Today, a guest post from my friend and College of Charleston colleague Lisa Hase-Jackson. Lisa teaches poetry and English Composition at the College of Charleston in Charleston, S.C. Her current projects include an anthology of poems celebrating New Mexico’s 2012 centennial and a manuscript of her own poetry. Her work has appeared in Midwest Quarterly, Kansas City Voices, Pilgrimage, Jasper/Fall Lines and elsewhere. She is the Review Editor for South 85 Journal and keeps a poetry blog at ZingaraPoet.net. - JW
As I thumb through a bound copy of my creative thesis, received in today’s mail from Converse College’s Low-Residency MFA program, I contemplate the circuitous, non-traditional route I took to get to this point and find I’m a little surprised to have an MFA degree at all. For one thing, my previous experience with higher education, as a graduate student at Kansas State University, hadn’t really meshed with my idea of a creative writing program. Where I’d hoped for deep reading and prolific writing I found copious research, theory and criticism. Where I longed for support and camaraderie, I found marginalization and competition. Where I expected compassion, I found bureaucracy.
The experience was also complicated by the fact that I was trying to raise two rebellious teenagers on my own at the time, and commuting two hours to and from school at least twice a week. My presence and attention were necessarily needed at home, so I usually declined invitations to “extra-curricular” activities associated with the graduate experience and missed out on a lot of the “networking” opportunities graduate school is meant to cultivate.
I thought about quitting K-State’s program nearly every day, but because the degree would be instrumental in my desire for better work and better pay, going forward was the most likely way to improve my, and my children’s, circumstances. Likewise, quitting my Graduate Teaching Assistantship and Teaching Practicum would have meant giving up a stipend that funded my commute. Instead, I decided to drop my Women’s Studies certificate and press my nose a little harder to the grindstone.
I managed to do a brilliant job juggling it all, and received an excellent education in the process, but in the end, I’d had enough marginalization and strange collegiate politics to last a lifetime and hoped never to find myself in higher education again.
After graduation, my resistance to academia was reinforced by colleagues and friends who insisted that a successful career was not dependent on having an MFA: all anyone needed were good publications, the right connections, and lots of experience. My Master’s degree from K-State, they pointed out, would go far in both the world of Community Colleges and the private education sector.
It wasn’t long before I was holding down several adjunct positions and immersing myself in local writing communities of whichever city I found myself. I facilitated workshops, volunteered at public schools, audited graduate level courses, pitched creative writing seminars, and helped organize literary festivals and book fairs. I wrote regularly and kept a close-knit circle of writers with whom I could share my work and receive feedback from. I met new people, moved in local literary circles, planned successful events, and hosted enigmatic visiting writers in my home.
And I never said no.
The adrenaline high copped from constant activity and juggling multiple jobs and projects at once sustained me for weeks at a time, and though I garnered a fair amount of attention for my efforts, even received awards here and there, I noticed, when I slowed down enough, that my career was not advancing, and neither was my writing.
In the workshops I facilitated, I could perceive that my poems, unlike those of my MFA holding friends, lacked the kind of complexity and iridescence I longed for. The practical knowledge I was gaining, though worthwhile, differed from that which is available through a formal program, and the time I was committing to community involvement, I realized, could be better organized if I had a course of study to follow. Simultaneously, my applications for full-time teaching jobs and writing residencies were consistently passed over for candidates holding terminal degrees.
Had all of this networking and volunteer work taken place in a big city, like Chicago or New York, maybe I’d have made more influential connections or landed bigger gigs, except, of course, that such a move would have made no sense for my circumstances or my aesthetics. While I didn’t need to be a big fish in a small pond, neither was I interested in becoming lost in the “big city.”
So, after years of avoidance and vacillation, I decided it was time to seriously research the MFA option.
I wanted a program that could address my particular needs as a working poet who had some sense about the literary world and which would allow me some influence in my course of study. I wanted a program where the faculty would respect my ability to challenge myself and, most of all, help me develop that which I lacked most – confidence. A program that would not cost the proverbial arm and leg.
After researching a number of schools, I decided to apply to Converse College’s Low-Residency program and, when I received news of my acceptance, prepared myself, once again, to enter higher education.
I remember that first residency being insufferably hot and humid but also engaging. Though a typical day often began by 8:00 and ended as late as 10:00 or 11:00 pm, it took no time to fall into a rhythm. I loved the cooperative air among the faculty and students, and especially appreciated the freedom to create an individualized semester plan designed around what I wanted to read and write for the upcoming semester. I left every residency feeling prepared and eager to work.
Before I knew it, it was time to complete the third semester critical paper and compile a collection of poems for my creative thesis. Flipping through its pages now, I feel satisfaction with how my poetry has evolved and developed these past two years. Happy to have spent the past four semesters seriously contemplating my craft.
While it may be too soon to gauge the effects the MFA has on my career, some opportunities are already beginning to open, almost as if they had been waiting for me to catch up. I still adjunct teach, still involve myself in numerous literary communities, and still write, revise, and send out my work, but I do these things with a greater understanding of my intent and, yes, I do them with more confidence. If success is, as I suspect, a result of hard work, and if it is largely dependent on one’s definitions and perceptions, then I can say, with certainty, that I have met it.