When introducing yourself, the general rule is that who you are is what you “do,” and what you do is what pays the bills. Occupation is inextricably twined with identity. In spite of the fact that my jobs post-college have had nothing to do with poetry, I’ve qualified my introduction as “poet working in __________.” I couldn’t help it; writing had been a core part of my identity since age 12. But after college, I grew to lose sight of it.
Through my work at various desk jobs, I learned a great deal, made potentially lifelong friends, and had unique experiences you’d be hard-pressed to get anywhere else (e.g., exploring the workings of the local sewer system). But office bureaucracy was sometimes aggravating, and the monotony shifted my mental landscape. When I was under consideration for a 3-year government position (an extension of the work I’d been doing for 1.5 years), I imagined sitting in my cubicle and watching the years pass one after another like a row of dominos, varied in the details but identical in color and shape.
I knew many government workers who had held their position for decades. Some loved coming in to work every day; however, I saw that others saw their job as a slot to be filled, a non-negotiable 23.8% of the week given to an impersonal entity. (To be clear, I’m not making any value judgments and I understand that occupation is only one component of life. Personally, it is challenging for me to compartmentalize.) So when another opportunity came up, I took a different, higher-paying office job and hoped the change would be invigorating. The avatar of my future changed from dominos to a Jenga tower, and I knew I needed an overhaul.
I truly admire writers who have the capacity to work a full-time day job and write consistently on nights and weekends, without being hindered by these existential questions of purpose. Such questions sometimes left me with just enough energy to 1) get drinks with friends in futile attempts to decompress or 2) Netflix. Drinking and Netflix are, of course, distractions. It is when I write that I am the fullest version of myself.
I applied to 9 programs, selecting them largely based on location. #1 & #9, though in lovely locales, are low-res; I applied to them intending to travel throughout the program, if I found a job that allowed me to do so.
- Bennington College [a]
- Boston University [a]
- Columbia University [a]
- The New School [a]
- New York University [w; a]
- San Francisco State University [a]
- University of California at Davis [a]
- University of Iowa [r]
- Warren Wilson College [a]
*a = accepted. r = rejected. w = waitlisted.
Only two of the programs offered meaningful funding: UC Davis and BU. This was devastating at the time, as the other programs were like carrots on a stick that were within my reach for the price of $20k or more. They were options, but not really. When I asked myself whether the merits of Program A (costing X) outweighed those of Program B (fully funded) and was worth the additional cost, the answer was always no.
(Some advice: When finalizing your list of programs, be realistic about the funding situation. Some of the programs I applied to fully fund zero students, and others only a few. You might be one of the few fully funded, or you might not.)
“Poet in NYC”, at least for now, is not my narrative; I must craft my own.
I narrowed it down to Davis, BU, and Warren Wilson. Warren Wilson only offers need-based funding, and my salary disqualified me. However, I adored the program and still do. The program director and several alumni called me to talk about the program and their own experiences and answer any questions I had. I also chatted with a former professor who was an alum, and she assuaged my concerns about low-res and pointed out some advantages over traditional programs. And—let’s be real—if I had kept my old job and paid the sticker price for WW, I’d still make more money than if I attended a fully-funded residential program.
Eventually, I took WW out of consideration. My fatigue with office work had increased, and there was no other line of work clearly in sight. This narrowed it down to Davis and BU. Davis was only a 2-hour drive away, so I was able to attend their visiting weekend. BU had accepted me three weeks before the April 15 commitment deadline, leaving no time to visit.
Deciding between the two was a struggle. While my image of life at BU was somewhat hazy and formless, I’d enjoyed my weekend at Davis, met faculty that I wanted to work with, and could clearly see myself there. Additionally, it was close to friends and family, and I’d be able to see my boyfriend often, something I’d become quite used to after we moved in together last year. But in the end, I committed to BU.
The features of the BU MFA which most distinguish it from other programs are 1) the intense brevity and 2) the travel stipend. BU is, as far as I know, the only 1-year MFA program in the country; it has the same requirements as 2-year MFAs, but compresses them into half the timeframe. I’m 26 years old and birthdays weigh increasingly heavily – the sooner I obtain the degree, the better. Also, I didn’t feel that a 2nd MFA year was necessary for me. I’d had an MFA-like experience as an undergrad creative writing major at Northwestern, where I participated in six workshops across the three genres.
As for the travel stipend, every MFA student at BU receives a no-strings-attached grant to live for up to 3 months in any country outside of the US and Canada. This grant has been used to travel to every continent except Antarctica. Throughout years of the 9-5, travel seemed a remote possibility: I had the money, but not the vacation days.
The Jenga tower is coming down. I’ve left San Francisco for an unfamiliar city on the other side of the country—multiple states away from the people I love—and my relationship has become bicoastal. Very soon, I will be a student again and devote the majority of my time to poetry. I will teach an undergrad poetry and fiction workshop: my first time teaching not only at the college level, but ever.
If my tone reads as emotionally ambiguous, that’s because I am. Starting this program feels like a point of no return, and change is scary. But when you’re in a state of stagnation, any change is propulsion forward.
From destruction, creation.
Currently Reading: Annotations by John Keene
Currently Eating: crab rangoons & crispy noodles
Currently Needing: timezone adjustment