By Kenneth J. Pruitt
It’s been almost ten years since I was rejected from every single MFA writing program in poetry that I applied to. Having been waitlisted at two of them, but not even high enough on the list to feel like I had a shot, I was obviously disappointed and frustrated. Of all the range of emotions I experienced, however, I can’t say that I was surprised.
The world of academic programs for arts degrees can be far removed from the real world. The competition is fierce, just as in many corners of academia, but with the added element of the work itself being incredibly subjective. Yes, as part of your search for a program, you seek out teachers whom you admire, whose work you hope to learn from, just as in other higher education endeavors. But there’s an added note to the admissions process for MFA writing programs that is difficult to describe if you haven’t experienced it: sending a small portfolio of what you consider to be your best work ever to a group of poets whom you respect and nerd out about. Effectively, you’re trying out for the nerd team by performing in front of the whole team of nerds.
It took a long while to pick my ego up off the floor, but I eventually started writing poems again. I still sometimes wonder what life would be like perhaps teaching at a college in Minneapolis or rural Alabama, but I no longer wonder about the quality of my art. Maybe that comes from simply being older, from knowing myself more, and from knowing more clearly what I want my poetry to do and for whom I write it. (Hint: To be read for pleasure by you.)
Over these past few weeks, I stumbled upon a couple of Facebook posts by a poetry professor from my undergrad days brainstorming about a new network of events called Writers Resist. These events, she envisioned, would be an artistic response by writers to the dangers we have been inheriting during our presidential campaign and are now witnessing as our new president-elect builds his cabinet of white nationalists, circumvents protocol for international diplomacy, and uses Twitter to continue to bully people. So, poetry plus justice plus organizing a collaborative thing with other people…precisely my happy place. Among others, our planning group in St. Louis is made up of former undergrad classmates who ended up making (some of) their living off their writing, and professors with fancy awards who certainly were part of the decision to reject me as an applicant to their writing program. The very people who, for so long, represented the objects of my jealousy, my frustration, my ire at academia, are now collaborators and comrades.
This shift in focus reminds me of how we have so completely demonized those who voted for the other candidate during our presidential election. We are so willing to describe all aspects of our purported opponents that we will allow for their dehumanization in front of our eyes for the sake of being right. I was willing to think ill of dozens of talented poets at the expense of my own peace at the decision made about a handful of my poems read and decided on by people I didn’t know.
But there is one more complex layer to this story: call. How often do we allow ourselves the flexibility of thought and the risk of imagination to see our call to serve Christ and the world from a different perspective? Earlier this year, I made the decision to leave the ordination process in the United Methodist Church, and my call was intricately bound up in that brand/institution, so much so that I was, without realizing it, unwilling to do the work of prayerfully recreating that call within an unforeseen context. And yet there I was this past weekend, swapping creative brainstorms with past nemeses of my own making, giving voice to the margins, and actively helping create community where it previously didn’t exist. All of the actions I feel called to do as a Jesus-follower I was doing again, but this time without a clear and clean church label on it. Writers Resist planning has been a new burning bush, a supposedly secular space where God has lit fire in my face and said, “Take off your sandals. This is sacred ground.”
So, Church, what is your poetry for? What are you doing with those wonderful creations that buzz from your fingertips out through your whole life every time you touch them? Why are those separate from the work you do with God? Are those the things you do when you’ve given God what God is due? Is that the portion you keep for yourself? Why do you imagine that it is yours? In this Advent week focused on peace, may we find ways to reconcile our splintered calls, and may we find ways to act on those calls in places we were too pissed off to look.
Kenneth J. Pruitt is a teacher at heart, a diversity and inclusion professional for a living. He is proud of St. Louis, his adopted home. He loves what you’ve done with your hair.