Monday, January 20, 2014

155) revising my view of revision (and more on MFA's)

the literary life 12/5/09

Epiphany. I woke up this morning in a bit of a funk, and I soon realized this funk had something to do with poetry. With the psychological pressures I have been putting on my own writing these past few weeks without consciously realizing it. I mean, I got the pen fellowship, and spent several wonderful months immersed in writers and writers. I gave a few public readings that boosted my confidence as a writer, and then it all ended. Full stop. Done. Mini-crash.

The question then arose: what next? I spent several months having these amazing insights. How do I keep pushing my work? The only option that seemed natural was an MFA, and then the Poets and Writers rankings came out, and it seemed like everyone was talking MFA's. But for the time being, this is not a feasible option for me. And then I'm not quite sure how much more school I can do formally...I earned a bachelors then spent 6 years completing two M.A's, then another two years earning a teaching credential. That's over 12 years in post high-school education. It's a lot. And when I left the academy, I was jaded with it. It took me a long time to realize that while I love the university environment, there's a certain place where thinking becomes over-thinking for me.

And maybe the same is true with poetry. I mean, I want to revise and push my work. I want to write my best. But I also don't want to go all OCD on revision (this can happen, I'm sure no matter where we are--inside or outside the academy). And maybe, because I've been reading more poets and listening to more poetry podcasts online and attending more readings and taking more classes I'm starting to cross some line...some line to over-thinking the work. Many contemporary writers would argue that confusion and over-thinking are a good sign--means we're demanding more of ourselves as a writer. I get that, and could certainly keep pushing my head in that direction, but I don't know if I want to.

I guess what I'm getting at is that I want to live on the hyphen between ordinary life and the academy. I want to own the hyphen. I've been pressuring myself lately to think there are two camps and belonging to one means exclusion from the other. And those glossy brochures and websites of MFA programs are so temptingly tempting. Natalie Goldberg has said that the power is in the act of writing. That's where the power is for me. It's those first flush, primary drafts, when the words are just pouring out. A different part of my mind enjoys typing up the poems and reworking them. I mainly take workshops for the writer vibe, for editing, for having people point out tendencies (both good and bad) in my work. I want to revise, but I have also started to trust in this voice I've spent several years developing. I don't want to over-revise, and I think sometimes we tend to over-emphasize critique in poetry circles. Somewhere along that way I've challenged my faith in poems from the body, the heart. Honest, working-class poems. Straight feeling. I believe in the intellect, in revision; I just don't want it to supersede emotion.

A writer's writing evolves naturally and everyone has different aesthetic styles. I've been signing up for workshops with the goal to listen, listen, listen to exactly what others tell me I should do to push my work to the seventh heaven. And now I'm thinking, while the feedback I get is typically kind and well-meaning, maybe I have to trust my own vision more. I mean, that vision got me the pen fellowship. And I'm not done developing as a writer. But I'm okay being on that hyphen with my work: polished with room to grow. I'm willing even to send such work out. Some of this polished with room to grow work has made it into print. Some of it will not, and I can accept that.

I want to pursue THIS mfa: my forming aesthetic. Not out of selfishness or disregard for all the good advice out there. (Not that MFA students aeren't doing this very thing in a more guided and academic way.) But because I've somehow come to occupy the hyphen, which I'm realizing, for the likes of me, isn't such a bad place to be. One can venture in and out of academic circles. One can be whimsical and free in their writing: belonging yet not belonging. I've come full circle. I embrace the poet I was pre-pen. That's who I've been all along. Slow progression. Mini-steps. I'll keep reading, taking workshops. But I'll take a breath when I'm over-thinking my poems. Go back to the first flush. Go back to the poet who writes out of an ordinary need for the page. I'll listen to my work: let it tell me what to do.


  1. Hi Mehnaza,

    My name is Dusty and I am a graduate student at UCSB in the Religious Studies department. Professor Dwight Reynolds suggested that I contact you.

    I am writing to invite you to join a panel presentation at UCSB in April. Part of my job as the faculty-graduate student liaison for the Religious Studies department is to help plan professionalization workshops each quarter. For next quarter, our workshop will be a panel led by graduates of our program who are working in non-academic careers (meaning not teaching college primarily). It will coincide with Alumni Weekend and a celebration for the 50th anniversary of our department. (There is also a day-long symposium on April 26.)

    The date is Friday, April 25 from 2:00-3:30pm in HSSB 4080 (on campus).

    Would you be willing and are you able to join us for the panel? We would love to have you.

    Please let me know if you have any questions, or if there is anything more I can do.

    Thank you,

  2. Hi Dusty,

    Thanks so much for the invite! I would be delighted to participate in this panel presentation on April 25th. I have been meaning to visit UCSB this year, so this would give me an opportunity to do just that, while participating in this workshop.

    As for questions, I'm wondering about the format of the panel: is it Q & A or would you like me to be prepared to speak about something in particular for a particular number of minutes? You are welcome to email me at

    Please say hello to Dwight for me. I miss his him and his Arabic classes!