Tuesday, August 4, 2009

On Cohorts, The Nerve to Apply, and Subject Matter in Poetry

My cohort is a young cohort; out of the six of us, four are entering straight out of undergrad, one is coming to Columbus with a year between her and her BA, and the oldest student among us is only 26. We hail from different locations; I am the farthest west, coming from California, three are from Ohio, one is from Missouri, and another will be coming from Pennsylvania. I am not traveled. I’ve been to Mexico (once), England (once), Nevada (a dozen or more times), Chicago (once), and Columbus (once, for my visit). Getting out of California, prying my lips away from the golden teat pumping me full of sunshine and warmth, was the most important thing for me when I was applying to MFA programs last fall. I knew that to really grow as an artist and writer, I had to get out, particularly I was forsaking the usual caesura that comes between finishing the undergraduate degree and entering one of these creative writing programs.

I have lived in California my whole life (accepting a few months in Reno, Nevada as a child), and everywhere I have lived has been within 100 miles of each other. When I applied I thought such things would be held against me, evidence of an immaturity I feared blighted me, depreciated my value as a writer, as someone capable of broaching that concept we know by many names (truth?) even slightly. Everyone I knew praised my decision to apply, commended me for following what they saw was the right path, the only certain path for me to follow. I often joked to people, in the self-deprecating way we Jews have perfected, that my skill set is limited, that writing, studying literature, and producing poetry are the only things I know how to do. I excused myself of being good at something by pointing out everything I failed miserably at grasping.

Applying seemed like the natural thing for me to do. I love school, and was never burned out except when it came to the few lingering general education classes I was required to complete. Earthquakes class was a particular pain, a stone I had to choke down uncomfortably. I was often bored by my undergraduate classes, and the professors I worked with would often ask me, or in some cases tell me, to apply to graduate school. I couldn’t see myself doing much else, especially given the way the economy began to tank right around the time applications were due. I entertained thoughts of applying to the JET program (I have a long standing love affair with Japan), or some similar entity that might facilitate me travelling and teaching, two things I love to do. Of course, both would inform my poetry too. I considered staying in LA to look for a job. Beginning this process, then abruptly ending it, put the limitations of my degree into perspective. I think I just needed to exercise more imagination.

To most people I know, getting accepted to a program seemed a foregone conclusion. They were certain I’d get in—and into more than one program—which made me feel extra-pressured to succeed with my applications at the risk of letting them all down. I had done my workshops as an undergraduate with celerity, getting into my first towards the end of my first year, an uncommon but not unheard of accomplishment. I wheedled my way into two additional workshops with Cal Bedient, who would become my honors thesis advisor. I was used to being the young one in workshop. Privately, I thought of myself as the young wunderkind everyone roots for. I was conditioned to, but I fought it, doubting myself, doubting the praise others had in me despite some evidence to the contrary. After all they had not seen the admission statistics. They did not all understand the maddening randomness and subjectivity of it all.

One of the first things I read that gave me pause to reconsider what I was doing was a comment someone had made on MFA blog concerning applicant ages. I knew that the average age for MFA students is around 27, but I knew enough about math to know that that means many people fall both below and above that age. Still, the comment I read hit me like a brick to the face. Someone said that they would not be able to respect someone who was not at least 30 years old, and that such people did not know enough about the world to be worth an MFA program’s time. That upset me, because it implied that quantity of life (age) was superior to quality (or lack thereof) of life, but it also scared me to think that this mindset might be shared among others, even those who might be sharing a workshop with me in my own future program. That person’s comments were roundly, and rightfully, rebuked, but it did make me think that by applying far outside my comfort zone, I would be encountering people with mentalities far different than my own, and as much as that could be extremely beneficial and fortifying, it could also be equal parts scary and destabilizing.

Ultimately, I am absolutely pleased with my decision to go away from home, because what I am seeing in the poems I read from my fellow poets every two weeks, or so, are voices very different my own. I can’t speak too much about my “project” as it were; I can say this about my writing: I am very interested in issues of sexuality and masculinity, in the male body, and in wordplay, metaphors, and puns. I like to incorporate mythology when and where I can—particularly Greek mythology, as well as food. I like fragments. I like to play with syntax and occasional rhyme. I am committed to free verse. My cohorts write about many things too, but one thing I have found to be a kind of common thread is nature.

I don’t have the best relationship with nature because I hate insects and don’t like to sweat. I pretty much despise camping. Forests scare me. I find it somewhat ironic that I live in a desert, but don’t write about so much as a tumbleweed. I think I am purposefully avoiding it because it is something I haven’t worked out in my head yet, something I don’t see much importance in. My relationship with the desert is complicated. I see it as a desolate wasteland that people of promise seldom escape. I see it as a land of meth and weed, of white boys in beanies, dressed as if they were Black or Mexican, as a place with aging veterans who don’t know what to do with themselves, as a place with a glass ceiling so low it very nearly touches the ground. Yet it is capable of beauty, but the beauty exists separate from people. I guess that is what ‘nature poetry’ is, beauty separate from people. People are what I am interested in though, because they fascinate me. I can’t figure them out.

Sharing poetry helps though, which is maybe why the whole workshop model works. I am presuming it does since I have some experience with it, and have seen my work grow since I was a wide-eyed college freshman too nervous to speak up. Reading my cohorts poetry in a vacuum has been odd since I am left alone to ponder the poems without much discussion with the other poets about them. I don’t see what other people write to the poet in question, so I don’t have my ideas supported or rebuffed. They are independent assertions. I wonder how this dynamic, and the rapport we’ve begun to establish, will play out between us when we meet the other half of our 12 person workshop. One thing is for certain—I won’t be turning in any poems about mesas.


  1. Well, your description of the desert in this post was great! lol Since I was a non-traditional undergrad, everyone in my workshops was about 10 yrs. younger than me and I loved and appreciated their feedback all the same. In fact, they had no idea how old I was and I was surprised to find that some of them were even younger than I thought they were!

    I'm jealous that you've been sharing poetry with your class already. I didn't even think of that! The only thing I really know about the incoming class of poets I'm with is that all 5 of us are female.

  2. One of my professors told me that she thinks it's hard to write about the place you live when you live there; you need to move away to have the right perspective on it. I completely buy into this -- I've had a hard time writing about my hometown until recently, when I finally started accepting the fact that I no longer live there -- and I hope that once I move out of this area (I'm also less than 100 miles from where I grew up), I'll be able to do it even more. JayTee is right: your description of the desert in this post IS great, so don't rule out the possibility yet.

    Thanks for posting this. I'm currently in the middle of my "Oh my God, how can I possibly have the nerve to apply to MFA programs?!" anxiety attack, so it's nice to know that others in my situation have been successful.

  3. JayTee and all- I'm not sure where to put this comment, but hopefully here works! I just wanted to note that on a big group blog like this one, it is helpful to put the name of the post author at the top. I think everyone wants to be recognized for thier individual contributions and as a reader it is easier for me to get to know each blogger if I know from the start who is writing what. Also, photos are nice, if there is a way to add a thumbnail. Not a big deal, but a small change could go a long way for readers like me. :)

    Tory- Don't worry so much about age and experience, as long as you are willing to recognize the limitations it gives you. I think one mistake I've seen people do in workshop (myself included) is a reader (or writer) assuming that everyone brings the same understanding of a particular thing to the text. So if you don't care about nature or don't have experience in the woods and someone submits a nature-themed poem, own up to the fact that you are a reader that has a harder time relating. Be honest that your reaction to the work is going to be about wordplay, maybe, and not a reaction to the images the poem calls to mind, or something. I guess what I'm trying to say is acknowledge your stengths and weaknesses as a reader (and writer) and people will be pretty receptive.

  4. Thanks for the suggestion Margosita! And for bringing to light the idea of acknowledging weaknesses as a reader. I hadn't really considered that ever and it's a helpful tip.

  5. Thanks for posting, Tory. I couldn't agree with you more about applying to programs away from home. My poetry has grown so much with outside perspective.

    I also agree that the over-30 years-old comment is completely absurd! I remember someone left a comment on Seth's blog about how the best MFA programs are on the coasts and how ridiculous that comment is too.

    I'm looking forward to reading more about your experience at Ohio State! My sister and I love the North Market--you'll have to check it out! (Oh, and Buckeye Donuts on High St.)

  6. Great read, Tory, thanks for posting. The whole age issue is such a non-factor, in my opinion. If you're wasting time immediately identifying people in your class/workshop by age/experience rather than the quality of their work, then you're wasting time that could be better spent actually critiquing and writing, and unfairly coloring your expectation of the work they can or cannot produce. It's such an obvious and ridiculous form of ageism. I've worked with younger writers who have produced fantastic work, and likewise, worked with many older ones who, frankly, had no talent. And even that is an irrelevant fact -- who cares how old someone is if they produce something great? If it's good, it's good.

  7. I agree with you and Eric. In fact, I'm pretty sure the majority of the first-years at Hollins this year are coming straight from undergrad, although some of these same recent undergrad students are also non-traditional/older students.

    It's unfortunate that ageism is so prevalent.

  8. Also, just out of curiosity, is this the poetry cohort you're speaking of, or the entire 1st year cohort?

  9. Denis, they are the first year poets. The noobs, as it were. There are six poets per each of the three years, so eighteen total. Two things I noticed about the group of poets above us: 1) they are predominantly female, and 2) they are, on average, older (25-30), and more than a couple have MA's in Creative Writing.

  10. To give the flip side of this age thing: at 31 I am the oldest in my cohort at Penn State, and I feel a little bit insecure about that, just in the sense of being out of practice with workshoppping, with critique, with reading, with the whole dynamic of being in a classroom... I feel like all the people who are coming right after their undergrad, or a couple years out, have an advantage over me in some ways.

    I know it's really all about the writing, and that age does not matter. I just wanted to give you the opposing perspective as well; us "older folks" don't have it all together either.

  11. I did not know I cared about the land I was raised on till I moved away...


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