When I applied to nearly a dozen fully funded or mostly funded MFA programs last winter and spring, the only expectation I had was that something unexpected would happen. I tried to not fantasize about New England winters, California freeways or whatever the hell it is people do in Virginia college towns. I hoped one of those scenarios would be my life, but I didn’t want to lock myself into needing an MFA from one particular program or one particular place. I knew my odds, but more than anything it felt like the right time to chase this MFA dream. Wherever I ended up, I would get that chance.
As it turned out, something unexpected did happen. I received an acceptance from Rutgers-Camden, one of the two programs I applied to in my home state of New Jersey. So I traded my fantasies for familiarity. It wasn’t exactly the school in my backyard: Camden is just outside Philadelphia, a part of New Jersey that is new to me. The Rutgers-Camden MFA program offered so many elements that excite me: the opportunity to teach, involvement in the community and what I felt was the perfect blend (the ras el hanout, if you will) of workshop, craft and literature classes. Most of all, the faculty members at Rutgers-Camden, and the poets in particular, approach their craft in a way that speaks to me as a writer and as a person.
Then in mid-July, my sister-in-law Barbi was diagnosed with stage IV cancer. This was a recurrence of a previously diagnosed cancer, so it wasn’t totally out of the blue, but it was the absolute worst case scenario. Within the span of a few weeks from her official diagnosis to one ER visit and then another, it became clear there was no way I was going to attend Rutgers-Camden full-time this semester. Further complicating things, relocation was not going to happen, either. I didn’t have the mental or physical energy for it and my wife was often out of state with her sister and the rest of her family. Some things take precedence.
So to set foot on the Rutgers-Camden campus, my commute is a 60 mile drive, between 60 and 90 minutes one way. Not only is the physical distance from my program unnerving, but I have lived most of my adult life one or two grocery store shopping sprees away from being broke (or maxing out another credit card). With such a long commute, one bad pothole and merely getting to class would be just like the trek to my very first class at community college. To get to that class, I walked to a bus stop, took that bus to another bus and finally to campus in a state not known for fast and efficient public transportation. I got an A in the class and I’ve survived much worse in life, but that was a long semester.
Fortunately, Rutgers-Camden’s MFA program encourages non-traditional students, even non-traditional students with non-traditional commutes. It’s another small way that my program feels like home. Unfortunately, my program hasn’t felt like home quite yet, though it has absolutely nothing to do with my class, my classmates, the professors, the commute or the fact that I am only enrolled in one class this semester.
Barbi died on September 10th. It was as unexpected and sudden as it can be for someone in their thirties with late stage cancer. She was in the ER on a Wednesday and gone by the weekend. This was at the end of the first week of my semester. So my first creative writing assignment in my MFA program was a eulogy.
The night before the funeral, my wife told me stories and then talked into the voice recorder on her phone for a while. I stayed up for hours that night writing and reading it aloud, revising and grieving. My wife cried when she read the draft I left on her nightstand the next morning, the day of the funeral. “This is beautiful!” she said through tears, and I silently thanked every inspiring professor and creative writing student I ever shared a classroom with. Writing the eulogy was nothing compared to delivering it. The only way to get through it was to commit to the idea that this was a script, a script of someone else’s life.
The weeks since have mostly blurred together, creativity often edged out by fleeting attempts at normalcy or numbness. I agonized over telling this part of my story, but everything else I had to say about my MFA experience so far seemed inadequate, if not inappropriate. I’m here to tell my story about my MFA years, and this is it so far.
Writing has not functioned as catharsis for me for a number of years, probably since I first learned about poetic form and poetic techniques. Thinking about craft woke up the dormant perfectionist in me. Yet typing this out healed me, if only in a small way, and that will likely be the case for a while. Loss can make it hard to remember what life was like before. But as a writer and particularly as a poet, I have tools like form, content and visual effects at my disposal. This gives me means of expression that a non-writer doesn’t have. I can’t get away with saying, “I can’t really put how I feel into words.” I can put how I feel into words. I haven’t wanted to. But I have to.
The possibility of writing as healing never crossed my mind as I started on the application journey last spring that led me to Rutgers-Camden. I had already made it through my twenties and grappled with my mother’s death, major depression, love and other substances. I emerged with an amazing partner in my wife and a faithful companion in our dog. I completed a Bachelor’s degree in English and developed a steadfast belief in the power of stories, particularly the punch to the gut that a brilliant poem provides. Maybe most of all, I believe in my poems.
And after all that, I was naive! My motivation to obtain an MFA was to make my words scream off the page the way I sometimes scream when I read certain poems aloud. But here I am writing away the hurt, just as I did in my very first pocket-sized spiral notebooks.
I’m hopeful that in time, I will emerge from this darkness having written something worth reading.