While America is voting in a major presidential election, I’ve been holding my own campaign. I’ve been asking my writing peers to look at my poetry portfolio and cast their ballots. Why? Because, America, I am undecided. I cannot figure out which poems to include in my MFA writing sample.
I went by own vote last year, without much outside help, and I doubted my ticket until the last minute for every application. Now that I’ve looked over my old files saved on my computer, I’m not sure I made the right decisions. Plus, I have about a dozen new poems to consider this time around.
So, I’ve decided that in order to maintain what little sanity I have left, I can’t do it by myself this year. I need to give the power to the people.
There are a lot of issues at stake: Some schools ask for 20 pages, some ask for 10. Others want a specific number of poems, usually around 10-15, but have no page limit. Then there are the unmentioned rhetorical dilemmas – do I send poems that are similar in style, or diverse? Should there be a common theme? What about placement – newest to oldest or lyrical to narrative? Longish to short?
Here’s my process: I’ve been handing over portions of my portfolio to people I trust. I give them a week or so to get back to me with their choice of Top 5 or Top 10. When all votes are gathered, I’ll set aside everyone’s favorites and choose from that collected stack my Top 10, and let the rest stay cozy in a file folder on my desk.
Then, if there’s time, I’ll go back to a couple friends and ask them to order them to their liking. If there’s no time, I’ll set the order myself based on flow of voice, sound and/or subject, with the weakest poems sandwiched in the middle. Then I have to use my own editorial eye to weed out the ones that shouldn’t be there. I don’t want to have too many poems that are alike, but I also don’t want to be all over the place.
If it sounds nerdy, it’s because it is.
But will my election work? I hope so! Actually, I’ve already gotten some feedback and I’m starting to see some common choices among my peers, which is a relief.
One thing to note: my published work isn’t necessarily my fans’ favorites. Hmm.
The hardest part thus far: Getting suggested edits to poems I thought were finished. Do I have time to make revisions? Should I ignore them? I don’t know!
The best thing(s): Delegating tasks to other people does take some pressure off. Not to mention, the positive comments I’m getting back on my work from people who matter to me (friends, professors, workshop buddies) are boosting my confidence this application season. So far, based on my peers’ reactions, I’m guessing that most of my writing sample will be made of newer poems. This is also comforting because it means I’ve grown as a writer in the year since I last applied. Hmm…now if I could just tackle that darn statement of purpose…
What are your tactics for making your best MFA writing sample? What are your concerns and questions about choosing your best work? Professors and people who have read over applications and/or grants, what advice do you have? I know you all are not poets, so speak up for the prose people, too.