2:58 p.m., May 11, 2009----Erinn Batykefer, Stadler Poetry Fellow at Bucknell University who earned an Honors Degree with Distinction in English/creative writing and art history from the University of Delaware in 2004, gave a keynote speech at the university's Senior Thesis Symposium on Saturday, May 9, at the Perkins Student Center.
Batykefer spoke to an audience of 2009 and 2010 Degree with Distinction and Honors Degree with Distinction candidates and their supporters, including faculty advisers and family members.
The speech, entitled “Important Failures”, told the story of her transformation from 2001, when she was, in her words, a terrified 19-year-old kid scribbling down something, anything, that named what she felt as closely as language could, to the present, when she is a 27-year-old author who has published an award winning book, Allegheny, Monongahela.
Within this transformation, she spoke about how her failures in undergraduate research at UD led to future successes.
For her creative thesis, Batykefer said she wanted to produce a publishable chapbook of 30 poems that would use the imagery of Vincent Van Gogh's paintings in order to narrate the events of his life. However, only eight were written, although two of them were accepted for publication at Connecticut Review.
She said she struggled while trying to write Van Gogh poems, partially because during her sophomore year, her sister, a senior in high school at the time, was slowly starving herself. She said witnessing her sister going through a transformation into “dead girl walking” was the most overwhelming and terrifying thing in her life. As a writer, she chose not to write about that, but to force herself to write about something big and distracting that would have nothing to do with her sister.
“I could have written a lot more poems about Van Gogh but every time I sat down to make one, I was afraid of what would come out. That I would write about this looming black storm on the horizon, that I wouldn't write about dear Vincent or his paintings, but about how annihilating it was to love someone like my sister instead,” she said. “And I really didn't want to do that.”
Batykefer said she had reached for something that was far more than she could actually grasp.
“When you invest the kind of time and effort that it takes to see a project like yours to the finish, coming up with less than you work for really sucks. And sometimes it's hard to see the value of what you actually did come away with,” she said. “The only thing I was actually sure about was that my thesis was the most epic failure ever to be printed on very expensive paper.”
After her graduation from UD, she received a Martha Meier Renk Distinguished Poetry Fellowship from the University of Wisconsin Madison, which she called an impossible, once-in-a-lifetime gift.
When she received her first paycheck for the fellowship, she noticed the amount of money the check was written out for was similar to the amount on the check she received for her Summer Scholars grant at UD, and she had an epiphany and realized she had a new opportunity for success.
“I remember staring at the number in disbelief,” she said. “I couldn't believe I had gotten a do-over -- and not even a subtle one.”
That summer, the summer of 2006, she said she gave herself the task of writing the 30 poems she had studiously shunned. Sitting in a coffee shop on her first day of writing, she wrote the line she had avoided writing and opened the door to her writing some of her best works: “Sister, no slighter body can make you more miraculous.”
By the end of the summer, she said wrote 50 poems -- an entire book. “It was finally the document of what it felt like to be the sister of someone wasting away. It was furious, and unflinching, and torrential. And it was gorgeous. It was what I was supposed to write.”
Batykefer said her experience at the University of Delaware helped her develop into the writer she is today, even if she was unable to accomplish her initial goal.
“I failed to write the chapbook I wanted to write as my undergraduate thesis, and in failing, I learned how not to fail the same way again,” she said. “Because of the undergraduate research I did here, I knew how a long-term project like an MFA thesis was supposed to work and how it was supposed to be developed over time. I knew lots of ways to screw it up, that I did not intend on repeating.”
Batykefer concluded her speech by addressing the students who are undertaking their own senior thesis research, saying how the undergraduate research process is about gaining speed, endurance and momentum that will vault them out failure and prepare them for what comes next.
“When I ask you if you are satisfied, I hope you say no. When I ask you if you are proud of what you have accomplished, I hope you can say you are proud of learning to commit to a project, that you're proud of forcing yourself to gut out the process, that you're not proud of the work you've done yet because you're not done,” she said.
“No matter what you accomplish, I hope it's never exactly what you envisioned. I hope you never quite grasp everything you reach for, and that your successes always include some small essential failure to keep you hungry for more. And I say that without a shred of malice.”
Article by Jon Bleiweis
Photo by Duane Perry