1. Most boring: ranking MFA programsHmmm. My own thoughts probably fall somewhere off the scale on the "boring" side, I fear. Let us say
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.
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.