Literature blogs tend to be a touch dramatic. There’s incessant talk about the decline of poetry and a never-ending litany of literary controversies, but when it comes to drama, no subject leads to more hysterics than the popularity (and very existence) of MFA programs. MFAs have been variously described as a pyramid scheme, a place for relentless careerists, and perhaps most famously, a veritable fast food joint where mediocre poets produce “McPoems.”
When examined carefully, there’s a decidedly conspiratorial bent to many of these arguments—you find whispered anecdotes and grandiose claims, but almost no actual evidence. And that’s the thing: as Carl Sagan said, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.
Instead of evidence, one mostly finds cynicism. And this makes sense, as conspiracies are often predicated on cynicism. Just as the anti-vaccination crowd has lost faith in the basic tenets of Western medicine and believes there is a global conspiracy to profit from “dangerous” vaccines, the anti-MFA camp has lost faith in the wider literary world, and they believe that MFA programs are a sham designed for profit.
Here’s the awful truth the cynics don’t want you to hear: We’ve got no reason for cynicism. When it comes to poetry, we’ve actually got things pretty good. There are more poets (and therefore more poetry readers) than ever before, and MFA-trained poets are producing some damn fine work. The anti-MFA folks may be vitriolic and loud, but they’re a fringe group. They are the poetry world’s version of birthers.
And that’s the thing: there’s a good deal of evidence in favor of MFA programs. Unfortunately, the anti-MFA arguments are often far too short on specifics, and you never hear tales of the satisfied customer. So I’m going to give you one. But first, let’s summarize the anti-MFA arguments and take them down.
Poetry workshops are factories/fast food joints, churning out McPoems with interchangeable parts
This is the “McPoem” theory first espoused by Donald Hall and many others since.
I deeply respect Mr. Hall’s work (Without is a staggeringly good—and sad—book), but he’s simply wrong on this issue. When you actually start looking at workshops and tracking the progress of actual writers, it becomes clear the McPoem argument is simply a big damn stereotype.
When MFA students walk in the door, they have different backgrounds, styles and educations. In my experience, instead of being pressed into conformity, the writing styles (and forms) of my fellow MFA students became more pronounced rather than more alike. I imagine the same is true elsewhere. Even if it is not, remember that we’re talking about hundreds of programs. So if the McPoems argument is to hold, then the type, style and merit of the poetry produced should be the same everywhere. But empirical evidence doesn’t bear this out. I spend a good deal of my time in the slush pile, and it is simply not the case.
An MFA program won’t get you a job!
First, this is a bizarre argument for poets and writers to make to other poets and writers.This is simply a refashioned version of “What are you doing to do with that degree?” And that’s a question we English majors have heard all our lives.
Plus, in my experience, most MFA students don’t enroll in writing programs in an effort to look for work. (After all, MFA programs aren’t a vocational school.) On the contrary, many MFA students attend MFA programs to get away from the burdens of work. In a sense, one could view the MFA program as a sort of extended writer’s colony, a venue where writers can dedicate a substantial block of time to writing and reading. That’s not something that should be frowned upon; it’s something that should be supported. MFA haters: Imagine if a random poet walked up to you on the street and said, “You know what? I’m going to dedicate a two-year block of my life to reading and writing, at a potentially significant cost to myself.” Would you really tell them to stop? I’d tell them to go for it, as long as they knew what they were getting into financially. Clearly, many writers want to make that choice, as MFA programs are incredibly popular. In short: Don’t like MFA programs? That’s fine, don’t go to one. But spare us the outrage.
MFA poets are social-climbers and careerists
While I admit that favoritism and shady dealings do occur (see Foetry.com), are we really saying that this is the norm, and that all programs, everywhere, are guilty? Even at third- and fourth-tier programs? I somehow doubt that Podunk University’s MFA programs are full of writers ready to fellate their way to academic superstardom.
While social climbers can be found in almost any endeavor, sycophants are the exception, not the rule. To be sure, most writers attend their MFA program, then go home. (If we were all social-climbers and careerists, you’d think more of us would stick around.)
An MFA will saddle students with lifelong debt
It’s an unfortunate truth that a college education will saddle you with debt. But these are student loans, not subprime mortgages. The average age of a MFA student is 26, and we all already hold an undergraduate degree, so we know what we’re getting into. I take a libertarian tack on this one: If people choose to enroll in an MFA program and need to take on debt to do so, that’s their call.
No one reads poetry
If by “no one” you mean most of the general public, then you’d be right. But most of the general public doesn’t read literature at all, and that’s been the case for decades . MFA programs certainly aren’t to blame. On the contrary, MFA students are often the market for a good deal of contemporary poetry. We read it—and a lot of it. And while it’s true that the contemporary reader base may be narrow, it’s deep. (It’s a fjord, really.)
There are too many poets and not enough good poetry
Contemporary literature may be the only artistic field where practitioners of the art, on principle, seem to dislike other artists. Can you imagine this happening with other MFAs, say in ceramics? There are too many potters and not enough good pottery! When you look closer, this argument smacks of jealousy. (It could rephrased somewhat uncharitably as: But no one will pay attention to meeeeeeeeeee.)
This argument also betrays an unspoken conservatism—the idea that things were better back in the good old days, when there weren’t as many poets and the ones around were more like us. Besides, poetry, like anything else, is a market. When the number of writers goes up, it becomes more difficult to get your book published, to land a teaching gig, and so on. So what? So there are more kids playing in the sandbox, deal with it. In a world with seven billion people, it’s hard to have any sandbox to yourself.
Let’s Get Specific
OK, so now that we’ve debunked a few of the arguments that continually pop up, let’s fight (anecdotal) fire with (anecdotal) fire. And as much as possible, I’ll get into specifics, as the anti-MFA arguments are often far too vague.
First, let’s talk about the numbers. Here are mine: I have about 30K in student loans, give or take. About half of that was from my undergraduate days. While at graduate land, I was fortunate enough to receive a full scholarship and a teaching assistantship with a stipend (about $800/month).
Holding down a second job was frowned upon, so I used my savings and took some student loans. All told my annual income was about $17,000 a year. While I wasn’t impoverished (the federal poverty level for one person in 2012 is $11,000), I wasn’t particularly far away.
When I entered the program, I was primarily writing clumsy poems that were heavy on message. Two years of MFA-land certainly didn’t solve my problems, but I got better as a writer (and that’s exactly why I went).
What else did I do? I caroused. I saw a mountain lake for the first time, I fell in love damn hard and certain and was a complete a-hole and screwed that up entirely. I read a lot, wrote a lot, and I was fortunate enough to be able to teach. I went to oodles of readings, and I met some talented (and kind) writers. I bought lots of poetry (all of which I still have), and I met some damn fine friends. I was able to work on a literary magazine, and I began to learn how to edit and what it takes to produce a book.
In short, it was a lovely time in my life.
And what about more practical benefits? Well, immediately after graduating, I landed a technical writing/editing job at a translation agency. About six months later, I moved back home to be closer to my family, then was hired as the editor at a non-fiction publishing house north of the Twin Cities, a position I still hold today.
I wouldn’t have landed either of those jobs without the specific experience I gained from my MFA (i.e. how to make a book, how to deal with authors, how to propose edits without sounding like a complete and total jerk). On the side, I have done a bit of teaching, as I’ve missed it. As an adjunct, I’ve taught at two different career colleges, an experience I’ve thoroughly enjoyed, and again, one that was largely made possible by my teaching experience from my MFA.
Was It Worth It?
So let’s ask the big question—was it worth it? In my case, yes. Professionally, as a writer, and as a person, my life is immeasurably better thanks in large part to my MFA. Can I say the same is true for everyone who pursues (or has pursued) an MFA? No, of course not.
Nonetheless, I doubt I’m the only satisfied customer.
Brett Ortler is an editor from the Twin Cities. He is cofounder and coeditor of Knockout Literary Magazine. His work appears in Permafrost, Rattle, Redactions, The South Dakota Review, Nimrod and (lists) online at McSweeney’s, among other places. He blogs about poetry and literature at Bark, about parenting at The Screaming Infant, and about science and everything else at A Litany of Interesting Things.