By Kali Lightfoot
On December 28, 2011 at age 67, I moved into a dorm to start my first 10-day residency at Vermont College of Fine Arts. I hoped to graduate with an MFA in Writing two years later. That wasn’t a life goal. I already had a Masters degree in Physical Education, and a Bachelor of Science degree with a double major in Physical Education and Biology, but in 2009, as a lark, I had signed up for a one-semester poetry workshop at the University of Southern Maine where I was an administrator. That class changed my life.
The course was taught by Betsy Sholl, Poet Laureate of Maine, and a very good teacher. By the end of the semester I had fallen in love with poetry and the writing of it. I signed up for the same class the next semester, and two more semesters after that until Betsy finally said to me, “Why don’t you stop taking my classes and go get an MFA somewhere?” At first I thought she was crazy, but over the next few months the idea took hold. Betsy taught in an MFA program, I reasoned, so she should have some inkling of whether I could do it. I researched low residency MFAs, then figured out how I could work twenty hours and study twenty hours a week. I applied to VCFA, was accepted, and there I was in 2011 in snow-covered Montpelier.
The Gifts of Being Non-Traditional
As a “non-traditional” student, I was anxious. At 67 years old, I would be just about the oldest person on campus. I am also a lesbian, and a recovering alcoholic. Would I be able to make friends? Would I be safe? Could I keep up? Could I fit in? Would everyone be drinking? Was my poetry good enough for graduate school? Would I be able to understand what people were talking about since I hadn’t been an English major? Basically, I had all of the uncertainties and fears most people have going into a new situation with strangers. Doubly so for going into a workshop where you will read your poetry aloud and your workshop-mates will comment on it.
What I wasn’t considering were the strengths that my non-traditional age gave me: life experience, self-knowledge, courage, and a ready sense of humor. Every person is different and thus everyone has a different experience, but personally I loved the residencies: their intensity, the experience, the smorgasbord of the student and faculty lectures and readings every day. I loved sitting at meals and breaks with all sorts of writers. I loved the workshops, and interviewing and being paired with a faculty advisor to work with for the next semester. In many ways, the residencies were like summer camp, which I had loved as a teenager.
Times of Fear and Joy
There were scary moments, like the first day when I leaned down to tie a shoe and my back spasmed for only the second time in my life. I gritted my teeth and managed to walk to the director’s office where she calmly helped me get in touch with a good chiropractor (a great one, actually!) and called a cab to take me there, thus showing me that I would indeed be safe at the college. There were also moments of joy like reading a humorous (I hoped) poem at an evening student reading. The students not only laughed but applauded with gusto.
Taking My Time
It took me three-and-a half-years to complete the four semesters of the program. I did two semesters, realized I was exhausted from the pace I had set up, and took a semester off. I had thought that four hours of MFA study in the morning and four hours in the afternoon doing my job seemed reasonable since I was used to a workday that often went over eight hours. But those afternoons frequently stretched beyond four hours and into the evening. My job also involved travel for a few days almost every month to give speeches and attend conferences. I couldn’t do it all. I had to take a break.
I came back to the MFA refreshed for another semester and then took a whole year off while I retired from my job and moved to Salem, Massachusetts from Portland, Maine. I went to every residency, though, even when I wasn’t enrolled for the next semester, nine of them all told, and I think that helped me stay connected with the college and with the poet-self I was building. I also got to know a lot more people across the age-spectrum of students than just the ones in my original cohort. Some of those others are the alumni I’m closest to now.
The Gift of Low-Residency
It is only recently that I have come to fully understand why the low-residency option felt like such a gift to me. There was the summer camp aspect, but even more, working one-on-one with a faculty advisor, someone who had a life as not only a professor, but also a committed writer, really worked for me. The low residency MFA taught me to BE a writer, to live that life, sometimes solitary, but other times in a community of writers of all ages, charting my own path with minimal supervision but a lot of support. I remember sitting at my desk at home the day after my first residency, thinking “OK, what do I do now?!” The month and semester stretched in front of me like a trail with only a few trail signs. I had to learn to embrace the uncertainty that every writer faces staring at the next blank page.
I know from various education classes I took about learning styles that I learn best through seeing, then doing and feeling. So sitting in a residency lecture, I’m the one taking copious notes that I will never look at again, but that help me to listen and stay in the moment. I loved the semester of working with one faculty advisor, by writing and receiving letters. I could read his or her comments, underline things, make notes, and really engage myself in what they were trying to teach me. My first published poem was in a literary journal titled Illuminations 29 in 2013. That made me very happy and also awakened my competitive spirit—I come from a family that values accomplishment. I kept submitting to journals—and learning how to handle rejection!
My Writing Life
I graduated (finally) in July 2015. I now meet once a week on Zoom with a group of local poets just to chat, and I have a biweekly workshop group in Maine, also on Zoom. I am part of a write-a-poem-a-day listserv group created by another alum of VCFA that “meets” during the first week of every month. Those local poets in the chat group have all published at least one book of poetry, so my MFA graduate notions that maybe I’d do a book someday got an infusion of energy. At 76 I now have finished a book, Pelted by Flowers, that will come out from CavanKerry Press in April 2021. Today I’m working on a second book and I’m a screener for a national poetry prize. I also write reviews of poetry books as a way to be a good literary citizen.
A Poet’s Advice
If I have any advice to give someone who is contemplating earning an MFA later in life, it is to go into the experience cultivating “beginner mind” in yourself. Can you find a way to leave your ego behind? I had to leave behind my experience in planning and organizing curricula and conferences and try not to even think about “advising” the VCFA staff on how to do their jobs—they were doing just fine. I had to really be a student if this was going to work.
The bottom line here (literally) is that the MFA experience made me deeply happy, right from the first semester. I could have traveled to Europe, or anywhere, multiple times on the money it cost, and I would have enjoyed that, but I don’t think I would feel this kind of sustained joy. Just this year I have begun to understand that my whole self-image has changed. It boggles my mind that I am now a poet.
Kali Lightfoot is the retired Founding Executive Director of the National Resource Center for Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes. She is now a poet living in Salem, Massachusetts. Her poems and poetry reviews have appeared in journals and anthologies and have been nominated twice for Pushcart Awards, and once for Best of the Net. Her debut collection is forthcoming from CavanKerry Press in 2021. Kali earned an MFA at Vermont College of Fine Arts in 2015. You can find her at kali-lightfoot.com.