Wednesday, July 25, 2007

post MFA syndrome

As I was working on a poem last night I hesitated over a line, and sure enough, the workshop ghost reared it's ugly head. I shouldn't do x because the response will be y, and on and on. I decided to leave it the way it was since only in workshop, where one is purposely looking for any given poem's faults, would someone have that response (I hope.) I have to say one of the good things about the whole MFA thing was that it made me more conscious of what I was doing. The bad thing was that it made me somehow more self conscious as well. I don't know about other editors, but I certainly don't read wicked alice or dgp subs looking for what's wrong with this poem or book, what can I tear down. And yet, this is how we are taught to think somehow. The result is that a perfect poem becomes this flawless, tidy, p's and q's in place, POEM, and untimately probably about as uninteresting as wallpaper. I'm not talking about sloppiness or cliche or any of the obvious things that draw attention to their immediate badness, but more subtly things (fragmentation, rough edges, jarring juxtapositions) that I would say make the poems more interesting. Of course, this might just be the whole tradition vs. innovation debate again. I hated sitting through workshops where poets on the more experimental side were raked over the coals, where taking certain risks were immediately shot down. And what purpose is art if you can't take risks? I hated looking for those flaws, how it was changing how I read.

This self-consciousness also manifested itself outside the writing itself and in the realm of po-biz. There were times when the whole thing made me very self-conscious about self-publishing, about choosing to publish most of my work online. Big no-nos according to some people. Hell, about publishing or submitting at all when I was supposed to be focusing on my "craft". About running a press or a litzine. Even just keeping a blog and being uncouth enough talk about such things. About trying to forge out a little corner for myself in the poetry world, all things which in the pre-MFA world were de riguer. Six years ago, I thought nothing about making a website, starting a zine. Almost every poet I knew had one. No big deal. A couple years ago, I was somehow sort of weirded out about having a personal site and about what was on it. Like I was trying too hard or something. Like who the hell was *I* that I should think anyone cared? I was sort of self-conscious of the Poetry Center win and all it's perks, of getting my book published while I was still in school (hell of even having the audacity even to publish my own chaps). I kept thinking people were sizing me up and wondering why I was worthy of this sort of good fortune (of course I think the same thing in those yukky bad self-doubt moments). I thought it was all in my head until I actually heard a couple things said by people when I wasn't around that sort of confirmed it. Then I felt even more self-conscious. Even more fishbowl-like. No one seemed to realize that I was a good deal older than alot of people in the program, had been playing this game for years, etc. Also, that the writing culture in which I sort of evolved in was VERY different from the academic poetry complex. (thank god). Not just my own work, but also having the audacity to claim some legitimacy as an editor or publisher without having some sort of stamp of approval from some po-biz god made me feel sort of weird. I also get the impression from some people that they thought I was well-connected, or somehow shmoozed the right people, which, if you know me in person at all, could not be further from the truth.

It definitely got a little better the last couple of years when there seemed to be more poets doing similar things--submitting, blogging, publishing their work, starting presses, doing all sorts of interesting things. Those people probably feel a little bit like I do sometimes too. Still, those disquieting feeling were there, still are there a little and hopefully will go away with time. Hell, though I admit, luckily they didn't really affect my ACTIONS, even if it all made me feel a little awkward sometimes whenever I or anybody else brought up the press, the book, any sort of conventional achievement at all. If anything they made me push against it even more, so there's some good to come out of it.


Ash said...

MFA programs breed (of their own accord) jealousies. Publish anything--anything--and others will hate you. I've found that few people really want their workshop members to succeed. And if they want others to do well then they only want them to do well after he/she himself as done well first.

Christine E. Hamm, Poet Professor Painter said...

I agree with the idea that MFA programs, and grad schools in general, are hotbeds of petty jealousies that tend to make one insecure. I just got an email from the head of the graduate students league at my school informing me that I must no longer send out announcements to all the graduates students when I publish a new book. It isn't "proper."

Jessica Smith said...

I'm glad I didn't go to an MFA program, because I probably would've been talked out of doing what I do. At Buffalo, since theory and poetry were so intertwined, I think I got the benefit of the "consciousness" of an MFA program without the ridiculous workshop pettiness. But reading this entry, I also begin to have some insight into why some poets (almost invariably ones who've come out of MFA programs) hate me so much. It seems very disempowering to be in an MFA program.

As for my life as a poet, a few people in my program know of it vaguely. A few of my friends here own my book, as well as a few of the faculty, but it's generally something i pursue in quiet. And the world of professional scholarship is so far removed from the world of creative works that it purports to analyze that it's quite easy for me to stay well under the radar. heck, it's easy for H.D. to stay under the radar, here. we're stuck at Browning.