Today is my last day at the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts, and I'm really looking forward to seeing Shawn and visiting my family on the East Coast. But I'm feeling a little emotional about being separated from my work, as I've grown more connected to my writing process in these past 3 weeks than I ever thought possible. The manuscript is the first thing in my mind when I wake up in the morning; I'll miss that. I feel like I've closely bonded with these poems and that leaving the center means saying goodbye in some form. Of course I will still write when I go back home, but it won't be the same. Creativity will be balanced again with my other responsibilities and activities and will no longer be the main focus of my days.
On Tuesday I wrote a letter to the executive director and assistant director at the KHN Center, and I think it might articulate my experience here and my reflections upon it better than I can right now. I'm going to paste the letter here, along with some photos that my suite-mate Florie took in my studio.
As a poet I’m cautious about indulging in too much sentimentality, and also as a poet I’m invariably sentimental. I want to share with you some of my thoughts and try to express how much it has meant to me to be here. My apologies if I seem to ramble on longer than is necessary.
Before I knew whether my application was going to be accepted at the KHN Center, I tried to lay out a rough plan for my summer. Maybe I can create my own residency at home, I thought. I could clear myself of social and work obligations for a few weeks, maybe even lie and say I would be out of town. So I dragged out my calendar and looked for open slots. I was dismayed to see that the best I could do was one week in the beginning of the summer and a second week towards the end.
Then I got an email from Jenni offering me a 3-week residency in one glorious, solid chunk of time. In order to make the residency work into my schedule, I cancelled one of my teaching gigs and shortened a long-awaited trip to visit family. My husband changed the dates of one of his work trips and arranged for a dog sitter. Later, after I had confirmed that I would be coming, I was offered another more lucrative teaching gig for the same time period, and declined it. I made sure to finish up my grading before the residency began and also decided on and ordered the books I would be teaching during the fall semester, so I arrived in Nebraska City with nothing to do but write. Something that had seemed impossible beforehand became a reality in the blink of an eye.
Next, I turned to putting together a manuscript. I graduated from a competitive MFA program, where we have a handful of amazing writers that publish their first book while they are still in school. But on average, graduates of my program publish their first book within 2-4 years after completing their MFA (yes, they keep data on this). I came to the center two years after my graduation, and while I had with me a great deal of poems, I didn’t feel that I was any closer to having a cohesive manuscript of publishable quality than I had been when I handed in my thesis.
You may know this, but for a writer the first book is everything. It lifts you out of the adjunct (freelance) teaching ghetto, and into the realm of healthcare, job security, tenure-track positions. For fiction and nonfiction writers, completing the first book means a shot at an agent and possibly an advance on their next book. For all of us, it legitimizes our work in a powerful way. Many would use publication of the first book to separate “emerging” from “established” writers. I was beginning to feel like I was falling behind, as many of my peers had manuscripts they were ready to send to editors and publishers. One of these peers had done a residency at the KHN Center and encouraged me to apply.
Eventually a basic shape and order began to emerge in my mind. At that point, I keyed in all my revision ideas and reprinted the changed poems. Then I hung everything up on my studio walls, with the aid of tape and push pins that Jenni had supplied me with. Being able to look at my manuscript in this visual way and see all the poems at once changed my whole perspective to the work. This arrangement would never have been possible at home, where my wall space is extremely limited. Next came more reading aloud, more notes for revision, more shuffling. Finally things have started to settle into place, and I still have two days left to make final adjustments. I also plan to spend some time researching journals and presses to send my work. If all that weren’t enough, I recently got an idea for a new poetic sequence. It’s just a seed right now, but it gives me something to carry into the future.
Thank you for your commitment to writers, and especially for being willing to support them at the beginning of their careers when the need is most urgent. Perhaps you can share this letter and my gratitude with others who have helped to make the KHN Center possible.