Each creative writing and literature major at Residential College at the University of Michigan has the opportunity to write a thesis in their final year, working with an academic advisor to produce a curated body of work. Theses can take the form of novels, short stories, poetry, short stories or essays. The 2021-2022 school year saw 11 students take up the challenge. First we saw the novelists – then two of the poets.
Malin Andersson, “Ariane’s Thread”
Unlike many writers, Malin Andersson does not fix her attention on a single form of writing. Instead, she chooses to express herself and develop her skills in both fiction and poetry. But when it came to her dissertation, she knew poetry was the way to go: in an interview with The Michigan Daily, she said, “Poetry strikes me as a form in which you can talk for 30 minutes about a single word or single image construction, and you can really get to the heart of the matter. She liked the idea of this specificity in an individual setting and the impact it could have on her other work, but she also liked the idea of experimentation. “It’s a free form in which I can express whatever I want – something that doesn’t have as many rules or restrictions as fiction or prose,” Andersson said. “I didn’t have to stick to the same characters, I could experiment and then write a new poem that would be totally different. So it was really free and flexible, which felt like the perfect form to experiment and try something totally new.
The guiding questions she chose for her dissertation—”What if I simply walked through the fairy tale woods? What would I find there?”—were partly the product of her desire accessibility.” I think poetry can often isolate people in a certain way,” she said. “So I chose fairy tales and folklore thinking it’s kind of of common language or image that people know and that maybe I could rely on to get something interesting.” She thought that fairy tales, having been told from generation to generation, could entertain both those who knew poetry well and those who never read it. Andersson explained, “If someone reads a lot of poetry, could he find something interesting here? And also someone who does not read poetry at all, like many of my family members or friends of mine. At the end of this, when I say: ” Hey, here’s my thesis,” they would be reading it, saying, “I don’t get it at all.” It doesn’t make much sense. Does it matter whether they get it or not? Could I just give them something interesting to read?
The resulting collection, “Breadcrumbs”, is an amalgamation of old and new. To prepare for writing such a collection, Andersson read old and new fairy tales, quoting both the classic Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen as well as the contemporary Carmen Giménez Smith. Through this research, she developed her brainchild, “expanding it, then contracting it, then expanding it and shrinking it again.” At the time of writing, her winning strategy has simply been to trust herself and her work: freedom to experiment around it. Trusting that I could write a bunch of stuff, then take a few steps back, think about it, then write more, then think about it again – trusting myself and my instincts in this process. She also allowed herself to be instructed by her poems, “really asking the poems themselves to let you know what they want to be”, rather than trying to force them to fit where she wanted them to.
This tactic makes sense when you consider his reason for writing in the first place. For Andersson, poetry fulfills several functions. On the one hand, she says she writes “to delve deeper into things that I’m experiencing, or — it sounds a little psychedelic — things that I’ve imagined, like realities that I’d just like to go spend some time. in… I guess I write to exercise my brain… Every poem is a little closed experience where you can say, ‘if that happened, what would it be like?’ Or conversely: ‘this something has already happened, how can I give it a deeper meaning?’ Sometimes poetry helps her make sense of the big things in life: “What if I wanted to express something that I’m going through, but I don’t want people to know exactly what it is about?” What if I want to dress him up or make him a little shy or a little evasive? In doing so, she said she learned to express herself by “skipping around the real problem.”
At the same time, she sees poetry as a space “where you can just be, imagine, and enjoy small details in a way you’ve missed before.” She reflects on an exercise she does on her walk home where she tries to really notice what’s on the sidewalk, about the things that often go unnoticed “in the hustle and bustle of everything, especially in America, in this very fast pace of life.” Poetry isn’t just a style of writing; it’s a state of mind. She said it “makes you stop and really think about things, or ruminate on a little detail without the pressure to give meaning” to the endless complexities of life. Writing, she said, “can free me from the need to make sense of it and also give me the tools to make sense of it.”
You can read an excerpt from “Breadcrumbs” here.
Fes Fessenden, “Body Farm”
Fez Fessenden’s collection is rooted in ecological poetry, something that organically appealed to them. In their interview with The Daily, they explained, “I’ve always felt like the writing I do has to come from the world around me. And I’ve always been interested in conservation work, and just a general feeling that the human body is just part of nature, not separate from it. But when they first applied to the thesis program, they presented an idea for a collection on “gender and the pandemic and (their) grandfather and the earth”, saying that “at the time of applying for the thesis is what i used to write about a lot, digging into old childhood memories and trying to fit them into my current space.
However, their plans took a turn during the English Department’s New England Literature Program (NELP), during which “you’re sent out into the woods for six weeks, with 40 students and 12 instructors,” a Fessenden said. “And you just live in the New England wilderness with no technology and you read and write.” After a year of living through the COVID-19 pandemic – of what Fessenden called “the numbing nothingness” – NELP was an experience of “rediscovering what (they) love to do” and diving into “this mesh of life”. feeling experience of the human body and the outside.” Fessenden said they “always wanted to weave death and life together, to say that they’re both so fleeting”, and their thesis centered on “this idea that we will experience all of these human emotions and sensations incredible, then one day we’re just going to be eaten by mushrooms and that’s it – and then we’re going to create new life.
Fessenden credits much of their growth as a poet to extensive reading and comparing their work with that of poets they have read. “When I was at NELP, I read a lot of old (writers) like Henry David Thoreau and Emily Dickinson,” Fessenden said. “I was really informed by that, and so a lot of my stuff was pretty traditional in form: long and naturalistic and almost pastoral. And then when I got out of that and started reading more contemporary work, my stuff was geared towards that. One of the contemporary poets they credit is Ross Gay (“Shamelessly Gratitude Catalog”), saying that “his work deals with so much good and bad through the prism of gratitude”, something they incorporated into their own worldview and work.
Like the poetry they read, Fessenden also wanted to make sure their work could speak to a wide audience. “The last thing I want is for it to be elitist – or too simple,” Fessenden said. “I want the work to speak to a wide range of people and be accessible and, at the same time, allow people who are used to reading poetry and digging deeper to dig deeper.”
It was not an easy process, and it sometimes caused them to experience impostor syndrome despite their immense talent and passion for their work. “I felt like such an impostor because I was like, how do I know what’s good?” Fessenden said. “Like, it’s a poem. You have to ask people. And I was the one who asked my thesis supervisor, my friends, as many people as possible, ‘What do you think of this? what he can enter?’ Every time a poem was deemed unsuitable for collection, it felt like they were “killing (their) babies,” as they described it.
But this process has also been extremely rewarding for Fessenden. “I feel like the work I was creating not only reflected how I was changing, it was also changing me, because writing about it gave me different perspectives on the world I found myself in. era,” Fessenden said. And despite his challenges, Fessenden feels a certain compulsion to write – to produce art which, for them, is “the fastest way…to make the most of the world”. They said, “I write because it’s a way for me to distill the joy I see in the world and feel. It’s something I make fun of myself because I think a lot of my poetry is, at the surface level, very cynical, and often – often being about death – sad. Well, what makes me laugh is that I’m such a happy person. The reason I write is because I am so thrilled with the things that happen in the world that I feel like I have to write about them to relive that joy.
They describe their titular poem, “Body Farm”, as a piece that illustrates this contradiction. The poem is “at the center of a love I had for another person at some point in my life that faded – the love didn’t fade quickly, but the relationship faded though quickly,” Fessenden said. “And so, it was both about the breakdown between me and this person and also about the animals burrowing into the forest floor. And in writing that I was able to overcome some of the angst and ecstasy I had felt about this relationship.
You can read Fessenden’s collection here.
Daily Arts editor Brenna Goss can be reached at [email protected].