Lately, the internet has been making it look like everyone who’s ever been in an MFA program has written a tome on it–praise or blame, there are plenty of both. The question arises, though: why are we all so obsessed with reflecting on this experience, moreso than on any other academic or creative experience we may have had? For many of us, it seems, the MFA is the time when we grapple with our identites as artists &/or academics. (I still cringe whenever anyone calls me an “artist.” I loathe that word–not because I think there’s anything inherently wrong with identifying as an “artist”–it’s just not something that fits with me.)
Speaking to this, Deleuze, was talking about Foucault when he said that he sees thought as “establishing ways of existing or, as Nietzsche put it, inventing new possibilities of life. Existing not as a subject but as a work of art–and this […] phase presents thought as artistry.” Though I refuse to call myself (or let others call me) an artist, I definitely identify with Deleuze’s conception of “existing as a work of art.” I think some people might have a tendency to see this stance as narcissistic, & maybe they’re not totally wrong, but I do think this willingness to live consciously is integral to writing good poems. It’s the Lana Del Rey method–”We have nothing to lose, nothing to gain, nothing we desired anymore–except to make our lives into a work of art.”
What I’ve learned about myself over the past 25 years is that what’s imperative for my happiness, as well as for my poetry, is intensity. I could never be happy with life of a caution that prevents me from experiencing things/feelings/people to the fullest, & to that extent, I could never be happy with a static sense of self. The poems to which I’m most intimately attached (I think particularly of ones by Larissa Szporluk, Plath, Sexton, Sharon Olds, Jenny Boully, Eleni Sikelianos) are ones that blur my sense of subjectivity. The book that’s done this to/for me more than any other is Jenny Boully’s The Body: An Essay. Page after page, I have to stop for breath, wondering how Boully could know exactly what it means to be inside my head/heart.
In my experience, this blurring of subjectivity isn’t something that’s really ever addressed by the MFA. How do we really capture the essence of the human condition? How do we translate energy into language and then back again? I’d never thought much about this wide-sweeping criticism of the phenomenon of “the workshop poem,” but after two years in an MFA program, let me tell you–the workshop poem exists. It’s the poem that doesn’t put its identity, its speaker’s identity, its poet’s identity, its reader’s identity, at risk. It says, in the words of my lovely mentor, “I am a poem because I look like a poem.” Maybe it’s a competent poem, a technically sound poem, hell–maybe it’s even a good poem. But the workshop poem doesn’t reach beyond its visual frame on the page. The workshop poem doesn’t flip the reader off or flash its tits at her. It doesn’t make her want to write a poem or punch things or read it aloud just to taste the syllables against the insides of her mouth. The workshop poem is a dead poem.
But when the MFA (particularly the studio-oriented MFA) is marked by workshops, what does that mean for our degree? The poems I want to write are ones that can do things–& do different things for different readers. Ann Lauterbach, in her lecture/chapbook The Given & The Chosen, phrases this nicely: “The self, I want to believe, is layered and aspectual: it can shift and turn and connect variously to various stimuli; it has agility at its core, a mechanism or survival and response which can be freed from ingrained habit. Habits are economical for sure, but they cost us fluidity, openness, quickness. How, then, do we integrate our sense of self with our will to change?” (15).
What’s marked much of my MFA experience is exactly this–a lack of a will to change, a lack of openness & fluidity. My MFA program was full of stubbornness, as few people who’ve had their heads petted for this long are willing to change–either personally or aesthetically. People get workshop comments full of revision suggestions, then do a reading six months later & not a single comment was taken on a single poem. What’s the point of workshop, then, if we all end up doing what we want at the end of the day anyway? I am not immune to this–I fully admit it. But my workshop poems also didn’t tend to garner many comments. Some of this was because my process is to labor over a poem for weeks before bringing it to workshop, leading to a final-esque draft the first time anyone sees it. Some of this was because there was a clique who refused to give me comments on my poems so I simply didn’t get comments.
But workshop poems are a special animal regardless. There’s a going poet or aesthetic of the day, & as long as you mimic that poet in your workshop poems, you’re fine. But what does that contribute? What does that teach you about yourself, your world? What does that give your reader that he or she can’t get elsewhere? Giorgio Agamben says that “those who are truly contemporary, who truly belong to their time, are those who neither perfectly coincide with it nor adjust themselves to its demands.” The workshop poem wants to perfectly coincide. It wants to go over well & not ruffle too many feathers, yet the poets who write these non-ruffling, nothing-at-stake poems think it’s fine if 2500 other people are writing the same poems because they’re doing it better than everyone else.
Well, here it is, people–we’re all victims of Special Snowflake Syndrome. We’re socialized to think that the chances of it going right for us are higher than average because we’re special. Though that recent Time Magazine cover that touts our entire generation as narcissists fails to take a number of sociological, cultural, & technological factors into consideration, what if we shift that claim a bit? Are all MFA candidates narcissists? Well, I’d say so–at least to some extent.
But why wouldn’t we be?! My MFA program socialized us to be narcissists. Returning to Lauterbach, she wonders if “the process of making choices, decisions, and judgments in art-making [could] in fact condition and shape a person’s life” (13). I think there’s definitely something to this, but in my experience, these choices didn’t mean much. Everyone’s poems were effusively praised by the faculty, as well as by their individual “cliques” within the cohort/workshop. I saw some poems that were utter shit during my MFA. (I also turned in some poems that were utter shit, so I’m not bashing here–just stating the fact that we did see some bad poems in workshop.) But nobody ever said, “Jesus, this is fucking awful. Throw it away. Move on.” We’re all so worried about not making our buddies mad that it just continues to feed our narcissism & make us think we’re all top-notch poets. Poetic growth doesn’t matter as long as we have pals, right?!! I mean, of course the statistics don’t apply to us!! Of course we’ll all get into Ph.D. programs!! Of course we’ll all get tenure track jobs & books on major presses!! Newsflash: we won’t.
Maybe a few of us will get tenure track jobs &/or books–either by dumb luck or sheer perseverance or maybe a little bit of talent. But we aren’t coming out of an MFA program ready to do anything in the world, including, really, write poems that stand on their own two feet–poems that someone can point to & say, “Yeah, that’s a Jack Smith poem!!”
It needs to be taken into consideration, of course, that this is not a technical degree. It’s not a pharmacy degree or a law degree or a dental degree. You don’t walk out of an MFA & walk into a job. It’s a degree that gives you two years to write & read & learn & teach–not a degree that gives you job security. It’s supposedly one of intellectual fulfillment, not monetary fulfillment. The problem is that we’ve all been told by our faculty that our poems are great. But then when someone (ourselves or others) turns in a shitty poem–one we all know is shitty–& those faculty praise that, too, so we start to wonder if that praise really means anything to begin with. What good is a degree that just magnifies our Special Snowflake Syndrome?
But what about the experience of the MFA, some people would say. Well, what about it? My experience was not a good one, to put it horrifyingly mildly. I’ll say this–I was fortunate enough to work with my all-time favorite poet, I came out with a manuscript I feel sometimes-okay about, I met a few trustworthy & amazing human beings, & I learned a lot about myself. But I certainly didn’t have a warm-&-fuzzy experience by any means. I’ll spare you the gory details of how miserable these last two years were for me, but I will say this–
I wish I could have plastered this George Oppen quote on every surface of the English department building: “I will listen to a man, and when I speak I will speak, tho he will fail and I will fail. But I will listen to him speak. The shuffling of a crowd is nothing–well, nothing but the men that we are, but nothing.” My cohort–& many other MFA cohorts, judging by my friends’ experiences elsewhere–seemed to constantly lose sight of this connectedness, this importance of communicating & supporting one another–both as human beings & as poets.
Almost every day, I had to defend myself against against the people whom romanticized MFA websites tell me were supposed to be my allies. I was fighting for myself since no one else would fight for me, & that led being in an MFA program to be one of the loneliest experiences I have ever had. It did make me a stronger person & a more determined poet. It forced me to know myself & my work better, & to be a vocal advocate for both. These are all good things. But are these things worth two years of stress, anger, confusion, sadness, loneliness, frustration, & mainly just pure psychological exhaustion–all because of the kinds of games that Tina Fey wishes she would have written into the Mean Girls script? I don’t know.