At the reading last night, I heard several people talking about this big conference coming up. Perhaps it will be of interest to readers of the blog. It's called something like "AWB"?
Yes, yes, the largest gathering of the residents of Poetryland (as Jordan Davis usefully referred to it last week) and other literary lands will be starting soon, and we will no doubt be hearing dispatches from writers in Chicago on this very site and across the web. I'm not going to AWP this year, and I haven't been to AWP. I am a little curious, as the common reaction when it comes up is a groaning sound, followed by "It's great... It's exhausting... but it's fun at the same time! ... groan... there's a lot of drinking." I also have an allergic reaction to the use of the word "network" as a verb and fear going into anaphylactic shock if I should attend... That sounds snottier than anything I intended; I have actually come to see this as a shortcoming on my part. A bit of "network-as-verb" is necessary to getting anywhere in public life, and I do realize a lot more goes on at these epic gatherings than The Schmooze, including a great range of panels, readings, and debauchery (antidote to the allergy?), so I wouldn't rule out attending in the future... Happy travels to all heading to Chicago and I look forward to reading live dispatches.
This question of the kind of public life we assign to the writer, of peddling your writer-wares, makes me think of the heated debates that have been burning up literary-minded corners of the web and print journals for the past couple of decades (longer?). The questions are: Can poetry matter? What is the value of a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing? (Or alternatively, "Why the hell would anyone get an MFA in Creative Writing"?) Who reads poetry? Who decides what is poetry? Why doesn't anyone read poetry? What does it mean to teach creative writing? Is the whole endeavor of "creative writing" too institutionalized or hermetic? Is there such a thing as a sustainable model for publishing poetry? Etc., etc. (For a primer of the complaints and some answers, once again here's the link to Jordan Davis's excellent précis.)
I have read a lot of opinions in these various these debates, from nearly every camp, with varying degrees of interest, dread, excitement, and bewilderment. I certainly don't intend to take on all of these questions in a humble blog post, but I can say something about the MFA issue from a personal perspective.
When I was in grad school at The New School, we would commiserate about how difficult it was to talk about what it was we were studying with family members, strangers at a party, at our day jobs. There was something embarrassing about talking about being a writer of poetry (uh, a poet), not because I was embarrassed about what I was doing, but because I had to contend with other people's embarrassing preconceptions about what that meant. The most negative among these, or what I most feared, included, "Oh a poet, isn't that sweet?", "Oh a poet, you mean Raging Narcissist," or "'MFA in poetry, what kind of job do you get with that?". There's also the dreaded, "What kind of poetry do you write?", which you should be nice about answering even if you don't know what kind of poetry you write, because it's actually often an expression of genuine interest. I still don't really like talk about "the whole poetry thing" casually, because so much of it is ultimately between myself and the page, which is enough to sort out already.
Fortunately, when I was in school, I was not exposed to the vitriol against the MFA you can easily find on-line these days, rants that accuse anyone attending an MFA program of either participating in an elitist system of nepotism or engaging in a waste of time and money. I think that's why many writers drop the MFA from their bios - those letters expose you to a whole set of judgments and criticism. The view that credentials, in fact, put into question your authenticity as a writer, rather than validate it. (Should I have put authenticity in quotation marks? I don't even know any more.)
There are two points I can definitely agree with as far as the criticisms go: (1) You should not get an MFA for the career prospects it offers (i.e., Don't expect to get a teaching job when you're done.) (2) It's a bad idea to go into life-crippling debt to get an MFA in creative writing.
My own MFA experience was a source of plenitude: my teachers and the range of workshop experience equipped me to figure out what it was I wanted to do with my work and to do it on my own. But I also think our class was especially lucky. The chemistry between our group simply worked, and that's not something you can predict. I felt stimulated and supported by a serious, smart, engaged, and hard-partying group of writers. A couple of them have remained my constant readers and literary compatriots, and in times of doubt, have been the voice that said "don't stop." I worked a full-time job while completing the degree, as did many other students.
I think writers have always needed these things: mentorship, companionship, a place to talk about their work. I don't find the institutionalization of the process to be objectionable if the alternative is to be left always in want of these things. That is: alienated, lonely, talking to yourself. I do realize it's not one or the other, some writers do find their guide and networks outside of a program, but I'm grateful for what I found. (Photo is of Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop.)
I started the MFA program just a year after graduating from college, I guess as one of the ways of starting my adult life, and I remember being crushed by the discovery that Poetryland was just as full of salivating ambition, envy, back-biting and pettiness as any other place. Perhaps even more than a lot of other places, because the recognition is spread thin, the financial rewards miniscule, and hard-won. I remember going to one particular reading with my friend Jack, and one of the poets was so self-promoting, so pompous --pompous to the point of hostility-- that we had to have a couple of cocktails to recover. Jack had come from the cynical world of sales and had been equally starry-eyed about living in Poetryland for a bit.
This issue of everyone being a poet, it's complicated. By this I mean that I've heard a lot of people say it like a joke: "There are more people writing poetry than reading it." And let's suppose for a moment that's true. On the one hand, it could be a preposterous thought, this echo chamber. If you've ever edited or assisted a literary journal, you know there are people spending more time trying to worm their way into the glory of "Published Writer" than writing and editing their own work, or learning by reading something amazing, written by someone else.
On the other hand, what if all those people writing poetry are also reading other people's poetry? I personally know many writers of poetry (uh, poets) who read lots and lots of poetry, talk enthusiastically about it, buy it, pass it on, and give generously of their time and resources to edit and publish other people's work. Why do we have to create a dividing line between Those Who Write Poems and Those Who Must Read Them? There's nothing preposterous about a world in which so many individuals, more than ever before, have access to the books, materials, education, and openness to live out their creative capacity, without having to be viewed as freaks, degenerates or outsiders. What would be preposterous is if all those individuals believed they were undiscovered geniuses and expected recognition through the old model, in which only a few had the privilege or risked all to live out that capacity. I think that, at the moment, it's a combination of the two, some of the preposterous, and some of the wonderful, formerly unseen ways of living creativity.
I will end this with a thought from Federico Fellini, which seems appropriate, in looking to the future. This is from a text which appears in the book Fellini on Fellini. He's talking about the world in the late 60s, in which the old concept of the Great Auteur was being left behind:
"Today's cinema seems to me in the same situation as that of all the other art forms. A very odd situation. This situation is diagnosed all over the world (while the amazing, indeed cancerous, growth of social, political, ethical and aesthetic reasons which actually account for it are neglected) as being a classic one of confusion, impotence, emptiness, crises, transition, and the abolition of all the rules and values that existed until our time. I think there is something very seriously wrong with this diagnosis. It seems to me the result of value judgements which, having shored up the diagnosis, ought to be thrown out with the rest. [...]
"Perhaps those growing up around us -- and all their manifestations, including their artistic manifestations -- are so different from us and our work, so unrecognisable, that the natural respect felt for anything impossible to evaluate should make us withhold judgement, or anyway should prompt us to give up our old points of reference and try to find new ones more suited to the new context.
"In conclusion, it seems to me that what deludes and irritates us in the cinema, in literature and the theatre and in the figurative arts, is the limitedness of what they produce. A remarkable sort of limitedness which condemns no-one, not even the authors that express it, but rather shows how today's people are more individual, and culturally, spiritually and socially more evolved than they were. Until now, artists have always been the high points that burst out of a shapeless, passive mass, the common denominator in which other recognized themselves and from which they drew nourishment. Today, this denominator is rather less common because the more highly developed personality of each individual limits and reduces it, and the high points do not burst out at so high a level because the average, in the mass of people, is higher than it was. Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing, I don't know. Perhaps we are destined to become a whole human race of artists, each producing and nourishing himself on what he produces. Perhaps art, in the sense we know it, will no longer be necessary. These are utopian ideas, of course, but something we ought to bear in mind."