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?