Claire Light has a great post regarding MFA programs, and life while enrolled in MFA programs, to which I would like to respond here. She discusses how she’d complained about the uselessness of workshop, but here’s a point that I think lot of hardcore anti-MFA’ers seem to miss: when enrolled in a MFA program, we arrange our lives around it. We set aside all kinds of other important things in our lives in order to write; we do this because we are in the process of earning a degree. We spend so much time writing, every available moment on the train or bus, during work breaks, before going to sleep. I remember this: constantly and energetically writing in my Moleskine when waiting in a bar of cafe for someone, or while having a cup of coffee before seminar or before meeting a professor. My writing mind was always on, and if I was not writing, I was reading, and thinking about how what I was reading would find its way into my writing. Even with the TV on at home, language was seeping into my notebooks. Certainly, not everything in my notebooks became a poem, but I realize that how I was sifting through information became quite honed, and the energy I was investing in all of this writing also contributed to the honing of my poetic writing.
It reached the point that conversations with anyone could potentially become poetic fodder; folks became a little wary of hanging out with me for this reason and told me I was a scary girl, if only because my brain was on all the time, soaking up their language and the ways in which people could be ironic. Not everyone likes to become material for published work.
So that’s the thing; we talk about having this stretch of two or three years in a MFA program as the time we were allowed to write. I very much agree, but I think we need to think about what is happening to us as writers during this time that we are allowed to write, during this time that we are actively arranging our lives around writing, and reading, and talking about writing, how we sharpen ourselves, how we motivate ourselves to find other writers and artists with whom to discuss writing and reading and process. Additionally, this is also a time in our lives where it’s allowed for us to spend our “spare” time at literary events (in all kinds of places, not just inside the university) hearing other writers, or at arts events viewing the work of other aritsts. In other words, we energetically participate in artistic cross-pollination, hence, forming communities this way. As a result of writing so much poetry and always being at arts and literary events, I also had a ton of reading and performance gigs in cafes, community arts spaces, and bookstores, and this was always an opportunity to try something new with voice and with collaboration, to interact and exchange with audiences and readers, many of whom were writers and artists themselves.
Back to workshop, which is the core of the MFA requirement, even if our colleagues are whack, even if our professors don’t “get” us, we are required to produce volumes of work, and we are required to discuss it. Even when discussions are going awry, we find ourselves in the process of, again, sharpening our writing process or our ability to articulate that process. We defend our work, and we learn to sort out what comments are helpful from what is a waste of our time, or what criticism is constructive versus what is pure and simple hateration.
Can you tell I spent my three years in my MFA program utterly caffeinated and always switched on? Shit, I wrote two books of poetry while in my MFA program, found much journal and anthology publication, performed with classical flautists and viola players, slam poets, folk and modern dancers, actors stripped and slathered in olive oil, scrapped a lot of poetry in the process and wrote more, produced two poetry chapbooks which I gave away for free, taught writing workshop at KSW, and I started writing Diwata after I’d submitted my thesis. I was very swiftly making decisions about starting poetic projects, outlining my source materials and parameters for these projects; I also made swift decisions about language, code switching, and translation in my writing. I engaged in various poetic experiments just to see what would happen. If I didn’t like the results, I’d just try something else.
All this created a writer of heightened productivity and sharpened poetic skills out of me, an actual writer living a writing life, writing and talking about writing, publishing, performing, reading. So it’s not just MFA program itself, but the writing lives we make for ourselves. You get what you give. If folks can maintain this level of input and concrete sharpened output without MFA program, then I think that’s awesome. And you’ve saved money.
I’ll tell you what else; I am glad that the USF Philippine Studies Department could find a working Filipina American artist they deem qualified to teach workshops at the university level. In fact, the previous professor of the course I’ve picked up was also a Filipina American artist with a MFA (in Visual Arts). That is, without the degree, there would have been no stepping anywhere near the door, and all I’d be able to do would be to bitch about the system ignoring me, despite my being the dope poet I think I am.