In Defense of the MFA
Self-evidently, I have an MFA.
Now that you’re done laughing, an anecdote:
During my first semester at the University of Florida’s MFA program, an older student asked me what my goals were. I said, “To be in the Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry.”
He said, “That’s a young man’s dream.”
Instead of “Duh,” I said, “Why would anyone shoot for anything less?”
Why I enrolled in an MFA program
I started writing poems at 11 or 12. My father wrote poetry. He dedicated a few poems to me. It seemed natural for me to write poetry too. My father was not impressed with my poems. One in particular, about a prince in love, he found infantile (I was 13).
Quickly, my poems turned into song lyrics. If I couldn’t charm my father with poetry, I’d piss him off with anthems of angst and hornyness. I got my first guitar at 14 and learned to play it by learning the chords to songs I liked. The first song I could play the whole way through was House of the Rising Sun (the F chord was a pain in the ass). After that, I found the Sex Pistols and the Ramones. Punk rock, baby. All through high school, I wrote songs nobody ever heard. Nobody, that is, but a girl at church for whom I made tapes of my songs. While trying to hand her my third such tape, she said “Another one?”
After high school, I got into my first band, aptly named Oedipus Complex. A few other bands followed, with me contributing most of the songwriting. But, eventually, I realized I didn’t have the talent to make it as a singer/songwriter. Mostly, my singing voice was not up to par. I could have tried anyway, but my pessimist, zero-self-esteem inner voice said it was no use.
Instead, i decided to finish college. I had gotten some good results with my poetry while going to Florida Community College in Jacksonville (now Florida State College, Jacksonville) and after enrolling at the University of Florida. I loved my poetry teachers, and they encouraged me in my work: Marilyn De Simone and Kevin Bezner at FCCJ; Joan New, Debora Greger, and William Logan at UF.
With a semester or two to go before finishing my bachelor’s, I knew I wanted to write poetry, I knew I wanted to teach at the college level, I knew I wanted to publish at least one book of poetry, and I knew I would kill to one day be named amongst the great poets. I didn’t see any other way to further those goals but to enroll in an MFA program. Mainly, an MFA would allow me to earn a living teaching as an adjunct college professor while the rest of my plans took shape.
I would get an MFA. During and after it, I’d try to get published in magazines, win a national contest or two, and get to know editors I respected. With my MFA in hand, I would get a job as an adjunct professor at a community college. Eventually, I would get a book deal. After publishing my book, I would get a job as an instructor at an MFA program. Whatever else, I would keep writing.
And if I was really, really, really, really lucky, I would be one of the few to make the top of the poetry pyramid, a poet like my own teachers, Debora Greger, William Logan, and Michael Hofmann, or one of the poets I loved: Elizabeth Bishop, Randall Jarrell, Robert Lowell, Amy Clampitt, Donald Justice, Sylvia Plath, Adrienne Rich, Seamus Heaney, Carolyn Forché, Paul Muldoon.
A lofty dream, but what’s the point of dreaming low? Besides, if truth be told, I knew it was just a dream. I knew it would never happen. Ever. My pessimist, zero-self-esteem self was particularly sure of that. But at least with an MFA I’d be able to teach and make a living, and maybe even get a book or two published before I killed myself (at 24, I was pretty sure I’d end up killing myself before I got around to writing this piece).
How it all worked out
I enjoyed my MFA time. With the exception of one severely damaged student who sexually harassed a friend, all my classmates were talented, earnest, good people. I tend to be a loner, but I don’t recall much friction between the students (friction between the instructors and some of the students was something else altogether).
I enjoyed learning from my instructors. At the same time, I could see plain as the name tags on their office doors that I was nowhere near as talented as they were. Debora Greger in particular filled me with the dread primitive people must have felt faced with their first full solar eclipse. Her talent was just so … out there. Hers were the poems I wish I could write. And those were the poems I wasn’t writing.
Mostly, we did exercises: write a ten line poem where each line ends with a color, a shape, or a fictional dog. Or whatever. You get the picture. Two years of it. I felt my craft was improving, but my ear told me that after all the revisions mandated by workshops, my poems were clumsy, non-poetic dabblings instead of finished works of … something.
While in the MFA program, I did not get published a single time despite heavy submission. Other than with fellow students, I didn’t make a single contact with a poet or editor that could translate into being published, though a few of my fellow students did. This failure was mostly my fault because I am, as I’ve said, a loner. If anything, my work during the MFA convinced me more than ever that my dream of poetic brilliance was just that. And after two years and a mediocre thesis, it was over. What could I say.
After the MFA
I finished my MFA in May, 1993. By August of that year (after working at a Hungry Howie’s Pizza to make ends meet), I landed a job teaching as an adjunct instructor at Santa Fe Community College and at UF’s Writing Lab. As an adjunct, my classes fluctuated from semester to semester, with no guarantee I’d have a job the next time around. I had no benefits (no health insurance, no vacation time) and minimal pay, but my MFA did get me part-time teaching work at the college level.
Despite continued and heavy submission, I had no luck getting published or winning a book contest. Actually, that’s not entirely true. I did get a few poems published, but only because a friend saw promise in my work and published me in a magazine he was co-editing at the time.
(My friend, C. Dale Young, is one of only two poets of my MFA crop to publish a book of poetry. But the guy is amazing. After finishing his MFA, he went through medical school. Today, he practices medicine, has been widely published in the best poetry journals, has been featured on the Best American Poetry series, has not one but three poetry books out, and teaches part-time at an MFA program. He is by far the most successful student to come out of our class and probably out of UF’s poetry MFA program in the last 20 years.
After living on under $16,000 per year as an adjunct and having no success in publishing my work, I decided to try a different career while I still had time. Four years later, I stopped teaching and went into a sensible, high-paying job.
I wouldn’t write a poem again for nearly 11 years.
What do I make of my MFA?
An MFA can provide an intensive time to hone your craft surrounded by like-minded people. It can allow you to make contacts in the publishing world. It can also get you into serious debt.
In my case, nobody promised me anything other than a chance to get better at writing poetry, and my program covered most of my expenses between fellowships and teaching stipends. What little debt I incurred (under $3,000 if I recall correctly) I paid off rather quickly.
Needless to say, having an MFA doesn’t make you an artist. But what does? It doesn’t mean you will be published in journals either. I know a supremely talented graduate of the Iowa MFA (perhaps the most prestigious poetry MFA in the country) who has not been able to get her poems accepted by the better journals. And it’s certainly not a guarantee that you will get a book published. On the other hand, I know many, many MFA graduates who have gone on to publish in the most prestigious journals, including Poetry and The Paris Review, and who have published books.
In a time when there is a glut of MFAs out there (just like there’s a glut of English MAs and PhDs), having an MFA is not a ticket to a full-time teaching job. But it can get you part-time adjunct work, which is better than Hungry Howie’s Pizza, though perhaps not by much: adjuncts earn an average $19,200 a year with a master’s degree ($22,400 with a PhD). And only 25% of all faculty is on tenure track these days.
As to my own experience, I see a pattern. After being rebuffed by my father, I stopped writing poetry and concentrated on music. Later, when it became clear that I did not have the talent required to be a great singer/songwriter, and encouraged by my poetry professors, I pursued poetry again. And, again, once I accepted that I did not have the talent required to be a great poet, or more to the point, when editors failed to embrace me, I abandoned poetry in search of something at which I could excel.
But I couldn’t fully walk away from poetry. After my father died in 2003 of Hepatitis C and cirrhosis of the liver (there is a full story right there), I had to deal with a lot of things from my past, from addiction to abuse. Without noticing it, I began to write a poem, just scribbles in my journal at first, then collected lines that turned into stanzas. Whatever it was, it grew into the longest poem I had ever written. But it was not poetry; it was therapy. I showed this pseudo-poem to but a handful of people. One of them was William Logan, my MFA thesis director. William was always kind and straightforward with me, the furthest thing from my father any man could be, but I felt that sharing the poem with him was a sort of exorcism.
As the first time around, I went from poetry to music and back to poetry again. In late 2006, 16 years after “leaving my music behind,” I began to write and record songs again, this time with no hope of ever “making it” in the music business. Then, about a year after I started writing songs again, I allowed myself to write another poem, “The Book of Water” — not as a compulsive act to deal with my past but as a conscious act to write something meaningful for an audience. I think the theme of death with dignity is a bit grandiose, but it captured how I felt about my poetry as I finished my MFA:
The Book of Water
Books cover the carpet, leaves
on damp earth — fairies and demons,
goblins and sisters, some holy pages too —
storm debris, shells with past lives
cracked open, left to rot, ink
bleeding from notebooks
as if from an octopus washed on shore
trying to fend the air itself:
this September day
never to be relived, the sea
heaving with waves, boiling
over disappearing sand,
the houses of men, the worlds
therein, no different
than a dune no longer there,
so many other words now born
unto death a second time. No matter.
No one would have heeded them,
their wisdom once irresistible now spent,
or, reading, suffer loss
deeper than the first.
Less cruel to let a life drown,
as drown it must, than let it gasp
for breath, fighting the inevitable descent,
page after page, word after slow word,
until the end comes
as it will come, unseen,
under cover of water.
I have no hope of ever publishing, though I am now writing at full speed and submitting again. This time around, I don’t really have any expectations. Anything good that happens will be a bonus. Having a conventional book of poetry published is a quaint, forlorn hope, but one I still cling to. Ever making it into the Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry was a stillborn dream I should have kept to myself. I would have, had I been wiser at the time. But to paraphrase Carolyn Forché, I have no right to feel hopeless — better poets than me have been hopeless.
An MFA doesn’t guarantee anything. But what does?
Has the MFA system hurt poetry?
The most common criticism leveled at the MFA system is that it has created a homogeneous, academic, safe, predictable, trite, self-perpetuating wasteland of mediocre, workshop-proof poetry. I’m not so sure.
Most of the poetry created in any given age is average. Heck, even good. Good poetry is not in short supply, and it has never been. Great poetry, on the other hand, is exceedingly rare. That’s just the way it is. For every Emily Dickinson and W.H. Auden there are thousands of contemporaries giving it their best who will never get there. It’s the harsh reality of greatness.
[For now, let us not parse what “greatness” really means. I use the term to mean poetry which the literary establishment considers important enough to anthologize widely.]
The MFA is the democratic (if you can afford it) counterpart to greatness: it takes in the masses (if you have a bachelor’s degree, good GRE scores, and can make it past the admissions panel) and trains them, in the good programs, to do the best they can with what they have. And no more.
The best part of my MFA experience was teaching undergraduate poetry workshops and being able to shape the work of emerging poets. But thinking that I am responsible for the results of those students’ work would be preposterous and vainglorious in the extreme. Thinking that I could shape their work in any but the most minimal ways is absurd.
I remember a student, Nicole, whose work I encouraged and tried to foster to the best of my ability, even though her avant-garde, pseudo-concrete poems were nothing like what I wrote. A few years after she was in my class, I received a package from her: her first book of poetry, published by a commercial press. She had dedicated the book to me, among others. I photocopied that dedication and put it up on my office door for the world to see. I was (am) proud of Nicole, but I recognize that my influence on her and my share of her success were infinitesimal. Many other factors play a role in success other than the classes you take and the degrees you get.
I remember another student, Shelbey, whose work was far beyond her years. She currently teaches literature and has continued to share some of her poems with me. I am always impressed by her exactitude (is that a word?) and discipline with words, something with which I struggle. Again, my influence on her was, at best, limited, and while I take pride in what part I played in her development as a poet and teacher, I recognize that it was but a sliver of the forces pushing her to become what she is today.
If teachers encourage and editors publish only what they consider worthy, there is nothing new to that. And if the MFA system shapes what teachers and editors consider worthy, something else would in its absence.
Would poetry today improve considerably if all MFA programs were wiped out of existence? It would change, of course, as a different aesthetic is bound to replace the dreaded “MFA aesthetic,” but would the poetry that ensues be any better? I suspect most of it would be average to good. A few pieces would be great. Ad only a handful would be poems worth anthologizing.
I used to think that if you wrote amazing, soul-to-the-wall poetry that grabbed someone by the throat and wouldn’t let go, you would get somewhere. I hoped that there were editors out there waiting for just that sort of poem, that it was not their fault such poems didn’t get written or didn’t get written more often.
I am not so sure now. My experience in writing and trying to publish tells me that networking and making connections with those who have the power to publish your poetry are paramount. There’s a lot of talent out there, and who gets published has much to do with, in addition to talent, how to make the necessary connections with the right people. Who you know translates into whether you publish and where. I know too many talented poets who have not been able to publish to believe that talent alone is enough. These days, there’s a lot of poets fighting for a little room at the top. It’s not enough to be talented. You have to do a lot of legwork and networking. And, sometimes, it just comes down to luck.
But i’m pretty sure it’s always been that way.
As in the past, we would-be poets still set out to impress our elders (read teachers and editors) with our work, and to hopefully have them find something of value in what we write, something worth nurturing, publishing, and anthologizing. Whether those elders are narcissistic, self-absorbed, self-serving enemies or self-aware, fully-engaged, generous mentors has less to do with whether an MFA system is in place than with the nature and quality of those elders. And as always, it’s up to the student to find the master; it’s up to the poet to find the reader. No one owes your poem a read. You have to go out there and get people to read it. And that means, as it has always meant, making contact with those who can get your poems published.
If anything, the internet has made things worse: blogs and self-published e-books mean that today more than ever you can get lost in the oceans of average poetry out there. Today more than ever, being published by the right journal, wining the right poetry prize, getting a book deal with a reputable press, can make all the difference between success (by the standards of the poetry market) and anonymity.
If an MFA program can allow you to start making contacts and networking, it would be money well spent.
Does an MFA hurt you as an artist?
That’s the big question, isn’t it. Does an MFA teach you to write like a zombie, mindlessly copying acceptable (and therefore compromised) models of writing, or does it help you become a better, more honest, more true-to-the-world writer?
This is how i answer the question: of all the thousands of people going into MFA programs, only a few, a mere handful, have what it takes to become great, truly great, artists. These people will accomplish what they will accomplish with or without an MFA. As for the rest, an MFA is what we make of it. A wise person can learn from anything.
As far as writing goes, it’s hard to beat an intense period of workshopping your poems with other dedicated writers. Use your MFA time to network and make contacts. This is paramount. Good programs should ensure you have the opportunity to do this by having editors and writers visit and conduct workshops and readings. But if you expect an MFA to guarantee a successful literary career, nothing can. Sorry.
In my case, my MFA time killed what little self-esteem I had regarding my poetry. It was not the fault of my instructors or co-students. It had more to do with my expectations (always great) and my sense of what I could accomplish (always very little, as my pessimist, zero-self-esteem inner voice was all too happy to inform me). But I can say I am better at my craft now than I was then, and my MFA time taught me a great deal of what I know about poetry.
All these years later, I believe the craft I learned in my MFA has made me a better poet. Not a great poet, no. Just a better poet than I would be right now had I employed those two years working at Hungry Howie’s Pizza and writing at night. And the only poems I ever managed to publish in a reputable journal came as a result of a contact made at my MFA program.
For others, the answer will no doubt be different. But for all of us, my friends, we’ll just have to carry on.