Saturday, June 22, 2013

Dos, Don'ts, and Doubts: Why so Dramatic?

Today I gave my final presentation for my Master in Fine Arts Degree, and I'm pleased to say it went off pretty much without a hitch *cue the hallelujah chorus*. For those of you who were unable to make it and would like to see it, here it is for you, minus the poems I read. Sorry, but I can't put a bunch of them up on the internet.

Thanks so much for all the love and support, and to all of you who were able to come, and were here in spirit.

~Hannah Mae

Dos, Don’ts, and Doubts: Why so Dramatic?

I couldn’t figure out how to get in to this talk. I revised it and revised it, and finally I sat down and did what any red-blooded Montana girl would have done. I sat down in the middle of some trees and talked to myself for a good long time, like a little mini interview. Here’s what I got.

In my little bitty home town, there’s not much of a writing community. I work as a bank teller by day, and it almost never fails that someone asks me what I’m going to do that evening or that weekend. My response is usually, “Oh, I’m going to go home and do some homework.” “Homework for what?” “I’m getting my master’s in Creative Writing.” This leads to one of two responses. “Good for you! What are you going to do with that?” or “Oh, cool. I hate writing.” A few people go on to ask me how a 25 year-old home schooled Montana kid decides to turn into a poet. Well, here’s how it happens:

It starts out when you’re five years old and you carry around a five subject notebook every single place you go. I had all the sections neatly divided: one for stories, one for essays, one for longer stories, then songs, and, eventually, one for poems. I was initially divided between two career goals: to be a famous basketball player, or to be a jockey. I wound up too short to be a basketball player, and too tall to be a jockey. It was always my idea to be a children’s author in my spare time, but with the other two out of the way, writing was the only logical choice. I had grand plans to be the first famous kid children’s author. I even started a memoir: “Memoirs of a Kid.” It was two paragraphs about snow falling. Very powerful stuff. I also wrote a thirty page detective novel which is sitting on a corrupted green floppy disk in one of my desk drawers.

I was, as I said, a home schooled student and my brother and I finished our school work at about noon every day. My friends weren’t home for a few hours after that, so I’d grab my notebook and venture into my “office”: a stand of maples in the woods with a fallen log for a seat. I composed my stories and songs, and read them to my adoring fans—namely the white tailed deer that wandered past in the afternoon and the squirrels that threw pine cones at me when I read the parts they didn’t like.

Upon my very early graduation from high school, since I was not old enough for college yet, I enrolled in the Institute of Children’s Literature in West Redding, Connecticut. It was a correspondence program that promised intensive studies of writing with a successful published author. I got my books and sent in the first packet.

The author I was assigned was a writer I had never heard of. I had never seen, nor could I find, any of her books. She went through my stories and told me I needed to deepen my characters, give them more responsibility for their stories, increase the conflict, have the conflict come to a climax and resolve quickly. Problem was, she didn’t give me any idea how to do any of those things. At the end of the program, my writing had barely changed, though she deemed it ok to try and send somewhere. I received my diploma, shoved all of our correspondence in a file cabinet drawer, and slammed it shut.

By the time I finished with the Institute, I could enroll in Flathead Valley Community College. I’m afraid I fairly stalked the English professor there, Lowell Jaeger. I attended all his workshops, all the classes I could, talked to him every time we passed in the hallway, and followed all my friends to his office when they had questions or needed his help. I wanted to learn how to write, darn it, and he was the best person to teach me. He got so used to me (or sick of me) hanging around his office that he asked me to help him with a poetry anthology he was compiling. It turned in to an editing apprenticeship which kept us busy the entire time I studied at FVCC. It was my first introduction to contemporary poetry. Neither at that school, nor at the University of Montana did I find any classes devoted to poetry beyond workshops. I didn’t know who to read, or where to look for poetry that might guide my own writing.

People have asked me frequently what it was like to go from home schooling to a college environment, and I have to say that I was blessed as far as FVCC went. Part of the wonder of home schooling is just that: wonder. We had a curriculum, but if we wanted to or needed to we could break the rules and pursue any subject that interested us. I was an avid reader, and I was encouraged to look up anything I didn’t understand: words, practices, sciences, math, law, everything. My parents helped me out with the research and we discussed everything until all of us understood it. Lowell was the same way. His philosophy is that a teacher is there to guide the student, but has just as much to learn. He encouraged me to teach him things I knew that he didn’t, or we worked to discover things together—whether regarding poetry, writing in general, or any other discipline.

At the University of Montana, the approach was the opposite. My degree was English with an emphasis in both Creative Writing and literature. The degree requirements for either emphasis were virtually the same: for writing, the difference was I had to take three workshops. For lit, two extra theory classes were required. The majority of the classes focused on modern literature dissected by literary criticism and theory. I disagreed with my professors on the validity or applying a random theory such as deconstructionism, psychoanalytic, or Marxism, for example, to every single piece of writing we read and claiming that the author had intended all those things. I knew that those books could not have been made with every one of those theories in mind, but I wanted the grades, so I wrote the papers.

My saving grace was that toward the end of the semester, Lowell sent me another manuscript to proofread, New Poets of the American West. It gave me poems to read again, and I could read them for what I thought they were, not for what I could make them. And it was that manuscript that brought me to Pacific. I was going through the manuscript, and I came across the poem ‘Gate C-22’ by Ellen Bass. I read it for typos. I read it again. I read it again. There was something about that poem that caught my eye. The scene was so mundane: two people meeting up in an airport kissing hello. But it was how she showed the way everything was mundane—the clothes, their physical descriptions, their kiss, the passersby, the food court employee getting someone their food. The moment came alive. It meant something. It mattered. I read the bio on the page and found out that Ellen was on the admissions committee here at Pacific. So I applied, and by the grace of the admissions committee, I was accepted. And here I am.

It was like coming home. Unlike UM, I met students, writers, who wanted to talk about writing, what they were doing, what I could do. I found another writer just as connected to nature as I was, and we spent hours talking about how to make nature effective in our poems.

My first semester, I was thrilled to be paired with Ellen. I put my best poems in my packet, just sure of how much she’d love them and how perfect they were, and shipped them off. When her response arrived, she tempered my pride with such gentle criticisms as “your syntax here is a bit wonky” and “I think I almost know what you mean, but if you turn over a few more cards I’ll know which way you meant it.” We worked hard on the shaping of the poems, and especially the line. Poetry’s intricacy starts at the level of the line: what is left out, what’s included, whether the rhythm is the same or different from the previous line, whether that difference is intentional, unintentional (if anyone ever asks you, it’s always intentional). I learned the line is a complete unit—a sentence inside a bigger sentence, and each one should be able to stand on its own.

With Leslie Miller, I started out with short poems, short lines, and nearly every poem was a succinct extended metaphor. She coaxed me out across the page, asking me to delve into details, imagination, scene. I had just managed to distill my lines and now I had to go back and throw a bunch of stuff in them again. But I read Frank Gaspar’s “Night of a Thousand Blossoms” and learned that long lines are not always prose lines. They can be curious, strange, lovely, and, most importantly, leading. The danger for me was one poem in particular—it was great! Detail, similes, depressing subject, perfect! And I got Leslie’s letter back: “I have no notes for this poem, because nothing is missing. And that’s the problem. The story is so complete, there’s nothing left for the reader to discover.” I hadn’t been paying attention to the fact that my discoveries and the reader’s discoveries are not always the same thing.

Working with Peter Sears, my poems sneaked back into a more narrative vein. I experimented with form and some strangeness, but I let my poems have their genesis in my thoughts and my emotions. It led to some interesting and successful pieces. But that semester was my essay, and I was trying to unravel the process of letting a reader into my poems. I chose a nice, easy subject: rhetorical poetry and how it converts a poem into a civic conversational space.

I pounded out the rough draft, popped it in the mail, and sat down to try and apply it to my own poems. A couple days later, I got a phone call from Peter. “Kid, this essay is brilliant. And it’s unacceptable.” The essay’s subject was unique. The writing was unique, too! “You praise, interpret, philosophize, and discuss”, Peter said, “and you do it all in the same sentence”. With his patience, and an entire semester of revision, we both finally understood what I was trying to say, and worked it all out on the page. I slipped under the wire with about three days of the semester to spare, and a stack of narrative poetry that played with the boundaries of mysterious things but was unable to jump over the brink.

In my fourth semester, the revision, mystery, ability to write emotion, and discovery finally began to coalesce. Sandra was my wonderful and incredibly patient advisor, and she described my poems at the beginning of the semester like this: “Your poems are awkward and unique and smart and odd and muscular. Awkward only because you’re taking on more than you can handle and that ambition will get you everything—in time”. I was frequently heavy-handed and overdramatic in my poems. They started in interesting places, but I fairly dragged the reader from beginning to end.

While working on my fourth packet, I finally figured out why. I had a nasty habit I’ve been working on breaking where I pick up a book and read the end of it first (just to make sure everything turns out ok). I finally realized I was trying to write my poems from the bottom up. I had the end in mind, and I wanted the reader to get there, and to feel a certain way when she did. So, I added extra emotion and detail so I could be sure they’d see all the right things. When I noticed that, I finally sat down on my apartment floor with a mug of tea and a notebook, and I ripped those poems to shreds. (Figuratively). I lopped off endings, shaved middles, crossed off beginnings and virtually ransacked the entire manuscript, rebuilding it from fragments and the few lines left over. And I sent them to Sandra.

I got the packet back, ripped it open, and flipped through for the problem pieces that kept going back and forth. And I saw “check mark. Yes. Checkmark, yes”. They weren’t all perfect, but I finally really, truly, honestly revised.

There were more revisions to make after that, but I finally got past the preconceived ideas I’d carried all through the program. And as soon as I let go of the endings and feelings I wanted to get across, the doors opened to let me put those ideas into the poems in controlled ways without beating my readers over the head with them.

Have I conquered poetry, mystery, or revision? Goodness no. I can’t. Nobody can. But I am so thankful that, like my parents’ and my mentor’s approach to teaching, this program encouraged me to be curious, and I will carry that curiosity to discover the way things work out with me, and into my future writing.

I want to thank Shelley, Colleen, and Tenley for really making this program what it is, encouraging each and every one of us, and just being there to talk if we need it. For all of their hard work day after day, month after month, year after year, making this a community where all of us really belong and can explore whatever interests us however we want to. It really leads to something great.

To my parents, especially my poor father who was kept up late by my phone calls, crying in his ear that I was a lousy writer and would never pass a graduate program, and my mom who fielded them when he had gone to bed and bought me ice cream, chocolate, and ginger beer when absolutely necessary.

To my mentor Lowell Jaeger for taking an interest in my writing, encouraging me to come here, and for always believing that a student should share what they know with their teacher.

To Unkyl Steve for his long conversations with me about poems and craft over coffee, scones, guitar music, and one very long drive from Missoula to Portland in the middle of the night.

To my posse, Chris and Cynthia, and to Leigh, Katie, Michelle, Tas, Susan and Heidi, You guys are, without a doubt, the best friends anyone could make in this program or any other.