Wednesday, December 3, 2014

From Volume 35: A poem by Kevin Pilkington

Kevin Pilkington

Flu Shot

I try not to look at the woman

walking towards me but her skirt

is no bigger than a bandage and

her heels are so high she might need

an oxygen tank rather than the suitcase

on wheels she pulls behind her.

I just hope the two assholes she

is walking next to aren’t with her.

The guy on her right is in a suit

and wears a toupee that looks

like a black squirrel fell off a tree,

In the Spotlight: Kevin Pilkington

Kevin Pilkington is a writer and teacher at Sarah Lawrence College. Here, he gives advice to aspiring writers, and discusses his work as a writing instructor as well as writing itself. His poem, “Flu Shot,” appears in volume XXXV of The Worcester Review.

You studied literature at St. John’s University where you earned a BA and at Georgetown University where you earned an MA. Can you talk about what you have learned from these programs? What advice do you have to aspiring writers applying to a BA or MA/MFA program?

I received a BA in Literature from St. John’s University and went on to receive an MA in English Literature from Georgetown University. In fact, although I have been teaching writing classes for most of my adult life, I never took a writing class on the undergraduate or graduate levels or had a writing mentor. My writing teachers were on the bookshelves–I learned to write through reading. To this day, I tell students that the best teachers are the writers you read. I have always felt that writing teachers save students time by telling them whom to read and usually not what to put into their writing but what to take out. The poet Robert Lowell said, “Learning to write is learning what to leave out.” Hemingway said it another way: “The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shockproof, shit detector.” On a very basic level, writing workshops are time-savers by showing students what not to do in their writing so they have more time to work on what will enhance whatever genre they are working in. If I knew my life was going to turn this way, I certainly would have enrolled in an MFA program. I am sure I would have matured faster as a writer and achieved more goals that much sooner. However, studying literature, mostly classical, at both universities was invaluable to me as both a human being and a writer. I can’t imagine how my writing would have progressed without reading Philip Sidney who tells us in The Defense of Poetry, written in 1595, “The aim of poetry is to teach and delight.” This is a phrase I still keep on my writing desk. At Georgetown I first came into contact with Horace’s Ars Poetica, probably the first and best creative writing handbook although in reality it is a letter-poem. Later I was introduced to the visionary lyricism of William Butler Yeats, a poet whose poems I have read almost every week since then. Studying great literature seeps into your own writing, as I hope it did mine, through osmosis. However, I don’t write poetry in traditional or given forms; I chose to write in open or organic forms since like many contemporary poets, I want my poems to sound closer to everyday speech and flourish in their own time and place.

I believe Sarah Lawrence College where I teach was the first, or certainly one of the first, to offer workshops for undergraduates taught by professional writers. There are now many fine undergraduate writing programs across the country. I would recommend to any aspiring writer who is looking to major in writing not to apply if they have stories to tell in prose or poetry. Only apply if you truly love language. Then you will succeed and thrive. Do your research; see which writers are on the faculty and are actually teaching classes. Many high profile writers only teach sporadically even though a given school will use their names as recruiting tools. Visit the school you are interested in and visit classes to make sure it is the right fit. Majoring or having a concentration in writing enables you think critically and to communicate your thoughts clearly and effectively, which is beneficial studying across the curriculum and prepares you for a variety of careers once you graduate. For those considering an MFA, I would offer some of the same advice as above–make sure you research programs thoroughly and speak to students in the program who will offer truthful insights into its strengths or weaknesses. Remember the best programs create an atmosphere that allows you the time to explore and concentrate on your craft and is taught by professional writers in the classroom who are not just names on a catalog, writers who love and are passionate about language. I can’t think of time better spent than paying homage to language.

You are a writing coordinator at Sarah Lawrence College. Can you discuss what this entails? What is the best part of your job?