Wednesday, October 27, 2010

My Own Waste Land

In a lot of ways, I consider myself lucky for attending an MFA program that required that I take so many literature courses. I know many MFA programs do not. At Florida State, the MFA program is three years and you are required to take almost as many lit hours as the lit students (their program is just two years). This falls in line with my firm belief that to be a good writer you need to be a good reader. They go hand in hand.

When I entered graduate school, I had a firm understanding of the history of Western literature. My undergrad was in literature at a very traditional liberal arts school where I learned a great deal. During my MFA, I was pleased to be allowed to take more specific courses that dived deeply into periods and writers I loved. My favorite of these was a course on the New York School poets, which completely changed my writing.

As a writer, I feel as if I am engaging in a conversation that has been going on for centuries, and I'm just one more addition or one more voice. If I don't know what has come before me, I would feel a little lost. That's not to say you can't have an original voice, but it should be an informed original voice. If you are going against something, it is important to know what that something is and to be able to talk about it. Have I loved everything I have been required to read? Of course not. But I do have an understanding of why I don't like it, and many times why it is important to the ongoing discussion. I don't regret reading any of these pieces no matter how hard they might have been to get through at the time. Students often confuse "liking" with "valuable." Many things I do not like have been very useful to me and to my growth as a person.

Being a gay poet, I am particularly interested in the history and story of other gay poets, which I've written a bit about on this blog already. But it isn't just gay writers that inform my work and inspire me. There is a danger in only reading people "like you."

Yesterday, I finished what I'm considering the first "complete" draft of a new poem. The poem is titled "He Do the Gay Man in Different Voices." When I began writing this poem, I had no idea where it was going. My original idea came from a series of photos by gay artists that got me thinking about the idea of narcissism within the gay community. The photos were addressing that issue in relation to AIDS. I wanted a poem that would explore the idea of narcissism from different gay perspectives (multiple voices).

I began writing and writing, and I had all these little chunks that I didn't know exactly how to connect. As I was reading through the chunks one day, feeling defeated, a sudden thought surfaced: the original title for "The Waste Land" by T.S. Eliot was "He Do the Police in Different Voices," and I thought why not take that title, change it, and think of Eliot's poem as a strange guide for my own poem. This suddenly made things click and I started reshaping the poem and expanding beyond just narcissism. The result is one I am pleased with, so far. The poem is not trying to be "The Waste Land," but has various references to it besides the title. I don't necessary want people to take out my poem and compare it to, what is considered by many, the most important poem of the 20th century. That might be a bit too much pressure, but my poem is building on Eliot's and talking with it.

My point is that I would never have written this poem had I not spent various classes studying T.S. Eliot. I enjoy much of Eliot's work and I'm a huge modernist fan, but I hadn't read "The Waste Land" in three years, yet still the thought was there and completely saved my poem. You never know what might be useful later, which is why well-rounded education is vital to being a great writer whether you do that inside or outside a classroom.

I am going to continue to work on this poem, build on it, and hopefully get it published. I am also going to continue reading everything I can and push my own knowledge of literature, and I encourage you to do the same.

-Stephen (Read/Write)


  1. Lovely post and great explication of your journey with this new draft. I went to Arkansas for my MFA, which is 4 years with half of the classes in lit and half in workshop. I'm thankful every day for this and agree completely with you about the ongoing conversation.

  2. Sandy,

    Thanks for the nice comment. The program you attended sounds great. The MFA programs with a good balance are well worth it.

  3. I love those moments of connection between current work (especially your own) and the past-- I finally got around to reading Dickens's Our Mutual Friend last year, and realized Eliot took that line verbatim from Dickens (in this really fascinating moment of dialogue about this bizarre young man, Sloppy, who doesn't do much but ventriloquize the police reports in newspapers)... recognizing that little line made me think of OMF in such a different light, especially trying to see what appealed to Eliot's modernist tendencies...
    This is all a rambling way to say I think it is just so exciting to hear how artists keep circling back and reinventing the exact same line of literature for nearly 150 years, each time making it so radically new and meaningful. Someone is going to read yours and continue the cycle, I'm sure!

  4. Meghan,

    I didn't know where he got that line, so this is fascinating and useful to me. I do like that cycle of seeing how things get used and reinvented. It's one of the most exciting parts of literature.