Strange things have been happening.
One of the strange things is that I have fewer and fewer things to say. I’m usually mouthing off about something or the other, but I have fewer opinions these days. Naturally, I’ve been wondering why. Is it just laziness? And why am I suddenly so lazy? I think I know the answer.
I often hear people say, ‘I want to take six months off work and do nothing. Not travel or study or work or anything; just sit at home and read.’ Or, if the person is a writer, she might say she wants to write. That might work when there is a specific project in mind, but for me, doing nothing means I also end up thinking very little, engaging very little with the world (that includes books and movies and all of that). Of course, this realisation has come too late. The past few months I’ve been doing nothing.
I graduated from college in April 2009. Then, for two semesters, I was teaching French on a part-time basis. (If you find it hard to understand how you can do that without a Master’s degree, think of me as a teaching assistant who is not a grad student.) I loved the first semester; the second was not quite as interesting or challenging or fun at all, no matter what I did. Part-time work is interesting, because you have so much time to yourself, and I thought I would make good use of it. I’m not sure that I did. I did some writing, not enough reading, but I did watch a lot of movies, in a good way.
This year I quit that job because I knew I was starting something new — in August. So, for four months now, I’ve been doing nothing. Again, I thought I would make use of this time better, but I haven’t. Suddenly, I’ve begun to think of a time in 2008 — I was in my second year of college — and how astonishingly productive it was.
I’d become a bit more serious about my studies — I stopped skipping class, I got better grades, and I’d given up a very brief affair with late night parties and getting drunk — but although this classifies to the outside world as an express kind of nerdiness, I felt myself becoming more interesting and more interested in what was there to enjoy. I would wake up at six and get to my French diploma class at seven, attend (fairly actively) a two-hour class, then get to college (and by that, I mean university) in five minutes, and attend another six lectures or so. I could’ve gone home then, or elsewhere, but I was taking an insane number of extra-credit classes (elements of narrative cinema, a poetry workshop, a course aimed at redesigning English literature curricula in under-graduate spaces — I remember those), and then I would head back to the Alliance Française for another two hours of French conversation. This was my approximate schedule five days a week. On Saturdays, I’d have a couple more lectures. We also produced a lab journal and a radio show in that year, along with other smaller projects.
It was intense and demanding, but the thing is: none of this interfered with my education as a writer. The poetry workshop was only a very small part of it. I was heavily into online workshopping, foruming, chatting. It was all there. And I was writing. I remember I would write during class. I would read during the lectures I didn’t like. I was arguing in my head.
The day before yesterday, I was reading Don Paterson‘s book God’s Gift to Women, and fell in love with this poem, ‘A Private Bottling.’ I don’t buy that thing where one only likes things one identifies with. I don’t identify with this poem in any literal way (I’m still getting over the idea that people drink whisky for fun) but the poem is amazing in a way that I cannot describe. Full disclosure: I am a huge fan of Don Paterson. Here are a few lines that seemed suddenly to make sense of 2008:
Now each glass holds its micro-episode
in permanent suspension, like a movie-frame
on acetate, until it plays again,
revivified by a suave connoisseurship
that deepens in the silence and the dark
to something like an infinite sensitivity.
I’m taking this out of context, and I want to take this out of context, because it’s so beautiful and exact. When I think about 2008, I think of how I experienced ‘something like an infinite sensitivity’ — how everything was so thick. I was writing insanely and produced my first ‘manuscript.’ It’s not been published, nor have I tried to get it published, but it was the first time I began to think of my work as a collection, something with a united purpose and feeling. If I was aware of what was happening back then, I’d have been so much more excited and probably have let my excitement get in the way of the work.
I’m looking now to get back to that world and to get out of this one. It’s going to be different, I know, but here’s what the plan is: I move to a different country and pursue a Master’s degree in Writing, specialising in poetry.
At this point, I know to expect a wide-range of responses, though I’m occasionally surprised by one that is just . . . incomprehensible. On the twelvth of this month, my grandmother passed away. No need to offer sympathies, I’m much better now. I was close to my Nana Evelyn, because we lived together for almost twelve years. I got to the point where I didn’t just see her as a loving, faultless grandmother figure, but as a person as annoying and as flawed as the next. So, you know, I loved her more than most people. But she had cancer and we knew she was going to die. At the funeral, which was on the fifteenth, I said a few words after the eulogy, at my mother’s request. She wanted me to speak on behalf of the current generation (13 grandchildren, 5 great-grandchildren), I suppose. It had been two-and-a-half days, so I thought I’d be OK, I’d just read what I had written, and it’d be OK. But I got up there and started crying like a fool. This is what happens when people think writers are magically better-equipped to deal with death and saying what one feels about it. I had tried several times to get out of this mini-eulogy — so many other grandchildren, for god’s sake! — but everyone kept saying, ‘You’re the writer!’ Well, OK, so I did it, and you saw what happened.
I got two kinds of responses to this little speech of mine. Well, three, the third being awkward silence/understanding. The first kind was people who told me they were moved. That’s a good thing. The second kind, and this was much less frequent, thankfully, was the I-thought-you’d-write-a-poem response, to which I said, ‘It doesn’t work that way.’ But there was one woman, an elderly lady and I’m pretty sure we’re not related, who surprised me by being critical about the fact that I was emotional. This was right after the church service, and I was still sniffling from my speech, and she chastised me, and I just sort of stared at her, thinking, ‘Is she really doing this now?’ And then, right as the coffin was being put into the hearse, she starts asking me about my future. So I told her I was going to do a Master’s. She asked me in what. So I said in Writing. She looked at me, confused, and then asked, ‘Do you mean journalism or handwriting?’
If I weren’t so distraught at that moment about the fact that my grandmother was disappearing before my eyes, and if my nose wasn’t so stuffy, and if I weren’t so worried that my stockings were ripped because they got caught in something, I might have snorted and corrected her. But at that moment, all I could do was look at her and say, ‘Yes, handwriting.’
Another response — not to my pursuing an MFA, but to the idea of it in general — that I don’t understand happened at a poetry reading. The poet had been introduced in a bio of his own wording as a person who had completed an MFA and who had been involved in a prestigious workshop. So I asked him how he responds to people who belittle the MFA, and he said, ‘Well, I agree with them.’ His explanation went along the lines of: well, I haven’t actually been to any workshops, just seminars and one-on-one conversations with writers, and three thousand people are graduating every year with MFAs in poetry and I don’t think we need that many professional poets. Needless to say, I didn’t get it. I won’t take it personally, but his position confuses me.
My conclusion, for the time being, is that the best way to respond to the finger that wags ‘Bad! Bad MFA!’ is to not respond at all. In other words, I’m making this announcement with some amount of fear that I will get comments and/or emails telling me how I’m living my life the wrong way and making all the worst decisions and no one can teach me how to be a poet. I refuse to respond to nonsense of this kind, period. I just want to say that I’m going to be doing something new and will be going through some changes, especially in terms of dismantling the physical aspects of my world and remantling (?) it in a new city where I know no one. If you have helpful things to say, an email would be great. The general idea is that I’ve thought about this a lot, I’ve heard and read all the arguments, I don’t have unrealistic expectations, but I do have some realistic ones, and I hope to see them through.
I also want to know if there is interest in a ‘How to apply to an MFA program’ post, with a specific focus on Indian students applying to American universities. Applying to any school in the States is complicated and annoying and there are tons of resources to help you, which is also complicated and annoying. Much less complicated and annoying are the resources on MFA applications (the MFA blog, for example), targetting anyone trying to get in, pretty much. As an international student, there are some extra things you need to do. I figured them out on my own, and so can you, but if it’s useful to do a post like this, I’m willing to do it. I’m also willing to write updates on my experience with the workshops and other classes.
In other news, I am actually, finally graduating, with some sort of silver medal in the works.
[Click here to go to the artist's gallery.]
Let me explain: I graduated in April 2009, which means I passed everything I was supposed to pass, and actually managed to get some grades I’m proud of. We had a ceremony and everything, but Bangalore University, to which my college is affiliated, takes a whole year to produce the actual certificates. I’m leaving on the eleventh of August and I thought I’d be missing the second ceremony at which we get our degree certificates, but turns out it’s going to be on the seventh, and aha!, I’m going to be there. It also turns out that I came second among the arts/humanities students. I wonder what I’ll get. I hope it’s an actual medal. I’ve never gotten a medal before, except an ugly brown thing I got for a religious exam I was forced to take in high school, in which I boldly suggested that the Holy Spirit was a woman. See, I was a feminist way before I knew it.