Street Smart Chicago

Chronicles of Continuing Education: The Poetry of Futility

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By Vincent Francone

At thirty-five, I earned a BA in English. The saga of how I started, stopped, started college is long and, really, not all that interesting, but I can say with complete certainty that I always knew I’d major in English. Reading and talking about books is the only thing I ever enjoyed.  And I did well—all As!—and should have applied to grad-school programs that allowed me to continue on this path, but I opted to do something ridiculous. I decided to study creative writing.

I chose poetry. Why not? I asked myself. I write poems. I read poems. How hard can it be to do this in grad school? Not very; it turns out that the challenge was not in the reading, which compared to an English degree was pretty light, or even in the writing, as writing long analytical essays is infinitely more taxing. The real challenge was working up the nerve to let strangers read my poems. And let them discuss what was wrong with them.

I was lucky: my first workshop was populated with mostly prose writers who were forced to take a “Writing Across Genres” course. Most of their efforts at poetry were pretty rotten, so my rotten poems didn’t stick out. By the end of the semester, I was fairly sure that I would survive the criticism, a mix of positive and dismissive. Some of my fellow students had closely read what I wrote and had real, substantive feedback to give. Some… not so much. Still, even when I disagreed with my peers or shrugged off bland responses, I got to see the benefit of slugging it out week after week. I learned about deadlines and I learned to take some responsibility for my ideas. If they suck, they suck, but it’s no one’s fault but mine. The workshops toughened me up in ways that no amount of sitting alone in front of a laptop writing for no one could.

Despite all of this, I always felt a little embarrassed about my studies. I wrote poems while other people wrote theses. I fiddled with rhyming couplets while others researched behavioral disorders. The full absurdity of my degree became clear upon graduation. Standing among considerably younger women and men with degrees in business and the sciences, I began to think I’d wasted my time and money. What the hell was the point? I was getting very close to forty and was about to face a mountain of debt while armed with only a degree in poetry writing. I sat in the football stadium of my now alma mater listening to our commencement speaker, Wynton Marsalis, who had to cut the speech short due to the bad weather that was gathering above us. He talked about being prepared for life and knowing what to do when. I was not ready. I had no clue. And when the rain came, it was powerful, disorienting. Throngs of parents crowded with their capped-and-gowned children waiting for the shuttle buses to take them back to their cars. I stood in the rain for a bit, dreading the sight of my family. I felt as if the foolishness of my choices brought the storm. They were in the middle of a deluge because of me and my dumb shit.

Later that year, I got my first adjunct teaching gig. I had to figure out what to say to a group of bored college freshman who couldn’t give a damn about thesis statements. It did not go well. A year later, it was still going poorly. I dreaded going to the classroom, slogging through lectures, fumbling with poorly designed PowerPoint slideshows and hearing those sighs when I told the class to take out some paper. It seemed clear that I had colossally fucked up. I began to miss the tedium of office work, the office politics and shifting alliances, but mostly the steady check.

I’ve been at this for a few years and I still am quite sure that I have no idea what I’m doing, but I’m given solace by my conversations with peers, many of whom, despite stating otherwise, show signs of similar doubt. And I am fairly sure that the day I feel that I know what I’m doing will be a day to fear. On a lark, I checked out my rating at Rate My Professors. Apparently, my students think I’m “chill,” which struck me at first as a bad thing (“They ought to fear me!”). But I think that’s the key. Not to sound too much like those obnoxious “Keep Calm and [fill in the blank]” memes, but staying relaxed and just doing whatever needs to be done is the only way to persist. So I keep on. I work harder to make my classes interesting. I try to offer solid feedback, remembering how much a passive comment bugged me during workshops. And I write poems that may never get read but they steady me. Perhaps that was the point of my bullshit degree. It was stupid on a practical level, but a practical existence sounds dull.

 

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