The Writing Class
Sometime in the early 1970s, my parents got into a still-infamous row after one of them splurged two dollars on a houseplant the other insisted they couldn’t afford. That spat took place a few years before I turned up, but they’ve laughed about it so often, I almost remember being there. It fits into my real memories of other squabbles they had in that shabby apartment we lived in on the north side of Chicago, the worn green carpet in its kitchen, a claw-foot tub without a shower in its single bathroom, scuffed paint on its walls, their arguments tumbling through whole evenings. It fits into my memory of what money meant to their otherwise happy marriage. Sundays we’d go in the used Oldsmobile from one market with a sale on tomatoes to the other where a gallon of milk sold for 10 cents cheaper. On the way home, we’d forgo the bright new gas station for the gloomy old one where unleaded cost a few cents less.
These are some of the ways my immigrant parents survived recessions, layoffs, and the disappearance of entire industries from the U.S. economy. This is how they earned, saved, and invested enough to move us into a brick split-level house with a two-and-a-half-car garage in the suburbs by the time I started secondary school. Though my father clocked into the same hydraulics parts plant as a machinist for more than a decade and my mother did data entry for an hourly wage at a financial publishing company, they could afford to buy me a set of encyclopedias and an Apple computer. They could pay for tennis lessons and give me a stereo system with a CD player and a double-cassette deck. They could send me to the private academy instead of the public high school.
This is how I lived a socioeconomic reality almost entirely separate from theirs. While my parents scrimped and stressed daily as part of the working classes, I went to a school with honors societies, study abroad programs, and AP courses. I went to college. I managed to turn my philosophy major into a high-paying job at a software startup south of Silicon Valley. Higher education had kept its promise of onward and upward mobility, which seemed easy enough in the bloated turn-of-the-century tech economy. Still, after less than six months at the startup, I decided to apply to MFA programs in creative writing. This didn’t make sense to my mother and father. Though we were far removed from the ragged apartments of my childhood, their class consciousness remained rooted in those earlier struggles. It told them we weren’t the kind of people who did certain kinds of things. Abandoning a salaried job with stock options for a graduate degree offering little hope of future employment or reliable income was chief among these, but I liked the integrity in my plan. If a degree in poetry dumped me into bohemian poverty, I thought, so be it. At least I was being earnest in my pursuit. I was that kind of people.
My father wrote his share of poems in high school in India. He still recites verses—though never his own—in Punjabi on occasional late evenings. My mother, the daughter of a schoolteacher and at the top of her high school class in a village not far from my father’s, could probably recite a few herself. Poetry wasn’t a bad idea in the abstract to either of them. It might even be a noble pursuit, but it also seemed a thing better left to the children of the wealthy than to the son of working-class immigrants. To their minds, being a poet wasn’t a job. They still felt too near the keen edge of hardship to see me follow so precarious a career path. I didn’t see the danger.
I don’t think I entirely understood that it was the economic advantage they had worked and paid for that permitted me to be so brazen. If I’d been anything other than a protected spectator during my parents’ lean years, if I didn’t have their income and savings for a safety net during and after college, I probably would have stuck with that startup or some other bleary office job. Economists and accountants might make raw distinctions between the classes based on objective metrics such as net worth or income—the 1 percent versus the 99 percent, for instance—but class consciousness might be better defined by the kinds of choices we feel permitted to make. Where the working classes are regularly forced to take pragmatic action out of necessity, the privileged are allowed to act on desire. My parents’ money, modest as it was and still is, did more than pay for the things I needed. It allowed me to want things they couldn’t afford to want themselves.
There isn’t anything inherently bratty about this. It is, after all, what class mobility is meant to accomplish in the too few places such a thing is even possible. The brat is born when the privileged mistakenly believe that we somehow earned and deserve the socioeconomic and structural advantages granted to us by the fluke or fortune of family, gender, race, sexual preference, religion, education, or national origin. To suffer from that delusion is a mostly personal problem. It becomes a problem for everybody else when the privileged also believe that the things we’re permitted to want are necessary or superior to what somebody else wants, when we believe our desires should be respected and even admired by those who don’t share in our advantage.
I don’t know that I ever suffered from cluelessness quite so severe as that. I did believe my dream of a life in poetry to be pure, to be something apart from socioeconomics. My concerns were artistic concerns, I thought, my acceptance of bohemianism an earnest embrace of the artist’s life. The contradiction is that those concerns, however sincere, led me to graduate school. The desire to write and publish poetry leads a lot of us there, which is all well and good, but there’s nothing bohemian about it. Quite the opposite, Western postgraduate education has historically been one of our culture’s most prominent expressions of upper-class privilege. The fact that grad programs in creative writing exist at all is testament to the remarkable abundance of collective, institutional wealth in the United States. Those of us who are able to attend these programs can do so only as beneficiaries of certain structural advantages that are required simply to walk through their gates. Latter-day versions of my parents, meaning those who might appreciate poetry but lack college degrees or the time and resources to spend on graduate schooling, can’t join us there.
This might be acceptable in the context of professional fields such as medicine, business, and law, but poetry is supposed to be an art, which means it should at least attempt to represent the society in which it’s produced. It can’t fully do this if its primary mode of production inherently excludes large swaths of the population. The risk of such exclusions is that they limit the variety and appeal of the kind of writing produced in graduate programs. Nearly every complaint about contemporary poetry in the United States, whether in reference to the lack of diversity among those publishing it or to its opacity or to the very credibility of the genre itself, is rooted in this basic dynamic.
I wanted to write poetry. I didn’t need a graduate degree to do this. Nobody does. But graduate programs in creative writing offer a two- to five-year respite from that other life working long hours in restaurants, bars, factories, or offices. We’re given time and money—no matter how brief and how paltry—to focus almost exclusively on our art, which is no small advantage over everyone else writing on the fringes of a 40-or-more-hour workweek. For many of us, that advantage is supplemented by financial support from parents, partners, and spouses along the way. Added to this is the immaterial benefit of receiving feedback on our writing from published faculty and invested classmates, which helps us refine our poems toward publication—an achievement that might finally give us the satisfaction we’re all after to begin with.
The upside is substantial, but it isn’t just life in these programs that demonstrates our position of privilege in attending them. There’s also the fact that we know they exist in the first place, that we possess the credentials and resources to apply and enroll in them. Every would-be graduate student needs an undergraduate degree, letters from qualified recommenders, access to qualifying exams like the GRE, and funds to cover application fees. We need a disposable share of time to spend on years away from gainful employment and (for many) a safety net to catch us if we fail to find gainful employment after we finish our programs. Most of this is contingent upon access to a college education, and that access is far more readily available to those from middle- or upper-class backgrounds.
While some aspiring writers from less privileged backgrounds do find their way to graduate school, they remain substantially outnumbered. Because socioeconomic disparities in the United States have long coincided with gender and race, that factor of class goes a long way in determining the demographic makeup of grad programs. This has far-reaching consequences for who gets represented in the American literary canon that graduate-educated writers are increasingly coming to dominate. When Junot Diaz, in his essay “MFA versus POC,” complains about the overwhelming whiteness of his experience at Cornell in the early 1990s, he’s noting the cultural consequences of socioeconomic inequity. Even if we believe, as I do, that demographic trends have improved since Diaz’s years as an MFA student two decades ago, this doesn’t mean the system is correcting its culture of privilege. Instead, I worry that all of us are simply being indoctrinated into and blinded by it.
The more advanced our degrees, the more conversant we become in the mores of the upper classes. For creative writing programs, this is borne out in all those wine and cheese receptions, in the pomp and circumstance of the formal reading series, and in the annual pageant of the AWP conference, where thousands of nattily dressed writers spend their days commiserating in the hotel ballrooms of America’s priciest urban centers. We might be sleeping four to a room and putting the $10 drinks in the lobby bar on already overburdened credit cards, but the entire culture of the conference is in wild opposition to the lifestyle afforded by a graduate stipend of $15,000 per year—where such scant funding is even offered. If grad school’s pay scale provides an authentic experience of lean living, grad school’s culture delivers the distinct whiff of old-money society. This isn’t the fault of creative writing programs themselves. It’s a culture they’ve inherited from the cultural history of the academy in general, which has little to do with the socioeconomic experiences shared by millions of people in the United States and billions around the world. When entry into a field becomes contingent upon class advantage and participation in it becomes a kind of class indoctrination, stratifications become inevitable.
Those of us who matriculate through MA, MFA, and PhD programs join a select club relative to the general population: writers who can make some kind of living, no matter how meager, from work related to their art. Access to that club is so limited and our numbers so few that we become a class unto ourselves, a writing class serving as poetry’s own version of a 1 percent. It’s true that club isn’t so decadent as the analogy implies. I put in time after my MFA and again after my PhD earning lousy incomes as an adjunct lecturer, postdoctoral fellow, and visiting writer. I taught my share of overwhelming course loads for underwhelming pay without health insurance or job security. Still, I remained a poet in the academy and party to its culture even as it exploited me as a low-cost laborer.
This is one of the bizarre contradictions so many of us—adjunct, tenure-track, and tenured instructors alike—decry about the current labor structure in higher education. Teaching at a university is supposed to be a middle-class occupation. Except when it isn’t. In that case, the history, image, and culture of higher education stand in stark contradiction with reality. That reality, the one of scrimping and saving and stressing, is the bohemian lifestyle I was embracing when I decided to try for an MFA. It’s similar to the one I’d been born into and raised out of by my parents. In spite of its hardships, though, off I’d go to the wine and cheese reception. Off I’d go to the panels of the AWP conference like an old-world intellectual, as if my learning and art somehow distinguished me from anyone in a factory or a Walmart earning as little as I did.
This is class consciousness under the influence of academia. Graduate school endorses the idea that we are rare and recruited for our talents, but the more accurate statement might be that we are rare only because we have access to graduate school. Once there, we’re taught to engage in the thinking and behaviors of academic culture, a collective entity whose origins and practices don’t have anything to do with the working and low-income classes we’re more accurately a part of when we don’t land a tenure-track job. We might have come to graduate school from privilege, but even if we didn’t, the culture of privilege that insulates us once there is mind-altering. We learn to live poor but think rich. To borrow a couple of lines from John Ashbery, something ought to be written about how this affects you when you write poetry.
The academy changes us. It might significantly expand our thinking and knowledge, but it also asks us to adopt its culture. The trouble is that this kind of assimilation also tends to affect our language. I can’t imagine the wealthy often say WIC check or second shift. The poor probably don’t use terms like escrow or dividends. For the middle classes, there might be a dissertation in studying the diction of our Facebook posts as a function of income. Imagine a line graph where x is annual salary and y is occurrences of the words resort or reception—or dissertation, for that matter. One of the things that distinguishes the classes is that they speak and sound different from each other. The thousands of choices we make daily in our diction and syntax are almost entirely reflexive. We hardly notice them at all when we’re talking or writing to people who are like us. If we encounter only such people, if nobody comes along to challenge our language and its embedded frames of reference, the result is that ours becomes a private conversation continually reaffirming our existing perspectives. While this might be interesting to note in a general sense, for poets it becomes downright existential. Poetry as a practice should be completely antithetical to any kind of linguistic restriction. The entire premise of poetry, the thing that fuels and continually renews it, is that it demands the expansion of language. We can achieve such expansion without advanced degrees, with that well-worn library card alone, but that’s not what many of us do. We go to graduate school instead.
We believe we’re doing this for the way it benefits our writing, but we’re not. We’re doing it for the money, or at least for the dream of landing some of it. Poetry isn’t a job, but when I started my MFA in 2001, it seemed like it could be. The steady growth of MFA programs nationally throughout the ’80s and ’90s had been predicated on the idea that this was a terminal degree that offered the real chance of an income at its conclusion: you published your stuff, you published a book, then you went out and landed a tenure-track gig at another university. The MFA seemed to have become the aesthete’s version of a DDS. The automatic thinking is laughable in retrospect, and if I’d known the realities of the academic job market at the outset, I might’ve run screaming to dental school. I didn’t. I went to poetry school, and I did it for a job as much as I did it for the writing. This makes my decision to get a graduate degree as much a careerist ambition as an artistic one.
Thousands of others must share some part of my motivation. According to the online database at Poets & Writers, there are currently about 260 graduate programs in creative writing in the United States. That number is astonishing in comparison with the fifteen or so I had a little knowledge of when I was deciding where to apply in 1999 and 2000. I remember using a 1997 ranking of MFA and MA programs for reference, which I recall listed somewhere around 60 in total. The growth of these programs can be attributed to a number of factors. Universities that are willing to fund MAs, MFAs, and PhDs do so in order to address the widespread interest in creative writing classes among their undergraduates. Aside from having high-profile writers on their permanent faculties, schools gain a low-cost labor pool of graduate student instructors available to teach in-demand undergrad workshops along with required composition courses. Further, they steadily accumulate an even larger worker pool of low-cost, benefits-ineligible adjunct instructors whose ranks many of us join upon completing our degrees. While low-residency programs might be an exception to much of this, because they tend not to provide funding, they serve as a low-overhead revenue generator for the universities that offer them. For the graduate student, the pay is paltry and the employment outlook bleak, but this hasn’t discouraged thousands of us from signing up.
For whatever benefits they offered, nothing about my degrees made me a writer. The only direct consequence of those letters after my name and the schooling they represent is that I became minimally qualified to apply for teaching jobs at universities. This is their single, practical outcome. While I don’t fault myself or anyone else for attempting to make a career out of writing, the fact that my degrees are the essential qualification for that career means they take on a market value. This further means that the work I produced in order to attend and pass through those degree programs becomes a commodity. The degree is something like a visa into a country where published poems act as currency. If we aspire to the comfort and stability of tenure-track positions that are sparingly available there, then some part of our motivation to write and publish our work is market-driven.
Such motivations have propelled poetry in the United States through its own version of an industrial revolution during the past quarter century. Its industrialization might be fractional relative to soft drinks, sneakers, or smartphones, but the expansion is real, and it has consequences. That same database at Poets & Writers lists more than 280 small presses that publish one or more books of poetry a year. It’s difficult to even estimate the increasing number of outlets, in print and online, that publish individual poems daily, weekly, monthly, and annually, though the P&W database puts that number at over a thousand. What was for centuries a small-scale pursuit available mostly to white men of means has become a cottage industry attended by thousands of established and aspiring writers. In spite of its size, that industry has been largely incapable of bringing poetry to the masses. Instead, it seems mostly a resource for those of us looking to bolster our CVs and bulk up our tenure files. We are writing to ourselves.
The clearest indication of this fact is that all of these presses and journals are housed, along with our graduate schools, under the umbrella of the Association of Writers & Writing Programs. In less than three decades, the AWP has grown into a kind of industrial complex replete with commercial and boutique brands, gatekeepers and cliques, infighting and nepotism. MA, MFA, and PhD writers dominate almost every aspect of its marketplace. Yet there doesn’t seem to be much demand for the growing supply of writing produced by graduate-educated poets by anyone outside of graduate-educated poets. This might be because that writing is part of its own economy. We love what we do, and others who are invested in that economy might love it too, but when the consumers of poetry are also almost exclusively those who produce it, we are left ascribing value to our own product. The trouble is that nobody outside the industry needs to agree with our valuations, and if the critics are right, nobody does.
Poetry has been slammed by Harpers. It’s been declared dead at the Washington Post. It’s been called AWOL by NPR Books. Whenever recent observers announce poetry’s demise, their autopsies tend to offer impalement by ivory tower as a major cause of death. They tell us that poetry is out of touch, that the genre is too much a part of the incestuous relationship between graduate creative writing programs, literary journals, and publishers, all of which are controlled and operated by (mostly academic) insiders. This has marginalized what was allegedly once a mainstream art and disconnected it from those masses apparently yearning for poetry out there in the wide world. The critics, then, are standing up for the vague notion of a “general” public when they attack the academic version of poetry, though I’m still not sure how any of these folks writing for Harpers, the Post, or NPR is any less a part of the overeducated middle-class literati than any member of the AWP.
The editors of the New York Times took a more conciliatory approach in addressing the state of the art by posing the question “Does poetry matter?” to a forum of highly decorated poets. (As far as I’m concerned, Jonathan Farmer’s response to this exercise in the LA Review of Books far outshone anything included in the original forum.) The editors’ introduction included the sub-question “Can poetry ever regain its relevancy?” Even if I ignore their frame of reference—I’m not sure when poetry ever was “relevant” or ever did “matter” in the way they mean—the fact that these questions are being asked at all suggests there’s a crisis in the art so severe that its very existence needs to be interrogated. On the other hand, even while the editors question poetry’s validity, their decision to present this particular forum seems an endorsement of poetry’s viability as a topic of interest for their general readership, which is a funny thing for dying art. The Times seems to be banking on the idea that there’s enough merit in the question for it to be taken seriously and that there are enough people seriously invested in poetry for the forum to attract traffic to their site in serious numbers. I suspect the argument did exactly that for the Times as well as for the Post, Harpers, Slate, and even here at the Poetry Foundation—and wherever else it tumbled onward.
If there’s a credible complaint in the criticism, it’s that we can’t distinguish art from the context in which it’s produced. The critics, however, focus on factors of aesthetics and personality when they ought to be paying attention to factors of economics and market forces. There is a desire in graduate-educated poets to write for the sake of readers, but there’s also a desire to leverage that writing into a career. We need to impress each other as much or more than we need to impress those outside of our immediate industry. A consequence of this is an interiority to the poetry we produce, but I don’t think that interiority is the result of snobbery, meekness, or obliviousness among poets the way critics have alleged. Too many of us are politically motivated in our writing and politically active in our lives for those accusations to hold up. I think it has more to do with the subtle effects that academia and the privilege inherent to it has on our language. If we intend for our work to appeal to an audience outside of ourselves, the first step might be to acknowledge the isolating effects of that privilege and admit that we need to learn as much about WIC checks and second shifts as we do about disjunctive narrativity and postmodernism. If we come from places that have taught us something about the former, our writing might benefit from not losing that culture and language to the culture of graduate schooling.
This isn’t to say that I have no problem with the critics’ complaints. It’s true there are poets, both established and aspiring, who have long forgotten or never acknowledged the ways they’ve benefited from the class advantages of higher education. There are also poets for whom the esoteric concerns of academic scholars and critics have become the primary motivating force in their writing. Both types of writer have little need for or interest in a mainstream audience. These are aesthetes writing for aesthetes. There isn’t any sin in this, but it does contribute to the perception that poetry is out of touch with the wider culture. Still, one of the reasons I’m not naming names here is that for every staid or esoteric poem, for every too-big-to-fail poet I might offer as an example in support of these observations, I can offer another that counters them. The fact is, there’s simply too much poetry out there coming from too many sources to make for believable generalizations about the art, and the trouble with recent attacks on poetry is that they’re based on too few examples without credible knowledge of the vast numbers of alternatives.
Beyond this, when critics call for a more relevant brand of poetry, their impulses might be well-meaning, but to believe that poetry should trump Facebook, cable, the movies, music, the news, Twitter, and the fact that more than a billion people now carry the entire Internet around in their pants is a weirdly capitalist ambition. It’s a desire for the elevation of one mode of expression over all those others, and I’m not sure why these critics believe that desire should matter more than somebody else’s need for something else. The thing that’s more troubling is that their nostalgia is for a time when self-expression was available to too few, when education and publication were far more limited than they are today. The times and places poetry mattered in the way its critic-defenders mean were those in which freedom of expression wasn’t the default for all.
In other places where this continues to be the case, poetry does have a truly existential value. Poets are being executed in Iran and jailed in China. Their voices matter because there are so few of them in those countries and because they are willing to say things that nobody else is willing or able to say. Meanwhile, in this country where terrible injustices and inequities continue to persist, poetry is only one of many ways to confront them. Poems of witness and protest are being written, and they are being published, and they can be extraordinarily powerful. If they seem more difficult to find than they might have been at a moment in the past, it isn’t because they don’t exist. It’s because they’re part of a much larger cultural machine in this country founded on freedoms of speech. In such context, it doesn’t seem to me that poetry has suddenly stopped mattering. It’s that a whole lot of other modes of expression matter too.
As for poetry itself, it’s possible that more people are writing, reading, performing, and publishing it today than at any other point in human history. If, in spite of this, our work doesn’t seem to bring enough refreshment to readers outside of our industry, if so many feel disconnected from both, it probably isn’t because their desire for the poetic mode of expression has gone away. It’s more likely because they can’t afford our version of it. They don’t have the same time and money some of us have had to invest in it. Our poems, then, become a thing like that $2 houseplant my parents waged their small war over. Neither is an object anybody needs. Either can be ignored when more vital concerns loom large. Yet people want them still. Open-mic nights and slams that take place daily across the country stand as proof of the desire for poetry. Beyond these, millions turn to the lyrics of singer-songwriters and hip-hop artists for experiences in verse. The complaint among the poetry-is-dead set is that too few of those people ever turn to us certified, bona fide poets of the AWP.
If we want to bring those critics and those masses to our poems, if we want poetry to matter to those outside our classrooms and conference halls—and there may be some poets who don’t; bully for them—then those others, their lives and their language, have to matter to us first. The only way they will is if we disrupt the culture of privilege that insulates us. And we need to disrupt it, not for our egoistic desire for a larger audience, but for the sake of our art. The only job of the poet is to destabilize and expand language. This is how poetry changes the world—not by grand ambition or the lauding of critics. It takes the plodding, unending effort of many to alter line by line, phrase by phrase, word by word the way we describe ourselves and everything around us. This is how we change perception. This is how we change the mind. We can’t do it while isolated by our privilege. There are too few of us. Our language is too limited. We need more words. We need more than ourselves and each other. We need every broke shoulder to the wheel.
Born in Chicago, poet Jaswinder Bolina earned a BA in philosophy from Loyola University in Chicago, an MFA in creative writing from the University of Michigan, and a PhD in English with a creative writing concentration from Ohio University. He is the author of the chapbook The Tallest Building in...