Episode 2


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Mirna: Hello, hello and welcome to MFAngle. This is your host, Mirna. We're a mix of poetry and fiction candidates at an MFA program, talking about the process of being in a program. Today, workshop and program environment. So, what's your favorite form of workshop, you guys?

Shaina: I took a workshop outside of the MFA program. Basically, we looked at poems and people's work from 4 different angles. We would highlight things that excite us or surprise us, and we would ask questions of the poem and of the poet, give a reading or hearing or seeing suggestions, and then we would give revision thoughts or strategies. Work-shopping basically made me feel like we were always thoroughly engaging with people's work, and people were thoroughly engaging with mine, and it felt like I got poems back that were full of substantial observations and thoughts, and they weren't weird-ass unsolicited edits, and that was helpful.

Blessing: In my current fiction work, you can actually choose what kind of feedback you want. If you like prescriptive or just telling people to point out stuff like ‘did I do this right?’ I think that helps to get feedback on areas you think really matter and unsolicited feedback is not welcome. I like that kind of environment because you can choose what works for you.

Mirna: …That's specific to you. Yeah, I actually had something similar. So, I once wrote this poem that was super-theory based, and in the workshop, we got to pick our style of workshop and I went with what we call the engine style, and that's this kind of workshop where we go line by line. It worked really well for this poem mostly because it was shorter and this workshop is good for shorter pieces but also because theory is so abstract and it helped having my peers go line by line and tell me what they actually thought. And so, a lot of them ended up drawing like visual representations. That helped me re-ground the poem that I had already started like in a really kind of nebulous place and it was really cool because a lot of the drawings ended up being really similar and it was a kind of like spectacular synchronicity… No, I’m not gonna say that word. It was just great, that’s it.

Honora: So, I actually had a really great workshop yesterday.

Mirna: Oh. Fresh.

Honora: Yeah, it was really like one of the first time in a long time where I've had a workshop and I've come out of it like so hopeful and just like seeing the poem going in like the right direction. The person I workshopped with –It was a one-on-one workshop – and they were really just good at looking at things from a technical angle and sometimes… like if I've written a poem, I already know what I wanted it to be about and what I wanted to say but I just need like someone to look at it with fresh eyes and like tell me how it's working and it's not working under like the most technical level, like moving lines around and restructuring the poem, or like you know this idea isn't working for you, you need to take this out, and you can say this in another way. So, those kinds of workshops are really helpful for me. Actually, one of the poems for the workshop, this person looked at it and said, “These are two different poems,” and I would have never ever seen that by myself. So, I was just like, wow you're right, and it just opened a different like horizon for me in poetry that I haven’t really felt in a long time.

Mirna: Right, so what do the programs actually look like? It's important to know especially if you haven't gotten into one yet. But building community is a really large aspect, it's really important for us. So, what do you guys think about building community overall. Have you found it successful in your programs? Do you have a community?

Blessing: I understand the importance of a community, but as a first-year student, I just got into this country and I’m still trying to settle in and get to experience things on a personal level.

Mirna: yeah.

Blessing: I understand, but how do you settle into a community if you don't really know what you want to do or where you want to be. So, it becomes a question of community versus entity. It can be tricky to balance community and entity because, how can you become a part of a whole when you're still trying to figure out what part you're supposed to play. Also, people will surprise you, so what if you realize that the community you thought you had, isn't exactly right for you? And then there's this argument that deliberately situating yourself in a particular group can mean excluding yourself and others. It can be tricky. But, like my writing mentor told me, you have a few friends you can vibe with but then be friendly to everyone because you never know who's going to like point you to a literary agent or somebody at the New Yorker, and your work could pick off from there. At the same time, writing is very solitary. Whether you're in a crowd or not, at the end of the day, it’s just you sitting down in front of the computer and trying to like fill the blank pages. So, you have to like take care of yourself before or you can be a mess in a group because you haven't taken care of yourself.

Mirna: Yeah, I feel we kind of have similar opinions about this because the MFA program is so specific, right? Like you come in knowing you're going to write fiction or poetry or nonfiction, unless it’s one of the newer programs doing some cool crazy work. But you know what's supposed to happen, you know what you're here for, but then you come with the kind of expectation that the program is going to be the community, and that's not always true. I’ve seen it to be true in some cases, some programs, like the one we're in right now, they do try really hard to get us to talk to each other. They have poetry playdates and, what’s it called… the visiting writers series that we go to and all the stuff.

Shaina: Open mics…

Mirna: The open mics!

Blessing: The informal potlucks

Mirna: Yes, the potlucks. Like they want us to talk to each other, and they really try to do that. My former program was not like that at all. You were just kind of just there. You had to meet people in class and sponsor your own relationships, and that takes a toll on you, especially as a first-year student. And, it takes a toll on you as an individual because you're like, who can I trust? Who can I not trust? There's already like cliques forming sometimes, so how can I be safe to come in. So, with regards to community, I think it’s like you said, Blessing, to find those people you like click with, right, and then you build your own community. That way you have people you can trust, people you feel safe with, people who will give you feedback that you're wanting and needing, but still remaining friendly.

Honora: You know I didn't realize like how isolating grad school is, especially an MFA program. It's like you're so alone in your experiences because no one is experiencing exactly the same things as you are. And I think to feel like a part of something because I thrive off of community and I need to feel like a part of something that’s larger than just me. I need to feel like I'm being heard, I'm being seen, I'm being listened to, and I'm contributing to other people too. It’s something that I've always created for myself like in the past, so coming here and just being here, I'm feeling like, Ok, I know all of these people and I know they are nice people but I don't know if I'm clicking with anyone in the way I want to. I realized in like you know you have to put into work because community is about holding people accountable, holding yourself accountable. It's a lot of like you give and you take, and having to learn that and then having to learn that some relationships or some communities that you're in this or a particular purpose. Like, I need you to just be someone to look my poetry with me. That’s it. We don't necessarily do you have to hang out and, as far as you know, finding different groups with different things and also contributing to those groups. Not everyone is going to be your best friend but you play a role in my life and that’s what I need right now. But also, you really do need people who are there for you like in a sense that you're going to feel like you're going crazy, you know you’re in an MFA program, so you need people to you can really be close to and talk to and really have your back in ways that you know not everyone can. And yes, so community is so important so I agree find some people but keep yourself open.

Shaina: I mean, I third all of what y’all have said. Community will get you through your MFA, there's no doubt about that, and I think something that is real and maybe a little sad is that you don't always find community in your MFA program. And if you are not right in the space to go to a new MFA program, I would encourage you to apply to outside workshops that really live outside of your MFA program. Go to Readings with people who are not part of your program. Find a writing community outside of the program, and that can also get you through being in a program where you don't feel like you've connected in the way you think you need to.

Mirna: You know you can also look into even other departments, right, because, I'm trying to think, the Department of religion and culture here has offered some great classes and I've been able to get those gears going and there might not be necessarily like you were saying, Honora, be people who you are not technically like super-close friends with, but you need the reverse too. You need people who you can hang out with and feel safe with, just have fucking lunch with spontaneously, and then you don't even need to look at each other's works but you do need that, you know, kind of emotional and personal support. So, look outside your departments, too.

Honora: You can be around non-writers, too. You need exposure to people who have nothing to do with this MFA. It’s like you just want to have lunch with your friend but all you all can talk about is workshop. You can you talk about other things, you can talk about non-MFA things, so, you know, those kinds of like friendships and communities. The world is still happening while you're here at your MFA.

Mirna: Look into your culture and community centers. We have some great ones here on campus. Sometimes I get tired of speaking all in English to people and I just need people to hang out with. We've got Bessie now, who's been in some of our other episodes, and I’m like that's fucking fantastic. And I'm like I just need a break from being on all the time. One of the important things about not just building community but also being in an MFA program is investing in your fellow writers. Honora, you kind of you kind of started speaking a little bit ago about reciprocation in giving feedback appropriately, and most of our stories are about getting and providing thorough feedback, so can you guys talk a little bit about that investment because it goes a long way.

Shaina: Yeah, I mean I basically like go in on other people's work. I think that when I look at people's work I think about what I want from them, from my work, and I think about what they might need to bring their piece to the next level and like bigger than ‘put a period here, put a comma here.’Larger things like, what are you trying to do? Where does this live in the world? Who is this speaking for? Who is this not speaking for?

And I think people making their work available for me is a sacred act.

It is the same way people consider prayer, and for me, I don't take that lightly and I don't play around with other people's work just because I know that that means that there is something that opened up for that writer that allowed them to set their work in front of me.

Mirna: I think this is a serious thing. it's an intimate kind of relationship.

Blessing: I think when I got to here, the best thing that ever happened to me before I started fiction workshop was that some of the writers talked to me and asked, ‘would you like to read my work?’ We’ve been able to sustain a workshop outside the workshop. We're informally saying stuff like, ‘oh you need to change this before workshop or something.’

What I'm trying to say is that the workshop environment can be very formal, and you may need to be able to get something that's a little less formal. When you read a story and ask questions like, ‘what are you trying to say here?’ you could get personal stories telling you about how that sentence came to be, and then see the work in a different context because the writer has opened up to you, telling you something they’d never say in class. So, I've been able to get that. And, the reciprocity, as you mentioned, has been very helpful for my own writing.

Mirna: and this is what you're doing on your own time?

Blessing: Yes

Mirna: You’re spending your own time and your own effort and you're putting work into it, and you both are doing it. I don't know how many you guys are.

Blessing: There are three of us.

Mirna: The three of you are doing it consistently, of your own volition, with the intention of helping. This is positivity, and you're being respectful of each other's work, which is super-important, right?

Honora: For me, it's like everyone has different strengths as writers and as people and it's when you have that community, you figure out what people’s strengths are. Like Shaina, for example, is the person that is going to give you the best feedback ever and I'm like the person who is like going to look at a poem and give you the affirmation that you need to put it out in the world. I read a lot of contemporary work, so I'm like able look at someone's work, and I'm like, this is exactly what you need to read. I give a lot of recommendations. I’m like you know I read this poem it and reminded me of you, so you need to read it. Every time I talk to someone, I try to like figure out what your strengths are. Do you read a lot? Are you a good workshopper? Or just stuff like that. And then I ask people for assistance or help based on those strengths and I like definitely affirm them in that way. Like, you know this is your strength, so I want you to own it and allow you to live in it because, as writers, it's like it's low-key very competitive, so it's super helpful when you have something going for you like definitely boost it up to the max.

Mirna: And that's really important because we do we fall into these hypercritical stances once we get into a workshop, especially with the professor, because then it gets it gets to that competitive spirit. At the end of the day, the MFA is actually pretty competitive. We only accept what, four poets and four fiction writers every year.

Shaina: And out of how many people?

Mirna: I don't know how many people that applied. And then this is your life.

Honora: And it's like, we have like a class we're taking right now, and it's not a workshop. We're just supposed to try out these different writing forms. People come in with their most polished pieces all the time.

Mirna: And I bring in the goofiest shit.

Honora: I'm like I don't know how to write a sestina but this person has a perfect sestina and I'm like, oh my gosh! I’m not a good writer. You know that kind of feeling? It’s like you have to be on your toes, but also when you actually talk to those people, you realize that we're all in the same boat and we’re all struggling through the same things and that kind of competition is kind of good because it pushes you to be a better writer but also we communicate, like, you know you don't have to push yourself too hard. This is just a class at the end of the day.

Mirna: And tenderness is important.

Blessing: Somebody at another MFA program, someone in a position of authority, said that when they saw the applications, it's like people were submitting excellence pieces, but when these applicants got into the programs, they were actually like, ‘is this the guy I read the other time?’

This helped me be more hopeful about my writing. You got in because they loved your polished pieces, and you can still get to that level if you just go easy on yourself.

Mirna: Yeah, you’re clearly a talented writer. Breathe. Breathe a little bit.

Mirna: But in terms of feedback, because it's all interwoven, what does good feedback actually look like for each of you?

Shaina: For me, good feedback lets me know that you've engaged my work in a way that is deeper than language, and that's important to me, so it looks like my reader is working to understand my work but also working to understand me and what my work reveals about me and it looks like breathing new breath into the work so I can grow in the way that I need to. It requires care. I feel like if there's a buzzword, if there's like something that I would add to my feedback philosophy, it's care. I am never looking for feedback that is like, oh, let me get you published right now! I want you to engage my work as you would engage someone that you love, someone that is important to you. I think that's how I want my work to be engaged because I think that with that kind of engagement, publishing all the stuff will come after that especially when I know that someone has been in my work intimately and I've been in someone else's work intimately in the same way.

Blessing: Writing is very hard and very lonely, so you need to show kindness. For me, the perfect feedback is, if you read something I wrote and you don't understand the context, ask me what I was trying to achieve. Don’t pan it just yet but hear me out first and then maybe we can both decide that it doesn’t work. Before you go all prescriptive, remember it’s not your story. You were just invited, and you could be disinvited.

Mirna: We should add here to that from now…

Shaina: Honestly, like you've been invited, and you can be disinvited

Mirna So, invitation and dis-invitation coined by Blessing during this recording.

Mirna: One of our workshop leaders has different kinds of workshop lists that you can pick for poetry. I think we should add ‘the Blessing workshop’ where you can be disinvited at any time. Yeah, what does good feedback look like to you, Honora?

Honora: I think my biggest like pet peeve in writing is people who look at people's work and their first instinct is to just destroy it. I've been in so many of these situations. And I'm like, I need feedback that is uplifting. I feel like in every piece of writing, there is something that's working for it and one has to look for that first. Tell me what’s working before you go on to destroy the rest. I don't believe in the whole destroying people's writing because it's an emotional process and I'm literally pouring out my soul to you. If your first instinct is to just be like scratch all of that and start over, that’s not it for me. So, it’s just basically everything you all have said, like you know, care, compassion… We’re being very vulnerable in this process, and just treat my work with some kind of respect and try to see the good in it, try to see was working before, you know, advise me on how to move forward with it.

Blessing: On that note, I think you shouldn't offer to look at everyone's work. I mean outside of the workshop. Someone once sent me a short story saying I should look at it. And I said it was a very strong story, you know, which is great and everything, but I think I just have a problem with one sentence. Could they make me understand what they were trying to say? The person went in on me! They said I should get back to them when I win the Man Booker. We are no longer friends. So, not everyone has the stomach to accept what you are going to say, even when you’re very kind, so you shouldn’t accept to do it for everyone.

Honora: If they’re a shitty person…

Mirna: You can’t fix that!

Shaina: Feedback is like sex, and you can’t have sex with everybody, so don’t do it.

Shaina: So, in addition to giving a lens into to the MFA program, we are also living and breathing in this world as readers and writers. And so, we end our episode with some contemporary work suggestions and a writing prompt to keep you reading and writing as you listen or go through this world as a writer or listener.

Mirna: On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, a novel by Ocean Vuong. I'll be honest, I haven't read it yet but this is to remind you and to remind myself that this is a beautiful, precious book and that it should be read. And also, Ocean's work is just fantastic and there is no reason not to read this book.

Shaina: And I have two. Aracelis Girmay’s kingdom Animalia, which is about black women and mothering. It is otherworldly because she does this thing with language that cradles you and puts you somewhere soft and warm and kind of makes you almost forget that the world’s tough, and we need that. And then we have Nicole Sealey’s Ordinary Beasts, which is about Black women and love, and also does the similar thing with language that like kind of transports you to another world that you can't quite name and that lives outside of this world but has all the components that exist in this world just in another world.

Honora: So, I am suggesting the New generation African Poets Chapbook Set, which is edited by Kwame Dawes and Chris Abani. So, growing up, I kid you not, I was 10 years old but I could not name an African poet, so these chapbooks definitely saved my life because it was the first time that I was able to see Africans who are poets, who are young, who are doing similar things that I was doing in poetry. And I read this chapbook set like it's my Bible. I have at least one chapbook with me everywhere. This is a really good thing which has saved my life as a poet, so please go read it. It’s really cheap and for less than 30 dollars you get 12 chapbooks.

Blessing: My contemporary work suggestion is Finding Love Again by Chioma Iwunze-Ibiam. I love this book because I grew up reading Harlequin love stories, you know, where everyone falling in love was white with blue eyes and blonde hair, so I used to think only white people fell in love. I like what they're doing with the series. They have African people actually falling in love with each other and you don't have to be rich like 50 Shades of Grey rich, just the mechanic and the seamstress down the street. I love the series! Once you start reading Finding Love Again, you’ll find the other books and they are great.

Shaina: And lastly, to get you writing, write a poem about something you consider priceless but try to put a price on it. And I want to name that this is a piece of writing prompt that is presented in the Writer's Daily day by day prompt book. You should check that out, too. It is a prompt for every day of the year just to keep you writing. Some things may not get you to a final poem, but it will get you started and get you on a trajectory to go somewhere.

Mirna: So, I just want to say thank you one more time to Honora, Shaina, and Blessing. Thank you so much for sharing your words and thoughts and feelings, and honestly, sensitivity, which is really important. I know I definitely appreciate it, and our listeners will, too. Thank you guys, I love you, you’re amazing.

Sarah: The MFAngle was produced as a part of Dr. Tyechia Thompson’s Intro to Digital Humanities class. We would like to thank Mirna Palacio Ornelas, Blessing Christopher, Bessie Flores Zaldívar, Shaina Jones, Honora Ankong – our contributors; Joe Forte, our audio engineer, The University Libraries at Virginia Tech for giving us space, and Dash Elhauge, for editing all of this and for creating out fantastic theme music. We will like to thank the listeners, for being listeners.