Every Creative Writing and Literature major in the University of Michigan’s Residential College has the option to write a thesis over the course of their senior year, working with a faculty advisor to produce a polished body of work. These theses can take the form of novels, novellas, poetry, short stories or essays. The 2021–2022 school year saw 11 students take on the challenge. First, we saw the novelists — next up, two of the poets.
Malin Andersson, “Breadcrumbs”
Unlike many writers, Malin Andersson does not settle her attention on only one form of writing. Instead, she chooses to express herself and develop her skills in both fiction and poetry. But when it came to her thesis, she knew poetry was the way to go: in an interview with The Michigan Daily, she said, “Poetry to me feels like a form where you can talk for 30 minutes about a single word choice or the construction of a single image, and you can really get into the nitty-gritty.” She liked the idea of this specificity in a one-on-one setting and the impact it could have on her other work — but she also liked the idea of experimentation. “This is a free form in which I can express whatever I want to — something that doesn’t have as many rules or constrictions on it as fiction or prose would,” Andersson said. “I didn’t have to stick with the same characters, I could experiment and then write a new poem that would be totally different. So it felt really free and flexible, which felt like the perfect form in which to experiment and just try something totally new.”
The guiding questions she decided on for her thesis — “What would happen if I just walked into the woods of fairytales? What would I find there?” — were partially the product of her desire for accessibility. “I think poetry can oftentimes isolate people in a way,” she said. “So I chose fairytales and folklore thinking that this is kind of a common language or image that people are familiar with that maybe I could draw upon to get something interesting.” She thought fairytales, having been told to generation after generation, could entertain both those well versed in poetry and those who never read it. Andersson explained, “If someone reads a lot of poetry, could they find something interesting in here? And also someone who doesn’t read poetry at all, like lots of my family or friends of mine. At the end of this, when I say, ‘Hey, here’s my thesis,’ would they be reading it saying, ‘I don’t get this at all. This doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.’ Does that matter if 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 both old and new fairy tales, citing both the classic Grimm Brothers and Hans Christian Andersen as well as the contemporary Carmen Giménez Smith. Through this research, she developed upon her original idea, “expanding it, then contracting it, then expanding and narrowing it again.” When it came time to write, her winning strategy ended up simply being to trust both herself and her work: “Lots of it was trusting my instinct that I could have some sort of through-line, this storyline throughout, while also giving myself the freedom to experiment around there. To trust that I could write a bunch and then take a couple steps back, think about it and then write more and then think about it again — to trust myself and my instincts in that 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 considering her reason for writing in the first place. To Andersson, poetry serves several functions. On the one hand, she said she writes “to dive deeper into things that I’m experiencing, or — it sounds a little psychedelic — things that I’ve imagined for myself, like realities that I would just like to go and spend a little bit of time in … I guess I write to exercise my brain … Each poem is a little closed experiment where you can say, ‘if this happened, what would it look like?’ Or the opposite way: ‘this something has already happened, how can I make deeper sense of it?’” Sometimes, poetry helps her make sense of the big things in life: “What if I would like to express something that I’m going through, but I don’t want people to know exactly what it is? What if I want to dress it up or make it a little shy or a little evasive?” In doing so, she said she learns to express herself by “stepping around the real issue.”
At the same time, she views poetry as a space “where you can just be, and imagine, and appreciate small details in a way that you missed before.” She reflects on an exercise she does while walking home where she tries to really take notice of what’s on the sidewalk, on the things that often go unacknowledged “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 mindset. She said it “makes you stop and really think about things, or ruminate on a small detail without the pressure to make sense” of 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 of “Breadcrumbs” here.
Fez Fessenden, “Body Farm”
Fez Fessenden’s collection is rooted in eco poetry, something they were drawn to organically. In their interview with The Daily, they explained, “I’ve always felt like the writing that 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 a part of nature, not separated from it.” But when they first applied to the thesis program, they pitched an idea for a collection about “gender and the pandemic and (their) grandfather and the earth,” saying that “at the time of applying for the thesis, it’s what I was writing about a lot. I was digging into old childhood memories and trying to bring that into my current space.”
However, their plans took a turn while at the English department’s New England Literature Program (NELP), during which “you get sent out into the woods for six weeks, with 40 students and 12 instructors,” 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 “numbing nothingness” — NELP was an experience of “rediscovering what (they) love to do” and delving into “this meshing of human body sensation experience and the outside.” Fessenden said they “always want to weave death and life together, to say that they are both so transient,” and their thesis came to center around “this idea that we will experience all of these human, incredible emotions and sensations, and then one day we’re just going to get eaten by fungus and that’s going to be it — and then we’re going to create new life.”
Fessenden credits much of their growth as a poet to reading extensively and comparing their work to that of the poets they’ve read. “When I was at NELP I was reading 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 form: long and naturalistic and almost pastoral. And then when I got out of that and I started reading more contemporary work, my stuff was gearing toward that.” One of the contemporary poets they credit is Ross Gay (“Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude”), saying that “his work just deals with so much good and bad through the lens of gratitude,” something that they’ve incorporated into their own worldview and work.
Like the poetry that they read, Fessenden also wanted to make sure that their work could speak to a large 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, let people who are used to reading poetry and digging deeper be able to dig deeper.”
This was not an easy process, and it sometimes led them to experience imposter syndrome despite their immense talent and passion for their work. “It felt like I was such an imposter because I was like, how do I know what’s good?” Fessenden said. “Like, it’s a poem. You have to ask people. And it was me asking my thesis advisor, asking my friends, asking as many people as I could, ‘What do you think of this? Can it go in?’” Whenever a poem was deemed unfit for the collection, it felt like they were “killing (their) babies,” as they described it.
But this process was also hugely rewarding for Fessenden. “I feel like not only was the work I was creating reflective of how I was changing, it was also changing me, because writing about it was giving me different perspectives on the world that I was in at the time,” Fessenden said. And despite its challenges, Fessenden feels a certain compulsion to write — to produce art that, to them, is “the quickest way … to get the most out of the world.” They said, “I write because it feels like a way for me to distill the joy that I see in the world and that I experience. It’s something that I laugh at myself about because I think so much of my poetry is, at the surface level, very cynical, and often — being about death a lot of the time — sad. Well, what makes me laugh is that I’m such a happy person. The reason that I write is because I’m so overjoyed with the things in the world that happen that I feel like I have to write about them to re-experience that joy.”
They describe thier titular poem, “Body Farm,” as a piece that exemplifies this contradiction. The poem is “central to a love that I had for another person at one time in my life that faded — the love didn’t fade quickly, but the relationship faded so quickly,” Fessenden said. “And so it was both about the decay between myself and that person and also the animals sinking into the forest floor. And in writing that I was able to work through some of the both anguish and ecstasy that I had felt about that relationship.”
You can read Fessenden’s collection here.
Daily Arts Writer Brenna Goss can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.