Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Bringing the reader and the poem together

There’s a concept made up by some old guy(!) that’s popular in translation studies: all translation decisions either bring the reader closer to the text, or the text closer to the reader.

I think this is a fascinating statement, and one that I sometimes apply to my own poetry: am I trying to make my idea or perception or description closer to my reader, or how hard am I willing to make the reader work to get at, perhaps, my purest understanding of that concept.

I think another danger is that in grad school there’s a pressure to over-perform, that the piece has to “do something” or “bring something new to what it is.”

Is it important to make these considerations? Or are you trying to learn how to more purely express something (an idea, or maybe a scene) and craft is just a vehicle for that expression?

Are you worried about going too far, and losing the thread of what the poem is? Or not going far enough, and not discovering what the poem is?

This is pretty similar to my last post (well, the one before the AWP post--which, by the way, if you're going, feel free to comment on) about good and bad poems, which got some really interesting responses—I hope y’all have cool thoughts to share for this question (bring the reader closer to the poem, or bring the poem closer to the reader?), too!


We're about a week away from AWP. I'm going to be there. Are you?

If y'all want to start up an e-mail chain or something (in the comments below), I'll start it off: my e-mail is jsgottliebmiller at gmail dot com. I'll be in Denver Wednesday afternoon through Sunday afternoon.

Hope to see you there!

Monday, March 29, 2010


Just a quick little post from me today. I’m reading Alice Fulton’s Feeling as a Foreign Language: The Good Strangeness of Poetry for class, and I came across this chunk that really made me happy and sad all at the same time. It seemed timely too, with Easter coming up… and I think it says something special about grad students.

Here it is: CLICK ME!


Sunday, March 28, 2010

Hello All

Hi everyone,

I was accepted into the Colorado State University MFA (poetry emphasis) a month or so ago, and into this blog/community a few weeks later. Yey for all that. I won't spend much time going into my decision or application process, because that was pretty simple. I applied to CSU (only) and was accepted there. I was very fortunate.

But, I thought I'd pass along a little background information about myself. Graduated from BSU with an English Degree with a Writing Emphasis in 2003, picked up an MA out of indecision and partially boredom in 2005, and then spent 5 years away from the university. During that time I quit most all 'poery' writing and focused on making (short) films.

It's been a long, awkward road back to writing poems, and one I'm sure I'll get into at some point. While theres no doubt poetry is important to me, I've learned I have to seek other creative outlets besides just poetry--and that will be the challenge for me, during my MFA. Sure I'm excited to be studying poetry and to have all that time to write, don't get me wrong. But, my sanity is going to be dependent on finding and pursuing those other outlets. I think.

Of course, that's the way I feel today, and could change in a few months, when I show up to campus and meet everyone. For now, I'm finishing up a short film, shooting one more before I leave, writing a (gasp) 'novel' (?), and hoping I've made the right choice to pursue the MFA.

I don't have a blog, but I have a website I haven't updated in like 3 months:

Nice to 'meet' you all.

Good and bad poems

I recently "finished" a poem that I've been working on for about two and a half years. The poem was one of the best things I had ever written, when I started it, and now that it's finished, I consider it up there again. Indeed, when I came back to it I found that it worked in ways I didn't even realize at the time. It wasn't ever a bad poem, it was just the ending/second half of the poem that took so long to make right.

A lot of poems go nowhere, but lead to other poems that do. Or there's one or two super-fine lines that need to find a different home. But I wonder if, as a whole, a good or bad poem's nature is inherent: can a good poem only be good, and a bad poem only be bad?

By that I mean, are there poems you can come back to, and even though the craft was far inferior, less trusting and more insular perhaps, or the rhythm was off or the tension slack--is it possible that poem had some spark of life that another, far craftier but less felt (felt right as in accurate, not felt as in merely emoted) poem will almost never have?

I'm not sure what the implications of this question are. I still think people should write a ton, since it's easier to sift through the garbage, and I don't think poems should be given up on, since they do often lead to other poems, or a better understanding of personal craft.

I don't think bad or good needs to be that loaded a labeling, either. I just mean a poem (you have written) that you are compelled by as opposed to or more than a poem that you aren't.

Is it liking the poem what leads to the poem being good? Or do you like a poem because it is already (or really could be) good and you just don't know how yet?

Thursday, March 25, 2010

A Busy Few Weeks in NYC

By Casey Tolfree

I've been meaning to post but I've just been ridiculously busy with work and school. I wrote about some of the things I've been doing for school on my personal blog and I thought I'd post it here so you guys can get a glimpse. Anyway, March 11-March 14 was quite a weekend.

Who says just because there is a hurricane storming outside that you can’t have a great weekend? Not me. I had quite an eventful weekend despite the craziness outside. It’s hard to say what was the most entertaining or interesting part of the weekend so; I’ll just start at the beginning.

Let me preface this post with the fact that I am not a city person – or I wasn’t until this semester. I’ve lived just a short train-ride outside New York City my whole life. Twenty miles by car. Unlike many of my classmates and college acquaintances, going to the city was never particularly appealing. I hated having to run around a train schedule (I still do) or wait for the never showing up late night subway. Now that I have class in the city, all bets are off. I spent three of the last four days going into the city, to the Public Theater, to Brooklyn, to the KGB Bar. It’s tiring.

I had the unique opportunity on Thursday evening to see Suzan-Lori Parks’ new play, The Book of Grace at the Public Theater. Having read two of her plays, I was interested in just how her new play would be written and performed. Book of Grace seems to be a standard written play, though I haven’t seen the script. It is separated by different chapters in the Book of Grace.

Grace is one of the three characters in this play. Grace is a woman tries to see the good in everything. She is trying to reunite Vet and his estranged son, Buddy (Snake). Set along the Mexican border much of the plays actions are dependent upon Vet’s border patrol job. He is receiving a medal. This brings Buddy home.

Vet is unforgiving and relentless. He has made plenty of mistakes, but he will never own them. He will never change. Buddy is a lot like his father, though he doesn’t want to admit it. He returns home to give his father a second chance but winds up just wanting to kill him, and attempting to.

Vet was played by John Doman. Doman is a pretty popular television star. He’s been in “NCIS”, “Law & Order” and “ER” just to name a few. To be honest, as much as I was enthralled by the play I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how I knew this actor.

The play was great. The Public Theater was pretty and I added yet another city location I am now comfortable navigating.

So after seeing the play I traveled back to Westchester just to come back to the Varick street campus of Adelphi about 12 hours later.

Then the rain came.

My Friday class in the city was probably the highlight of the weekend. We had the opportunity to have Susan Henderson and Marie Mockett come and speak to the class about their writing lives. I felt inspired after class. I felt that I learned a lot. They both had great advice for how to get an agent and just about writing in general.

As someone who has been trying to write a synopsis for about a year, this class period really put things in perspective. I was able to write my one-sentence pitch and narrow a 380-page novel into a concise thought. I even queried an agent for said novel.

Then I went to Brooklyn. I’ve never been to Brooklyn and now I know why – it’s far away.

Henderson told us we should go to the KGB Bar and talk to people and to make sure we had our pitch ready. I’d already been planning on visiting KGB Sunday for an Electric Literature reading.

I have to say, I’m surprised. KGB is a room, literally. It was so crowded and I can’t believe we found seats. It was a great experience. Rick Moody was the headliner so to speak. He read his “Twitter” story, “Some Contemporary Characters.” He’s a great reader and the story was funny. It spoke volumes about the differences between men and women, between young and old. It was a telling piece that made you laugh.

Just for a quick example, after the older man and the young co-ed have sex, they realize they have lost the stuffed rabbit from the carnival. The man says philosophically thinking about where it could have gone, “Did I slay the rabbit?” It’s hard to catch the humor without Moody standing in front of you reading this piece but let’s just say it was funny.

Before Moody hit the stand, Jenny Orfill read part of her story from Electric Literature 3. Most inventive and inspiring were two lesser known writers, Cristina Moracho, a recent Brooklyn MFA graduate and Wythe Marschall.

Moracho read a non-fiction piece about a neighbor who only referred to as “The Flasher.” The story itself was witty, funny, lively, but even more so was Moracho’s voice in reading it. Her ability to read the story with the right amount of grace, humor and irony made the piece everything it needed to be.

Marschall’s piece, a story from his collection The Pale Weed Bender, was called “I Heard the Bells of Graveyard Walk.” Wythe premised his story by explaining that they are set in the 1860-1899 period. He read a little too fast but his accent added to the already original narrator, Jake. The story had honest humor, the type of humor that makes you laugh because it’s true. As a reader, Wythe was perfect. He would skip descriptions in his story for time, but summarize in a comical way.

“Then he worried some more but you don’t need to hear about it.” Or something along those lines.

The night ended in typical Metro North fashion. The 9:56 train I planned to take – missing in action. The 10:05 that arrives – doesn’t go to Dobbs Ferry. So, I miss the 9:20 by four minutes and have to wait an hour to catch a train home. Needless to say, after I got off the train, drove my boyfriend home and drove back to my own apartment… midnight. I work at 5 a.m.

Yeah…exhaustion but it was totally worth it.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The New School

Hi everyone!

First, apologies: I've been AWOL since break. The good news is that I've spent that time writing, reading, and revising. (Also playing with my son). Read Push, Wide Sargasso Sea, and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao all recently. Amazing books in my opinion, though I find it hard to "recommend" Push just because of how painful the imagery can be.

I got a comment on my blog today from Winston, asking about The New School. That reminded me of two things:
1) It's March and people are getting accepted to MFA programs (yeah!) and
2) Seth Abramson's blog is no more.

For anyone thinking about The New School, I want to say this:

I love it. This is the perfect program for me, and that's really the most important factor. Full disclosure here: I didn't apply anywhere else because The New School's schedule was exactly what I needed and the only way I could do something full-time, full-residency.

That said, if my experience here ended up sucking I would tell you. But it's been fantastic. I'm quite sure it all depends on classes and teachers, and I've had great ones in this first year. Even more important than that is probably peers, and again, even though that all depends, I've found great, great, great ones. Great peers is one thing, but I'm also making great friends. I love the atmosphere, the program, the overall philosophy and the people I'm working with. Do I hear people with complaints about this class or this workload or what have you? Of course. Have I ever regretted choosing The New School? No.

Something else to really think about: The way we're structured is that we have 3 semesters (Fall, Spring, Fall) of courses, one workshop and one lit seminar per semester. The fourth and final semester is your thesis semester where, if I understand it correctly (and I'm pretty sure I do), we focus on on creative and critical theses and meet with a peer group and our adviser. (We don't have classes).

I forgot to mention readings: each semester you're required to go to eight readings, and I've been to some really, really good ones.

As you know, your choice depends on a lot of things. What can you afford to do? What can you not afford not to do? You will read and write (and, unless you get a full ride, work another job) a lot, but that's the same anywhere. The New School only meets at night (from 8-10:30, with readings often at 6:30) so it makes a day job doable.

My gut says to go with the school that you think fits you best. Ask LOTS of questions. Ask students, ask professors in the department. Read the work of people on the respective faculties of the places you're looking. All of that. I know you know all of this by intuition, but I think it's good to say.

hit my blog if you want to connect about The New School in more specific depth. Reply to this post with your email and specific questions and I will do my best, amidst writing and fathering and paying bills, to be thorough and prompt. I'll also try to remember to check back here as often as I can for comments.

Thanks, Winston, for asking for my thoughts! Thanks, as always, to Jonterri for this venue.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Defining the workshop

There was article by Jason Schneiderman about what the workshop is and what it can be for in the latest American Poetry Review. It's a pretty neat article, and it got me thinking.

I've had some pretty cool and different workshops in my time--everything from drawing my poem to having it diagrammed in time and space, to regular old criticism from my peers.

Right now I'm in the thesis manuscript workshop, by a fluke of scheduling and an experiment in how the class is run. The only reason I was able to stay in the class is because we weren't only focusing on the manuscript as a book, but also what such a large selection of poems says about the person writing them (or the myth the poet is making of herself). Suffice it to say, it's been phenomenal to read everyone else's thesis manuscripts, and though I don't have an MS I did get to have a large sample of my work discussed.

I learned some things about my writing: how I view the body as grotesque; the way I collage, or work almost in the mode of an action painting; that I was cultivating a voice of ironic asides that I hadn't even planned on, or particularly liked; that I over-rely on "to be" verbs, etc. Mostly I got my butt kicked, but in the best possible way (which is, I suppose, the goal of all workshops). My myth seemed to be Atlas or Midas, one of those classical figures who believes himself (or is) cursed by his own strengths.

So now I have absolutely no idea what to do. Do I embrace my habits and preoccupations? Do I try to be aware of them but not work in their modes? Do I try to do something completely new? Right now I just want to write good poems, but I don't want to write the same good poems as before.

So there are two questions really:

First, what is the workshop good for? Nurturing skills? Vision? Talent? How you communicate your vision to your audience? Finding out what kind of poet you are (or have been lately)?

And if you did find out what kind of poet you (currently/recently) are, what would you do with that information?

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Visiting Writers and New Recruits

by Emily May Anderson

This past week, George Saunders was our Writer-in-Residence here at Penn State. He gave a public reading on Thursday night (well-attended, and very entertaining), and met with various classes and groups of students, as well as having individual conferences with all of our fiction MFAs. I’m a poet so I only got to interact with him at the poets breakfast yesterday morning, the general MFA lunch, and the final party that Bill, our program director, hosted last night. In all of those situations, he was friendly, down to earth, and much less cynical than I had expected based on his work. He runs the MFA program at Syracuse, so he was very interested in our feelings about how our program is run, and at breakfast yesterday, we were discussing ways to approach workshop outside the normal format, and ended up generating the idea of multi-program workshops (i.e. either through email or video conferencing, allowing Penn State students and Syracuse students to workshop together). I have no idea if that will ever happen, or what the necessary logistics would be, but it was just so cool to hear another perspective and to see someone else who really wants to think outside the box and find ways of doing things that will give the students good feedback; his attitude toward the whole MFA thing was really really great, and the whole writer-in-residence thing was excellent.

The program also announced a partial list of readings for next year, including Jane Hirshfield, Jonathon Lethem, and the 2011 Writer-in-Residence Susan Orlean. I’m a little disappointed that we won’t have a poet in residence next year either, but it’s just the timing of a two year program with three genres – someone’s going to miss out.

The other interesting thing going on, which overlapped slightly with the Saunders visit, was Recruitment. I think I posted a little bit about my experience as a recruit last year (in a post about how I chose my program) and I posted more about it on my blog last March, but the short version is all the admitted MFA and MA students in English are invited to campus for a sort of group visit. It was so interesting and fun to be on the other side of it this year! The MFA recruits got to come to the party for George Saunders last night, so we all met them there, then we took them to an MFA reading, where all the MA recruits also ended up. They had a breakfast with the graduate director and some other folks this morning, then I don’t know what the MAs did, but the MFA recruits went to lunch with six of us current MFA students, then we gave them a brief campus tour, then they got to go meet with faculty and do other things. They all seem cool, and I’d be happy to have all of them come join us next year (Hello, Denise, and any of the others who read this!!!!) It was a lot of fun to meet them, and it was cool to reflect that a year ago, I was in their shoes - getting shepherded around campus, meeting a ton of people, telling the same introductory story to everyone, answering the same questions (name, genre, where are you from?), till my brain was full of names and faces and there was no amount of coffee that could help me concentrate.

I actually felt that way a bit myself today. Thursday and Friday had both been long, full days, what with my regular schedule plus all the extra stuff, then this morning I had training for my summer teaching assignment before our lunch. But I’ve managed to be pretty productive in the time I’ve had today, and I look forward to an even more productive day tomorrow. Six more weeks of the semester! Yikes!

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Virginia Festival of the Book

I'd never been to the Virginia Festival of the Book so I didn't really know what to expect. It's about a half a week of readings all over Charlottesville. I went to the UVA MFA Alumni reading, a Fady Joudah reading (2007 Yale Series of Younger Poets), and a presentation about the blues by William Ferris. Tomorrow night is a BIG NIGHT: Major Jackson (the highlight for me), Nikki Giovanni (nothing needs to be said), Kevin Young (I've been wanting to get into his stuff so I'm excited about him too) and more.

Question: If I saw someone 2 years ago and they haven't come out with a new book yet and I own all of their books and they've signed them all for it crazy to have them sign them again? LOL I ask because the only time I really get to chat with them is usually while they're signing a book. How am I going to get a convo without getting a book signed? Anybody done something like this before?

OH! Kim Addonizio is reading tomorrow and she is taking time out to speak to the MFA students prior to her reading. So I won't have to do any shady book signings to chat with her lol.

This totally makes up for the fact that due to a lack of funding at UVA, we really didn't have anybody come read outside of our visiting writers. And it also helps to make up for the fact that I won't be going to AWP until next year when it's in DC (a two hour drive from here).

Who's reading around your way this spring?

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Midterms, AWP, Thesis Thoughts

By Casey Tolfree

First off, I cannot believe that I am halfway through my second semester. Time is going so quick this semester. Maybe it's because I'm having more fun and I feel happier. I officially count my MFA classmates among my friends, we go out on weekends, they came out for my birthday, we talk outside of class. It's a great feeling. All I wanted for the longest time was a group of friends who understood what it was like to really be a writer. I hadn't had a group like that since to be honest middle school. I tried to fill the void with expansive novels and a college newspaper, but it just wasn't the same. This is the first time I feel (not to be cheesy or cliche) complete. That doesn't mean it's all figured out or anything but it does mean that I am happy and writing, which is all I ever wanted.

Secondly, I have a midterm today. I honestly thought midterms were done. I mean, why have a midterm in a writing class? Okay, so it's a literature class but it's an open book short essay exam. I would rather write a 5-page essay at home but that's just me. So, I've been studying, a skill I really don't usually have to do, and it's just so tedious. I have like six books I have to bring to class just in case I need them for the essay topics. My back hurts just thinking about it. I'm also getting critiqued today. I submitted the first chapter of my new novel. SCARY!

This brings me to the topic of my thesis. Adelphi is a really new program, I'll be part of the fourth graduating class. I like that. I like that I can be part of building something that is clearly going to be great but it also means there are kinks. The thesis project tends to be expected to be a compilation of short stories but I'm a novelist and I want to be working on my novel. I don't want to stop working on my novel so I can prepare separate things for my thesis. I want my thesis to be an organic part of my program experience. I have one short story I just wrote that was the basis for the novel I'm writing but nothing else in the short story genre has really spoken to me. I'd like to include that story and have the rest of the thesis be parts of my novel. They don't have to be consecutive parts just chapters I think show my best work. I don't know if this is possible. I'm afraid of losing my characters voice and not being able to continue the novel because it's going to be great. I think it could be one of those books that really helps a lot of people dealing with absentee or dead beat or just horrible fathers.

I'm officially going to Wilmington, NC this summer. It's the place that inspires me the most. It's peaceful and beautiful, not to mention the nearby college has a great writing program. I'd love to live there, maybe teach and UNCW one day, who knows. I'm going for a week with friends and though we're going to be busy hunting down the filming locations for One Tree Hill and trying to stalk Hilary Burton and more importantly James Lafferty, I know I'm going to be able to sit at the Riverwalk or at Port City Java and just write my heart out. I think the best part of me comes out in Wilmington. The best ideas now, those come from my many drives up Route 17 in New York. I planned my whole novel out this weekend while I was driving. It's a great feeling.

Last semester was hard. This semester I've found my footing and I can see that I am growing into a writer. I didn't want to be a person of letters when I started. I just wanted to improve my skills and go edit someone else's book. Now, I'm embracing a life I've tried hard not to want. It's scary to make your passion your work. I don't want to resent it. I'm trying to let that fear go though and embrace writing as a lifestyle and not just a job choice. I don't mean I need to be a starving artist, I just mean I enjoy readings, I enjoy forums on writing and for once I am just doing all those things. I am making time in my life for being a writer and not just letting it be a side project. And it doesn't feel forced. It feels natural.

I actually have to go get ready for that midterm so, I'll just leave with this last bit.

I can't wait for AWP!! I'd love to meet up with anyone. I know there's like a dance party or something every night. So let's talk and find each other.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

When something horrible happens...

When something horrible happens, I feel obligated to talk to my students about it. For one thing, they're freshman and easily jarred by bad things. I feel like since freshmen comp students do spend so much time with me compared to their other instructors, I have that sort of duty in my job description. For example, earlier this semester we got texts at 5 AM that a gunman was on campus, and I took the next class period to spend time talking about how safety plays into our campus lives.

Now I'm dealing with something much bigger...If you have been keeping up with the news, you have probably heard that a well-known athlete supposedly sexually assaulted a Georgia College student this weekend. I came into class yesterday ready to discuss this issue with my students. You just can't ignore a giant drooling gorilla in the middle of a room...just like we all couldn't ignore the reporters around campus or big traffic problem yesterday/this weekend... Unfortunately, my students failed to see the gravity of the situation. I heard a lot of things that disturbed me, like "she asked for it". I know that there's not a lot of information out right now, but these kinds of snap judgments from both male and female students alike are really disappointing. I told myself that maybe it doesn't matter what my students believe what they do, so long as I help them think about WHY they believe that.

Thoughts? I'd appreciate hearing from you guys! Hope you're having a good day!

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Nick McRae (The Ohio State University, 2013)

Decision Time, at least for this exiled poet, is over. Last night, I very happily accepted a poetry spot at The Ohio State University. I cannot even express how satisfied I am in my decision, and how ridiculously glad I am that this thing is finally, FINALLY over. I hadn't expected to make the decision so early, but I did a lot of hard thinking this weekend, and I discovered that I already knew what I wanted. I can't say how grateful I am to have this opportunity. I look forward to joining the good Mr. Adkisson and the other fine people of Ohio State in Columbus this Fall. Thank you all for your support. It is truly appreciated.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Spring Break!!....& Thesis Process Comparison

What's everyone doing for it? Mine is happening now! I'm doing submittals and I'm also committing myself to writing for at least 2 hours every morning this week. Also, I need to work on my abstract & bibliography for my 20 page lit paper. I know if I don't make some sort of a commitment, I'll just chill on the couch all day.

I know I mentioned toward the beginning of our first semesters that I was finding meeting with professors for one-on-ones to be one of the most fulfilling experiences of being in an MFA. Now, I'm in this new semester with a different professor and I've only met with her once because I'm intimidated. So I vow after Spring Break to fully take advantage of the opportunity to meet with her. How about you guys? Are you all taking advantage of the opportunity to work more closely with professors? How's that going?

OH! A few of my classmates and I met with the program director to talk about the thesis process and what we hope to get out of it. It was a great meeting! He asked what the process was like at other schools, so I'm curious how you all go about thesis preparation. When do you select an advisor? How often do you meet with that advisor? How do they judge it? I know some people are in 3 year programs and aren't even thinking about this, but please share if you know what the process is going to be like for you.

I was surprised to find out that the minimum requirement for our thesis is 15 pages (or is it poems?). Personally, if I ended the program and 15 pages is what I turned in, I would fail myself. My goal is that full-length manuscript!

Wednesday, March 3, 2010


So who's going?

And for anyone who's interested in meeting up (I mean as a group, like at a bar or something)--where and when should we?

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Post-MFA plans?

by Emily May Anderson

I'm curious what you all are planning after the MFA.

I know that I want to teach, but I'm still undecided as to whether I'll apply to PhD programs, and, if so, whether I'll apply in Lit or only to programs that have a Creative dissertation option. I'm also still sort of waiting to see how this lit seminar goes this semester before I can really know if I even have any hope of tackling a Lit PhD. I had a meeting with the MFA director today, and while he gave me good info regarding degree requirements and thesis stuff, I'm still just as undecided about what I should do next as I was before.

I wish someone would give me a straight answer about what my chances of landing a teaching job (anywhere - community college, private college, branch campus, etc - I'm not picky and not hung up on getting a job at a prestigious university) with just an MFA and some good teaching experience. I know there are lots of variables and it's impossible to predict these things, but just in general - what are the chances of getting a job with just an MFA?

So, those of you who want to teach, are you going to take the "terminal" MFA and go on the job market? Or are you going to apply to PhD programs, and in what?
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