Quick Bennington Update

So I’m here, and it’s great so far! Everyone is very friendly and smart. The two faculty readings we had tonight were fantastic – Jill McCorkle’s story almost made me cry.

I’m having some issues with my Ethernet connection, and I need to buy a mug and some milk for my tea. But I’m going to sort those out tomorrow. Right now I’m going to bed.

The Minefield of Editorial Decision Making

I’ve been thinking some more about the political side of poetry, and specifically, about making editorial decisions. I know there’s a whole website dedicated to exposing poetry contests where the winners are proven to be friendly with the judges (Foetry). It seems unfortunate that completely different standards apply in the arena of general submissions, where not only the name of the poet is firmly attached to the poems, but often a lengthy biography detailing previous publications, prizes and lofty positions held in the educational establishment. How many editors are intimidated into accepting poems because of such bios? Personally I request no bios with submissions for the Barefoot Muse, and so do the QNDs for Up & Under. Nevertheless, many submissions ignore this request.

If only there were a convenient way of making general submissions blind, the editorial process would be fairer and less fraught with anxiety. If it were blind, acquaintances who currently submit to me knowing I am under pressure to accept their work would have no comeback when it gets rejected.

There are several types of submission I shudder to open, knowing I will either have to offend someone or accept substandard work.

  • Second rate poems from a widely published and influential poet. Yes, I know my zine and journal are not among the highly regarded. Still, why would you want your second rate poems to appear anywhere? Revise them, trash them, but don’t send them to me. I take the view that I am always going to write more poetry, so I don’t hang on to my best poems waiting for an acceptance from a big journal. I get them out there to be read. And I don’t send my second rate poems anywhere.
  • Poems from Editors who have published me. Let me reiterate, I know that is how many journals operate. I don’t want to be a part of it. I expect you to publish MY stuff if it’s good enough for your journal, and I will publish YOUR stuff if it’s good enough for mine, not just BECAUSE you published me.
  • Poems from friends and acquaintances. In the Barefoot Muse I do fortunately have the option of simply saying “I’m sorry, it’s not metrical enough.” As I am a soft touch I often add “But if you like I’ll work with you to get the metrics right and THEN I’ll publish it.” Up & Under, where I am one voice of five, occasionally ends up taking an undeserving poem simply because of the politics.

I read another poet’s blog recently in which he said that as a rule he never submits to journals run by friends. I think I’m going to adopt that principle for myself and also make a New Year’s Resolution to accept and reject solely on merit. I shall remain unswayed by your Pushcart Prize nominations and your impressive list of credits. I shall not Google you to see if you are published online. If I know your name I shall attempt to forget it. That way, I can create a Literary Journal for the people it is really meant for, the readers.

So, About that MFA…

Now that the New Year’s Eve Party is past (lovely, thanks for asking) the next big thing on my horizon is my first ten day residency for my MFA in Creative Writing. I leave Thursday for snowy Vermont. I want to express my thoughts here about MFAs in general and my own in particular, as after my residency my position may have changed.

First of all, and I know others have said this more eloquently than myself, I abhor the fact that in the poetry world, who you know counts more than what you write. I hate attending readings where the featured reader is not impressive, despite numerous publications and books. I hate reading terrible poems by ‘name’ poets in journals that have rejected my stuff. But I understand that is how it is. I serve on two editorial boards myself: Up & Under, the QND Review and the Barefoot Muse. Of course you look at the name on the submission. Of course there’s a halo effect.

One thing is certain, things can only be changed from within. How then, does someone like me, a foreigner with no connections in this country and no links to University English departments, get into this sacred poetry circle? The MFA can’t hurt.

That’s the cynical angle, but I started thinking about doing an MFA before I even really knew what one was, and way before I read all the arguments for and against. Back then my reasoning was simple, I wanted to be a better poet. In 2004/5 I audited two undergraduate classes at Richard Stockton College, the Basic Poetry Workshop with BJ Ward, and then the Advanced Workshop with BJ and Stephen Dunn. Bear in mind I have no literary qualifications whatsoever. Before that, the last time I studied poetry in a classroom I was not quite 16 years old. I loved it. BJ and Stephen are both wonderful, inspiring teachers and excellent poets. They are also demanding of their students, and that was something I needed. The workshops I had been involved in outside of University were of a way lower standard, and basically I wasn’t getting the necessary feedback to improve as a poet.

During the second semester I read Stephen Dunn’s excellent essay collection Walking Light. In one of the pieces he describes how he came to do his MFA, which was not by the conventional route. He did not have an outstanding undergraduate career, and was thirty at the time some of his friends told him he should apply, and that he would get in on the strength of his poetry. It got me to thinking, maybe, just maybe, *I* could get in on the strength of my poetry, and that the irrelevance of my undergraduate degree wouldn’t matter. I talked it over with Stephen and BJ, and Stephen agreed to recommend me if he was sufficiently impressed by my final portfolio.

I applied to Warren Wilson, Fairleigh-Dickinson and Bennington College. Obviously I needed to go the Low Residency route. Believe me, it’s been hard enough arranging to leave my kids for ten days! Warren Wilson kept me dangling until AFTER I had already accepted my offer from Bennington, and then rejected me. I was speaking to Crystal Bacon after a Princeton reading, and she told me they rarely accept anyone on their first application. She herself had been rejected twice before finally earning a place. At 37, I just want to get on with it! Bennington looks awesome, and I will have Liam Rector as my Faculty Advisor for the first semester.

So, I think the MFA will increase my connections, help me grow as a poet, and there’s one last thing. I actually believe it might help me to get a job! I’ve been out of the workforce for nine years and I’ve never worked in the US. I’m also tied to school hours. The only job I could get right now would be something minimum wage in retail or catering. However, Lorna has been in full day school since September. I’ve been pretty focused about writing a couple of hours every day while the kids are gone, but I think the MFA will force me to be even more productive. And then in two years time I’m hoping I can get a job teaching Community College a couple of hours a week, acquiring some experience so that when the kids are old enough I can apply to a regular University English Department.

So, those are my reasons and my game plan. I’ve read a great deal of criticism of MFA programs and I’ve also read some glowing recommendations. None of it matters – I intend to make my own mind up over the next two years. I also propose to have some fun!

sylvia's Grave 

Possibly the Worst Time Ever to Start a Blog

There are five days until Christmas. In approximately three hours my husband, myself, and our two daughters will load ourselves into a cab, along with 3 suitcases (one entirely filled with Christmas gifts) and drive to Philadelphia Airport on the first leg of our week long Holiday trip home to the UK. A week after we get back to NJ, I shall travel to Vermont to begin the first 10 day residency of my MFA course at Bennington College.

So, naturally, it’s the perfect time to start a Blog!

Look, I am a rational minded creature with an Engineering degree. One of my ex-boyfriends used to call me “Spock,” and in Poetry Workshops I have been known to exasperate participants by listing the parts of their poems which caused my logic beeper to emit piercing shrieks.

On the other hand, my creative side is frequently swayed by fate. I have been sorting, packing and wrapping all day, and when I finished about half an hour ago my husband literally forced me to sit down at the computer with a cup of tea. I was checking the referral statistics for my formal poetry e-zine The Barefoot Muse and I noticed a Yahoo link offering me the chance to start my own blog attached to the site. To me that was the equivalent of opening a Fortune Cookie which stated “You really ought to start a blog – everyone does it these days.”

So here we are. I probably won’t be able to add another post until we are back in the country in about a week’s time, what with my parents only having dial up Internet access and my In Laws, who live in Prehistoric Barnsley, S. Yorks, not having a computer at all. However, at that time I hope to regale you all with joyful tales of Christmas in the old country, complete with nagging relations (“Your children have the most appalling American accents“…duh!), pints o’ bitter in the local pub, and hopefully at least one decent Indian takeaway.