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Drama in Poetryland

PUBLISHED: October 9, 2012

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, 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.


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Richard Sutton's picture
It’s good to read a positive experience from an MFA recipient, beyond the non-stop hype and advertising in literary journals and such. But here’s the thing: An MFA can be wonderful, if you can afford it easily. Writing Poetry is a decidedly difficult pursuit and as a career direction, probably isn’t the best overall choice for writers. Rather it seems to be something we can approach at various points in our lives, when the muse calls to us. I can see that since the mechanics are so different from writing fiction, additional educational guidance may be very useful for poets. But an MFA in fiction writing? How many books can one writer read by another writer who seems to think they know the secret to writing breakthrough fiction? The answer for me was only six. At that point, I really began to understand that nothing beyond writing a lot and having it read was going to hone my craft so that it remained MY craft. The industry is little help. Every Publisher’s editor, every agent knows exactly how to write what they can sell. Should I then, simply re-tailor all my work to fit their guidlines? I can field suggestions all day long from beta readers and editors, and at the end of the day, if I accommodate it all, will my story still be my story? Even more to the point, will my story be any more saleable in the resulting form? If the suggestions come from another author, or a literary professor will they be any more valid? I think before jumping into any education program, any serious writer needs to question whether they are at a point where further mentoring is going to actually improve their work, or whether they should just get on with the writing and keep the money in their bank account.
Colin Dickey's picture
Colin Dickey · 10 years ago
This article does nothing but embarrass itself. Those who are critical of MFA are accused of “whispered anecdotes and grandiose claims, but almost no actual evidence,” then Ortler goes on: “And that’s the thing: as Carl Sagan said, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” The response then, is to cheerlead for several paragraphs and fail to provide anything remotely resembling the evidence that’s seemingly so cherished. “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.” What is the criteria for “damn fine work”? No idea; nothing in this article would seem to care to lay out anything by way of evidence. Ortler goes on: “there’s a good deal of evidence in favor of MFA programs.” Then proceeds to offer none of it. Nothing is debunked, no way of testing or refuting any claims. None of these sentences, when actually examined, communicate anything at all. I’m not sure what there is to debate here. There’s nothing here. It’s an empty litany of platitudes, an embarrassment to the writer and to VQR. The kind of drivel that Huffington Post normally publishes. I’m sorry that VQR seems to be going for clicks instead of anything approaching informed discussion.
FBH's picture
FBH · 10 years ago
Author, perhaps you can sneak in a logic class or two with your next degree. There are more poets now, you say. Yes, and thanks to McDonald’s there are many more very crappy burgers. Recall, this is your argument. And note that it defeats your own point. Ad hominem subtlety, not bad. But use of political red herrings was obvious and poor sophistry. Fallacies of association, appeals to tradition and a generalized appeal to authority, not so good. Not to mention blatant anecdote-as-evidence. Come on. In a subjective arrangement such as literature, the quality of output cannot be argued. So don’t. Furthermore, you’re missing Will Hunting’s point entirely–all the information is free, groups can be created anywhere. You want to take on the MFA issue? Great, start with evidence, remove the contradictions and depict for your readers the reality instead of starting with the conclusion and winding off into the weeds for lack of evidence. VQR…really?
Jane Friedman's picture
Speaking as VQR’s web editor, I chose to run this piece because it nicely reveals some rather silly arguments against MFA programs. Yes, the evidence provided in support is anecdotal, and I should’ve protected the writer from being attacked for not providing evidence when he criticizes his opponents for the same thing. I am interested in receiving pitches on this topic that offer a researched approach, with quantitative evidence on the issue. A really in-depth piece could also be considered for a future print issue, particularly our Spring 2013 issue, which will be focused on The Business of Literature.
Brett's picture
No worries, Jane. I can take the heat, and I figured my lack of non-anecdotal evidence would be problematic. (But given that there are not many [any?] published studies about MFA programs–I looked–providing quantitative data is more difficult.) That wasn’t my purpose, however. I wanted to debunk the bad arguments levied against MFA programs. By showing that they often rely on fallacies and unsound logic, it becomes incumbent upon the anti-MFAers to provide evidence. (They are making the bigger-picture case, after all.) I provided anecdotal evidence (as I pointed out), but it is evidence that I think is shared by others. Over the past few weeks, I’ve been trying to collect actual data. That’s why I’ve been soliciting survey responses from recent MFA grads. If anyone’s interested, they can weigh in here: Once I have a sizable sample (ideally a few hundred people), I’ll publish the results. Of course, even this data would not survive peer-review because of selection bias in the sample, but it’s better than nothing.
Jane Friedman's picture
The only formal study I’ve seen, if it can be called that, is THE PROGRAM ERA by Mark McGurl. It was very highly regarded when it released in 2009, and serves as probably one of the best academic defenses of the MFA degree — but the author focused on fiction, not poetry.
R. T. Smith's picture
R. T. Smith · 10 years ago
I think Orter has taken a measured approach to this question, and I agree with some of what he says, but we have to remember, just to avoid being naive, that he has a dog in this fight: he stands to lose prestige, credibility, etc. if MFA programs can be shown to be anything like what their vigorous detractors claim. My question is: what about that large segment comprised of the low-residency MFA programs, where the questions are somewhat different? No chance for teaching experience, little tuition assistance, the general skepticism of the academic world, near-open admission policies and so on. I’d like to see a follow-up article which addresses this more sharply focused target.

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