An interesting discussion today in the lit class. We're reading Beach's Poetic Culture, which this week was talking about the academic monopoly on poetry, and someone had brought up how Columbia, as a school with both a BFA and an MFA in poetry fits into the equation. A couple grad students brought up how they feel, especially now with that thesis looming, they're being pushed constantly toward publication, some of them begrudgingly.
I hesitated in class over what to say about my own experience. On one hand, here I am obviously publishing and always seeking publication, and yet I don't think any of that comes from Columbia, or anything anyone at Columbia has or hasn't said to me about when or whether I should publish. We all occasionally get occasional info on contests and submissions calls from the department, but I don't think that's a pushy thing but more like just letting us know. In my experience I came into the program already imbued with that drive, having already started to publish online and in smaller local stuff. But then I was always submitting, even when my work was awful, because that's what I thought writers did. Ever since I was nineteen, I think in part inspired by Plath's frenetic journals and letters (which I was reading about then for the first time- ever the patron saint of anxious young women poets), to make conscious efforts toward being a writer. Never mind it was another 5 years before anything was worth publishing, but I did it anyway.
And kind of all on my own..there were years as an undergrad and grad student when no one saw the poems but me and the editors I submitted them to. (thank god) In the eyes of my professors, I was purely a gradate literature student...they didn't know anything about the writing that went on the rest of the time. A couple of undergrad instructors knew I made vague gestures toward writing, but I was predominantly a lit student, not a writing one (at one time, a distinction very sharp at RC). I was almost embarassed by it in that context. I thought it impeded me somehow as a scholar, that I wanted to spend all my time writing poems and not doing research or writing criticim. (though it's been done, but I didn't think I was capable of it) It the end it was my undoing.
After a while, the poems were getting better, and because I couldn't afford all those SASEs, and they seemed more open to emerging poets, I started publishing in electronic journals--quite alot. After awhile it became less about proving myself as a poet and more about just finding an audience for the work. I was still writing on my own then, four or so years ago, starting to master little successes, becoming more involved locally in readings and such, getting my first chapbook together and getting it accepted.
My reasons for entering the program were muddy. On one hand I didn't want to regret not taking advantage, not getting that terminal degree, just in case it never came in handy--if I wanted to teach later on, even if not now. And really just because I thought it might make me better, which no doubt it has. And a little because it was THERE, and convenient and cheap. And I'm just now ready to admit it, but I was damned tired of people-my family, the people at work, regarding me as some hobbyist. "Oh you write poems, how precious. My niece paints ponies. " sort of stuff. I felt (wrongly, obviously) that an MFA would make me legitimate in some way I wasn't. Peer pressure, no doubt.
So I came in already part of that poet culture of submission and rejection. Of contests and applications. I'd already put the intial version of the fever almanac (then known as just almanac) together and was entering it in contests. It was actually a little surprising how they didn't push publication at Columbia, given the horror stories I'd already heard regarding other programs. Almost a little refreshing, how it wasn't all geared toward making publishable work, but making good work (of course each member of the faculty has differing opinions on what that is--as do the students.)And again, even "publishable" is relative in so many ways. If had someone throwing that at me now, telling me what is publishable and what is not, I'd certainly have dropped out long ago.
I think "publishable" brings "marketable" into the equation. Which again is sort of relative depending on who you talk to. Given certain minimum standards obviously.. but then again maybe not with some books I've seen. If we write this book, this body of work, is it marketable in the publishing world? And is that the basis on what it should be judged in degreeing the MFA? Brilliant does not equal marketable, not always, maybe not even most of the time.
But then I can't just dismiss the reality of publication altogether. I don't think it should be completely ignored if the students are then expected to go out--especially if they're remaining in academia--and fend without some eye toward building an audience for their work, however small. Since poetry needs readers, that publication, however it comes about is a necessary evil. Though thank god now days the poetry world as a whole is much less insular and homogenized as it once was--indie presses, journals all over the place, micro publishers, etc. It's certainly easier to beome part of the business of poetry than it might have been even 15 years ago. And without sacrificing the integrity of your work. I do, however, bristle at someone telling me I should publish in X journal or with Y press, because that equals being a "legitimate poet."