Sunday, December 28, 2008

Would You Want to Get an MFA in Poetry?

If you're tempted, think hard about your options. And remember that the single most important reason to do anything is because you want to do it, not because it's expected. I don't think going to grad school to do what you love doing is in any way a bad thing; but neither is it a cure for all your life's problems. It is a great idea in some ways; but it is not a panacea that will serve you all your life. Only life serves life. Experience remains the best teacher, in all its brutality and ecstasy.

I've been reading a lot of articles and essays, and books of essays, about poetry this past week or so, and the Master's of Fine Arts in writing degree has come up several times in discussion. The MFA is what one gets when one goes to a creative writing program at a graduate school English department, or creative writing program such as the Iowa Workshop. It's not a degree that takes a long time to get; usually less than two years. There are thousands of graduates out there who work in the literary field, in one capacity or another. MFA program turn out dozens or hundreds of poets every year. But poetry is one of the least funded of the arts in the USA, so your odds of finding a job in your field are near zero—unless you yourself become a poet/teacher in academia, or something similar. Don't give up your day job.

What's fascinating to me, which I was reminded of in my reading this past week, was how little the criticism of the MFA itself has changed over thirty years. The complaints about standardization, about how MFA programs churn out poets who all pretty much write the same bland post-confessional-lyric style poetry, about poets who may write well but don't teach well, about the uselessness of the degree—these complaints have all pretty much stayed the same over time. There are probably truths behind these criticisms; but they are also easy targets for criticism, because they're visible.

The two or three older poets I know who have gone back to get their MFAs have done so out of love of poetry, and because they found a teacher in a particular MFA program that they wanted to work with. I am all for older adults going back to college because they want to, for the love studying formally something they've always loved to do. I think that returning to college can be a life-affirming activity for an artist who has already wrapped some experience under her or his belt. It can be a way of systematizing what life has taught you, so that you can gain greater mastery over your tools, and also so you can pass on what you've learned. My experience of older grad students is that they are universally more interesting and more dedicated; they're in grad school because they want to be, not because it's expected, and their enthusiasm and dedication gives them renewed youth and vigor.

Speaking of things that are expected of one, I think that the Bachelor's Degree has become a necessary degree for most folks to have primarily because it now has become so devalued that it has the same importance, in a general way, that the high school diploma did 20 or 30 years ago. It's not that the Bachelor's degree is worthless, it's that it's now the entrance-level degree to society and the workforce that high school used to be, two generations ago. Effectively, we now require our children to go to high school for four more years, and pay lots of money for the privilege. On the other hand, lots of kids, when they graduate from high school, nowadays, really aren't mature enough to cope effectively with what the world has now become, in its accelerating complexity and pace of living; so those extra four years give many young folk a bit more time to discover who they are and what they want to do, and to develop some emotional maturity, as well as intellectual maturity.

So going back to grad school, later in life, can be a good process of continuing education. An MFA in creative writing is one of those programs, though, that one should do if one lives and breathes writing. It is perhaps a necessary gateway to literary discovery.

There are several recurring criticisms of the MFA writing degree, as I mentioned. The one I want to focus on for the moment, however, is a general question: Is teaching poetry in the academic (grad school) setting good for poetry?

Mostly I think it isn't. Mostly, I think it reduces inspiration to technique, and tends to create imitators rather than individual voices. The problem is in the academic setting, which is not void of personal politics or competition. The setting of scholarship can be invigorating, but it can also be deadening. A lot depends on the teacher. I've heard some poetry MFA teachers outright say that they let the students come to them, rather than being outgoing themselves. They use this as a way of sorting who is dedicated from who is not. The problem, however, is that sorting by benign neglect can also kill the joy for those students who are neither self-starters nor extraverts. A student who might need a little cajoling, encouragement, or ass-kicking can be get completely overlooked. Basically, the students are left to teach themselves.

My thought about teaching oneself is that it is probably the best way to go about learning. But why pay an institution money for what you can teach yourself by reading, reading, and more reading? So picking the right MFA program for yourself is going to definitely depend on who teaches there, and who you feel you can work with.

There is plenty of evidence that MFA programs create poets who all write the same way: short lyrics, usually post-confessional, often about small and mundane subjects. And when the topics are larger, the poems are often marred by easy sentiment and clichéd truisms, philosophical generalities, and viewpoints that assume the reader thinks just like the poet.

There is plenty of evidence that a lot of good or great poetry is created outside the academy—perhaps more than is created within. Not that "outsider art" is inherently better than "insider art," but rather that poets operating independently have less to unlearn in their creative processes. A lot of teaching is based on theory rather than practice. It is entirely too easy for ideological viewpoint to dominate the poetry, when the poet is operating in the climate of intellectual discourse and debate that is the Academy. And when "outsider" art becomes adopted into the academy, by the double process of imitating fashionable literary trends and by English departments hiring diverse viewpoints into their faculties, then "outsider" art loses its stance of rebellion, and can no longer call itself avant-garde. When you're no longer avant-garde, when you get the grants and get hired as the professors, the stance of being a rebel gets severely diluted, and becomes absurd.

So, I'm not convinced that academic teaching of poetry is worth much. I'm not convinced in any way that poetry that comes out of MFA programs is any better than poetry written by poets outside the Academy, who are off being independent writers while keeping their day jobs as whatever. MFA graduate poets may have more polish to their craft—but do they have anything beyond that? Exquisite little poems about nothing are still poems about nothing. Sometimes the dedicated amateurs rather than the professional contribute more to the arts, purely because their experimenting and exploring on their own, and are beholden to none.

If I were to go get an MFA in creative writing, it would be in poetry, or perhaps essay. I'm not much interested in writing fiction. I probably have a science fiction story or two in me, but I find most fiction to be mechanical and predictable, these days, so it doesn't attract me very deeply. It would be nice to get a grant or a scholarship from an MFA program to fund my tuition, of course. One positive way I've heard MFA's described is as 18 months of being allowed to do what you really wanted to do all along: read and write poems. So, in the footsteps of those older returning grad students I've known, I would only go get an MFA if I really wanted to, if it was made easy to do, and because it gave me the chance to immerse myself deeper into poetry, more systematically and with more time to really dig deeply.

But I would need to remain cautious about the immersion: an already-formed, published, experienced, and/or more mature artist has different needs than the beginner, or younger artist. If you let yourself get influenced too much, you risk losing your center, and getting blown every which way by the winds of literary fashion. Those winds can blow hard and fierce in MFA programs, because in some ways they have nothing else they can teach.

One of the big lessons I learned from music school was that no one can teach creativity or inspiration: they can teach you craft, technique, the tools you need to help you better mold and express and inform your vision. But if you don't go in with your vision already formed, at least partially, you risk becoming just another rote cipher among a long stream of bland imitators. So, going in as an older artist, one whose personal voice is already formed, gives you an advantage, in that you already know your work habits, and where your strengths and weaknesses lie. But you will also face resistance from teachers and fellow students, who don't realize what they have on their hands; and who will, implicitly or explicitly, try to get you to conform. The fact that my poetry is already considered radical, experimental, or alien—and that many poets whose poems would fit well into what comes out of the Iowa Workshop use words like "experimental" to describe my poetry in an essentially pejorative way—does not bode well for an easy passage. There is probably a way to smooth the passage, but I'm not sure what it is.

You're on your own, in the long run, no matter what. Artistically, it's probably better if you are. Your MFA degree is nice, and it was fun to get it, but it may not mean a thing in the end, as you might still end up pumping gas to pay the bills. And that might be when you write your best poems yet.

I've leave you with a quote from James Baldwin that seems oddly relevant:

The world's definitions are one thing and the life one actually lives is quite another. One cannot allow oneself, nor can one's family, friends, or lovers—to say nothing of one's children—to live according to the world's definitions: one must find a way, perpetually, to be stronger and better than that.

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