Date of Award
Master of Fine Arts
Lex A. Williford
John D. Pluecker
“Here I stand at the beginning
with more questions than
–George Ella Lyon, “Provenance” from A Many Storied House
This collection of poems and flash memoir tries to be memory in the flesh. Perhaps it’s the other way around – this book is composed of memories striving to be poems, pieces of music, flashes of memoir, and photographs, all for the purpose of exploring who I was, who I am, and who I could become. Whichever way one interprets it, Elegies for My Past and Future Selves is a hybrid collection that looks at the events of my past, my anxieties of the present, and my tentative hope for the future. The collection is experimental, both in the work itself or the means of generating it.
Told through memory and confession, Elegies largely explores matters of the heart and mind – mental illness, childhood trauma, the ghosts of who I used to be, what I thought the world would be, and the uncertainty of the future. With my experience as a singer framing the larger non-linear narrative, Elegies shows the transformation of a traumatized child to an artist reclaiming some of their power by using their voice. The narrator writes about Dallas-area locations such as Lake Tawakoni and Trinity Park, deep fears and boogeymen like serial killer Israel Keyes. In contrast, some poems are about love, fulfillment, and joy, which have marked even the darkest times. By employing visual elements – especially collage, charts, and photography – as part of my writing, and using various typographical structures on the page, I have found a new approach to telling the stories that I am compelled to share, some of which have never been told to anyone.
I have always been a writer in some form, but something shifted in my practice around October of 2020. Despite entering the MFA program in the fall of 2019 with the intention of focusing on fiction, my Advanced Creative Nonfiction and Advanced Poetry courses pushed me in a different direction, giving me the focus I had been looking for. Through exposure to new voices, structures, and approaches to writing, I became more comfortable talking about myself and others and experimenting with my writing. Many of these practices, writing as a response to my writing “ecosystem,” have become integral to my writing process.
A lot less formal than what books on craft tend to suggest a writer should have, my creative process is best described as “organized chaos.” I work within a hellish paradigm wherein it can be easiest to write when inspiration strikes but I still need to write – because I’m a writer. I meditate on ideas all the time – while I’m doing the dishes, when I can’t sleep at night, when I’m driving. I sometimes write obsessively for many hours, but I can also go multiple days without writing more than a few notes. This sporadic practice is hell for the organized Type-A side of me but a natural fit for my scatterbrained, flexible Type-B side. However, I tend to document the most important pieces when I need to with the Google Docs app on my phone, where I often jot things down. I have a section in my running “To-Do” list document for writing ideas and lines that pop into my head. When necessary, I will even make a voice note.
Poets Seema Reza and Ada Limon have both discussed the importance of taking time to think and the mental work that occurs when living with stories and poems. Limon says in an interview for her newest book, The Carrying, that “A lot of the time when I’m in a producing mode, it’s because I’ve been receptive to the world for a long time. Suddenly it’s like, ‘Okay. I’ve turned something inside me. It’s time to work” (Cole). In a workshop I attended, Reza expressed similar sentiments, saying that we often have time when we are (what I like to call) idly busy – again, in traffic, doing household chores, chipping away at mindless work – and using those times to prep for the work of writing.
Just as important as mentally preparing to write is the active pursuit of inspiration. What triggers something in me to pick up the pen or type into my Google Doc? What is on my mind but hasn’t come out yet because I haven’t found a way to express it? For me, this often includes consuming any written, audio, or visual media I can find: poetry, news articles, old journal entries, fiction, podcasts, cheesy TV shows. I feel that if one looks for gold, they can find it in unexpected places, especially if they shift their mindset about what gold looks like. With the experimental techniques I learned in my poetry classes, such as C.A. Conrad’s “(Soma)tic Poetry Rituals,” and texts from mentors, I have multiple places that I can go when I need to jumpstart my writing.
As a passionate user of technology and presentation tools, my personal favorite generative strategy is to open Canva and look through the designs. The original draft of this book was mostly written in Canva due to the robust library of visual elements and fonts at my disposal. I have since moved to InDesign for the remainder of the book’s creation due to the 100 page limit in Canva. I first thought of moving toward a visual method of storytelling when the layered story in Thi Bui’s artwork for her graphic memoir The Best We Could Do emotionally impacted me, but I don’t particularly enjoy drawing. When I discovered how much I could do digitally, though, my work became more visual.
Many life experiences culminated in the creation of this book: my grief at the loss of my Pappaw to Covid and my Uncle Bruce in a motorcycle accident three years prior; mourning the child I used to be; the torment of loving another person; nostalgia for people, places, and times that I miss and often struggle to remember; family history; self-discovery; childhood trauma that remains vivid in my mind; and my ongoing struggles with depression, anxiety, and a late diagnosis of ADHD and Bipolar II.
A major section of Elegies covers my time as a singer, guitarist, and pianist, especially my undergraduate degree in music, though I’ve been singing my entire life. I joined my first church choir when I was four years old, and through years of participating in both school and church choir, and competing in region and state competitions, I decided to be a professional singer. In high school, I decided to pursue music in a more practical way by directing high school choir, something that would allow me to share my passion with others and continue to sing. However, I suffered from debilitating anxiety that negatively impacted my ability to perform. I was in constant distress during performances — not at the prospect of people watching and listening or even that I wouldn’t sound my best, but being in auditoriums with such open space, tall ceilings, and being trapped in one spot, unable to move no matter how dizzy I became. Despite those issues, I pursued the degree in music and ultimately finished that degree, albeit without the teaching certification I had originally intended to receive. Instead, I minored in Creative Writing and completed enough hours of English credit to qualify for teaching public school English/Language Arts. My dream shifted, as dreams often do, and now I am exploring how to reconcile my many truths. Going through the MFA program at UTEP fulfilled a dream and career goal of mine, and the courses have introduced me to literature that I may not have otherwise read, if for no other reason than not being aware of its existence. If one were to tally up the entries in my bibliography, there is notably less fiction on this list compared to the number of books containing poetry, prose, memoir, and creative nonfiction, and the fictional work on the list often takes place in the form of poetry. Regardless of genre, however, all these works have in common that they have captured my attention and compelled me to begin self-exploration.
Over the past few years, I’ve become focused on a particular writing style, the voice and content characterized by sincerity, visual experimentation, and specific, concrete imagery. As well, the concept of a “writing ecosystem” – writing that directly influences one’s own – and convergence of many ideas at once has become a template for creating a rich narrative experience. In reaction to immersing myself in work that felt revolutionary in its openness and bravery, I began emulating some of the new writing styles that had come into my life through creative exercises in class, which became pieces in this project and have influenced the evolution of my writing practice.
The kernel of writing that became this project evolved from an assignment that forced me to face my musical past and the complicated emotions I still carry. As part of an assignment in a Spring 2021 class called “Writing in an Expanded Field,” I was going to spend time with objects that reminded me of my time as a musician. I wanted to hold my Texas Music Educators Association (TMEA) Convention 2011 t-shirt to my body that I bought in my senior year of high school, wave my conducting baton, and sift through my library of sheet music. However, when I couldn’t find these items that I once treasured, I wrote a set of poems about their absence and their memory that opened a floodgate of creative process — in both the writing sense and in the mental/emotional sense.
At that time, I was reading Gabrielle Civil’s Swallow the Fish, a memoir, poetry collection, and compendium of performance art in one book. It was one of the first hybrid books I had ever read, and it clicked for me as a writer that writing is multidimensional and can be visual, aural, physical, or minimal. Furthermore, writing can become performance and performance can become writing. The musician in me was intrigued.
From my response Swallow the Fish, rereading the quiet, agonizing visual epic Antígona González by Sara Uribe, and experiments from or based off CA Conrad’s “(Soma)tic Poetry Rituals,” I wrote the set of poems called “items that meant the world to me that i can no longer find.” The prompt was “Gather 9 small objects, which could include a sock, a scarf, a grocery receipt, a photo torn from a magazine, a spoon, or a pencil...Now walk alongside the 9 strewn objects, narrating your interpretation of this map aloud. Take notes for a poem.” (Conrad). The days when I wrote these poems were the first time I’d truly admitted to myself how much regret I had over “allowing” my anxiety and depression to keep me from something meaningful and fulfilling. Though I now believe that none of the struggles I had were my fault, it felt for several years that I simply failed myself by not “pushing through,” as classmates, family members, and mentors suggested I should. Looking at those years in which I experienced joy and anxiety in equal measure as a musician was tough but therapeutic, because for once, I could see and reexperience the pride and genuine excitement of singing again while also learning to love my younger self and relieve us both of the guilt and shame we had unnecessarily carried.
Part of the poetry in that assignment was performance directions for the piece, a reference to Civil’s many performance transcripts included in her book Swallow the Fish. I knew I’d likely never perform these poems because I’m not comfortable enough to perform my poetry yet, but I wanted to explore what it would be like to perform them, what conditions would be appropriate for telling this story, and how I could overlap performance of music and poetry. Civil may not have had formal music training, but the primal desire to scream, cry, sing, act out her emotions, and take up space – literal and figurative – activated the same desire that I had to be open to expressing my own inner self.
My thesis works within many forms of narrative and poetry, but is mostly a work of memory, confession, fragmentation/noon-linear narrative, and visual poetry. In those ways, the main three influences are three female writers: Gabrielle Civil, George Ella Lyon, and Joan Didion. Gender is an underlying topic in many of my poems, but I don’t discuss it overtly in this current evolution of the book. However, the ecosystem in which my poetry lives is largely populated by women (as well as gender non-conforming, trans, and queer individuals), which speaks to the heart work that happens within the stories relayed here. The spaces I choose to live in acknowledge trauma, offer support, and encourage community. That’s not to say that feminism is always about “kindness and warmth, belonging and healing,” but I feel emotional support and security in the ecosystem where I live with my writing. This is intentional, given the violence that underlies trauma, especially in childhood, gender-based, and sexual trauma, which underline the stories of my life. However, as Civil, Lyon, and Didion before me, I chose to be vulnerable despite the discomfort it brings.
Memory and confession play a large part in the overall narrative of Elegies. Throughout, I attempt to remember difficult events to process them, to hold onto moments of joy, to walk the halls of the few places that have felt like home, and to solidify people whose voices I will never hear again. Tethered to the past and anxious about the future, always worried about what will come next, I write about themes that are so fundamental to the makeup of who I am. I have attempted to explore these questions:
- How accurate are my memories? Can my memories be fully trusted?
- If my memories reflect my personal history, what do they mean for the future — especially regarding who I become?
- Will I follow the path of my mom and push everyone away by clinging too tight?
- Will I ever overcome my anxiety and depression?
- Is it possible to stop being sad when the people that raised me exuded and taught me sadness?
- How does a memory become a poem or a song, and how can words heal the person who writes them? Others?
- What do I risk in confessing all of this to strangers?
- How much judgment will I face?
- What techniques can I learn and practice in my writing?
I have no concrete answers to these questions, but poetry and memoir are vehicles for exploring them. In 2020, Joan Didion’s writing fascinated me. In two classes, back to back, I read The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights. Both memoirs revolve around the death of Didion’s husband, then her daughter. I seek to emulate her ability to avoid overly emotional, saccharine depictions of events. Instead, she offers vivid imagery and concrete details that cause the reader to have an emotional reaction. That can admittedly be a fine line to walk at times when writing about the past, but I don’t sense that the reality she conveys doesn’t extend beyond her authentic version. In describing her relationships with her husband and daughter, both of whom died within a few years of each other, it’s clear that grief has many facets, explaining the truth of who someone was is messy. Didion’s brutal honesty about her life, marriage, and motherhood is an example I attempt to follow. With the help of my thesis director, I have continued revising my poems to contain more concrete details and to move toward authentic emotion and less sentimentality.
Because I work with emotionally complex content, I only write non-linearly. My attempt to “write to the wound” leads me to break up the pieces of the story, because to look at something in one piece feels insurmountable. For example, to truly examine the reasons why I’m no longer a performing musician, one must see all these pieces, which are connected to others, like gum stuck to sidewalks around the city of Nacogdoches or the fishing docks at Lake Tawakoni or the Houston suburb of Cypress. Fragments of stories are more manageable to craft, and by the end of Elegies, I will have many more pieces, making it more coherent – but never all of them. I will discuss moment A, which naturally leads into B and C, but to skip to D is divine. The reader imagines and fills in details, and when B and C come up again later, events from before will make more sense given a new context.
One of the most impressive aspects of Blue Nights and The Year of Magical Thinking, the non-linear narrative structure, lays the scenes out in sequences of emotional arcs. One can read through the book and learn something about the couple’s lives, then later on, hear another way Didion or even another person remembers it. Didion would be in another part of the story, then recall a moment from earlier in the book; with the context she has shared in that moment, the scene from earlier takes on a different meaning. An example of this fragmentation that rings true for me is Joan Didion’s description of the night her husband died in The Year of Magical Thinking, which she comes back to multiple times throughout the book. As she frequently does in her books, Didion begins with the inciting incident and lines that set the rest of the narrative in motion: “Life changes fast. / Life changes in an instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends. / The question of self-pity” (3). In the first several pages, she describes in stream-of-consciousness detail the blur of the night of his death, then the events that led up to his death. Without explicitly saying he died or even using the word itself, she provides the details: a phone call and stream of emergency responders that she doesn’t remember – we will find this out later (11-13).
The lines from page 3 repeat frequently throughout the book, each instance accompanied by a new meaning; the reader’s understanding of the events builds over time. In chapter 6, Didion recalls a dream from a time when she still lived in California, where she sees what she understands to be the icy visage of death. She writes “there was in this dream no dread,” and goes on to admit that she found death’s image beautiful (76-77). However, in the face of her husband’s death, the lines from the beginning return, causing her to question her inability to accept his fate as something that happened to him instead of her: “Life changes fast / … The question of self-pity” (77). Didion’s question of self-pity has developed, and so has the reader’s understanding of why she asks this question to begin with. By page 198, the opening lines – and several others – have become voices echoing throughout the book, and Didion reveals that while reading Caitlin Thomas’ Leftover Life to Kill about the death of her husband, Dylan Thomas, she felt unmoved and uncomfortable. She remembers “being dismissive of, even censorious about, her ‘self-pity,’ ... I was twenty-two years old. Time is the school in which we learn” (198). Self-pity, the reader now understands, is something indulgent and awkward in Didion’s eyes, but as a widow (though she doesn’t like to use that word) it’s something that she engages with.
In Janet Burroway’s essay “Embalming Mom,” she explores the loss of Burroway’s mother through the lens of multiple shifting memories. From reading it, I have a better sense of how to approach an important topic that fits into the family history of my book but is underrepresented: the relationship with my parents. Like Didion and Thi Bui in her graphic memoir, The Best We Could Do, Burroway discusses the multiple facets of her mother and the life they shared but does so in a manner that verges on stream-of-consciousness. One memory flows from one into another seamlessly with the use of objects as joints from which to turn. It is non-linear chronologically but is a clear stream of ideas. In doing so, one moment explains and clarifies another, then another.
Seema Reza also offers emotional vulnerability and a non-linear structure in her book When the World Breaks Open, but within a three-part organization wherein the reader has more intimate access to her life, thoughts, and emotions with each new section. Currently, my thesis, divided into three sections, follows a similar pattern. However, as I continue generating new material, I find that the organization of my thesis begins to feel inorganic and forced, whereas Reza’s is akin to a three-course meal, the final portion the richest.
In my own work, there are a few different story arcs; my life as a musician; the childhood trauma that still affects me; love; mourning people in my life who have died; attempting to nurture my younger self from here in the present. In an effort to understand what happened to me and find perspective, the events that embody the core traumas of my life are explored multiple times from different angles. For example, the narrator’s attachment to music is evident from the fourth poem, “In The SFASU Music Building, 2011 (feat. Gabriel Fauré’s “Après Un Rêve”)” and subsequent poems build upon the initial understanding of the narrator’s regret and sadness surrounding the loss of their once-promising music endeavors (28). I ultimately chose to organize the creative manuscript into four sections instead of the original three: To the World, Holding Pattern, Transformation, and The Beginning.
Exploring grief and past selves, George Ella Lyon’s A Many Storied House is a deeply moving example of how to work with physical space and memory to tell a story. This example creates another angle for me to explore in telling the story of my life: through the spaces that have made me who I am. These spaces hold many memories, many past selves are present, and many ghosts are watching.
When I first read visual poetry as an undergraduate student, I found it compelling but overwhelming. It became my goal to write with visual elements and push the boundaries of what writing could look like. It would be a long time before I felt comfortable taking risks with the visual components that I admired in others’ work. My concerns about my work appearing gimmicky and therefore not literary enough. Again, my anxieties impacted my art. However, through more exposure to visual poetry and some experimentation in this MFA program, I found visual poetry to be a medium that helped me express myself better. Douglas Kearney, for example, creates visual poems like “Of Agricultural Work” layering the multiple meanings of the poems — as well as the visual elements.
Figure 0.1 “Of Agricultural Work” by visual poet Douglas Kearney
This poem seems to be composed of various physical pieces of text glued to paper but doesn’t have a through-line that one could transcribe into a typical poem. However, as the reader moves across the page, they take note of lines like “bodies fertilize the fields / reddens,” “blood collected in / a watering can, “POWER + / MONEY” (followed by what appears to be “GREED.” This unique approach to the discussion of literal agriculture, the exploitation of workers, and the bloody history of the southern United States provokes numerous emotional responses in a reader: guilt, disgust, and anger, for example.
In describing his process in the postscript of a poem on futurefeed, Kearney writes:
The software/texture/performance connection is this: type-layout software like InDesign keeps the letters smooth as I, say, retype found text, making no visual differentiation between text sourced from distinct places…For me, using InDesign is ‘playing the bassline.’ With something like Photoshop, once I find the text I need, I can copy and collage away. The copy brings with it the texture from the source text. When these different textures—and, typically, typefaces—combine into a single poem, voicing becomes a question.
In my own work, I play with this artistic concept in various ways. For example, the poem “Tired” shows an image of a brain scan in the background of the words “I’m so damn tired of thinking about you” repeated multiple times with varying fonts, sizes, and colors.
Figure 0.2 “Tired”
The message blunt, readers find more through the different iterations of the line. Each version has its own personality and voice. The pink script text in the top left-hand corner mimics a young girl’s handwriting. The thick black text running down the middle of the page looks like an angry text message. The overall result of the layers of text is overwhelming. Before writing this poem, the line was running rampant in my head and it felt like I couldn’t ignore it. In my effort to ignore how I was feeling, my emotions only intensified, this repeated message a visual representation of that frustration.
Section headers, and several poems such as “An Israel Keyes Kill Cache Is In My Stomach,” “Vuelve a La Música,” and “Maestro Bernstein’’ employ visual elements. However, one area of my thesis where visuals become essential to the writing is in “The King of Lake Tawakoni,” a set of poems about my Pappaw. Beginning with a pie chart of the ways he spent his life, this section shows how I processed his loss. To cope with him being gone, I felt compelled to find every picture of him that I could, to write down memories of him, to grasp onto the memory of his voice, and to examine the two homes my grandparents lived in in my life.
The poem “Clearfield Dr vs. Ellis Rd: A Dissection” contains Google Street View images of the house on Clearfield Drive in Garland, Texas where we lived for the first few years of my life, and the trailer on Ellis Road in West Tawakoni my grandparents moved into when I was in elementary school. Both places feel like home in an inexplicable, enduring way, though neither were my permanent residence aside from the first few years of my life.
When I was four, my parents broke up. They were never married, and he’d met someone on the Internet, traveled from Garland to Kentucky to meet her, then traveled back about a month later and married her. We were devastated. Despite my dad’s insistence that we could continue living in the two-bedroom apartment he would soon share with his new wife, my mom packed up my brother and I and moved us to Houston in a small Ford sedan to live with her brother, Bruce, and sister-in-law, Nannette. Eulogized in “After the Funeral,” Bruce was a father figure to me from that point on, though we only lived in their home for a few months.
We never lived in one place for more than a couple of years after that, mostly due to financial issues. My whole life, I longed for a home in the literal sense, and in the home on Clearfield Drive and the trailer in West Tawakoni, I found that. To grieve my Pappaw is to grieve my childhood, which I never truly had to begin with, and to grieve my childhood is to grieve for the girl that loved her parents and grandparents and saw none of these hardships on the horizon. Thus, interlocked in my brain are the discussions of family dynamics, my childhood, and traumas to provide the full picture, albeit in fragments.
Through this writing program, especially beginning in the fall of 2020, I’ve come to understand that I enjoy and need to experiment with poetry. When I came to understand, especially in my Advanced Poetry course, that poetry can take place within music and other visual elements, it changed everything about the way that I approach my writing. It’s a constant challenge to myself to push beyond what I have done and what I’m currently doing, but my work is all the better for it.
I don’t claim to be breaking new ground with anything I have done while writing this thesis, but while working with multiple traditions, I seek to build upon the work that has been such a big part of my life. This hybrid collection, most closely conceptually related to Swallow the Fish and A Visit From the Goon Squad, is something that I look forward to continuing to develop and deepen. I barely touch on many areas of my life: the relationship with my husband, the relationship with my parents, my passion for social justice, and the complicated nature of being a teacher. I intend to do much more with Elegies, and in doing so, make both my past and future selves, both of whom I mourn, yet in them, experience a wealth of hope and pride.
The future of Elegies will also include more interactive elements, like QR codes to videos and playlists. For example, I didn’t include the sound poem version of “In The Music Building, 2011 / (feat. Gabriel Fauré’s ‘Après Un Rêve’). The original iteration of the poem in November 2020 was much shorter and was recorded with a single track on my phone. Eventually, I plan to layer in the different sounds – bassoon, piano, the ding of a phone, the awful sound of the Auralia program telling you that your answer is wrong, a student singing, the angry trumpet professor, and more to create a surround-sound experience, just as it was for me when I lived this experience as a voice student at SFASU.
Moving forward as a writer, I still have much to learn, but the joy of intentionally being a lifelong learner helps me to pick up pieces to add to my writing practice and develop my style, attending workshops when I can, and getting some publications along the way. As well, in a controversial move, I plan to pursue a doctorate in literature in the next few years. In the meantime, I have accepted an adjunct position with Lone Star College to teach Rhetoric and Composition starting in August. The last few years in this program have fulfilled many dreams and goals of mine – this one included. I worked with wonderful professors and talented writers, many of whom have become friends and colleagues. I graduate from this program extremely grateful for these priceless experiences and relationships, especially the way that writing has helped me see myself as an artist and whole person, finally.
Received from ProQuest
Tori Michelle Hicks
Hicks, Tori Michelle, "Elegies for My Past and Future Selves" (2022). Open Access Theses & Dissertations. 3499.