Notes From the Forge

Various Sounds of Cursing: A True Story of Applying to the MFA

Various Sounds of Cursing:

A True Story of Applying to the MFA

 

Well, fuck.

Yeah, that seems like the right way to begin this. Application deadlines for Masters in Fine Arts programs across the country are fast approaching (well, not all of them, but I’ll get to that) and so here I am, putting that off for just a little bit longer. Before I started this whole process, I had a lot of questions, and I’m sure there are writers and poets who’ve had the same concerns as me.

Let’s start at the beginning(ish). I graduated from the University of Connecticut in ’16, with a degree in English and a focus in Creative Writing. Most of my professors had some piece of advice, some of it conflicting, about what I should be doing next, but most of it boiled down to this:

“Take a year off to just work on your craft. Get a small, part-time to support yourself while you’re doing that. Most importantly: READ; WRITE; GET BETTER.”

And, of course, I tried. I didn’t apply immediately, I waited and-hey, started a literary magazine with some friends. Perhaps you’ve heard of it? I worked as a barista in my small-town café. But that whole reading, writing, and getting better part? At the end of the year, when I was sending in my applications (finally) to my carefully picked list of universities, I realized that I hadn’t really done much writing. I had started a magazine, sure, read hundreds of submissions from my peers, but when I looked at my portfolio, which contained one short story and a novel excerpt, I realized that in that entire year I hadn’t improved as a writer.

I had been busy, which seemed fair, but I had grown stagnant and afraid of taking chances with my prose. And yet, I sent it out. The rejection letters, which took a while to come, at least grew more polite with each proceeding one. And I was, while disappointed, less and less surprised.

A year out from that, facing the task again, I have a few pieces of advice, words of wit, and other survival tips. Some of these were shared with me, some I’ve learned:

1. Research your programs!

Here:

pw.org

Just go there. Do it now. It’s an incredible resource for poets and writers looking at MFA programs, fellowships, conferences, academic employment, magazines to send your work to, and more. As I said earlier, application deadlines are closing in, and many are due DECEMBER 15. There are plenty still due in January, February, and if it’s a low-residency, there are usually two different application deadlines throughout the year (for each semester).

It’s important not to just send applications to schools you know nothing about. This resource tells you whether the school has full or partial funding, low or full residency, how many years each degree program lasts, and who the core faculty for your chosen genre are. THIS IS INCREDIBLY IMPORTANT. The goal of every MFA program is to take their candidates and improve their writing, give them the tools, motivation, and support they need to push past whatever blocks are in their way. So read the work of those whom you want to learn from. If you don’t think their writing style fits with yours, chances are they’ll feel the same way.

On the topic of reading your possible mentors’ work: don’t apply to a school ONLY because you know one writer there. If they are increasingly in the public eye, it may be that they only teach one semester. I heard one story about a writer that I respected greatly and found out that, while he loved teaching undergraduate courses, he had an almost indiscriminate dislike for teaching MFA courses. This is why research is important. Ask people in the field for recommendations, and trust them. We’re all on the same team.

2. WRITE, Damnit!

Just imploring you to write, while important, would be a waste of our time. So I’ll just continue to indulge in narcissism and tell you about my own pitfalls and habits as a writer.

  • Write every day. Make yourself feel guilty if you haven’t written anything. Put unrealistic expectations on yourself that you’ll finally finish that novel.
  • While you’re working on the above: indulge in madness and inspiration.
  • Take a break on the novel – just for a little bit – to write a story.
  • Re-write the story.
  • Re-write the story.
  • Start another story.
  • Get so caught up in writing, experimenting, trying new genres, making notes in your phone and notebook that people start to expect it as just a part of you, that crazy person with the notebook, and then finally, wearily, take a look at your unfinished novel.
  • Realize that your writing style, your voice, your inspiration and investigation of the world, has shifted.
  • The plot it still good, but maybe if…
  • Re-write the book. Realize that a novel is a completely different beast than a story.
  • Re-learn everything.

Over the past year I’ve finished five stories, two of which have been accepted for publication, and started several more. Over this whole time I’ve seen myself get further and further away from the person who started this longer project. And at the end of all that, I still might get rejected from grad school.

3. Don’t take it personally

Rejection sucks. That’s it. I don’t want to have to say “it’s part of life,” or something, because we’ve all heard it, and it doesn’t take away the sting.

As much as rejection sucks, however, there’s more to the story. Everyone I’ve talked to that’s worked on an MFA Admissions Board, or has talked with their professors about it, has this to say:

Imagine two professors sitting together in a bar. They’ve each read hundreds of short stories or thousands of poems, and they have the reams of paper with them in the bar to prove it. The stack with them today is different from the usual. It’s smaller, but still too large to accept all of. They leaf through each pamphlet, each making a case for a final decision.

“This one shows real promise” – “She has this strange, dreamlike quality” – “I’d love to see what this writer does in ten years” – “But it just fell a little flat” – “I’d love to work with this person, but I don’t know how to help them” – “I just don’t know if we’re the right fit”

The conversation goes on through all the portfolios. Eventually, they send out their acceptances and, perhaps regretfully, their rejections. There are always writers they would have loved to accept.

4. The Nitty Gritty:

Don’t pay.

  • Everyone will tell you this. Look for fully-funded programs, or at the very least, programs that offer ways to pay for your schooling.

The difference between low-res and full-res?

  • Full-residency means that you live and (usually) work there along with all of your fellow candidates. You live in a close-knit community and see each other every day. Usually, such programs will include a Teaching Assistantship as part of, or an option for, tuition waiving. Other schools offer full fellowships, editorial positions on magazines, and scholarships. Low-residencies have less to offer on a daily basis, but are still fine centers of education. You work daily online with your assigned (or chosen) instructor, and form a close, one-on-one bond with that person. Over the course of your education at a low-res, you’ll have to travel to the campus for a short period of time and participate in intense reading series, work shops, and more. Low-res programs are better for people who are, for one reason or another, tied to one location and unable to move to a full-res. It’s all about lifestyle, folks.

Take the GRE or not?

  • Not all programs require it, and those that don’t, don’t care. It IS helpful, however, if additional funding is available from the university because of your scores.

I’ve been published, will that help?

  • That’s awesome, but it doesn’t get you into a program. Your portfolio, which can include your published work, gets you in.

What should I send?

  • Your best work. For real, don’t waste time trying to warm them up to your style or sensibility. Hit them hard in the first page, the first sentence/stanza/whatever. Some schools will provide further details about what they prefer for fiction as far as stories or novel excepts, but always go with your best material.

Is the MFA right for me?

  • I have no idea. There have been plenty of successful writers who didn’t get their MFA. And there are plenty of writers who say that without their MFA experience, they wouldn’t be where they are today. The most important question is ‘why?’ Why do you want to get into an MFA? If it’s just because it feels like the inevitable next step, then maybe reconsider whether you’re ready. If it’s because you know that you can only improve so much on your own, and you’re at a point in your creative germination that requires a community of people better than you, people you trust to bounce ideas around with, then yeah-the MFA is probably the next place to go.

I have more questions!

  • I’m running out of coffee, and I actually have to work on my own applications. Email me at carleton.whaley@slagreview.com if you want more advice from a guy who still isn’t in an MFA program, but is currently banging his head into a computer and willing to talk.

 

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Slag from James Kidd’s “Salt”

James Kidd’s short story Salt, mentioned in NewPage’s review of Issue 6 by Aran Singh, is a surreal flash fiction beginning with the line: “You will soon learn that dying in the desert is not as romantic as you once thought.”

When asked about both the process of this particular story and others, James Kidd had this to say:

“The idea for this story came about from a challenge. Two friends and I decided to write something, either a poem or a short story, the only rule being that we had to include five words:

  • borscht
  • cactus
  • chicanery
  • umami
  • bamboozled

We had a week to write our respective pieces, and of course I forgot about it until twenty minutes before we were scheduled to meet. I had a few ideas drifting through my head before then, and just lost my mind for a little bit, writing out these two pages in one sitting.”

kidd slag 1

Describing his editing process for this story:

“It took a few months before I finally arrived at the finished piece, which was made all the more difficult because I was attached to the story behind the story: the words we had mandated for our little challenge (which I lost. Another friend fired a coffee mug and stamped the words into it, because she’s brilliant).

The only words that stayed were cactus and borscht, and that’s fine, I think.”

 

kidd slag 2

“I tend to compose a first draft in a notebook. The notebooks I’m using now are those paper bound Moleskines-you get three in a pack for $17.95, the price of one of their usual leather-bound ones. In a pinch, restaurant ticket books work well too.

Anyway, if I start something on my laptop, the delete button is far too tempting: Nothing seems good enough to me at first, so I don’t get anything done. On paper, however, I try not to give myself time to second-guess the work. The words just flow out, and if I do have to edit as I write, I try to only cross out things. I can always reuse lines that way.

“On paper, however, I try not to give myself time to second-guess the work.”

Of course, if I want anyone to read the manic scribblings I’ve just made, I have to transcribe it to the computer. This offers me a chance to get a second draft out of the way. I immediately cut sentences that don’t work, or words that I know I was too precious, too self-aware with.

One of my most frustrating tendencies is that in that second draft, I can sometimes become too invested with finding a new way to write something. Trusting the first draft, or at least my general instincts within that draft, is something I’ve learned that I need to do more often.”

 

Slag from a Postcard from a Man Whose Heart Is on Fire for You

Kenneth Anderson, one of our Pushcart Prize nominees for his poem “Bastille Day Sale,” admits that he goes through little editing in his poems.

However, for his poem “Postcard from a Man Whose Heart Is on Fire for You,” he submitted one of his only Pieces of Slag: an old broadside, printed by himself as “The Slipshod Press” and a friend a few years ago for an art/poetry collaborative. The collage artwork was also made by Mr. Anderson.

anderson slag 2.jpg

Below is the edited version, much of which Anderson rejected in final drafts. When I asked him about his editing process, especially for this poem, he had this to share:

“My problem is that I tend to treat poetry like life. Nothing is settled. There is always room for improvement, bold change, or subtle alteration. This I balance with a natural laziness and the desire to preserve, in the language of its arrival, that spark or animus that makes the poem breathe. Also, as I get older, the years of practice and a hard-won trust of my own instincts conspire to create a kind of confidence that I prefer to leave mostly unexamined.”

anderson slag 1

Review: Jack C. Buck’s “Deer Michigan”

Deer Michigan

A ragged yell into the void,

a poignant letter to the past, Jack C. Buck’s Deer Michigan is a surreal, sometimes startling collection of flash fiction wandering in an out of reality on a whim. His debut collection, which came out last November, 2016, is certainly a success.

Sometimes the world just ends, the birds disappear, or Mao shows up on a camping trip. From the post-apocalyptic society in “National Forest Health Monitoring Program,” to the strange everyday horror of “The History of Furniture and Wood Flooring in East Texas,” Buck uses this wildly shifting tone to his advantage. Set against the sometimes mysterious and fabulist stories like “Floorboards,” in which a man hides the relics of an old friend’s death in his house, causing it to sink further and further into the ground while he hopes no one will notice, a story titled “When the Cubs Win the World Series” seems just as impossible and magical.

More often than these bizarre, fabulist tales, however, the best of his work lies in the fractured realities of his more realistic fictions. They show characters sometimes broken, trying to heal and establish rules and order in their lives, such as “write talk-talk if you have no one to talk-talk with.”

Because I think they give a better picture of the book than anything I could write now, here are some notes I took while reading. Some of them are just quotes that stood out to me, some of them are my first impressions followed by thoughts after reading. I had notes for each of the stories, but here are the ones that I think help the most:

“For Matthew”

  • “I don’t think it was ever much about the whiskey, it was more about the walks to the store.”
  • “already missing one another”

“It’s as if we never left”

  • “Let’s walk backwards down those roads, let’s sleep in front lawns of the old houses you liked in particular–“
  • “Why didn’t you paint that wall?”

“Filling in”

  • Well, fuck.

“home”

  • A lonely love letter to everyone and everything. It perfectly captures not knowing where home is while wanting it so desperately.

“Deer Michigan”

  • Faygo! Dear Christ, I love this guy. That’s Michigan in a nutshell.
  • “Dear Van, is there a heaven?”
  • “Your protest always made sense to me”

“Grand Rapids, MI”

  • “We had to make sure the rest of the world hadn’t forgotten about us”
  • Reminds me of Torres’ We the Animals

“Mount Pleasant, MI”

  • A really interesting image and emotion-not telling you what happens, only letting you guess.

“A Reference to Weather”

  • REALLY GOOD. His voice is in here.

“How Hank Does It”

  • A longer story, and a good one. It establishes interesting characters, although I don’t know if I like the ending. I usually don’t like endings, though.

“Floorboards”

  • Another absurd story, and one of my favorites.
  • He has this almost fabulist way of framing what might be an otherwise ordinary interaction.

“The History of Furniture and Wood Flooring in East Texas”

  • Me at the Beginning: I already love the title
  • Me at the End: Well, that was interesting. I think he let the story get away from him a little bit there. His prose isn’t as tight as in the shorter ones. Need to read again.

“Self-Help”

  • It makes me wonder, does all flash fiction happen after the turn in the story? This one begins with “It occurred to him…” Or is that simply another example of an inciting incident? Doesn’t all fiction happen just after something has happened and you can no longer go back?

“Drinking Whisky with Leon Trotsky Trout”

  • I laughed out loud in public-this was absolutely phenomenal.

A small caveat with the book is that it was difficult to get through. Each story is well written and evocative, but when you read too many of them, as I wrote in a note above, they begin to have a self-erasing quality. There are moments where it feels like one story speaks for multiple, and the book overall was made weaker for the inclusion of multiple flash pieces when one would have been sufficient. Although “How to Organize a Neighborhood Block Party” and “Things to Do” have different conceits when read apart, they both deal enough with family and personal connections that you get the vague feeling you’ve read this before, or that this is another story from the same character’s point of view.

Overall, the collection was great, and I’m excited to read more of Jack C. Buck’s work.

Signed,

Your Editor In Chief

Postcard From a Man Whose Heart Is On Fire For You

Postcard From a Man Whose Heart Is On Fire For You

by Kenneth Anderson

 

Please write and let me know.

Or better, keep your secrets.

Believe me, time will tell

everything there is to tell about that day

 

under the bleachers. Then reliving it

will be all you’re about. So find someone

to mind the store, and we’ll stitch

our little sighs together deep in the Catskills

 

like so much bellybutton lint.

It serves one best that serves one least

to think on matters such as these.

Still, there is so much left over, so much

 

ensconced in the reminiscences of old fires,

games of whist, and the unexplained knock

you dreamt you heard at your bedroom door.

Go ahead and open it. See for yourself.

 

Before Breakfast

Before Breakfast

prose poem by Jerome Daly

 

It’s Wednesday, but that doesn’t matter. It’s maybe around 5:30, and I’ve already been up an hour. I walk a block down 7th for coffee from the 7-Eleven. There, some people are gathered at the bus stop, and the ill-lit streetlight casts heavy shadows over their quiet bodies. It’s the end of March. I’m jet lagged, but enjoy walking without a coat. In front of my hotel I light a cigarette, and a man with puffy eyes pushing a shopping cart tells me his store is closing—medical marijuana, kept in an old orange prescription bottle. The tents and sleeping bags under the bridge that were empty when I passed by last night are full, the smell of piss more intense. I take a sip of my coffee, think about giving him a couple of bucks, but I’m not in the mood for what he’s selling—so I politely refuse. A car pulls over and a pink haired girl in a black miniskirt gets out of the passenger side and asks if I have change for a hundred. I’m only halfway through my cigarette. Why do these songbirds stay in the city, why do they feel comfortable? A man emerges from the Mexican restaurant with a hose and starts to spray the sidewalks. The sun is starting to rise; in the shift to shadows, palm trees appear, tall and long. The doorman greets me with a smile. They’re serving continental breakfast—through a window I can see a family grabbing croissants and coffee, their youngest girl in pigtails drinking orange juice at a table. She plays with her doll, happy to be by herself.

 


Jerome Daly is an alumnus of UConn, a recent graduate of the MFA Program at the University of New Hampshire and 2017 recipient of the Dick Shea Memorial prize in poetry. His poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Gamut, Leveler Poetry, The Chaffey Review, and the Long River Review.