Friday, September 02, 2011

The Top 20 MFA Programs. Research Q: What is it like there?

Market Research Friday

There’s been a lot of talk lately about MFA programs and what they’re up to. Mostly this has to do with calls that MFA programs are doing two bad things:

1. They are dominated by a period style that Tony Hoagland describes as “skittery.” And that this is ruining things. Usually the critique also includes that poets aren’t given the history of poetry. Don't read dead poets. Only read each other, etc.

2. They are bad and should be done away with because they are ruining potential artists by taking them out of the real world and professionalizing them, creating a class of people with cleverness but nothing to be clever about.

Are those good summaries of the two major critiques? If not, feel free to rephrase. But all this talk has gotten me to realize that I really don’t know what’s going on. I know a little from travelling and having friends and all that, but I don’t know from the student perspective if either of these critiques has legs.

So here are my Friday research questions. If you go to one of the following “Top 20” (As they appear in this year’s Poets & Writers list) MFA programs:

1. Is there an reigning, asserted aesthetic where you feel forced or seduced into writing in a “camp”? Is there a two-camp model being talked about, and do you feel you are being indoctrinated into one side or the other? What are your reading lists like? Who is ignored?

2. Is there talk of the “real world” in your MFA program? Is there conversation about this notion of the “professional artist”? How does the faculty talk about this? How do students talk about this?

If you attend one of these universities I’d love to hear from you (if you go to one of the Non-Top 20, as I did, you can still respond, of course). Please respond anonymously in the comment stream here. I’d hate to get anyone in trouble. Please, though, name your institution, so we can start to make a purple map.

The Poets & Writers Fall 2011 Top 20 MFA Programs

1. University of Iowa in Iowa City

2. University of Michigan in Ann Arbor

3. University of Wisconsin in Madison

4. Brown University in Providence

5. Cornell University in Ithaca, New York

5. Syracuse University in New York

7. University of Virginia in Charlottesville

8. University of Texas in Austin (Michener Center)

9. Washington University in Saint Louis

10. University of Minnesota in Minneapolis

11. University of Oregon in Eugene

12. Indiana University in Bloomington

13. University of Massachusetts in Amherst

14. Vanderbilt University in Nashville

15. University of California in Irvine

16. New York University in New York City

17. Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore

18. University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa

19. University of Houston in Texas

20. University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign

I wonder if anyone will respond. I really hope one or two people from each institution responds. I’d really like to hear.


At 9/02/2011 11:31 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm a poet in JHU's MFA program. I also studied creative writing in a large undergraduate program, so I have had quite a few poetry teachers along the way. As far as the existence of two camps of poets goes, I believe in it to some extent. Many younger teachers encourage students to read a lot of younger poets - however, I have never known any who didn't also encourage students to read Shakespeare, Milton, and Keats. Good writers tend to appreciate good writing no matter their aesthetic.

I happen to attend a program where the faculty are aesthetically conservative. I am not aesthetically conservative, and I have never been discouraged from writing my own way. In fact, Dave Smith and Mary-Jo Salter have been first-rate readers of my work. My cohort is attentive and helpful beyond their obligation. I don't think I could ask for a better atmosphere for my work.

I have to take a readings course every semester in addition to a workshop that also requires lots of reading. The classes vary depending on who is teaching them and what the teacher's interest is that particular semester. This semester, Mary-Jo Salter is teaching all the poetry of Hardy, Frost, and Yeats - all undeniably important poets for any apprentice poet to know. This is not a moldy-fig class by any means; the class is divided in half and the poets take turns giving presentations of selected poems and writing imitation poems based on models we select from each set of collected works. Next semester, we are being threatened with Pre-Renaissance English Works, which definitely offers something you can't get reading contemporary poets at home.

Now, as far as "professionalization" of the artist goes, I can't see it as anything but good. If anything, it raises the standards of art and holds artists accountable for bad work. Not that anyone else's opinion should change a poet's mind about his own poetry, but I've seen more objective and helpful criticism in writing programs than the dark-ages school-burning that we hear so much about. It's possible for any good reader regardless of aesthetic to gain something from reading widely, and I think most programs deliver that.

I believe writing programs encourage discipline and artistic freedom the way music conservatories do. It's difficult to practice the bassoon five hours a day and reach concert-level if you work two full-time jobs. The same goes for poetry. Let's be proud; let's be custodians of our words and the words of our skilled predecessors. Let's offer as much help to the next generation as we can afford. Why not?

At 9/02/2011 2:14 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

I was really hoping someone would comment. Thank you.

At 9/02/2011 2:20 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

1. No, absolutely not. My reading lists were cobbled together from those books by younger poets that my friends had recommended and those books I had been assigned by my professors (largely, the latter were far less interesting).

2. Yes. Professional artist? Generally we were told that the MFA is time away from the real world to refine your writing, and then we're expected to participate again.

I appreciate anyone attempting to understand the MFA--but I feel like these aren't the right questions at all. Better questions: why did you do an MFA? What were those two years like, in relation to the years before and after? How was writing and the writing process discussed? Were your peers or the faculty more influential? Etc.

At 9/02/2011 2:22 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

1) Never heard of a 2 camp model. I feel like I'm still trying to make sense of the whole history of camps in poetry. The whole idea is intimidating to me, and I'm embarrassed that I can't more fluently talk about it. In a way, for me to actually be indoctrinated, I feel like I'd have to be older, and, to be completely honest, better read (sad to say).

2) I had one professor tell me that if he could he'd have a perpetual fellowship (as in away from real life - ... and the real stuff of poetry). This perspective disappointed me. The moments during my MFA when I felt most disconnected from the real world (meaning the banal routines most adults dwell in, or the world which I wrote about - outside the US) were the times I struggled the most to produce engaging work.

At 9/02/2011 2:23 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I went to an unlisted MFA program. I feel very blessed to have the mentors that I had. We had a great deal of the history of poetry, form/syntax/prosody, and examining current collections and assembling our own collections. We were required to balance poetry from current writers with poetry from more canonical writers. (Other students with whom I studied had NEVER read Whitman or Dickinson before. This freaked me out).

One of my teachers was aesthetically conservative. The other followed more current trends in her teaching and writing styles. I had to learn to attempt both styles of reading and writing and to figure out which one was right for me. Neither of my mentors was didactic. They were the teachers I needed at the time that I needed them.

I did very well in and after my MFA program, as did most of the other writers who were in my residencies. Since 2007, we have published a complete collection and 5 chapbooks, received Pushcart and Best of the Net nominations, and won fellowships/scholarships to writing conferences and PhD programs, as well as having our work appear in in anthologies and literary journals, both online and print.

Neither of the mentors that served my classmates and me so well is still there. They both went on to "better" rated schools, probably for the pay bump and the reduced teaching loads. At this point in time, I cannot say that I'd recommend the MFA program that I attended because of the faculty fluctuations.

(By the way, I was accepted at three other MFA programs, including #1 and #19 on your list. I had a better financing from #19, too. However, I went with my gut, and I'm glad).

At 9/02/2011 5:44 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The distinction between the academy and the real world is illusory. I've been in the former--one of the top 20 here--and the latter, in the slums with the proles. They're both the real world. There's no difference.

If you're beyond the fledgling stage, you probably know what kind of poetry you want to write, and you should go to a program with at least one like-minded teacher. Like, if you're David Berman, you should go to Amherst and study with James Tate, if you can. But whether or not the teachers are aesthetically conservative matters less than their talent, intelligence, and erudition. If they're good poets, they're going to say a lot of things you need to hear and think hard about, regardless of your affinity or lack of with their work.

Definitely study the history of poetry, either in the MFA classes or out of them. The best thing about the MFA is having a lot of time to write and study.

At 9/02/2011 9:13 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am a current MFA poetry student at the Michener Center (University of Texas at Austin).

1. Definitely not. While we all share reading lists and encourage each other to follow certain poets or read certain volumes of poetry, even on occasion trying to steal each other's borrowed books (in good fun) each of us writes very, very different poems with different goals, approaches, registers, etc. in mind. This is the beginning of my second year and any conception of a two-school/camp militia being trained here is either not true or invisible to the social/workshop eye. We have no idea how to make McPoems, even if we're wearing the uniforms. The only thing we are indoctrinated into is writing more successful poems when/where we have the capacity to.

2. There is talk of the real world in our program by students. This predominately arises via A) sending poems to journals in hopes of being published alongside poets we admire out there, B) AWP and its machinations, and C) day dreaming about continuing to be funded to make our art, which is the mercenary reason for which most of us would ever say we seek "professionalization" HOWEVER, like hard drugs, there is a spectrum: some of us have nothing to do with A, B, or C, some of us dabble, and others are hooked. But there is no sense of the drug-ness of these conversations getting in the way of poem-making. I.e., we mostly don't shit where we eat. None of the instructors I've had want us doing anything other than writing a poem (or X number of poems) and composing it to the best of our individual talents.

P.S. Not trying to sound like this world is perfect, but I feel okay saying we each get what we need or desire out of the program's agency

At 9/02/2011 10:46 PM, Blogger BarryGrass said...

Essayist at Alabama:

1.) nothing ignored, nothing is proscribed. Alabma has something of a reputation for being "experimental" (whatever that means), and that reputation is based in truth. Alabama's program is supportive of whatever its writers want to do. Cross-genre work is highly encouraged. Everyone has lots of freedom. The faculty have their aesthetic preferences that they work in, sure, but everyone at Alabama understands the atmosphere of freedom that has been cultivated there.

2.) There isn't much talk of professionalization, not formally anyway. Part of that might be the nature of the program; I mean, Michael Martone often tries to get us to mentally deconstruct the idea of professionalization with respect to writing. There is opportunity to talk seriously about these things, but I've found that the students don't much talk amongst themselves about making it "in the real world" as a writer.

At 9/02/2011 11:17 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm just beginning my first year at Indiana in poetry.

So far, from what I can tell, we're a more conservative program. I'd say that I am one of two or three "skittery" poets in the workshop (out of twelve, not counting third-years). Most are more Sharon Olds-y.

Our professor this semester is assigning mostly "skittery" or otherwise avant garde books from a variety of movements/preoccupations and setting them up as, if not opposing, widely varied--so no two camp model, here. She is urging us to step out of our comfort zones and experiment and play (and really the whole program is geared towards this goal), but I don't feel pressured to write in ways I don't want to.

I'm not really sure about the professionalization question. There's a course being taught next semester by Ross and Cathy about teaching poetry in the community, so I guess that is something like the artist-in-the-world, yeah?

At 9/02/2011 11:22 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

First-Year Poet in Indiana, again.

P.S., I definitely feel like "the old masters" and dead guys are largely ignored. We read Richard Hugo's prose. I've never been discouraged from reading the oldies, of course, and people will encourage it in casual conversation, but it doesn't seem like a thing that happens in workshop/craft classes proper.

At 9/03/2011 1:42 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

P.S. from a different Anonymous--the one in the rugby shirt:

One of my teachers had us write an essay about what we thought we were up to in our poetry. My essay contained several quotations from fashionable contemporaries. When I got it back, I found a few references to and quotations from "oldies" amid the marginalia. Something about Baudelaire and a Proverb of Hell. My teacher was giving me to understand that my critical touchstones should not be ephemera. A good lesson. He never tried hard, as far as I could make out; but I learned a lot just being around him. Just having a beer with him after the workshop.

At 9/03/2011 9:37 AM, Blogger RJ Gibson said...

To purple this up a bit more (not just in terms of locale, but also in modelling), I just finished my MFA at Warren Wilson at the beginning of this year.

I never felt for a minute that I was being prodded, manipulated, pushed, or what-have-ye into writing anything other than what I was writing. My poems weren't like other people's, sure. (And that's probably a serious understatement.) But there were a lot of us that honor(ed) and use(d) different models and modes in our work.

My faculty never hewed to the idea of two camps--at least with me. My reading lists were pretty heterogeneous, with the exception of the semester I did my craft essay (but even then, I read widely about parataxis and the politics of textual order and the legible surface before settling down into my final argument.) We talked about poems and poetry--the craft of the things more than stance/politics/aesthetic positioning.

There was much more talk among the students about publishing and magazines and that sort of thing than there seemed to be on a program-wide level. I did have some extended conversations through semesters about issues of publishing, "career" and such with a couple of faculty, but the primary emphasis is/was always on what you're reading and writing.

I never felt much separation between "real" life and "MFA" life--which I'll admit was a big part of WW's appeal for me. I had to manage the academic and creative with the mundane and drudging, so I've never felt like I was yearning for some other model.

At 9/03/2011 11:01 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

I really appreciate you all writing in. One of the things I'm specifically interested in is what, if any, mode or way of writing is dominant. One of the ways to see how that is playing out is through reading lists.

So what are MFA programs having you read? As well, are there things that are being spread around by the students?

What I'm asking for is names. Nomen est omen!

At 9/03/2011 12:12 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"are there things that are being spread around by the students?"

Other than STDs, you mean?

At 9/03/2011 12:16 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wasn't there some Bowie wannabe named Gary Nomen?

At 9/03/2011 12:39 PM, Blogger Amy said...

I'm probably too dated to comment here, since I finished my MFA almost a decade ago, but for what it's worth:

I think it's hard to make judgements about your MFA experience, for good or ill, within the first few years of graduating. If you'd asked me a year or three after I finished what I remembered and what I thought, you would have received answers that I can today identify as bullshit. Sometimes you're too close to something to be objective. You defend it unreasonably, or criticize it unreasonably. Or you're tying up other aspects of your life into that experience. Or you're just damn confused.

Anyway, if you polled the people I went to my MFA with you'd get yeses and nos on both questions. And if you polled them all in the same room, you'd end up with a chaotic argument in which people would not BELIEVE that anyone could disagree what what is so clearly obvious... blah blah blah.

What's the point of all this? Let's say MFA programs really were doing the "2 bad things" -- should a person considering going to an MFA change his/her mind because of the "2 bad things"? I hardly think so. Anyway, MFA programs, taken individually, probably do plenty of other "bad things," ranging from indenting students further to encouraging any latent sycophancy to discouraging them from writing altogether. Any institution run by people will display the spectrum of faults people tend to have. Which (and this is the whole point of our fiction and poetry, isn't it?) are vexingly many, and marvelously wide.

Getting an MFA is only a questionable thing to do if you fail to consider the alternatives. "Because why not?" is the only real reason. If you haven't got a good reason not to, why not?

At 9/03/2011 12:41 PM, Blogger Amy said...

Damn you autocorrect, that "indenting" should have said in-debt-ing.

At 9/03/2011 1:59 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

I wasn't thinking along the lines of arguments of value, but arguments of fact. I can see that I didn't do a very good job of stressing that in my questions.

What I was thinking about is how artistic difference plays out in creative writing programs. What got me to thinking about this (beyond the Hoagland piece in the current Writer's Chronicle) was how the advertisement on the back seemed to work against his point.

It's for Poetry Night at Grand Valley State University, and it gives a list of recent visitors:

Ted Kooser, Terrance Hayes, Carolyn Forche, Bob Hicok, Tony Hoagland, Patricia Smith, Paul Muldoon, Natasha Trethewey, Gary Snyder, Stanley Plumly, Sonia Sanchez, Sharon Olds, C.K. Williams, Philip Levine, Charles Wright, Rita Dove, Billy Collins, Jim Harison, Robert Hass, Galway Kinnell, and Naomi Shihab Nye.

When I saw that list, which is very deep coverage of a very narrow slice of the aesthetic pie, it played to my suspicions that there really is no way to make general comments as to what is dominant, only what might be dominant at a single institution. So I asked the questions to see if perhaps I could get a quick sense of what / who is being taught at these places. (This also comes from the questions Paul was asking in the last post.)

I probably could just go to the websites. But that sounds like work, and it would be incomplete anyway. But I suppose all such questions are going to get incomplete answers.

At 9/03/2011 2:56 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I graduated some fifteen years ago from the MFA at Naropa University (Fiction). This is NOT a top 20 school (or maybe even a top 100) There WAS no talk of the Real World. No one talked about agents, query letters, synopsis, etc. The "Career Planning" seminar consisted of the faculty telling us all the weird odd jobs they had before they got the job teaching. There was no talk of how to get a job as an adjunct (I didn't even know what an adjunct was).

I think this was due to an underlying idea of: You are Making Art. Art makes no money. You will never sell anything because you are Making Art. The best you can hope for is to win some contests and get some cultural currency behind your name and get a position in a University where you won't have a heavy teaching load. This is what was seen as a Full Time Writer.

And while I think the aesthetics of the program were more progressive than most, I remember with a great deal of embarrassment now how "Nice We All Were" about the one guy who wrote fantasy novels. There was no real talk of novels at all: what they looked like, how to construct them. They just kind of turned us loose and hoped for the best.

Granted, this was a long time ago, and things may have changed. And while there were a lot of problems with getting an MFA (a big one: owing almost $250,000 on a $40,000 student loan as there was no funding for graduate students), the thing I think it really DID for me was this: For three years everyone around me called me a Writer. Everyone around me was a writer. And the internalization of that has allowed me to continue soldiering on some 15 years later. I just got my first agent about 4 months ago. Naropa didn't help me with that. We'll be submitting a fantasy/mystery series. Naropa didn't help me with that, either. But it gave me some work habits, and it made me feel validated. Was it worth a quarter million dollars? I'll let you know when the book sells.

At 9/03/2011 2:58 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

P.S.: (from old timer from Naropa)

No dead white guys allowed. Ever. Okay maybe Yeats, but only in reference to Ginsburg. They weren't just "Not Taught", they were Strictly Verboten

At 9/03/2011 3:33 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You want names, reading lists. Well, like a couple other respondents, I didn't MFA recently enough for my list to be relevant now. But I noticed some things in my MFA program, and I bet they're still true.

The teachers tended to refer to either their mentors or older exemplars of their style. The students, by contrast, either hadn't read anything to speak of or were interested in young poets who'd been winning and publishing a lot recently.

I bet it's still that way--wherever you go. That means if you studied with, say, Alice Fulton, you'd hear her talk about A.R. Ammons and Emily Dickinson, and you'd hear your classmates talk about either no one or people like Elana Bell and Eduardo Corral. If you studied with, I don't know, Robert Pinsky, you might hear him talk about Yvor Winters and jazz, and again you might hear your classmates refer to Bell and Corral. Or Noah Eli Gordon. Your classmates would rip off these young, hot poets, and your teachers would say Look, if you're going to rip someone off, rip off Wallace Stevens. Whereupon your classmates would look uninterested.

So your question was who's being taught, and who's being spread around by the students. What the teachers teach depends on their style and background. A teacher who writes in the plain style and is averse to self-disclosure might teach Bishop, and if he likes to go back he might refer to Herbert and Dryden. If he went to Iowa, he might refer to Donald Justice. The students, on the other hand, are going to spread around whoever's young and hot at the moment.

Am I right?

--Rugby Shirt

At 9/03/2011 4:52 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


I'll go along with that. I think that does happen quite a bit. But, by extension, you're intimating that the current generation that is pushing back against the teachers will, in the future, bring those teachers back when talking about poetry.

It all gets put in the tape loop. So still, it seems the whole concept of a "dominant" mode of poetry doesn't have much of an experiential foundation.

At 9/03/2011 7:16 PM, Blogger Kent Johnson said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 9/03/2011 7:50 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

In regards to your question, Mr. Johnson, I only wrote in anonymously because I don't know how to set up the comment box otherwise. My name is Matt Moore, I am the person currently at the Michener Center for Writers in Austin, Texas who wrote in earlier. I think one thing to be said for writing in anonymously is it takes away from the reader's capability to judge, be distracted by, or make conclusions based on the defining facets of a name (gender, race, recognition), as opposed to what that name voices. So I'm Matt Moore, or Pedro Almodovar, or Janelle Monae.

At 9/03/2011 8:01 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Hi Kent,

Well, I asked them to respond anonymously:

"Please respond anonymously in the comment stream here."

My idea was not to deal with any of the names or whatever might come out of that sort of finger pointing. I really just wanted to know what they were reading and who was having them read it. And I guess also who is visiting. And if they say some poets shouldn't be read.

Either way, I'm nto getting much I can really use one way of the other. But I'm glad to know there are people out there having a good experience. That's not nothing!

At 9/03/2011 8:34 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

i go to ohio state. in poetry, two competing aesthetics. new formalism, championed by andrew hudgins. lots of iambs and blank verse and fixed forms. conservative academic experimentalism, championed by kathy fagan. hudgins and fagan don't like each other. henri cole is also here, but he is not very present or involved with anybody. to our chagrin.

in prose, lee martin who is very conservative in every way. michelle herman who likes formless navel gazing. lee abbott who is very smart and gives a list of rules. erin mcgraw who is very smart and open minded. i am not a prose writer but this is what i hear.

program is very good overall if limited. one professor literally talks about which camp you are in. everyone wants to be a professor. good luck in this job market.

At 9/03/2011 9:00 PM, Blogger Kent Johnson said...

Just for the record, I'm the person who deleted the comment above. The remark was ill-conceived; I wrote it on the fly, without having had the chance to consider the exchange carefully enough. And that's a really dumb thing to do under any discussion circumstances, obviously. I do see that there is a potentially valuable string of contributions unfolding here in response to John's queries, whatever my own positions and questions on some related issues may be. My apologies.

At 9/03/2011 9:39 PM, Anonymous RTB said...

I recently graduated from an unlisted program (which, please understand, I loved and which helped me enormously), and I've been working with a fellow recent graduate on a study of workshop methods in modern MFA programs –– just a couple things I've come across:

I don't think any aesthetic is knowingly pushed, nor the "two-camp" thing –– mostly because if there are two camps being promoted, the two camps are essentially two sides of the same camp-coin. That is, conservative personal lyric, and less conservative personal lyric. If Brenda Shaugnessy is your idea of the "experimental" or avant-garde, then there's an enormous swathe of exciting poetry that's ignored.

(Consider Anon above, who says: "This semester, Mary-Jo Salter is teaching all the poetry of Hardy, Frost, and Yeats - all undeniably important poets for any apprentice poet to know." Yes, but who's teaching you the equally important Susan Howe, late Paul Celan, Larry Eigner, or Robert Grenier? -- if one is to get a complete picture of the "masters")

Most MFAs at least assume (probably rightly) that you've been taught the "history of poetry", up until around modernism –– Milton and Keats and stuff. At that point it's essentially assumed that you've reached a roughly hundred year chunk of "20th Century Poetry." The nuances of revolutions and revulsions in style and philosophy that produced brought contemporary poetry through road markers like George Oppen, Jack Spicer, Hannah Weiner, and Vanessa Place are almost never addressed.

I think this is less a conscious decision to champion a vision of poetry in which Simic, Komunyakaa, and Olds are "masters" and in which the Dickmans are not total shits, than it is a product of not knowing how to quite tackle the problem of "poetics" in a workshop setting. If we must speak about poetry in terms of craft (our weird, somehow ubiquitous capitalistic jargon for workshops –– "I don't buy that line", the poem "isn't working hard enough", etc.) then we must reference craftsmanlike poems as exemplars.

To discuss the moral questionability of authorship, the power struggle for language, the poem as a mystical or magical object, the denial of self, the digital replacement of the self, etc., is not a workshop-ready prospect -- it's hard to do any of this in a classroom setting, especially the popular workshop in which the poet remains silent and the class gives line edits (are most MFA professors/students really up to workshopping a conceptual poem? a mystical poem?). It's a problem of practicality, rather than of intentionally pushing an aesthetic, I think. The banality of personal-lyric-evil.

As for the second question, I think it's essentially an unspoken truth that most MFA students are too busy working shitty jobs to pay their way through grad school, or worrying about getting a shitty job to pay off their loans once they finish grad school, to spend too much time talking about the real world.

And to address that criticism -- I think Joyelle McSweeney said it best in her awesome "Lay Off the Motherfucking MFA Students": "It’s the capitalist culture at large that wants us to think Art is unjustified, or must be justified, and that to spend a few years on Art is somehow evidence of sloth, indolence, or unacceptable self-indulgence." etc.

So yeah.

PS- Lastly, the list is ridiculous anyway. How exactly are they judging the work produced by the students? I mean, christ, NYU is on there. NYU churns out some of the absolute worst poetry possible on an MFA spectrum.

At 9/03/2011 10:26 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm in my third year at an unlisted school, Colorado State in Fort Collins. I was all set to write in and say, 'no, no camps here!' And then I read through that list from "Poetry Night" at Grand Valley State University and realized that no one in our program would cite any of those poets as an influence, or even admit to liking them. So, scratch that first thought. We're a program with a solidly experimental aesthetic, albeit one that's generous to all kinds of experiment: language-y poetry, sound poetry, new lyrics, hybrid forms, "skittery" making up a very small fraction of the range. I'd say that the attitude here to more mainstream poetries is less of opposition than indifference--they're not what we're working on, not what we're interested in. To the point that it's quite easy to forget that sort of poetry exists, frankly.

As for dead poets, we do a lot of dead poets. Compulsory semester of form and technique and good long soaks in both workshops and lit classes of the Big Dead Poets (Dickinson, Blake, Keats, Stein) but also of closer generations of dead poets (Oppen, Niedecker, Moore, Stevens, Olson, WCW, HD, Berryman). Probably half (if not more) of our assigned reading is dead folks, and I think there is discussion about creating some more systematic approach to poetic history within the program. Every poet I know here reads deeply in at least a few foundational poets, and they account for a great deal of our conversation amongst ourselves (contra Rugby, I think, above).

What seems important to note is that there's a deliberate interest here in rejoining contemporary experimental poetries with their roots in the oldest (radical) poetries, a conviction the whole poetry-wars binary was a false position, a thesis-antithesis calling out for synthesis. I suppose it's interesting that at least in this program, the approach toward that synthesis is being made not by reading contemporary conventional (is that the opposite pole from experimental?) poetry but by reading the poetic source texts of both "camps."

As for professionalism, advice on that score is offered at the asking, but I'd say the unconscious impulse of the program is closer to what Anon describes above at Naropa: poetry as vocation rather than career path.

At 9/03/2011 10:48 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Okay, Anon from CSU again here: RTB, just above, nails it. That is, what we've got here is not a political problem, it's a structural/conceptual problem.

The same capitalist forces that tell us two years for Art is two too many also tell us that if there's a conflict, it must be a "fight" between two "camps"--the debate gets pulled into that shape, because it's our dominant cultural form. But, as RTB says so eloquently, what's really at stake here is something much more complex: the difficulty of integrating what art does and how it is made into a program of instruction. Which is not to say that we should not do that--I agree utterly with Anon of JHU that we should study, we must study. But finding forms for institutionalization that don't distort the breadth of this craft--we're not there yet.

(Also, badass list of alternate masters--thanks for calling their names here!)

At 9/04/2011 5:31 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Structurally, that’s very similar to how my MFA went. I graduated from Texas State University 17 years ago, and while there I thought I was getting a pretty diverse, large-picture of what was going on in poetry. But I wasn’t. I was getting a diverse, large-picture view of the poets that were on the radar of the teachers, not a broad view of what was going on in places they weren’t looking. That’s inevitable.

It makes me wonder what would happen if an organization such as AWP or whomever would try to put an overview together, a curriculum even. Maybe one of us should do it, one that really tries to be completely representational of all that’s been done in the 20th Century (in America, just to keep it possible). Maybe they could even get William Bronk back in the conversation. Has someone’s already done a good job of this somewhere?

One could even do it as a wall poster. You’d need a big wall. Or small pictures. An anthology with a fold out. But not an anthology. All anthologies become ideological messes.

Maybe a list of names would be a good place to start. Something like ten names from each general tendency? And then suddenly it seems unworkable again. It really is a messy map.

We have to be our own anthologies, and our own anthologists, and keep adding to them over time, and not stop. But we all know that. But still, I’d like a picture with everyone in it. Even Billy Collins.

At 9/04/2011 9:28 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was a student at #20.

There was no "camp." The faculty and peers seemed to always respect what a writer was trying to do, and help them do that as best they could. There was heavy aesthetic diversity throughout the faculty, and the students were always encouraged to discover new work.

We had plenty of talks about the "real world," and there were opportunities to get practical experience, but not every student takes advantage of those chances. We're all adults, after all, and if one feels the need to be isolated from the community, they have that freedom, too. Some faculty talk about it more than others, and there's a range of opinion on the matter, but that can be healthy.

The MFA is really just a stack of opportunities, for community, time, practice of craft, discovery, networking, professional development, mentorship, and discipline. But it's the responsibility of the student to be dedicated and work through the processes to take advantage of these things. Because there is no guarantee on the other end of it, it must be done for the love of the work, not for the desire to be published or for fear of not being able to get a job later.

At 9/04/2011 10:02 AM, Blogger Seth Abramson said...

John, I can tell you Bronk is already a part of the conversation at at least two MFAs: Iowa, where Peter Gizzi (as Visiting Faculty) turned me on to him, and UMass-Amherst, where Peter usually teaches. Also Joe Ceravalo, Ron Padgett, Wallace Stevens, countless others. At MFAs you read who your professors are reading and have read, plus the hot young poets your friends are reading -- in other words, it is exactly like how it would be if you came across your professors or your friends outside an MFA. When will people understand that MFA programs rarely have curricula (besides certain non-workshop, non-creative writing electives, which let the student pick any course in the English Department), and that attending an MFA -- in terms of one's reading -- is really no different from being in any other writing community inside our outside the so-called "Academy"? This is not how the MFA is transformative -- and I'm afraid understanding how it is transformative is something we're years away from, because only a few of us have been out there trying to listen to what MFA students are saying for years now. John, you won't get program-specific reading lists, because every time a new faculty member is hired, or one leaves, or one takes sabbatical, or one dies, or one comes in as Visiting Faculty, or one comes in to give a reading and speak to students, or a new class of students graduates, or a new class of students matriculates, the landscape of what is being read and discussed and appreciated and detested changes completely. Just as it does in any other writing community where turnover is common -- except (oops!) MFA programs have way more turnover than non-MFA communities, which means their reading-lists are far more fluid and dynamic and interesting than the creatively-stunted bohemian communities the counter-establishment-actually-establishment poets-that-be have been shilling for for decades now. In those communities all you do is read and publish and compliment your friends and whatever your friends like or are doing or want to talk about, and that group of friends becomes insular and rigid and parochial and unwilling to admit new members or influences (it's harder to make new friends when you have "enough friends already" than it is to have new classmates when you've no choice in the matter and therefore must constantly be exposed to new thinking, new people, new influences). And without turnover in your peer group, your own work dies. "Camps" are created by bohemian communities which have turned into upon themselves and stultified; there are no "camps" in MFA programs because they are ephemeral communities with high turnover. See?

At 9/04/2011 10:46 AM, Blogger Seth Abramson said...

P.S. I didn't mean for that to come out as catty as it did -- I was just jazzed up. (As the kids... from 1952... say).

At 9/04/2011 10:54 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Well, just because it's futile, doesn't mean I shouldn't try.

Perhaps if there was a survey or something, that was broad based, and with cumulative data, it would blur out some of these specific variances? I'm intersted in general data anyway.

So let's say there was a survey with three points:

1. What visiting poets have been there in the last few years.

2. What books are the faculty having students read over the past few years.

3. What books are students bringing in themselves and passing around.

Something specific like that from every MFA on the "Top 50" list (or, better, from all graduate creative writing degree-granting institutions) would give an interesting snapshot of who and what we are right now.

It might not have predictive value, but it might have fact value.

I think I might have my theory of writing class do that this semester.

Mostly just because I'm curious.

At 9/04/2011 11:55 AM, Blogger Seth Abramson said...

Well, because I was kind of a shit in my last comment, I'll answer this survey re: the Iowa Writers' Workshop from circa 2007 to circa 2010:

1. Tony Hoagland, Peter Gizzi, Emily Wilson, Matthea Harvey, Rod Smith, Dan Beachy-Quick, Robert Hass, Mary Jo Bang, Elizabeth Robinson, Robyn Schiff, Geoffrey O'Brien. Individual readings and Q&As by countless poets, including Paul Muldoon, Michael Palmer, Jorie Graham, Donald Revell, Timothy Donnelly, Joyelle McSweeney, Oni Buchanan, Keith and Rosmarie Waldrop, and John Taggart.

2. No assigned books whatsoever. Recommended books from faculty included works by: Jean Follain, Michael Palmer, Ron Padgett, Joseph Ceravalo, Wallace Stevens, William Bronk, Jack Gilbert, John Godfrey, Tomas Transtromer, Barbara Guest, Rae Armantrout, Thomas Sayers Ellis, Fanny Howe, Lisa Jarnot, Larry Levis, Alice Notley, W.S. Merwin, Anthony McCann, Frank O'Hara, Charles Oppen, Charles Reznikoff, Louis Zukofsky, Charles Olson, David Shapiro, Frederick Seidel, James Schuyler, Jack Spicer, William Carlos Williams, Ed Dorn, Frank Bidart, Michael Burkard, T.S. Eliot, Elizabeth Bishop, about 100 others (seriously).

3. Students were reading John Taggart, Zachary Schomberg, Graham Foust, Ted Berrigan, Lucie Brock-Broido, Robert Duncan, James Galvin, Robert Creeley, David Berman, Joshua Beckman, Ben Lerner, H.D., Jack Spicer, Guillaume Apollinaire, Maurice Manning, Matthea Harvey, Cathy Park Hong, Lara Glenum, Frank O'Hara, Dorothea Lasky, K. Silem Mohammad, Cathy Wagner, Dean Young, Keith Waldrop, Ezra Pound, about 200 others (seriously).

If the survey is futile, it's only because it's the wrong question and won't produce the type of answer you might expect, not because the answer isn't available to be had.

At 9/04/2011 11:57 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

i go to ohio state. in poetry, two competing aesthetics. new formalism, championed by andrew hudgins. lots of iambs and blank verse and fixed forms. conservative academic experimentalism, championed by kathy fagan. hudgins and fagan don't like each other. henri cole is also here, but he is not very present or involved with anybody.

I would imagine Cole is not too content to be at O State, wouldn't you? a post at Yale or Duke or other ivied halls would tender him more "present and involved" perhaps—

too many poets and too few jobs and you end up with a situation which i noticed as a visiting semester at Montana— none of the poets who taught there were from Montana, they were all from New York, they all wrote New York and they all taught New York, they all wanted to be in New York, and they all hated the historic hero of their Dept's nostalgic propaganda efforts, Richard Hugo—

survey how many poets teaching around the country actually want to be where they've been hired—


At 9/04/2011 12:18 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

if you have no roots in and no familial/historical ties to the community/area where you live and work, i guess you're just a typical USAer... another skittery citizen.

At 9/04/2011 12:20 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


I always feel vaguely defensive when writing back and forth with you. And it’s odd, because I think we’re probably in agreement on most things!

So, anyway, thank you very much for the list. I’m so wishing I could have been there watching Hoagland. I mean, I know he’s a friend of Dean Young’s, but he does nothing but write against the sort of poetry that Iowa has recently come to represent. Could the grad students feel the daggers he must have been thinking their way?

That list looks like most of what I’ve also been reading the last few years (except not the hundreds part).

It’s a question I keep asking myself when talking with poets with whom I share little to no recent text, if there could be anything approaching a common currency across MFA programs. And I suppose we all would agree that, at least when it comes to what is being valued in books and visiting writers, it’s not going to be found there.

Knott, hi,

My father was a private pilot. He also never lived where he wanted, as the jobs were so few. That New York thing is pretty true to my experience as well. But it’s not a feature of just MFA programs.

I, by the way, would rather like to live in Montana, and I’ve always had a soft spot for Richard Hugo’s poetry. Especially the 13 dreams.

At 9/04/2011 1:29 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

how many students in the MFA program at Ohio State are actually from Ohio (or nearby areas)? how many are in exile there, attending only because Iowa and the other top 20 on Abramson's list rejected them? (i also got my MFA at a school which was at the bottom of my wish list)—

so if you have students who don't want to be there, and teachers who don't want to be there, how does that effect the quality of the transactions that occur day to day . . .

At 9/04/2011 1:32 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I like Hugo's novel. The detective protagonist fist-fights a pretty blonde murderess who's about 6'7". If I remember right, she's a psycho who dresses up like an Indian and tomahawks people to death. Charming.

--Karen Carpenter

At 9/04/2011 1:39 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


That sounds like a dreary place you describe. Thankfully, it's not universal.

At 9/04/2011 1:46 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

having no family/personal ties to the community where your MFA program is situated

might tend to increase the bubble effect of it—


At 9/04/2011 2:01 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

how d'you think Henri feels looking at those lollers around the workshop table, knowing they're here only because they couldn't pass the Seth Test and get into Iowa et al—

At 9/04/2011 2:10 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

is it possible that the bubble effect, the isolation created by this USA/MFA system of exile

is beneficial for the students?

USAMFA is another country: they do things differently there.

At 9/04/2011 2:16 PM, Blogger Seth Abramson said...

Hi Bill,

There's no "Seth Test," of course -- John's list merely reproduces that part of the rankings (just a part) which tracks well-researched applicants' applications. Those applying to Ohio State are therefore applying because they want to go -- consistent with the feedback (unsolicited) I get via e-mail from OSU students, who say they love it there. FWIW, and I make no comment on this either way, the only e-mails I get from current or former MFA students saying they regretted their MFA years are those who are now deep in student debt -- no one has ever (in five years) written me to say they didn't like their program because of its ranking. Bill, you cynic! You forget these are largely younger writers who aren't yet as jaded as you and I are. They by and large -- in no small part because they know how frightfully difficult it is to get into any MFA -- are happy to go where they go.


It's not your fault, it's mine -- I know it's become an increasingly lame excuse but I really am just not very good at the internet thing. I'm pretty good at not making anyone feel uncomfortable face-to-face. And yes, we actually agree on almost everything -- you'd be surprised. My comments about people misreading the MFA phenomenon in history were directed to, well, the world, I guess (as I see the confusion as a ubiquitous one) not you particularly. I mean that.


At 9/04/2011 2:17 PM, Blogger Seth Abramson said...

P.S. Bill, remind me how many years you taught creative writing at Emerson...? ;-)

At 9/04/2011 2:24 PM, Blogger Kent Johnson said...

Bill Knott brings up a great point with his question about "how Henri feels, looking at the OSU lollers who couldn't get into Iowa."

Even though there's some really funny exaggeration in the question, it does raise a point:

What exactly IS the meaning and impact of these P&W rankings? Is any "career service" they provide to prospective MFA students seeking to get into the "Best" program they can out-weighed by the negative (even if subliminal) impact they might have on the morale, self-esteem, and even future professional prospects of those who, for whatever reason, don't get in to the "Best" programs? Who benefits here from these rankings? The art of poetry? How so? How many really great poets are affected in some way, I wonder, because they ended up at some place way down the list? Seth? Why DO you do this? The whole project seems more or less mean and meaningless, a pressing of the spirit of commerce, class, and elitist impulses into the realm of poetry. Not that the former qualities aren't there already, but why make it worse?

Hey, I went to UW/Milwaukee and then to Bowling Green (the only places I applied to, but I can tell how people react when I tell them I did my grad work at Bowling Green State University! It's not the same reaction I get as when I tell people who couldn't know otherwise that I went to Brown!)


At 9/04/2011 2:27 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I graduated in 2006 from a low-residency MFA program that is not on the list. I went there, then, because I was a young mother and I needed to be in school in order to get state healthcare and other benefits, and to have time to care for, and be with my two babies. I did not study writing as an undergrad, In fact, I simultaneously applied to Law School, but the hours away were daunting, and those little guys needed me. I was it and I was all and I did what I had to do, or thought I had to do, which was take out massive loans and get an MFA. I provide this context because I was never interested in 'professionalization' or the other questions you pose, so my answers should not be read as a personal critique. I had, and still have, little interest in the MFA as a construct. I do not feel slighted or angry, though the debt I accrued is substantial.

There was very little guidance in the way of readings. I believe there was a comprehensive list, and it was I guess what one would call 'conservative.' At the beginning of each semester, my mentor would look at my work and make reading suggestions. These suggestions would, ostensibly, broaden my aesthetic and further my own writing. Sometimes they did and sometimes they didn't. I thought, at the time, that these suggestions were specific to me--but many of the mentors gave the same names to each mentee. Most of the suggestions were typical, canonical poets. I had to suss out contemporaries on my own time, and enjoyed this process.

The only discussion of 'camp' came from one mentor who described writing as either Catholic or Protestant.

The idea of 'professionalization' was never broached. Not once.

The school has lately brought the likes of Major Jackson, Naomi Shihab Nye and Matthew Dickman as visiting writers. The school has failed to bring recent alums with books back to campus, including myself. This sort of disturbs me--not because I feel I should be invited back, but because the school has made a decision not to support the work that supported the school--the school, which has experienced financial trouble and suffered from a mighty nebulous identity over the years.

At 9/04/2011 2:36 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Hi lo-rez,

I'm hearing this a lot about the heavy loans. Things must have been very different in my MFA (94) and by PhD (99). Granted they weren't lo-rez, so that's a difference, but when I graduated the PhD I had 7,000 dollars of debt, I think it was. Maybe it was 10,000. Anyway, it's been paid off for several years.

I know lo-rez don't have teaching fellowships, but are other places no longer offering them? That's terrible, if so.

Kent and Bill,

What you're talking about is certainly an issue, but I'm not going into it, because I eally don't feel I have anything to offer that conversation. I've always been allergic to those sorts of ways of looking at things. I just kind of muddle through. Happiness is not tied to where I am, and where I am is important because they pay me, and I like getting paid. But I don't teach in an MFA, so who knows, maybe if I did I'd get all "I wanna be in New York" too, and all "rank this, buddy!"

At 9/04/2011 3:20 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

these MFA rankings must be valid and on the mark because the program I formerly taught at

has climbed up the Seth Chart in great numbers since my departure,

which surely proves how accurate the research is—

At 9/04/2011 3:35 PM, Blogger Seth Abramson said...

Kent, no. This is a useful discussion John's trying to have, and it ought not be derailed on the basis of your knee-jerk reaction to something you don't understand well (and admit, albeit perhaps only rhetorically, not to understand well). There is a public-service utility to these rankings that, I honestly believe, and in fact do not doubt, has beneficially changed the lives of many hundreds of young poets and writers -- a sentiment echoed by the scores of e-mails I receive unsolicited from poets and writers telling me exactly this. If ever we meet, we can sit down and I can explain to you why all this is true, and how I would never associate myself with any endeavor of this scale I did not honestly believe was to the immediate and long-term benefit of others besides myself. You are not an applicant; you don't share their concerns or values or fears or misapprehensions. You have no right to speak for (or even to) them. I've spent every day for five years in their communities -- every day -- and I've earned the right to a little bit of confidence that I know the purpose and effect of what I'm doing, and the inherent value of the now hundreds and hundreds of hours I've spent doing it. As I said, you buy me a coffee, I'll explain it to you. And you can explain to me how there was ethical and artistic integrity in some of the decisions you've made as a member of the poetry community and as a poet these last twenty years. I look forward to that chat. Until then, this is John's topic, and his thread, and his blog, and this isn't a rankings debate.

At 9/04/2011 3:47 PM, Blogger Kent Johnson said...

Um, Seth, not trying to derail the conversation with that last comment. You had already jumped in here to talk about your list John put at the top, Bill Knott had commented on it, too, and I thought his comment, eccentric as it was, connected to the general topic. The general topic is MFA programs. You and your lists are at the center of that conversation. I can understand that you want to see these rankings as something that is all good and has helped people, and that you are a hero to them, and so on. That's fine. I'm just asking an honest question (and OK, maybe you're right and it's because I don't know what I'm talking about), since this latest list of the Best is part of the post: Why do we need these hierarchical rankings? Why not just, say, do a Princeton type description service, without this or that one being better than this or that one, descriptions that would bring in evidence and testimony like we're getting here, instead of the Business Week (or is that U.S. News and World) approach?

I'd be happy to sit down with you. I'm reading at your alma mater, UW/Madison on November 6th, so since you are in Madison, why don't you come along and maybe we can chat afterwards. I am a pretty easy guy to get along with in person.

At 9/04/2011 4:08 PM, Blogger Seth Abramson said...

Kent, John is asking about poetry-program reading lists and internal culture. He used the rankings as a jumping-off point, and when I commented I noted John was merely highlighting that part of the rankings which emphasize the most popular programs among applicants -- i.e., he wants to know what's going on at the most popular MFA programs, the ones folks are most excited about applying to. I didn't understand his interest to be in any way about the rankings themselves, and I for one was very happy for that. As for my involvement in the thread, John had asked me (and I'm sure others) to help get the word out about this survey on other sites, so I was involved in this thread well before I posted in it. (Not that you could have known that; I'm just saying.)

I am giving a reading in Kalamazoo, Michigan on November 5th, so I don't know when on the 6th I'll get back to Madison, but if I'm here I'm more than happy to meet with you. Honestly I'd been hoping to meet you in Arena a year ago. I too am easy-going in person. And FWIW, the phrases "all good" and "a hero" are yours, not mine. I see rankings as an intricate and complex phenomenon which is a net positive but is absolutely fraught with dangers. I'd wager I know more about those dangers than you -- when I made it my project to work on this, in 2006, I did so intending to look at the question from all sides. I still do. If you don't hear me criticizing the rankings it's because the critics are asking the wrong questions of the rankings; if they were asking the right questions I'd probably be first in line to agree with them. But asking the right questions takes understanding more about MFA programs and their history, and MFA applicants and their demographics, than anyone could learn just by browsing blogs or reading a single issue of a magazine. In any case, as I said, if I'm in Madison I'll definitely be happy to meet up -- just send me an e-mail regarding your reading details and hopefully I'll be back in town by then. Believe me, Kent -- this is not a conversation I'm afraid to have. I've spent a lot of time preparing myself for these concerns and criticisms, because I take what I do very seriously. Folks can't have it both ways: Claim from my online postings that they can "tell" I'm an obsessive (find me the poet who isn't, about some thing or many things?), and then also say I went about this project in a slapdash fashion.


At 9/04/2011 4:19 PM, Blogger Kent Johnson said...

Seth, sorry, I meant October 6th, not November.

It will be nice to meet you.

At 9/04/2011 4:35 PM, Blogger Seth Abramson said...

Turns out either would work -- I looked up my reading and it's actually the following Saturday, the 12th of November. But October 6th should be fine also. So email me the info for your reading and we'll meet up. I think you have my email but let me know if not.


At 9/04/2011 4:51 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

i have no quarrel with the USAMFA rankings, or with Seth Abramson, him i applaud for his efforts which i for one would certainly never doubt or secondguess—

my questions have to do with the effects of displacement which USAMFA enforces upon writers (both teachers and students)—

JG, do you know that song from Wilbur/Bernstein's Candide: "I am so easily assimilated"— or, as you put it: 'Happiness is not tied to where I am.' Well, good for you!— Bravo. Since most of us can't control the where-and-when circumstances of our employment, and our choices are limited at best, we should try to maintain an adult attitude about it, to accept our personal horizons, adapt ourselves to our station in life, though many of the people in Chekov don't seem to be able to—

But if everybody in USAMFA is transferable to everywhere else in USAMFA, if it doesn't matter where you are in USAMFA, Montana Ohio New York, because nobody in USAMFA is from anywhere until they get there, or as long as they are there, if there are no regional differences
and no local allegiances, if the USAMFAns in Montana are the same as the ones in New York,

if capitalism flings us around the globe interchangeably to meet its quotas, then that's our fate i guess,
pawns to be moved from place to place, regardless of any personal background/history/home—

At 9/04/2011 6:09 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

as i said, i have never had any objections to Abramson's findings or statistics re USAMFA,

but his assurances that students at the OSU MFA program want to be there and are happy there

doesn't answer my question, which is simply: how many of the students AT Iowa are FROM Iowa?—

if most of the teachers/students AT MFA programs around the country are not FROM the state/area/region their school is located in,

what effect does that have?

Perhaps it's beneficial for writers to have no ties to the community they find themselves reduced to roost in for the nonce now. Maybe all locational situations are temporary for the peripatetic artist. Could this ever-moveable exile, this serial estrangement, aid him or her to survive/thrive?


At 9/04/2011 6:21 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


Your question feels from left field to me. But sure, to give a partial answer from my perspective, your question makes an assumption that before arriving to teach wherever, that the poet was rooted somewhere, and that this job is somehow the cause of the rootlessness. At the very elast your question intimates this.

My story, though I don't teach at an MFA program:

Between the ages of 0 - 18, I lived in Portland, Wichita, Orange Co. Calif, Birmingham, Long Island, and then San Antonio. After that, from 19-30, I lived in El Paso, New Braunfels, and San Marcos. Then until now: Athens OH, Conway AR, and now Maryville MO.

Which is, I'm more rooted now than I was when I was a kid. I'm sure it's not that way for everyone, but for me, at least, your question doesn't mean much.

Maybe that's why I say things about not really caring where I am all that much. That said, I rather like Maryville. It's way out in the middle of nowhere.

At 9/04/2011 6:27 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

I should have added, that I'm close to 47 now. So my "academic" wandering has actually been more rooted than my youth.

All this is way beside the point of what sorts of reading / writer experience people are getting in their MFA programs, which itself can be a version of either rooting or rootlessness.

At 9/04/2011 6:53 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

maybe you're right, JG—(you usually are!)

maybe the fact that none of the MFA teachers/students at the U of Podunk are from the state of Podunk,

and that they would rather all be in Iowa or New York or Providence

is not important,

and indeed has no negative effect on

"what sorts of reading / writer experience people are getting in their MFA programs",

but hey don't forget that student at OState who wrote above: "henri cole is also here, but he is not very present or involved with anybody. to our chagrin."

Chagrin is relevant, no?

but i shouldn't generalize from what i thought i observed at Montana for a semester 5 years ago . . .

in any case my comments here are (i hope) honest questions and not blatant assertions—

At 9/04/2011 7:36 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

if you were that student at OState,


assigned to Henri Cole's workshop, and he was "not very present or involved with anybody,"

if he entered your classroom like he was slummin',

diffident and distant—

wouldn't you suspect that your FSG'd Briggs-Copelandcrowned instructor

might not be too enthused about being there among you Ohioan hoi polloi?

and wouldn't that effect your experience . . .

but maybe i'm extrapolating again, based on my encounters with Cole's verse

which usually seems "not very present or involved" with me as a reader,

and I always conclude that like Sebastian Venable his work should be published privately by his mother and not be exposed to the vulgar world—

that in fact our eyes offend his precious poesy.


At 9/04/2011 8:34 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm at a top 20 that I would really prefer not to name, because I've already made all my complaints known to the faculty there. Basically, I am being forced to write prose poetry this semester, because of the way the schedule worked out (or didn't work out) for this year's incoming prose writers. It's a school that has a reputation for being flexible and experimental, but so far I'm not finding it flexible AT ALL.

I don't really get this issue about being cut off from the real world or whatever? I worked/was unemployed/was in the real world for seven years before my MFA. No one has to do it right after college. It's up to you if you want to get "real-world experience" before you start your MFA or not. Also, an MFA is only a couple years. You live in the "real world after."

At 9/05/2011 4:11 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


I feel I've answered your question as well as I can. The answer is YES, if I was dealing with Henri Cole (or anyone) at OSU (or anywhere) and he (or she) was all waa waa about New York or something, I would feel bad, especially if he was being all disconnected and absent. I would feel dismissed and I would then feel like dismissing him. It would be a bad situation.

On the other hand, I know Kathy Fagan personally, and I think she's great. Who knows.

So what were the students reading in Montana when you were there teaching?

At 9/05/2011 6:40 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Unlike Seth and Kent, I'm easy-going in correspondence and hard-going in person. I'd be happy to post my reading schedule so you all can arrange to be elsewhere when I'm in your area.

Re Knott's question, college footfall teams do okay with players from a miscellany of places. How many of the Iowa Hawkeyes are from Iowa? Do you think the players from Florida or wherever play lackadaisically because they feel no fealty to the state of Iowa? Like Hessian mercenaries in the Revolutionary War? I think not. Why should MFA programs be different?

And why don't MFA programs play football with each other? The Iowa Platypodes could take on the Michigan Pipestem-Launderers. We'll see who's really number 1.

--Karen Carpenter(in an extra extra small rugby shirt)

At 9/05/2011 2:15 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

First off, I just finished my two-year stint at the University of San Francisco and I could not be happier with the education that I received in the long-fiction style.

1. If there is a reigning, asserting aesthetic, I would say that it is simply to work hard at being a better writer. I was already doing a lot of experimental work in my writing before arriving, but never was it implied that I should tone it down or go more extreme. Every bit of advice I received in my workshops was towards the end result of MY book and never someone else's. The talk of experimental vs. realism was discussed, but never in terms of "this is better than that," but rather "there is this, there is that, here are the arguments for both." There were enough classes offered in both styles that I was able to choose the path that I wanted without feeling herded into one or the other. I chose the more experimental route as that felt more natural to my own sensibilities. This choice turned out to be the best thing for me and ultimately garnered some respect from my peers (both students and professors) because I was able, of my own accord, to keep a realist bent to my work while still trying to expand the piece to its strangest limits.

As far as reading lists go, I'm not sure I'd know who was being left out, but I had a class that pitted Calvino side by side with Carver, O'Connor side by side with Gaines, and I never felt any of my reading lists for any of my seminar classes was glossing over works I'd already read. If I had read them before, I was being reintroduced to the text in different, deeper ways in order to further my own techniques and approaches to my writing.

2.) With talk of the "real world," there were certainly some areas that I could've used more information in, but the program made it a point to have outside of class lectures given on these topics. Many of the professors, I think, realized this wasn't a complete education on it, and often spent a good deal of time (mostly in workshop at the end of class) discussing aspects of publishing, query letters, agents, so on.

There was definitely an overarching philosophy of keeping in touch with several other students and "finding your readers" so that post-MFA success in editing and writing would continue well after the program. Having those people around later to help read my work has been a blessing since the program ended and I trust a great deal of my peers to tell me when my own writing is terrible or not up to my normal quality.

I know nothing of the Top 20 MFA programs listed (other than I was rejected by 4 of them the first time I applied), but I can say without a doubt that I enjoyed my time at USF and definitely wanted to stick around for another year or two. I even wrote back to my old undergraduate program back in the midwest to tell the professors about the quality of education I was receiving and to pass along my letter to any student looking for a quality MFA program.

At 9/07/2011 1:33 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm in my second semester at Fairfield University's low residency program. I think the low residency component contributes to a realistic view of working as a writer. Most of us work full-time and commit our free time to writing. At our last residency we had two panels on 'life after the MFA,' discussing how to keep writing diligently, and ways to make a living that could capitalize on our degree (be it teaching or pursuing freelance writing or editing opportunities).
We choose our own reading lists each semester with our mentor professor, which is both good and bad. I'd like to have a few standards we were required to read.
Again, this may be due to the low residency aspect, but I feel completely free to pursue my own writing and voice. I take suggestions from my mentors, which usually revolve around craft rather than style, very seriously. I take workshop critiques with a grain of salt, since they can often contradict each other. All in all, I'm pursuing an MFA because I had a novel draft and I knew I could do better. Since starting my program, my draft has improved by leaps and bounds--much more than it ever could on my own.

At 9/07/2011 2:04 PM, Blogger Robert Alan Wendeborn said...

I just finished an MFA at NMSU, not a tier 1, but certainly underrated.

We weren't pushed into an aesthetic. We were all free to decide what we wanted to write. Some of us chose to experiment with our style and form and others chose to continue writing in their aesthetic throughout the three years. The good thing about NMSU is the three years gives one plenty of time to do both: to experiment and hone a style. I felt like I came out of NMSU with the ability to write in various voices and tones. I can be "skittery" as Hoagland would put it, but I can also write a clear narrative or rhetorical poem. Whatever we chose to do we were encouraged to own it, to make it ours, to be the boss of our writing.

As far as the reading went, we were also given plenty of freedom. There is a required amount of literature courses, but within that there is a lot of variety. In workshops we would often read books as well. Those readings were highly varied. We read early Merwin, Keats, Ovid, Ariana Reines, GS Giscomb, and were assigned to create semester long reading lists that had to include poets in translation, poets of color, queer poets and equal number of poets from each gender.

hope this helps.

At 9/07/2011 2:20 PM, Anonymous Don Noel said...

I'm in my second semester at Fairfield U, and finding it very helpful. I have the advantage of being retired -- albeit with a bunch of volunteer community activities -- and able to spend more time than most of my classmates. Like Fairfield Anonymous above I've found mentors' and workshop leaders' comments directed at craft, not style. I've started each semester with a reading list that is amended along the way as my mentor suggests a different book -- not because I should ape it, but to see how someone else has handled elements such as some part of my novel.
I'm unaware of "two camps"

At 9/07/2011 4:49 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I went to Bennington College for my MFA. There was no "real world" talk, but lots of academy. I didn't mind; I was ignorant about much of that, though I had a good basis in reading classics. The "camp" there was about lots of dead white men writers and poets, heavily British. The writing didn't reflect that. "Diversity" included Eastern Europe, South America, Russia and Western Europe. And (dead white) women. The program had stellar guest faculty, though sometimes having A Name took precedence over ability to deliver relevant content. Its focus on reading the classics has proven to be a method to continue to self-teach and strengthen one's own art. Its reputation is deserved, but I wish it had been a bit more real world.

At 9/07/2011 7:53 PM, Blogger Jeanne's Writer's Block said...

I'm finishing up at Fairfield University this winter, splitting my thesis between short stories and poetry. The low-residency aspect does facilitate independence. After I graduate, I want to know that I will work on my own and produce. The workshops always help a great deal, and are essential in a low-residency program. Reading lists are provided by each mentor especially in the early semesters where the student writes craft essays as well as her/his own work.

At 9/08/2011 7:08 AM, Blogger R. Sanford said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 9/08/2011 7:11 AM, Blogger R. Sanford said...

It's a top 40 but not 20, but still: at Notre Dame I had a professor literally huff at me and declare before talking about my poems that week he'd have to, 'Put on his grumpy hat.'

He also said, I quote, "I don't believe in prose poems."

After the class came to the defense of a girl he was berating weekly for not titling her poems, he stormed out and afterward stopped attending any and all student readings.

I'm not sure how these translate into Seth's metrics, but there you go.

He's heading the department at current, by the way. You can't make this shit up.

At 9/08/2011 3:13 PM, Blogger Whimsy said...

I can just imagine Rick Perry saying, "I'm gonna read me one of those skittery poems today".

At 9/08/2011 6:35 PM, Blogger Michael said...

It's amusing to read a lot of MFA students commenting about 'the real world'.

At 9/08/2011 10:46 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Legend has it that Bodhidharma initially refused to teach Dazu Huike. Huike stood in the snow outside Bodhidharma’s cave until the snow reached his waist. In the morning Bodhidharma asked him why he was there; Huike replied that he wanted a teacher to 'open the gate of the elixir or universal compassion to liberate all beings.' Bodhidharma replied,'How can you hope for true religion with little virtue, little wisdom, a shallow heart, and an arrogant mind? It would just be a waste of effort.' Finally, to prove his resolve, Huike cut off his left arm and presented it to the First Patriarch as a token of his sincerity. Bodhidharma then accepted him as a student" (paraphrase of Wikipedia).

Would you cut off your arm to be admitted to Iowa and study with Cole Swenson?

--Karen Carpenter

At 9/09/2011 7:28 AM, Blogger R. Sanford said...


I'd be absolutely enthralled--enthralled--to hear you elaborate. Really. Please, do indulge me on this.

At 9/09/2011 7:41 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Would you cut off your arm to be admitted to Iowa and study with Cole Swenson?"

My ex graduated from Iowa. She studied with Swenson, but said she would have preferred cutting off her arm.

Other teachers made the experience worth it, if barely.

At 9/09/2011 11:40 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

That's interesting, Anon. I'm curious about Iowa. I know a talented (and hot!) woman who went there a few years ago, but I've lost touch with her.

But how about Ashbery? Suppose you tried to get into Bard College a few years ago to work with him, and he refused to take you on? Would you cut off your arm and send it to him to say, "Nothing--absolutely nothing--matters to me except finding out what you're about." Does anyone care about poetry passionately enough to do that? Does anyone revere Ashbery enough to do that?

--Karen Carpenter

At 9/09/2011 1:15 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I revere Ashbery, I suppose, but haven't heard anything about what he's like as a teacher.

Maybe that's a question for another thread ... what kind of correlation do people find between liking someone a a poet and liking them as a teacher?


At 9/13/2011 8:24 AM, Blogger Jeston said...

Just saw this article in the New York Observer that might be of interest to some of you:

At 9/21/2011 6:41 PM, Blogger insertbrackets said...

I feel the need to contradict what the anonymous commenter on OSU said about our program. I am a third year poet in the MFA program, and I am very satisfied by the aesthetic versatility of the poets here.

I also want to say that Henri Cole is my thesis advisor, and he has been nothing but absolutely engaged in what I am doing. Since I came to the program, he has been a very nurturing presence and mentor.

I have an idea who posted anonymously (there's only one real option) and that person has some real issues. (Pathological lying being one of them...) I can't say much more than that, because that person's issues have pushed me far away from them. Anyway, just thought, as a very happy student in OSU's program, I should try to un-trash/bash it (un- anonymously even.)

At 4/17/2013 2:55 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Oregon State University MFA Program has nice teachers and students, but the department bullies students and faculty, reviews emails, tells frequent lies, makes up false numbers about the program ratings... (google this and see; it's important information for potential students)... treats the office staff with open disdain and rudeness, and on and on.

Makes for a toxic environment. It's too bad because again there are good teachers here, but it's not a great place for a writer.


Post a Comment

<< Home