Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Vote today, then run your own election

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.

6 comments:

Vince said...

i know your pain..honestly..i do...hmmmph.

unsaid said...

wow...this is EXACTLY where I am right now with all of this. The order of my poems was actually determined in my workshop last semester. We had to do mini chapbooks by the end of the semester and the class went through and selected the best poems and which order they should appear. I'm feeling pretty confident that the pieces I'm submitting are actually my best work. I want to scream obscenities at places like Indiana who want 20 pages though! They are going to get a few of my best shorter pieces thrown into the mix lol.

So I made a chart that determines the 11 poems that are going to the 10-12 poem schools and that made things more clear for me.

It's nice to see a post about the pain of poets in the process. Wow...tons of p's in that sentence...

Jennifer said...

Fiction writer here. . . working on 4 different pieces from scratch for my portfolio, because I decided I didn't like what I have. I wish I could just decide which of those two to go with so that I could get them done. That Irvine Dec 1 deadline looms large. . . meh.

insertbrackets said...

I have been doing something similar to you, though I have yet to sit down and actually aggregate my scores/tallies. It probably doesn't help that I am constantly revising my poems so that the copies I send to my peeps at the beginning of the week look completely different by the end. That, and I am writing new poems all the time. I am a prolific bastard and it's starting to kill me, because I am typically enamored with the newest stuff while luster of what I wrote before usually fades after about a month or so. The only thing grounding me is probably my advisor, who I have been meeting with weekly to dicuss issues relevant to my poetics as a whole. If anything, the sessions, which occasionally feel like a private flogging, are starting to force to defend and articulate (and in some cases redefine my aesthetic).

This election scares me, particularly since my marriage-ability is on the ballot in California! Good grief, why can't it just be all about the poems!

Victorya said...

to two trusted people - I gave them my four fiction peices and asked to rank- they came back in complete opposite order.

Then for other dear people I took just the first two pages of 5 stories and asked them to rank by which pulled them in the most. These were near identical responses, and the top one was also one of the tops by the friend whose input I valued more who read the full manuscripts.

So, I have it set for the main writing sample.

But, then there is another story I really want to include because it's gotten really close to publication and nice personal notes from respected editors. I wrote this after my scientific method above. The only problem is everyone (being the editor and friend and myself) agree the ending needs work. So- do I send in a peice that is close to great but bad ending to supplement because it is so drastically different than the first peice (and takes chances, also noted in the rejection notes as to a big plus - took risks and ALMOST paid off)

it was ALMOST so simple, but I had to keep writing. . .

Emily said...

I'm in the midst of a similar process myself. I've pretty much finalized my "base" sample of ten pages, but am still debating on the longer versions required by some schools.