As for the poet thing, this is the story I like to tell some people: My grandfather was an art collector. He was the son of farmers from Italy who at the age of eighteen decided to enlist in the Second World War, and then upon surviving, moved to Venezuela to start a life in a country that would with the passing days turn into the mecca of the world’s oil industry.
I never met him. I just met him through the looming ghosts of his artwork, and the art he feverishly collected. So much so that when he died, his art gallery, the one he built given his enormous support for local artists, failed, and as a solution for the space, it was converted into my grandmother’s house. I spent a large portion of my time in an art gallery turned grandmother’s abode: sleek white walls with studio lighting inhabited by floral-pattern green sofas and 1960s glass tables.
I tell people that growing up in a bubble of art in Venezuela, where world-class art was forgotten in abandoned museums or overlooked in city plazas informed my poetry.
I think some of that is true.
Here’s another story I tell others: When I was fifteen I had a secret boyfriend. He was a poet, and all my life before that, I had always wanted to be written about. I guess I respected art and artists and the process of creation so much that to think to be the subject of someone’s artistic imagination to me felt like the ultimate gift.
Consequently, I became the subject of a collection of poems after a while. Some words had never hurt so much, yet some words had never felt so amazing. But when I realized that it wasn’t me that was being written about, it was someone’s interpretation of me (being my stubborn self, I will not settle and say it’s me), I understood what it meant to be a poet, and how much of what you write can be taken seriously. Yet, even given that realization, I couldn’t stop writing poetry myself after feeling what it could do to a person. I don’t know whether he felt it was a gift he had given to me, or whether he felt it was some sort of betrayal that I started writing poetry too.
Last one: I like to believe my first ever poetry class, with the brilliant Barbara Hamby, is what got me taking poetry seriously. In fact, I know that, directly, it has almost everything to do with where I am now (in my apartment in Brooklyn a week away from starting my MFA at NYU).
I will say this and try to single it out for everyone to understand: The power that someone has when they tell a young insecure anyone that they believe in them, that what they’re doing is actually good— to never, ever stop writing is colossal. It can actually resurrect a person. More than anything, a great poetry class can let a student understand the world around them, it can show them that there are a whole lot of people out there that walk this planet trying to understand what their mind is trying to tell them—that all of that confusion and unfound glee (and sadness) is normal, that all those people exist. It teaches you that being confused is part of a process and that your voice, your problems, your surroundings are important. A poetry class can do that. Hell, it can even make you write poetry.
Having said that, I can’t say I’ve been one to want to take the safe route. This doesn’t mean I’m brave. It might mean I’m an idiot. When I say this I’m also talking about choosing to pursue an MFA degree in Poetry. Then again, nobody that decides to pursue a life of poetry or fiction or non-fiction or art, for that matter, is taking the safe route.
I decided to apply to MFA programs on my second to last semester at Florida State University, where I completed my bachelor’s degree. We had spoken about “the MFA” and had the “whether or not to do it” conversation and deeply feared and discussed the dreaded word: “funding.” I quickly learned that everyone has an opinion on it—everyone—and, as with all aspects of writing, it’s best to consider opinions at a distance, and listen to those from people you respect, those that have been through the process itself.
Then again that’s not true. My mentor met with me several times. She even supplied a list, crafted just for me, of programs she knew had writers that would really help my work, fantastic funding, and a list of alumni who are excellent writers. I had it all on a phosphorescent sticky note and that was it. I stuck it in a notebook and saw it a few times, I had the colleges in the back of my mind, but I basically forgot about it.
This wasn’t because it wasn’t important to me. In fact, I’d say because it was so important to me, I was so desperate to forget it. I would rather do anything than confront a statement of purpose, craft a writing sample that captured my essence, pay a stupid amount of money to apply to these programs.
A girl in my literature class boasted about having filled out eight applications already, a boy in my fiction workshop wanted me to know that the Pulitzer-prize winning author on the faculty was definitely giving him a recommendation, another person insisted on taking a year off, how anyone going right into it was doing it all wrong.
Like I said, opinions are everywhere, especially regarding a life decision that is so risky. Even if you get full-funding at a program, the decision is risky. I got to work and whipped out a statement of purpose and then threw it away. I wrote another one, had a friend read it, she thought it was the best thing ever, but I tossed it. It was around the fourth or fifth draft that got me somewhere that I was relatively not infuriated with. I kept that version. I had professors, writer friends, non-writer friends, my mom read it, it wasn’t until I had reached a sufficient amount of “stop freaking out” that I felt like I was actually going through the process of applying quite normally.
“The statement of purpose isn’t even the first thing they read,” said absolutely everyone. But I knew that. My poetry, I knew I could work on, I knew who I could show it to, I knew how to think about it, I knew which poems were the strongest—but the statement of purpose is this short summary of your persona and that to me sounds like an impossible feat.
However, I’ll give an example a professor of mine at FSU gave. When a current MFA student at the program there had applied to get in, they had loved the writing sample, it was strong, however just like many others in the pile, but when the professor read the statement of purpose and how it so charismatically and truthfully spoke about their most life-changing experience and how it addressed their poetry, they were sold. It wasn’t even inspirational, it just got to the point and said, “Hey, this is me and this is my life, take it or leave it. But like please take it, you know?”
I turned in all the applications. My final list of schools was nothing like the one that had been suggested to me, and I went for some that offered little to no funding, and decided to go for location which had always been a priority of mine. In retrospect, I would have done that very differently, but needless to say, I am very happy in my program. But I’ll get to that later.
Because you’re curious and I know you want to know, these are the schools I applied to:
• University of Houston
• University of Texas-Austin
• Vanderbilt University
• New York University
• Sarah Lawrence College
• The New School
• Brooklyn College
Try and guess where I wanted to be for my MFA.
I won’t spend too much time on the waiting game because there was nothing to it. I don’t mean it was easy, I mean, nothing happened and my soul was slowly being bulldozed. Waiting is the worst. I joined the MFA Draft ’15 Facebook group. It helped with some aspects of the process: I had an online community of equally terrified and eager writers that I could vent and talk to, and joke around with; some of them were current students at the programs who answered questions about the process and writers and locations. It helped with getting mentally prepared for the change. The worst part was how you inevitably found out about students getting rejected, accepted, or waitlisted. How they came in in a sweeping fashion with hundreds of sad and happy faces and all you could do was refresh your email until it froze your screen and crashed your computer.
Although I’m making this short, it didn’t happen quickly. I would actually say that this part of the process is the most dangerous one. The part where you have the most insecurity, where some people actually just abandon it all or decide to keep going. It’s where you find out that there are actually more people that decide to apply again the next year than those that actually go to programs. It’s where you find out that the people that are applying along with you, to the same schools, are brilliant and published and have been at it for far longer than you. It’s where you might get rejected to almost all your schools, and suddenly get accepted to one magnificent place. It’s that scary and that wonderful. Before I go and tell you my final list, you just have to know that this is where your courage is tested. It’s where you will have to be the strongest person you have ever been because it’s not about “getting in” or “not getting in,” it’s about consciously deciding to make a change and sticking to it and being the absolute best you can be at it.
So, here’s what happened:
• University of Houston—REJECTED
• University of Texas-Austin—REJECTED
• Vanderbilt University—REJECTED
• New York University—WAITLISTED
• Sarah Lawrence College—ACCEPTED
• The New School—ACCEPTED
• Brooklyn College—REJECTED
Everyone I tell this list to always says how lucky I got. Which is true. I didn’t feel lucky, but it was an amazing turnout. I waited almost until the last minute to decide where I wanted to go. It also happens to be around the moment when NYU notified me that I was off the waitlist and accepted into the program. NYU had been my top choice from the very beginning and even with that, I was considering saying no and applying next year. This was my evaluating process.
I sought out people at FSU that had gone to the schools I had been accepted to. I individually asked them, interviewed them with my general concerns. Most important, I wanted to know what their experience had been like. I chose NYU not only because the faculty was stellar and actually included some of my favorite poets but the differences in the stories of the people I talked to were clear. The sense of community, variety of styles and people sounded incomparably more personal and real than the stories I heard from other students at the other programs. What the people had said about their experience at NYU sounded like absolutely everything I wanted for my MFA experience. Plus, it’s NYC, as cliché as it is, it’s the one of the best places to be a poet. I jumped, and just like that, I was moving to the city.
New York City greeted me with a hug and a punch. I decided to move to the city a month before school started. I was going to attend The Home School in Hudson, NY so I had to be in the vicinity anyway. Also, I had no idea where I was going to live, nor what job I was going to have, nor who I was going to go to when I wanted to flip a table out of loneliness. I couch surfed for the first couple weeks. I had done AirBnb before, which had always proven itself successful, but never stayed in a stranger’s apartment for free. The host turned out to be a writer as well, with a brilliant collection of books and a gorgeous apartment in one of the nicest neighborhoods of Brooklyn. In the same week he took me to his gym to work out, had drinks, dinner—it’s when I told him I had no friends and I didn’t know anyone in the city that he became my friend, which to me said something about humankind. I got so lucky.
In the same week, having only been several days in the city, I had viewed an apartment that I was interested in renting a room in. I had just finished seeing it and was walking to the train I needed to take back to the apartment. It was not a short walk, so I was steadily making my way there, sightseeing the neighborhood. I was ten minutes into the walk when I subtly turned around and saw a man behind me, mumbling to himself, almost too close to me, following my every turn. I was used to things like this happening because of where I grew up, I knew how to protect myself, it was still daytime and I was in a public area so I knew I had a bit of an advantage.
Five minutes later he’s still following me, he’s getting closer and closer and starts calling out to me with a “hey you” and I act as if I can’t hear him and he calls out to me again, “I know you can hear me, why won’t you turn around?” and I keep walking. I see the subway station a few blocks away. I hear him mumble to himself “faggot” while pacing closer and I walk just a bit faster, he notices and I hear him quicken his step, I’m close to the station door and run, quickly swiping my card and going through the turnstile and I hear his body slam against the railing beside the turnstile as he grabs onto it hard yelling, “Faggot! I know how you look like. I’ll find you!” I don’t know which train I get on. Anywhere is better.
The NYU MFA program informally holds a series of weekly poetry workshops in the summer where we drink wine and talk about our poems. I went for the first time a week after the stalker incident. I was shy and didn’t speak much in the regular social setting, but once the workshop started, I knew the environment so I had ideas and criticisms and compliments to share, a part of me also wanted to make a good impression.
When it finished we went to a nearby bar called The Treehouse and they asked me about my poetry and I asked them about theirs and they asked me about where I was from and who I was and I didn’t feel like a stranger, I felt like a friend. This bar has a small room in the back with doors you can shut, and at one point, we retired to the back and actually started reading some of our favorite poems out loud to each other while we sipped our beers, and I don’t know if anybody else had been thinking it, but I was nearly in tears to find out that these people actually existed.
That there were people out there that were willing to drink and sit in a room and read poems. It was the warmest thing that could happen, it was what I craved for my MFA experience. I realized that what I really wanted, apart from mentorship, guidance, and a space to write with others, was a space to be with brilliant thinkers and artists, an opportunity to be with like/different-minded people to help me make a home with myself.
I mean, I’m still poor and getting used to the city. I’m still sitting in my small room, the size of a millionaire’s closet, eating a PB&J sandwich, and reading Lorca. I’m still getting to know the roommates I met a month ago. I’m still (but almost not at all anymore) getting lost on the subway. I’m still missing home. I’m still missing my family. I’m still wanting to be able to do all this and more in Venezuela, have at least been close to a place growing up with as many opportunities as NYC, be with my friends or fall in love. But I can’t believe that I have the opportunity that some only dream of having. That just yesterday I was at the job training for my new position as a general program assistant at the NYU Creative Writing Department and as we were having a meeting, Sharon Olds walked in excusing herself and apologizing for interrupting.
Sure, there are boot stomps and kicks to the face, and when it hurts there’s not much you can do, but when it’s remarkable in the city, truly surprising, it’s easy to forget all else that’s kind of bad.