Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Forum Thread: Cynicism and the MFA--Successful vs. Aspiring Writers

TomWest said:

The "aspiring writer" industry has become far bigger than the "successful writer" industry, and the "aspiring writer" industry has taken on a life of its own such that it only connects to the "successful writer" industry in a cynical fashion ("Pay us money! We’ll make you a great writer!")

(TomWest statement originally appeared in the "pruned" poets.org thread "The First Amendment & Forums," Wed Mar 19, 2008 4:56 p.m.)

ACommoner replied:

The big problem with this statement is that there are so many "aspiring writer" programs out there that are good, transparent and sincere—in fact, I would say that the majority of poetry programs are pursued with good will and integrity, at least in themselves they are, whatever the management may be doing. Because the abuse lies not in the workshops or in the MFA programs per se, or anywhere specifically, for that matter, but in the SYSTEM that sustains them all, and above all in the mechanisms that award the positions and the prizes to the “successful.” That’s why as soon as anyone begins to discuss the abuses, everyone on the “aspiring” level, students, teachers, critics, and even plain readers, all hooked on legitimate programs, rush in to defend the whole "aspiring writer" movement as if it were some sort of sacred monolith—they value it so highly. OUR SACRED ART OF POETRY, they cry—and that’s the citadel this thread is storming, obviously, and the defense is already bristling with “is this true?” and “what do you mean by successful?” and “how dare you say there’s money in poetry?”

And other such red-herrings.

I put it to you that the Craft of Poetry Movement in America has organized itself into a huge self-interest (N.B. “self-interest” is a neutral qualifier in itself) community which is just as powerful and, yes, as sacred, difficult to enter, self-preserving and self-perpetuating as a Medieval Guild! No one would argue that the Medieval Guilds were bad in themselves, quite the contrary, but they did control the whole process of training in each and every craft, and they did dominate the accreditation process, fiercely and exclusively. And that becomes a real problem for me if there are networks in the poetry community that are doing the same thing with poetry—as if it were some sort of craft!

Because poetry is simply not a craft, even if it does make good use of craft in some aspects of its production. For even if everyone writes heroic couplets, let's say, or Shakespearean sonnets or haikus, there is that all important SHOCK which makes some of it fly and some of it crawl--that moment of inexplicable and indefinable particularity in saying something which has never been said before, for example, or of saying something which has been said millions of times before but so simply that it’s new again at last, at last, at last! And craft just doesn’t do that—it copies, it reproduces, it’s placed where it belongs on the shelf with the label filled in by the planner. And most of what is coming out of our contemporary Poetry Guild is just craft, make no mistake about it, and not doing anything special or uniquely precious, despite all those oohs and those aahs (see An Interview with Jorie Graham). And the proof is that nobody’s actually reading it! It’s not about poetry anymore, it's about a way of life called poetry, it’s about the pleasure, the security, the sense of meaning in poetry as a livelihood in America, not about writing a poem that actually matters—that lonely, slow, intolerable wrestle with beastly, recalcitrant words, and oneself!

Change gears for a moment. “Aspiring writer" programs today in America are extremely expensive, and I'm not just referring to the MFA programs either. It can cost as much as $900.00 just to get your manuscript read for a few hours by someone who matters with a pencil, for example, or $1300.00 for a single weekend in the country in which the great one blows in for dinner on Saturday evening. And if your whole self-image has been built around yourself as a writer, and particularly as a writer that calls himself or herself a poet, and you have paid a whole lot to lift yourself up a level, so to speak, have paid to meet that editor for the weekend, for example, and have bent your whole book around following his or her instructions and then resubmitted that manuscript to him or her or their friend, then you’re not going to take kindly to the suggestion you've been had.

Which you have and you haven't, of course. The weekend in the country will let you meet some editors and publishers that are as gifted as they are powerful, and charming too, and the food will be excellent, for sure, and the sea air refreshing if it’s the Hamptons, but if those editors and publishers are beginning to support themselves on you as one more "aspiring writer" among a great many others, and I mean 10s of thousands of others just like you (and like me!), and if those editors and publishers have no intention of letting you (or me!) into the Guild ahead of their families, friends, lovers, business partners and colleagues in the queue as they define it, then it's not only like a Guild but a pyramid scheme!

That’s a fairly stark introduction to the issue, but it is an issue that ought to be on every thinking poet's mind today. Because the world has never seen anything like this--there are simply no precedents in the whole history of poetry for this, it's that new.

And make no mistake about it, our poetry is suffering for it. Just look at the reception of what was read in Boston last weekend on the “Jorie Graham Interview” I just mentioned and you’ll see. Or read the NYT Book Review article on the book.

This poetry is nothing but what it says it is itself--which however environmentally friendly and universal, all the way from the short line to the long line, it says, is what's known in the trade as "puff." And what an irony that its author should have given her name to the new rule that is attempting to discipline editors and publishers in America at last, to make them fairer, more ethical, and above all more generous to aspiring writers even as old and as unlikely as me!

A sense of discipline and generosity which James Laughlin and Theodore Weiss would never have needed to be taught!

(ACommoner's response is from this poets.org thread)

(Admin. Note: Who says there's no money in Poetry? Tony Hoagland, Poet and University of Houston Professor, has been awarded the $50,000 Jackson Prize. Judges were Ellen Bryant Voigt, Philip Levine, and Robert Pinsky


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