Sunday, October 10, 2010

My MFA problem

That last post set me thinking – or maybe this weekend I'd think about anything to avoid marking papers – about the entire institution of the MFA, which has become a topic of internet pissing & moaning as ubiquitous these days as Madonna was in 1985. Bob Archambeau, in the comments section of a recent, typically learned, post about "wit" in contemporary poetry on his own blog, lays out a list of a list of "ways to talk about the professionalization of poetry," from most to least boring:
1. Most boring: ranking MFA programs
2. Second most boring: complaining about the ranking of MFA programs.
3. Semi-boring: complaining about the prevalence of MFA programs
4. Sort of exciting: looking into the causes and effects of the rise of MFA programs from as disinterested and historically-informed a perspective as possible.
5. Exciting: seeing how the MFA programs fit into several long histories: of the universities, of the social role of the poet, of professionalism.
6. Totally exciting: linking the histories mentioned in 5, above, to aesthetic effects.
Hmmm. My own thoughts probably fall somewhere off the scale on the "boring" side, I fear. Let us say
0. Eminently pass-overable: personal ruminations on the MFA.
At any rate, I find the whole Seth Abramson-MFA ranking phenomenon actually rather interesting, at least as an index of how much things have shifted between my own far-off days as a young poet in an MFA program & my present as a portly, grey-bearded full prof who teaches in a young "dark horse" program. (Which, in case you're interested, includes exciting faculty with expertise in Creative Nonfiction, Literary Translation, and even – dare I say it? – Biography!)

Some things never change: there's the endless mantra, repeated by almost everyone, that "writing can't be taught"; a program can only do something else – give one time & breathing space in which to write, provide a interested company of similarly-minded young poets, perhaps (if one's really lucky) even drop one into a mentorship relationship with an older poet.

But certain things have clearly changed. The very existence of Seth Abramson's list, for instance. Now of course people back in the day used to talk about what the "best" programs were – where the "hot" poets were teaching, & where there were generous fellowships and cushy assistantships. That all this scuttlebutt has been qualitatively analyzed and put into a list, however, is an index of just how professionalized the MFA industry has become. I hear it in the corridors, & see it when I visit other institutions; MFAs are talking about poetry like they always have, but they're talking about pobiz (the prizes, the publications, the fellowships, the various ways to "make it") more than they ever have.

Indeed, the whole business of being a poet associated with academe has become much more rigorous and codified than it was. Publications – sure; journals are good, but a book is even better (which of course necessitates the endless round of $25 reading fees – a boring grouse in itself). A web presence is a must. Five years ago, you had to have a blog; now you have to be on Facebook, and friend everybody who might possibly help you get ahead. Attending AWP is a must – not so much to go to panels or readings, but to rub shoulders with possible publishers and useful connections. (And let's not kid ourselves – the off-site readings, both at MLA & AWP, are less a counter to the onsite events than they are their hipster simulacrum: if AWP is the mall, then the offsite events are the black market – but they're both commercial gatherings.)

I have rather ghastly misgivings whenever I lurch back and think about the MFA as a professional program. Here's where I'm coming from: I spent 6 or 7 years at a top-ranked PhD program where we as grad students were being explicitly groomed to do precisely what our professors/mentors did: to take up tenure-track positions teaching some variety of literature/theory/cultural studies. I don't have precise figures on the fortunes of my cohort at Campus on the Hill, but I suspect that we may be the last generation to have a better-than-even chance of grabbing that brass ring. The bottom dropped out of the academic "job market" around the time we matriculated, and it's been dropping steadily downward ever since. And as the jobs have dried up, the bar for grabbing one of those vanishing tenure-track jobs has climbed steadily higher. Once upon a time you could get a starting tenure-track position at Our Fair University with an ABD and a promising scholarly project; these days you won't even make the first cut of the applicant pool unless you've published at least a couple of articles. (In another 10 years, we might just as well put "book published or under contract" in the job description.)

Things are even tougher for MFA grad students who hope to get jobs like those of their MFA professors – you know, secure tenure-track university positions with livable teaching loads. The lucky ones will end up with instructorships or tenure-track positions at community colleges or teaching-intensive institutions; they'll be teaching 4 or 5 courses a semester, wondering where all the time for writing went. More will end up trying to piece a living together out of adjunct gigs, and maybe eventually drop out of the academy altogether. Only an exceptionally lucky few will end up doing what they were professionalized to do.

But, some argue, we're not training MFAs to be professors – we're training them to be poets. Well, so far as any real vocational training they get in the MFA goes, it's to to the things a professor does – it's certainly not to be an accountant or a dental hygienist or a geologist. And what many MFA programs seem to be doing, besides initiating young people into an increasingly dead-end profession, is professionalizing them as poets – is teaching them to work the circuits of publication, prize contests, post-graduate fellowships, etc.

My problem – aside from a general, gnawing sense of bad faith in participating in the graduate side of higher education at all – is that I don't have a clue as to how to help anyone get ahead as a poet. I can look at your poems & tell you what's exciting & unexciting about them to me; I can show you a bunch of tricks I've learned over the years; I can point you to any number of poets you might not have looked at otherwise. But I know about as much as your cat does about how to become a famous and successful poet-person.

I gave up staying awake nights trying to figure out how to be a famous & successful poet-person a long time ago. I've settled for trying to figure out how to write the poems I want to write, and to write them as well as I can. I think I might be able to help you with your poetry, if you want help with your poetry. Getting you published, hooking you up with the right contests, helping you into a job? I won't say you're on your own there, because there's thousands upon thousands out there right now trying to grab just those brass rings. But it's like those lovely subdisciplines of Middle English or colonial American lit: there are some regions of this profession I know a bit about, but don't claim to "do."

I'm not ashamed to call myself a professional academic; I'm a professional teacher, a professional scholar, to some degree even a professional writer. But I'm not a professional poet, & the moment a graduate program falls into the trap of thinking it can professionalize a creative praxis (even if it does so unconsciously), that's the moment it becomes a betrayal of that very praxis.


Anonymous said...

one tends to become
what they
pretend to be

seems to me
now that I am a
Famous Poet/Artist
that I can posit WITH Authority AND Credentials

; the poem is what the words do &

the painting IS what the paint does...

"teach" (me) that red is yellow? that green is blue?

... not necessary to pimp or to prostitute ...."self" the field has become over-crowded, over-credentialized, over-valued and over-over!


next thing you'll find? that some University will take over everything literary and archive things on a Super Blog ...

I think Penn State is now so doing... they just took over Tranter's JACKET ...

Seth Abramson said...


I think it's important to remember--as I always say, in nearly every article I write on the MFA degree--that the MFA is a "largely-unmarketable, non-professional art school degree." Consequently, the purpose of the rankings is to encourage programs to fund students (and do other things that applicants care about, like emphasizing studio work and a three-year flexible curriculum) not to help anyone get a job because (say) they went to the #11 program instead of the #42 program. That's really beside the point -- the rankings are intended for applicants only, i.e. to help them understand which programs are best at offering applicants what applicants report they care about, not for the benefit of professors, employers, &c. I realize everything in life has contained within it the possibility for its misuse and misunderstanding, but that doesn't change the fact that the rankings are not conceived of, nor designed as, the sort of cultural artifact you seem to presume they are.