Lessons From a Graduating English Major

Emily Catenzaro

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I’m graduating from college in less than four weeks – finally. After almost 6 years at UConn, I’m now facing my last days as an undergraduate. Like a lot of undergraduates in my position, in-between the moments of intense senioritis and burnout, I’m feeling nostalgic. For the most part, my days at UConn have been happy ones. I had a routine, shared feelings of camaraderie with my friends and fellow students, and access to a beautiful campus that is still one of my favorite places to wander around. Life has been pretty good.

Because I’m already nostalgic, I’m in a headspace to share some wisdom I’ve learned during my undergraduate career. Recently, I stumbled across a blog post from Colum McCann’s new book, Letters to a Young Writer. Since many of his feelings are similar to my own at this time, I thought that I would connect his experiences to my own.

How to deal with other people’s success

“A young writer must also read her contemporaries. Fiercely and jealously. She must get her blood boiling. Shit, that author comes from my hometown. How dare they say what I want to say? Yes, rage, but a temporary rage. Not in competition, but in desire.”

You’re going to watch people become successful, both in college and in life. Two big lessons I learned from my years in college and in competitive figure skating:

1) People will randomly stumble across success, while others will struggle over a lifetime for it.

2) Whether you do or don’t find success has very little to do with what kind of person you are.

Good things are going to happen to bad people, just as bad things are going to happen to good people. The best way I know how to combat feelings of jealousy or inadequacy is to refocus on your own journey. Everything is going to happen to you in its own time because your path is your own and no one has lived your life except for you. In the meantime, don’t fall into the trap of measuring your life by others’ success. Focus on your craft, because no one else can bring your unique traits to the table. I love McCann’s metaphor about Ikea chairs: “They are not taking your job: your job is entirely your own, nobody else can have it, who else is going to finish your piece of literary carpentry, unless it’s an Ikea chair?”

Don’t be that person in your writers’ workshop

“Too many young writers think of themselves as writers rather than that which they have written. Get used to this: it must be on the page. So don’t walk around thinking of yourself as a writer. Noth­ing worse than an author constantly obsessed with himself. If someone genuinely wants to know, they will ask. Say nothing. At least until you need to say some­thing.”

I am graduating with a concentration in creative writing, which means I sat through a bunch of writers’ workshops. Over time, I learned this: workshops are a bangin’ way to meet other writers. The community is amazing, and being around so many likeminded, nonjudgmental people is an incredible feeling. But when it comes to the actual critique part of the workshop, take it with a grain of salt. In theory, workshops are supposed to be judgment-free zones. But the truth is, not everyone knows how to workshop without being an asshole.

The problem with the human ego is that it needs to protect itself when vulnerable, and writers’ workshops are pretty vulnerable places. It’s natural for the ego to want to vault itself above others when it senses a threat. But if you want to be around other writers and have them actually enjoy your company, you’re going have to learn how to suppress those urges. Try to be mindful of a couple things: don’t describe your work with ego-boosting drivel that makes you sound like a pretentious cad. And if someone else in your workshop criticizes your piece (or acts like a pretentious cad), try not to retaliate by giving their work a verbal beatdown in return. It’ll make the workshopping process far more enjoyable for everyone, and you won’t experience pangs of shame later for acting like a complete jerk.

Also, don’t be a dick in general

“Don’t be a dick. At the party. In the bookstore. On the page. In your own head. Don’t call people names. Don’t insult your colleagues. Don’t tell people how great you are. Don’t drink all the wine. Don’t ignore your friends. Don’t think yourself better. Don’t condescend. Don’t leave your partner stranded. Don’t talk about your contract. Don’t mention your advance. Don’t make a fanfare of yourself. Don’t patronize. Don’t humiliate. Just don’t. Don’t. Don’t. Don’t be a dick.”

This piece of advice is pretty self-explanatory. Don’t be a jerk because somebody has something you don’t, and don’t make other people feel like crap because you feel like crap about yourself (this applies to workshopping as well.) If you find yourself in doubt, try to take the high road. Being a jerk has a way of coming back to haunt the jerk in question– and if you want to be a part of a world as small as the writing community, it pays to keep that in mind.

Read everything.

“A young writer must read. She must read and read and read. She must read everything that comes her way. The classics, the old books that speak to her from the shelves, the tomes recommended by teachers. Your mind can contain so much. The greater the agility of your reading, the greater the elasticity of your own work.”

It doesn’t matter what type of writing you enjoy. In order to be a good writer, you have to be a good reader. After taking dozens of English classes in college, I feel like I’ve finally read enough to understand how little I’ve read. When relatives ask me what I plan to do when I graduate, my answer is: read everything that I can get my hands on. It’s an honest answer because, after I graduate, I plan on continuously and actively engaging in the literary world.

A few asides:

  • The ability to read everything, even the most boring of classics, is a skill developed through practice.
  • As a friendly reminder, you won’t really be missing out on anything substantial if you don’t refresh Instagram for the 18th time today. However, you will be missing out on great books if you don’t dedicate time to reading them.
  • Keep your Norton anthologies after your class is class is over. I promise that they’ll come in handy for reading the classics.

But also discern which books are worth reading

“Life is too short to drink bad wine, but it’s shorter still when it comes to bad books. So be prepared to jettison that book, but only after you have given it a good chance.”

The best advice I’ve gotten from a professor: if you hate a book, put it down. Life is too short. This may appear to contradict my earlier statement, but it’s purpose is to encourage you to trust your instincts. There are books you should try to muster through, even if they are boring. However, if you’re really offended by something, just stop reading it. There’s hundreds of millions of books out there, and the average person is only going to read a small percentage of them. Move on and read something you like.

Read poetry

I don’t have a McCann quote for this, but poetry is badass. If you had a teacher that made you hate it in high school, I am sorry for you. However, now that you’re an adult, you have a responsibility to change that attitude. Take a poetry class in college, or attend readings with your creative writing friends. I did the latter before I did the former, and going to readings is how I fell in love with poetry. Hearing poetry and reading poetry are totally different experiences. Go to some readings, or listen to some Button Poetry on Youtube. I promise, poetry is just as vital to the human experience as music.

Do the work

Finally, nothing works unless you do. Do the work, then work some more. Writing professors aren’t required to go out on a limb for you, but they love it when you go out on a limb for them. If you keep working, you’ll be amazed at how many people will come out to bat for you. Stay humble, work hard, and enjoy college. And when you graduate, take this philosophy and enjoy life.

A few final tidbits of advice:

  • Forgive yourself when you make mistakes.
  • Life is about change. Enjoy the time you have with the people you love, because people change and move away and break-up. It’s inevitable.
  • Try to be in the moment, because college goes by fast.
  • Editing is your best friend.

That’s all! Peace out, UConn. I love you, always.

On the Death of Poetry and Derek Walcott

By: Taylor Caron

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I can’t locate exactly when I became aware of Derek Walcott’s poetry. I don’t have a touching anecdote about the first poem I read in a used bookstore responsible for catapulting my deep interest in both the man and his work. That was a slow, inevitable process. Initially, I was intrigued by his seemingly unique position in English poetry. English was violently forced upon Walcott in the colonial schools of Saint Lucia, as it had been for so many. And yet, up until the time of his death only a few weeks ago, he was a candidate for one of the finest users of the English language in the world.

I used to be a news junkie. Lately, I’ve been restraining myself. Every news update further compounds the terrifying nature of our current political leadership and I only have so much energy for rage. So, I was surprised, when idly scrolling through The New Yorker a few days ago, to see a plethora of pieces dedicated to the life of Walcott. I clicked on one piece by Rachel DeWoskin, a poet and student of Walcott, titled “The Problem with Poetry Students, and Other Lessons from Derek Walcott.” I was surprised by the death of this man, the writing that had been produced in the wake of his departure, but I don’t know why. I knew he was elderly, but I still assumed I’d be able to attend a reading of his someday. I thought that I would have my collected poems signed by a hand that had earned a Nobel Laureate.

DeWoskin’s piece is an interesting snapshot into the personality of the poet, depicting him as brilliantly eloquent, charming, and a bit harsh. She recalls an anecdote in which Walcott had confidently stated that poetry, as an art form, had reached its end. He made this statement with certainty, relates DeWoskin, when a student approached him to say that John Ashberry’s zany, experimental verse was easier to read than Dante’s highly formal, rhythmic writing. You can sense Walcott’s shock and disgust creeping off the page. Truthfully, I can see where the kid was coming from.

Is poetry, a form of speech which some linguistic anthropologists hypothesize might predate the conversational, in its twilight years? Or was Walcott correct and the art form has reached its end? I don’t think I’m capable of answering that question. Surely, much of the poetry that I and many of my peers enjoy would be considered trash by a classically educated, highly formalistic and stylized writer like Walcott. I can’t imagine him snapping his fingers at a slam event, and though he was capable of writing beautiful and heartbreaking pieces about the wounds of colonialism and post-colonialism, his verse was rarely, if ever, overtly polemical.  His newest collection was released in 2010. The collection, White Egrets, is about Homer and the love of poetry. The New York Times labeled the book an “old man’s book” upon its release. I think I was 18 when it became one of my favorites, which is either a comment on myself or the reviewer.

I don’t know if, according to Walcott, poetry had already died when he wrote those poems. Speaking to a graveyard seems useless, but maybe it’s also a bit liberating too. In DeWoskin’s piece, she relays another funny but grave anecdote in which a student criticized Thomas Hardy’s word choice in a particular poem. Walcott, who deeply admired Hardy, expatiated for 45 minutes on the necessity of that particular word choice and the arrogance of the student. That’s a show of true passion. He was obsessed with his favorite poets, their work, and maybe even their personages. It can be difficult to separate the poet from their art, and no matter how persuasively academics and friends tell me they’re able to, I never fully believe them. I love Walcott’s poetry, but I don’t know if I love the man. DeWoskin’s piece, filled with goodwill, did not mention some of the more disturbing episodes of Walcott’s life. Two students from two separate universities accused him of sexual harassment, claims which he did not feel he had to refute or apologize.  This kind of information, though difficult to swallow for the kind of naïve reader of poetry who admires rather than studies, is important to recall when trying to remember the totality of someone’s life and their effect on others.

And yet, I was still moved by DeWoskin’s piece when she relayed a later conversation with Walcott. He said his primary goal or lesson he wanted to impart to his students was love. DeWoskin questioned “In life, you mean?” and he answered “in poetry.” I apologize for being unable to provide an answer as to whether or not poetry is dying or has died, but I think I will challenge or differentiate myself from Walcott in this sense: I’m not sure the love of poetry and love in life or mutually exclusive emotions. In fact, I’d like to think they are the same, or that they have the same origin. I probably will never learn Greek in order to read Homer, or Italian for Dante, and I regularly mispronounce Shakespeare when trying to read it aloud. But I will continue to read Walcott. His love of language inspires me to love something with that kind of intensity and generosity even after I’ve close the book. That may have never been his intention, but it’s my own small way, more than writing poems myself, that keeps the flame alive.

Scarecrow Pretends: Robert Okaji’s Metallurgy

By: Benjamin Schultz

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By the end of this article, I hope that you’ll decide to check out The Slag Review. Your incentives are as follows: The Slag Review’s staff of Slaggers consists primarily of a blacksmith and two UConn English alumni: Therese Masotta and Carleton Whaley. Both are connected to myself and this publication because they worked on the 2016 staff of the Long River Review. In addition, the title of their literary journal is a reference to the process of smelting ore, work so dangerous and medieval that this group is inherently cooler as a result.

It would have been fun to make this a “Where are they now?” expose. However, I’ve never met these great writers in person (and noticed one of them expressing a strong disinterest in people prying into his personal affairs in the LRR 2016 bios.) Therefore, I’ve decided to focus on one of The Slag Review’s published poets instead.

Robert Okaji, my poet of choice, wrote a piece in Slag titled “Scarecrow Pretends,” another example of a title that gets the cool ball rolling early on. First, let me explain a bit about Okaji through an example of his thinking about poetry. This is snipped from his personal blog:

“A poet considers the intersections of language and numbers, connections between disparate entities (…) all, of course, while contemplating good food and that most magnificent of elixirs, beer, which may have been the very foundation of civilization. Or not.”

In addition to his blog, Okaji has also authored the chapbook If Your Matter Could Reform and I have found his work in several other literary journals.

I think that I found Okaji’s poem so captivating because it is able to incorporate elements from the abstract to the concrete. As I am writing from the perspective of someone with a limited experience with poetry, I admired Okaji’s deft mixture of humor (such as his marveling at the absurdity of a scarecrow’s predicament as it is pecked and roosted by the very beast it is meant to deter) and serious thoughts about the personality of something that does not possess the ability to fulfill its purpose. What meaning does the simple scarecrow adopt if it is not scaring away crows?

(…) Does attracting more crows than I deter negate my existence?

And which am I? A river? A man? An effigy, one

perception, or another? I do not frighten, but welcome. Speak

louder, that we may ignore our insignificance, our true names.

The intersection that Okaji explores in this stanza between the name of an object and its intended purpose is poignant. Logic states that design and function are mutually exclusive. However, Okaji’s poem is a reminder that life is not always logical.

The reason this piece is an obvious choice for the “small, confused group of creators” at The Slag Review relates to their interest in metallurgy. Okaji’s magic elixir of words tells a story both within the self and outside of it, and it’s no surprise that the alchemists at Slag thought he was a good fit. Now that you’ve gotten a glimpse, go read the full poem – and journal – for yourself!

Slam at the Benton: “Hardwood Laxatives”

by Jacob Nelson

Hardwood Laxatives
by Jacob Nelson

I think HGTV is trying to redefine what a home is
After realizing that at 3000 Sq ft two bedrooms
And a home office
No one under 35 has a home

Open floorplans and hardwood are timeless
So they switched greatrooms to microhomes and studios.

We’re bringing yards indoors with growboxes
And terrariums and organic-stocked fridges

And I kinda like the idea of temperature-regulated boxes in temperature-regulated boxes in temperature-regulated boxes designed for comfortable living.

You can only own a home when you stop
Spending Saturday Mornings in the living room
Fingering yourself to Fixer Upper.

~

Jacob Nelson reading his poem, “Hardwood Laxatives” for the Long River Review’s 2017 Reading Series: Slam at the Benton.

Ben Schultz – Videography (Filming and Editing)
Nicholas DiBenedetto – Interviews
Brandon Marquis – Interviews
Mairead Loschi – Podcast Audio

~

Meet the Poet: Jacob Nelson

Prior to the reading, Poetry Editor Nicholas DiBenedetto and Creative Nonfiction Panelist Brandon Marquis sat down with Jacob to talk about his thoughts on poetry, and the role of popular culture in writing.

Brandon Marquis: So, just starting off, introduce yourself.

Jacob Nelson: I’m Jacob Nelson, I’m a senior English and Communications major, I take a lot of poetry classes, but don’t read a lot of poetry.

Nicholas DiBenedetto: Tell us a bit about what you like to write about, and what inspires your writing.

JN: Personally, I feel like in a lot of the writing and poetry that I read, it lacks a lot of modern entertainment, and modern… not necessarily references, but things like television and video games and those things are kind of seen as taboo to talk about in a form like poetry, so I like to include them as much as I can. Anything from sitcoms, to TV dramas, or video games, I like to throw them in there.

ND:  Would you consider yourself—as someone who enjoys having modern references in your approach to poetry—an ultra-talk poet or part of the ultra-talk movement?

JN: Not directly in the ultra-talk movement, because I think that that itself is a little outdated, but someone coming off of that—definitely inspired from people in that movement, people coming out of that, like a second generation, even a third generation from that movement, yeah.

ND: What’s appealing to you about having these references, whether it be to TV or film or music? Why have those in a poem, why is that important to you to explore?

JN: Well for me it’s really two things: one of them is that I fall into the idea that poetry often seems elitist to outsiders, and I think that by including more culturally prominent things to people of our age and time, it makes it more accessible; and secondly, poetry for me comes from what I’m inspired by, and that’s what happens in my day-to-day life. You know, I’m not going to Paris or walking through museums, I’m watching television and playing games and hanging out with friends, so I think that should reflect my life and not someone else’s life.

BM: So if you were in an argument with an elitist about whether or not these things, culturally prominent things should be included in poetry—whether or not they are or aren’t art—what would you say?

JN: I would ask them whether they felt comfortable reading only at some poetry club or at some museum or at some poetry event, or whether they would think that anyone could read their poems. Could someone read them in the middle of the street, and still keep up with them, or could someone read them in a Walmart, you know? I think that not all poetry has to be accessible and made for everyone, but poetry can be made accessible.

ND: Given how much I think you stress the importance of accessibility in your own writing, do you find yourself gravitating towards things like slam poetry, Button Poetry, or like Instagram poets and the kind of innovation we see with poetry in terms of video and social media integration?

JN: I’m definitely interested by that. I like watching it, I like listening to it; it’s not something that I enjoy writing. I think that for those poetry mediums there’s a different quality of something that needs to be said out loud, and said quickly and firmly. My poems aren’t that dire. They’re more something that I’d rather people read off a tablet while lying in bed and needing something funny to read, not something to sit in a chair and stand up and rally around, you know?

~

Jacob Nelson has been an English major for 7 semesters and still writes all of his poems on his phone while walking to the class they’re due for. He hasn’t felt shame in years.

More of Jacob’s work is forthcoming in the 2017 issue of the Long River Review.