I have a dirty secret.
I’m a poet and editor of a chapbook press, published in dozens of literary journals and with two chapbooks of my own in print, but do not have even an undergraduate degree in creative writing.
I have a minor in creative writing, wrote a senior thesis in spite of not majoring, and was a mere one class shy of the double major, but the truth of the matter is I do not have any sort of poetry-related degree.
The women’s university I went to was a very small one – the first year I attended they had but one creative writing professor. A poet, fortunately for me. I didn’t take any creative writing classes my first semester, but I did submit some (completely horrible) poetry to the college’s undergraduate literary journal. The response I received wasn’t from a student editor, but from the aforementioned poetry professor. He told me that all but one poem should be thrown in the trash. He told me there were 3 good lines in the remaining poem.
At the age of 18 I was an even more sensitive soul than I am now, but for some reason rather than be hurt and disappointed and embarrassed, I decided I wanted nothing more than to take a class with this professor.
Up to that point, no one had ever told me my writing was bad. I’d been the star student in my high school creative writing classes. In a lot of respects, I was the artsy girl of my graduating class. This professor was honest. He took me down a peg and I respected him for it. So the following semester I signed up for Intro to Creative Writing.
Within the first few weeks of class, I was getting along with the professor swimmingly. My writing was improving by leaps and bounds. Everyone’s was, really. This professor always had a particular knack for bringing out the talent of each of his students without changing their vision, their voice, to match his own.
After that semester, I took the more advanced creative writing workshops and began to form an actual relationship with my professor. We talked after class. I visited him during office hours. Without setting out to, I drifted into a circle of students who were particularly close with him, who he might have praised and encouraged a bit more than some of the other students.
When it came time to take our most advanced courses, there was minor grumbling from one or two of the creative writing majors who thought I shouldn’t be permitted into the classes as a non-major. But while I may not have been liked by some of my fellow students, I was now firmly in the professor’s inner circle and the girl who’d been deeply unpopular all through elementary and middle school and still lived within me liked that place.
At the end of my sophomore year, a group of the professor’s students traveled to Chicago for AWP, a large, annual creative writing conference. I cavorted about the book fair, drank illegally at receptions, and scoffed at the reading skills of supposedly well-published writers like any arrogant college-age poet.
I also returned home determined to get published.
All at once, though, things took a strange turn. I got unexpectedly pregnant. The poetry professor began to go through what would eventually become a divorce and his job seemed to be at risk. While said professor continued to encourage me as a writer, I found myself painfully on the outside of the inner circle’s social group for a time. When I had my son, I was treated almost with contempt by some of my university classmates. And when I finally did get published my senior year, not even my professor seemed interested or pleased.
I in no way blame any of my fellow students for not caring – if I’d been them I’m not sure I would have exactly thrown a party to celebrate that the first one of us published in a peer reviewed journal wasn’t me. But it deeply hurt that my professor not only failed to seem proud of me, but sent me the following email in response to my publication;
“There is something very unsatisfactory about viewing one’s published poem. It is totally anti-climactic … almost post-coital (cigarettes lit – ‘Oh … sure, yeah … and was it good for you too?’) The real crazy passion is the first draft and the explosion of yowling ecstasy of course is when it seems just there, just right. Publication? ‘Have you seen my socks, baby?’ “
I do understand what he was trying to say, ultimately, as an artist. But at the time I was devastated. I also failed to realize back then that my two poetry publications that year were greater in number than his. He is not and has never been a widely published poet. I find his poetry to be absolutely lovely. I am not certain if his lack of publication is because editors don’t agree with me or because he simply does not submit.
Between my junior and senior years, myself and a few of the poetry professor’s other students began to become more like friends with him than students. His divorce was moving along and so he had moved into his own place where we would visit with him and smoke cigars and drink absinthe and watch surrealist film. Well, everyone else would smoke cigars and drink absinthe. I would breastfeed my son.
That summer he also invited a number of us to a small artist’s gathering to which I would return almost every year for the following seven years. While a topic for another post, I say without hesitation that the invitation changed my life.
But then things snowballed once more. The professor’s contract was not renewed and so he was effectively losing his job at the university. The woman they brought in to replace him – a very well-published poet and decently powerful figure in our city’s literary scene – disliked me and my best friend in the program almost immediately. There were vague whispers that I and a few other female students had a much-less-than-appropriate relationship with the poetry professor.
So after my senior year, towards the end of the summer, there was a goodbye party and my now-former professor left the country to go teach at a university overseas.
There are parts of this blog I don’t want to write: How he grabbed me and kissed me on the mouth once that summer after I graduated. How when he returned to Pittsburgh to visit a couple years later we were having coffee and all he wanted to do was trash talk one of my best friends, to tell me how she wouldn’t stop flirting with him. How I had to walk from that conversation or lose all respect for myself. How I never stopped feeling as though I was liked and wanted, but only so much. How I felt like I could fall from his favor at a moment’s notice. How I’ve never been sure if that was because of him or me.
Whereas I’d felt somewhat cocooned and comforted by my relationship with the professor, now I felt adrift and helpless. I realized I had no idea how to navigate the literary world, that I’d somehow made an enemy in a decently powerful literary figure in the city (the woman who’d been given his job), and with my former professor now out of the country entirely, I had no one to turn to. I also realized I’d not been given or bothered to seek out the tools to take care of myself.
And so I stumbled around a lot. I finally began to submit my poetry to literary magazines again a few years later. My friend and I persevered in organizing literary events in spite of a few members of the city’s literary community actively working against us. We made mistakes. We had no idea what we were doing. We were very young, and very alone. We had no one in our corner but each other.
There’s a part of me that is sad that I never truly had a mentor, not just of writing, but of community and career. It sometimes feels as though I’ve had to fight and scrape and claw my way up a cliff face for each and every literary success I’ve had, and it can be so very tiring. Absinthe and cigars and surrealist film and haunted hotels are beautiful and lovely and inform my work still and I’m so grateful to have had them all, but a part of me wishes I could turn to someone who’s been where I’m trying to go as a poet and editor and ask them for advice, for wisdom.
But now I’m in this awkward space where I could, for all intents and purposes, be that mentor to someone else. I’m asked to speak in college classes. I’m now on panels at that conference I first went to almost 10 years ago. I run a decently successful micro press. I’m relatively well-published. I go to literary festivals and workshops and people treat me like I have some sort of knowledge I don’t always think I have. I feel as though I’ve fooled everyone, like I’m one gigantic imposter of the literary world.
And my former professor? The last time we spoke I was crying – mourning the loss of something I wouldn’t truly be able to let go of for another year and a half. For some reason he was the only person I’d felt able to go to with my sadness. “Deep down, you knew what you were getting into,” he told me as I hid my face in my hands. I realize now that in the ways he meant that statement and in the ways he did not, he was absolutely correct.
Image: Richard Allnutt from AWP Chicago, 2004, taken from awpwriter.org
Margaret Bashaar’s poetry has been collected in 2 chapbooks – Letters from Room 27 of the Grand Midway Hotel (Blood Pudding Press, 2011) and Barefoot and Listening (Tilt, 2009) as well as in many literary journals and anthologies. She edits the chapbook micropress Hyacinth Girl Press, attempts to repair antique typewriters, and spends far too much time at haunted hotels in coal mining towns for her own good. She’s only been suspected of being possessed once and hopes to someday become a rogue taxidermist. Follow her on Twitter @myhyacinthgirl