I read with great interest Collin Kelly’s post More than this: A larger place at the poetry table and tried to leave this as a comment, but I am guessing it was too long because I kept getting an error message, so I am posting it here. The part of the post I wanted to respond to was this:
So, I have questions for all of you who read this blog: How we can get back to the pleasure of the art rather than the jockeying for position, awards and writing personal attacks masquerading as “literary criticism?” How do we set a larger place at the poetry table for those working outside the academy? How do we make the art of poetry interesting and compelling to the next generation that doesn’t want an MFA or teaching gig? How do we take the insular and make it open?
Eventually, I think I need to turn this into a larger post, but for now I will just leave the comment as I originally wrote it:
As an academic – I teach at a large community college in NYC, where I coördinate our Creative Writing Project, in which capacity I have attended AWP for the last couple of years – and a poet with a book (three, if you count my translations), but without an MFA, and as someone involved with a local poetry group, I confess I find the table metaphor problematic. Not because I think it is inaccurate per se, but because I think the notion that there is only one table that needs somehow to be enlarged is itself part of the problem. I think it actually allows what someone upthread didn’t quite call the “professionalization” of the poet that is one result of the proliferation of MFA programs to frame the problem rather than creating a frame through which to critique “professionalization.” (And I guess I want to be clear that I mean “professionalization” as a descriptive and not a critical term.)
There is no way around the fact that, as MFA programs have proliferated, that proliferation has created a community of poets that needs to perpetuate itself, through publication, through jobs, through getting reviewed and so on; and there is also no way around the fact that, if you are not a part of this community, it can be very hard to get for your work the kind of attention that people within the community are able to get for theirs – independently of the work’s quality. Moreover, I think the degree to which this proliferation has been national, to the degree that there is a national organization that embodies this proliferation – by which I do not mean to deny at all that AWP has made serious efforts to reach out to non-MFA, non-academically affiliated, etc. writers – to the degree, in other words, that the job of a poet as defined by this community (as opposed to simply being a poet, about which more in a moment) has become one with a national stage, I think the dynamic Collin points to is inevitable. Of course there will be a hierarchy within the community of poets playing on this stage; of course there will be politics and turf battles. Why should the profession of poet be different than any other profession?
I do not mean by this to bash MFA programs or MFA graduates; I think the people who say that the landscape of poetry in the United States has, overall, been enormously enriched by them are speaking the truth – though I know there are ways to qualify that statement; but when I was in my twenties and just beginning to think seriously that I might be a poet, I read a quote by Robert Bly (I think it was, and I know I am paraphrasing) who said that no poet should be published before the age of 30 or so. At the time, impatient to publish as I was, I thought this was utter crap, but when I look back on my life as a writer, I am in a way very grateful that I didn’t publish my first book until I was 44. It’s not just that my poetry was, by that time, truly ready for publication, for a public, in the deepest and most literal sense of that word, but I myself was also ready for that public in a way I could not have been 20 or even 10 years earlier. I remember the moment I wrote in my journal – I was 21 or 22 – the words “I am a poet.” It was one of the scariest moments in my life, because I felt like I was committing myself to a way of life, of seeing and being in the world, not a job.
Again, let me be clear about something: I am not characterizing in one broad stroke all the people who have MFAs as career-oriented writer drones. My point is less about the individuals who get MFAs – who will or will not be “good” poets, whatever the hell that means – than about what the professionalization of the poet does culturally to what people think it means to be a poet. That is one of the conversations we need to have in order, I think, to get back to the pleasures of the art.