Wednesday, October 8, 2008

How I Got Here

I came to Minnesota to spend an academic year at the Collegeville Institue for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, because I had to get out of Southern California, and because I was working on a memoir, and it was the story of my religious upbringing and my move from life out of Catholicism and into a fundamentalist, pentecostal church and back to Catholicism through a group of Benedictines. I knew that Kathleen Norris had written the book Cloisterwalk, a popular book about Benedictine spirituality, while in residence at some monastery, and so I Googled the place named in the acknowledgements of her book and found out the residency was still going on. And I applied and was accepted.

I came here with an agent for my book, and thus some urgency to complete it, and even some faith that the story I was telling was being told well enough for others to want to read it and was interesting enough for others to want to read it. I mostly wanted a sabbatical, which is what the Ecumenical Institute offered, and I also really wanted to be in the Midwest. (Though if truth be told, the fellowship I applied for and wanted most was a Bunting Fellowship at Radcliffe. I mean, who wouldn't!?)

I loved it here, but I didn't go all rapturous about it the way others did. The beauty of the place is obvious. I didn't feel like "Oh, this is the home I've always been destined for." The culture of Central Minnesota is quite distinct, and not the one I was brought up in. In some ways the place is exotic to me. And I knew part of my happiness was that I didn't have to work. I lived on a gorgeous college campus in an apartment designed by Marcel Breuer with a wall of windows looking out on a lake and a fireplace. The other scholars, and the monks, and the faculty and students at Saint John's School of Theology, all treated me like I was interesting and smart, like I was a "scholar," which is what they called us. I was part of a whole series of high-level conversations about Catholicism and faith and monasticism and the life of this place. I was totally filled up to the top of my head engaged intellectually and emotionally and creatively.

I finished the memoir in November. The agent agreed it was much improved over the two previous drafts, and complete, and ready to be sent out to publishers. Then I moved on to some serious study, and also to writing my second book of poems. I read. I talked.

I worked on what it meant that I wanted the hell out of The Poetry World (though I made casual gestures toward the English department here, all soundly rebuffed). Some, it felt to me, even cruelly rebuffed. That was ok, though, because I'd kind of given up on people in English departments being interested in what I had to say. But that left me with a much larger question-- if I didn't care about publishing or the poetry world anymore, if I let go of that ambition, why write a second book? Who was I writing for?

In many ways I felt I was getting a chance to go back and take the road not taken. After graduating from Grinnell College in 1986, I'd taken two years to decide whether to go to graduate school in poetry or seminary/social work. I had no idea really how to get into a seminary, or which one to get into, and back then I found it easier to get mentoring and direction from a few poets I came in contact with. For which, let me be clear, I'm grateful. And I didn't have to take the GRE to apply for poetry graduate school. So I entered an MFA program at Sarah Lawrence College and decided to just see how far I could go as a poet.

And I went pretty darn far. I got accepted to Yaddo while still in graduate school. I won a Stegner Fellowship immediately after graduate school and so got to write for two more years at Stanford. I was able to translate that MFA and my English BA into the credentials necessary to teach (tenure track) English at the community college level-- which was a great level for me. For one thing, the creative writing students there were for the most part way more interesting and talented than the average undergraduate I encountered at 4-year colleges. My Stegner Fellowship meant editors would usually read my poems and reject them personally. My first book manuscript was a finalist for the National Poetry Series, the Brittingham Prize, and a few other places as well.

But mostly my poetry life after graduate school (and to some extent in graduate school) was about being condescended to, made constantly aware of my shortcomings and inability to do the things that real or great poets do in their writing, and kept out of the club. I hope I don't sound bitter. I thought I wanted something there and could get something there that in the end I don't think was worth getting or fighting for, and that ultimately, despite all my connections and hard work, I couldn't get. The book didn't get published, and I didn't get a university job. In the end, I couldn't get legitimacy in the Poetry World, and I had to let that go.

I also had a first marriage. I married a scholar of 20th Century American Poetry from Stanford, and was with him for years as he also struggled to break into a tenure-track position. I saw the dark side of English departments through his struggles, too. And when he left me for a woman we'd known at the graduate program in English in Reno, shortly after we'd moved to Southern California for his first tenure-track job, that was a serious break between me and poetry. (The first serious break had been that Stegner Fellowship, and the petty exclusiveness of that world and the demoralizing experience of studying with Denise Levertov. After that, i'd taken a three-year hiatus from writing poetry seriously and had written a novel instead.)

After the divorce, I reassessed a lot of things, including the fact that I'd spent probably almost $1,000 on entry fees for contests for my poetry manuscript, waiting for it to, as my former teacher Mark Doty had promised it would, "rise to the top" and find its way into publication. And I could go on like that indefinitely. Or I could publish it myself and move on to the next book. And have something to hand out and exchange with other poets and sell at readings I gave. That year I gave a reading at my junior college to which 300 people came (the power of extra credit, not my own fame believe me), and where I could have gotten my book into many hands if I'd had one. I made sure I had one the next year when I was a visiting poet at local fundraiser for the Spirituality Center of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Orange (my first real experience with a women's monastery, oddly enough!).

At the Collegeville Institute I worked in an office across the hall from a monk who started writing poetry at age 80. He was 85 when I arrived. He was a very important Catholic scholar, particularly in the fields of the Holy Spirit and ecumenism. The guy is a first rate theologian. But for some reason he's decided that immortality is in poetry. Well, no, he does believe that immortality is in faith and Christianity. But he's decided the way to "live" on earth, the only real legacy worth having, is to be a Great Poet-- and he'd like to be recognized as such. I wasn't the right person to help him out on that path. He wanted to be a famous poet, validation and immortality through the written word and the truth that could be told only by wrestling deep human truths and sacred truths into lines of poetry.

I'd pretty much decided by then that poems couldn't do such a thing. That there aren't many really great poems at all, just stuff that people like and stuff that people don't like.
Language that's startling, or fresh, or amusing.
A story worth knowing.

But not immortality. Not by winning a poetry prize. Not with the judges I know in the game. It's a profession (a rather nasty one), or an avocation, a hobby, a predilection, something fun and worth being good at. But it's not to be valued above other professions or avocations, other forms of expression or creativity. It's nothing to build a life on, really.

It's hard for me to explain how big of a thing that was for me to realize, accept, and start to live by. I'd put a lot of hope into being a poet. I'd put a lot of identity into it, too. And reinventing myself in a way that let go of those ambitions I'd cultivated based on my early successes, well, let's just say it was an engaging year. I was glad to be embraced by the other religion scholars, and the monks, and an editor at Liturgical Press who gave me some freelance work. And, I was still writing and crafting my poems. And finished the second book of poems at the end of that year, though for the next two years it just sat in its folder. I sent out a few poems from it occasionally, but I didn't have the interest or energy to send it out to contests. I've just started that route again this fall.

And when in the spring the editor at Liturgical Press offered me a job, I suspect wrote a job description with my strengths in mind, and I didn't have to go back to Southern California and my teaching job and living down the street from my ex-husband and his new wife, well, I took my chance to move into a different life.


RebekahNorris said...

I was hoping I would find you someday. Some of your poems still speak for me in many ways...especially The Alley.

Susan Sink said...

Thank you Rebekah! So nice to see you here... I have moved around a lot, but now seems I'm settling in.