2015, Archives, December 2015, The MFA Years

On drawing the line

Image: Eugenia Loli


Walking away from my first MFA poetry workshop has, so far, been an experience of sorting through questions rather than answers. Though I’ve taken workshops in undergrad, my writing has changed a great deal since then, so this is the first time I’ve properly gathered some diverse responses. It’s been tough interpreting which pieces of feedback will serve my aims and which won’t, especially since my classmates write differently than me. After much thought and attempts to put myself in their shoes, I realized that, somehow, somewhere, I need to draw the line.

There have been roughly two aesthetic veins I’ve been working with, and the poems I produce in each are ones that I don’t believe, at least in this moment, can be reconciled under one manuscript. One is a more personal lyric which makes use of the page’s negative space as part of the language’s semantics (at least, I hope that is what’s effectively happening). The other can be described, I suppose, as some kind or branch of surrealism in which I displace colloquialisms from their everyday contextual narrative and force them to become newly salient through the use of juxtaposition.

It’s always fascinating to hear how others respond since it helps to de-center myself from my own experience of language and see where others are coming from. Though, there was one thing that a couple people brought up as something to consider going forward, and, frankly, it bothered me. These voices were concerned with accessibility and the lack thereof in my poems.

Additionally, I was told that a few of my poems have this dynamic of “preaching to the choir” because of the “agenda” they bear. They were said to possess a strongly implied ethical imperative, and only those readers who already agree and have a sensitivity to language itself would appreciate the poem’s message.  That’s my audience, and I’m limiting its size by virtue of how I write.

This comment felt strange to me. Is the point of poetry to act as a persuasive essay to those of an oppositional stance? If my subject matter is informed by certain political or feminist ideas, does that inherently make my poem argumentative? Are there people out there who believe poetry has the power to change the personal politics of another person? Maybe it does. We all process the world differently.

But, there are poets who speak on matters of religion and faith—does that make their poems inherently argumentative? Do they see their poems as having the potential to proselytize? My guess (my not-very-educated guess) would be no, these poets probably don’t see themselves as having some kind of persuasive agenda. They simply see the world through a certain ideological lens, and their beliefs—especially their notion of beauty—is informed by this lens.

It’s the same, I believe, for me. I’ve never written with an audience in mind (maybe I should start trying?) because I write from a certain set of values and beliefs, which unavoidably shape how I write.   So, why am I perceived to be a poet with an agenda while other poets are not?

I think this comment might be symptomatic of a larger norm, a hidden undercurrent of thinking from which all of us make judgments on what is “political” and what is not. This arbitrary, subjective dividing line from which we make our judgments are, historically and presently, shaped by class, race, and gender. Meaning, our ideas of what is “beautiful” in the arts are also shaped by these things.

An example that some of you might be aware of exists in the September/October 2012 issue of Poets & Writers, specifically in the article on Natasha Tretheway, the then US Poet Laureate. The article details how Tretheway had just been accepted to the MFA program at the University of Massachusetts when “a famous poet” wrote a note on her application “saying that she was too concerned with her ‘message’ to write ‘real poetry.’” Tretheway then details a moment when she went to look up the word “message” and wondered why it’s wrong or bad for poetry to have that. “Later, that same famous poet at the University of Massachusetts told Tretheway to ‘unburden yourself of being black, unburden yourself of the death of your mother, and write about the situation in Northern Island.’”

Though her experience is a bit different than mine—I’m wondering why my poetry is perceived as having an “agenda” while other poems aren’t, while Tretheway was wondering why political poetry, in the way that she understood her own poems to be “political” gets knocked down from the higher echelons of “real poetry”—I think the reactions we received are born from a similar worldview constructed from the particular class, racial, and gendered foothold of, usually, heterosexual, white, male, cisgendered, and, many times, upper middle class, poets.

To pin things down even further: think about the many people who believe that certain topics are “icky PC” topics, and therefore are seen as beneath the expected values of normalcy. Take, for example, the new Star Wars film. Because a black man played the role of one of the leading protagonists, many people—mostly unapologetic, malicious racists—viewed the film as having an “anti-white agenda.” Or, Mad Max, which was viewed as having a feminist agenda (by probably the same people). Why is it that these things are viewed as having “an agenda” while other topics or perspectives are not?

Since it was assumed that my poems have some kind of argumentative agenda, another assumption then follows, namely, that I have an audience toward which I am arguing my point.

This seems to be where this notion of “accessibility” comes in, at least for those that voiced this concern. If my message doesn’t make sense to my audience, then my argument won’t be effective. But, I don’t perceive my poetry to have an argument or agenda. I’m writing what feels right to me. I’m exploring my experiences and beliefs through the manipulation of language just as any other poet.

I described my experience to a friend of mine, a more veteran poet who understands the ways in which it might be easy for others to cast out a poem as “not accessible,” especially when that poem is perceived to exist under that useful but bothersome term, “experimental.” He expressed disappointment that this concern was a part of workshop’s feedback, and told me to hang in there. His words reinforced what I knew I had to do: draw the line.

Which pieces of advice should we take away from a workshop? Which ones do we keep? What do we let fall to the wayside? This is something all poets have to figure out for themselves. What do we want from our writing? And what kinds of advice will help us get closer to our goals? It can be hard in making these determinations, especially if the people giving us advice are decorated, prize-winning folk. But, at the end of the day, your goals are not their goals, no matter how recognized they are (unless your goal is to be recognized, then I guess that changes things). If I must sacrifice some “accessibility” to maintain the integrity of my voice, then I hope to find readers who welcome a challenge.


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