The Hermit Poet

August 16, 2006

Advice to a MFA Student Beginning His/Her Final Year

Filed under: General — Neil Aitken @ 8:05 pm

A friend of mine back at UC Riverside emailed me earlier today asking for advice how to make the best use of his final year. What were the things I learned? What did I do right? What would I have changed?

Well, considering hindsight tends to be 20/20, I offered him a rather exhaustive list of things I did (and sometimes wished I had  done differently). After sending it to him, I realized that this may help other students in the same situation. Depending on your program and how well they prepare for the post-MFA life, individual points may or may not be as valuable, but overall there should be something for everyone.

1. Submit your work out everywhere. Target places that take simultaneous submissions and make certain that a given poem is being read at any given time by at least 4-5 places. 10′s better though. Keep meticulous records so that you can send your withdrawal notes immediately. I keep all my cover letters saved in a separate folder on my computer, that way I know exactly what I sent and where. I also use a private blog (ie. only accessible by me) to record the progress of each poem – where it’s been sent and when, who’s rejected it, and if it’s currently in any contests. This makes it easy to search for things and easy to update. I can also check it from anywhere. You could do the same thing with a private LiveJournal or Blogger account.

2. Get your manuscript done as quickly as possible. Try to get feedback from your thesis committee as early as you can. My goal was to finish a draft of the manuscript by the end of summer (which I did) and start sending it out to the contests. I also turned over a copy to Professor A (one of my thesis committee advisors) and got his feedback in Fall quarter. I started with him since I knew he would give the best feedback about the overall structure and feel of the manuscript. Professor B is great for finetuning the details (I worked with him last). Professor C was great for lyrical tweaks and emotional consistency. She also writes fantastic blurbs.

Send your manuscript out to as many presses and first book competitions as is financially feasible. Weed out the ones where you’re certain your work won’t fit. Pick big presses and small presses. Choose places where you’re already somewhat familiar with their books and their tastes. Look over who they’ve published in the past to get a feel for whether or not they’re a good fit. Keep revising as you go, but make a note of which version of the manuscript went where. Also track the places you’ve sent to, so if you do get accepted, it’s easy to notify everyone else. You’ll also know when you’ve heard back from everyone.

3. Start gathering blurbs for your book and your writing (not necessarily the same thing) while you’re still at school. This way you’ll ensure that the people writing blurbs will get it done and be able to answer any of their questions. When soliciting blurbs, if they don’t have your manuscript already, give them 10 pages to look over. These blurbs can also be used to promote yourself as a poet running workshops or as someone seeking a speaking/lecturing gig at a conference. They are also nice to have available to send out with your job applications. I gathered mine after I left — in hindsight, this would have been a brilliant way to ensure my application was read at more places and that people called my recommendors. I did include a mix of my professors and other writers/poets I know from other areas (conferences, retreats, open mic venues). This gives me a large arsenal to work with when preparing press kits and applications.

4. Make certain you take care of all your English and/or Comp Lit courses in Fall and Winter. In Spring quarter you’ll be too busy with everything else you need to do — you won’t want to be worried about papers just before graduation. Trust me on this one — I did a Comp Lit in Spring and just about had a breakdown trying to finish the paper that was due during finals. This same advice applies to schools on the semester system, make certain your final semester is not spent writing papers.

5. Attend AWP and MLA conferences if you can. Talk to your department — usually there’s some money available to help grad students go to conferences. Consider preparing a paper to present. MLA is the one to go to if you’re looking for teaching work. Plan on taking a ton of cvs and other material with you. From what I hear, it’s a moshpit of desperate grads — but it’s the place where all the universities are interviewing. If possible, line up your interviews in advance. Scour the P&W and the AWP Job Link. Check out the Higher Education job list as well. Even consider joining AWP at the student rate (it’s not too bad, if I recall) — you’ll get a year long membership and have access to all the job listings online. It also looks good on the cv to list your professional membership. Your department may already have access to the job listings so talk to them to get the password, but it is something that would be a good professional move if you can spare the $40 (or whatever the current rate is).

The AWP conference is useful for networking if you’ve already got a few friends who you know will be there. If you don’t know anyone and aren’t a publisher or editor, you might feel a bit left out. It’s not the place to go to find work – that’s the MLA. But it is an excellent way to meet people (especially writers and publishers) whom you have an interest in already. One way to prepare is to start a blog (seriously) and stick with it. Writing entries related to larger poetry concerns and posting comments on other poet/publishers blogs is a good way to become better known in the larger publishing and writing community. It will also help you understand your own writing and aesthetic better. It won’t make a difference with regards to publishing, but it will ensure that you know a few people when you do go to these conferences– and more importantly, hopefully that they know you. By keeping a blog and being relatively active in commenting about larger trends (I was better at this toward the earlier part of my blogging experience), I was able to build up a network of blogging friends who I then could chat with when I got to the conferences. AWP also provides some fantastic seminars on a wide variety of publishing and writing concerns. Go to these as well and talk to your neighbors. Who knows who you might meet? And sometimes, who might be interested in your project? Sometimes anthologies are born this way.

6. Read in your poetry community. Become involved in the open mic and other public readings. Find places where your work is appreciated and where you can draw inspiration. This is often harder than it seems. But often after a reading, someone will approach you and say: I really liked your work, where can I read more? (and that’s the beginning of the process of building a market for the book). If you build a bit of a following, make certain you collect email addresses so that when your book does come out, you can contact them and let them know. In the meantime, you can use that contact list to let them know where and when you’ll be reading next (preferrably as the featured poet).

7. Try to get a few featured poet gigs. This begins by doing #6 long enough that the poetry hosts start asking if you’re available to do a 20 minute feature sometime. Again, doing these builds a market and an awareness of who you are. And sometimes, puts you on the radar of a publisher who might be there or another writer who is part of small writing group looking for other talented writers to workshop with.

8. Put together a chapbook of previously published work. Whether you go the route of submitting to chapbook contests or just self-publish it, this is an invaluable exercise. You will gain a better perspective on the building of arcs and the flow of themes through your own work. It also gives you a product that you can sell while you’re waiting for the book manuscript to get picked up. This also builds a market for the book. People reading the chapbook (and you should always provide an email address that they can contact you at) will sometimes contact you for more information or simply to offer praise. Sometimes a chapbook is a seed that lies dormant for a long time. One of my first chapbooks that I produced when I was an undergraduate ended up in someone’s private library for five or six years. They wrote me about a year ago saying they had stumbled upon it, re-read it, and loved it. The guy writes editorials for an online lit journal and gave me a great write-up and review on his blog. Then he found my website and linked to it, which introduced more people to my work. All from a little chapbook of very early work.

9. Get involved with a literary journal. Again, puts you on the radar as someone serious about the craft and interested in communicating with the larger poetry world. It also helps you see who else is out there and who you’re competing with for jobs and publishing.

10. Decide how far you’re willing to move or travel for work when you’re done. Research all the schools in the area. Write to their faculty and see if you can arrange to meet with them for an informational interview — that is, not for a job, but to gather information about their school, the program, and what a typical instructor / lecturer / adjunct is expected to do. Also email their adjuncts and see if you can find out if they’re happy there or not. Sometimes the adjuncts will be much more forthright about the situation. All this will put you on the radar as someone who is serious about teaching and interested in their program. Send a thank you note. When you apply, they’ll have a better chance of recognizing your name from all the others — and perhaps be somewhat influenced by their recollections of you.

11. Keep a file of ideas that might make interesting second or third book projects. This will be helpful when you’re done with this manuscript — you won’t go through the same stress that some people do when they’re done and can’t figure out what’s next. I try to keep at least two other manuscript ideas going. Professor A is somewhat obseesed with this — he has four or five at time, and in different genres.

12. Apply for teaching fellowships (not just adjunct teaching positions). Get started on this early, the deadlines are fast approaching. This is a good way to draw attention to yourself and gain some valuable teaching experience and connections.

13. Apply for art and writing grants. Again, this looks good on the cv and may put food on the table and gas in the tank while you’re searching for regular work. Pay attention to the guidelines of your grant. Keep receipts. Track expenses. Be prepared to submit a report if required or requested.

14. Apply for PhD programs that might be a good fit. Sadly, it really does seem that an MFA is no longer enough. A PhD buys you more time, gives you more teaching experience, and makes you even more attractive to the universities and colleges. One of my poet friends in New York told me that he’s seen PhDs with no books hired over MFAs with a book or two. But — don’t go unless they foot the bill though — it’s not worth going into debt for.

15. Attend poetry retreats and additional workshops. Partly for the exposure to other ideas and teachers, but also for networking and social purposes. It’s just nice knowing poets who live in other places — they frequently can help you find work or give you feedback that you can’t find elsewhere. They may also tip you off on themes for different journals, upcoming anthologies, and possible conference seminars. They can also write blurbs. The wider your network, the better your odds of finding work and becoming known.

16. If you’re considering the PhD route, don’t forget to take the GRE Lit (if needed) and make certain you take an upper division or graduate class in the literature of another language (not in translation). So, perhaps something like a Contemporary Spanish Poetry taken in Spanish might work. This makes it clear to the PhD programs that you are applying to that you really do have the second language requirement already nailed. They don’t like surprises or having people unable to complete because they’ve forgotten their French.

2 Responses to “Advice to a MFA Student Beginning His/Her Final Year”

  1. Tamiko Beyer Says:

    Some of these are also great points for those of us not in MFA programs but are trying to get published and known. Thanks, Neil!

  2. Michael Says:

    Yes, I agree completely with Tamiko’s reply. There’s valuable advice for us non-MFA candidate poets.

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