Wednesday, September 12, 2012
Buying a Degree? I think not.
This post is in response to the blog by Dawn Potter which I read today.
Dawn includes a comment about poets who "buy a degree for the sake of a job..." Overall, her blog post is filled with interesting points about the tough job of writing. But... buying a degree??? I have a problem with this.
The statement implies that those poets who get degrees in the genre buy them, and that these degrees are gained sans hard work. Furthermore it implies that somehow these "degreed" poets are not serious poets. My MFA in Poetry was HARD ACADEMIC WORK, filled with the rigor required of any degree work. This was in addition to the creative impulses and endeavors attached to an art. In no way is the blog post's generalizing statement about buying degrees accurate. It is also pretty demeaning of those who do the difficult work of an MFA. It also sets up a "them vs us" situation between poets who have degrees and those who do not have degrees which is not at all helpful.
I do agree that academia has attempted over many decades to subsume poetry, to make it the property of the academy. Dana Gioia got it right in his essay, Can Poetry Matter, which speaks to that problem specifically. The essay rightfully accused academia of trying to own poetry and keep it unavailable for the populous. The essay got him metaphorically and actually booed for a long time. BUT, it brought to the fore an attention to the notion of what and who makes poetry that is lasting— a worthy sacrifice for him which has been somewhat costly over time. His blackballing by many institutions as to becoming a part of the "canon" was and is worth it to him. He is a wonder of a poet and successful in the realms of poetry OUTSIDE the university (and inside in some cases). What cannot be denied is that he took a path to poetry AWAY from academia. He was a successful businessman who knew poetry was his "real life." So he wrote. Still he writes. Check out his newest collection, Pity the Beautiful, to see some fine poetry. Or look at his libretto for Nosferatu to see stunning work. I recommend Nosferatu's Serenade.
Seems to me the point here is to keep doors open wide for poets who do not choose the academic path. We must not let universities or colleges presume ownership of the genre and its successes. But it is a choice each poet who is serious about getting her/his work read and appreciated must make. To degree or not to degree...
Poets may go down a path of singular effort in solitude, making whatever inroads they can to get the work out there OR they may choose a more academic path getting an MFA. No matter the path, it is still about the work itself when all is said and done, HARD work. No matter the path, it is LIFELONG work. My point here is that it is a new day and many poets do NOT go to the degree as their path, finding acceptance and success in that choice. Many others choose the degree path and still struggle to find acceptance and success. Struggle is struggle. We all do what we can to get the work out there and be successful in our chosen art.
My MFA may have opened up a few doors, but I still struggle to get the best work written, to get it to the right places, and to get my reputation as a POET to be based upon the work, not upon whether or where I earned my degree (EARNED being the operative word here). I work with the same rigor as any other poet who focuses on the work and on a continual learning process in the art.
It is of course true that a degree can lead to a job. Most poets do not have a salary behind the scenes for them (a working spouse, a benefactor, legacy or inheritance) and so must work to put food on the table. A job helps do that. In some ways, the "job" is a detriment to the writing as was my college teaching job which took so much of my time it was difficult to find writing time and even more difficult not to let the stress of that job interfere with being creative. At any rate, the bottom line seems to be that creativity, and poetry in specific, needs to be seen as part of the aesthetic, not a means to another end. To say that degreed poets buy their way in is an unhappy thing at best, an insult at worst.
It is noteworthy here perhaps to comment on other degrees which might lead to jobs. Are students now at some university studying engineering or chemistry, buying their degrees? Is Dawn Potter's son who just started college doing that? Or are they and is he preparing for life work? If those degrees lead to jobs and not to poems, are they more or less successful? If all degrees (higher education) were FREE, would Potter be claiming that poets' degrees were somehow more acceptable even if they led to jobs?
I might add that (IN MY EXPERIENCE) some naysayers who snark at MFAs are exhibiting jealousy at not having the degree themselves. I am not saying, nor am I implying, that Dawn Potter is one of these. But I have met them. They sneer and snarl about poets with MFAs. When I ask if these poets have ever considered getting an MFA, I am most always met with "I can't afford it, I can't take time off to do it, or some reason other than they think the degree is not worthwhile. So they grumble and dismiss the degrees of others. This kind of them vs us mentality is not at all helpful in promoting poetry. By the way, why is it that other genres do not seem to fight one another for authenticity, only poets? I have NEVER heard a novelist complain that another novelist with a degree is less of a novelist. Hmmm. OK, maybe journalists do this... maybe.
As for the process, there are many paths to writing. Many. These sometimes include generative exercises. Do these in and of themselves produce exceptional poems? Not so much. But every crack in the door is an opening to writing. No one way is "approved" or "best," and we each have our own processes. If mucking out a barn does that, so be it. If giving oneself a prompt to begin the day's writing does it, so be that too. My process includes reading something great to immerse myself in the words and images and asking myself "how did _____ DO that?" I read voraciously, and not just other poets' work. Science, politics, history, cultural essays, etc. We live in a big world, and it is all material from which something might be gleaned or an idea sparked.
Potter's essay today refers negatively to those exercises and workshops where the instructor refers to the process as "fun and easy." Should poetry be called "easy" by anyone? NO! It is serious work. But can one enjoy the process? YES. I find it "fun" [read as enjoyable and fulfilling, not as entertaining] to sit down to a blank page every day and write. Of course what I see as enjoyable may not be another's view. I know folks who find doing complex math problems "fun" but this is not my cup o' tea. Is their mathematical practice to be denigrated because they enjoy it? I hope not.
Must a thing be painful for it to be acceptable? Definitely not. I did not have horrid pain in childbirth because I paid for classes to learn techniques to moderate the pain, and yet I still bore healthy children who are great adult people now. Is my experience less "authentic" because I did not suffer? Are my children less acceptable because there was not suffering to get them here? Childbirth was a joy for me. It was still HARD WORK for which I prepared well, thus lessening the pain and suffering of the act. Should I be accused of "buying my children" because I paid for classes in childbirth? Nope. Of course not.
What challenges me every day is to find the time to write and to do my best to find the right words, images, juxtapositions, etc which will make a poem convey something meaningful. Those who have degrees still must do this work, continuing on the path of educating themselves in their chosen art. Art is not stagnant. We all must keep learning and doing ON OUR OWN even if we have those pesky degrees. So now, off to write, and when I do so, it will be with a wealth of instinct AND knowledge. I will not write the poems on the reverse side of my degree, but I will write with gratitude for the experience gained while earning it.