The Barefoot Muse
A Journal Of Formal & Metrical Verse
On January 12th 2008, barring unforeseeable disasters, I will graduate with my Masters in Fine Arts from Bennington College. Now, a great deal has been said in recent years on the subject of MFAs, much of it negative. This negativity can be resolved, it seems to me, into two arguments: the first being that the proliferation of MFAs is somehow Ďbad for poetryí, in other words that MFA programs turn out cookie cutter poets all writing the same bland poems; and the second being that the MFA is responsible for the clannishness of Pobiz, that it has created a kind of club, centered in academia, that no-one without an MFA can join. I thought this was a good time to share with my readers my experience of the truth.
I went to Bennington to improve my poetry, and there is no doubt in my mind that I have done so. Of course, that improvement comes with a hefty price tagóno one can deny that an MFA is an expensive qualification, another attribute which generates grumbling among those poets who literally cannot afford the money (or time) to acquire one. I have been blessed with wonderful, patient teachers: the late great Liam Rector, Henri Cole, April Bernard, Amy Gerstler and Major Jackson. (Iím including Major because, although he was never officially my tutor, he is a natural and generous teacher, and has been good enough to critique a number of my poems.) Do I now write just like the other eight poets with whom I will graduate? Absolutely not. Iím still the only one, for example, who regularly writes in meter and form. Only one of my teachers ever seriously suggested I stop doing so, and even that was a suggestion with a limited time span, intended to create growth in my work. (Of course I canít stop writing in meteróit would be the equivalent of beating a heroin addiction, but this teacher didnít know that.)
I do recognize that there is a style of poetry writing which is abundant in MFA programs and the university based literary journals. Itís the style I parodied here. But, and hereís the clincher, from what I have observed those poets who leave MFA programs writing that kind of poetry also enter writing that kind of poetry, typically more or less straight from undergraduate literature programs. The problem then isnít the teaching, itís the refusal of a poet to learn and grow, and that is common to a number of poets I know of widely differing talents and situations, all of whom fundamentally believe their poetry is already perfected beyond criticism. Poets who enter MFA programs with that attitude really are only there to get their MFA ticket hole-punched. The next question becomes, does it do them any good?
I do believe that there are some literary journals out there where the mention of an MFA in your cover letter may well get you a slightly more careful reading of the poems, but that doesnít apply to all of them by any means, and anyway, the advantage is minimalóthe poems still need to be good. Approximately 2,500 people graduate with new MFAs every year, so having one simply doesnít mean that much. But, I hear you say, it isnít the MFA itself, itís the networkingópeople are more likely to publish you if they know your name.
That is indubitably true, and it is also true that the fast track poetry Ďcareerí (from English undergraduate to MFA straight back into teaching) is one long network-fest. As the fast tracker moves through the system, he or she acquires friends and mentors involved at various universities (and hence with various university based journals) around the country, all of whom will tend to look just a little more fondly on a submission from that person than they would one from someone whose name they donít know. But this person represents perhaps only one in ten MFA candidates, especially at a low Residency program like Bennington, full of mature students with rich and varied lives. The rest of us are at no more of an advantage than the next person. Fortunately, this isnít the only way. The other way simply requires a little more perseverance, and more stamps.
I occasionally read the credits of local poets I admire (some of whom have mentioned to me their own negative views on MFA programs) and pause. These credits read like a roll call of the best known quality local publications. Here in South Jersey/ Philadelphia itís publications like US1 Worksheets, Journal of NJ Poets, Paterson Literary Review, Mad Poets Review and Exit 13. All these are very fine selective journals with good production qualities that I admire very much. But why arenít these poets also appearing in the literary journals attached to literature programs? Where are AGNI, Field, Antioch Review and the Southern Review on these lists, to name but a few? I can only assume itís because these poets donít submit there. I understand the temptation well. If you can almost guarantee a Ďyesí from a beautiful local journal in which you are proud to appear, why would you put yourself through the experience of risking rejection from one produced by a university in another state? Perhaps these poets did once try to send work to those journals, and became disillusioned after one or more rejections.
Well, hereís the news, people: you have to harden yourself to rejections and keep at it. Those slightly more sophisticated publications are the keys that open the doors to other publications, not to mention how good they look on your applications for grants and awards. Oh and artists colonies, did I mention applying for those? And scholarships for writersí conferences? While Iím at it, can I suggest writing prose as well? There is less competition for prose about poetry than there is for poetry itself, and itís another way of getting your name out there, MFA or no MFA.
Going through the MFA process, you see, has definitely taught me how the system works. Keep working on honing your poetry, keep submitting, and donít stress over the rejections. Cherish the personal rejections, the Ďnot-quitesí and resubmit to those journals. Itís a hard slog, but you have to believe some intrepid and honest editor will eventually accept a good poem. Go to conferences and readings. Read contemporary poetry and occasionally email poets whose work you admire. Keep trying to break out of that local poet box. You donít need an MFA to do that. If it helps with your self-confidence, simply pretend you are me and you are about to have one.
Anna Evans, Editor, The Barefoot Muse