WHAT WORK IS: Poet Charles Jensen has an interesting post at his blog, Kinemapoetics, which has elicited plenty of comments on the issue of "success" in the world of poetry. Charles' post was prompted by Eduardo Corral's post about not pursuing publication in journals and magazines.

Most of the responses to Charles' question were realistic about their work, although a couple seemed to rush to join the "I don't take publication and awards seriously" chorus. I've always been very upfront when it comes to my writing. I am not academic. Never have been, never will be. Cecilia has suggested that I go for an MFA, but at the moment, I have no interest. I have no desire to go deeper into the "po biz," and all the relentless pursuit of some inconsequential "fame." Poets don't become "famous" anymore; that ended in the 60s. We live in a different world where poetry has been relegated to the sidelines in the literary world. Poetry slams and spoken word have ripped the art from the withering hands of academia, but it's still a niche. Billy Collins and Jorie Graham still have day jobs as college professors to pay the bills.

As I said on Charles' blog, I stopped worrying about whether or not the work was going to get in the "important" journals or nominated for awards years ago. When poetry becomes notches for your bedpost, then it loses all purpose. Would I like to be published in Poetry...sure. If I don't, it's not the end of the world. It has nothing to do with the writing or the craft of poetry.

That said, I am thrilled everytime a journal selects my work. I was elated when I was nominated for a Pushcart last year by SubtleTea. I was on top of the world when MetroMania Press agreed to publish What Remains. Everytime someone says "yes" to my poetry, it means my work is reaching an audience, that people are interested, that the words I write are connecting with others. That's better than any award I can think of at the moment. Using that as the bar, then I think I'm a very "successful" poet.


nolapoet said…

I think you make a dangerous generalization about "academic" poetry, one that has been rendered all but meaningless over the past ten years or so.

If you're happy with your work, that';s great. But imagine how much further you could take your craft if you found a program suited to your particular artistic vision. There are plenty, to be sure.

I cam assure you that having an MFA or a Ph.D. is NO guarantee of university employment. What a graduate-level creative writing workshop does is 1) save you a lot of time in artistic development and 2) open your horizons to works and ideas you otherwise might never have run across.

Anyhow, just a thought. If you can take the criticism, and yes, the healthy doses of bullshit, that are part of graduate-level workshops, then you will come out a stronger poet for it.

I'm always trying to push myself as a poet, and it took me a long time to find my way to workshop. Admittedly, I am a more text-oriented person, but it is a lot more efficient way of absorbing lots of poetry. And so-called performance and so-called Academic poetry are not black-and-whoyte absolutes. If that were the case, then what would you do with, say, poets like Niyi Osundare, Allen Ginsberg, and Ron Silliman?

I think you could only benefit from advanced training. Don't believe the lie that studying something in depth kills its spirit. Someone who tells you that never had the spirit in the first place.

Collin Kelley said…
I don't think it's a generalization at all. I certainly have no quibble with those who are seeking an MFA or wish to go into academia. A number of my friends are seeking MFAs, and I support them in that pursuit. At this point in my life, it's not where I think I need to be.

However, there are poets who seem to believe gaining an MFA is the next step on the road to some larger success or influence in the world of poetry. I have to question their motive and whether the pursuit is to further their writing or to reach some level of stature that only exists in niche of the larger literary world. To put it in simple terms -- becoming the big fish in a little pond.

I have met poets of every kind in the last 10 years, esp. in the last three since Better To Travel was published. I've met poets who have an agenda about their "career path" and found it quite disturbing. And I've met poets who selflessly share their work with no goal other than to keep the tradition of poetry alive.

I suppose it comes down to which kind of poet a person wants to be and what, in their heart, is the motivation for writing poetry.
nolapoet said…
Here is what I thought was a generalization:

"Poetry slams and spoken word have ripped the art from the withering hands of academia, but it's still a niche."

This is the conventional wisdom, but it's an oversimplification.

I think there are as many reasons for pursuing an MFA as there are people pursuing them.

Again, an MFA is no guarantee of a "career" in poetry. Any poet or wannabe poet who thinks so is seriously misinformed.

If I may make a generalization, based on my years in two MFA programs, people who pursue MFAs are not careerist by nature. If they were, they would pursue something more "practical."

I think it takes a lot of guts to make the commitment to advanced study of any art--but especially poetry, the least remunerative of all. Any pussy can be a business major. It takes real guts to say "I am a poet. And no, poetry is not a hobby for me."

Now I do take special issue with the careerist marketing of MAPW/MPW or other so-called "professional" writing programs, as if poetry or fiction or nonfiction writers were somehow not "professional" (or incapable of writing technical manuals or ad copy). This track is called in less-kind circles "hack writing," which also can be learned without an advanced degree. But for those who want to study the basics of writing for a living in a systematic, careerist fashion, that's fine.

Regarding the notion of the MFA degree as job license, compare poetry with other genres of artistic study. Is it realistic to expect all those with MFAs in sculpture or painting or contemporary dance or musical performance to become "stars" or even professors? I don't think so. The same applies to poetry and fiction.

Finally, the MFA is a terminal degree. It is the PRACTITIONER'S degree, as opposed to the RESEARCHER'S (Ph.D) degree. A master's degree implies the right to teach in one's field. Unfortunately, the petty bureaucrats of the world who run HR and write the job descriptions (a/k/a legislative lobbyists) are not able to distinguish between the two, and require Ph.Ds even for part-time entry-level college teaching jobs. It's part of the larger insecurity about small colleges with career-oriented students suddenly calling themselves "universities;" they know they're pushing the envelope, so try to hide behind the all-our-courses- are-taught-by-Ph.Ds" sales pitch, as if having a Ph.D guaranteed excellence in teaching and writing (it certainly does not).

In the job market, one must have at minimum an MFA and at least one book-length work published by an established (i.e., not one's own) press, AND the book had better kick ass, as in win major awards and garner rave reviews, if one is after a full-time university-level creative writing job.

Most *tenured or tenue-track* MFA poets who teach have a slightly smaller courseload, specifically in recognition of the time they need to generate new work, and that creative work gets counted the same way as a Ph.D's research publications. Unfortunately, most only teach part-time, without any job protection, health insurance, or other benefits.

Name recognition outranks teaching ability in many cases. That is because few people want to study with someone who is not "famous."

I have studied with both famous and non-famous poets (admittedly, "fame" in this case applies to a microcosm). I have found excellent teachers who are not-famous poets, and horrible tachers who are famous poets, and their respective inverses. Some had MFAs and/or Ph.Ds; some did not.

So I agree with your assessment that an MFA has nothing to do with one's "success" as a poet, if you are using the term to mean "fame." But I disagree if you mean by "success" the ability to read deeply and widely, to know the tradition (which does not mean dead white European males only), and to add tools and the skills to use them to the poet's toolbox.

If one intends to teach, for example, then one should find a program that offers assistantships with solid teacher training. This may require one to take the additional step of the Ph.D. in either creative writing or a closely related field (comp/rhet, lit, comparative lit), just for the sake of getting out of the slush pile and possibly getting out of adjunct hell.

Don't think that the "teach one hour" glorified class presentation qualifies one to teach. Seek out a program that offers teaching assistantships SPECIFICALLY to creative writing grad students and that goes beyond comp-rhet 101.

If one has no desire to teach, then it's always good to learn a trade (as in carpentry, masonry, etc.) that doesn't drain the brain. This leaves your mind free to obsess over line breaks while earning a living wage.

Or, if one is up to it, write in other genres for money, but be prepared to watch one's poetry pay the price. I miss my health insurance, but I'm sure my poetry is better for the commitment. It would have taken me far longer to hone my skills without an MFA program than with one (or two).

In short, no one is too smart or too knowledgeable to keep learning; the most efficient way for a poet to accomplish this goal is through careful selection of an MFA program that is sympathetic to his or her artistic goals, but different enough not to rubber-stamp every doo-doo he or she squeezes onto paper as "art."

The trick is in finding the right program for the individual artist. Never take anyone else's recommendation at face value; investigate the options exhaustively, and be unwilling to part with your student loan money until and unless you are willing to put your life in the hands of your prospective faculty.

Then, don't get too chummy with them; keep a businesslike distance; don't house-sit for them. Remember that, as a student, you are NOT their equal--you are on their turf; don't talk about your "real-life expereince" outside the university; and spend as much time in the library as possible, soaking up and responding to all that great work.

Put all the fire on the page and let your poems do the talking.

My 2 cents on surviving the MFA. In fact, I am writing a nonfiction book on how to survive the famous "post-MFA slump." So please, send your friends with careerist motives to me at once!


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