The Student Spotlight highlights a UCF MFA candidate’s goals, inspirations, and writing process. This semester’s spotlight is on recent graduate, Mary Petralia, who completed her MFA in Poetry this past December.
Mary, what is your writing routine?
I prefer to write in the morning, while my mind is in semi-dreamy, unblocked mode, before all of the flotsam and jetsam of daily life becomes a necessary priority. Most of my sit-down-at-the-computer writing happens on the weekends or days off. I think my process is probably similar to many writers, poets or not, in that I need to be alone with as little distraction as possible for my ADD mind. I constantly read the lines to myself aloud, but in a whisper, so as to preserve the calm, non-distracting atmosphere.
Since I generally have to wait to physically write, I carry around my ideas in my head—sometimes they grow there for months before I actually get to them, but I do a daily mental visit, running small words or lines through my thoughts as I drive or eat lunch. I’ll type a quick note/line/phrase/stanza into my phone’s notes section to keep the thought from disappearing completely. Sometimes when I look at my phone notes I am completely mortified at the drivel I put down, but that’s my rough draft process, and it’s definitely rough!
Where do your ideas begin?
Poetry is very liminal, very in-between and around, and inside and out, and soft and hard, and red and blue. My initial ideas are very esoteric, very small and private inside my head (though of course the goal is to move those ideas into the universal, or at least the semi-universal). They always grow from an exact, instant emotion sometimes manifested by one word or a small phrase. I view or read or physically feel something and immediately some sort of particular emotion will trigger in my mind. This is the trigger I know I need to pay attention to, then and there. One time I saw a shark fin pop up out of the water when I was at the beach, and somehow that triggered a connection to female body image and the cut-throat-ness of gossipy females and fast friends, and I came up with a poem called “Slut Shamer,” which included a super sexy shark who was the mayor of his underwater town.
For poets, there is an innate need to magnify some very small part of speech into something that means something else, an inversion. W. S. Merwin was a master of inversion, the way he used certain words to mean something completely different than their original meaning. For example, in Merwin’s poem “Vixen,” lines like: “Comet of stillness / Princess of what is over” are incredibly beautiful and powerful to me because Merwin takes traditionally positively connotated words like comets or princesses and compels the reader to understand (believe) in the possibility that these words can represent something else, something a little less positive, such as pending death, but something still as beautiful.
What book or collection have you read recently? What did you learn from it?
I recently finished Nico Alvarado’s The Collected Poems of Tim Riggins, a collection of persona poems done in the voice of a character from the TV show “Friday Night Lights” (which I have never seen). This book is all about possibilities for the poet-writer. What I learned from it is that Alvarado is adept at blending the old and the new in his poetry, and there is great value in that—the moving forward while still looking back. I love the idea that a writer can take pop culture, something so not-literary, like a TV drama about small-town high school football, and create this haunting, irreverent yet humane collection with titles like “Tim Riggins Speaks of Waterfalls” and a favorite of mine, “Tim Riggins Stares at the Sun,” which quotes a line from Faulkner juxtaposed against Riggins’ Texas slang (and reminds me of James Wright’s “Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio”). I think it’s difficult to successfully write sincere persona poetry, but this collection is very exciting and well-crafted.
I also just finished Laura Kasischke’s Fire & Flower, an older collection from 1998 (picked up at UCF’s Cypress Dome book sale, thank you very much). I don’t use much imagery in my poetry—it’s a status quo myth that poems need imagery to be successful—but Kasischke employs such vibrant metaphoric images to tell her poetic stories that I’m inspired to experiment with lines that echo Kasischke’s—“Music’s / a bomb of feathers / in the air”—lines which might seem nonsensical to those not open to anything other than straight-edge in-the-box sentences and phrases. It’s quite difficult to craft a good poem because poetry works in more than just one dimension—a poem is also a visual piece of art.
If you could be mentored by any writer who would you choose and why?
I’ve been lucky enough to be mentored by Russ Kesler, who believed in my craft long before I did, Don Stap, and Terry Thaxton. For the things I want to learn these days, I would love to talk with Donald Justice, for his quiet mastery of the poetic line and his rhythmic sensibilities. James Baldwin, because he expertly weaves gut-wrenchingly beautiful stories about things that are not beautiful, like racism, drug addiction, and poverty. Margaret Atwood, because she is not afraid to explore horribly inappropriate scenarios, like the darkly humane “Rape Fantasies,” and because her characters always have the best names, like “Charmaine” and “Cordelia.” And F. Scott Fitzgerald, who is a master of sorrow.
What do you plan on doing after the MFA?
I’m currently teaching senior English at a high school in Brevard County (my old high school). So I’m learning how to be a teacher. I’ll continue to try to get published, with the ultimate goal of publishing a book of poetry. Travel, is high on the list. And I’ll continue to focus on making sure my kids get to where they need to be in their lives while I enjoy every minute of it.
Mary Petralia completed an MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Central Florida in December 2015. Her poems have appeared in Shooter Literary Magazine, London Journal of Fiction, Kentucky Review, Tincture Journal, Eyedrum Periodically, Anamesa: An Interdisciplinary Journal, and other publications. She lives on the east coast of Florida with her family.