Graduation Remarks from Faculty Member and Alum Martha Rhodes (poetry ’91)

Hello, dear Graduates of the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. And welcome, friends and family, to this afternoon and evening of celebration. 

Along with our stellar faculty, students and all who gather here today, I congratulate you, members of the Class of July 2021, for your accomplishments and for, well, hanging in over these past extraordinary semesters.  You have joined the ranks of alums today—At 45 years old, this year, the MFA Program is that much stronger because of you. 

Some thanks are due and first, always, to Ellen Bryant Voigt for her poems, essays, teaching, vision and leadership as founder of the first low residency MFA program for writers in the country. Huge thanks to Deb, Trish, and Caleb for bringing us together –without them, we would all be somewhere, but where?

“ I learn by going where I have to go,”  says Theodore Roethke in The Waking.  To the page is where we have to go, where we learn how to progress from syllable to syllable, word to word, stanza or paragraph to the next. The first utterance demands another and another. And we do not know where the page will take us, of course, because we have never written this poem or story or novel before.  But we are compelled to push ahead, and we have had the good fortune to slosh through uncharted territory with each other over the past two or more years. Let me repeat, with each other. 

This is your graduation day, yes. But you are not leaving our ever-growing community. This month, nearly100 writers are gathering for the 31st annual alumni conference, the 2nd to be held in Zoom Land, to present papers, facilitate discussion classes, attend workshops and manuscript reviews, give readings and socialize. For the past 30 years, our community has been lovingly supported by Friends of Writers which provides scholarships, fellowships and grants to students, alums, and faculty, thus supporting our ongoing work and play together throughout each year. National and regional events, newsletters, social media, and a dedicated blog trumpet our pre and post grad vitality. You’ve only to respond to calls for participation. 

 In the months before my graduation, I had a recurrent dream – I was driving along a narrow and winding dirt road. To the left, balancing on a forbiddingly steep green mountain, a flock of men and women, all drinking champagne. To my right, a severe drop that my car kept pulling me toward. And ahead, a friendly meadow into which I steered my car and idled. Night after night I had this dream – both anxiety provoking and calming. On the mountain, my cohort – celebrating. To my right, the drop off. I was leaving the mountain but refusing the cliff to enter that welcoming meadow which I would continue to mow, tame, and let grow wild going forward.

Those with whom I studied and those who are my students and colleagues today are beloved residents of my literary neighborhood. We meet in Swannanoa; we meet in tiny rooms on our computer screens, we bump into each other at bookstores, and cafes. Through social media, we meet on the campaign trail for state representative; we couch surf as we travel, we marvel at the treasures discovered on each other’s trips to the Grand Canyon, Race Point, the Appalachian Trail. We read a poem, a story, an essay, a book.

 Lucille Clifton says, “I write out of what I wonder. I think most artists create art in order to explore, not to give the answers. Poetry and art are not about answers to me; they are about questions.”  And those questions might frighten us, trip us up, get the better of us. But we have learned, here, together to tackle them – we have learned that we are up to the task. And we have reached out to each other with our questions and concerns about our work. While the struggle is ultimately our own to wrangle with, we can often find relief from those who know just how difficult it can be to put word to page. This community continues to thrive because students, faculty, alums hold fast by continuing to read each other’s work, listen, and care.

So, whether you are writing, or in a dry spell, receiving honors or feeling like no one cares if you ever write again – this community can be counted on to  encourage,  congratulate, comfort,  and console you.

From James Baldwin,  “If you are going to be a writer there is nothing I can say to stop you; if you’re not going to be a writer nothing I can say will help you.” What you really need at the beginning is somebody to let you know that the effort is real.” 

We have certainly learned that the effort is real. We may, at times, need to be reminded of that. Without the semester’s deadlines, residencies, exchanges—we can lose sight of what we came here for. Family, new homes, jobs or joblessness, an HBO binge-worthy series may keep us from our writing practice. But there is always a way to the writing room. Sometimes we can usher ourselves back. Sometimes, we need help — a nudge, if not a shove. Trust in yourself – and if that feels wobbly—trust your literary neighborhood to help you find your way to the page. You have worked so hard. You have earned every word.

Thank you, Class of 2021, for your achievement. And thank you, in advance, for all you will achieve.