To MFA or not to MFA? If that's your question...

This site exists to help me, the writer, to help you, the writer, by sharing personal and professional lessons, journeys, successes, pitfalls, and interview conversations with writers of every genre and background. All this is offered with the roguish twist that I do not have a graduate degree in English or creative writing. Whether your path includes an MFA or not, my hope is that the posts and resources you find on here will help you find your own way. Find out more about me here. 

On the personal side, I'm a fiction writer-turned-poet drawn topically to struggle, the darkness, and those hidden and often fragmented parts of ourselves and our experience as soul-infused beings in the world. 

Poet Bruce Bond phrases it beautifully when he says, "consider it a blessing, that part of you which you cannot see."

For my own latest NEWS, go here.


If a story is not about the hearer they will not listen. And here I make a rule: any great or interesting story is about everyone or it will not last.
— Steinbeck, East of Eden


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Just another writer of the gazillions salmoning it upstream...without an MFA. This is my personal blog; if you're interested in more content specific to the MFA in creative writing, head on over to The MFA Project for more interviews and other goodies. And thank you for dropping by.

Friday
Feb052016

On Pleasure, Devotion, MFAs & PhDs, and Self-determination: an Interview with Caitlin Doyle

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The poetry of Caitlin Doyle has received wide praise. Michelle Aldredge of Gwarlingo says of her work: “Caitlin Doyle writes highly original poems…steeped in both meaning and musicality…Doyle’s poems are serious and complex, but also witty and playful, and it’s this tension that makes her writing so innovative.” One of the benefits of our online format is the opportunity to occasionally feature long-form interviews. I got to talk with Caitlin about her work, her MFA experience, her journey as a writer and teacher, and topics relevant to writers and poets on both sides of the MFA divide.  — Hannah

Your voice as a poet is very distinctive and I’m thinking of what sets your work apart, such as your skill with rhyme and other formal elements, and your blending of narrative and lyric modes. What do you think of the frequent criticism that MFA programs end up producing voices that sound the same?

It’s important to enter an MFA program with this central understanding: There’s a difference between challenging your aesthetic values in meaningful ways and letting your pen become a conduit for trends buzzing in the air around you. The workshop environment can sometimes spur writers, consciously or unconsciously, to seek immediate pay-offs in the form of peer approval, rather than pursuing the harder-won rewards that come with creating work that operates entirely on its own terms. Though writers have long depended on feedback from others, the idea that truly strong writing can take shape via group consensus is a potentially dangerous one for emerging writers to absorb. It’s necessary for MFA-seekers to cultivate openness, but it’s just as crucial for them to resist pressures that push them too far away from idiosyncratic self-determination.  

Which reminds me of your advice to beginning writers in your interview with Words With Writers: “Take your time to develop arduously, painstakingly, and privately, rather than throwing your writing too hastily into the universe for recognition. Be a homemade writer rather than a world-made writer—only then will the world truly want and need your work.” Can you talk more about what it means to be a “homemade writer”?

Recently, I’ve been re-reading Elizabeth Bishop’s “Crusoe in England”, a poem in the voice of Daniel Dafoe’s most famous fictional character, Robinson Crusoe, who spends years shipwrecked on a tropical island. I keep coming back to the part of the poem where Crusoe recounts playing a “home-made flute” that he has crafted out of materials found on the island. Remembering the instrument, which seems to have possessed “the weirdest scale on earth,” he says:

“Home-made, home-made! But aren’t we all?”

I’ve always read this line as embodying an essential truth about creative work. The most powerful and lasting art has the quality of feeling “home-made” like Crusoe’s flute, built from whatever available, disparate, and often unexpected materials its maker can gather from the reality in which he or she has been “shipwrecked.” I love how Bishop’s use of a casual and tossed-off tone (“But aren’t we all?”) heightens, paradoxically, the line’s profundity. She’s talking here not just about how humans make art but also about how we create our identities, and I think this line must have been buzzing in the back of my mind when I made the statement you quoted above.

So what’s meant by “home-made writer” is one whose art arises from the materials of their particular world and imagination.

Yes. When I encouraged beginning poets to strive toward being “home-made writers,” I wanted to point to this idea: The making of strong poetry is something that ultimately happens in a private and ineffable place, an inner realm with roots that reach down to one’s earliest encounters with language. It can’t be taught in a classroom or workshop setting, though it can be recognized and encouraged there. If you want to enter that realm, you have to do these three things, on your own, with obsessively fierce devotion: read, write, and live.

You were the George Starbuck Poetry Fellow at Boston University, which means you got to study with stars like Robert PinskyRosanna Warren, and Derek Walcott.            

I feel blessed to have studied in the BU program. All three professors enhanced my understanding of language’s capacities. Robert’s class illuminated the tonal complexity that a writer can achieve through blending different diction registers. He helped me develop a stronger ear for the qualities inherent in words possessing Latinate roots, usually associated with elevated diction levels, and words with Anglo-Saxon roots, commonly used in colloquial speech. Rosanna’s poetry workshop and translation seminar, two of the most unforgettable classes I’ve ever taken, emphasized the relationship between tradition and innovation.

Because Derek wanted us to experience poetry as an echoing sound-chamber, he often stressed memorization and recitation. We spent a class period chanting Thomas Hardy’s “During Wind and Rain” as a group, over and over, an experience I’ll always remember because it brought me closer to a visceral understanding of how poetry does its work within the body.

Do you have a favorite memory or experience from studying with these three figures during your MFA?

What I loved most were those moments when the trappings of typical classroom convention fell away and we glimpsed the poets behind the professors – when we felt ourselves in the presence of three people whose bone-deep passion for language comes from a place beyond what notions of schooling can fully encompass.

You returned to Boston University a few years after graduation to teach as a Lecturer in Creative Writing. In 2014, you were invited to share the stage with the program’s faculty as the Featured Poetry Alumna in the Boston University Faculty Reading. Can you reflect on some of the ways your ongoing  relationship with Boston University has impacted your trajectory as a writer?

Returning to Boston University as a Lecturer in Creative Writing proved a most revelatory experience in my life as a teacher. The freedom I was given allowed me to test out new approaches and expand my teaching in different directions. I designed a multi-genre Creative Writing course with a particular emphasis on examining the similarities between poetry and film, and I discovered that drawing parallels between the two art forms helps students unlock poems in a fresh manner. The insights I garnered that year laid the groundwork for the course I would later teach at as the Emerging Writer-In-Residence at Penn State, a class focused on the ways that poetry and film evoke meaning through the juxtaposition of carefully chosen images.

Appearing as the Featured Poetry Alumna in the Boston University Faculty Reading gave me a jolt of vital encouragement at a crucial juncture in my writing life. I felt immensely honored to receive the invitation, and the actual physical experience of sharing the stage with the faculty – speaking my poems aloud in the same auditorium where I’d attended many literary events as a student – can only be captured with one word: goosebumps.

The BU MFA Program is famously one year in length as opposed to the usual two. In aninterview with The Young Arts Foundation, you said: “You work so hard in such a short period that your evolution as a writer takes on the same quality as a time-lapse video of a flower blossoming.” What are some of the benefits and/or pitfalls of a condensed single-year MFA program?

In contrast to the majority of MFA programs, which last for two or three years, the BU department packs multiple years of master’s level work into two intensive semesters. One downside of a condensed MFA experience is that it allows less time for the careful shaping of individual poems, while programs with lengthier trajectories often feature a thesis year during which students focus almost exclusively on generating and revising a full-length manuscript. Yet a rigorous, highly concentrated, and passionately charged single-year MFA program like the one at Boston University can lead you to make significant craft discoveries far sooner than you may have done in a longer program.

The fact that BU requires fewer years than other MFA programs also offers your work another kind of nourishment. Because you’re in school for a shorter period, you spend a greater amount of time living and working in the non-academic world during the early stages of your literary journey. This pushes you, at an important phase in your development, to absorb more experiences outside of academia while navigating the challenge of building a writing life beyond the classroom.

Tell us a little bit about building a writing life after receiving an MFA.

This question makes me think of the scene in The Graduate when Mr. McGuire approaches Ben, a recent college graduate, and offers him the “one word” that will help him figure out the rest of his life: Plastics. He believes that Ben will find a lucrative future if he pursues plastics as a career path. In my experience, building a life as an emerging writer in contemporary America, with or without an MFA in hand, also frequently orbits around a single word: Applications.

It’s a word that can be as uninspiring as “plastics.” Ben didn’t exactly grow up with starry-eyed dreams of the future Mr. McGuire suggests. Most poets, in the first giddy love-throes of their affair with language, don’t envision spending their prime years writing “statements of intent” and “project descriptions” on applications for fellowships, awards, scholarships, conferences, residencies, grants, and writer-in-residence positions. Yet the support offered by such opportunities can make a critical difference in a writer’s ability to place artistic considerations above practical matters for long enough to get some poems written.

Of course, there are ways a writer can build a productive creative life outside of the application-submission whirlwind and without support from literary institutions or organizations. But the nuts-and-bolts reality of obtaining time and space to do creative work, particularly for writers in the early stages, often comes down to submitting application after application and waiting for a positive response. This means cultivating a willingness to pick up and go wherever an application might land you.

And you’ve succeeded admirably on that front. Since graduating from BU, you’ve traveled around the US on numerous Writer-In-Residence teaching posts and fellowships. In an essay of yours that appeared in The Cork Literary Review, you wrote about the experience of making one’s way as a young poet in America today. Can you talk about that journey?

I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve unpacked my suitcase over the past few years. I’ve lived and written in numerous places, including Michigan, Wyoming, Vermont, New Hampshire, Washington, Florida, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. There’s a thrill in tossing one’s work into the world and seeing where you might end up. I have relished the opportunity for my imagination to absorb such a breadth of landscapes, and I’m grateful for the people I’ve met along the way – writers, students, visual artists, musicians, weirdos, and word-lovers of every ilk. In between fellowship-supported writing opportunities, I’ve held a number of jobs to pay the bills. I’ve taught at the high school and university level, and I’ve worked as a copywriter, a real estate assistant, an editor, a waitress, a nanny, a web content developer, and a screenplay assistant, among other things.

To draw from the Cork Literary Review essay you mentioned, I’ll say this: On days when I feel dragged down by the uncertainty of following poetry as a calling, I remind myself of a central truth about the making of poems. The form’s general freedom from market pressures allows poets to shape their work according to motivations outside of money. To wish for the possibility of garnering significant profit from writing poems would be to willingly subject poetry to the kind of commercialization that shapes so many other aspects of public life. The fact that poets throughout history have largely had to seek financial security from means other than the writing of poems has been greatly beneficial to the art form.

You recently began your doctoral studies as an Elliston Fellow in Poetry in the University of Cincinnati PhD Program in English Literature and Creative Writing. Can you talk about the role of the PhD in relation to the MFA in the context of the contemporary literary world? What led to the decision to pursue a PhD in addition to an MFA?

Emerging writers who wish to find employment as teachers of the craft often move between various adjunct teaching positions and other temporary gigs. Frequently, they land in situations with low pay, no job security, and zero health benefits. Because of this, it has become more and more common for them to remain on an academic track beyond the MFA degree, pursuing additional master’s level work or seeking a PhD.

Book publication may expand the job options available to beginning writers, but the economic realities they face often remain arduous. Staying in school can allow them to obtain some stability away from the uncertainties of the oversaturated academic job market, while they work toward earning credentials that may ultimately enhance their future employment potential. These are the forces behind the increasing number of young writers who have chosen to pursue a PhD, usually in Literature, Creative Writing, or another related humanities field, after earning an MFA degree.

Though some of these factors shaped my own decision to pursue a PhD, what compelled me most were the specific qualities of the University of Cincinnati program. I felt drawn to the fact that the program emphasizes the traditional study of literature as much as the pursuit of creative work. Another major motivating factor in my decision to apply was the variety of graduates whose work I’ve come to know and admire over the years, including Josh BellErica DawsonCaki Wilkinson,Jaimie Poissant, and Cate Marvin. Above all, I sensed that the program’s structure would enable me to devote my most productive energies to what I care about most: the reading, writing, and teaching of poetry.

What are the most compelling reasons for a writer to pursue an MFA?

Most emerging writers in America eventually face a Shakespearian moment of sorts: To MFA or not to MFA – that is the question. The quandary is as insoluble as the one that haunted Hamlet, and it’s doubtful that even The Bard could have attempted to resolve it. I don’t believe that the pursuit of an MFA is anywhere near necessary for the production of strong writing. Talented and ambitious people throughout history produced remarkable work before the MFA era, and writers will continue to do so, with or without the degree. When it comes to actual skill and range on the page, there’s nothing an MFA will teach you that you can’t learn through impassioned reading, writing, and living.

If your goal, however, is to eventually teach writing, the degree comprises a necessary qualification for many jobs in that arena. Entering the MFA milieu also gives emerging writers a chance to connect with literary peers and mentors in enriching ways. In addition, the degree frequently increases your viability when you apply for opportunities in the writing world outside of academia, such as fellowships, conferences, writer-in-residence positions, and grants. Another significant boon of the MFA experience is that it can allow you to study directly with some of the strongest writers alive today, many of whom happen to teach in graduate programs. Though somebody’s brilliance on the page doesn’t guarantee that he or she possess equal acuity as a teacher, there’s still great value in having the chance to observe and absorb the passions of rarified literary minds.

Any drawbacks to the MFA?

Just as I don’t believe that obtaining an MFA can guarantee that a writer will produce strong work, I don’t agree with criticisms that go too far in the other direction. If an individual is truly talented, focused, and driven, studying in an MFA program isn’t likely to homogenize or ruin his or her artistic abilities.

I do think that students entering MFA programs need to be on guard against false notions about what it means to be a writer. Since the MFA system operates, for the most part, in traditional academic environments, the degree’s progression often mirrors that of other academic subjects. Novice writers can too easily develop the notion that fulfilling the degree’s requirements means that one has “mastered” the subject. Completing and excelling in graduate-level workshops and literature classes doesn’t mean that one is a good writer. It’s possible, in many instances, to do the former without achieving the latter.  

This aspect of the MFA system isn’t the fault of anyone in particular. It strikes me as a somewhat unavoidable byproduct of the relationship between the MFA system and the academic world. None of the accomplished writers who frequently teach in these programs sat down together at some point and said, “let’s propagate a system that may end up giving students a false sense of what it means to be a writer.”

Would you elaborate further on that?

In order for MFA programs to be considered degree-granting tracks within the academic world, there are certain structures, timelines, and measurable requisites that need to be met. It’s hard to evaluate literary quality in a concrete way, so what often happens is that programs end up having to place a larger emphasis on quantity than on quality. It’s common for students to be expected to produce one or more drafts per week, and then to revise the drafts in a portfolio of “finished work” at the end of a semester.

This structure establishes an aura of quantifiable productivity, but risks giving students an unrealistic sense of the kind of time and intensive labor that it takes to create good writing. It’s not a framework that allows for the type of painstakingly slow composition and re-drafting that often leads – over the course of weeks, months, and even years – to the production of a truly strong piece of writing. My worry is that the structure can lead beginning writers to believe that writing is a relatively fast and seamless process, and that a piece of work is “finished” long before they’ve tried pushing it to its fullest capacity.  

This isn’t to say that remarkable work can’t sometimes take shape quickly, but that usually only happens to writers who have already laid the groundwork through years of dogged literary labor. Here’s another way of looking at the situation: While it wouldn’t be possible to graduate from most MFA programs if you produced one or two brilliant poems in your time there, it would be possible to earn the degree if you turned in dozens of underdeveloped poems. So it’s important for students to understand that they’re enacting a somewhat artificial version of the creative process while pursuing an MFA. Otherwise, they may end up forming methods and beliefs that short-circuit their potential as writers.

What advice would you offer to poets and students of writing who aren’t part of an MFA program? How might they structure and self-direct their writing education?

I believe that there can be no meaningful writing education that isn’t essentially self-directed, so I would give the same advice to non-MFA-seekers as I would to those who have chosen to participate in the MFA system.

Fight as hard as you can to make sure that you protect your writing time from the swirl of life’s constant demands. Recognize the importance of reading trenchantly and widely. Find mentors and peers whose literary sensibilities you trust, so that you can receive (and also learn to give) fruitful artistic feedback. Participating in summer conferences, enrolling in non-degree-granting workshops, attending readings, spending time at writers’ colonies, and taking online Creative Writing classes taught by accomplished writers are some solid ways for non-MFA-seekers to start building a community. If there’s a writer you really admire, you can usually seek an opportunity to learn from that person because so many of today’s most talented literary figures teach in various short-term capacities, outside of the MFA classroom, around the country.

My other advice, when it comes to structuring your own writing education, is to follow your impulses. Pursue what gives you pleasure. There’s a poem by Yeats, “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death”, in which readers encounter these lines:

A lonely impulse of delight

Drove to this tumult in the clouds

Throughout the piece, Yeats makes clear that the airman hasn’t taken to flight because of law, duty, public admiration, or a sense of conviction about the war in which he’s immersed (“Those that I fight I do not hate” / Those that I guard I do not love”). What drives him is something stranger, less discernible, more private. I encourage all beginning writers to generate work from “a lonely impulse of delight” rather than drawing too much motivation from external forces.

I couldn’t agree with you more regarding that lonely impulse. So on to the last bit, “teach” us! Assign us some reading and/or homework, maybe a writing prompt.

Here’s a prompt that I’ve found useful in helping student writers move beyond safe material into areas of exploration that involve greater risk, emotional complexity, and self-revelation.

Read these three poems: “Desert Places” by Robert Frost, “Dinky” by Theodore Roethke, and“The Heavy Bear Who Goes With Me” by Delmore Schwartz. Each piece deals with the idea of confronting shadows that live within oneself.

Think about these questions and scribble your thoughts as you read:

Frost writes “I have it in me so much nearer home / To scare myself with my own desert places.” What are some of the “desert places” that exist within you? How and why do they scare you?

Roethke’s Dinky is an elusive and darkly comic figure who undermines order, certainty, and happiness. The poem ends with these lines: “You’re part of him; he’s part of you / - You may be Dirty Dinky.” Are there any parts of yourself in which you can see the presence of “Dirty Dinky”?

The speaker of Delmore Schwartz’s poem describes his body as a creature separate from his inner self. In his view, the appetite-driven physical form he occupies is “an inescapable animal,” a bear who “moves where I move, distorting my gesture, / a caricature, a swollen shadow.” Do you ever feel as though you have a “heavy bear” walking beside you, an aspect of yourself that “perplexes and affronts” you with its “darkness”?

Using these three pieces as jumping-off points, draft a poem examining something about yourself that frightens and unsettles you. You’ll notice that these poets manage to explore dark inner realms without engaging in straightforward diary-like confessions. None of them say “this is what’s wrong with me” or “this is something from my past that I regret.” They use a variety of means – rich figurative language, haunting sonic effects, and complicated tonal layers, for example – to evoke the darkness rather than to spell out its sources in a direct manner. Keep that in mind as you shape your draft. The purpose of the prompt is to help you push your pen into territory that you might normally, often unconsciously, avoid when you sit down to write.

Caitlin Doyle’s poetry, reviews, and essays have appeared in The AtlanticBoston Review,The Threepenny ReviewBlack Warrior ReviewThe Cork Literary Review, and others. Her poems have also been published in various anthologies, including The Best Emerging Poets of 2013The Southern Poetry Anthology, and Best New Poets 2009. Caitlin’s awards and fellowships include Writer-In-Residence positions at the James Merrill House and The Kerouac Project, a MacDowell Colony Fellowship, the Margaret Bridgman Scholarship through the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Tennessee Williams Scholarship through the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and the Amy Award in Poetry through Poets & Writers. She has held Writer-In-Residence teaching posts at Penn StateSt. Albans School, and Interlochen Arts Academy. Caitlin received her MFA from Boston University, where she was the George Starbuck Fellow in Poetry, and she is currently pursuing her PhD as an Elliston Fellow in Poetry at the University of Cincinnati.

Wednesday
Oct282015

On Getting a Poetry MFA: an Interview with Michele Bombardier


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I first met Michele Bombardier at the recent Poets on the Coast conference with Susan Rich and Kelli Russell Agodon in La Conner, WA, an event in which time slows for art, women gather with their words, and poetry is a nymph dancing wildly on the Skagit River for three packed days. She was glowing so brightly I asked her out to lunch…and this interview happened. — Hannah

Tell us a little about your MFA experience. Specifically, let’s talk about pros and cons: what are some good reasons to pursue an MFA in creative writing? What are some of the challenges?

It was an agonizing decision. I have a perfectly good graduate degree and career, so I was not interested in an MFA to become a teacher; my goal was, and still is, to deepen my craft. I also felt the pressure of time. I am 55 years old, and even though I have been writing for a while now, I am relatively late to the party. My hope was that an MFA program would compress my learning curve to a steep incline.

The con is pretty simple: money. I have three college-age kids. We put one through, one just started, and one stopped but hopes to return. We are middle class. This is hard stuff. We ended up taking a loan against the house. Call me crazy.

If I didn’t get an MFA I would have continued doing what I have been doing for the past five years: taking classes at Hugo House, our community writing center, meeting with my writing groups, working with editors/teachers I’ve hired to review and critique my work, and attending conferences where I could, though those can get pretty spendy.

What advice would you offer to poets and students of writing who aren’t part of an MFA program? How might they structure and self-direct their writing education?

Find mentors. I took David Wagoner’s Master Poetry class multiple times at Hugo House and was incredibly grateful for those experiences. I’ve also studied with Tara HardyKelli Russell Agodon,Gary Copeland Lilley and Wyn Cooper. I think it’s also important for writers to attend classes and form writing groups. The classes and groups come and go, but over time, you find your poet-siblings who will help raise your work. I love working with my friends Lillo Way and Ken Wagner, whom I met in David Wagoner’s course, and they still kick my poetic ass. 

What have you been up to these days, and what are you working on now? 

I’ve cut back my day job to ¾ time so I go into the office for three long days and have two glorious days dedicated to my writing, in addition to the weekends. I read an hour or so every evening and before work. I’m a recluse, a recent empty-nester and married to a professor/researcher who is always reading, and so this fits our lifestyle perfectly. I spend a solid 25 hours a week on my study of poetry, though a lot of that is also spent staring out the window.

I am reading a lot of international poets like KamienskaZagajewskiSwirMilosz and some anthologies. Other new favorites are Brigit Pegeen KellyIlya Kaminsky and Deborah Digges. I’m trying to write poems about my work as a therapist, but I’m easily distracted and keep writing poems about that domestic drama otherwise known as my pesky children.

Please “teach” us! Assign us some reading and/or homework, maybe a writing prompt.

Two things from my program that has rocked my world that you can easily replicate on your own:

1. Write a statement on your poetics. One full page, double spaced.

2. Make a list of 20 books of poetry that are recommended by a variety of poets/blogs/teachers. Read a book a week and then write up a 2-4 page critique addressing craft, tone, voice, arc, etc. Basically, what moved you and why.

3. After you’ve done 20 books, revisit assignment #1. Rinse and repeat.

That assignment certainly isn’t for the faint-hearted! Any parting shots?

The MFA is a great excuse to get out of social obligations. 

Michele Bombardier is a Northwest poet with nearly twenty publications in journals such as Floating BridgeThe Examined Life JournalFreshwater and SukoonShe is a speech-language pathologist serving persons with stroke, traumatic brain injury and autism. Michele is pursuing an MFA in poetry at Pacific University.

Wednesday
Oct072015

Advice for Poets: an Interview with Tomas Q. Morin

I had been a distant admirer of Tomás Q. Morín, but the award-winning poet from Texas finally entered my orbit several months ago when he taught me it’s indeed okay to “friend” a writer you admire on Facebook and enter a conversation. With that gesture of kindness a door was opened to the interview below, a treat for all you practicing poets out there. And be sure to check out his poem “Nature Boy” at the Poetry Foundation website.  — Hannah

Tell us a little about your MFA experience. Specifically, let’s talk about pros and cons: what are some good reasons to pursue an MFA in creative writing? What are some of the challenges?

I’m a graduate of the MFA program at Texas State University. When I was mulling over whether to pursue an MFA or not I was a first year PhD student in the Hispanic & Italian Studies program at Johns Hopkins. I was spending a lot of time writing poems. A friend encouraged me to write a poet whose work I idolized, a story I recount in an essay in Coming Close: Forty Essays on Philip Levine, and after some reluctance, I did. Levine wrote me back and asked me to send him some poems I had faith in with the promise he would tell me the truth. His response was positive and gave me the courage to jump ship at Hopkins and try to learn everything I could about making poems.

I think if you feel you still have a lot left to learn, and we should all feel that way, then you should get an MFA if you don’t have one. The biggest benefit of one, to me, is that it saves you time. In a good MFA program you can learn in 2-3 years what it might take you 10 to learn on your own. There are exceptions of course, but I think this is generally true. Being in an MFA program is like becoming an apprentice to a cobbler. By the end of your apprenticeship you won’t be a master cobbler that makes the best shoes in the world; rather, it means you know how to make shoes. What you do with those skills and how far you take them is up to you. The same goes for writing stories and poems and what not. One challenge to getting an MFA that I haven’t seen go away is navigating all the self-doubt and anxiety and fear that so many students feel. When a lot of people who all feel like that get in one place for a few years it can create a tough atmosphere for everyone. This is where teachers and mentors and administrations need to step in and be supportive and encouraging.

What advice would you offer to poets and students of writing who aren’t part of an MFA program? How might they structure and self-direct their writing education?

If someone decides to bypass the MFA, I think reading interviews with poets you admire after you’ve read their work is a good way to start learning what you need to learn. Also, the various conferences (Bread LoafSewaneeSquaw ValleyIdyllwildTin House, etc.) held across the country throughout the year are great places to pick up some of those skills. You can find many master teachers at these places. Just as many members of my writing community have come from attending conferences like this as from my MFA years. 

What have you been up to these days, and what are you working on now? 

Most of my time these days is spent teaching or traveling to give readings. When I do have a chance to write, I’m working on either a new poem or a memoir I started last year. Being my first prose book, the memoir is both exciting and intimidating. It’s very different to work with a canvas that is so much bigger than what I normally use when writing a poem. All in all, writing this book brings me both heartache and joy. It’s a journey I’m glad I finally took after years of prompting from friends.

Please “teach” us! Assign us some reading and/or homework, maybe a writing prompt. 

Things to read, hmm. It’s impossible to know where to start because as soon as I’m done naming some names I know I’m going to remember a book I left off. Rather than name books, here are some names of people who have written books I return to again and again: Brigit Pegeen Kelly,Gerald SternAi, Philip Levine, Sharon Olds, Elizabeth Bishop, Etheridge KnightJoy Harjo, Jack Gilbert, Wislawa Szymborska, Ross Gay, Zbigniew Herbert, Anna Swir, and Vievee Francis. I will name one book of poems: Headwaters by Ellen Bryant Voigt is a revelation whose poems astonish me over and over. 

This is not so much a prompt as something I do in my own practice when composing a new poem. After I have a full working draft, if the poem feels off in some way I can’t quite put my finger on, I will change its clothes. What I mean by that is that sometimes I write a poem in some linen bermuda shorts, polo, and sandals (think free verse) when what the poem actually needs is to be more formal. Sometimes a poem needs a tuxedo before it steps out into the world. This tux could be a sestina or anything really that you consider more formal than the form you currently have it in. There have been poems that have morphed from a pantoum to free verse to a sonnet and back to some sort of combination of various forms. I keep changing the poem’s clothes until I find the right outfit. Often, I’ll raid the closets of my favorite poets for inspiration. My poem “Nights Like This” went through so many different forms until finally I decided to try the loose 3-beat lines of Bishop’s “In the Waiting Room” and much to my surprise, the language came to life in a way it hadn’t in any other form. And then that was it, the poem was done. So your assignment is to try this with a poem that’s stuck and see what happens. 

Any parting shots?

Mari L'Esperance and I co-edited a book a couple years back titled Coming Close: Forty Essays on Philip Levine. At first we conceived the project as a way to pay tribute to a man who taught poets for 50 years but then once the collection of essays by people he had taught and mentored was assembled and I took in the whole scope, I realized the book was also a master class on the art of writing poetry. I remember thinking, If I couldn’t have attended an MFA program then a book like this would have helped me learn a lot of what I needed. I know that might sound like a shameless plug to some, but it’s true. Levine was a master teacher who is brought to life in these pages. I’m still learning from it myself.

Tomás Q. Morín is the author of the poetry collection A Larger Country, and translator of Pablo Neruda’s The Heights of Macchu Picchu. He is co-editor with Mari L’Esperanceof Coming Close: Forty Essays on Philip Levine. He teaches at Texas State University and in the low residency MFA program of Vermont College of Fine Arts.

Friday
Sep252015

A Writer’s Make or Break Moment: a Lesson in Attention from Paul Jarvis

Every writer must think about it, the make or break moment of their career – when they go on their first radio interview, for instance, or hold their first book signing, or some other such pivotal event that indicates that they have “arrived” in the eyes of the public.

But this is not the pivotal moment Paul Jarvis is talking about. In his book Everything I Know, the Canadian designer, musician, author and freelance guide describes something much more elemental – the proverbial terror of the blank page, which he identifies really as an avoidance of the truth and authenticity in ourselves.  In a culture and time when we hear much discussion about the tech-driven “crisis of attention,” he offers a simple antidote, veined with other insights on tapping into our aliveness through our work.  

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Among thoughts and stories illustrating the importance of vulnerability, fearlessness, taking a stand, risk, and dealing with rejection as well as straight up being wrong about something, Jarvis astutely describes that pivotal moment, the creative moment when one sits down to write and a familiar feeling sets in:    

You panic. You breathe more rapidly. You probably grab your phone and refresh Facebook instead of pushing through the fear.

As he goes on to say, the fear has less to do with perceived reality than a self-limiting rut that chains us to habit, a habit of defaulting to whatever choice is easiest in that moment of discomfort. The antidote he offers is twofold: attention, and volume of work, the latter of which is only possible by paying full attention (emphases my own): 

This is the make or break moment – and the rub is, even if you start and become a conduit for inspiration in that second, nothing is guaranteed. You can start working and the genius might not arrive. But it’s a numbers game, and your odds of doing great work increase only when you do more work. Keep at it and you may do great, inspired work. But if, in that moment, you go the easy path, the path of least resistance, the path that leads back to the same, tired place, then you’ve missed your chance. You’re back to staring at online cat or celebrity photos, and the possibility of doing great work returns to zero. It goes back to being a pipe dream, something for future attempts…for tomorrow.  

Attention is a gift you give to your work. The more attention you devote to something, the less space fear can occupy.

“Show up, show up, show up,” counsels Isabel Allende, “and the muse will show up, too.” But showing up, if we see it as Jarvis does, means much more than butt to chair. It also means giving our words everything we have, as if they were lovers deserving of every ounce of our devotion for whatever block of time we have set aside for them to move through us.

And so it seems worthwhile to ask as he does, moment to moment, when we’re alone at our desks and terror seizes us and we find ourselves reaching for the nearest distraction:

Genius might be trying to reach you right fucking now. Are you listening, or are you busy refreshing Twitter?  – Hannah

Monday
Sep072015

Why Free MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) are a Great Way for Writers to Learn

MOOCS don’t have to be scary. Really.

If, like me, at some point or another you’ve thought of enrolling in a massive open online course (MOOC), only to decide against it, the reasons are understandable: too many people and not enough personalized attention; the online format makes it feel impersonal; the lack of accountability outside of a non-physical classroom results in not showing up, not doing the homework, not sticking with it. The New Yorker last fall published a critique of the MOOC model of learning, concluding that the future of this approach, for all the initial buzz around it, was still uncertain. (My thought as I was reading the article was to ask what emergent approach to higher ed isn’t, especially one that’s so dependent on the internet?)

Without venturing into all that, though, I’m here to advocate for MOOCs, especially as a learning tool for busy writers dedicated to improving their craft.

By now the drawbacks of MOOCs are well agreed-upon: yes, they are big. In fact, they are often huge. I enrolled this past spring in Writers Write Poetry course through the University of Iowa; there were thousands of students in my class from all over the world. On the one hand, I loved the cosmopolitanism of studying alongside such a diverse community of fellow readers and writers; on the other hand, overwhelm was a constant. I’d spend an evening writing a poem, post it to the online forum and log onto the course website any given morning to find that my little post had been drowned out by hundreds of other poets as they also shared their homework assignments. Were it not for the site’s notifications settings, I wouldn’t have been able to find the comments people had made on my work. And when I did finally get back to my post, there were disappointingly few comments because there was simply too much homework for everyone to give feedback on, and students had to pick and choose. So a MOOC is not a place to get many and thorough critiques of your work, even as you get the community that so many lone writers need and crave. The other common criticism of MOOCs is their low rates of completion, owing to the fact that most MOOCs are free. With no financial skin in the game, students start out with great intentions and don’t finish, which affects the cohesion of the community the students formed at the course’s beginning, if one can say that it even exists at all.

But having said all that, here’s why I think MOOCs are a terrific learning option for serious writers.

  1. Networking. The fact that MOOCs are low-cost and often free, even if it leads to high drop-out rates, means that only the most dedicated and self-directed finish. If you hang on and keep doing the homework and showing up, the phenomenon of the Incredible Shrinking Class can be used to your advantage: to network. One of my biggest regrets from the Iowa poetry course was that I didn’t hang on for long enough to develop relationships with my fellow students in the forums at the very end. No doubt the ones still standing were dead serious about learning, and had busted their heinies over the weeks to get better at their poetry. As a non-MFA student in dire need of peers, I knew that these are the kinds of writers I would want to stay in touch with.
  2. Killer free videos and lectures. I haven’t taken MOOCs from other schools and so can’t comment on others beyond Iowa, but the course videos for Writers Write Poetry were reliably superb. Christopher Merrill and Camille Rankine led discussions along with a lineup of teaching assistants who were attentive and responsive in the forums, but I believe their main strength was enlisting established poets to give talks on elements of craft. All were clearly skilled as teachers (Robert Hass, a veteran poet and teacher, was one of them). On days when I felt my motivation drag, I’d pull up YouTube and listen to a lecture while I folded my laundry. Some lectures, like the one by Margaret Reges, inspired me so much that I couldn’t wait to get back to my desk after I was finished.
  3. Which leads me to my next point, which is that the beauty of MOOCs is that you’re bestowed, by virtue of its non-compulsory format, the right to participate at a level that suits you. It’s probably blasphemy, but I think that if you’re learning more than you otherwise would, the MOOC is fulfilling at least part of its function. As I said, after a time I quit posting in those forums and simply enjoyed the video lectures. After listening to the lectures, I revisited my writing with those lessons in my head. With the next MOOC I take, I plan on doing it differently, setting a goal to go whole hog with it and miss as little as possible. But the bottom line is that the loose course structure afforded me the flexibility to enjoy the learning process more. I would hope the same for others who approach a MOOC not as something that theyhave to do, but as an experience they can tailor and shape to suit them.
  4. For those not part of MFA programs, it’s a kind of equalizer, if an imperfect one. The vision that informed the birth of the MOOC couldn’t possibly be more egalitarian: to make a quality education available to more people, at low or no cost, and so reach populations such as the elderly, people with family responsibilities, and a wide international audience. As the elite among MFA programs, Iowa’s offering of writing MOOCs came as a boon to writers who wouldn’t be able to access their programs otherwise. The model isn’t as effective as it could be, and it doesn’t look like MOOCs are poised to replace traditional learning anytime soon, but it does offer something to the rest of us who can’t get away from our schedules and routines or shell out the money for a conventional writing class. And it does so using the collective knowledge of first-rate teachers who have taken the time to share what they know with as many people as possible.

Christopher Merrill, director of Iowa’s writing MOOC program

I’ve been anything from a model MOOC student in the past, and I’ve started and not finished more free online courses than I’ll admit. But here’s my new strategy and I think it might work: teaming up with a friend and critique partner and taking a writing MOOC together. You can discuss lectures afterwards, give each other detailed comments on your work, and like having a workout buddy, the accountability keeps you going where you would lose momentum and quit. In the end, you get a free learning experience and it’s made more fun by the chance to build relationships and bond over each other’s writing.

The leaves are dropping and I’m not buying any new backpacks and lunch bags like the kids in my neighborhood, but I am going back to school as I enroll in The University of Iowa’s free 2-month long Writers Write Fiction Class for 2015, which starts September 24th. Open to anyone, it’s going to be taught on NovoEd (See a YouTube preview). Listen up fiction penmonkeys, and spread far and wide!

All you need in the end are these things: a friend who’s as nuts about writing as you are, a laptop with a beefy internet connection, and a few dedicated hours each week. Not too shabby for a writing education that’s completely free. 

For more information on the Iowa course and to register, follow this link. And send us a note if you plan on taking the course so that I can connect with you.

Happy autumn.  – Hannah