Would you like to attend a parade in honor of chapbooks this weekend? If you are near Amherst, MA, you can do so as part of the 50th Anniversary Celebration of the MFA Program for Poets and Writers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. And you can see readings by Valerie Martin, John Ashbery, and many others. And addresses by Eric Lorberer (of Rain Taxi) and Rob Casper (of jubilat and the Library of Congress). All with nearness to The Quabbin.
The event will also feature the debut of a film by Philadelphia-based filmmaker and writer Chris Ward. In an email, Chris said that his film aims to highlight “the sheer exuberance of community” surrounding the literary life in western Massachusetts’ Pioneer Valley. (This exuberance can make one distinctly receptive: Chris said that, on his way to interview the writer Mira Bartok in a nearby town, he “stopped in the general store, which was so small and quaint that they had, among other things, one banana.” A good student of the moment, Chris “bought this lone piece of fruit and referred to it as ‘the banana.’” He said that “this made sense to the people there…everyone has a barn with something surprising in it.”)
I went to UMass, and, having counted myself among the surprises to be found in certain barns, I feel warmly toward its MFA program, though I know it’s a rule of the internet that one can’t mention MFAs without invoking those critiques that people love to publish, love to debate, love to talk about instead of talking about writing. Are MFAs ruining literature? Will studying with a teacher for a couple of years disquiet the purity of your egotism? Is NYC a place? Never mind the sophisticated responses to this “debate” by Edan Lepucki, Laura Miller, Seth Abramson, and others. For a would-be provocateur, criticizing MFA programs plops one squarely into the literary news cycle; one could be forgiven for thinking that’s equivalent to being a successful writer.
These criticisms can also obscure more substantial discussion—such as David Mura’s about the ways in which conventional creative writing pedagogy can foreground “only one side of the dialogue on race and literature”—and they often troublingly assume that a two- or three-year graduate program in the arts will be more definitional for a writer than his or her other backgrounds, identities, values; that as soon as one attends an MFA program, he or she becomes an “MFA insider.” Or else they assume that a two- or three-year graduate program in the arts should be evaluated by its relationship to individual literary glory, not in the context of education and culture more broadly—in which the right MFA program can offer students a significant, transformative experience.
All this chatter can seem shallow next to the kind of exuberance that Chris mentioned, let alone if you have ever tried to believe, with Adrienne Rich, that art can be as necessary as “food, shelter, health, education, decent working conditions.” Her list of necessities doesn’t include “being famous in NYC” or “having a powerful agent,” though I often hear MFA debaters mention those goals, as measures of something that is very far from why I care about literature and art. Rich’s quote appears in her excellent essay collection, What Is Found There. Right before it, she says the following, which articulates a contradiction that my time in MFA programs helped me explore in increasingly contradictory ways:
“I knew—had long known—how poetry can break open locked chambers of possibility, restore numbed zones to feeling, recharge desire. And, in spite of conditions at large, it seemed to me that poetry in the US had never been more various and rich in its promise and its realized offerings. But I had, more than I wanted to acknowledge, internalized the idea, so common in this country, so strange in most other places, that poetry is powerless, or that it can have nothing to do with the kinds of powers that organize us as a society, as communities within that society, as relationships within communities. If asked, I would have said that I did not accept this idea. Yet it haunted me.”
I won’t belabor what’s simple (don’t go into debt for an MFA, unless you can afford it, in which case I have some other projects to tell you about; don’t believe it’s the only path; don’t believe it will give you more than time to read and write and make some friends and live somewhere you might otherwise not; don’t treat someone like a celebrity just because they’re a teacher; and an MFA is an art degree, you know, not a track to the professoriate, but it can give you experiences that qualify you for things you couldn’t predict), especially because I know that UMass’s upcoming celebration isn’t just about an MFA program but about a way of approaching the writing life, which one could also find at the upcoming Mission Creek Festival in Iowa City or Seattle’s recent APRIL events or, for those of us in Philly, April 12’s “demonstration of the abundance and the enthusiasm for poetry in Philadelphia.” And elsewhere: the parade is everywhere.
So: happy 50th, UMass MFA Program! Dance on my behalf after the last reading.