19 August 2010


Poets & Writers has just published their 50 Top M.F.A. Programs.

While the authors are indeed trying to be careful, objective, in culling the data, and while they also readily admit the partial nature of any such undertaking (and I applaud their focus on funding as a criterion), it's yet another capitulation to what strikes me as an American love for lists and rankings. I'm guilty of enjoying those lists: the AFI's 100 Greatest Thrills in American movies; Jeff Sagarin's NCAA Football Computer Rankings; the ten ugliest fish . . . . What I love about these lists is the inherent arbitrariness, especially as you go further and further down the list. What's the real difference between the #73 (Minneola, Florida) and #90 (Durham, New Hampshire) city with strongest Arts, Entertainment, Recreation, Accommodation and Food Services Industries (pop. 5000+)?

So looking at the P & W list of the top 50 M.F.A. programs, I am heartened to see my alma mater, Indiana University, holding its own at #15 overall, and a little prideful to see the poetry program ranked #8.

And then, my reaction is something of a nonspecific, low-grade dread. I do question the list's purpose, even with all the carefully worded warning labels, and I wonder how it reinforces some of the worst in the professionalism of the po-biz. I know some of my undergraduates will be looking at this list carefully, aiming for a few well chosen, high-end programs (invariably New York and Boston are compelling magnets, it seems), and then settling to shoot for some "mid-level," forty-something programs, and then setting out a safety net for one or two unranked programs that at least have good weather or decent restaurants.

I want to say it's all so beside the point. The M.F.A. as a degree unto itself is really nothing, a barely acknowledged degree even within the world of academia, and it doesn't make you a writer any more than a match-book advertising school of the arts will make you an artist. But those are obvious points. And yet, I still value and cherish my own M.F.A. experiences. I think for me, it was partly because I was so naive and happy, just to be somewhere where I could write and talk about poetry. And that's the ultimate value I see in any M.F.A. program, and it strikes me as the only real reason to want to be in one. And even then, I recognize you can get that experience on the outside of the academy by a simple willingness to look for those places.

The value of an M.F.A. program is also its liability: by and large they are relatively safe places. Oh, I realize almost every M.F.A. program has its coteries, its cliques, its gangs, its rivalries, and I realize in every M.F.A. program, there is plenty of inhumane treatment. By safe, I mean artificial, an agreed upon construct or contract, where you pay (either by direct tuition or signing onto the indentured servitude known as a teaching assistantship) to gain a commodified set of experiences. It's an exchange, and not a base one, really, but it shouldn't be something that is routinely idealized.

So you end up buying a little time, a little space, a little contrived workshop and accidental friendships (and those can be the best). You're not removed from the real world, whatever that is, but you are also existing in a hothouse of expectations and ambitions that has so very little to do with writing. It can lead to conformity and timidity (but so can being a street poet), but more dangerously, I think it often leads to a spirit of acquisition, of gaining the degree to gain a position to gain an agent to gain a book contract to gain tenure to gain national awards to gain a movie deal to gain a national endowment to gain . . . . Somehow, as you get your degree, and perhaps moreso, after you gain your degree, the pressure is to justify it, the resulting impulse of publication, award, and laurel.

As you can see with this blog, I'm running into this problem of publication, again and again, even while I use the blog to promote my own publications. I think my career ambition is about disappearing these days. Gosh no, not really, or at least in my real life I want to be very visible with those I love for as long as possible. But my artistic ambition seems more to be about the drop that falls into the pond and it disappears, for good, not to be that butterfly that creates the hurricane, but to be the immaterial and definite moment, here, and then gone, perfectly so, happily so. Why ask for more?

And that's precisely it for me. I read these lists, and worse, all those M.F.A. ads, clamoring, exaggerating their differences (so much toothpaste . . . ), imploring that you as a writer should be asking for more, to get your permanent place on the library book shelf, and even better, to be Nortonized. So for my students, if you consider the M.F.A., don't consider what more you will be with it or what more you will get out of it, but simply what you will do with that little bit, such a little bit, of time and with that company, however fleeting and heady. And remember that there are other ways of getting that time for yourself as well.

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