I Am Big. It's the Pictures That Got Small

for those wonderful people out there in the dark

10 August 2005

Obligatory Comment on M.F.A. Programs

Almost impossible to have a poetry blog without either an apology for or a rant against M.F.A. Programs.

I've written articles in the AWP Chronicle and Poets & Writers critical of M.F.A. programs and the po-biz, and I am very familiar with some of their weaknesses. But they are not the blight against literature that so many of their critics proclaim.

I occasionally do recommend M.F.A. programs to individuals, as long as they understand their value: an opportunity to work with a community of writers--no more and no less. A dear friend of mine is enrolled in the low residency program at Pacific Lutheran, a sixty year old poet who obviously does not hold ambitions of setting the literary world on fire, or who does not think she's a real poet without the degree. Barbara is going there to specifically study with the very good poets at PLU, to see what she can really do with the time and focus.

A few times, I've had students who've approached me who look at M.F.A. programs misguidedly, that they think it's a ticket to fame, to a literary agent, or less likely, to a position as a university professor. I go to great pains explaining to them what an M.F.A. program is not about, first saying that going to one will not make the student a writer. That comes from something else entirely beyond the institution. I also help the student review the different programs, helping them to avoid the places that do not suit their personalities, talents, politics, and aesthetics. I also have recommended to students that they probably shouldn't go to an M.F.A. program.

Now, I have recommended seven individuals, in 24 years teaching at the college level, getting into creative writing programs at Cincinnati, Louisville, FIU, George Mason, Goucher, PLU, and Mills (though for the last college, the student decided not to enroll after all). I think for each individual, the choice has been a good one, because the writer saw the venture as a personal challenge and an opportunity to become a member of an admittedly artficial community of writers. For myself, that was the value in my own venture in going to Indiana University: to get the heck out of Idaho and to be a part of a dynamic, contrary, and invigorating group of poets. The exposure there did not result in any lasting poems (I hate to think of all the M.F.A. students now at Indiana who are culling through the M.F.A. theses, coming across mine, and thinking, as they should, "he got that poem published?"), but it taught me to take the craft seriously and the business with some humor.

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