2015, Archives, September 2015, The MFA Years

First Times, Community & Superstitions

What can I say? It’s going well.

Well, that’s no good.

It’s hard and it’s not about the classes. Only just a little, but it’s so much more.

It’s the classes and when you’re not in class and when you’re in the city trying to get your shit together and the shit will not stick. Upon writing this I was thinking about my first month in the program and how much I have learned inside the classroom and how much I’ve learned outside. I also evaluated my first month weighing out the good and bad things. Back home in Venezuela, and I think people do this in other countries too, when the new year arrives and it’s January 1st people tend to pay extra attention to the first twelve days of the year. They say that each day will mirror the general mood of its respective, attributable month (i.e. Jan 1: January; Jan 2: February…) That’s how I saw this first month and it wasn’t exactly the most pleasant month, which is why when I went over this list in my head, the tipping of the scales of hell, if you will, I threw that ridiculous theory out the window and stuck to living my days as they came along.

I guess too much of one thing isn’t the best either. By the end of this essay I’ll tell you how the bad really made the good so much better, or at least that would be the turn a typical conclusion would take. To be completely honest, yes, terrible and unfortunate events creep into your poetry and make for interesting writing, but it really isn’t convenient. Sorry for dancing around my personal problems but sometimes things just suck and I guess when I came to get my MFA I imagined this NYC movie of sorts where things got tough and rough but it was all part of the “experience”—“that’s New York, you’re living the life”—but if I were in Oklahoma or Montana (no offense to anyone out there or from there) it would be called “shit luck,” no romance, no okay, no experience, just bad.

In the span of one week I managed to get my phone and wallet stolen, my computer, bank account and Facebook hacked, I contracted a horrific stomach flu through a parasite, was hospitalized, my bed collapsed from under me, and other mindless romantic lonesomeness that isn’t really interesting to talk about. I would tell these stories to friends, locals, and newcomers and some would be incredibly sympathetic and sorry, and some would give this irritating stock response of: “Rude awakening, huh? That’s New York for you!”

No. That’s not New York. I agree, cities have personalities, vibes, energies, aggressions, passivities, beauties, injustices—all these things, they impact your life in ways you only start noticing when they happen over and over again. Like, the way after a few weeks you actually recognize the homeless people that ask for money on trains, or know by name the dancers that loop their skinny bodies around subway poles. But bad luck? I guess that’s just a personal thing. Although, a part of me wanted to believe that the city was trying to take me out, to beat me, to see me on the floor. Not because it felt good to be attacked, quite the opposite, too many bad things on top of each other can feel like the end, but because I dealt with it so incredibly well, I wanted to believe it was actually something larger than myself.

The reason I’m prefacing my MFA experience with all this is because, yes, you spend a lot of your time with your cohort and in your department. NYU is wonderful enough to have its Creative Writing department be a beautiful Greenwich Village house, where you can write, sleep, eat, talk, read in a space that truly feels like home. But the other 99% of your life is outside, either working, drinking with your friends, eating alone, going on dates, writing in new places, keeping yourself safe. And sometimes, life gets difficult, the way it happened to me. This sounds like such a parental thing to say, but as with anything, you don’t see these kinds of storms coming, they just strike without a warning and it hurts to pick yourself up, to try to keep being great at that other part of your life that is everything for you, or at the very least, the reason why you moved across the country.

There is no better therapy than writing through / after something terrible. That actually might be the most incredible lie I have ever told. But, remember when I said that I would eventually turn the essay around to talk about how beautiful things came out of the shit-storm my life was for a couple weeks? Writing was pouring out of me. I was reading feverishly, eating books in a matter of hours, absorbing their lines and voltas, constantly changing and innovating my writing. I had never been so giddy to work on my poems, to see them change, to see them turn into these creatures I had never pictured them as, an uneasy and surprising experience.

First, the classes. I was lucky enough to land two classes with world-class poets. Poets that were at the top of their game, winning awards, producing books, judging contests, household names that I respected. Not that that means anything. A professor doesn’t have to be famous to be good, in fact some world-class poets just aren’t good teachers. It happens. This wasn’t the case though. With both classes, they were innovative and challenging. One class assigned performances and ancient Greek texts. I would go home considering movement, performance, and history—concepts I had never really considered to attribute to poetry. Class after class we were forced to be uncomfortable, to perform private and strange things in front of others, we were forced to be unafraid of being ourselves, unafraid of being someone else. That is what poetry is after all. A strange oscillating between constructed faces, a mapping of your thinking, the way you see the world.

My workshop was filled with (and I don’t use this word lightly) talented poets that only made me want to be better with my own work. Aspects I heavily researched and read about upon applying to MFA programs were environment and community. I wanted a program that didn’t feel too competitive, but felt like I was a part of a family, one that wanted to see me thrive, and wanted to see my work be better, expecting this treatment in return. NYU has given me this. Every single writer is unique, diverse, and provocative. And above anything, in a city that doesn’t welcome, they do. A friend I made in the program, a local, another first-year poet, upon hearing about my stomach problem, on how I was hospitalized for dehydration and weakness, insisted on me texting, or calling him, when anything similar happened. That he would be there to help me. That I “shouldn’t have to deal with this, being new to the city and all.” Others reminded me, and insisted, on me taking my antibiotics. We pass poems among each other, on top of the ones in workshop, and discuss them even further. Some of us get together in houses and read our favorite poems, we laugh and stomp our feet at our favorite lines, mouthing them upon recital. Only after a week we say hello and genuinely wonder how we are. There is another home building itself slowly, and it’s only the first month.

So, like I said, it’s going well. The program is. But that’s only half of the education. The other half is maintaining your link with other friends in other cities or programs; staying active and on top of events in your city; being proactive and productive with your work; actually applying what you’re taught; reaching out to professors; joining the literary magazine staff; among other things. One of the first things I asked a second-year poet in the program was: how do you feel the program prepares you? What do you when you’re not in your two classes? His answer was what I expected, and quite serious: It is what you make of it. The program will offer a myriad of opportunities through contacts, links, alumni, master classes, events, reading opportunities, information you couldn’t gather all by yourself.

But the program won’t hold your hand and lead you into every reading. It won’t clean up your mess. It won’t put a pen in your hand when you’re not working. It won’t fill out your submission forms, edit your poems for you, or push you out into the world to be a better poet. That’s all you. If you’re romanticizing a graduate program experience, you shouldn’t. You have to put in the work, and a lot of it. It’s fun, and a wonderful, privileged experience. But if the MFA program isn’t as much of a kick of reality as NYC is, then I’m not sure what is making me work so hard, toughen up so quick, without consent.

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