I applied for the Bucknell Seminar for Younger Poets on a whim. I was sitting in a coffee shop in Kalamazoo, MI, six months from finishing my undergraduate degree, and a colleague sent me a link to the application. Despite the fact that the session conflicted with my college graduation, I applied because the application was free, every admitted fellow was awarded a full-ride scholarship, and Mary Szybist and Brenda Hillman’s photos were prominently displayed on the front page of the website. They weren’t wearing haloes in their portraits, but they could have been, and I was seduced as easily as I always am seduced by the opportunity to throw myself into shark-infested waters and compete for a prize against a group of my talented peers.
I applied without telling anyone. Even as my parents made hotel and travel arrangements to attend graduation, I kept my lips sealed. At the time, it felt like a long shot beyond long shots. I was convinced that the abyss into which one tossed personal statements, manuscripts, and letters of recommendation was the kind that spat back answers with no regularity, rhyme, or reason. I figured my application might get lucky, and squelched any fragment of expectation that might come crawling from my arid soul.
This arid soul had been made arid because at the time of my application, not only was in January in Michigan, but I had just finished a two-month long spree of applying for MFA programs, which I can say with no doubt was one of the most soul-sucking experiences of my short life. I had spent the winter furiously compiling packets and spreadsheets, piling expenses onto a charge card, and holding my breath as I sent applications to 12 MFA programs in locations ranging from southern California to upstate New York. I do not use the phrase “soul-sucking” lightly; It was like planning a murder. Every detail was premeditated, every phrase triple-checked, and every gesture exacting.
Through all of it, I adapted an attitude of “no hope,” which ironically became a reasonably healthy coping mechanism. I approached the application process with the goal of applying successfully and presenting myself and my work well, not with the expectation that I would be admitted anywhere. I certainly didn’t remain in this fugue state the entire time, as those who spend time with me will attest to (I spent three and a half months jumping in the air every time I received an e-mail or phone call), but the whole ordeal was an exercise in internalizing uncertainty not as an enemy but as a friend. I tried to embrace the experience of not knowing as one that is rare in a lifetime. I wrote a lot of bad poetry about edges, floating, and liminal spaces. I gave myself a participation trophy and a pat on the back
That said, when Iowa called, I wept on my hands and knees.
It is this attitude that allowed and continues to allow me to put myself on the chopping block with some ease, nonchalance, or even grace, and it is the spirit with which I sent my application to Bucknell. When I received the e-mail that I was admitted, I didn’t weep. I panicked. I called my family and told them to cancel their hotel reservations. I wrote to the registrar and explained that I would not be walking at graduation. I was going to poetry camp!
When we arrived, we sat on the porch in a circle. It was twilight, and the wasps that would go on to radically infest our temporary home were happily singing in the rafters. The program director started with two things: 1. We shouldn’t feel as if we are competing with one another; there was already a competition, and we had all already won. (We could tell he had a lot of practice pandering to narcissistic writers, and we appreciated it.) 2. Colloquially, the 12 of us are called the Junies.
As of today, I have spent two weeks of June in Lewisburg, PA. The university is all but vacant, the thunderstorms are frequent and lulling, and our new living quarters are delightfully wasp-free. I entered the program without knowing what to expect. When I discovered that it was effectively unprogrammed, with a maximum of one optional activity a day, I was both delighted and terrified. My last six months at Kalamazoo College were a marathon and an uphill one. I had spent months pulling 15 hour academic days, working several jobs, developing a play, directing another one, and affording myself the luxuries of eating, sleeping, and writing only when I could. The prospect of 21 days of unadulterated freedom was so vast and intimidating that I spend the first 2 in the library on campus, a place that almost felt like home.
Since then, things have leveled out, and I have found myself in a groove that is comfortable and reasonably productive. There have been good days and bad days, days for reading, days for writing, days for submitting, days for nothing. The 12 of us are meshing well, and the visiting poets have taken us under their angelic wings (though they would tell me that language is perhaps a bit too expected.) Especially after a frantic last week of classes and a day of moving out that was hellish in every circle, cycle, and iteration, I am happy to have the gift of time and space to launch into new projects and revise works in progress. I am grateful for a tiny library of poetry books with a tea pot and arm chairs.
If nothing else, new friends; green spaces; a little hope for a hopeless heart.