September 13, 2011KR BlogUncategorized

Something Rank in the State of Writing Programs

I was happy to open Facebook yesterday and find that several friends had linked to Samuel Amadon’s “Letter to an MFA Applicant,” published over the weekend on Coldfront. It seemed to me a reasonable and personal response (perhaps reasonable because personal response) to Poets & Writers recent release of its annual ranking of MFA programs and the growing tide of response to the annual rankings, most recently in the form of an open letter to Poets & Writers arguing with the methodology.

To historicize, in a way that may not be entirely fair (please see this and this), the PW rankings are based on a method developed by Seth Abramson several years ago on his blog/website The Suburban Ecstasies when he was trying to decide where to go for his MFA (or PhD, I can’t recall and it appears that the blog archives are not viewable any longer). Thoughtfully, Seth queried fellow prospective students and crowdsourced the prevailing trends. Some of what was gathered was factual–such as the level of financial support, availability of teaching assistantships, &c–and some perceptual–relative desirability of the program (what was your first choice, &c). It was a welcome addition to the body of information, most of which (in the form of program advertising and information of the sort gathered by the Peterson’s Guide to Graduate Programs and the late-coming AWP Guide to Graduate Programsm) was–as information systems tend to be–slanted in favor of the programs with the longest-standing reputations and most money.

What Seth offered was necessary, and is still necessary. The picture his rankings offered then was–and that they have continued to offer is still–very illuminating: these surveys show us how writing programs are imagined and how the groundsense that gets built up over time can shift the imaginary topography of the world of aspiring writers who see education as an important part of their development.

Poets and Writers picked this up two years back (maybe this is when it disappeared from The Suburban Ecstasies blog), running the rankings based on Seth’s methodology. This year they’ve repeated it, and both AWP and many of its members have protested the methodology and the picture of writing programs it presents–specifically in the form of the open letter, with which I largely agree, though I still think what’s at the heart of Abramson’s survey is important and interesting.

At the heart of the conflict here is Poets and Writers decision to present the rankings (despite the disclaimers in their FAQ) as authoritative, which bypasses and slights the authoritativeness of other writers who are professors in MFA programs (which I am not (which is why I didn’t sign their letter), though I would like to be, so I feel their pain, even as a subset of a much more generalized pain we professorial types feel as our intellectual authority is generally dismissed, within the university culture and in the culture at large), and which thereby comes into conflict with the (very admirable) sense of duty we professorial types (which also BTW includes Abramson himself) have toward our students: we feel we have a duty to convey what we know and to protect the provenance of a knowledge that’s provable and useful. The Abramson/PW rankings are based on what applicants (read: non-students, non-professors) know. The open letter and AWP complaint represent what at least 190 professors know. So: potential student versus established professor (which is oversimplifying the case, but I’m trying as hard as I can to simplify it so it’s intelligible while also trying to plant in the mind of my reader the image of Harry Hamlin fighting a sea-monster, for good or ill).

Into this fray enter Samuel Amadon’s “Letter,” which I appreciated because, instead of arguing about methodology (directly anyway) settled into a personal account of the author’s own individual choices which presented a point of view that diverged from what the PW ranking suggest and from what the open letter lays forth. This is a great letter, I think, worth reading all the way through, but I want to share his conclusion, which sounds some notes I think need to be sounded more loudly:

You’re not getting an MFA to get funded by an MFA program, nor to have a good teaching load, nor to move somewhere with an ideal cost of living. You’re getting an MFA to have your writing taken seriously by serious writers who you respect. There’s no way of knowing ahead of time if someone is going to be a great teacher and especially not if they’re going to be a great teacher for you. But I swear that anyone who tries to tell you teachers are not the most important part of an MFA program has been spending too much time on the internet. Don’t buy it. Put the rankings down.

Pick up the books of the faculty. Pick up the books of the alumni. Try to talk to people who actually go to these programs. They aren’t the ones voting in these rankings. But they are people who can tell you if a young faculty member is bright and full of energy or bewildered and doesn’t know how to handle graduate students. They can tell you if the Pulitzer winner is never going to learn your name or is going to keep meeting with you four years after you graduate. Read about the programs. Don’t go into debt–or do–but make your decision about your writing and the writers you want to work with first, and money after.

I’ve given much the same advice many times over. There’s a lot to be said for funding and not going into debt (I’m still there and wish I wasn’t at least once a month), all of which gets highlighted by both sides in the present clash of the Titans. But aspiration, specifically writerly aspiration, is at the heart of the desire and the decision to go to grad school–or at least I think it should be–and I greatly appreciate Amadon’s inscribing this in the heart of his account.

I reposted the link to Amadon’s letter and, within a few hours, had a response from Abramson, who’s a Facebook friend, taking issue with the methodology implied by Amadon.

My short response was that I didn’t think Amadon was implying or identifying or suggesting or promoting a methodology.

My long answer is this:

I went to college to be an architect. In the midst of my architecting, I ran hard into poetry, and in the heat of the contact, I saw the structure of it, the architecture of the art, and I ran headfirst into poetry, changed my major, didn’t look back. I was sure my father was going to be angry with me, but I did it, and when I told him he congratulated me for finding something I liked, and then he told me to be thankful for that because he had a job that could kill him every time he went to it and in which he had never once found any joy. I followed my joy, and when college was nearly over, I started looking for ways to keep at it.

I applied to a dozen programs. I worked at the applications like it was a full-time job. I got into one program–the one program I really wanted to get into. I loved the work of A. R. Ammons and of Robert Morgan, and I wanted to work with them at Cornell. When I say I loved their work, what I mean is I read it harder than anything else I knew, and in reading it I learned a great deal about how to put a poem together, but the work was still fun and beautiful and it never got exhausted so I kept reading it and learning from it, but it didn’t feel like architecture studio, it felt like love. I wrote some version of this in my application to Cornell, and that’s where I got in.

The danger Abramson warns me (us) against is the assumption that a good writer will be a good teacher. Of course there’s no necessary logical relationship there. But I don’t think that Amadon is talking about the good writer. I think he’s talking about–or rather, I’m taking about that magnetism of the helicon in which it seems all things are seeable.

I went to Cornell to study with Ammons especially, and he was the leader of my first workshop. Which wasn’t very good. Maybe Ammons didn’t want to be there. Maybe the time of day was bad. Maybe we weren’t very good. I don’t know, but class wasn’t good. But Ammons was a good teacher. He just did it sideways. You’d be walking down the hall to the mailroom and you’d hear him call your name. He’d call you into his office where he’d recite part of one of your poems to you with more feeling and knowledge than you could muster for your own work. He’d invite you for coffee at 8 in the morning when you’d usually be asleep, and he’d already be in the stratosphere. He taught you–he taught me attention. Not in the classroom, but on the page.

Mostly, I’ll say, workshops blew. The best conversations were one-on-one, were midnight, were elsewhere. Workshop was methodology. It made us all corpses a little bit. We woke up elsewhere. We wanted to walk into the sun and find it infinite, and we thought we could do it there, so we stayed at it. Most of us kept at it. Most of us keep at it still.

This is what I thought it was for, and maybe that’s why I’m not a professor in an MFA program, but this is what I remember about deciding to be a student and what I remember about being a student, so I tell my students these things:

Don’t worry about where the program is. You’re going to live in poetry or fiction, not New York or Arkansas.

Don’t worry that much about the money. If you can get into the program that makes you wake up in the morning, you’ll learn enough that eventually–if you can pass the short term–the money will take care of itself.

Don’t worry that much about the “job market.” You’re going to improve your writing, not your teaching prospects.

Worry–or, rather, don’t worry but think about your writing. If you can formulate your problem, your interest, your need, your tendency as a question, if you can find someone to ask that question whose answer will guide you closer to your answer, not some thrall, your writing will improve. You won’t feel like shit most of the time. Maybe the world around the writing will improve. Maybe the writing will make the world around it.

Maybe these are not the kinds of legally safe disclaimers we’re all supposed to put in our syllabi these days, but this is what I believe.

We each make our decisions for our selves, for our writing–and in those choices more information is always better. There is only one last authority in these decisions.

I think in these moments of Dylan Thomas’s note on his Collected Poems, so I’m going to give him the last word here:

I read somewhere of a shepherd who, when asked why he made, from within fairy rings, ritual observances to the moon to protect his flocks, replied: ???I’d be a damn fool if I didn’t!’ These poems, with all their crudities, doubts, and confusions, are written for the love of Man and in praise of God, and I’d be damn fool if they weren’t.