Some Thoughts on MFA Programs and Artistic Communities

6 Aug

In a review over at the Phoebe Journal blog, Joe Hall ruminates about local literary communities and the pressures put upon them by university employment:

One of the downsides of MFA programs and the University system in general is their habit of further uprooting poets from their local literary communities in favor of the benefits an evanescent enclave can provide. Poets emerge from their apprenticeship and move to employment centers not community-less, but as part of a diffuse community, one that exists despite the real physical distances between one’s peers. Digital meeting grounds partially bridge that distance—but only in a limited way. The result is that many folks find themselves living a hybrid existence, seeking to both establish and nurture connections to a local literary community while working to establish oneself ‘nationally’ or in communities that transcend geography. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but what is troubling is that ‘advancement’—a tenure track position, even a one or two year residency—often means further physical displacement, a remove to another university or college—and that all this mobility, this hyper-mobility, erodes one’s allegiances to places and often prevents poets from seriously engaging with literary communities whose values and output are different from their own. Without roots, it’s very easy for people like David Wojahn to, from the rarified air surrounding the lectern at the Folger Shakespeare Library, crap on those he sees as far, far below him, ignorant of the conditions from which they write, conditions which might make necessary exactly the kind of poetry he finds so distasteful.

I don’t really see mobility as the problem. I’ll agree that the perpitetic life of an academic poet makes forming connections with a local community that much harder, but to what extent are lasting connections (or the choice to join a particular community) self-selected?  How many people are going to choose to join a community “whose values and output are different from their own,” especially when it’s the common features (of values or aesthetic affinities) which help bond communities.  That’s not to say that literary communities can’t form around broad affinities (e.g. the shared project of writing poetry) but it isn’t being uprooted that makes it less likely from engaging with different perspectives and poetries–in fact, I think it’s more likely that this movement encourages some diversity (though not necessarily, as Joe warns, allegiance).

As long as a department or program isn’t committed to a particular (literary) school or aesthetic, then the pool of available candidates is wide and open.  You can evaluate faculty for your MFA program or a writer for a fellowship based upon criteria like previous publication credits, promise in their work, teaching experience, etc. Writers get mixed in together based not on who they choose to associate with or whose work they like, but on where the jobs are and whether or not a hiring committee likes them.  In this case, there’s less of a chance to self-select based on partisan aesthetic concerns, rather than a group of local writers forming their own workshop or reading group discussing the kind of work they admire (e.g. neo-formalist, experimental, surrealist, narrative, post-avant, what have you).

Take this as an example: How many people have submitted (or seen someone submit) a more experimental piece to a workshop only to have their peers shrug their shoulders and turn in comments that say things like “Make this more narrative” or “I don’t understand what you’re trying to do”?  Although I think it’s well understood now that you have to take the kind of work into consideration when giving feedback (especially in MFA programs), if you were to receive these responses over and over again, you’d either change what you submitted or look for a more sympathetic community.  This is–in part–how I think many poetry schools have been formed; poets didn’t find what they were looking for in poetries of their day or found themselves shut out of publications and formed their own communities, creating journals and kicking-up the cultural landscape in the process.

I’m not sure that allegience to a local community (or even a broader aethetic community) can necessarily be predicated on things too far removed from aesthetic concerns because so much of the work is about making certain artisitc choices rather than other ones and valuing some kinds of expression (or content) over others–values that may be fundamentally incompatible.  You like narrative in your work because it resonates with you or write something that’s considered experimental because you’re tired of reading nothing but the same narrative poem.  Which is not to say that you can’t fiercely admire work that looks nothing like your own, but I tend to read a lot of poets’ aestheic concerns (like David Wojahn’s, who Joe takes issue with) as being the result of poetics instead of circumstance.  It’s not that Wojahn is ignorant, it’s that he doesn’t agree with those poetic choices.

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2 Responses to “Some Thoughts on MFA Programs and Artistic Communities”

  1. Keith August 12, 2008 at 4:19 pm #

    I think Joe needs someone to kick him in the face. With a steel toe.

    As someone who just was taught by Wojahn for three years, he completely has everything wrong. We had language / experimental / avant-garde / whatever-the-fuck-you-want-to-call-them poets in our class, and no one was ever shit on. Everyone was supported, and we had a great community.

    Maybe his speech was geared toward all of that, but you can’t nail everything to a person by one fucking speech.

    And most of the avant-garde poets get shit on because their stuff DOES make no fucking sense, even to them. How the hell are people supposed to like your work if you don’t even know what you’re dealing with either?

    Good Lord.

  2. artpredator September 30, 2008 at 9:48 pm #

    one point that is missed here: the importance of place

    if you’re always roaming around, it’s harder to be part of a literary community, or any community at all–local, cultural, literary, ecological…

    while it is lovely to have a community of poets to drink coffee with and bs with, even if one exists, and you get to know them, you may or may not want to play with them or, as is more often the situation, people don’t play nice

    often academics stay in the academy and don’t venture to know the people and the place where they have landed

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