Meditations on Grad School, by Annie Persons


In her poem “Hashem,” Leah Green reminds us: “all there is to do is offer our own dust, / held together in the holding, / and, small lunged, / live our lives breathing.” With those words in mind, I feel confident in saying that my first few weeks as a graduate student in Creative Writing at Virginia Commonwealth University have been an exercise in breathing.

In many ways, my academic workload as an MFA student mirrors my academic workload as an English major and creative writing minor at Washington and Lee. I’m taking an English literature class; I’m interning for a highly selective literary magazine; I’m a teaching assistant for a large lecture course; and, oh yeah, I’m taking a poetry workshop. During the first week of classes, I re-entered my undergraduate, workaholic mindset. It was energizing to be back in an intellectually stimulating environment, to be moving at a fast pace again.

annieThen I had my first workshop. It was a Monday night. The cicadas were muted by an overzealous air conditioner. My ten classmates and I sat around a large, wooden table. A dual mood of anxiety masked by nonchalance saturated the room. I realized that I hadn’t been in a workshop in over a year, and my breath caught.

Then my professor, Gregory Donovan, started class, and I exhaled. We spent nearly three hours peeling back layers (and layers) of Norman Dubie’s “After Three Photographs of Brassai.” It was during that initial class, before even reading my peers’ work, that I noticed something significant about my graduate studies in creative writing: everyone in the room wanted to be there more than they wanted to be anywhere else. Everyone cared about poetry, a lot.

On top of enjoying our discussion, this realization about my classmates was more satisfying than the best adult beverage a graduate student can afford. It made me I remember why I’m getting my MFA. I’m here I to engage with my professors, my classmates, and the work of other skillful, experienced poets. And I’m here to write.

Whether you’re studying or creating it, poetry is an art of attention. In our discussion of the tension between lyric and narrative poetry during our second workshop, Professor Donovan quoted David Baker saying that the lyric is “a moment in time that arrests time.” Baker’s assertion captures what I believe makes poetry essential. Poetry is what makes me both radically present and radically connected to myself and others.

Now, every time I’ve felt swept up in the busyness of school, I’ve tried to slow down and recenter myself around poetry, around attentiveness–attention to detail and to the big picture. That reminder prompts me to ask myself: How can my time with students help me be a deeper thinker, feeler, and communicator? How can my paper on seventeenth-century colonial narratives make me a better observer and critic of the issues facing society today? How can reading Blackbird submissions help me become a more discerning reader and writer? How, in group discussions of those submissions, can I help put the important work of other writers out into the world?

A reminder to focus on poetry is a reminder to focus on what keeps me truly alive. I’m so grateful to be in a space where I can breathe easily.
by Annie Persons (posted by R T Smith)

Annie Persons is a first-year poet in Virginia Commonwealth University’s MFA in Creative Writing program, where she works as a copyediting intern for Blackbird. She is also a 2015 graduate of Washington and Lee University, where she was proud to serve as the managing editor of Shenandoah. Originally from Atlanta, she still considers Lexington, VA to be her home.


About R.T. Smith

recent-meR. T. Smith has edited Shenandoah since 1995 and serves as Writer-in-Residence at Washington & Lee. His forthcoming books are Doves in Flight: 13 Fictions and Summoning Shades: New Poems, both due in 2017.


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One Response to Meditations on Grad School, by Annie Persons

  1. schultzd18 says:

    Nicely put Annie. Attentiveness to craft really does resemble attentiveness to breath. The absorption you experienced in studying poetry reminds me not only of meditation, but of psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s research on flow experiences. Csikszentmihalyi (Ch-zec-me-hi) argues that absorbing one’s attention in a challenging but rewarding task – like writing poetry – allows access to a “flow state” where time becomes distorted and task specific decisions can be made effortlessly. According to Csikszentmihalyi, achieving flow is similar to meditation or yoga in that it brings tranquility and a long lasting sense of well-being. Best wishes that you continue to “breathe easily” by celebrating and engaging in the challenges ahead of you in graduate school.
    “The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times… The best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.” ~ Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
    “Art is a guarantee to sanity” – Louise Bourgeois

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