In Consideration of M.F.A. Programs, Contemporary American Poetry, Working workshops

Recently, I had the chance to interview Ray Hammond, editor of the New York Quarterly and NYQ Books, for the Schuylkill Valley Journal. More specifically, we talked about his book, Poetic Amusement, which addresses the proliferation of M.F.A. programs, writing workshops, and creative writing departments. We also talked about American poetry in the age of Trump. I think it is well-worth the read, as Ray offers some honest opinions about the effectiveness of writing workshops and the publish or perish mindset that is part of creative writing departments.

Full disclosure: I completed my M.F.A. in 2010, and for me, it was a worthwhile experience that gave me the space and time to write, as well as a community of writers; that said, I do think there are some serious points to consider in this interview.

Click here to read the interview.

What’s Behind a Poem?

Recently, I got in a conversation with a friend about Donald Hall’s life and long career. This occurred after I blurbed her forthcoming book and drew some resemblance to her collection and Hall’s poetry, at least in her treatment of everyday subject matter and rural scenes. My friend then noted that Donald Hall, now 86, has stopped writing poetry and is only writing prose. In fact, his latest book is a prose collection, Essays After 80.

I had already known that Hall stopped writing poetry. Prior to the release of his latest book, he gave a lengthy interview in Poets & Writers in which he confessedthat he has stopped writing poetry and joked that it’s because he no loner has enough testosterone. Hall, a former U.S. Poet Laureate, did admit, however, that he keeps revising old poems. I still wonder to what end.

In an interview with NPR, Hall was more specific regarding his inability to write new poems. He confessed, “Prose is not so dependent on sound. The line of poetry, with the breaking of the line — to me sound is the kind of doorway into poetry. And my sense of sound, or my ability to control it, lapsed or grew less. I still use it in prose, but the unit is the paragraph.”

My writing process is similar, in that, for me, poetry often begins with sound and rhythm. I may have an image, but the structure of the poem is dependent on sound, especially the breaking of the line and the progression of the image or extended metaphor. I write and rewrite to stretch the language of a line and to play words off of each other for rhythmic effects.

In the same interview, however, Hall admits that he didn’t see the essays coming, but they did come. We can hope that new poems will come, too, but his statements regarding his inability to write new poems raises questions about what composes a poem and what is needed. Is it possible to still compose once the senses start to dull? Poetry is so dependent upon the senses and the structure is so reliant on sound that it seems inevitable the process will become more difficult with old age.

The Writing Class

I wanted to share this article written by Jaswinder Bolina and published by The Poetry Foundation. It’s a bit long, but it’s well worth the read, especially in the context of the M.F.A. debate, academia, the culture of privilege, and labor issues.  Here are some passages that I think are especially striking and raise some of the various class issues regarding pursuing an M.F.A. and being a poet.

Jaswinder on his parents feelings towards poetry: “Poetry wasn’t a bad idea in the abstract to either of them. It might even be a noble pursuit, but it also seemed a thing better left to the children of the wealthy than to the son of working-class immigrants. ”

On class issues, education, and career decisions: “Where the working classes are regularly forced to take pragmatic action out of necessity, the privileged are allowed to act on desire. My parents’ money, modest as it was and still is, did more than pay for the things I needed. It allowed me to want things they couldn’t afford to want themselves. ”

I think the second point I posted is one to ponder, specifically the idea that graduate school is mostly limited to only a select group of people with at some privilege, namely decent economic circumstances.  Furthermore, even those that have access to graduate school don’t necessarily land a full-time, tenure track teaching job at a university after completing the degree, so why do so many people keep signing up for M.F.A. programs? Is it simply about career ambition, and how detrimental is that to the poetry at the national level if much of what is written and published is done so by M.F.A. and Ph.D. students and graduates? Beyond open mic nights, slams, and other community events, how does poetry break out of its insular culture of privilege?

From Poetry to Fiction

This summer, I’m teaching English 211: Intro to Creative Writing, a class I’ve taught a few times in the past. I split the course into two genres, poetry and fiction. The more times I teach this class, the more I realize there is a lot prose writers can learn from writing poetry, and I tell my students that, especially when some of them groan about having to write poetry. The genre teaches writers compression, to cut out all of the fat. During workshop sessions, I tell my students to ensure that ever word in their lines counts, and to remove what they don’t need, especially conjunctions and prepositions. This skill of careful editing  is useful in fiction because you don’t want your short story or novel to get bogged down by unnecessary details and extraneous sentences. Poetry teaches a writer to make every word matter, to capture a reader’s attention from the first line.

There are other techniques paramount to poetry that are useful in fiction, especially extended metaphors, similes, and concrete imagery.  In fact, image/metaphor/simile/sensory detail are the first techniques I cover in the poetry section. These tools energize the language and imagination, and they do the same things when employed in prose.

Right now, my class just started the fiction unit, and as someone who writes poetry and thinks about it daily, it’s nice to step away from my familiar genre. Meanwhile, the students now have some techniques they learned from writing poetry that they can use in their fiction.