Oh hey, sweetie heads. Now that I’ve turned in final grades, slept 14 hours straight, tuned and played my guitar for the first time in 9 months, and watched an entire season of Planet Earth while crying on my living room floor, I’m finally gonna take some time to reflect on this last two years. It occurred to me as I was driving home from the grocery store with Just The Essentials (red wine, a 12 pack of soda waters, and rainbow Goldfish), that this whole grad school experience mirrors adolescence in a lot of ways.
Two years ago I started this program as a child in my own eyes, with an un- or under-developed sense of myself as an artist. Luckily, my world-wise, scholarly professor-parents stepped in to teach me how to Be (before I could eat a brain-damaging amount of paste).
Of course, every professor-parent has a different style. You’ve got the laidback, go-with-the-flow lecturer who calls you a “colleague” and talks to you like you understand all of the obscure references he’s making. He’s like the older cousin who would let you sip their beer at a party as a 7-year-old, or teach you how to roll a joint at 13. Then there’s the quirky, queer young aunt. She’s here to introduce you to feminist porn, and teach you to reclaim vagina terminology.
And that’s just your first semester. In time, you’ll meet the helicopter mom, the absentee but somehow still stern father, the kooky grandmother, the scholarly uncle… They’re all there. And you’re paying them to shape your mind, and shape your art, and shape your daily experiences in this program for three years of your one and only precious life. And you let them, for awhile. Like a child, they’re here to teach you “the rules,” and maybe you toe the line and maybe you don’t, but either way you trust what they say. Maybe this is because you trust authority, or you trust their experience, or you so deeply distrust yourself that it’s a relief to finally trust somebody else with Your Self.
Enter adolescence. You’ve been doing this art thing With Intention for awhile now, and you’re starting to get a sense of who you are. What you’re about. Maybe you have a few publications under your belt, or you’ve won an award. You’ve navigated classroom politics to one degree or another, finding your people, learning when and where to keep your guard up or let it down. You start to question your professor-parents’ judgement. Why can’t I stay out past 10pm? Really, what’s so bad about listening to heavy metal at an ear-splitting decibel? Oh, you’re saying I can’t use the passive voice and all these adjectives to tell my story?
I don’t remember the first time I realized my parents were just humans and not gods or machines with all the answers. I can say I started to question my professors at the exact moment that a piece of writing that moved me to tears was called “shallow” and “predictable.” I can say that I started to rebel the instant a memorial piece for murdered queer women was called “sexy and playful.”
Here’s where you start to notice that everybody comes from different backgrounds, including the people who are supposed to have all the answers. Here’s where you notice that the time, energy, attention, and resources are being subjectively distributed. Maybe you’ve benefited from this, maybe you haven’t. Either way, you feel profoundly and suddenly complicit in a system you didn’t seem to notice until it was too late, despite all of the warnings.
Yesterday, sitting at Living Room Cafe with a friend, and we were discussing the pros and cons of a full residency program compared to low residency. [Note: full res is what I’m doing, where I go to campus some days a week to meet with profs face-to-face every semester. Low res is mostly online, with intensive face-to-face meetings 2-3 times per year]
One of the cool things, she said, in this low -res program is that you get paired with a single mentor professor, and get to work with them one-on-one with your writing. To which I responded (less than tactfully I think) with an Oh, fuck no. She seemed confused, asked You wouldn’t want to study one-on-one with somebody? Not even with Really Talented Professor You Admire? And the honest answer is no. No, I wouldn’t want to spend three years working one-on-one with anybody, let alone Really Talented Professor I Admire. Because this time is about learning to trust myself more than I’ve ever trusted anybody else. If that human's opinion was the only opinion I ever heard about my work, I’d feel even more compelled to respect it. Consciously or unconsciously, I’d start to compromise my sense of self to fit that subjective mold of “good poetry.”
What I’m trying to say is maybe the world needs “bad poetry” the way it needs overplayed pop music or teenage love stories or hell, even finger painting. Because the things your parents/professors/etc find shallow and predictable are the exact same things that made you fall in love with art in the first place. The exact same things that might make the next generation of artists fall in love. Because it’s less about impressing the people who came before, and all about inspiring the people who come after.
I’m sure there’s more I want to say here, but the wine is almost gone, and I’ve been sitting upright for an untenable 3 hours. I think the best way to end this is with an angsty list of the unfortunate things my writing has been called in the last two years:
Too circular and predictable
A little shallow
Not sexy/playful enough
To which I say:
Cheers, dreamers. And remember, no matter what your passion is, you’re better than the haters. Not to mention, you know way more about your art than any-goddamn-body else on this planet.