What I Learned in the Pacific University MFA in Writing Program

I have been asked to give the student speech in the upcoming MFA commencement ceremony. Needless to say, I am honored. I have been meditating on the experience of having completed this remarkable journey, now from a distance of about five months, and looking back over material from my time in the program. One piece that helps summarize some of what I learned from the MFA is the critical introduction to my graduate reading. And so, I am reprinting it here, on my site, for those who might be interested. I have enhanced the text with some hyperlinks. I gave this introduction, and then read poems from my thesis, on January 12th, 2009 at the Best Western Seaside Resort in Seaside, Oregon.


I came to my first residency, here in Seaside, Oregon, one year after the death of our infant son. That event brought me back to poetry by momentarily stripping away all other ambitions. Poetry alone got me out of bed some mornings, and helped me chart the difficult inner landscape of grief, often in the bleary pre-dawn hours before work. I sought out mentors to assist me in improving my poems, and, on the sage advice of my friend and mentor Joseph Millar, I enrolled in the low-residency Master of Fine Arts in Writing program at Pacific University.

Getting to that first residency was hard: it was the first time my wife and I had been apart since the birth and death of our son, my first time in the Northwest, and my first real writing conference. I knew no one other than Joe. But from my arrival by bus in the freezing dark, throughout the past two years, at every turn and in even the most minute details of my experience–I received confirmation, time and again, that I was in the right place.

After two years, it seems to me that poetry is not, in fact, a skill one learns or teaches–like driving or typing–but actually a virus one catches from sustained and intimate contact with the infected. Having been cooped up with so many brilliant invalids–both faculty and students, poets and prose writers–over the last two years, I can definitely say I came down with something. More than anything, I learned how to give over to this healing sickness–by learning to let my poems have their own say.

In a letter to his brothers, John Keats wrote:

…at once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in literature & which Shakespeare possessed so enormously–I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.

Above all, it is this ability Keats describes as “negative capability” that I cultivated, with great help, during my study here.

I cultivated this ability on two fronts: in the context of an individual poem, following the “uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts” more closely and more confidently, striking out boldly from line to line, assured that either my subconscious would catch me–or else the resulting fall and splatter would be spectacular. I also cultivated negative capability in the larger context of my writing as a whole, resisting “irritable reaching after fact & reason” and instead writing, and writing, and writing some more as an exercise in creative freedom, receptivity, and knowing myself.

For me, one of the great, unexpected aides in cultivating negative capability was poetic form. Whether the simple challenge to maintain stanzaic integrity, or the complex machinations of a sestina or villanelle, self-imposed limitations actually seemed to elicit greater wildness and surprise–to let my poems have more of their own say through me, instead of the other way around. It seems as though form distracts a certain logical part of my mind long enough to let the other, more creative parts come into play. And yet, when I came in to this program, I was unsure about the place of formal elements in contemporary writing in general, and my own writing in particular.

You see, I came in to this program as my own little house divided: between undergraduate studies filled with formal poems and critical theory, and a writing life fascinated by the wildness and apparently simplicity of most free-verse contemporary poems. In my third semester, the essay semester, I returned to an old favorite poet, Seamus Heaney, for help in understanding how to synthesize wildness and precision, scholarship and artistry, innovation and tradition–and in doing so, discovered a relationship between form and freedom. Studying Heaney’s poems and essays helped me understand how wild imagination and well-tuned music can fuse to create what he called “total adequacy,” that is, “a ring of truth within the medium itself.”

The title poem of my thesis, “The Silence Teacher“–which you will hear in a moment–is one example of how form and Negative Capability eventually came together, and taught me a lot in the process about how to let a poem have its own say. Based on the experience of visiting one of my wife’s oldest friends in England after the death of our son, early drafts were loaded, not only with personal feeling, but a disjointed amalgam of experiences and thoughts. We visited John Keats’ house in Hampstead during that trip, and I read poems by Robert Hass on rainy days. In this literarily-intoxicated state, the seemingly lighthearted story of the woman’s deaf daughter mistakenly calling her mother a “silence teacher” struck me as profound.

“Silence” became a lens through which I could view the present-tense experience of grieving amidst polite conversation, as well as the actual moment of loss, which remains present with me to this day. But, as much as this lens of silence provided its own kind of clarity and adequacy inside of me, coordinating and communicating these elements such that they might have a similar impact on a reader led me through draft after draft, and form after form.

Sandra Alcosser sent me countless examples of fine lyric poems, placing me in the middle of the choir to help me discover my own voice. Re-reading Seamus Heaney’s “Station Island,” as well as David St. John‘s “To Pasolini,” gave me a renewed understanding of the possibilities of the terza rima form. What I discovered in this process is the extent to which musicality and form heightened, elevated, and actually advanced my presentation of events and ideas: the better the music, the more these disjointed events seemed to come together and make “sense”–that is, to convey “a ring of truth.” The more this happened, the more I was encouraged to refine the imagery and word choice. Extensive feedback from my advisors and workshop groups helped validate these revisions, but it was the poem itself that ultimately spurred me on–teaching me, in its own way, how to clarify the narrative facts, remain wild and encompassing in my imagination of the experience, and, above all–stay true to the music.

Grief itself eventually became its own kind of reason, leading to its own conclusions. And so, particularly in my second year, the challenge became to remain open to a wider range of human experience. During one lecture, Marvin Bell admonished that we should write, instead of so many elegies to the dead, more love poems to the living. I took this advice to heart, and, with Marvin’s encouragement, began leaping off whatever ledge I encountered next–writing poems about love, several about our cat, and even one inspired by a sign on public bus.

In this way, I began to discover myself a writer in the way William Stafford understood, when he said, “A writer is not so much someone who has something to say as he is someone who has found a process that will bring about new things he would not have thought of if he had not started to say them.” And so, my creative process became largely a matter of starting–up early before work, up late when I should have been in bed, or on the weekends in our local coffee shop. I became–not a grief poet, or a lighthearted poet, a formal poet, or a free-verse poet–but a receptive poet, and a determined sitter before the laptop screen.

Assembling two years of work into a creative manuscript was equally a process of alchemy, gut, and nerve. In the end, I produced a collection of poems on a wide range of topics, grief being one of them. Yet, like Antonio Machado’s thorn in the heart, grief informed my writing process, no matter the subject, and, above all, kept reminding me, poignantly, of that heart.

More challenging for me than picking out poems, grouping them, or assembling them in a sequence was the weighty sense of finality that came with that little black buckram-bound book we call the thesis. For a moment, it symbolized “the end.” And then, once again, as an act of sheer defiance, I fired up the word processor, opened my running document full of rough drafts, false starts, cheesy ideas, and occasional gems, and just wrote something. Probably something bad–or worse, “just alright.” But in that moment, poetry was, once again, revitalized in my life.

More important, then, than the product of my two years here at Pacific–this thesis–has been the process of developing a practice of writing which includes actively cultivating “uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts”–both within the poems, and within the larger process of writing–finding along the way that each poem had something to teach me, and something to say.

This has been the greatest gift of this program, discovering what Stafford discovered about the adventure of writing, when he said:

For the person who follows with trust and forgiveness what occurs to him, the world remains always ready and deep, an inexhaustible environment, with the combined vividness of an actuality and flexibility of a dream. Working back and forth between experience and thought, writers have more than space and time can offer. They have the whole unexplored realm of human vision.

For this remarkable and transformative gift, I extend my deep gratitude to the faculty, staff, and students of the Pacific University MFA in Writing program. You were right, Joe. This is something truly special.