Monday, February 23, 2009

Winter Blues

I'm not sure whether it was AWP or just the recent snow storm, but I've got a case of the winter blues. Just the way of things I guess. And I don't mean to blame AWP because I did love seeing friends there. It's one of the few places I see some of my favorite folks. And there were the usual highlights: many wonderful readings and panels and books to buy and so on. All the good things, and then a few moments that were hard to deal with. Like the last few conversations I had at AWP. One in particular was with a man I didn't know who went to one of the nonresidency MFA programs and hasn't published since then. He's angry and he and his friends asked me a lot of angry questions such as. . .
Did I think that MFA programs would just let a student in (even if he lacks all talent or future potential) because he could pay? How many of these 7000 participants do you guess are MFA students or grads? Do you think talent is rewarded? Or is it all about who you know and what you can do for the powers that be? Do you think if a guy like me (who might have no talent) owned a press that he could get published? Do you think that's why there are so many presses? What if he ran a prestigious poetry series? Do you think there is such a thing as conflict of interest in the poetry world?

Bitterness is hard to listen to, and I will stop now. If only the conversation had stopped there.


Neil Aitken said...

Sorry to hear about the ranty guy.

While I don't pretend to have answers to all those questions, many of which I don't think really matter, sometimes I think this type of response grows out of a misguided sense of entitlement.

I would want to ask him just two questions:

1) Why did you start writing?

2) Do you still feel that way now?

For me, writing began out of a need to give voice to the blend of love and loss. I don't think it's ever completely changed. I really don't care that much if I ever publish again (it'd be nice), but I do want to keep writing.

I think people who become cynical have forgotten (or perhaps never knew) the joy that comes from finishing a poem that brings you, the maker, delight. I'd tell him - If you aren't finding joy in the writing, perhaps it's a good thing that you're not writing. Find some other thing that brings you joy.

Lyle Daggett said...

I like Neil's comments here. I'm not sure if I think the guy's response came from a "misguided sense of entitlement," -- I think he raised some valid issues about what I've heard some poets and writers call the "literary-industrial complex," and I can empathize with some of his frustrations.

I do think he maybe had some unrealistic expectations about what an MFA program could do for him. I've never been in an MFA program (or any grad school program) myself, though if I were ever to apply to an MFA program, probably the last thing I would think to try and learn from it would be how to get published. (Maybe I would in fact learn things about it, but it wouldn't be a major reason for me to be in the program.)

I suppose, given the heavy "publish-or-perish" emphasis so prevalent in the academic world, and given that AWP is primarily (though not exclusively) an academic organization, it's to be expected that some people will raise issues about publication and the "office politics" that are sometimes connected with it.

I was at AWP this year, just the second time I've gone. I've blogged about it here if you care to have a look.

Nin Andrews said...

Yes, thanks Lyle and Neil. I like what you say. And I like your AWP post, Lyle. But I do think I should add that this person was making an analogy, which I didn't go into. He was saying--suppose I applied to a graduate program in English, Social Studies, History, Physics, Math. . . I would have to demonstrate some ability before entering the program. In his experience, in what he saw of his particular MFA program,which is a pretty good program I think, he felt that many of the writers were admitted simply because they could pay. Some developed writing skills. Some didn't. He thought the admissions standards were a scam. He was wondering if he was one of the writers who didn't have any skills and maybe failed to develop them . . .

He raised a lot of other issues as the conversation went on, but his concern about the MFA programs is one that I have heard from the faculty members of at least 3 low res MFA programs. I didn't mention this to this man. (I don't like to encourage this line of thought. And I didn't know any writers in my MFA program who weren't capable writers.) But I have heard from from faculty members who feel burdened by having to teach unskilled writers. I would have to add that many who come in unskilled, end up being good writers. I mean, anything can happen, and I think luck always plays a part.

Zaphos said...

The concern is not at all limited to MFA programs; CMU has endless masters programs under the umbrella of computer science, and I heard the same sort of "they accept anyone who can pay" notion for some of those, there.

I'm not sure why it's a disservice to the 'unskilled' students to get in, though. I understand professors being annoyed, but the students? It's not the admissions process's job to shield you from your own life choices ...

Erin O'Brien said...

I can't stand bellyaching.