What I Learned From My First Year in an MFA Program

By Florence Gonsalves

Last fall, about six months into the pandemic, I moved from the Northeast to a small town beneath the Mason-Dixon line so that I could study writing. Specifically, I came to study poetry. It’d been my dream to get an MFA since I took my first creative writing class in college and found joy and catharsis in a course dedicated to self-expression. Beyond time to write, getting an MFA seemed like such an official way to become a writer. 

Eight years passed from the time I first wrote a poem in college – a bad one about brain diseases that I equated to milk rotting in the fridge – to actually starting my MFA program. I came because I loved writing, both prose and poetry, but I chose the poetry tract because in desperate times, poems are what I read (and write) to make sense of the world. There’s a freedom to the form because, unlike in fiction, there seem to be so few rules. When I sit down to write a poem I am a free agent with a pen full of words that I am not afraid to let explode. Whatever comes out, that curious result on the page, is similar to a mystery in that it can be appreciated, but perhaps won’t ever be solved. I couldn’t wait to appreciate poems in my first workshop as a grad student. 

Given the constraints of the pandemic, though, my first semester was on Zoom. Wow, is it hard to garner enthusiasm on Zoom. I had a fantastic professor and the class was full of brilliant poets, but a successful workshop is so dependent on the vibe. There must be energy and enthusiasm for each other’s work so that we can all improve. A vibe is hard to pinpoint; what exactly goes into the feel of a “room”? It is hard to both quantify and qualify but I was really discouraged, not to mention bitter, that my MFA experience was starting off on the most soulless and overused app. Simply put, Zoom vibes are bad vibes. 

A big part of why I wanted to get an MFA was for the community of writers excited about writing. Due to the nature of the beast, our Zoom “community”  just didn’t feel like a community, let alone a vibrant one. There was so much stale air, so many muted screens with blank faces so still they could have been screen shotted. The dismalness of the pandemic was seeping into workshop like ceiling mold. Because I wasn’t feeling enthusiastic about workshop, I overcompensated by trying to tackle a challenging project. In retrospect, I think I also wanted to impress my new classmates. I wanted to prove I was good enough to be in an MFA program. Perhaps every profession has its cases of imposter syndrome but writing seems to lend itself particularly to feelings of doubt and insecurities, what with all the rejections that are par for the course. 

The project I embarked upon was a series of narrative poems about a couple haunted by the angel that is their aborted child. It was cool in theory but I just couldn’t pull it off. Given the pandemic and it being my first year of grad school, I was anxious, lonely, isolated, and had the worst time concentrating on Zoom. My work with the aborted angel wasn’t going the way I wanted it to and I started to get in my head about being in an MFA program. I took the dead air and lack of enthusiasm personally. Am I good enough to be here? Am I contributing enough to this community? Are people hanging out without me?! I felt uncertain about my work and my peers’ work. I felt I couldn’t say anything useful about anyone else’s poems. They were good! They were great! What else could I say about them? I felt like I had nothing to offer when it came to responding to others’ work and what a lousy feeling it was to sit on Zoom silent and blank, just another name taking up screen space without contributing to the art of poetry. 

Of course there were great moments, too. Some poems brought me to my knees. I got some really helpful advice about my overuse of the second person in my work. Still, I had a bad taste in my mouth. Students in workshop would ask questions like “Why break the stanza here?” or “What’s going on with this image?” and I’d freeze. The response in my head was usually something along the lines of “I don’t know” or “It just felt right.” Before beginning this MFA program I didn’t realize how much of poetry – reading it and writing it – was mystical to me. Over the course of the semester I realized that I didn’t really want to study poetry; I wanted to enjoy it. Rather than wanting to critique it, I wanted to love it. Suddenly it felt like being in an MFA program was antithetical to these goals. I hated what I was writing and hated the feedback I was giving (or wasn’t giving) and I wanted to quit. 

After that semester I swore off poetry. It was very dramatic, but it had happened before. My senior year of college, I completed a big poetry project – a book of poems! – working one-on-one with a creative writing advisor. Though I’d started the project with enthusiasm, by the end of the several month semester, I hated the poems in the collection so much I could hardly look at them. I ended up chopping them all up and rearranging them a hundred times until the book wasn’t a book of poems so much as a book of two line stanzas that went on for pages and pages. After sending a copy to my professor full of discouragement, I thought of nothing but forgetting the manuscript and leaving poetry behind forever. I wrote fiction for the next couple of years, but then poetry crept back into my life against my wishes. I’d jot down notes on my phone and spin them into “short works that were not poems.” After accruing a lot of these “short works that were not poems” and reading books that I couldn’t deny were poetry books given that they came from the “poetry” section of the bookstore, I had to admit that I was wrong about my hatred for poetry. I’d just needed a break from the art form. By the time I applied to grad school I was applying in poetry, not fiction.

The truth is poetry thrills me. Just when you think you’ve got it, it gets you. There is something so mysterious about poetry that doesn’t exist in my fiction writing; a certain je ne sais quoi, a certain mysticism or godliness. It’s also so gosh darn frustrating. Even though I suspected my hatred of poetry would lessen after that first semester of grad school, I also knew I couldn’t take another poetry workshop yet or maybe ever. I felt guilty wanting to abandon my poems, but I needed something more concrete to focus my efforts on, both for myself and the effort I wanted to put towards my peers’ work. In my brain, fiction is more straightforward, with clearer rules to follow that make giving and receiving feedback simple, not to mention possible. During my second semester I took a fiction workshop and inquired about switching tracts. My request was granted and I’m so grateful for the relief it has provided.

Since switching from fiction to poetry I have not had to write poetry. For the first couple months after that first semester workshop I didn’t touch a poem or even think about poems except to shiver and say loudly to anyone who would listen “I quit poetry.” However, similar to my experience post-undergrad and despite my status as “ex-poet,” this summer I found myself jotting down notes in my phone and reconstructing them into little bits of writing that I finally had to admit were poems. Since not having to write poems on a deadline or give and receive feedback, I’ve been wanting to write poetry again. It’s been fun, low stakes, personal, and rewarding. Essentially, now that I’m a fiction major, poetry is great!

There’s nothing like getting an MFA in poetry to learn that I cannot get an MFA in poetry. I cannot produce poems for a class or a professor or a cohort of passionate poets who, like me, want to say something real and true and for it to be heard. Poetry has the power to exalt, to devastate, to connect and destroy. I sincerely want to be good at it, to move people, to move myself, to tap into a connection with writers who came before me in a tradition with a long, rich history. However, to keep poetry in my life I had to remove all of the expectations and external standards around my poetry. I don’t know why this isn’t true of me and fiction but it simply isn’t and all in all, I’m really enjoying my MFA this year. What a relief it is that being a poet is no longer about graduating with a masters in poetry. Maybe it never was. Maybe an MFA has all sorts of advantages but ultimately the relationship between a poet and their work is incredibly personal, indifferent to academia and accolades. I thought I needed an MFA to prove I was “legit” but I’m starting to think that who we really are as writers is too mysterious to be defined by much of anything, let alone a degree.

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