Sunday, August 10, 2003

I'm sick! Not long after finishing my turkey sandwich at the Bookery Friday night (it was a good sandwich, did it do this to me?) I began having these weird stomach cramps, and they've knocked me down good--also running a low fever. So instead of doing the six-million things I need to do I'm in bed with the air conditioner running and surfing around the web with my new wireless card. Sounds fun but it ain't worth it, my stomach hurts. Emily is taking amazing and angelic care of me. She just came in to offer me chicken broth. Love is grand.

So I thought I'd finally see what if anything I had to say on the topic of pursuing both creative writing and scholarship in grad school. For me one has fed the other. When I applied to grad schools in the fall of 1996, living in my little studio off of Last Chance Gulch in Helena, Montana, I avoided any school that seemed to have a significant scholarly requirement. If they wanted a critical writing sample more than five pages in length, forget it. Critical writing and research seemed far too much like real work--even as an undergrad I'd stayed on the creative writing track which, at Vassar anyway, meant you could graduate with honors in English without ever having written a paper more than fifteen pages long or ever having heard Jacques Derrida's name. Ultimately I chose Montana because they only required you to take one graduate literature seminar and because they would have me teaching right away--I wanted all the teaching experience I could get. Plus I was coming to love Montana and knew that if I left it for graduate school there was little chance I would ever return there. So in the summer of '97 I moved a hundred miles west to Missoula and decided to get my one and only seminar out of the way from the git-go--a class taught by Prof. Casey Charles on "the sonnet."

The odd thing about all this is that it makes me sound like a slacker--which I felt myself to be. But at the same time I had a lot of notions in my head about form and rigor which probably derived T.S. Eliot's essays. I often wrote in forms and I had a certain disdain for the generic free verse I saw in the only magazines I was really aware of at the time (things like Prairie Schooner and Poetry Northwest). I also believed in being well-read in "the Tradition" (which I had largely gleaned from The Norton Anthology of Poetry, Third Edition) and was surprised at how little of it my fellow MFA students seemed to have read. They were probably better versed in contemporary writing than I was, but it still seemed to me inexcusable that they hadn't read the metaphysicals and Dickinson and Robert Browning. I hope I didn't make myself too insufferable. Anyway, I arrived at Montana as this curious hybrid of slacker and rigorist, and what happened almost immediately was that I discovered my appetite for the latter far outweighed the fear and neuroticism that had kept me the former for so long. The sonnet seminar was fantastic--in addition to taking us through the centuries from Petrarch to Marilyn Hacker, every week he introduced us to a new theorist: Derrida, Foucault, De Man, Butler. Heady stuff. For the first time I began to feel that I might have some aptitude for thinking--I'd grown up being told how smart I was by everybody, but I never felt that smart. I knew a lot, which wasn't at all the same thing, and when it came to what I knew about literature, politics, geography, etc., quantity had always trumped quality. (My favorite books when I was ten or so had titles like "2000 Facts.") Now I was presented for the first time with counter-intuitive systems of thought that illuminated new possibilities for me both as a reader and as a writer. I began the long drift toward "experimental" writing that semester. And in the spring, I signed up for another seminar, and another. I ended up getting an MA with a speciality in Renaissance Literature along with my MFA in creative writing. And it was that MA that brought me here to Cornell, just as the work I did in creative writing took me to Stanford for a Stegner Fellowship in 1999.

There were only a few full-time graduate students in literature at Montana--there's no PhD program there and so most of the students for grad seminars had to come from the MFA program. I think that helped me feel more integrated as a student, because I'd see many of the same faces in both workshop and seminar. And I found the two different tasks, the two different modes of thinking, reading, and writing, enormously generative for each other. I never understood the complaints other MFAs sometimes made about the academic requirements--how many times did I listen to someone at the Union Club or Al & Vic's lament that "all I want is time to write"? I'm convinced that I wrote more and better poetry than I would have if I hadn't been jumping through the hoops for my master's degree. Later, when I was gloriously unencumbered by academic requirements at Stanford--when I had time to write in spades--I found that I missed the stimulation created by the imperatives of scholarly work. Of course I read, and enjoyed being able to read whatever I wanted and not just what was on a syllabus--poems, biographies, art criticism, histories. But I was sliding back into my habits of indiscriminate absorption--the desire to know everything--while forgetting what it meant to struggle with a text and emerge from it with a hard-won insight that subtly revised all my previous thinking about sonnets, or the meaning of "objectivity," or some other doxa that I'd absorbed without realizing it in my short lifetime of reading.

Cornell has been the right choice for me. It's very different from Montana, of course, because here there is a clearly defined PhD program alongside the MFA program and the two have cultures that rarely overlap. I go to the Lounge Hour MFA readings but other than that I tend to identify with the PhD camp. On the other hand, I don't even identify with that group because Cornell is not the undisputed center of my intellectual life as I suspect it is for many of my fellow grad students. Maybe it's just because I'm 32 and have been in so many other schools, but my work life is centered around my work and not Olin Library or Goldwin Smith Hall. What is my work? Having written a master's thesis on Christopher Marlowe, I originally came to Cornell thinking I might build a firewall between my poetry and my scholarship; I might be drawn to post-langpo writing as a poet but as a scholar I was interested in Shakespeare and Milton. That's changed as I've realized that the questions I want to answer (or rather, to ask) about other people's poetry are the same questions I want to ask about/with my own. What is the place of the ethical in writing? In what ways does the desire for utopia express itself? What, if anything, can be built on the foundation of the endless play of the signifier? What role is left for beauty? Isn't it still Romantic? And I think that's what I'd recommend to others who were pursuing the dual path of poetry and scholarship in the academy: use its resources, all of its resources, to address the questions that are most fundamental to you. It's fun to have a secret identity, but really: Batman with his vigilantism and Bruce Wayne with his philanthropy: aren't they both working on the same thing? Or maybe Superman's a better analogy: righting wrongs as Superman, and trying to make sense of the world--the world Superman has made possible, whose wrongs he can never completely make right--as Clark Kent.

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