Image: M.C. Escher
People like me don’t get MFA degrees. I spent my formative years eager to see a world beyond New Jersey, yet I was held back by a thin wallet, fear and memories. After a meandering journey, I have an Associate degree, a Bachelor’s degree and now I am an MFA graduate student. Soon, I will teach students—my students, nervous freshmen—who will call me ‘Professor’ because they are too intimidated to call me Craig. None of this feels real yet, but it is all happening right now.
For most of my life, I was not a writer. I learned to read at a very young age, I always earned good grades in school and had high test scores. My parents were working class and didn’t care if I was creative. My youth trophies were from Pop Warner football, Little League baseball and the spelling bee. As I grew into a pimply, scrawny teen perpetually waiting for his growth spurt, my interests in everything else faded into the background as my family life became more and more dysfunctional.
My ugly teenage years led to more ugly adult years. A brief try at college outside of New Jersey failed horribly. After two semesters, I moved back to my dad’s house. This went so well that within a few months, I moved back out of my dad’s house. Making this kind of move at 19 years old meant I had to make ends meet wherever I could. This led to a lot of jobs that I hated, I worked in retail, warehouses and sales. Eventually I was reduced to whatever work I could find. I delivered newspapers, mopped floors and unloaded trucks for UPS and FedEx, just to afford the crappy (leaky) roof over my head. I got my first roommate, my first girlfriend, started listening to good music and smoked pot for the first time. I battled depression (depression usually won). After a few long, dark years, I decided to try school again on my own terms at county college.
It took another couple years and a different county college for me to live a little and for things to start to click. I bought a pocket-sized notebook and started writing in it as a means of dealing with myself. I wanted to write in the style of song lyrics because music—hardcore, folk, punk, blues—had become something I could rely on, sometimes the only thing. Eventually I felt the urge to share my awful “poems” with a mentor. He saw my potential (in poetry and life) years before I did and suggested I take a creative writing class. I started with an online class, shielded behind message board anonymity. My professor was encouraging and I started to read real poetry, which attracted me because it didn’t seem to have any rules.
I got more inspired reading Etheridge Knight’s “Hard Rock Returns to Prison from the Hospital for the Criminal Insane” out loud for a composition class. I felt how powerful a good poem could be. In time, I signed up for my second creative writing class. This professor led me to poets like Kay Ryan and Terrance Hayes and gave me a taste of concepts like form and rhythm. This kept me engaged with reading and writing poems for a while, which kept me from finding as many ways to self-destruct. I began to feel more and more human as I finally graduated county college and prepared to transfer to New Jersey’s flagship university, Rutgers-New Brunswick. Around this time, I had two chance meetings at the same bar (three months apart) with the woman who is now my wife. The first meeting didn’t go too well but the second time, I got her number. My wife is always my first reader, often my sharpest critic and most importantly for me, a constant source of encouragement.
I took my first real poetry workshop class in my first semester at Rutgers-New Brunswick. The idea of pursuing an MFA first started to form when my workshop professor asked me to come to his office one night after class. Years before, this would have been because I wasn’t turning in homework, failed tests or just stopped showing up to class. This time, it was because the professor saw himself in my essay on Kim Addonizio’s book of poems Tell Me. “You can do what I do,” he told me. “This could be your future,” he said.
I don’t think I even knew what an MFA was before that conversation, but it became a hazy goal, even though poetry was mostly a solitary activity until the next workshop class a year later. This workshop was with a well-known poet, but I felt different from almost all the other students, like they could only appreciate my words from a distance because they hadn’t (with a few exceptions) lived enough yet. I kept writing anyway. A year and a half later, I became the first person in my immediate family to receive a Bachelor’s degree. By then, the generative process felt important enough to me that I knew I wanted to apply to MFA programs in the fall. I felt like my writing was peaking on my own and had to see what would happen if I tried to take the next step.
I sought out as much advice as I could from the two Rutgers professors I trusted and researched obsessively, finally focusing on MFA programs that hit two criteria: funding and places my wife and I might like. I blew most of my meager savings from yet another dead-end job on applications and the GRE’s. I applied to programs across the country from Virginia Tech to UC Riverside and Pittsburgh to Houston, 10 in total. I struggled to put together a portfolio of poems I liked that was more than 15 pages. My early rejections were swift and generic. I began to wonder if an MFA wasn’t right for me after all.
My first acceptance was in late January, a waitlist, but it was an affirmation and pure joy. My second acceptance was unreal, a phone call from a faculty member who wrote poems I enjoyed and gave readings that felt like real experiences.
It’s only in the last few years as I fell in love with my wife and her family that I’ve really come to appreciate the idea of home and with that, my home state of New Jersey. I got lucky to find an MFA program that accepted me and feels like home. My program just happens to be in New Jersey.
So my story continues at Rutgers-Camden. I won’t start as a full-time student because of financial and personal circumstances. But I have funding and I will have an opportunity to teach this year if I can make it work. I am part of a program that values my words and my voice.
I hardly believe it, but I am exactly where I belong.