Something that Unites the Two Modes: Kristen Gunther on Science, Poetry, Writing and Research

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Which came first for you, poetry or science? Or did you have to choose between the two at some point?

It was always both. When I was a kid, I tromped through the woods all day, which led to a curiosity about the natural world – but also, as soon as I could read, I was memorizing poems. In my senior year of college, I used to leave a class on Shakespeare’s histories, pull rubber boots out of my backpack, and go out to net fish in a tidal bay as part of an ecology course. The strange thing is that nobody ever asked me to choose – it was always completely acceptable that I was studying wildlife management but also constantly reading and writing poetry. Continue reading

Poetry and PowerPoint: An Interview With Katherine Bode-Lang

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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

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.

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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.

 

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.

Business After All: An Interview with Kristin Maffei

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Why did you decide to get an MFA? 

When I first went to college, I remember meeting with my adviser and telling her immediately that my definite plan for after college was to get an MFA, so it’s always been in my consciousness somewhere.  But through college, I sort of backed away from the idea and thought maybe a PhD might be better suited for me. Either way, I’ve always loved school and learning, so I knew grad school was in my future, but it wasn’t until I’d worked for a few years that I realized that the MFA was really the right program for me. I wanted space to write creatively, and to be part of a community of writers, but not at the expense of time reading and analyzing other works.  Continue reading

Still Outraged at 100: Muriel Rukeyser’s Centennial

Muriel Rukeyser has been dead for 33 years, but we just can’t keep away from her. On the occasion of her recent centennial, Chanel Dubofsky and I gave her a nickname and talked about the ways this incredible lady built essential bridges between art, activism, and work. 

Courtesy of the Paris Review.

Leah Falk: 

So–I guess I would like to start by asking you how you first came to/ heard about Muriel Rukeyser, or if we can give her a posthumous nickname, “The Ruk.”

Chanel Dubofsky: 

So I think I heard about, um, The Ruk in college. I was in this weird band of poetry people.

LF: The best band.

CD:  YES. Even though I’m not actually a poet, we needed each other. Anyway. Someone brought The Ruk to a gathering, and she immediately felt important to me.

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I Left Nothing Behind: An Interview with Kerry James Evans

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Your first career was as a combat engineer for the National Guard. Can you describe your path toward poetry and deciding to get an MFA?

When I started out in college I was—like many young students—thrust into the world, autonomous for the first time, and without any idea how to manage it. I wasn’t performing particularly well in school, and, mostly, I felt without direction. During my sophomore year of college I was deployed to Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri to guard a gate for a year. I got up at 3 each morning, went to the armory, and then guarded the gate from 5am-1pm. After, I did physical training for two hours then attended night classes at the local university. I made up sleep on the weekends, when I wasn’t studying. I knew after, when I returned to Missouri State, that I wanted to write poetry seriously, and to do that I had a great deal to learn. I still do.

When you started the degree, what were you leaving behind?

I worked as an editor for a certain program within the Department of Justice. Before that I worked for two and a half years as an investigator for a law firm in Springfield, Mo. I also picked up part-time work in the university library—a job I secured only for the chance to read literary journals (they could not be checked out). In high school I worked at Little Caesar’s for almost three years while running both cross-country and track. In middle school and early high school—before I had a car—I hauled hay in Mississippi and landscaped for local businesses.

I left nothing behind. I have always enjoyed work, and when I started the MFA program the job may have changed, but my work ethic did not.

Your first book, Bangalore, deals quite a bit with your experience in the military. How do you think being part of academia (as an MFA and Ph.D. student and now as an adjunct instructor) has changed your recent writing—the process of it, its content, or both?

I’ll just say this: as I evolve, my poems evolve.

How long did you spend looking for work after the MFA?

I applied for Ph.D. programs during the third year of my MFA program. I was fortunate enough to be accepted to Florida State’s Ph.D. program, which offers a teaching assistantship and the opportunity to teach a variety of classes in addition to studying with excellent writers and scholars.

Do you envision staying in academe? What do you like about it, and what gives you pause?

I do. I like learning, and teaching is a great way to learn. I want my poems to continue to evolve, and teaching allows me to be around talented writers with new ideas and different experiences. I have learned as much if not more from my students and peers, as I have through my own research, which is invaluable to me as a poet.

Do you ever have any regrets about getting an MFA?

I have no regrets about earning an MFA. I had the opportunity to work with great poets who I respect and admire—both professors and colleagues. It is an experience that continues to inform how I approach poetry.

Do you think that more MFA programs should draw students’ attention to other career paths than university teaching? How could this be accomplished?

I think a great deal of programs provide alternative career paths to students. The MFA program I attended did a great job of exposing students to a variety of experiences, whether working for the literary journal or serving as an intern for the university press. We also created a visiting writers’ series as well as a writers’ festival, which taught us a lot of valuable skills about things outside teaching, i.e. fundraising, networking, and time management. The faculty hosted a professionalism seminar each year where they answered our questions and told us about the job search process. The same kinds of opportunities were presented in the Ph.D. program I attended.

Do you have any other words of advice for writers entering MFA programs from the workforce?

I think it’s good to set specific, manageable goals. I know many people who have published books while still in the MFA program, and that’s impressive, but I would say that is an exception to the rule. Publishing is important, but learning one’s craft is more valuable. I think the more focus that students put toward honing individual skills, the better chance their poems can be heard.

Kerry James Evans is the author of Bangalore (Copper Canyon). He holds a Ph.D in English from Florida State University and an MFA in Creative Writing from Southern Illinois University-Carbondale. He lives in Tallahassee, Florida.

In Thirty Seconds Or Less: An Interview with Hieu Huynh

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Hieu Huynh is a writer/producer with CNN’s On-Air promotion department based in Atlanta, GA. She is enrolled in NYU’s inaugural low-residency MFA program with workshops in Paris. When she’s not writing poetry, she’s eating her way around the world.

You’re currently a writer-producer at CNN. Tell me a little bit about what that work is like on a daily basis. 

Every day is different and that is exactly what I love about working at CNN. I love knowing that what I do makes an impact and that my work can be seen all over the world. Today, I may be writing about the aftermath of the government shutdown; the next day, I could be writing about a national tragedy…all in thirty seconds or less.

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Let’s Not Forget an MFA is a Fine Arts Degree: An Interview with Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum

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Why did you decide to pursue an M.F.A.? 

I wanted to be a poet. I already was, technically, when I made this decision in my second year of undergrad at Virginia Tech to be an English major. I had published some poems, was doing well in my poetry classes, and was in the process of forming The Brush Mountain Review at the time, but I also knew I wasn’t very good at it.

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All These Activities Have Nourished One Another: An Interview with Martha Collins

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When did you begin to identify as an activist?

In the late 1960s, I left the rather sheltered world of the Midwest, where I’d grown up and was attending graduate school, to teach at the urban campus of the University of Massachusetts in Boston. Unlike my Iowa life (which was extremely white and middle class), U.Mass-Boston had a very diverse student population, in terms of race, class, and age. A commuter school, it attracted many first-generation students; the average age, at some point, was something like 27 or 28, and the majority of the students worked, many of them full-time.

Almost immediately, teaching those students began to expand my social  consciousness. How could I not be concerned about social conditions in my country when students with limited finances were struggling to balance school, work, and family? How could I not think about racial prejudice, some of which became particularly nasty during the Boston school bussing crisis of the early 1970s?

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