Tag Archives: poetry

Poetry Blogs You Should Be Reading

25 Jun

In my long blogging absence I’ve negleted to highlight two great blogs about poetry and the process of writing poetry:

1. First Book Interviews: Keith Montesano interviews Rauan Klassnik in his 21st interview for the series (while in the midst of getting his own first book published).  Choice excerpt:

Yes there’s certainly a lot of violence in Holy Land. I don’t think it’s gratuitous though. And, yes, there’s also a lot of tenderness. Perhaps some of the tenderness is gratuitous. But I’m quite sentimental and as much as I guard against it does come through in the poems sometimes. I’ll cry over just about anything. Over a raindrop. The latest Star Trek movie. An old man in a doorway.

2. How A Poem Happens: For aspiring poets–or those who simply want’s to peal back the the veil of inspiration and Romantic ideas about poets–Brian Brodeuer asks poets about their process writing and shaping a single poem.  The latest post takes a look at Philp White’s “Six O’Clock Flight to the Interment”.  An excerpt:

What is American about this poem?

Even if death is the great universal, love and grief, and attitudes toward time and place, self and other, are all tinged, if not shaped, by culture. I’m sure the poem is American in some way. But it doesn’t make a point of it.

In Defense of Writing Programs

12 Jun

Actually, this isn’t technically a defense of writing programs; I don’t think writing programs need defending*.  Rather, it’s a quick look at what I believe to be some of the unexamined (or at least not widely cited) benefits of writing programs.  In a much discussed review essay of Mark McGurl’s The Program Era, Louis Menand lays out the raison d’etre of the book and one of the inescapable features of the modern (post-war) literary era:

As McGurl points out, the university is where most serious fiction writers have been produced since the Second World War. It has also been the place where most serious fiction readers are produced: they are taught how to read in departments of literature. McGurl’s claim is simple: given that most of the fiction that Americans write and read is processed through the higher-education system, we ought to pay some attention to the way the system affects the outcome.

The proliferation of creative-writing programs is sometimes cited as a sign of fiction and poetry’s decline; if poets and authors had to produce works the literate public actually wanted to buy from their local bookseller then more people would be reading (or at least there wouldn’t be so much surplus literature produced that few people are interested in reading).   But these are two separate claims: 1) That the supply of literature, in some way, determines demand (through some unseen magical process) and that 2) There is an overproduction of literature.  The second claim is most likely true, but it also irrelevant (at least considering the other possible options).  It’s a matter of how we want to go about supporting literature and the arts.  This requires a little bit of explanation

Writing programs do not choose who the next great writer will be.  Readers, critics, and publishers help determine that.  So if writing programs don’t necessarily produce great writers, what are they good for (besides the aforementioned benefits, which aren’t particular to writing programs)?

  1. Writing programs make up a large, decentralized subsidy . This is my Hayekian argument for the MFA. Most art produced can’t survive the whims and vagaries of the market by itself, so it needs support from other sources.  This is okay, given that, for whatever reason, we make a lot about appreciating the arts and like the idea of having a country that produces its fair share of great cultural works in addition to cutting edge technology and iPhones.  Universities and colleges are a good public/private mix of funding that doesn’t pursue one type of literature or any one school of writing within literature.  So (for the sake of argument) Columbia University can have a “house style” if they like, but that still leaves several hundred other programs that can have their own different house styles (NB: From my experience, this isn’t the case–programs rarely enforce a party line and exclude writers who won’t toe it.  But there are many programs that favor certain kinds of writers and thus tend to attract student interested in writing in that style.  The bottom line is that even if programs produced a kind of “house style,” its unlikely that they would all produce the same one, giving us a variety of literary works to choose from.)
  2. Writing programs are an alternative to other kinds of literary study found in English departments. In many ways, Creative-writing programs ask many of the traditional questions of literary study, without as much of the academic apparatus of theory and cultural studies: What makes this text a great work?  How do the author’s choices affect our understanding of the work?  What is it that we admire in a text?  That is not to say that the Literature faculty of English departments are not concerned with these questions.  I’m not trying draw an arbitrary line between those Theory weirdos deconstructing Moby Dick, and the true defenders of traditional culture in creative-writing programs (I’m aware the some people who dismiss big Theory commit little theory).  But I do think it says something about the practice (or at least the study) of literature when many undergrads choose creative-writing classes as their entry into the discipline (especially considering that many–if not most–of those students will not become published writers, at least not professionally).

This last point is something I’d like to explore further, but for right now I think these are the two biggest, unexplored arguments in favor of the increasing influence of writing programs(to my limited knowledge–please highlight anyone who has raised either of these points elsewhere**).  As an institution, creative-writing programs are decentralized, which means that it’s responding to different demands in geographically (and aesthetically) different locations, and that this demend represents a popular alternative to the kinds of literary analysis and interpretation done in other parts of English departments.


* Not because writing programs are self-evidently useful or productive, but because the sorts of things programs are good for (time to write, a community of writers) are either valuble to someone intersted in writing or they aren’t (or are provided through other means–in which case an MFA is unnecessary).

** Actually, now that I think about it, David Wojahn makes a similar argument to my second claim in his book Strange Good Fortune.

With Apologies to Chris Collingsworth*

3 Sep

Greg Easterbrook may be tedious (and irrationally contrarian) when commenting on other subjects, but this is a pretty good take on one of the longer suffering teams of the AFC North (in haiku no less):

Front office is the
Bear Stearns of the NFL.
The Cincy Bengals.

Forecast finish: 6-10

Or, as Myron Cope used to call them, the “Cincinnati Bungles.”

*But not Boomer Esiason.

How Much Should We Fund Poetry?

1 Sep

In a response to Reb Livingston’s account of self-publishing her own collaborative chapbook, Bill Knott thinks this sort of poetic entrepreneurship doesn’t address the real concern of poetry publishing:

but I’m sorry to say I think private individual projects like hers are largely shortsighted and misguided:

one might say they treat the symptoms, not the disease.

The problem is systemic, and should be attacked on a systemic level——

poetry is the least-funded of the arts,

and that underfunding occurs in a culture/society

which of course underfunds all the arts to some degree,

but poetry suffers the worse——

I don’t have any numbers breaking down funding by the type of art, but I’d argue that poetry is well funded thanks to MFA programs.  The network of university programs is a giant, generalized subsidy to poetry in America (and depending on how the funds are administered to a program, a mixture of both direct and indirect subsidies).  Yes, there are MFAs for things besides writing (e.g. sculpture, acting) but an MFA in creative writing does allow you to get job in an English department¹–you don’t have to teach only poetry with your degree.  That’s broader support than you’ll find for other MFA degrees.

The other issue (which Knott doesn’t address) is why poetry should receive “equal funding.”  Knott’s position has the benefit of not preferring one kind of art over another, but I think this is goofy, especially from a practical perspective.  How much money should we (either through tax dollars or personal donations) dole out for performance art?  For instillation art (if you’re in Pittsburgh, the Mattress Factory is quite impressive)?  Equal funding is a refusal to make choices about limited resources. I know why I prefer poetry over other arts, but my aesthetic is not a universal aesthetic (as much as I might pretend otherwise).  But street puppeteers might feel differently about who is underfunded and who is not.

¹ Let’s leave aside for the moment arguments about tenure; these are questions about the amount of subsidy (and the practicality of making a living inside the academy).  But teaching positions clearly represent a subsidy.

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.

Things You Should Be Reading

6 Aug

Why does no one tell me about these things?  Okay, so Mike Scalise already told everyone, but I can only read so many blogs at once.  In between your blog reading, check out Casey Wiley’s short story “Sometime You Have to Cram Your Face Between the Bed and the Wall” at Pindeldyboz.

You also need to pick up a copy of the Spring 2008* of Third Coast and read Robb St. Lawerence’s “Because I Don’t Mean This to Be Allegory.”  And while you’re reading that fine publication, give a look to Christopher Bakken’s “Kouros.”  I hereby pledge to do a better job of keeping up with publications of people I know, or at least linking to Mike more.

*I know it’s summer. Like I said, no one tells me these things.