Getting Involved During Undergrad or Before Attending Graduate School
Author: Kim Grabowski
Why do you think it’s important to get involved with poetry as an undergraduate?
For me, it was important to get involved with poetry because I had finally found an outlet through which I could truly feel alive. People have a somewhat stilted view of what poetry is, because we rarely read anything even remotely new in high school. As a result of that, a lot of people think poetry is a dead art—and why wouldn’t they, when everyone they’ve read is long dead?
In terms of the poetry world, and not just poetry in general, it’s important for undergraduate writers to get involved because it’s constantly morphing and evolving, and getting involved in internships, workshops, and other opportunities is a way to stay right in the middle of things.
What are some ways a person can become more active in the writing community before attending graduate school?
The main way I became involved was simply to forge close relationships with my poetry professors. Through them, I heard about opportunities such as study away programs, an internship with a reading series, and an internship with a local literary magazine. In terms of the writing community at your own school, it’s important to be supportive of other students’ work. Working on Kalamazoo College’s literary magazines was one of the best experiences I had as an undergrad, and it allowed me to celebrate the work of others’ as well as form new friendships. Staying positive and just genuinely loving poetry is the best way to come upon opportunities, because people gravitate toward positivity. I’m sure there are other means by which find out about ways of becoming involved, but for me, ultimately, it was all about my professors wanting to help me go out into the world—because they knew I loved it more than anything.
What are some things you’ve learned from working with writers? Do you think it’s improved your own writing?
Some of the most valuable lessons I’ve taken away from working with writers are in regards to the lifestyle and work involved with writing. I can read anyone’s poetry on the page, but it’s interesting to hear advice on the life of a writer straight from someone who is living it. Of course, everyone is different, but the differences are also helpful. I think some of the best advice I received was from Roger Reeves, who told me not to pursue an M.F.A. and a PhD with a specific job in mind (especially considering today’s job market), but to do it simply to give myself time to write. It’s amazing to know there are people out there who live and breathe poetry, just like I do. And they’ve made a life out of it! When I decided to pursue poetry as a freshman, my professor, Diane Seuss, told me that the only way to become a writer is to claim it with all you have. Interacting with working writers has given me a chance to see how others have taken that path. In that way, I think it has improved my sense of purpose and community more than anything else.
What was one of your biggest challenges when getting involved in the writing community? How did you handle that challenge?
The biggest challenge was definitely getting over my shyness. Even still, I wouldn’t say I’m completely over it—I hate feeling awkward. But, honestly, so many writers do! Our pursuit is often a very isolated one, and I think many of us, by nature, enjoy the solitude of that. That being said, I’m so glad I conquered my fears in my internships with event-based programs. Whether the majority of us are introverts or not, there’s something magical about a gathering of people who are all enamored with poetry. A teacher in high school once told me that I would need to find a more social activity to do alongside writing when I got to college, because writing can get very lonely. That may be true for the actual act, but there are many ways to get together and celebrate what’s been done—and I’m glad my social skills have evolved enough to do that!
What’s one memory you treasure from your time in the writing community?
One of my favorite poetry-related memories is also one of my favorite memories from my senior year in college. Having had to miss one of Traci Brimhall’s readings in Kalamazoo, Traci exclaimed that I should drive down to Chicago with her the following month to see her read there. Well, we made good on that promise! In a kind of whirlwind, impromptu style, I made arrangements to stay with my cousin in Chicago for a night, and we were off! The conversation on the car rides there and back was stimulating, hilarious, and heartfelt. Poets make a profession out of recognizing the world’s nuances and complications. In that way, it’s almost a relief to really be allowed to interact deeply with another writer, because sometimes other writers are the only people who understand. The reading, of course, was fantastic and interesting. I got to meet Roger Reeves, who is now one of my new favorite poets. Above all, the best part was conversing with Traci, Roger, and Lucy, the friend who Traci was staying with (also a poet, applying for PhD programs) at the bar after Traci had read. We discussed poetry, philosophy, and life in a way that I’d never been able to discuss it at all. There were some fantastic intellectual points being made, but it never felt like people were jockeying for center stage.
What are some things you think about when you write an introduction for a writer?
The most important thing to think about is what you as a reader found interesting about the writers’ work. If you haven’t found a reason to be excited about it (and chances are there’s SOME reason to be excited about it), it’s going to show in your introduction. I read as much of that person’s work as I can get my hands on. I also read reviews of their work by other writers, be them online or on the back of the writers’ book. Sometimes it’s helpful for me to think about Gregory Orr’s essay “Four Temperaments and the Forms of Poetry,” in terms of how the writer is (or is not) enacting story, structure, music, and imagination. Finally, I think it’s always great to use cool quotes from the work you’ve read—that way people can get a little teaser.
Do you have any recommendations for folks looking to get started in the writing community?
What has helped me the most, by far, is the close relationships I’ve formed with established writers, especially with my professor, Diane Seuss. Of course, I’m extremely lucky to have found such a dedicated and talented mentor. Everyone will take his or her own path, that’s just what’s worked for me. That being said, I think it’s important not to feel like you’re “networking.” There’s no use in being fake—find people you respect and genuinely want to be around, and they’ll want to help you, in return. If there aren’t many writers in your community (again, I’m lucky), it’s always possible to e-mail a writer you’ve read just to tell him or her you’re a fan of their work. Who knows, maybe it could become a lasting relationship. So, that’s the gist: form relationships with mentor-types, and be open to taking chances and putting yourself out there. Do it for no other reason than the love of poetry.