The Rose Who Defends Itself

(Photo Credit: Flickr / VaneAreArt)
(Photo Credit: Flickr / VaneAreArt)

If not for its thorns,
would the rose be such
a prized possession?

There are hundreds
of other flowers
we can kill
use to flaunt our affections.
But it’s only in the conquering
the sacrifice of self
the effort taken to domesticate
to neutralize the threat
that the beauty is extracted
and consumed once again.

Things born beautiful must grow
ugly to protect themselves.

When becoming women,
our daughters must bud thorns
to slash and shield
themselves from the strays,
the ones that wander
into the garden,
barking and trampling
in all their wild recklessness

where the roses reach wide and high –
each stretching for a gentle sun,
hoping to feel the warmth of any one
that never needed his pricking.

Put This On Me (after Countee Cullen)

(Photo Credit: Flickr / LegalWheel, KRM Photography)
(Photo Credit: Flickr / LegalWheel, KRM Photography)

For a Brother
I had no part in your creation,
but I shall protect your body nonetheless.
My gift to you will be eternal preservation,
by fist or palm, by blow or caress.

For a Writer
Some fear of greatness has long been my haunt,
but as they lay me here, down to rest,
I soak in others’ words that were once my taunt
and ask for another’s to mark my nest.

For the One Who’s Too Smart for His Own Good
You know now: your sarcasm was defense
against every pain you’d ever noticed.
The laughter there to drive distance
between your mind and all it missed.

For the Humbly Pompous
I hope you’ve learned the biting
of tongue and taste of regret
doesn’t bleed out all those fighting,
but the tortured quiet of the unsaid.

The Grad App Recap

(Photo Credit: Flickr, Evi / Evengia)
(Photo Credit: Flickr, Evi / Evengia)

So after many years of deliberation and doubt, I finally found the courage and confidence this past December to apply for a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) degree in Poetry. As one of my friends pointed out when I’d asked him to critique my poetry portfolio, he was glad to see me actually making a move on this, since I’d first mentioned it to him as something I really wanted to do… over 5 years ago. (Yeah.)

But I’m pleased that I’d spent those years writing, practicing, memorizing, performing, trying on different forms and voices, exploring diverse emotions, and reading a lot more poetry and prose. It all allowed me to discover what I didn’t want my poetry to be, or to become, and how I can contribute my voice to the grand body of work that is the poetry of mankind.

The Lay of the Land

When applying, I followed the advice of both my former professors and The Creative Writing MFA Handbook (by Tom Kealey) and applied to 12 different MFA programs. Each one varied by location, class size, professors, costs, and personal bent on what poetry should be/do, but they all had 2 things in common: they were all top-tier programs with a dedication to mostly- or fully-funding their grad students. (And really, this monetary pledge toward your success in the program as vital, as there’s no guarantee of income with the degree in hand, unlike, for example, a medical degree.)

“But why so many schools, Justin? Isn’t a dozen absurd?!?”

Why yes, collective voice of the curious internets, it is absurd. But each program is rather small (usually admitting between only 3 and 10 poetry students per year), rather selective and competitive (because hundreds and sometimes even thousands of aspiring writers apply for just these few spots), and rather subjective (as all your hard work and preparation are screwed if one of the professors/admissions folks reads your work and thinks “meh,” for whatever reason whatsoever). To quasi-counteract all of this, nearly all recommended employing the shotgun method of applying – just shoot wide and hope you hit something, boy. And really, I only need but one school to contact me and say, “Hey, we think you’re cool. Come make words with us. Oh, and here’s a bunch of monies. See ya in the fall.” So here I am at home, with cramped and crossed fingers and tiring, waiting lungs.

Yet, even if I don’t get accepted into any of the programs to which I’ve applied, this process has definitely made me feel more like a legitimate writer, let me peek into what the MFA life just might be like, and let me know just whom I could call upon in times of creative crises. And on that note…


  • Thank you to my recommendation letter writers. Not only did you (assumingly) say nice things about me, but you also said those said things 12 times to 12 different schools, each with its own submission peculiarities, and put up with last-minute deadlines on my behalf. Thank you for your past and continual efforts to make me better and more literate.
    • Alene Harris – Vanderbilt Prof. Emeritus; my first writing patron; a phenomenal professor turned employer, turned mentor, turned friend, turned family.
    • Bill Brown – Vanderbilt Prof. Emeritus and Professional Poet, my first poet-mentor, truly humble and wise in all things.
    • Cat AcreeBookPage Associate Editor, my first professional editor who actually cared enough to edit my words, and still feeding me with writing assignments after nearly 2 years.
  • Thank you to all whom read over, critiqued, helped select my best poems – and then made them better – so I’d have a portfolio with a fighting chance. You da best:
    • Mary DeYoe (my first poetry professor from all the way back in freshman year!),
    • JR Mahung (for always being “that dude”),
    • Malcom Friend (for grilling me with that good MFA critique work),
    • Josh Stewart (for all your heart you put into everything),
    • Kali Scurdy (for all your love you put into everything),
    • Benjamin Carr and Ruqayyah Strozier (for reading through every one of my poems with me and telling me things to my face, even if they weren’t always things I wanted to hear)
    • Jessica Rutsky (for editing my poems between med school cramming and examming),
    • Travis Cohen (for cranking out some beastly critiques at the last minute, like a boss)
    • and Kerry Cullen (for applying the MFA Fiction lens to my poetics and passing on some of your own, hard-earned, writing wisdom).
  • Thank you to my friends and fellow writers who’ve encouraged me and taught me so much about poetry and spoken word over the past 8 years. You’ve, quite literally, changed the trajectory of my life.
    • My Vandy Spoken Word family – especially Debangshu Roychoudhury, Kevin Hritz, Jose Grenet, and Dan King (for your impact in making my words more bold)
    • My Atlanta Word Works family (for reminding me of why we continue to write)
    • Tonika Huff (for opening me up to different worlds; for reminding me that my words are powerful, even if you don’t always understand them),
    • George Barisich (for encouraging me to “project my voice” even as a child in your beat-up pick-up truck, and for being just crazy enough to ad lib song lyrics to fit your mood)
    • Chris Barisich (for your endless support and engineer’s eye applied to the creative cloud)
    • Michael Shirey (my fellow Mother-Fuckin-Artist to be; and personal, on-call graphic designer)
    • Ethan Labourdette (for your years of friendship and helping me to appreciate the theater/plays)
    • Alfred Chan (for your loyalty, for making me feel like a real writer by studying my poetry with your high school students, and for always pestering me about when I’d be posting my next poem)
    • Jonathan Tomick (for telling me to read Steven Pressfield’s life-changing The War of Art so many moons ago)
    • Tom Harris (for all your grandfatherly and academic advice)
    • Mr. Gary Wyss (for running the Creative Writing Club in high school that first got me to share my poems),
    • And all the random people and companies who/that fed me with freelance writing gigs.

Lessons Learned

  • The Most Honest:
    • The solitary writer life is a bunch of bullshit. I just thanked over 26 people above. How foolish to think I was ever alone in this process.
  • The Harshest:
    • Only some of your professors thought as highly of you as you thought of them. When selecting folks to write your rec letters, don’t ask someone just because they’re a big name or a big deal in the writing community. Odds are they won’t remember that you’d even taken their course some number of years back, and thus, won’t care whether or not you get in.
    • Instead, lean on those former professors with whom you’d actually created a good rapport. They’ll be willing to help out, are happy to see you going after something bigger and better, and are far more likely to invest their time and effort into giving you a better chance to reach it.
  • The Most Unexpected:
    • It will take hours upon hours (and dollars upon dollars) to get all your app ducks in a row and digitally flying together in the right direction. Be sure to set aside a lot more time then you’d ever think to do this, and do it right, so that you might not ever have to do it again. Also, just assume that all of your apps are due on December 12th and you won’t be caught off-guard by the one that actually is (side-eyes at you, sneaky OSU).
    • Also, there’s a lot to keep track of here, which multiplies with every additional school to which you choose to apply. Make a checklist (like the one I made, pictured below), get organized, and don’t shoot yourself in the foot before you’re even given the chance to start running.

MFA checklist (pic)

Grad School Apps Costs

Below are all the schools to which I’ve applied (in order of app cost), and then all the ancillary costs that came coupled with completely submitting them.

  • Application Fees ($870)
    • Washington University – $45
    • Ohio State University – $60
    • University of Iowa – $60
    • University of Texas at Austin, English Department – $65
    • University of Texas at Austin, Michener Center – $65
    • Brown University – $75
    • Johns Hopkins University – $75
    • University of Houston – $75
    • Boston University – $80
    • University of Virginia – $85
    • University of California at Irvine – $90
    • Cornell University – $95
  • Sending GRE Scores ($189)
    • Sent out to 7 programs (required) – $27 each
  • Sending Undergrad Transcripts ($15)
    • (Vanderbilt’s were free. Yays!)
    • LSU summer coursework – sent out to 5 different schools – $15
    • **More may be required after being admitted into program.**
  • Mailing out packets/samples [Certified mail postage, from Atlanta, GA] ($22.69)
    • To UC Irvine – $8.66
    • To Iowa Univ. – $7.12
    • To UVA – $6.91
  • GRAND TOTAL: $1,096.69


Next Steps

  • Wait impatiently to hear back from all the programs to which I’ve sent my soul and hopes.
  • Send poems out in hopes of being published somewhere.
  • Stop, collaborate, and listen.
  • Remain humble. Remain grateful. Continue learning. Continue writing.

The Couriers

(Photo Credit: Flickr / Mechanical Vandal)
(Photo Credit: Flickr / Mechanical Vandal)

We were delivery boys
made men
gripping permission
with privilege to hover.

We biked between
the lines of the living
and the legal.
With every pedal,
we’d bend mortal men’s physics.
Traffic’s laws never applied to us –
the road paint only confined
in white and yellow,
but we thrived in grey.

We were boundless, weightless,
until one of us was hit,
when gravity smashed back
and we returned to being


I can see you now
amidst the flashing lights
grinding gears uphill
through the snow,
the storms, the sweat.

You are splattered in city.
Break grease tattoos
on the back of your palms.
Crank and chain frayed jeans
drag inches behind you,
hold on so desperately
to their thinning threads of life.


Long after I’ve quit your post,
I still street-spot the others of us,
the matching, bleeding cracks
of our dried knuckles.
Still hear the manager’s
match-tip anger ignite
with only a second’s strike.

We were just ones of hundreds –
carrier pigeons on wheels –
and if we couldn’t fly fast enough,
he would hail another
to fool-flutter in,
always happy to take
someone’s crumbs
for the simple sweet
of feigned freedom.

The Ash of You (for Philip Levine)

(Photo Credit: Matt Valentine)
(Photo Credit: Matt Valentine)

When you spoke of melting
pig iron into steel,
pneumatic pressed sheets
into car quarter panels,
you mouthed the words
with your thirsty hands.

Other poets only ever imagined
what you’d lived –
the poverty, the desertion,
the bitter, biting winters
you’d worked through –
the lines you penned
to honor those
who could never lift one,
despite the heft of shoulders,
the hungry bones of backs.

You were never born of ash –
it was always too clean,
too burned of its impurities
in the foundry blaze.
No, you learned to write in the muck,
to make stick make pen make word
make world make life make belief
make escape.

And when the immaculate poets
bleach their shirts for the honor
of returning you to your dust,
force them to burn
you in your first furnace,
to push you through
your factory smokestack,
and puff you out
upon the men you’d tried
to uplift, to preserve, to embalm.

Should the workers breathe in enough,
maybe the ash of you
will console
their cancers,
will convince
whatever’s eating them
from within
to work itself out.

And Pitiful Words (for Terrance Hayes)

(Photo Credit: Flickr / Marygrove College)
(Photo Credit: Flickr / Marygrove College)

I saw online today
that you’ve won
more prizes
a professorship
the poetry game
at life.

And I’m equal parts awed, envious,
and a puddle of lackluster
dripped onto the floor,
being licked up by the twin dogs
called society and reality.

And your words are phenomenal,
and you deserve everything you’ve ever earned,
and what you have is what I want
for myself as well as others.

But I fear I lack the ability, the tenacity,
the courage to pull the threads
from these disparate lives
and weave them together
into my own cloth.
I’m not sure if we were cut
from the same one.

You inspire and terrify me in the same poem,
and I hope these swirling emotions
can one day find themselves useful
enough to produce words less pitiful.

Alternate Heats (for Christina)

(Photo Credit: Flickr / HWicker)
(Photo Credit: Flickr / HWicker)

And so I’m left alone
wondering: what if
I’d tried to love you
rather than the warmth
of your best friend?

Would we have fireworked
just as vaingloriously,
pan-flash spark spewing
color just as quickly
as we could shed our clothes?

Or would we have bubbled
like sugar microwaved and molten,
forced into a form
we were never meant to be
shaped of or by –
the crust of our former love
crumbling everywhere in its hardness?

Or would we have brewed
like tea leaves steeped in the boil,
finally unfurling our dried tongues
preserved months ago
for someone else’s tastes,
releasing the flowers
we’d kept clenching
for no other reason
than constant reservation?

Perhaps the kettle is still,
waiting to whistle.

"How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live." — Henry David Thoreau


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