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Good question, right? And the consideration is nothing new. During a time when our current cultural ecosystem is characterized by drastically increased MFA enrollment, the ubiquity of both print and online publications and small presses, a generation mired in unimaginable student loan debt, and pretty much the only job opportunity for MFA grads is juggling multiple adjunct gigs, the question seems more than apt. In a poem forthcoming in Columbia Poetry Review Issue 27, Joshua Ware cuts to the pith with one horrifying possibility: “There are poets everywhere writing themselves into obscurity.”
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This thought just really sunk in with me: could you imagine having Hamlet in a contemporary MFA poetry workshop? The idea of a whiny, egoistic idealist seems a more debilitating thought than loan debt! Although the stereotype is not uncommon for many top-tiered MFA programs, my cohort at CCC is a supportive, challenging, and talented group of poets, who also happen to really care about each other’s poems. Better yet, 60% of the time, their feedback works every time. And when something does sting, it does so in a good way.
But the question is much wider than which program is best for you. Juliana Spahr, Mark Nowak, and Jill Magi, amongst several others, adroitly maneuver through some of the criticisms and limitations of the MFA (this is like Ron Howard’s Rush for academics—“The closer you are to death [solipsism], the more alive [relevant] you feel”). They address concerns from the industry’s neoliberal tendencies to the merits of the institution as well as the value of poetry itself. “The MFA is a pay to play degree,” writes Spahr. But rather than offer critical apologetics for the MFA pursuit or adumbrate a summary of the discussion at large, I’ll opt for giving my own reasons for deciding this route. As I mentioned in my Ambassador intro, serving as the 2010 Visiting Artist for the University of Georgia Study Abroad Program in Cortona, Italy deeply impacted my decision to come to Columbia specifically, but this was also the experience that helped me decide to pursue an MFA in Poetry.
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Although I was writing exclusively short fiction at the time I arrived in Cortona that January, the creative writing class that semester was taught by a poet. Each week, I would meet with poet Laura Solomon, her single undergraduate student of the class, and the fifty-something year-old photography instructor who is an expert on everything from Tom Waits to Rumi. The four of us would delve deeply and dangerously into a common love for language, prosecco, and lardo di colonnata, and for the first time I heard names like Ted Berrigan, Wallace Stevens, and John Ashbery, poets who have continued to strongly influence my work. We would read; we would listen; and then we would workshop our own poems. I soon realized that poetry was the most difficult, the most exigent, and the most important act of life that I had ever done. But when Laura suggested that I look into MFA Poetry programs, I reminded her that I was currently enrolled in an MA Literature program, that I was on the PhD path, and that poetry was something I could continue as an extracurricular pursuit. It wasn’t long after the semester ended when I realized that, without having that community and a venue for writing, poetry slips from difficult into nearly impossible.
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As I’m writing this on Christmas Day, the lights of the family tree are winking from behind me in the reflection of my MacBook Pro (purchased, of course, with my student loan check). I am reminded of the various interrogations from family members that are apt to leave one with a self-confidence that is, at best, simply deflated. Not to mention the concomitant existential crisis of questioning one’s self worth, aspirations, and achievements.
Last year my sister asked me, “what should I say about you when people ask?” I imagined this is more of a conversation we would have if we had to make up an excuse to tell our deeply southern grandmother why I wasn’t married or why I wasn’t eating any of the meat dishes this year. “The only word I can ever think of to use is ‘gypsy,’” she said. “Yeah, we need to workshop that,” I told her, without even trying to identify what she actually meant by that, because, really, as long as I was a part-time and migratory member of society inclined to a nomadic and unconventional way of life with an interest in the Romany languages, her semantic intentions didn’t matter.
I just reread the above paragraph, and this sentence is the devastating realization that, despite my best efforts at denial, my sister was right.
I’m a gypsy.
Speaking of my sister, this is the first Christmas that she isn’t home with us. She’s due to have her second baby any day now, so she’s staying home in Athens, GA, ready to jet to the hospital at a moment’s notice. That’s why I decide to suggest the entire extended family have a $5 buy-in to try and guess the date and time of birth. I used the money I was saving to load up my Ventra U-Pass for the semester break, so if I’ve called the wrong star chart, then my CTA excursions will have to be put on hold until school starts back.
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But it’s okay. I know in the long run everything will be fine. I mean, why else would Aunt Sarah, old high school teachers, the parents of friends, and actual friends keep assuring me that they realize how successful I am going to be, one day. That they just know I will end up doing something really worthwhile. I am always tempted to dismantle this highly westernized and fortified ethnographic bias but figure the only outcome would be me coming off like an argumentative sour puss.
Suddenly those two recent poems that were published in an online journal don’t seem enough compensation for the semester’s $8,628.00 of tuition and fees. When I linked the poems on Facebook last week, my mother’s prompt commentary was hardly minced and showed only minimal effort in employing the cosmetics of euphemism.
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On a side note, while my brother got our Dad a compound bow and arrow for Christmas this year, I’m like, “here’s some coffee that I got for a discount at my restaurant job and a poem from my thesis!” The beans were received with nothing resembling enthusiasm, and before the poem was finished, Dad resumed converting from the metric system the distance his arrows would fly.
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All self-deprecation aside, being here with my family at Christmas only reminds of why poetry is so important in the first place. That without a love for others and a desire to connect, then what is the point? After that spring in Cortona, I knew that poetry was the only direction for me. And the deeper I get into the program, the more I am certain of my decision. An MFA is not a destination. It is not an end in the career sense by any means. In my case—and for many—one both needs and bears the inexorable responsibility of being a poet. By that, I mean to be a truth-teller, to go forward to face the beautiful and the unbeautiful with equal courage, and to give back to the world a kind of mirror. My MFA is about forming a connection within a community, for having the space and impetus for writing and being challenged, for nurturing both my creative and critical instincts, and most importantly, to be fully awake and present in the world. That, for me, is the end, and the MFA is helping me learn how to get there.