For the last few weeks, I had not gone to sleep before 4 a.m. on most nights. A poet going to bed late is, of course, no big deal. Edna St. Vincent Millay once left a note for her housekeeper saying not to wake her because she’d been up working until 5 a.m.; Emily Dickinson routinely wrote during her “morning hours,” which is to say at 3 in the morning. The trouble is, I’m not writing; I’m not memorizing modern Greek or Arabic conjugations (though I should be;) I’m not studying something about which I’m so passionate that time melts like the interval between kisses. No, for the last few weeks, I have been kept awake by the fact that it’s what anyone, with the briefest glance at the calendar, might call “late August.” “Early September,” even, by the time you read this .
Grad school, though it was something I was looking forward to so much during the spring of last year as I was completing my Senior year at Kenyon, has now become something the very thought of which literally keeps me up at night and freezes me creatively. I had imagined an idyllic, cultured exchange of ideas and words—a community of scholar-artists working together for the common Good. Plato, in many of his dialogues, often puts the words “Καλὸς Κἀγαθός,” meaning “Beautiful and Good” in the mouths of his interlocutors. Yes, most of the time they refer to statecraft, or military prowess, but if what is Beautiful is ipso facto Good, then a community of artists, all working to achieve Beauty in their respective arts, are by that equation also working towards The Good, which benefits all of us. Jealousy, like Billy Collins told us in his first poetry class, is the driving emotion in art. The jealousy he meant, he assured us, was the feeling of reading a poem so sublimely beautiful that its beauty pushes you to try to surpass in craft whatever it was that caused that jealousy.
Most of my fellow MFAers embody this. We relish each other’s acceptances, often submit to the same journals, occasionally sharing tables of contents, and we kvetch over rejections. And yet there have been a few times when some MFAers have reacted with jealousy (the bad kind) when presented with the news that one of us was published or interviewed.
All told, I like all of the MFAers in my year and those above me, and the same goes for my professors, most of whom I’ve known for about four years. I’m thankful that I have friends who know what I’m going through, particularly Sarah, Mara, Lauren, and Catherine—yes, they’re anywhere from dozens to thousands of miles away from me right now, but the four of them have helped me realize that even though “to write we seem to have to go at it with such single-minded intensity that we are almost on the point of drowning,” as Robert Lowell said, there are ways to stay afloat.
The four of them have been instrumental in making me a slightly better swimmer.
What prompted me to write this essay was threefold, firstly, I didn’t know if I wanted to go back to grad school—in fact, I still don’t know if I want to go back, but I’m going to give it a try; secondly, I’m a firm believer in the Flannery O’Connor maxim of “I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say;” and thirdly, I thought it would help me resolve the question that is at the center of my convoluted feelings about my MFA career.
If it were up to me, I’d spend a year or two getting up late, and, over tea, reading what I wrote the night before. After taking a walk (somewhere in Paris, preferably, but I’m open to other locations) I’d sit down at a coffee-shop to read some long-dead writer, or one I met the week before over a cup of lavender Earl Grey, or a glass of merlot. Then, I would work on my craft for a few hours, taking the materials I’d collected since my last session and shaping them into poems and pieces of prose. Once the sun began to set, should there be any salons, soirées or gatherings to go to, I’d cap my pen and let loose until the sun rose. If nothing were going on, I’d be content with a movie and a long conversation with a friend who might be 3,000 miles away.
Grad school, you’ll have noticed, fits the description of my ideal day quite well—particularly our program at Southampton. We have passionate, knowledgeable artists holding our hands as we train under them, an equally passionate, small cohort of poets and prose-stylists, and a fair number of filmmakers; Southampton, lovelier almost, in the autumn than in the summer, is five minutes away—as are its cafés, wine bars, and cheese shops, all places in which I have written and in which I love to write. I’ll be living with different suite-mates this time around, taking three classes I’m excited about (which makes for two more than last year) and reading and convening with writers I care about and haven’t seen for a few months. On top of that, there are fewer than ninety days which I’ll have to spend on campus until I run back to Ohio and work on my thesis. Why I’m still terribly anxious about going back, I don’t know.
I hoped that the act of writing this essay would help me understand and express why I don’t want to go back to school. Leonard Cohen, of the poets who has most influenced me once described his graduate school experience as “passion without flesh, love without climax.” Every passing day, I agree with him more.
Taken per se, each of the components of my last semester before I retreat to Ohio (my MFA cohort, my professors, and my classes) seem manageable and relatively stress-free, definitely my cup of tea: I’ll be engaged in interesting courses; I’ve plenty to keep myself busy writing, translating, and studying, and I’m all but done with my thesis. However, taken together, the supposedly manageable autumnal components cool and expand to become the uninvitingly ice-latticed surface of Peconic Bay in winter. I’ll be taking a deep breath and plunging in, starting this week. There are 88 days to go. I will surface in October, to go to a literary festival at Kenyon, take a breath during Thanksgiving break, and again at the end of the semester, but until then, don’t look for me near the shore.
Jordi Alonso has an AB in English from Kenyon College and is a Turner Fellow in Poetry at Stony Brook Southampton. He’s been published in The Southampton Review, The Colorado Review, The Lyric, and other journals. Honeyvoiced, his first book of poems, was published by XOXOX Press in 2014. He is the Poetry Editor of The Whale.
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