Saturday, February 6, 2010

Poetry: An Education (Part Two)

Creative writing programs are much maligned as writer-processing factories. Young talented people go in the front doors and come out two years later as Stepford automatons writing prepackaged stories and poems. Such programs breed art for easy consumption and short attention spans. Writing with a short shelf life. Or so the conventional wisdom goes.

I’m not sure why everyone beats up on creative writing MFA programs as they do. I understand the arguments against them but at a time when undergraduate students are surging into business programs at universities and colleges at record rates instead of taking a liberal arts education, maybe creative writing programs are not such a bad thing. Instead of breeding an atmosphere of success, I think they teach students about failure, something they desperately need in this era of hovering parents and children exiting high-school with a worrying sense of entitlement.

Certainly, my own experience with creative writing at the university level taught me about failure. I took a few undergraduate courses in university with a few kind professors who didn’t really teach me anything about how to write, and after reading poems in local bars at open mic nights for a few years and getting a few poems published in small publications, I moved to Montreal and did a Masters degree in English Literature and Creative Writing at Concordia University.

It was there that I learned to accept my short-comings as a writer. I had several professors with a real generosity of spirit, people like Robert Allen and Gary Geddes, but who also possessed the pluck to tell me when I was writing complete shit. I remember calling up Gary Geddes who was my thesis advisor at the time, and telling him I had three new poems to show him, and he responded, “Great! Meet me at my office at 10 am and I’ll pull out my chain-saw”. Hardly, a warm fuzzy.

If my professors were being cruel to be kind, my fellow students could be equally discriminating. There were real standards demanded in the workshops I took and my classmates were quick to point out any faults in poems I submitted for workshopping. I think we learned just as much from each other sitting around a table drinking pints at the Stanley Pub talking about the poets we were reading, inside and outside of class, as we did from any of our professors. I left that program three years later with a Master’s degree, a failed manuscript under my left arm, and an implacable understanding of what good writing demands of a person.

Blood, sweat, tears. And, yes, a pound of flesh.

The American poet Philip Levine, a gifted creative writing teacher himself, has given his thoughts on post secondary creative writing programs in his prose collection So Ask: Essays, Conversations, and Interviews. He suggests it is the students themselves, and their capacity for failure, and not the teachers at all, which are necessary for a creative writing program to work:

“I’ve taught at a great many schools, taught poetry writing now for twenty-five years at Fresno State, Brown, Princeton, NYU, Columbia, Vassar, UC Berkeley, the University of Alabama at Birmingham, Tufts, and from all that experience I’ve learned something remarkable. The best student poets I’ve encountered were not at Tufts or Princeton or Brown; they were at Fresno State and UAB, the two lousiest schools I’ve taught at. The worst poetry writing students were at Princeton….. ……We know that everyone who tries to write poems fail at first: Keats failed, Rilke failed, Hart Crane failed, why aren’t you going to fail? My students at FSU would never weep in class. They might say, ‘Fuck you, Levine,’ but never would they weep. Why so many wonderful poets from this funny little school in central California, all of whom came as local youngsters to college, not a single one recruited—Larry Levis, Lawson Inada, Gary Soto, Roberta Spear, David St. John, Luis Omar Salinas, Greg Pape, Glover Davis, Sherley Williams, Herb Scott, Kathy Fagan, Leonard Adame, Ernesto Trejo, Jon Veinberg, Robert Vasquez, and more I’m forgetting. It’s not because of the teacher. We know how little a teacher can do. These poets could accept their failures as poets, and as people, learn from them, and go on.” (44)

I understand all of the arguments against creative writing programs, that they abase poetry by reducing it to classroom chit-chat and endless questions of technique, that they bury the sublime under an avalanche of exercises, but they also teach a fundamental truth that with writing comes failure. And if one leaves a creative writing progam and does not publish a book, nor develops a more durable writing style beyond what they were taught at school, that is hardly the fault of the creative writing program. That fault lies with the individual alone.

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