So, About that MFA…

Now that the New Year’s Eve Party is past (lovely, thanks for asking) the next big thing on my horizon is my first ten day residency for my MFA in Creative Writing. I leave Thursday for snowy Vermont. I want to express my thoughts here about MFAs in general and my own in particular, as after my residency my position may have changed.

First of all, and I know others have said this more eloquently than myself, I abhor the fact that in the poetry world, who you know counts more than what you write. I hate attending readings where the featured reader is not impressive, despite numerous publications and books. I hate reading terrible poems by ‘name’ poets in journals that have rejected my stuff. But I understand that is how it is. I serve on two editorial boards myself: Up & Under, the QND Review and the Barefoot Muse. Of course you look at the name on the submission. Of course there’s a halo effect.

One thing is certain, things can only be changed from within. How then, does someone like me, a foreigner with no connections in this country and no links to University English departments, get into this sacred poetry circle? The MFA can’t hurt.

That’s the cynical angle, but I started thinking about doing an MFA before I even really knew what one was, and way before I read all the arguments for and against. Back then my reasoning was simple, I wanted to be a better poet. In 2004/5 I audited two undergraduate classes at Richard Stockton College, the Basic Poetry Workshop with BJ Ward, and then the Advanced Workshop with BJ and Stephen Dunn. Bear in mind I have no literary qualifications whatsoever. Before that, the last time I studied poetry in a classroom I was not quite 16 years old. I loved it. BJ and Stephen are both wonderful, inspiring teachers and excellent poets. They are also demanding of their students, and that was something I needed. The workshops I had been involved in outside of University were of a way lower standard, and basically I wasn’t getting the necessary feedback to improve as a poet.

During the second semester I read Stephen Dunn’s excellent essay collection Walking Light. In one of the pieces he describes how he came to do his MFA, which was not by the conventional route. He did not have an outstanding undergraduate career, and was thirty at the time some of his friends told him he should apply, and that he would get in on the strength of his poetry. It got me to thinking, maybe, just maybe, *I* could get in on the strength of my poetry, and that the irrelevance of my undergraduate degree wouldn’t matter. I talked it over with Stephen and BJ, and Stephen agreed to recommend me if he was sufficiently impressed by my final portfolio.

I applied to Warren Wilson, Fairleigh-Dickinson and Bennington College. Obviously I needed to go the Low Residency route. Believe me, it’s been hard enough arranging to leave my kids for ten days! Warren Wilson kept me dangling until AFTER I had already accepted my offer from Bennington, and then rejected me. I was speaking to Crystal Bacon after a Princeton reading, and she told me they rarely accept anyone on their first application. She herself had been rejected twice before finally earning a place. At 37, I just want to get on with it! Bennington looks awesome, and I will have Liam Rector as my Faculty Advisor for the first semester.

So, I think the MFA will increase my connections, help me grow as a poet, and there’s one last thing. I actually believe it might help me to get a job! I’ve been out of the workforce for nine years and I’ve never worked in the US. I’m also tied to school hours. The only job I could get right now would be something minimum wage in retail or catering. However, Lorna has been in full day school since September. I’ve been pretty focused about writing a couple of hours every day while the kids are gone, but I think the MFA will force me to be even more productive. And then in two years time I’m hoping I can get a job teaching Community College a couple of hours a week, acquiring some experience so that when the kids are old enough I can apply to a regular University English Department.

So, those are my reasons and my game plan. I’ve read a great deal of criticism of MFA programs and I’ve also read some glowing recommendations. None of it matters – I intend to make my own mind up over the next two years. I also propose to have some fun!

sylvia's Grave 

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