Thursday, November 30, 2006

does poetry come back?

When I was applying to graduate schools I dreamed that my beloved poetry professor from college told me that she thought I should not go to do a PhD—that I had so much more promise as a writer. The dream haunted me. I wondered if it were true—if that was really what she thought as she wrote me all those recommendation letters. The thought that she might be thinking that made me angry and sad and fearful. I wanted to prove that I could be an academic—that I could be a scholar. But, at the same time, I felt a wistful regret—that I had somehow left poetry behind for a more predictable career path.

I had been one of only a few recent college graduates chosen for the Bucknell Younger Poets programme. We wandered about the lush Bucknell campus in June and read novels and books of poetry and went to writing workshops and strung our clothes up on a clothesline hung between two stair railings outside a dorm. We holed up in our little rooms, where we were supposed to be writing. I spent a lot of time watching a spider re-string a web between the edges of my open window. My initial impulse had been to knock it aside. Instead, I left it there, and watched the spider spin her intricate designs. Day after day, she would suck up the old strands to weave a new pattern—to mend torn bits wafting in the breeze. She was constantly creating, constantly revising.

I did not write much poetry that month. Instead I rested from four years of college. I nursed a recently broken heart. I gossiped with the other young poets and took photographs of us, young barefoot bohemians sprawled out on benches, scrawling words in hardback notebooks. As a recent graduate of a Christian college, I realized for the first time what it felt like to be among people who thought Christians were quaint. I looked for jobs in New York on the internet, and worked on my resume. I drank wine and ate cheese at the occasional parties at poetry professor’s houses. I tortuously pushed out a few un-noteworthy poems, and felt stupid when I shared them in the workshops.

It was a beautiful month. I liked all the poets. I realized I didn’t like poetry all that much. Other people’s poetry bored me. My own poems left me dissatisfied. I wrote poems that were stories, concrete images with solid and grammatical sentence structures. I wondered if maybe I shouldn’t try to start working more on short stories—rather than poems. Maybe I had become a poet by default.

I moved to New York and I read through great-book lists, borrowing books from the library. I filled hardback notebook after hardback notebook with subway musings. A few poems. But mostly just observations on the train, thoughts about my dying grandfather, daydreams, sketches, memories, the conversations of people around me. And then I got the (student) Fulbright back to Nigeria. While there, I applied to graduate school.

This semester my undergraduate college gave me an alumni award. I felt funny about getting an alumni award when I still haven’t gone very far—I’m still a student after all. I went back in October to collect it. It was mostly a great excuse to see old professors and old friends. My poetry professor is now a professor in an MFA programme at a respected state university. She wasn’t there. The professor who had given me all the advice about graduate school and had encouraged me to present at conferences even as an undergraduate had nominated me for the award. At a luncheon he had put together for students to come and talk with me, he introduced me by saying, “We are so proud of her, and the only slight disappointment in welcoming her back is that we imagined that she would be returning as a great poet and instead she’s becoming a great scholar.” He put it much better than this, and I wasn’t at all offended. I knew what he was saying—it is the same bittersweet pang I often feel. He has an MFA as well as the Phd, but he teaches literature and his publications that I’ve seen are academic.

I wonder sometimes if the poetry will ever come back? Now that I’ve become so lazy with my words, so verbose. Have I lost the ability to string together those tight concise lines that punch you in the stomach? Will I ever write with the passion I had when I was in college writing long letters to the boy I loved? When I was on the subway writing descriptions of the city I loved?

Is it worth it—graduate school? Does one path ever meet back up with the one not taken, or do they grow further and further apart until they end up on two opposing horizons, feeding into two separate seas?

10 comments:

Anonymous said...

Tall, I believe you wouldn't be happy doing anything else--you're a (boring, sorry ;-) academic, period.

You're just a bit tired is all.

By the way, those paths you talk about? They're constantly meeting then separating, the meeting again... like an infinite strand of DNA.

I can't believe I'm being this nice to Tall!

Everchange said...

i went to a liberal arts christian college too. it's interesting watching ppl do a double-take...first they think you're intelligent, then they wonder how come, since you went to a "christian college."

I'm in the process of applying for a masters, and it's been hard brain work! So many choices and already quite a few regrets (why didn't I pick women's studies!) But I can't dwell on that too much. Somehow the opportunity will arise in the future for me to pursue that interest.

Talatu-Carmen said...

@Fred,
Fred, you've given yourself up.
{-; I think that you are a very nice person, who just likes to say shocking things on the internet to get a rise out of people. You remind me of a cousin of mine. You are also a really good writer--that DNA image is beautiful. And, once again (how can Fred keep being right?), you are right. The two paths are not mutually exclusive. I feel like this blog is helping me marry the two again--and needlers like you are good for me in making me watch my language--trim down all the lazy fat that has grown up because I have not exercised my writing skills for a while. (which I really should have been exercising because the best academic writing is like the best creative writing--clear, concise, and thought provoking... like my advisor's articles...)

@everchange,
yay, another christian college graduate. i intend to write a longer post on this at some time. For a long time i went through an inferiority complex about my college. Most of my friends in new york were graduates of semi-ivy league colleges, and I felt like I got a lot of those doubletakes that you describe. The name of the college (Messiah college) just kind of slammed people over the head. i was once asked in a job interview if I "prosylatized" at work. i was offended but tried to keep the edge out of my voice--i must have succeeded because i got the job.

when i returned to Messiah for the award last month, I realized that I had actually gotten an excellent education. The English department was very nurturing and very smart and made us think through complex issues. The training I got there helped me overcome the hurdle of the name.

Good luck with your grad school applications. what field are you looking into? Or would that blow your cover?

stefan said...

to Talatu- Carmen
congratulation- this one was one of best poems i have ever read
Stefan

Everchange said...

LOL! Messiah College is supposedly the "most liberal" of christian colleges...its either that or Eastern or Wheaton...I love meeting christian college grads and swapping notes.

I'm applying to all kinds of programs, but they have one thing in common: I can focus on global development/gender.

Talatu-Carmen said...

Everchange.

LOL. Exactly. That's the funny and ironic thing about Messiah. It is considered one of the best Christian colleges academically (not quite in the same rank as Wheaton and Calvin but closeby). But they are currently having problems from the "Christian" community because of their "liberal" reputation (ie. organizations and alumni who tend to give gifts and grants), but secular employers, grad schools, etc. who see the name assume it is full of "fundamentalist" prosylatizers. (how do you spell that word?) There was some talk a few years ago about changing the name, but, of course, that opens a whole bunch of issues that no one really wants to get into--that is, changing the name could be seen as a repudiation of its Christian identity, which it definitely does not want to do.

It's a good school though, and I have been intending to blog an advert for it. It is both committed to its Christian identity and to academic excellence. I think part of the liberal reputation is old (ie. it comes from the Mennonite/Bretheren pacifist tradition), but part of it is just because of the increasing political polarization in America, in which "good Christian folk" are "supposed" to be conservative. My old roommate, who just got her DPhil at Oxford, said that at Oxford, at least, people don't really blink an eye at the name, because there's Christ College at Oxford and Jesus College at Cambridge. If Messiah can be seen among such ranks, all will be well! {-;

Good luck with your applications. Sounds good!

Teju said...

Is graduate school worth what it costs in creativity?

The answer can't be general. So, I'll speak from my own experience.

I hate bad academic writing with the same passion that I hate bad poetry. But, at the end of the day, my most satisfying writing (satisfying to me) is poetry. Followed by creative prose. Followed by assorted bloggiferous rants (ha!). And then, and only then, followed by academic investigation.

But since when are such things decided by what's most satisfying? There's a real world, too, there's a table on which one must put bread, there's a dignity in labor that one doesn't necessarily always enjoy. Who's to say I won't feel like killing myself (or someone else) if all I had to do all day every day was write poems? The current balance is delicate, unbearable in some ways, but perhaps as good as it could be.

Talatu-Carmen said...

teju,
thanks for the comment. when i was at the bucknell younger poets program, one of the poetry professors, also a novelist, said that a PhD was great practice for writing a novel. It made you realize that you could actually write, organize, and make coherent a book of that size. I hope that is true.

i realized after that month that i wouldn't be able to do an MFA. i would get too burnt out and frustrated--as i did after only a month of trying to write poetry full time. But, I like your break down of what you enjoy writing the most. i think i agree, although i might enjoy "trying" to write stories more than poetry. i have not seriously written poetry since all those years ago at bucknell, but i remember how much i loved it. how it fed a part of me that is now fed (somewhat) by blogging. i loved the obsessive pruning of poetry. i need to re-learn that skill.

as for academic writing. no i really don't enjoy doing it, until i get to a certain point where I'm delerious with pleasure--that lasts for an hour or two and then i go back to being miserable. The delight happens rarely, but enough to make me feel that academia is not a bad option. (See "Sunday, May 14, 2006
Bloody brilliant" http://talatu-carmen.blogspot.com/2006_05_01_talatu-carmen_archive.html)

I just hope that at some point i can sit down and focus on the creative side again. Make a living as an academic but also always be deeply involved with creating as well as analyzing art. That is one of my deepest desires.

Anonymous said...

Teju said "Who's to say I won't feel like killing myself (or someone else) if all I had to do all day every day was write poems?"

Which is exactly what I think too! I've always felt that no matter how much I succeed as a writer, no matter how much money I make from writing, I will never (by choice) become a full-time writer. Life'd become very boring. I need to be able to steal time from something (else) to write.

Talatu-Carmen said...

BOA,
hmmm... ever since i switched over to beta, people seem to be turning anonymous, who originally could be identified by their blog-names. strange.

But anyway, yeah, i agree, it's sometimes the need to procrastinate something else that creates the write frame of mind for creative writing!