Against Defending an MFA Thesis, but in Praise of Reflections & Closure

I spent this week attending the thesis defenses of my graduate students. I don’t love the word “defense” in this context, as it implies an adversarial stance between mentors and student and suggests that an authority’s approval of a creative work matters. I tend to think to think the task of an artists is to imagine a way through and beyond what has been done before; “defending” requires very opposite impulses.

But I do love defenses!

Specifically, I love the craft talks the students in our program give. I love learning from them and the way the delivery of public craft talks is an invitation to faculty to reverse roles and become a student once more. I love the way I spend a week each May reminded of my own teachers, who once nudged and challenged and nurtured me up to the point of my own thesis defense, and then beyond. And I love that we have a ritual in which we remind students their voices, their aesthetics, their path through the writing life must become entirely their to chart and that there is nothing about the fact of that path they need defend.

Another of the pleasures of defense week for me is that task of writing questions for defenses. I like my questions to serve as jumping-off points for self-reflection. I try to craft questions akin to the ones I ask myself when I feel I am a crossroads in my own writing practice – at the beginning or end of a series, sequence, or manuscript; also when I am thinking about abandoning a project.

While many of my questions this week were personalized to my students’ particular theses, some I think could serve as useful provocations for anyone making a transition in their writing. I’ll share those here:

  • I often ask students to write imitation poems as a way to build muscle memory for certain kinds of craft techniques or rhetorical moves. To do an imitation you have to read a writer closely and deeply to understand how their styles and themes, syntax and sensibilities are interwoven. How would you go about writing an imitation of yourself?
  • Whenever I read a poet’s collected works I like to look for poems I think of as vestigial tails – pieces that seem odd or distinct from the other works in the book where they first appeared, but fit in nicely with a book that came after. I love this reminder that writers seldom know in real time who they are becoming and even masterpieces are the result of fumbling in the dark. What poems or pieces of poems in your body of work are outliers that might be pointing towards the voice or style or approach you are growing towards?
  • What was a particularly challenging poem to shape or craft or articulate? What did you learn from making it work that you have or could apply to other projects?
  • Describe a piece you tried to make work that never came together. Why did you ultimately decide to abandon that work and what are some of the works that succeeded during or near that time you were struggling? Is it possible that feeling of seemingly fruitless struggle might have made other kinds of work possible, and if so what and how?
  • When have you been most productive as a writer and what circumstances contributed to that? When have you been most joyful as a writer and what circumstances contributed to that?

Published by Kathryn Nuernberger

Kathryn Nuernberger is the author of three collections of poetry – Rue is forthcoming from BOA in 2020. The End of Pink (BOA 2016) won the James Laughlin Prize from the Academy of American Poets. Her collection of lyric essays is Brief Interviews with the Romantic Past (The Ohio State University Press, 2017). A recipient of fellowships from the NEA, American Antiquarian Society, Bakken Museum of Electricity in Life, H. J. Andrews Research Forest, She teaches in the creative writing program at University of Minnesota. Recent work appears in 32 Poems, Cincinnati Review, Copper Nickel, Gulf Coast, Paris Review, The Southern Review, and Waxwing.

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