By Ronnie K. Stephens
As with any story, I struggled to find the beginning. That isn’t to say that I don’t know where it started, but how often does one start a journey before the origin is clear?
Point of Discovery
My fascination with beginnings took root when I came across Faster Than the Speed of Light just after graduating from high school. Over the next few months, I devoured The Feynman Lectures, The Origins of the Universe, The Book of Everything, and The Book of Nothing. I was instantly (and hopelessly) stuck on the myriad conceptions of “nothing.” Cultures across continents, across history, were obsessed with 0. Did it represent balance? The absolute point between positive and negative? Was 0 an empty number? Could you have nothing without first having something? The questions swirled in my mind throughout the summer.
By the end of freshman orientation, I regretted majoring in Business Marketing. I was a first-generation college student, so I knew little about the university experience, but I had the good sense to choose one “fun” class that first semester: Theoretical Physics. It was the class that kept me sane, the one that allowed for escape from the group projects and presentations that inundated business classes. I changed my major to Physics second semester, which meant a course load full of high-level mathematics and complex science. To offset these classes, I included “Introduction to Music.”
The professor was incredibly funny, the coursework was relaxing, and there were multiple opportunities for extra credit. My first introduction to this extra credit came by way of a thin man with numerous tattoos, a thick green Mohawk, and dreaded bangs that stretched to his torso. He had at least two dozen piercings dotting his face like metallic constellations. I was unprepared for the softness of the poems he shared.
The extra credit required us to attend a performance poetry event. I had been an avid reader since kindergarten, but my experience with poetry was minimal. I had taken one creative writing course in high school, and I had written maybe a dozen poems over the semester. They were all terrible, of course—filled with abstraction and overly sentimental, professing love for my girlfriend, Valerie. Despite their shortcomings, I shared them with her. Instead of reading them, she put the notebook aside and made excuses for why she hadn’t read them.
Point of Concern
At the extra credit event, I sat alone. The man on stage delivered poems filled with grief, hope, and humor. I was hooked. I knew from the tattooed man’s presentation that there would be another event later in the month, also for extra credit. By the time it rolled around, I had shared a poem with the tattooed man, whose name was Russ. He ripped into me for being too scared to read it on stage. Russ could read people better than anyone I’d ever met, and he knew blunt honesty was the best route.
He invited me to the local poetry slam, run by a friend of his named Doug. As it happened, Doug had a degree in physics, and at the first slam he performed a poem explaining the theory of relativity using two ants at a picnic as an analogy. I swooned. I also made the poetry slams a habit. Month after month, Valerie refused to go. Increasingly aware of her lack of support for my renewed passion for poetry, I realized that I would have to decide what I loved more. I left her just shy of our five-year anniversary, changed my major to Latin, and filled my course load with every creative writing elective I could find.
Point of Clarity
I stuck with Latin for the rest of my undergraduate studies, which afforded me the opportunity to learn about language in more detail than I ever had. By the time I finished my B.A., I had taken two creative writing courses and two advanced writing workshops. I was a staple at poetry slams and had generally moved past my fear of the stage. I had befriended both men I’d seen perform as a college freshman.
One of them, Derrick Brown, was unique in the performance circuit because he never competed at slams. His style drew me in for a number of reasons. His writing was vulnerable and tender, yet absurd and fun. I learned that, like most friendships in performance poetry, ours was one that started and stopped independent of time.
I was now keenly aware that I wanted to be a writer, and that I was not nearly good enough to succeed. I applied to my university’s M.F.A. program at the encouragement of my workshop professors, only to be rejected by the director before the review board ever saw my application. Though the rejection was bad form, one of my professors encouraged me to “go out and live a little, then come back for the M.F.A.”
I had no idea where to start. Luckily, the same professor invited me to apply for a summer writing program in Ireland. It was a six-week program based at NIU–Galway with a half-dozen visiting writers as professors. For me, it was the first real opportunity to sequester myself and focus entirely on writing. While there, I attended numerous readings. I learned more from the twenty-minute Q-and-As after readings than I had in all my previous writing classes combined.
One of the visiting professors was Ilya Kaminsky. Kaminsky was only a few years older than me, had immigrated from Ukraine, was deaf, and managed to find music in the English language more efficiently, more precisely than anyone I’d ever met. His energy was infectious. Here was a man who exuded absolute joy when he talked of words. He didn’t care where he got them. He wanted them all. And in everything he read, he found beauty. Kaminsky even encouraged me to apply to San Diego State University, where he directed the M.F.A. program.
Point of Regret
Performance poetry had introduced me to the idea of writing as political dissent, and my graduate work in comparative literature and cultural studies gave me the language to process it. I settled into reading through a critical lens, which provided me with yet another tool to improve my writing. In my last semester of graduate study, I took Kaminsky’s advice and applied to SDSU. To my surprise, I was quickly accepted.
Around the same time, I started dating an undergraduate creative writing major. I told her that I would be moving to San Diego for the M.F.A. program the following semester. She was curious about what San Diego had to offer, so she decided to come along when I went to visit SDSU over spring break. For me, the trip was purely about getting a sense for what my time at SDSU would be like. For her, it was an opportunity to explore.
Kaminsky informed me that SDSU could not waive tuition, as other M.F.A. programs often did, because it was a state school and lacked the necessary funding. He knew that money would be an issue for me, so he had arranged for me to teach as an adjunct at SDSU while I pursued the degree. In addition, he had pitched me as a potential creative writing professor at the local community college with the goal of creating a bridge program for SDSU. I was blown away by Kaminsky’s faith in me. He had quite literally done everything in his power to make SDSU a reality.
My now-fiancée wanted to visit a few massage therapy schools in San Diego to see if there was something for her to pursue in the area. The programs we visited did not impress her. She didn’t have a strong concept of her future, but it was clear that San Diego didn’t offer much for her. Despite my steadfast resolve to work with Kaminsky, I ultimately contacted him to let him know that I would not be attending SDSU after all.
This was a devastating decision, one which I couldn’t fully process at the time. I was a couple months from completing my M.A. program but, when I turned in a thesis draft, my advisor said that it was uninspired and I agreed. I scrapped the entire thing. We decided that I would choose a new topic and continue working beyond the end of the semester. I couldn’t schedule my comps until the thesis was complete, so I left in May without a degree, and with little motivation to finish the work in front of me.
My cousin mentioned a job opportunity in Dallas, so my fiancée and I moved down to check it out. Six months later, the economy turned and I was laid off. I had a bachelor’s degree, forty-two graduate hours, and nothing to show for it. After several weeks, I took a part-time job working loss prevention. I also decided to become certified to teach. The program I chose boasted extremely high placement rates for teachers, yet I found an almost universal ban on alternatively certified English teachers when I started applying for positions.
Now married, my wife and I decided to return to Arkansas where she had been offered her old scholarship and a chance to finish her degree. For nine months, the only job I could land was, again, in loss prevention. It was a good job, but I was miserable and had a strong desire to enter teaching. I applied to every district in Texas, then to a nationwide program called Teach for America.
Point of Origin
Though the effectiveness of Teach for America and its impact on public education have sparked debate, there’s no question that joining the corps changed my life. I was placed in Tulsa, Oklahoma. I had never considered living in Oklahoma, and I was not particularly excited about East Central High School, where I had been assigned to teach English.
From the outside, ECHS looked like a prison. There were no windows. The building had a central tower with shorter wings flanking two sides, and at every entrance a sign was posted: No Guns Allowed. Armed security guards manned the only unlocked door. All of that paled in comparison to large class sizes and the citywide prejudice against ECHS students.
My English classes averaged about 35 students, but geometry classes were often so full that students gathered in the doorways and sat on the floor between desks to take notes. Our art program won the most awards of any high school in Oklahoma, yet media coverage of the school centered on arrests and lockdowns. To the city, ECHS was a training ground for criminals. To me, it was a sanctuary of enlightenment and growth.
I discovered two things my first year that have shaped me as a person and as a writer: Louder Than a Bomb, the largest youth poetry festival in the world, was expanding to Tulsa, and ECHS was a haven for LGBTQ students who’d been bullied in other schools. The two came together in my classroom. I began holding poetry workshops after school, hanging out with students over breakfast, and turning my room into a safe space for any student who felt silenced.
One thing I loved was that students at East Central would call me out. When I asked them to write, they demanded that I write with them. When we held a fundraiser addressing body shaming and sexual abuse, they demanded I share a poem alongside theirs. Writing became our therapy, the thing we turned to when we couldn’t process the various traumas in our lives. My production increased exponentially, and by my second year I had put together a full-length poetry collection.
I had my eyes on Write Bloody Publishing, the press founded by Derrick. I admired the blind submission process because there was no risk of favoritism. I submitted my manuscript three years in a row only to be rejected each time. I was a finalist the last two years, and the second time Derrick recommended that I send my manuscript to a friend of his who’d just started a press called Timber Mouse Publishing. The roster was small, but the products were high quality and the editor, Kevin Burke, was a good man. That meant more to me than widespread marketing, so I sent the manuscript.
Timber Mouse turned out to be a perfect match. Kevin picked up my book and paired me with an editor named Ariana Brown. I had been pretty successful at publishing in literary journals, but my experience with Ariana changed the way I looked at publishing. She had a keen eye and never pulled punches. Between her comments and the countless editing sessions my friend, Dane, and I had over the next few months, my first collection improved dramatically and was ready to print.
More to the Point
Two months before Universe in the Key of Matryoshka went to the printers, my wife left. We’d been struggling since the birth of our daughters, identical twins named Helen and Molly. Yet again, I turned to writing to process the emotions. I was living in Texas by then, but I remained in contact with a handful of my former East Central students. Together, we committed to writing a poem a day for two months. At the end of the second month, I had another project finished. It was very different from my first collection because every poem was ekphrastic, inspired by the illustrations of a long-time friend named Desarae Lee; the book would pair each poem with its corresponding artwork. I sent the manuscript to Kevin, who picked it up almost immediately and slated it for release in late 2016.
This raises the question: Why an M.F.A? Why now? And why Wilkes?
My connection to the slam community is something I’ve cultivated for more than a decade. Through those connections, I was invited to help bring Louder Than a Bomb to Dallas. Jason Carney, an old acquaintance, was expanding the program to Dallas-Fort Worth and thought I would be a good addition to the advisory committee. At one of our meetings, I mentioned that of all the decisions I made during my marriage, I regretted only one: I’d given up on an M.F.A. He recommended Wilkes.
When I first began my research, I wasn’t impressed with the program design. Still, I trusted Jason’s judgment and decided to apply. I also applied to Sierra Nevada and Stone Coast. I’m sure that my renewed determination was due, at least in part, to my desire to reclaim my previous goal. I wanted to make choices for myself, something I’d never done. On a more practical level, I wanted an M.F.A. so that I could transition from high school to college teaching. I’d had brief stints as a teaching assistant and as adjunct faculty at a community college, and I longed for the freedom afforded college professors.
During my first residency at Wilkes, I was bored with the assignments, yet enamored with the program faculty. The course material was familiar, designed for emerging writers rather than those with numerous workshops under their belts. I expected as much, so I wasn’t disheartened. In fact, I was inspired to challenge myself. I had come to the first residency intending to focus on poetry, an easy task considering I had two collections through Timber Mouse, a chapbook, and a third full-length manuscript ready for editing. In talking with professors and classmates, though, I realized that focusing on poetry would be a waste.
It’s not that I don’t still have a lot to learn about poetry; it’s just that I have a strong community which already pushes me as a poet. What I didn’t have was experience with prose. I decided to explore nonfiction and fiction during my foundations classes. With fiction, the assignments were again familiar. I’d actually taught all but one of the assigned readings for several years. Still, the writing tasks attached to the readings, and the design of the course, helped me develop and fine-tune a number of skills. It was more productive than I expected, ultimately inspiring me to move forward with a novel idea developed during the foundations course.
Now, in my second project semester, I couldn’t imagine being anywhere but Wilkes. What I lacked as a writer, more than anything, was a diverse community. That’s exactly what Wilkes has to offer. The design of the program fosters community almost as much as it fosters growth as a writer. While many M.F.A. programs may very well improve one’s writing, I suspect that few are as successful at cultivating relationships that continue well beyond graduation. I came to Wilkes quite versed in writing, perhaps more extensively trained than most students in the history of the program. I knew full well that I could learn the writing side of things anywhere. Because of my experience, though, I knew how vital a writing community would be for continued growth.
The thing about writing is that it doesn’t stop when you finish a class or graduate a program. Writers write because they have to. And any good writer will tell you that if you want to keep growing, you’ll need a community. A community asks questions. A community challenges. A community supports. I didn’t come to an M.F.A. program for confirmation or encouragement. I came to get better. Wilkes makes writers better. It’s as simple as that.
Ronnie K. Stephens is a full-time English teacher. He has identical twins and a brand new baby that take up all the space in his chest. He is currently pursuing an M.F.A. from Wilkes University. His first poetry collection, Universe in the Key of Matryoshka, was published by Timber Mouse Publishing in 2014. His second collection will be released later this year.