Date of Graduation
MFA Creative Writing Thesis
Eberly College of Arts and Sciences
Mary Ann Samyn
Most cancer testimonies are people saying, oh, now I appreciate the little things! Oh, the trees! Now I know what’s really important. But I was already always like that. I’ve always known what’s important and to not let any of it go to waste. So, maybe I’ve been gypped of the main silver lining a cancer diagnosis can provide. I don’t know. I’m still in the process of uncovering my testimony—but these poems, especially the later ones, are certainly part of it because they deal with my everydayness in the style of looking in, looking up, looking out.
The phrase “pay attention” has haunted me at different points in my life. It seems, in school mainly, and within that, in math class, I was never “paying attention.” Or so were my comments come report card time. But I’ve been thinking about that phrase and how people use it as a means of correction. I say it to my mom all the time who never seems to be listening to me. She’s always got something else on her mind. In those moments, I feel she’s paying attention to the wrong thing. But, still, our attention is always on something. Who’s to say if it’s on the right thing or not. If it’s on the natural world, I don’t see how it could ever be wrong.
Not that I’m especially drawn to him, but I read somewhere that D.H. Lawrence said poems are acts of attention. I agree. My poems attend to natural images often, which I use as points of access—a way to enter a feeling, an abstraction, and see what’s up with it. Inside of the label of “lyric,” I supposed that puts me, loosely, in the imagist category. The landscape I use as my sounding board. When I pay attention to it, it does talk back, and in a language less secretive each day.
In The Essential Rumi, Coleman Barks says, “...[F]or a mystic, the inner world is a weather that contains the universe and uses it as a symbolic language” (33). (Apparently, more of us are mystics than we realize!) But the part about symbolic language—for me, it comes through in more than just weather but in the overall everydayness—out in the world running errands or at home setting the table for my parents, walking, driving. All of that translates into emotion for me, and I suppose deciphering those emotions, sorting them out, has been, at least, one goal. I saw a family coming out of a bank the other day. All the kids were holding hands, and the last girl, the littlest, had a lollie in her free hand—the kind with a hoop handle nonetheless! She had to
jump the last step to keep up with the chain of moving siblings. That’s a clear image of joy, or joy is what I saw first in the image.
If my poems show attention to images of the outside world, and particularly nature, then they show I’ve paid equal attention to myself. And if I don’t attend to myself, I can’t attend to others. Anyone who’s ever flown on a plane knows you put an oxygen mask on yourself first. That isn’t always my instinct, though. I still struggle with where the boundary of taking care of myself crosses over into selfishness.
I appreciate when a writer includes the process of the poem’s construction in the poem. Charles Wright does this often—in Halflife, a commonplace book, he mentions that sometimes all the narrative a poem needs can be in the title. I’ve meditated on that in combination with another quote of his: “My plots do not run narratively or linearly, but synaptically, from one nerve spark to another, from one imagistic spark to another.” I’ve come to appreciate the transparency of his many titles such as “Looking Around” and “Thinking About the Poet Larry Levis One Afternoon in Late May” and continue to work toward the same style in my poems. According to Wright, even the longer of his poems are not narrative: “I don't even try anymore. It's subterranean. It's always under there, like an underground river, and it will come up to the surface and then go under again, come back up, go back down.”2 Even though I was inspired by Tom Andrews’ form for my poem “Surgery Diary,” I can also see how I followed Wright’s thoughts on subterranean narrative in that poem.
I’ve come to use Wright’s guidance as justification for my writing process. I write down things I hear people say, fragments, memories, images, shards and frays of this and that. (For me, seeing and hearing come before thinking—they’re the prompts for any larger meditation.) Then I sit down and arrange them. Almost all the time, they go together. And I might add something from the now of that moment. I was originally concerned about the context attached to the line, especially when it was something I heard. I felt some strange loyalty to keep the line with its original context. So much surprise happened when I got over that. I could use a line I heard in a church service in a poem that contextually had no literal church. Language out of context makes new context.
This process is totally different from before when I would sit down and “write a poem”—that is, come up with all the lines at once. Writing the line might be the biggest craft lesson I’m taking with me. Kimiko Hahn, who has also been a large influence, says, “We have to give ourselves permission to trick ourselves. [We are] not trying to write a poem, [we are] trying to get to some raw material which will become a poem.”
Hahn’s book The Narrow Road to the Interior has been the latest to interest me. In it, she values not just what I described above as process, but also as the poem. Fragments and miscellany from notebooks, emails, memories, lists, crafted not for revelation but for resonance. She believes that disorder is itself an order and employs a form called the zuihitsu: a following of the brush. Just go with it. Considering my health, that form has made more sense to me recently than anything else. Prompted by my doctor’s suggestion to keep a log of any “changes” that occur while I’m on new medicine, I’m working on a poem titled “Symptom Notebook” which uses Hahn’s ideas about disorder as a form. I’m also very interested in how the ways of listing, list-making, create non-traditional narrative. While constructing this poem slowly over time, I’m reminded that the kinds of poems I enjoy writing most are the ones that don’t harp on resolution.
Watching a travel show, I heard a guide say something along the lines of: in France you order cheese to finish your wine, then you order more wine to finish your cheese. Eventually, I want that kind of continuum in my work. After all, emotions are never finished.
Something brought clarity for me this week. It was a report from the Pew Research Center saying, “The religious landscape in the United States continues to change at a rapid clip.” Phone surveys between 2018 and 2019 say that 65% of American adults described themselves as Christians. That’s down 12% in ten years. It doesn’t really surprise me that I’m moving in the opposite direction than the rest of the world. I was raised on God, in church. I’ve come back to that world this past year attending church and doing a daily devotion. My faith has returned in spades.
Towards the end of this thesis, my work begins to find a sense of peace because I have. The longer poems have passed, and the smaller sonnet-like poems re-emerge. I’ve discovered a strange peace through no real trial and error. It was all of a sudden after my surgery; it came over me like crisp sheet. I must have felt this kind of peace as a child, the kind that practically verges on glee. There was fear, of course, in the beginning with the diagnosis and lot of stress because of the unknown, and there’s still the unknown. I do, in fact, feel more like me. I didn’t know that was possible. I’ve decided it’s perfect. Coming back to myself has meant coming back to childhood, coming back to God—in all the colors, shapes, and music. Everything else follows suit. I have been so grateful for this time because it’s allowed all that. I’ve been able to order my private world.
 Rūmī, Ǧalāl al-Dīn. The Essential Rumi. Translated by Coleman Barks, Harper Collins Publishers, 2004.
 Byrne, Edward. “Valparaiso Poetry Review.” Time and Again: Charles Wright's Negative Blue: Selected Later Poems, Valparaiso University, 2000, www.valpo.edu/vpr/byrnereviewwright.html
 Mishler, Peter. “Kimiko Hahn: Writing Poetry Between Science and Dreams.” Literary Hub, Grove Atlantic and Electric Literature, 2 Apr. 2019, lithub.com/kimiko-hahn-writing-poetry-between-science-and-dreams/
 “In U.S., Decline of Christianity Continues at Rapid Pace.” Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life, Pew Research Center, 17 Oct. 2019, https://www.pewforum.org/2019/10/17/in-u-s-decline-of-christianity-continues-at-rapid-pace/
Ingram, Kacey Lauren, "Color and Music, Shapes and Music" (2019). Graduate Theses, Dissertations, and Problem Reports. 7450.
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