Thursday, January 17, 2013

Love Letter to my MFA Program

This blog post is a little late in coming. For the past two years, I've posted about my Converse College MFA residency within a few days of returning home. It has been nearly a full week since I got back this time, and all I can say is, well, I suppose I really don't want it to be over.

I have had the privilege of working one-on-one with amazing poets. Denise Duhamel helped me begin the program, and she was my mentor for my creative thesis at the end. Her enthusiasm and clear love of poetry are infectious. Sarah Kennedy, Suzanne Cleary, R.T. Smith; I cannot say enough about how each of them has influenced my writing in distinctly different ways.

As for the rest of the faculty, what a wonderful group of writers and teachers. Craft lectures in fiction by Leslie Pietrzyk and Marlin "Bart" Barton can always be counted on for humor and really good advice that can be used by any writer in any genre. Susan Tekulve's lectures on travel writing and nonfiction are informative and interesting. Rick Mulkey pulls everything together as director, and he gives a great talk on poetry, too.

Did I mention that the faculty readings made me buy lots of their books? I've read them all, and I recommend that you do the same.

As for the visiting writers, agents, and editors, wow. What a collection of people to meet and spend time with. I was only there for three days this past, graduating residency, but I got to meet and get to know Bruce Covey and Ed Falco, both fantastic writers and genuine people who spent a lot of time with us discussing the publishing world and the big question "where do we go from here?"

The students I've grown close with...let's just say that this is the first time in my education history, and I've earned a few degrees, that I feel real sorrow and longing for the camaraderie that comes with a wonderful group of friends. We will keep in touch, and we will see each other now and again, but that does not compare to the knowledge that come June or January, they would be there, writing, laughing, singing, listening.

So this is my love letter to the Converse College MFA program in creative writing. I didn't use specific details because that would take forever, and this is a blog post. I'm sure that it is incomplete, and I apologize in advance for the fog of memories that has come over my brain as I type. If you are involved in the program, I thank you. If you are considering a program, check this one out. The best advertisement I can give is the same compliment I gave in my last reading: I came into this program wanting a terminal degree so I could get a tenure-track job. I am leaving it a poet.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

What's a medieval torture device got to do with it?

A while back, a Facebook friend posted a picture of a strange looking metal horseshoe shaped device that she had photographed while visiting the Tower of London as her profile picture. Its purpose is not obvious at first glance, and so naturally one of her Facebook friends asked what it was. My friend posted a link to a Wikipedia article on the Scavenger's Daughter. What is it? Why, a medieval torture device, of course.

The device crushes the victim, rather like being crushed in a giant set of dentures (I got that from How Stuff Works - nice visual). Invented by a lovely husband and wife team, the Scavenger's Daughter comes in a few different models. And while reportedly the device wasn't used often, or at least as often as some of the other devices, apparently there are plenty of artists out there today who think that it's a nice accessory for animated women (as in animation, not as in they're really dynamic).

Why am I writing about this? Well, for one thing, I find it interesting that torture devices are displayed. I remembered going to Medieval Times in Florida many, many years ago with my then fiancé. There was a "museum" of torture devices for the audience's perusal after the show. The Pear of Anguish became a part of my list of things not to think about, and so it immediately became part of somewhat regular random thoughts. Don't look that up if you're squeamish. I suppose it is useful to understand just how cruel and sadistic humans can be to each other.

But so then (did that for effect, did it work?) I started to follow the train of Google thought, as I often do, to see where the torture device might take me. And what do you know? It took me to the fact that elephants were once used as executioners. That's right. Some criminals were the recipients of elephant feet to the limbs if their accusers wanted them tortured, and some simply got a foot to the head on the trainer's command. Because my brain leans toward the sick and twisted, just sometimes, not all the time, I thought of Gallagher. Blech.

And then...there was Mary. Mary was an elephant who killed her trainer who had been on the job for one day. Mary was publicly hanged for her "crime." You read that correctly. They hanged an elephant. With a crane. In Erwin, Tennessee. In 1916. 2,500 people attended.

Last semester, I observed a colleague of mine teaching her class. While discussing the requirements of a new project assignment, the students got on the subject of true crime stories, which led to a discussion of reality TV, which led to Honey BooBoo and Jersey Shore. I will never forget the instructor's comment: "We are, at heart, a train wreck species. We can't look away." She pointed out that watching other people's failures often makes us feel better about ourselves. We think, at least I'm not nearly as messed up as the Kardashians. Yay me.

Point? I wrote a poem about Mary the elephant this morning. I'm thinking about starting a series called Trainwreck. Why? Because I went to the torture museum. I read about the Scavenger's Daughter. I'm fascinated by our propensity for evil. And I'm interested in that which redeems us. The challenge will be not coming across as sitting in judgment, holier than thou. I must count myself a part of the "train wreck species" if I am to write effectively. I'll let you know how it goes.

By the way, if you have any stories along these lines, send them my way.