2016, Archives, October 2016, The MFA Years

How Is Your Poem Useful to the World?

Photo Credit: Drew’s Photo Shoots

It felt like the first day of fall yesterday, a cool morning, on October 1. Fall improves my mood. The heat here in South Carolina can be unbearable.

I am in my second year and instead of viewing time as slow and endless, it is speeding up. I came to this school to work with Nikky Finney, and now I am in workshop with her. One of the reasons I came here is already being fulfilled and after this workshop, I’ll only have a year and a half left in this program.

Workshop has been really good so far. Each week we’re supposed to do our own research on three poets she’s chosen on the syllabus. She provides a sample of poems from the poets, but we’re supposed to look up more, including books, video interviews, print interviews, essays, etc. We’ll end up reading about 36 poets and their work and will have to hone that list to 25, defending each poet’s usefulness to our world today.

We are also reading a manifesto each week in preparation to write our own at the end of the semester. It will accompany our portfolio and answer questions such as “Speak of why you write and why you will continue to write” and “Think and speak about what you write—why you don’t write when you should/what stops you.” I sort of wrote something like this last semester, but it wasn’t as in-depth as what these questions are asking. It was more of an aesthetics statement. It baffles me why I haven’t really written a manifesto before. But it’s okay now because I am going to write one by the end of the semester.

My poems have taken a turn this semester. I am already not writing about the same things I did last year, and I don’t think I’m writing in the same style either. It’s hard to wrangle the ideas for these poems because they are close to me, and I’m figuring out how to make sure there’s a balance between content and craft and that each equally support the other. I am being vague because I am unsure where these poems will take me and that’s scary. But if I push myself and work hard, these poems can live up to what they are trying to say.

When we workshop or talk about specific poems, Nikky has asked what is the poem’s usefulness to the world, especially in our world today. I am carrying this phrase around, and I think about it more consciously after I’ve written a poem and am revising. When my poems aren’t good enough yet, I relegate them to the private realm. When they’re ready, when I think they’re communicating an important message, whether about familial inheritance, trauma, gender expectations, then I try to place them in the public realm. First through workshop to help me make sure I am taking steps in the right direction.

A book I’ve been reading this semester on my own that has helped me figure out this public vs. private realm and how to craft is The Poetry Home Repair Manual by Ted Kooser. Nikky recommended it to a fellow poet who recommended it to me. One piece of advice the book gives is to write with an audience in mind. I don’t do that, but when I start revising, I do.

Tell me. When was a time you read a poem and you felt a ripple in your chest? It resonated with you in the heart, the lungs, and the breath? Most often, in my experience, that poem has a usefulness to the world. And that’s what I want my poems to give.

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