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.