After the MFA: The Trace Remains - Alumni in Conversation

By Andrew Carson (’16)

I recently had the opportunity to meet up over lunch with Lynarra Featherly and Sarah Baker, fellow alumni of the University of Washington Bothell MFA in Creative Writing & Poetics program. What resulted was a ranging conversation during which we discussed our MFA experiences, our lives now, and a few pertinent asides.

Andrew Carson: (to Lynarra) So, how did you pick the UW Bothell MFA program?

Lynarra Featherly: Talking over dinner with one of Evergreen’s faculty who teaches poetry and poetics, Leonard Schwartz (who spoke at our MFA program’s second Convergence), we had the kind of discussion where someone says, “You know, you should be doing X,” and you’re excited for someone to tell you what to do. Leonard knew about the UW Bothell MFA because he knows IAS faculty member Jeanne Heuving.

Talking to Leonard’s wife, Zhang Er, who teaches Chinese poetry at Evergreen, also helped me decide. I was trying to figure out if I could make myself write on my own, and wondering if I’d be better off having a job I didn’t care about, that didn’t intrude into my life, so that I could try to start my own writing practice. She said there’s ways of doing that work with Bothell’s MFA program, and that with an MFA degree I would be able to teach.

As far as choosing Bothell’s MFA program, I don’t know that I would have chosen an MFA without poetics. I might have had a hard time, because my undergrad is in philosophy. My success as a teacher comes directly from a whole set of values, a pedagogical and ethical standpoint that Bothell reinforced.

Absent Bothell, I might have actually gotten into the standard workshopping mode if I hadn’t been introduced to IAS faculty member Amaranth Borsuk’s workshop model. The preference of our taste is easily inflicted on others and then potentially more so on students. Right? “Do this,” “make that,” “what I read here is...,” “this would be my suggestion.” In the few quarters I’ve been teaching, and Sarah probably feels the same way, I’ve learned we have a lot of influence on our students, and we could demand that our students develop in ways that suit our poetic eye, our poetic ear. Amaranth’s model is a way to get around that.

***

We take a break as our food arrives. As we start eating, we get to lighter talk about what we’ve been up to since our MFAs finished. Lynarra’s teaching at Evergreen, and Sarah’s lecturing part time at UW-Bothell. I bring up that, beyond working as an editor, I’ve been getting back into Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) with friends.

Sarah Baker: Yesterday I saw someone joke on twitter that they wanted to play D&D by themselves and be their own DM, and that that’s what writing a novel is.

Lynarra: I don’t know anything about Dungeons and Dragons. At all.

Sarah: Me neither!

Lynarra: I’m sure I would be interested. When I was 12 years old I couldn’t pull myself away from pinball. I spent a lot of money in that way. I tried to move away from things that would captivate me in that kind of excessive way, so it’s a kind of fear.

A student from last quarter, a member of a tight workshopping group, was telling me that their group is still close even though they’ve gone onto other programs, and that they play D&D together. Whatever they found out about each other there (in workshops) is also working in D&D.

There is that fear of moving into a fantasy space that maintains itself—that at some point you can’t do the work of adulthood and follow the fantasy object. For me that world of play and fantasy comes back out more productively in creative writing, say. But the social aspect of something like D&D versus the way in which pinball works certainly is different.

Andrew: At least here in Seattle there’s a social aspect to pinball, I think. Places like Add-A-Ball in Fremont let you drink cheap beers and play pinball, or watch people play pinball.

Lynarra: There is a way in which even as children we watched each other play pinball. I haven’t played pinball lately…it was a thing for me as a 12-year old.

Sarah: It wasn’t social at all for you?

Lynarra: I was busy concentrating on the game.

***

Andrew: Do you think your undergrad in philosophy had something to do with a development of your ethics in teaching? Did that course of study seed any ideas?

Lynarra: Certainly as direction towards putting my undergrad in direct competition with what Evergreen hopes to do, and what I also hope to do with Evergreen, in combination with the Bothell program. That undergraduate study at St John’s College was about a call to mastery: spend hours sweating away, and you might stand a chance of mastering the text. My senior paper was on Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, and I felt like I had failed; that I hadn’t mastered that text.

Andrew: I sense something of that struggle in your MFA thesis “The Feminology of Spirit,” and in some of the remarks you wrote in the introduction. You wrote that you didn’t want that to write in a mode of conquest or trying to beat the text, and instead to try to inhabit and just be with it.

Lynarra: I think the mistake of my undergrad was partly mine, and partly the way St John’s was set up. My spouse did well in that program. But she also wasn’t the solitary thinking figure; she already knew what it was to ask people for help, that [studying] was a social endeavor and that you’d study with other people. I was raised in Montana, in that “up by your bootstraps,” cowboy mentality, and laboring under a lot of weight in many directions: A whole constellation of potential difficulties there.

But, my experience at St John’s suggest some external pressure that we take on as our own and only recognize as an internal struggle. We conceive of ourselves primarily as knowers, right, and so that knowledge acquisition seems to go hand in hand. The way in which one thinks about, for example, D&D, or their ethical positioning to other people, is relational. The presupposition is super different, between how we are with other people, and how we interact with the text. You can experience many moments of enjoyment with the text of Kant, for example, where you can do the work of balancing that power, and take parts of the text away and say, “you’re mine,” and bring them somewhere else and converse with them, instead of having to carry all those tomes, literally and figuratively. Kant becomes very, very heavy.

I did find enjoyment at St John’s, I just let it get the better of me. I spent a whole month of undergrad in my room just reading Hegel and taking notes and taking notes. And I certainly wasn’t surprised when it became the central part of my master’s thesis, that it would be the first big thing I wrote. Because that’s that struggle for primacy I thought I’d lost. That kind of “withness” with the text was hard-learned.

It reminds of Jeanne Heuving’s work, that libidinized field [poetics], and the pulling in of references, in the same way Sianne Ngai does, pulling in e.g. Melville here, Gertrude Stein there. Getting the discussants in the room and seeing what unfolds is lively, compared to sweating alone with the text.

***

The conversation had unfolded in a leisurely fashion, with digressions from all sides, eventually prompting a moment’s reflection from Lynarra.

Lynarra: I don’t know if you noticed but I can talk down a bunch of different avenues at the same time. I’m not much of a linear thinker.

Andrew: That seems like its own model of conversation. There’s a Michel Foucault quote I’m fascinated by, “Knowledge isn’t for knowing, it’s for cutting,” and it has made me a little averse to knowledge as we often frame it. Knowledge can be a mode in and of itself of projecting force, so I prefer a conversation that doesn’t fixate on enforcing knowledge or making that the central concern. “How can I impose my will on somebody?” That’s a common way of using knowledge.

Lynarra: [That way of seeing knowledge is] a sort of horrifying specter to confront, when you realize you’ve been set up in that way, to be enamored of someone else’s abilities. Because when people that don’t have the knowledge that you have, it seems like an idiocy, at its worst. For a long time in my life, when a teacher was critical of me for anything then they were incompetent.

Andrew: Did you struggle with that in the MFA program?

Lynarra: I did. My last bout, before a critical revelation that comes at a price and out of age. I still thought it was my job to defend women, whether they said they needed it or not. One instructor said something critical to one of the other women in the cohort, and I never could resolve that.

Andrew: I had a similar experience turning in one of my first projects; the instructor was critical of it, and fair in doing so I think – in going back and reading my response to the critique, and looking at the project, I think I dropped the ball. At the time I was mad at the instructor, because I felt like they’d found something objectionable and gotten stuck on it. I saw it as their failing. But it was also mine: I had a hard time hearing out criticisms and reflecting on my work. I found that conflict one of the more valuable experiences in the MFA in the end.

***

Andrew (to Lynarra): What did you learn that surprised you?

Lynarra: The sort of absolute freedom from my own narrative upon meeting Amaranth. That’s a moment that I still can’t quite fully narrate without feeling emotional. Mining myself for resources, trying to master texts, trying to be the one who knew more than the next person so that I couldn’t be dominated by other people . . . suddenly, those things released.

What I’d written prior to get into the program was short, hot, running too hot—fiction barely disguising autobiographical material which very well could have been the kind of material many turned in. And then winter quarter came around and I started working with Amaranth and Sarah Dowling and working with source texts, now I was being asked to play with language, versus mining myself for some sort of captivating story that would somehow seduce the reader in some ways, and overshare or tell all. It was a sort of uplift.

The poetry [comprising my thesis], on its own, without constraint-based or conceptual work, already was a defamiliarization that made a good next step. Writing without source texts feels doable now, when maybe it wasn’t at the time.

I think we [three] would all probably agree that part of the work of the MFA program is to create that relationship with your advisor where you see them as a little otherworldly. With Amaranth I was on very uneven ground. And every time I met her I was kind of nervous. I held her in a very different regard. I think Bothell does that very nicely during the thesis work, the pairing of students and faculty. I love that you can move around in genres and try on different figures of writing and see what it’s like. Because what if I would have chosen a craft-based program? Nonfiction or historical fiction or speculative fiction or . . . I would have never known.

Andrew: UW Bothell built a radical version of the MFA program, and it was a big part of why I applied. When I heard about this program, I was excited by what it seemed to offer. And I think it answered to that too. I took a course with Rebecca Brown and four other students, a guided study through a broad range of texts including works we students selected, and to meet with an instructor to dig into those studies was great.

Sarah: And in her house too. Right?

Andrew: Right. I still think fondly of her cat Ryder.

Sarah: Amaranth made us sous-vide salmon and a pea puree with edible flowers. It was amazing.

Lynarra: We had almost an analyst-analysand relationship, where analysis was coming from Amaranth reading the poetry and the way she would comment, and as the one who “knows.” Amaranth’s opinions about my work, whatever they were, never came across too directly, so I wasn’t certain about her “true” feelings or opinions. And that’s part of the work of the analyst: There’s no sort of testing of that reality sphere, as far as I know.

Sarah: In one of the drafts of my thesis, I had color-coded some passages with the note: “I’m going to change this whole poem.” She made a point to say that one of those was her favorite and I could have interpreted that as: well, if the worst one is the best, what does that mean for the other ones? Or, I could interpret it to mean my own criticism is overthought. Which is how I interpreted it. Because she had good things to say about other ones too, but I think she made a point to make it especially clear with that one.

Lynarra: I’ve made the joke before to other people that I would never know whether my instructors liked my work, and that’s one of Amaranth’s greatest strengths. When I look at the first drafts I see I was in some ways starting at square one. And I can see my beginning students go through the exact same thing.

Sarah: Amaranth helped me articulate what I was trying to say with the poetry, which was always helpful too, to figure out, “Ah, that’s right, that’s what I want to push towards and then I can make this pattern more obvious and kind of push the reader there,” and it worked well for me.

Lynarra: Writing’s not about a from-above talent, but it’s something that one develops, right, over time, a sort of learning. I had a sort of poetic register in my head in those early drafts that I hear if I read very slowly and out loud to catch it. I think those possibilities were there. But had Amaranth not looked and noticed the things that were happening, I would’ve stopped. The ego of mine would have been such that I would’ve walked away.

It’s also true that this thesis project is made of parts that I find poetically interesting, intellectually interesting. That first draft got shaped probably through at least 12 full rounds of edits. And the earlier drafts were thick, and could only appeal to me. It took a while to get that sort of level of generosity where it would also draw in the reader. To me doing that erasure work from the get-go already captured me. But that I would ever get out of my own sort of world of interests and engage the readers took some learning over time. So, bravo Bothell! Even if it never gets published, it’s monumental.

***

At the time, Sarah and Lynarra were both teaching courses, and they took a moment to discuss their recent experience.

Lynarra: Teaching is performative. It’s not a guaranteed perfect set of methods at all, and sometimes you need to think, “Whatever’s up with today, I have to make it through.” I inhabit a very different mental space while teaching, especially when it’s lecture time and they’re in a tiered lecture hall.

Lynarra: I get a lot of variety in responses from the ways different readers read the prompt or the texts. Sometimes the results aren’t what I expected or intended. As I endeavor not to be clear about instructions about creative works, they’re sometimes left bewildered.

So, I’ll do this exercise in my office with students sometimes where I give them a piece of paper. I tell them to draw three squares one on top of the other, and guide them through it, and then tell them to put a circle inside, and then an X inside of that circle. Then I tell them to imagine everyone in the class following those instructions for creative work, and the results coming out all the same. Because I want them to quiet down about clarity and get to work. Interpret the instructions.

Sarah: One student mentioned she thought I was making the prompts less and less structured as we went through the course, and I said, “That’s interesting, because I’m not doing that, but hopefully that means you’re challenging yourself more with each successive prompt.”

***

Lynarra: My final question is I think a continuing one for the program, and it’s about the way in which we as alumni continue to try to cultivate the space where we get writing done. That the program itself can help us with that. What are you doing to continue in that imaginary space?

Andrew: Creative work is motivated by life and experience, and a lot of what I learned in this MFA program is the boundaries of the life I’ve lived, how far out my expectations and understandings go, where they end. I think both of you have touched on finding this tension between what you know and what’s comfortable, and what’s unpredictable or scary, what makes you nervous. Exploring those boundaries, emotional and intellectual, helped me want to do the work I find myself doing now.

I think ultimately, as a writer or poet or artist, you’ll eventually make creative work—even if it’s like a firehose shot through a tiny nozzle you’ll do it—so I’m making a life that has room for creative work, not taking on more work than I must while at the same time volunteering for things that fill me up and renew me.

Lynarra: Part of what I took away from the MFA is that the writing for me in some ways is kind of a calling card for friendship and good conversation, and my liveliest moments, my most interesting moments, and those moments of creating a life are usually in conversation. Teaching at its best has those same kinds of moments when you lose your sense of time and space. But producing and publication aren’t big drivers of writing for me, at least compared to getting together with fellow writers.

Andrew: I think conversation is its own creative work, even if there’s not a record.

Lynarra: I went through a whole period where I refused to write anything down. I felt like writing was still a way of mining myself for resources. So, I spent some time not writing anything down, whether walks or lectures or reading, to refuse to make that trace so I could just enjoy the moment. I love the idea that in most conversations there is no record; the trace remains in memory.


Sarah Baker is a writer, designer and editor living in Seattle. She is an editor at Letter [r] Press and was a co-director of APRIL, Seattle’s annual festival of small and independent publishing.

Andrew Carson is a poet and editor. He’s a lifelong resident of the Pacific Northwest and currently lives in Seattle with four roommates and two cats. His work appeared most recently as a selection for Push/Pull’s “Stanza” exhibit, which showcased original art inspired by submitted poetry.

Lynarra Featherly is an experimental poet with a poet’s interest in critical theory. She received her BA from St. John’s College in Santa Fe, NM where she studied philosophy and the liberal arts and her MFA from UW Bothell’s MFA in Creative Writing and Poetics program. Her writing projects look to stitch together conceptual pieces from the tailings of German philosophy and Lacanian psychoanalysis—thinking and writing in an energized and figured field of dispersed, multiple and moderated or diminished agency. She is a co-founder and co-editor of Letter [r] Press, which publishes the journal small po[r]tions, as well as ephemera and chapbooks. She has work published in Tupelo Quarterly and The Conversant. Lynarra teaches creative writing and literary theory at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, WA.