Friday, February 18, 2005

The Power of the MFA?

Among other things, Barbara Jane Reyes (http://bjanepr.blog-city.com/read/1080768.htm) insightfully writes, there's a serious fallacy in arguments that go something like: you publish because you are a poet (conversely, you are a poet because you're published). you publish because that is what poets do.

I agree with Barbara that publication does not make a poet. But why? It is not inevitable that I feel this way. Not being a fatalist, I don't think that history is inevitable. And I can imagine a world where publication would make a poet. More essentially, I can imagine a world were an MFA degree would make a poet. It is called Much of the Rest of the World.

In Much of the Rest of the World, you need an advanced degree and/or license to "earn the right" to claim a particular profession as your identity. Lawyers, teachers, doctors, civil engineers, physicists, etc. all need advanced degrees/licenses to lay claim to their identities as such. As anyone who studies the histories of these professions may attest, the phenomenon of requiring advanced learning was not inevitable and evolved over time. For example, until the mid-19th century, most lawyers didn't even need to attend college, and until the early to mid-20th century, many lawyers didn't even need undergraduate degrees to attend law school.

Theoretically, we could conceive of a world in which poets must have an MFA degree to gain publication. The degree would be justified in largely the same way the other professions justify the need for advanced degrees -- an MFA degree is an indicator of dedication to and expertise in the art of poetry. All major publications could agree to condition publication upon an MFA degree. The MFA degree would thereby become much more valuable and powerful. Sure, there may be minor poets who publish in homespun lit mags, but there are also law students who attend non-ABA accredited institutions and people who represent themselves in court. We don't have to take them seriously.

I just described a world that does not currently exist in solid form, but which contains a certain, palpable element of descriptive truth to it, even today. The movement is from the quality of the poem to the status of the poet. If we look at the status of the poet to decide whether to publish and/or give a poet an award, then that makes everyone's job easier. It is much easier to read a first and last name than to read a whole poem or book of poems. No more Cathy Song poems -- all we would need is a "Cathy Song"! I want people to appreciate the power of this short-cut to gain a sense of its dangerous attractiveness.

But this blog is not about ease. And poetry is not about not reading poetry. The MFA can be used as a source of power to exclude, but we must ask ourselves, as with every vocation, whether the power is justified. Here's an interesting question: Should an MFA be a prerequisite to a poet's becoming a poetry professor? At this point, I am not sure. There seems to be an economic argument that, since there are so few openings for poetry professors available, an MFA narrows the pool of qualified applicants and establishes a prima facie case for possession of a relatively higher level of knowledge of poetry that would make for at least a more knowledgeable professor. At the same time, however, we are moving further away from the quality of the poetry, and at any rate, we all know that both the poet with the MFA and the poet who writes "great" poetry (the two being mutually supporting and perhaps becoming indistinguishable in their little collusive marriage) are not necessarily the most helpful teachers.

10 Comments:

Blogger GJPW said...

Hello,

I've enjoyed reading your blog since it opened. You've been bringing up fascinating and important topics.

As for the MFA, I enjoyed the process of getting mine (it was actually an MA, at Boston University). But, I don't quite trust the notion that having one makes me (or anyone else) qualified to write or teach poetry. Too much of the process (for me at least) involved unnecessary competition, name-dropping and an aversion to theory that I found disheartening. In fact, some of my best classes at BU were the ones outside the Creative Writing program, where I was able to learn about poetry and writing by studying Fredric Jameson, Homi Bhabha, Gayatri Spivak, Walter Benjamin, Aijaz Ahmad, W.E.B. DuBois, etc.

I guess it depends on the program, but BU tended to emphasize poetry as being independent from criticism and theory (a stance that seems counterproductive to me).

I'm in debt now because of BU and I often wonder if it was worth it. I would say yes, because it provided me the time to read and write and it gave me access to Boston. I was also introduced to the work of certain poets I might not have otherwise discovered.

And I would say that writers of color in the US need as many tools as we can find. But most of my "teachers" in poetry didn't have MFAs and I don't think they needed one. (Frank Lima's one exception. He got his from Columbia in the 70s but works as a Chef Instructor.)

I guess I'd say the MFA is a wonderful tool but it's not a necessity.

--Guillermo Parra

3:18 PM  
Blogger Nick said...

Hola Guillermo and hola Roger, nice discussion about MFA's here. My favorite quote is that of Flannery O'Connor when asked if she thought the university system discouraged writers. Her response was that they did not discourage enough of them! What I am noticing lately is the growth of new MFA programs that seem to be plain old cash cows for their colleges and universities. There is a strong demand for these kinds of programs and for these kinds of courses, and these institutions are very willing to offer them these courses for primo dollars. I got my MFA from Sarah Lawrence College and it hardly prepared me for the poet's life afterwards. You know, a simple course on how to put a "Curriculum Vitae" together and who to send it to at an English Dept would have gone a long way.

So everything I learned how to live as a poet I learned on my own. Well, now I'm teaching full-time as a Visiting Poet in the MFA program at the University of Miami. Aside from the poetry workshops, I am also teaching them young-uns how to go about getting their first publications in magazines, how to submit to book contests or directly to publishers. I tell them about the dreaded MLA system of job seeking for academic positions. A little-known fact is that most English Departments with PhD programs have seminars and handbooks that prepare their students for the MLA interviews. Somehow, they never let the MFA students in creative writing know about this service. So, that's if you want to continue your career in the back-stabbing academic world.

I also present many other alternatives to my grad students like careers in publishing, editing, non-profit arts work, and high school teaching (especially international schools). The most important lesson I want to impart is that they have to find a way within themselves to keep writing poems. 35% of MFA poets stop writing poems completely and they go on to other things. Maybe that's what they really wanted to do but they had to MFA first. It's the one's that persist and find a way to keep writing poems that really succeed.

So, after the MFA, you can't get your book published. Well, do something about it and start your own poetry press. I've seen many poetry presses crop up that were started and are run by former MFAers that have now established fancy reps for themselves like, Verse Press, Fence (a mag first), WordTech, Tupelo, Firewheel, Soft Skull. It is the MFA student's desire to keep plugging away that will help him or her succeed in this field and that is something I nor Flannery O'Connor can ever hope to discourage.

Nick Carbo

5:58 PM  
Blogger Jumbiqua said...

Nick,
Wow, you sound like the coolest teacher. I would love to have you as my teacher. I agree with everything you say, but so many people in the blogging world, it seems, would argue with you and call your tactics "careerist," which is only a term I've recently been reading about online and only by poets. I find their protests against your practicality annoying and incorrect. Because what you're saying is that poets should do anything to sustain themselves IN ORDER TO KEEP WRITING! I've never quite heard of it phrased that way and I think it's rather lovely. Starting a press like the ones you mentioned is a great way to stay in poetry (something one loves) and to keep writing. Even if one doesn't keep writing, maybe starting a press is one's true calling. It's hard to say.

I guess my point is that poets love poetry--they wouldn't do it otherwise. It's the dumbest, least practical thing ever. They shouldn't be criticized for trying to stay in poetry or automatically assumed that they're being "careerist" (which in my opinion just means trying to continue to do something they love). I just don't get the anti-"careerism" mode in the poetry world, when everyone knows that poets are just trying to FIND WAYS TO KEEP WRITING! Well said. You seem like a mature guy.

7:38 AM  
Blogger Roger Pao said...

Hey Guillermo, thanks a lot for visiting and posting! Yes, I think that there is little or no correlation between having an MFA and being a careful and thoughtful teacher. But I do sympathize, to a certain extent, with colleges and universities who must make difficult hiring decisions on the basis of limited information.

I do not think that I would be too happy in an MA or MFA program in poetry that distinguished sharply between poetry and criticism/ theory. To me, that seems counterproductive only because if one doesn't care about "theories" or "philosophies" of poetry -- a perfectly legitmate position to take -- then one would probably be much better served just writing poems independently and/or taking workshops at adult or continuing education places on the side.

8:09 AM  
Blogger Roger Pao said...

Hola Nick, I really appreciate the very helpful "insider" info on MFAs here, as well as from Guillermo, because what in the world do I know about MFAs?! :)

Your interesting remark about some newer MFA programs being cash cows reminds me of the same critique being levied against some law schools and money from law schools being funneled into colleges and universities without any reciprocal assistance. Actually, I think that this phenomenon must apply to other graduate schools as well.

I have mixed views about reliance on new poetry presses. The starting-up of new poetry presses may either be seen as the origin of a great entreprenurial effort or the byproduct of the failure of an MFA program to provide for suitable employment, IMHO.

My concern here is twofold: first, that there are only so many students who can start new publishing presses, and many do fail. (Note: This I do know something about. About three summers ago, I attempted to document all existing poetry lit mags and presses. I know turnover is great, and I doubt if most of them are still around at this point.) Second, and related, it is very difficult for new poetry presses to sustain themselves financially. In contrast to many other poetry afficiandos, I don't think that the basic problems of economics in poetry can be ignored. I wonder if the 35% who stop writing poetry completely, for example, stop writing due to financial imperatives/family responsibilities rather than to any real choice of their own.

8:28 AM  
Blogger Roger Pao said...

Hello Jumbiqua, thanks for posting! I second the motion that it would be terrific to have Nick as a teacher. And I agree with you that practicality and careerism are important.

If I wanted to defend poets who object to "careerism," however, I would say that they are longing for a system that doesn't put so much emphasis on the professionalization of art and wanting greater focus to be placed on poetry. I think that such a romantic longing has helped prevent poetry become completely like a profession such as law, engineering, or medicine -- fields essentially sealed off to the non-degreed, non-licensed public.

8:41 AM  
Blogger Jumbiqua said...

Roger,
Yes, I hear you about careerism and I understand people's concerns. There's a romantic (capital R) notion that poetry should be "pure." And I have issue too sometime with commercialization of everything in America. I can see your/their point. But I think some people are so paranoid (Foetry and a lot of bloggers I read on occasion) about this. They point fingers at everyone and are looking for a conspiracy that may not exist. I guess I've never been one to wonder about other poets and their motivations for starting a press, as in Nick's example. I assume they just want to start a press because they love poetry, not for some careerist move.

My point is maybe careerism and the way we have defined it isn't really that much of a danger? And I think every poet is a careerist. At least every poet who has ever tried to publish anything anywhere can be defined as a careerist. Does applying for grants make one a careerist too? Does sending an email to friends announcing a book make one a careerist? The list goes on. You get the drift. I'd like to advocate poets looking at themselves more and analyzing their own motivations for sending poems out, desiring to get published. Perhaps we're all the same, just wanting people to read our poems. I guess I don't view the world of poetry as the "careerists" and the "anti-careerists" and I don't view the word "careerist" as even being a negative thing. I think we'd all be hypocrites if we say we've sent poems out and called other people careerists. A lot of poets seem to like to point fingers at others, and not look at themselves first, particularly poets that haven't been very successful at getting published or winning grants, or garnering readers. These people seem to be particularly opposed to so-called "careerism" when they are in fact some of the biggest carereerists around. Just providing an alternative perspective.

9:04 AM  
Blogger Neil Aitken said...

Hello all,

I've enjoyed reading the many fine responses to Roger's insightful post.

I think the underlying problem is deciding what it means to be a "professional writer." Successfully publishing poets tend to treat their writing life as a real profession: they establish a regular work pattern, they demand a level of excellence of themselves, and wish to project themselves in a professional manner. However, I think the danger is that after a while, one can be tempted to write the kind of poems you know will be published and not necessarily the poems you really want to write. This, perhaps, is why it seems like some poets stagnate or stop innovating. The first book is brilliant and the second sometimes reads as an encore but not as sufficiently new ground.

An MFA can perpetuate that problem. Or, it can break you free. Largely, it's what you do with the time spent in the MFA that really matters.

Case in point, I'm in the middle of an MFA at UC Riverside. If I don't see a course that I want to take, I design a course for myself and arrange for an independent class with a professor mentor. I figure that as a professional, my time is valuable and I need to find ways to stretch -- if the university won't provide a pre-fab class that does this, I see no reason why I can't make one that does fill that need.

I do see the divide between the poetry teachers and theorists -- thankfully I have a wonderful professor this quarter (Chris Abani) who bridges both worlds.

Does an MFA make a good poet? Probably not. Can it make a good poet better? Sometimes. I think being in the program does at least give me a sense that I'm not alone in the world with my obsession with words. There are friendships built and discussions entered into which have been invaluable in my development as a writer. Strangely enough, most of these experiences have happened outside the classroom.

Neil Aitken

8:15 PM  
Blogger Roger Pao said...

Hey Neil (and Jumbiqua), thanks for the posts! Yes, in case it wasn't clear before, I don't really have anything against MFA degrees per se. And at least at this point, I have no personal stake in this debate, or at least much as MFA students/professors, so I can stand back from the discussion a bit.

I would agree that an MFA can sometimes make a "good poet" better, and I would even say that it can sometimes make a "good poet." The reverse can happen as well. For example, a mean-spirited prof can discourage a "good poet" from writing altogether.

So I would concur with Neil that it is what one does with an MFA that largely matters.

10:07 PM  
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