Thursday, April 14, 2016

Writing Communities of Poetry and Leftover Cake

An occasionally heard complaint from MFA programs is they burden students with so much work that the students are unable to find time for the one thing they unhinged their lives to do – write. At a few weeks into the spring semester, this complaint is far from me.
The irony of my writing life, or really my ability to complete any activity besides online shopping and eating banana bread, is that as my free time grows, my motivation declines in close proportion. I had far too much free time between Christmas and the beginning of this semester. This meant I spent many days telling myself 1 p.m. is a reasonable time to shower, that it’s just fine to wear the same pair of sweatpants for many days in a row, and that spreading peanut butter on a stale piece of cake makes a nutritious breakfast. And I wasn’t writing.
Enter the Palm Beach Poetry Festival. For one week, A-list poets such as Kevin Young, Laure-Anne Bosselaar and Alan Shapiro gave readings, craft talks, and workshop with a group of poets who have taken many plane rides and pressed “pause” on their daily put their lives to learn from these writers. As an intern, I was able to learn from these people in exchange for tasks such as passing out programs and troubleshooting the cell phone issues of the elderly (well just once).
The takeaways from this week are invaluable. Advice ranged from the potential added resonance of repeated words (Thank you, thank you, Mary Szibist) to the potential boons of rethinking simple sentences. This came from Carol Frost, who led the workshop I observed. She asked participants to find as many arrangements as possible of this sentence: Mary swam the river with her red dog.

The river, Mary swam with her red dog.
With her red dog, Mary swam the river.
Mary swam with her red dog in the river.
With her red dog in the river, Mary swam.
Mary, the river with her red dog, swam.
As the order of words shifts, each line changes in meaning and tone.  Now when I write, I fight against my instinct of how a sentence works. More possibilities exist than subject-verb.

More motivational even than these pieces of wisdom was being in the presence of so many people who love language and poetry. It was an intensified version of the community fostered through an MFA program, and I remembered how fortunate I am to be writing out of the cold. I know this is a temporary state, and that one day I’ll find it much easier to ignore the urge to write and eat banana bread instead. But hopefully when I arrive, I’ll find it harder to give in. I hope to carry these writing communities with me. When my peanut-butter-on-cake-persona forgets why I write, why it’s sometimes impossible to write, I can remember the enormous web of people who are struggling with me, and we will still write.

Kathleen Martin, a fist-year MFA student, is a Kansas native and a journalist turned poet. She owns several socks with hedgehogs on them. 

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