Occasionally, I have students who want to be rock stars. They have started a band, and they are spending their weekends and off hours writing songs and practicing. Without fail, these kids know everything there is to know about new music. They are listening all the time—they can discourse on Bob Dylan as easily as they can talk about the new e.p. from a new band from Little Rock, Arkansas, or wherever, and they have a whole hard drive full of demos from obscure artists that they have downloaded from the internet.On the first day of my undergraduate poetry workshops, I usually hand out a info sheet for the students to fill out – name, e-mail, major, interests, etc. One of the question is who their favorite poets are. Often they name Emily Dickinson or Walt Whitman; Shakespeare; Keats; there's inevitably more than a couple people for whom Poe is a telltale heartthrob. Only very occasionally does Billy Collins, Maya Angelou, or Mary Oliver show up. Now I know what you're thinking – it's obvious that Shakespeare & Keats & Dickinson are better than anyone in the last 150 years, so it's only fair that my well-read students should make them their favorite. But the fact of the matter, I suspect, is that they simply don't know any poets post-whatever-they-read-in-high-school.
I wish that my students who want to be fiction writers were similarly engaged. But when I ask them what they’ve read recently, they frequently only manage to cough up the most obvious, high profile examples. What if my rock star students had only heard of …um….The Beatles? We listened to them in my Rock Music Class in high school. And…. And Justin Timberlake? And, uh, yeah, there’s that one band, My Chemical Romance, I heard one of their songs once.
My graduate students are clearly a different case, but while I know they've read more poetry, it's hard to tell precisely what they've read. When I did my own MFA back in the Dark Ages (the days of the Clone – er, Theory – Wars), one of the great challenges of the workshops was the fact that everyone seemed to be writing out of their own personal canon, their own set of inspirations & models. Now that's always the case to some extent, I'd stipulate: but what struck me again & again was the incommensurability of some of those canons. In grad school I wrote deeply under the influence of Michael Palmer, Edmond Jabès, Susan Howe, & LZ; how was I to judge the poems of someone whose tutelary deities were Robert Frost, Robert Lowell, Sharon Olds, and Mary Oliver? What did that person make of mine?
There's no way to enforce an aesthetic uniformity upon an MFA program, especially when there's little aesthetic uniformity among its faculty. That's probably a good thing. But one thing I've been doing over the last decade, a practice fairly common in workshops these days, but unheard of back in the Dark Ages on Campus on the Hill, is to assign a selection of recent books that've grabbed me. Students present on them, we talk about them, we think about them as barometers of the state of the art (for better or worse), we mine them for strategies. So here's the booklist for this fall's graduate workshop:
Rae Armantrout, Money Shot
Caroline Bergvall, Meddle English
Martin Corless-Smith, English Fragments: A Brief History of the Soul
Susan Howe, That This
Joseph Lease, Testify
Jena Osman, The Network
Lisa Robertson, R's Boat
Rosmarie Waldrop, Driven to Abstraction