Do, Don’t Complain: An Interview with Nick Ripatrazone

Nick Ripatrazone’s novella, This Darksome Burn, is forthcoming from firthFORTH Books, and his short story collection, Good People, will be published by Foxhead Books in 2014. His fiction has received honors from Esquire, Shenandoah, The Kenyon Review, and ESPN: The Magazine. He lives with his wife and twin daughters in New Jersey.

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Why did you decide to pursue an MFA?

I began the MFA program at Rutgers-Newark in 2009, a few years after completing an MA in English Literature there. The MFA program was relatively new, so I attended based on the excellent faculty: studying fiction with Jayne Anne Phillips, Alice Elliott Dark, and Tayari Jones (as well as Paul Lisicky, a visiting professor) was a unique opportunity. I had submitted both critical and creative theses toward my MA, but I wanted to really engage my creative work during this second round of graduate study.

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

Besides sleep, not much: Continue reading

Activist Writers: Gwendolyn Brooks

Credit: The Poetry Foundation

Credit: The Poetry Foundation

In every poetry class I’ve taught so far, I’ve slipped Gwendolyn Brooks’s classic “We Real Cool” into the first week or so. My students, having read the poem silently to themselves, respond to the rhyme, the three beat lines, the language that seems to bare its face while still hiding something. When I ask them what they think the speaker thinks of the “we,” they sometimes say that he or she is warning the young pool players or making fun of them, even as the speaker inhabits their late-lurking, straight-striking world.

But after they hear a recording of Ms. Brooks herself reading the poem, something changes. Suddenly, the first word of each line — “lurk,” “strike,” “jazz” — takes on a dotted rhythm, and the “we” that my students at first read as bearing a full third of each line’s weight becomes only a decoration, a grace note.

This can’t help but change their reading of the poem, one which only scratches the surface of Brooks’s commitment to writing honestly about the black communities she observed and moved within. Brooks was the first black author to win the Pulitzer prize and the first black female poetry consultant to the Library of Congress, but she didn’t use that success as an excuse to occupy only the mainstream. In her later career, she left Harper and Row to publish with a series of small black companies. She also called attention to the change in critics’ response to her work once she began publishing with these presses: some seemed to fear the political content of her work, and she believed that they “did not wish to encourage Black publishers.” Her two-volume autobiography, now considered among her most important prose works, was at first criticized for not containing enough personal information, or “domestic spats,” as Brooks put it.

Given her prolific career, her activism, and her constant effort to show black American lives in sharp focus, It’s no wonder that even the recorded sound of Brooks’s voice allows her own work to be heard more clearly and immediately by young readers. Moments after hearing “We Real Cool,” one recent student commented that Brooks had read the poem as though one of the poem’s verbs –“lurk late” or “die soon” — could totally eclipse the person, the “we,” doing it. As though “we” — the collective as well as the individual within it — could disappear in the action someone else sees.

 

This Week, Kicking off a Writer-Activist Feature

Hi everyone.

This blog strives to serve as a place for writers with day jobs to reflect on the balance between the work that earns them their living and the work that sustains their humanity, and the happy intersections between those types of work, whether they happen frequently or rarely. For every working person, work is to some extent caught up with his or her humanity: feeling useful, using one’s talents and skills, and supporting oneself or one’s family are all ways we continue to feel alive, necessary.

But for writers, work and humanity are particularly inextricable from each other: in our best writing, our job is to be brutally honest about what it means to be human, even if that means acknowledging the most painful, contradictory aspects of human behavior. To me, this also means that writers have an extra responsibility to pay attention to injustice—as Muriel Rukeyser put it, “If you refuse,/ wishing to be invisible, you choose/ Death of the spirit, the stone insanity.”

With that in mind, and as the sole person running this blog, I can’t pretend to any policy of political neutrality. In the perplexing and disturbing wake of George Zimmerman’s acquittal and in memory of Trayvon Martin and other victims like him, I feel compelled to return my attention to those writers—like Gwendolyn Brooks, Audre Lorde, Muriel Rukeyser, Adrienne Rich—whose day job was activism, and for whom writing and activism were in fact joined at the hip.

On this blog, I’ll feature activist writers, living or dead, starting this week—if you know of a living writer who would like to be interviewed, or if you’d like to recommend that I profile a famous writer-activist who’s no longer living, send their names my way.

Call for Submissions: Poems about Debt

Bartender cut you off again? Wake up to find the bill collector at the edge of the bed? IRS in your kitchen, eating the last of your Fage?

Drunken Boat is seeking “poems that engage with debt: the friction between desire and limits, the intersection of ownership and obligation.” We know something about THAT.

Submit here.

Here, I’ve Been Named the Head of a Student Dope Ring: Richard Hugo on Day Jobs

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If you are a poet (or a fiction writer) with a day job, rush right out and read Richard Hugo’s essay “How Poets Make a Living,” in his celebrated collection The Triggering Town. The question of how it feels for a poet to work outside academia was one that Hugo, who worked for thirteen years at Boeing, dreaded. Did it matter what one did between the hours of 9 and 5? In “the real world”? “I hate that phrase ‘the real world,'” Hugo wrote. “Why is an aircraft factory more real than a university? Is it?”

Gems from “How Poets Make a Living” include Hugo’s discovery of a 1949 volume titled Advice to a Young Poet. Poets, according to one Llewelyn Powys, should “wash your underclothes with your own hand as though this extra persona fastidiousness were part of a religious rite…Aim at getting up half an hour earlier than other people and walking if possible to catch a glimpse of the sea every morning.” If Powys lived today, it sounds like he might join forces with Gwyneth Paltrow.

Hugo finds all these romantic prescriptions absurd. His own comparisons between the business and academic worlds are level-headed, selfless and hilarious:

“There [business]: 62,000 employees and no one cares that I write poems.

Here [academia]: When I first start, twenty-six employees in the department and three of them hate me because I write poems.

There: Those who know I write poems don’t seem to assume anything is special about me.

Here: I’ve been named the head of a student dope ring. A student informant tells the administration I’ve advised students to print and distribute copies of a ‘dirty poem’ about the campus. I am a homosexual. I am a merciless womanizer. I throw wild parties. I write my poems in Italian and then translate them into English. I come to class dressed in dirty, torn T-shirts. I am a liberal, a reactionary, a communist, a Nazi.”

Hugo gives the caveat: “I’m apt to sound too self-assured about the unimportance of a poet’s job because no matter what I’ve done for a living I’ve gone on writing, and because with one exception I’ve never found the initiating subject of a poem where I worked.”

 

 

What We Talk About When We Talk About MFA Debt: An Interview with Jamie Agnello

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Jamie Agnello is a poet and theater artist living in New York City. 

You are somewhat unique among MFAers because you hold two MFAs, one in poetry and one in theater, which you earned concurrently. Before we get into a discussion of the financial aspects of getting these degrees, tell me a little bit about how you decided to combine these fields.

I originally started at Sarah Lawrence in the fall of 2009 as an MFA poetry candidate. Since I’ve always been very active in both fields, I had asked during my application process if it was possible to be a member of the campus theater community even if I wasn’t officially part of the program. Everyone that I had spoken with was extremely encouraging, so that was pretty thrilling for me. Through some friends, I ended up meeting with a director in the theater program (Dan Hurlin) who needed some more cast members for his upcoming show. I ended up joining the cast, as well as taking some theater courses for my first year electives in the poetry program. Halfway through the semester, I decided that I wanted to audition for the theater program as well. After many meetings with advisors and the dean and financial aid, it was approved. I ended up being the first student to graduate with MFAs concurrently. The programs remained separate, so I hold an MFA in each.

What does your creative work situation look like now that you’ve graduated? Are you doing more of writing or theater?

I was just remarking about how absolutely thrilled I am about my creative work situation these days. I’m definitely doing much more theater than writing, but my poetry has definitely become a larger part of my theater work. I have worked as a non-traditional dramaturg/script editor, where I adapt found text (existing story, writings from the cast, my own writing) and compile it into a “script” in collaboration with the director and the cast. I love that. I’m also creating a poetic/highly image-based short film/solo piece based on the life of Rosemary Kennedy, where I really feel like my work with poetry has greatly informed the structure of the product.

As far as theater goes, I recently finished up a new show for 2-5 year olds called Off the Map (about the NYC subway system, devised in collaboration with Trusty Sidekick Theater Company and the preschoolers of the University Settlement on NYC’s Lower East Side). I’m working as a puppeteer for a piece entitled Chimpanzee as part of the St. Ann’s Warehouse Labapalooza! Festival this weekend, and also gearing up for a residency at the Park Avenue Armory with Trusty Sidekick Theater Company this summer/fall for a new immersive theater piece for young audiences.

How do you support yourself?

For the past year, I’ve been working as a server in a lovely restaurant in the East Village called Calliope.

Do you like your job(s)? Why or why not?

I was particularly lucky to work in a restaurant that I wholeheartedly believed in. I feel like this is a rarity, especially in New York, where there’s a new place opening every day. Calliope is co-owned by a husband and wife, who are also the co-chefs, who have taught me more about rustic French cooking and incredible wine than I ever thought I’d know.

I’m currently applying for more permanent jobs in the arts, as the theater work I’m getting now isn’t paying quite enough for the likes of living in New York City.

How did the financial assistance and/ or debt associated with your degree program impact the work you chose to do immediately after graduation? How about a year on?

My debt is large, but there’s something comforting in knowing that I’m not the only one…? I guess? There’s a lot of people from Sarah Lawrence who are also living and working in NYC, so we look out for each other. I don’t have the luxury of being a theater artist without a day job with the amount of debt that I have, but I don’t feel burdened by it…all the time. It’s scary, sure, but I really try not to let it rule my life. I’m on an income-based repayment plan, which is working very well for me so far. I plan to continue with it for as long as I can.

How up front with you and your cohort was the program about the difficulties of carrying debt for a fine arts degree (or two?)

I feel like they were clear, but I do know lots of people who would disagree. Since I was doing two programs, I had many, many meetings with financial aid to work out all my details, which then, in turn, helped me to become very informed about my loans and debt. I did not have to pay full price for the two degrees, which made it possible for me to do it. I also worked for Sarah Lawrence as a Graduate Hall Director, so I had my housing covered by my job, since I lived on campus. I made my small stipend work for me and did not take out any loans to cover anything but tuition. I feel that the living expense loans that students end up taking are the most intense when it comes to repayment after graduation. They may seem like a good idea at the time, but I would recommend looking into working for the school in a residential life capacity or working during your time in your program to offset some costs.

If the program discussed finances with you and your peers, how accurate were they, in terms of the situation you find yourself in now? What could they have warned you more about or not discussed so gravely?

Since my situation required so many meetings to work out, I felt very informed. I’m not surprised by my current financial situation. I encourage others to talk with your financial aid office. They are helpful. They want you to be aware and to be able to be in control once you graduate.

Do you ever have any regrets about getting an MFA, related to debt or not?

Absolutely no regrets. I am working on writing and theater projects that I could have never predicted happening for me. Sarah Lawrence opened my artistic boundaries so widely and so completely that I feel nothing but thankful for my time there.

What advice would you give writers who are thinking about getting an MFA, in the process of getting one right now, or about to graduate?

I’d definitely say to take some time in between undergrad and grad. It was something I wasn’t planning on doing, but then once I did, I was so thankful for it. Be sure that graduate school is what you want. It’s easy to see yourself continuing on with school when that’s all you’ve been doing up until this point in your life. Take time. Breathe. Travel if you can. Spend some time with your family and friends. Work a job you hate. Live somewhere you’ve always wanted to. LIVE. Graduate school is intense. Be ready to throw yourself into it. It’s only 2 or 3 years, so be sure to make them count.

What advice would you give to writers choosing between going into debt for an MFA and not getting the degree at all?

Just be sure that an MFA is what you want, that you’re ready for it. It’s going to be a lot of debt, unless you’re one of the few who are admitted into a fully funded program. The debt is not crippling for me because I’m living a very artist-based lifestyle. Marriage is not on my radar right now, neither is buying a house or having children…If those are things that are important to you and you want them to happen in the near future, just plan for that. Take time to make the decision and seek out how to support yourself while you’re in school so it becomes less overwhelming upon graduation.

Check out Jamie’s Chuck Bass poems and other writing at jamieagnello.tumblr.com. 

Rattle’s Tribute Calls for Poets Who Also ________

I’m a big fan of Rattle, a journal that keeps poetry populist by inviting readers to vote on who should receive their annual poetry prize. One of my favorite things about this magazine, though, is their frequent “tributes” to poems of a certain kind, or to poets who have something else going on in their lives, including their day jobs: they’ve had tributes to nurses, lawyers, grade school teachers, soldiers, and editors. Coming up in Fall 2013, they’re running an issue partly devoted to the work of/ about single parents–a day job, of course, all its own.

Alas, the call for the single parents tribute has passed, but if you’re someone who, like good old Lawrence Joseph, wants to remind people that the writer they’re reading has another life that sometimes slips into the work, keep Rattle in mind for your next round of submissions.

The Poetry of Physical Labor

Photo credit: Library and Archives Division, Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania, Pittsburgh, Pa.

Do you write about your day job? When I consider the kinds of work that seem to crop up most often in fiction and poetry, I see a tendency toward writing about physical work. Construction work or baking bread might seem like a more romantic jumping-off point for our writerly meditations; after all, we live in America, where Whitman wrote [apologies for the wrapping of Whitman’s long lines here]:

I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,

Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be     blithe and strong,

The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,

The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work,

The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deckhand singing on the steamboat deck,

The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing as he stands,

The wood-cutter’s song, the ploughboy’s on his way in the morning, or at noon intermission or at sundown,

The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work, or of the girl sewing or washing, […]

In “I Hear America Singing,” Whitman associates physical labor with the strength and sweetness of the workers’ “singing,” which isn’t literal singing so much as the sense of satisfaction in and knowledge of their work. To Whitman, the very essence of their humanity shines through as they do their jobs.

But if we fast-forward a bit in poems of American work, we get to Philip Levine, who probably wrote more about physical work than any other 20th century poet, but who doesn’t see physical labor as quite the seat of contentment that Whitman does. In fact, the mind-numbing nature of the work Levine writes about–assembly-line work at Detroit auto plants–sometimes calls into question the very humanity that Whitman finds so evident in physical labor. Consider the opening of Levine’s “Coming Close“:

Take this quiet woman, she has been

standing before a polishing wheel

for over three hours, and she lacks

twenty minutes before she can take

a lunch break. Is she a woman? 

“You must come closer” to discover the answer to this question, Levine writes, and “you,” it becomes clear by the poem’s end, is a white-collar worker, someone who hasn’t experienced anything like what the woman does.

For both Whitman and Levine, though, physical work was a location of poetry because it can be seen. The body is in motion. Not so much with a lot of day jobs–you may not even be able to tell what a lot of office workers, busy at their computer screens, are doing all day. But I doubt that means that the poetry is missing. Levine, after all, took work that did not particularly show humans “singing” and forced readers to “come closer” until they, like the “you” of Levine’s poem, were marked “now and forever.”

“My number one advice is don’t be snobby”: An Interview with Caitlin Jackson

Caitlin Jackson and I met as undergraduates in a poetry workshop at Oberlin College. Caitlin is a poet who got her MFA at the University of Central Florida. By day, she is a technical writer for a large corporation. 

Why did you decide to pursue an MFA?

I decided to get an MFA mostly to motivate myself to write, and to improve my writing. I had graduated from college 3 years previously and was ready to go back to school. I had a full time job and a lot of debt, so those two things worked against me pursuing the degree, but the most important thing to me has always been my writing. Before the MFA program I was still writing, but I felt like I was stuck in a vacuum and not improving or growing in the work I was producing. I was also pretty bored. Being a technical writer at a large corporation is not the most exciting or fulfilling way to spend your life. I decided I needed to re-prioritize and focus more seriously on my writing. And so I started investigating MFA programs. I needed a change. 

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