Slap your Red-headed MFA

Reb Livingston posted a link to an article in her blog today that pretty scathing critiques the experience of the MFA, hence compromising its value as a degree. I've read several such discussions by folks in Victoria Chang's (now) dead blog and other places, and every time I just get so angry.

My MFA experience has been amazing, and fucking expensive. I'll be paying it off for a decade easily, probably more. And I don't care. My faculty, my peers, everyone has been an amazing influence on me, and every day that I was involved in work for the MFA, I was challenged in my thinking, my aesthetic, and my beliefs. I worked hard here, although I wouldn't have had to in order to make it to the finish line—I took nearly every opportunity that presented itself to me, and I cultivated a few of my own.

Reb's linked article focuses mainly on the cashcow-ness of MFA programs, how "talentless dolts" taint the pot for the "real" poets, and I'm even more frustrated. Someone in my program, I'm sure, considers me a talentless dolt. And that's great! We need not like everyone else's work. I'm sure Lyn Hejinian doesn't spend a lot of time cozying up to Dana Gioia's work and vice versa. Maybe its my talentless doltness that causes me to feel unencumbered by my peers, and maybe it is they who feel encumbered by me. *shrug* And in fact, I'll be honest: comparatively, from where I sit as a poet now against where I was when I arrived here? I hate to be the first to say it publically, but I pretty much was a talentless dolt then. But I've grown up.

And I've never felt like anyone around me here was a talentless dolt. I always felt like I was sitting with the most diverse set of writers, all bringing their own business to the table, all with great talent and potential. I didn't like everyone's work. But that didn't mean I couldn't learn from it.

And I hope in ten years I'll be able to look back at the poems I wrote yesterday and cringe and think, "God, I was such a talentless dolt then."

I guess I'm reminded of something from a Richard Jackson poem:
“One out of four
Americans is crazy. Look around at your three
best friends. If they’re okay, you’re in trouble.”

If you're in an MFA program and you're surrounded by talentless dolts, maybe you'd better wake up and consider the odds...


  1. The topic of that original article seems to be a cliche to me at this point. If you don't like the MFA, don't go. If you think it'll be good for you, go.

    I got one, and it was fine. I know people who didn't and they are just fine, too.

  2. PS: I think Reb has a good point about people being told they are "beautiful" or "special." Teacher friends have noticed that kids have been told over and over that they are great in order to increase their self-esteem.

    Well, they can barely write a sentence, but they know they are "special" and then they get out in the real world and find that they can barely communicate. It's sad.

    Personally, I didn't have that experience at an MFA program, but I have noticed it with kids in public schools.

  3. I'm with you in your frustration. It's so negative and small-hearted, this consternation over MFA programs. There's this implied sense of too many people writing poems, too many competitors. So what lots of people stink at writing? That's not news. Good for that person who spends three years reading, writing, talking poems then quits upon graduation. Good for that person who spends three years drinking and sleeping around before settling into the mundane orbit of the world. I had a good experience with mine too, and even if I often was frustrated with posers, slackers, hacks, etc., most were still my friends at the end of the day, and most were pretty damn smart, if not meant to be poets.

    Great quote by Rick. I know him well.