In June, my husband Dan and I were on a road trip out to California to see our son. Somewhere in the Rockies, I said to him, “You know, I think it’s time I went back to get that MFA.” When we returned home, I applied, was accepted, and by August, was attending my first poetry residency at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. I am 53 years old.
Why would anyone attend graduate school in middle age? I did not return because I needed to for career reasons; I am a tenured professor of English and currently serve in an administrative position. Call it an unscratched itch. I’ve been writing poetry with some success and great enjoyment since my early teens, and double majored in literature and writing in college. As an undergraduate, I was happy with my growth in poetry, but I felt I needed to know more–a lot more–about literature to write the way I wanted to. I was strong literature student, and my advisor encouraged me to pursue a PhD and become a literature professor. As much as I loved writing poetry, I felt that pursuing literature in graduate school would be more practical, giving me a better chance to support myself, and I told myself that I would go back and pursue an MFA as well. That is exactly how my career worked out, much to my enduring surprise.
What does it feel like to return to school at 50-plus? I’m in a low-residency program, so I suspect that has made it easier–the students in my program range more widely in age than I thought they might, but I believe I am the second oldest. I have a lot more in common with the faculty who run the program than with many of my classmates. I am older than my mentors. I was very nervous driving to the residency that first day, as nervous as I ever have been. The program is new and small, with just six student poets and two poet-mentors, and quite supportive, collegial, and fun. That helps, a lot.
The fears and insecurities I have always had about my writing came roaring back, as though they were placed on pause for 30 years, and then reset. I think I have decent technical skill as a poet, but I struggle with what to say, with what makes for good topics for poems. This is an echo of my concerns from when I was 20 or so–do I know enough? Do I have anything worthwhile to say? I write from where I am–a straight, white, politically progressive, financially comfortable married mother with a full-time, somewhat stressful job. The topics I write about, from that unexceptional life (well, except for an amazing love story, which provides plenty to write about), seem to work, if feedback from my mentors and poems accepted by journals are an indication.
I’ve been surprised by what else has returned to my life since I returned to school, things I’d left behind me, like reading Tarot cards, exploring my spiritual self, recovering poetry I loved but had forgotten about. Returning to poetry has created lovely synchronicities, like discovering that the poet Lorine Niedecker, whom I now admire greatly, yet had never heard of until poetry workshop, was briefly a student at my undergraduate alma mater, Beloit College, or that I’ve alluded to a bit of John Donne in a draft, only to discover that my mentor is currently re-reading his work. These kind of happy coincidences signal to me that I am on the right path.
Pursuing an MFA as this stage of my life is one of the best decisions I’ve made. It’s thrilling to discover, or rediscover, skills and abilities I did not value enough when I was younger. Should I have done it sooner? Maybe, but I have the wisdom to realize that I’m at the right place in the right time. I asked the oldest student in the Miami program, Margaret Faiver, for her thoughts about returning to school; here’s her answer:
“In the last trimester of my life, I feel as if I am giving birth to myself. When I turned sixty, eight years ago, the ticking of the clock of time sounded an alarm in my ears as it moved closer to midnight. Determined to fulfill my life-long dream of earning a BA, I asked myself the question, If not now, when? After a fifty-year hiatus, I headed back to class. Sometimes I was greeted with caution from faculty and students alike. But, overall, my eagerness to drink every ounce of juice from the apple of education was greeted with appreciation and respect. I can say with all honesty, that I learned as much from students just starting out in life as they indicated they did from me.
Of course, the greatest lesson of undergraduate studies is the heightened awareness that there remains so much to learn. Thus, I now find myself a graduate student in the Low-Residency MFA in Creative Writing program at Miami University, Oxford, Ohio. I consider it a profound privilege to sit in workshops and lectures with faculty and students whose creative minds are there to support and critique one another’s work. Is a Ph.D. looming on my horizon? It is possible. The question remains, if not now, when?”
I agree with Margaret: there is so much more to learn. I returned because I need to write poetry, to challenge myself and grow as a writer, because the music of verse in me is not quite voiced by writing critically about poetry, and because I admire women who keep going well beyond their young womanhood, and I wanted to join them.
Do you have something say about poetry? An essay on being a poet, tips for poets, or poetry you love? TrishHopkinson.com is now accepting pitches for guest blog posts.
Kim Jacobs-Beck was born just outside Detroit and has lived in the Midwest for most of her life. A first-year student in Miami University’s low-residency MFA program, she also serves as Interim Associate Dean of Academic Affairs and Professor of English at the University of Cincinnati Clermont College. She holds a Ph.D. from Miami University in British Romantic Literature. Her work appears at Love & Ensuing Madness/Rat’s Ass Review, and Thank You for Swallowing and is forthcoming at NILVX and Muddy River Poetry Review.