental complications involved in doing birth work. As amazing and renewing as it can be, it’s also quite grueling and taxing on both your body and your emotional state. And I’m not even a midwife!

To what extent was your poetry attentive to or influenced by birth and motherhood before you became a doula? Is it more so influenced now, or do you consciously create a separate space for it?

My book, PRETTY TILT, has poems about wanting to have a child, and about the experience of being a babysitter–a “fake”mother, if you will–so it’s been there for a while. All of my poems in some way deal with the experience of womanhood. And I have like five billion references to cervixes and ovaries in my poems, so that anatomical element crops up a lot :)

I have a new book coming out later this year and it has a couple mentions of my doula work, and birth, and also deals with my relationship to “motherhood” as a construct. I don’t have any children of my own as of yet, so in some ways I feel like an impostor writing about motherhood, when it’s an experience I haven’t really entered on my own. I’m really interested, and scared, and excited, to see how my writing will change when I do become a mother.

What are some ways you stay connected to groups of other writers? How do these connections feel different than those you made as an MFA student? How often do you meet writers who are also in the birthing business?  

Wellllllllll I tweet a lot. Does that count? I think it does! I have an awesome, supportive community of writer friends on Twitter, and everywhere on the internet, really. There are so many writers today who I respect and enjoy as people (as well as respecting and enjoying their work) and I feel lucky to live in a time where I can connect with them even though we live all over the world. I also keep in touch with some of my MFA classmates, too. I send them work, they send me work: it’s nice to have a sounding board every once in a while.

I wish I knew other writers who were doulas or who were otherwise involved in the birth world! I’m sure they’re out there…I do know (only via Facebook) Sarah Fox, who is also a poet and a doula. And I know one another doula who is also a poet, but she doesn’t live in my local area. But there are a ton of books geared towards expectant parents, so there’s obviously overlap with people who like writing and people who like the world of pregnancy, childbirth, and postpartum. Or maybe those people are just getting paid to write those books—how can I break into that?!

What advice would you give other writers who are finishing MFA programs who feel as you did about academia? 

You have options! It’s awesome to be an academic writer, but that’s not the only path to creativity, happiness and success.

Carrie Murphy is the author of the poetry collection PRETTY TILT (Keyhole Press, 2012) and the chapbook, MEET THE LAVENDERS (Birds of Lace, 2011). Her second full-length book, FAT DAISIES, is forthcoming in 2014 from Big Lucks Books. She received an MFA from New Mexico State University. Originally from Baltimore, MD, Carrie works as a teacher, freelance writer, and birth doula in Albuquerque, NM. 

 

 

 

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How Will You Keep Yourself?

I’ve spent the past week immersed in Prizes, the selected short stories of Janet Frame. I was introduced to Frame, one of New Zealand’s most celebrated writers, through Jane Campion’s adaptation of Frame’s autobiography, An Angel At My Table. I watched this film in a deep, lightless Michigan winter, during a time when I lived alone; huddled on a loveseat with sinking cushions, I let the washed blue light of Campion’s filming and the harsh, scrubbed look of the rural New Zealand landscape open up before me.

janet frame

Frame’s stories, like some of my favorite poems, are invested in occupying a slightly absurd space between reality and fantasy (“’The Sun,’ they said, ‘is unmentionable. You must never refer to it.” But that ruse did not work. People referred to the sun…” begins one story.) When she was in her early twenties, Frame had a breakdown and was committed to a mental hospital, where she narrowly escaped a lobotomy operation because her first book of stories won a major prize. (Literary prizes appear in Prizes, but like most triumphs in Frame’s work, they are double-edged.)

As someone who tried and gave up on teaching when she was young, Frame must have thought once in a while about how to contend with those who believed writing, particularly poetry and fiction writing, was not work, and how others holding this view could corner a writer into becoming something else, while believing he was doing so in the service of writing. In “The Triumph of Poetry,” a young man named Alan (“…meaning that in the future the area of himself would be known as Alan”) wishes to become a poet. The expected tension surfaces: not a suitable career. Other people tell him this. “But how will you keep yourself?” they say. Frame offers commentary:

One must be kept, swept, turned inside out, shaken free of insects, polished, pleated, trimmed, preserved in brine which is collected in opaque green bottles from the sea or from tears which fall in the intervals between each death.

The self, in the hands of Frame-impersonating-Alan’s-elders, is a household object, subject to entropy: to dust, to wrinkling, to overgrowth. The self is also a liquid that takes the shape of its container. There are all sorts of containers. The question “what do you want to be?” (or “what will you do with that degree?” or “but how do you make your money?” or, as I heard this weekend, “Creative writing. So, do you work for a newspaper?”), reflects a fear about what that shape will turn out to be. A lawyer is a familiar shape, as is a nurse. A poet – what shape is that? Alan’s nameless, faceless elders seem to say to him: we’ve done you the favor of giving the amorphous blob of you a name; now what will you do with it, where will you put it?

But if Frame had kept on in the “squares go home” mode, her story might have turned out much more adolescent. Alan doesn’t quite rage against the machine. He tries on a few shapes: he writes poems, does it well enough, earns praise for it. He goes to university, and to the beach, and to meet girls. He takes pride in his success at school. It’s important to feel you do well at something. But Alan’s time for writing seems scarce, and that’s when the story begins to hinge on the idea of a day job. Alan “found a job as porter in a hospital morgue, attaching tickets and tying toes together, and looking for vacant spaces on the shelves of the refrigerator in order to keep a state of efficiency. He found that the atmosphere stimulated his thinking, but only while he was among the corpses, for as soon as he went to his digs to carry out his plan of writing at night, his thoughts seemed to vanish.”

Among the corpses! As I type this, I am carrying out my plan of writing at night, and I can second Alan (can you?) in the sentiment that as long as you are somewhere you’d rather not be, the ideas come easily. At my first job out of college, indignant at being bored in the office when I would have rather gone home and written, I drew elaborate cartoons that I hung on my cubicle walls. I know a poet who wrote her first book while in law school. Legend has it that at least one well-known novelist has finished a draft while locked in his white-collar office.

“It’s the revenge of the dead,” Alan hypothesizes, but at that point he is beginning to be fatigued. The world’s reluctance to let him be a poet – without thought to how he will ‘keep himself’ – is becoming evident. “But he knew it was not the revenge of the dead. Their toes were tied with pink tape, in bows, as for a festive occasion. Their faces were in unsealed envelopes, forwarded at half-rates with five conventional words of greeting. All was in order. The dead did not need revenge.” The dead, too, have their shape; in their way, are kept.

I won’t give away the end of the story, but you’ve probably guessed it: poetry does not quite triumph. (“The Triumph of Poetry,” as it turns out, is the name of a little magazine that heralds Alan’s early work long after he can reasonably be called “a promising young poet.”) In the end, what we all fear happens to Alan: a youthful attempt to build room for poetry into one’s life is overtaken by the act of building a room (from bricks of employment, family, trappings of middle-class life).

This is something I wrestle with, when I sit through a long staff meeting and can’t quite focus my eyes; when I come home and open up a Word document and can’t make any image come clear; when I sit across a bar from a friend and explain to her that my 9-5 job is, actually, the best way I can “make room” in my life for writing. Day job, sometimes I have my doubts. Not because I want to be a destitute elderly person one day, or because I still think wistfully about academia (although I sometimes do), but because I wonder if trying to give our writing a room of its own sometimes means that we’re cordoning it off, organizing it out of the rest of our lives.

I’d like to end on a more hopeful note, so I’ll make a recommendation, for myself, and for anyone who feels like taking it. I prescribe letting the work – the real work, the honest work, work that you would not disown even if fifty magazines rejected it – spill over once in a while. Let the liquid get out of its container. Write at your day job: a few sentences at lunch, a line scribbled on the last page of your legal pad at an endless meeting. Take notes when you’re on the phone or when your students are working quietly, on how people interrupt or repeat themselves when they talk, how the fluorescent light looks on everyone’s skin. Once in a while, for the sake of the work you love, let everything in your life run together, and wrinkle, and rust.

 

Our Accomplished Contributors.

This week in the skillz and accomplishments of MFA Day Job featured writers and contributors:

Julia Fierro’s debut novel, Cutting Teethis out from St. Martin’s Press.

Sarah Scoles has a story up at The Adirondack Review.

Nick Ripatrazone’s essay on sentiment in fiction is a great read over at The Millions.

And Wendy Fox’s story collection won the Press 53 Award for Short Fiction. (Her byline and mine also appear side-by-side in The Tusculum Review this spring.)

Not bad, you lot.

Whether Students are Treated Like People in College Has Shocking Effect On Their Lives Afterward

Harvard-University-Tour

When you applied to college, did you know what the f* you were doing? Not me. I thought I might like to live in New York, where my father grew up; I sent away (ah, I date myself) for Columbia’s fancy paper application. When my parents and I visited a few colleges, I liked the combed green of Swarthmore’s campus and the uncombed hair of the wiry tour guide. Eventually, I had a list of brand-name schools, plus the university where my father taught (I could go there for free) and a school in rural Pennsylvania which would offer me a full scholarship.

Of the fancy schools, I got into one. I went there, turning down full rides at my dad’s university (too close to home) and the rural PA school (too fratty, I told myself). My father allowed me to do this, believing that the connections I would make, not to mention the quality of the education and the overall experience, would be better at the private liberal arts school I attended.

But what does it mean to have a better college experience? Yesterday’s Purdue-Gallup poll of college graduates suggests that most of the things middle- and upper-class parents and kids believe matters about college (how hard it is to get into; public or private; its size) barely matter at all. What matters – and for those of you about to click away because this isn’t about MFAs, hang in there – is how good the student’s experience is. Continue reading

The Liberal Arts: Not Just STEM’s Rumspringa

image via Vice.com

image via Vice.com

“Liberal artists” and STEM folks, the “two cultures” of our day, have been paying more attention to each other lately. Undergraduate English majors are learning to code and medical professionals are forming novel-reading groups. In the past few weeks, there’s been a flurry of reporting on the intersections between the L.A. and STEM. What are the two cultures saying about each other now? And, germane to this particular public square, what cultural attitudes do they belie about what writers, artists, and others slogging in the humanities actually do?

In the Wall Street Journal, a recent “At Work” column about liberal arts majors gravitating toward training programs like the App Academy begins with the line, “If a 10-year old can become an ace web programmer, why can’t a liberal arts graduate?” Ouch. Continue reading

MFA vs. NYC vs. DAY JOB

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I’ve hesitated to add my two cents to the MFA v. NYC…(er, debate? Is that what we’re calling it?) reignited by the publication of this anthology edited by Chad Harbach. I’ve hesitated because a) for a long time, I’ve been unsure that describing “two literary cultures” in America is useful at a time when new literature, it seems to me, has rarely been more diverse, genre-bending, and formally challenging, and b) I’m not sure whether I, as a poet, and therefore heir apparent to the tradition of being economically bound to the academy (HA HA) have a dog in a fight that claims to be about fiction writers, and finally c) I’ve been patently ignoring the discussion, because it makes me tired. But here we go.

Starting with 2009’s The Program Era, the large-scale discussion of the worth of an MFA, or its impact on the economics and aesthetics of the literary landscape, has focused on fiction. And not just Fiction writ large—which would have to include all kinds of storytelling, some of which, like comics, are just beginning to have a place in the academy—but namely novels and short stories. The justification for this, it seems, is that unlike poets, who have “traditionally” relied on the academy, not book sales, for their paychecks, fiction writers treating their publications like “credentials” rather than a way to buy groceries is sort of new.

“The NYC writer has to earn money by writing,” writes Harbach in the 2010 essay that kicked off this year’s anthology. Whereas the MFA writer earns money by teaching, making his writing, according to Harbach, strain or bloat with a lack of urgency or readability. Say what you want about that—anyone who reads feverishly knows that there are complex, timely, readable writers who teach in MFA programs just as there are duds who miss the mark. If the market “takes care” of crummy novelists in NYC (as it will, in time, take care of all of us, *evil laugh*), we can probably just let time take care of the fiction that comes out of creative writing departments, rather than being irritated that a more uneven array of it seems to be published each year.

But what about the writer who earns money a different way? Who waitresses, or teaches high school, or builds houses or iPhone apps. Who isn’t “immediately championed” by a university and perhaps never by New York critics, who doesn’t have teaching to lean on as a way to feel “professional” as a writer when her ideas dry up, and who also hasn’t made it in the “blockbuster-or-bust” world of New York publishing, threatened as it is by the looming specter of Amazon? Isn’t this a writer who, between the supply and demand problems of creative writing jobs and the frightened scurry of Random-Penguin-House, is destined to emerge as a “third culture” of American letters?

Does this writer—who could have, pre-program-era, been Muriel Rukeyser, or Amy Clampitt, or Richard Hugo—count in the MFA/ NYC tally? Does her slow, steady work in the hours when she comes home from the office or before she gets on the bus in the morning matter to the people who must divide America into literary Communism and capitalism? When I think of these writers, they are mostly poets: publishing in Poetry and The Missouri Review and Conjunctions, celebrating their new books after they sign out for the day or in between grading high school essays. If they are poets, they will always be more or less ignored by the market, and thus by the public. But it doesn’t make their innovations in language, in form, and in collaboration any less valuable. Think of Miranda Priestly’s speech in The Devil Wears Prada to a humbled Anne Hathaway–the art that everyone pretends not to care about, and that no one can afford to buy makes its way eventually into the clothes on your back. So, I hope, it is for America’s best poetry.

Some of these writers-with-day-jobs have MFAs, and some do not. Writers who manage to survive outside of both the New York-driven publishing world and the academic world are a special breed, and their work often—not always—reflects it. These are writers who may be more likely to work with artists from other disciplines, and to research and write on subjects that are new to them. They are documentary theater artists and documentary poets; they don’t shy away from performance; they write hybrid texts and libretti. They read everything they can get their hands on. They listen and watch. (Of course, I hasten to add, there are writers in both the NYC and MFA orbits who do these things too—that is the point, that a strong will and an imagination can always do something surprising to an institution.)

It’s possible that of this type of writer-with-day-job, many or most will remain unknown all their lives; some will eventually bemoan the loss of their chance to be the next Jonathan Safran Foer or to judge a contest or to have a stool named after them in Iowa City. But underneath their creative struggles and juggling of professional goals, these writers—those featured on this blog, and others—also comprise something surprising, something that in America we thought we had lost: a group of people who don’t just go to work every day, but who intentionally move in multiple spheres; who think, read, write, and live the liberal arts.