A few weeks ago, I plugged an old external hard drive into my laptop in search of the application materials I submitted to MFA programs ten years ago. My advanced creative writing students were looking into graduate programs that week and I thought I would share one of my own applications as a way to give them an honest idea of what an undergraduate student might/could/should/should not send as an abridged representation of who they are and who they might become. I inked out very little, laying bare even the irrelevant and embarrassing list of hobbies in my Curriculum Vitae.
Even now, as I write this, I am still surprised and fascinated by the twenty-one-year-old version of myself who was finding, finally, some direction. In my Personal Statement, I wrote about Chris Abani’s visit to my undergraduate institution and how my reading of Kalakuta Republic reshaped my early work’s vision. I explained, “(his) influence has taught and encouraged me to move beyond the (term) ‘illegal alien’ and transform my poems into well-crafted meditations on the identity, landscape, tradition, and exile of a person without legal documents.”
I started my MFA in the fall of 2005. Like Junot Díaz recounts in “MFA vs. POC,” I, too, went in blind and young. I, too, had applied and boarded a plane to New York “with about the same amount of foresight that my parents brought to their immigration—which from my perspective seemed to be none.” I showed up to my first night of workshop with Philip Levine in a new pair of shoes that gave me blisters and a headache. Still, probably like my parents, I was over the moon. The first poem I brought in was a prose poem about being able to leave for the first time the California desertscape, and the guy who sat next to me at the oval table wrote, “I believe there can be poetry in prose, but no prose in poetry,” at the top of the page. Wrote nothing else. I remember this.
I vet the letters students write to each other in my classrooms for precisely this reason.
Admission: I was writing terrible poems at the time. When I first met one-on-one with Phil, I apologized to him for my terrible poems. I apologized for having written a poem about the first snowfall in New York City. What business did I, a person born in the Philippines, have with snow? I told him, “I am going to keep writing terrible poems because I am trying to work something out.” I apologized for my terrible metaphor for what it felt like to be without a home. That entire semester, I brought in one terrible poem after another. Poems I wrote on a squeaky chair I found left on the curb after a stoop sale. Poems I wrote on a metal desk I wheeled back to my apartment from someone’s trash.
I also remember Phil saying, That is all right, and we stayed in his office and talked seriously and quite openly about my packet of terrible poems anyway.
After workshop some nights, I returned to my apartment befuddled. I talked to my roommate about how I did not understand the poems by my peers—beautiful poems that sometimes felt like nothing was ever happening in them. “What is at stake here?” I demanded, shaking papers in the air. And I talked, too, about how they drew on my poems one question mark after another.
Disconnected as I felt, it never occurred to me to quit. Maybe it was because I had already read my undergraduate share of comments suggesting that I substitute some of the English words in my poems for their Tagalog counterparts. For richness. For texture. What if you wrote “home” in Tagalog? Once, someone suggested that another Filipino student in the workshop change the title of his poem so that it was set not on a beach in California, but rather on a beach in the Philippines. For richness. For texture. “What’s one of the beaches in the Philippines?” the student asked me under his breath. After all, unlike him, I had been born there.
Once, a teacher advised me to seriously consider publishing under my middle name. People will publish a Spanish-sounding last name. Or maybe it was: People will publish anything by a Spanish-sounding last name.
When I told Chris Abani that I was seriously considering going to my first choice graduate program—all the way in New York—he said: Go.
On the day I arrived in New York in 2006, I was still undocumented in America. My papers, though, were finally in the turnpike and I would soon receive my worker’s permit in the mail. My green card would arrive months later.
In other words: I became a permanent resident in New York, and to return to California would have meant I would return to the place where I had lived undocumented since 1991. In my last year of college, so many people knew what it was I was, and I was vulnerable.
To remix what Díaz says: I was a person of color in a country whose theory of reality did not include my most fundamental experiences as a person of color—that did not in other words include me.
For richness: I was trying to become a better poet in the years of my MFA. I was also trying to work out what it meant to very suddenly have become a legal resident after nearly fifteen years of “losing” my ID every day.
And now for texture: The guy who sat next to me was an idiot, and he would not be the last to refuse to wrestle with what I brought to the workshop table. When I went on to pursue my PhD, for example, a peer suggested I change the title of my poem, “Between Chou and the Butterfly,” to “Between Juan and the Butterfly.” Because I wrote about undocumented immigration, you see. Because it did not matter that we were halfway through the semester and everyone in the workshop knew that I was writing about a speaker who was a Tago ng Tago, or undocumented immigrant in the Filipino community. After workshop, I walked across the parking lot and thought long and hard about how upset I wanted to get. I thought, too, about how much I loathed cleverness in poetry.
But here’s the thing: I had not come for either of them. I had not relied on luck to attend graduate school across the country to prove myself or convince anyone that I belonged there. I was not convinced it was my sole duty to teach a handful of my peers not to write offensive suggestions on my poems. I had not, in other words, been admitted to the program to run the Diversity and Sensitivity Training course. I went to graduate school to experience the rigor of workshops. To study with people whose work spoke to me. I wanted to learn how to become a better writer (and during the PhD, a scholar). I wanted to be the first person in my family to have a graduate degree.
I had to live every other compartmentalized part of my life as a New American and fought to have one space dedicated to my identity as a writer.
Maybe I never dropped out because I, like Díaz, was also “just a stubborn fuck.”
Maybe it was good for me to have people write, “Must be an ESL speaker?” on my poems. I wanted my poems to live out in the world, after all, and America still thought all undocumented immigrants came from Mexico. Maybe this taught me something about audience.
I keep coming back to this expectation of the MFA workshop being a space for the experiences of people of color. Speaking from my experience only, I will say that I disclosed to only nine people in the three years I lived in New York my personal history. Three of those people were also in the MFA program; only one had been in a workshop with me. Three of them were my teachers whom I confided in only when it became absolutely necessary for them to know how to give me specific feedback. If anyone could not make sense of my work or real, lived experiences, it was because I was still trying to make sense of it. What I did know is what I knew even as an undergraduate—that being a person of color did not make me feel any closer to other people of color because the word “American” kept getting in the way. I had forced myself through the cracks, yes, but I would always be different.
Example: I played a game with myself when I showed up to take the GRE. If the testing center accepts this form of identification, then I apply to MFA programs. If they don’t, I tell everyone I decided to take a year off. I don’t know how an MFA program could have prepared for someone like me; I was not supposed to come this far.
I met two people like me in New York—one who was still undocumented, and another who was, at the time, years ahead of me in the process and already naturalized. Still, we had arrived from different countries, on different years, and under different circumstances, so even our shared label affected us in disparate ways. Our sameness was superficial.
To be clear, I do not think a hostile or lazy workshop is a productive one. For many, as we saw from Díaz’s essay, it could be damaging. I do think, though (and again I am speaking only from my experiences), that it would have been unwise for me to treat the workshop as a space where I could/should trust strangers with such specific information about my life. The MFA was not a safe space because America, for me, was not a safe space. I made a lot of friends, many of whom were white (and many more who were not), who did care and did invest a lot of time in helping me hone my writing skills. Though perhaps they suspected it, many of them had no idea that I knew my way around an I-485 and, quite frankly, I would not have had it any other way. We did not explore “our racial identities or how they impacted our writing” in any of my workshops either, and that was okay. For me, you see, what I was writing about was my problem, and when I was finally able to articulate it, the years of cold, clinical commenting helped me to get it down right. My workshops “about writing” gave me the tools I needed for a lifetime of writing.
The MFA gifted me my years in New York and because I only asked that the MFA teach me how to become a better writer, I looked elsewhere for guidance on how to become a more complete human being. In other words, I decentered the MFA and still believe it is a strategy that works. A creative writing education attuned to racial and social justice, for me, must stay connected to the outside world. I do not believe having talent gives you a pass to check out of everything else. I have worked with students coming from low-income backgrounds, many of whom were first-generation college students. I taught poetry to second graders. I befriended people who were not in the MFA program. I kept and listened to the comments from peers who genuinely cared about my writing project. I remember them most. I learned about Kundiman. I stayed hungry and stayed searching for work by writers who were not being read in my workshops. When I wanted to talk about my complicated life, I poured a glass of wine and wept with my best friend. Whatever insights I gained I put in my poems and took those poems to the workshop that was not my life.