2015, Archives, January 2015, The MFA Years

First Semester: A Villain Poet, A Panic Attack, and Two Days at the Beach

I came to the Southampton MFA through their summer conference. When it came time to apply to programs last winter, during my senior year at Kenyon, applying to the program that hosted a week-long festival where I’d met life-long friends and mentors and was so close to the beach, made perfect sense. I knew, of course, that summer camp and school couldn’t ever be the same. However, I thought that spending two years among writers, not two miles away from the beach, and in a lovely town where I’ve summered lately, would make almost every day feel like a continuation of the accelerated intimacy of the Conference.

I was mistaken––grad school, even in the Hamptons, is still school, and since not everyone lives together, I found organizing social gatherings much more difficult than I had expected.

I did go to the beach twice in the fall semester. Once with Lauren who visited me for a weekend before going off to school in California (see: life-long conference friends, above) and another time with some other first year MFAers. That night, which finally captured some of the accelerated intimacy so pervasive at the conference, ended with the five of us standing waist-deep in the cold ocean at midnight, founding a new literary movement (The Tidal Poets) and drinking from a bottle of Jim Beam I’d brought along. Our literary moment fell apart as soon as the salt washed off our skin, but our friendship remained.

My professors were wonderful, as were my friends, but, from August 17 to September 27, the landlady under whom I was living, made my life so unbearable that there were a few times near the end of those 41 days, where I spent as much time as possible at school, some 5 miles away, only to get “home” (though it never felt like home, despite my best efforts) draw the curtains, and turn off all the lights, except for a small lamp on my night stand to read, eat, and write by. This woman, who I’m half tempted to name and whose address I’d love to publish in case any of you want to make her life half as terrible as she made mine at the beginning of the fall semester, became so controlling of my life that she began harassing not only me but my best friends as well, calling the police no fewer than three times on separate occasions when I had people over, to try to intimidate us.

After my friends bolstered me, and my parents drove 600-plus miles to rescue me from the place a friend (who’d been there the first time I met the Southampton PD) dubbed “Crazytown,” I thought my semester would go by smoothly from there on out. I moved to the dorms at the college, so I could at least look forward to three very important things: not being terrified of any creaking floorboard, or stray noise––having time to write (and sleep, and eat, and relax) peacefully––and being able to have a social life without the constant threat of yells, empty threats, and chicanery. The only good thing that came of my cordial encounters with the police, was the enduring nickname “The Villain Poet of Southampton,” which Roger Rosenblatt bestowed upon me after I asked him one Tuesday, “How was your weekend?” and when he said it had been fine, and asked me how mine had gone, I replied, as nonchalantly as I could, “Oh mine? I got the cops called on me by my crazy landlady.”

Free of all that, my mind still expected it, and for a good three weeks after moving in to one of the open suites on campus, I would freeze and my heart-rate would jump when I heard my suite-mate, who is, all told, a good one, open the door or when I heard him shuffling papers in the kitchen and I was in the common room, where I couldn’t see him. Once I managed to retrain my body to not freak out at every little thing, (and I admit, it took a while) I realized that I’d been not doing everything I was supposed to be doing, and began to get stressed out by the amount of work due––particularly in my pedagogy class. I still think I avoided mild PTSD, or at least learned to manage it and control my triggers efficiently.

On a Tuesday night in mid-October, I stayed up till 5 a.m. drafting an intro to literature syllabus that was due Wednesday morning. I got to class, bleary, bedraggled, and pining for my ubiquitous thermos of tea, but with a syllabus that was more detailed than any I’ve ever received. It turns out I was too ambitious and didn’t exactly follow the requirements for the assignment––my professor, thankfully, accepted it. Next on the long-list of low-points in my semester, and the turn I needed to save it and myself, came one day at work. Although officially I work at The Southampton Review, as an editorial assistant and a reader, part of the stipulations for my fellowship are that I must also be a Graduate Assistant. Being a graduate assistant entails (among other things) answering phones and doing various administrative tasks one day a week. My shift is on Fridays.

I had written an essay titled “(Not) A Bad Day At Work” for one of my memoir classes the previous day, when we received the prompt “a bad day at work” and I realized that I hadn’t had a bad day at work either at The Kenyon Review, or at The Southampton Review. On October 3, I was running late for work because I’d lingered in bed and in the kitchen too long, making jasmine tea. Work itself was routine. I updated the database of faculty and student publications; sorted paper submissions for The Southampton Review, and answered one or two calls asking for information about our program. At some point that morning, a really good friend of mine, who’s still at Kenyon, texted me thanking me for wishing her good luck at a dance competition or an essay she was writing.

I didn’t see that text because I had just gotten word via my school e-mail that if I didn’t turn in a form––that I’d turned in at the beginning of the year––my housing at the University, my Fellowship, and my enrollment, would be terminated and I’d have 24 hours to vacate my bedroom, my suite, and leave the University. To say I “freaked out” would be an understatement. Because of that email, the stress of the previous three months engulfed me. It wasn’t a request for my vaccination record, which I could have easily sent them. It was the drop of water that made the dam break.

The exact sequence of events is hazy, but I got hold of my mom, and tried to explain to her what had happened without giving in to my urge to throw my phone across the room and disappear forever. A minute into the call, I broke outwardly; I started crying. The program’s administrative assistant, a wonderful person through and through, asked me if I was alright––“of course,” I said, somehow managing to stop my increasingly tearful Spanish, and switch languages and demeanors, nodding and telling her I’d be right back. I slipped my laptop into my bag, and took my things. It was 11 or so, and my shift ended at 2.

I found myself stretched out on a couch in the Radio Lounge, detailing to my mom, who must have felt worse than I did at that moment, how I wanted to drop everything and fly, take a bus, or hitchhike back to Ohio and be done with it.

It: the MFA program––graduate school in general, and some part of me must have meant life as I’d known it between August and early October.

Once I’d promised that I’d talk to the head of the program, and maybe make use of talk therapy if I felt like it would help, and said I’d go back to my room and take a nap, I hung up. I tried using some meditative breathing techniques a friend had taught me my junior year. That didn’t work, so I texted Mara. Since I can’t do her justice in a phrase or two, and since this essay is already meandering enough as it is, I’ll say she’s one of my best friends, but even that description is lacking. She, though, was in top form: warm, kind, and understanding. She held my hand till I made it back to my dorm and told her I was going to sleep for the foreseeable future––I owe her all the more since she managed to do so despite being some 631 miles due west of me.

I made myself a cup of peach tea and wandered into my room with it. Turning off my phone, I kicked off my shoes and sat in bed for a second, to finally regroup.

I woke up at 4 that afternoon, and when I checked my phone, I finally saw the message from Phoebe that I’d missed that morning. Any text from her instantly cheers me up, but her three words on that particular day seeped through my phone screen and were more nourishing than the sleep I’d had and the lukewarm tea on my desk.

Since then, I’ve been keeping in touch with the head of the MFA program, who, took it upon herself to advise me, guide me, and even offer me a “place to curl up” under her desk if I ever feel the need to do so. Other friends, too, have made my year much better since October.

Whether having a movie night and stopping for midnight breakfast at a Denny’s in Hampton Bays with the Tidal Poets, seeing friends perform at Guild Hall in East Hampton, or staying in with a Keats devotee and testing the claims made by Isabel Allende in her cookbook of aphrodisiac recipes and reciting Romantic poetry, I’ve come to find the company I craved.

While I can’t say I’m ecstatic about my first semester at Southampton, I’m thankful for having had this experience and being a part of the artistic community of the East End. Every time I think of putting off grad-school and doing something else for a while (and I’ve thought about it a lot) three things keep me anchored to the spot where Tennessee Williams once wrote a play: the fact that I need an MFA or an equivalent degree for every job I could see myself doing instead of getting an MFA or an equivalent degree; my friends, who are equally as eager as I am to become the world’s next literary darlings, or, at the very least to get something we’ve made published; and lastly, the faculty, who are some of the most dedicated, decorated, and devoted writers I know, and who consider us, not their charges, only writing by the sea for the next two years or so, but their peers, extending a light, but sure, touch to make our craft as keen as theirs when it is not, and celebrating our successes as if they were their own.

Image: Mr. Thomas


Jordi Alonso graduated with a BA in English with an emphasis in creative writing from Kenyon College in the spring of 2014. He is currently a Turner Fellow in Poetry at SUNY Stony Brook Southampton and has been published or has work forthcoming in The Southampton Review, Edible, The Colorado Review, The Lyric, and other journals. His first book, a collection of erotic poems inspired by Sappho entitled Honeyvoiced was published by XOXOX Press.

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