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AWP: A Ponzi Scheme? A Gated Community?

By Emily Warn

In an earlier post, Linh Dinh weighed the benefits vs. the hard realities of the MFA po-biz, and at one point concluded, “It really is a pyramid scheme.” But is it?

Because of the great recession, fewer and fewer colleges offer pass-keys to poets. State legislatures are drastically cutting budgets of public universities, putting pressure on creative writing departments to recruit tuition-paying students and on poets to teach mind-numbing freshmen comp and serve on committees with no (OMG) administrative assistants to reduce paper cuts. Fewer young writers can risk assuming debts, of say $100K for a Columbia MFA, knowing the slim chances for a faculty appointment or a padded salary with a Silicon Valley start-up. With unemployment hovering at 9.7 percent, is it ethical for creative writing departments to “recruit” students?

Here’s Linh Dinh:

Whatever the professor does, he must not frighten his charge into leaving the program. That would not be viewed kindly by the head cheerleader and used car salesman, uh, I mean, the department head. He should not warn them about their dismal prospects of making it, not just economically but as a writer…..

Some facts:

* Currently, searching for full-time, tenure track jobs on AWP’s job list yields zero results. (Choose “poetry,” “professor,” and “full-time” on …)

* Narrowing a search to “poetry” yields four results—a fellowship, a visiting professorship, and two requests from colleges seeking poets who want their names added to a list for possible jobs should funding arrive.

* Last fall, a time when more jobs are listed, only a tiny fraction of the poetry jobs were tenure-track. (I cannot remember the exact numbers.)

* While there’s a dearth of jobs , a previous boom resulted in AWP now supporting “over 34,000 writers at over 500 member colleges & universities & 100 writers’ conferences & centers.”

To its credit, AWP doesn’t deny the dismal prospects for poets seeking academic appointments. The current featured article on its website is “The Unlikely Writer: An Argument for Teaching in Prison.” And last year it conducted and published research that reached the conclusion that MFA graduates best bet for employment are non-academic jobs.

From AWP’s report:

The field of writing and editing in the nonacademic sector is expected to see an anticipated 10% growth by 2016, which is in line with other competitive job markets, with technical writing and writing involving specialized training continuing to be the most lucrative positions.

Sadly, creative writing departments do not train students in C++ programming or environmental engineering.

If creative writing departments neither reduce the number of admissions nor let students know at the time of admission that poetry teaching jobs have evaporated, then MFA programs with AWP’s support are operating Ponzi schemes: they require a huge investment to join a club with almost no possibility of a return. (It is not a Ponzi scheme for those who can afford the tuition and who just want to learn to write and not teach.)

So what role should AWP now play? If there are no jobs—at least for poets—there’s no reason for a jobs list. If tuition lands students in debtor prison, there’s no need to promote programs.

It could continue to support its 34,000 current academic members and arts organizations, but with no new admissions, does that group inhabit a gated community? And what about the needs of all those recent and not-so-recent graduates who’ve become DIY publishers, reading series organizers, bloggers, and struggling data-base entry cubicle poets?

AWP could expand support for what serves a purpose for both groups—the annual conference.

What is its purpose? Just read the reports filed from Denver on Harriet. You can cop contact highs, or better yet free drinks, at readings, listen to panelists claim new poetics, mythologize old ones, or attack those that exclude them. You can buy discounted books, catch up with old friends, check out clubs in a new city, rub shoulders (and maybe more) at the hotel bar with reputable poets, get whacked in the legs by Rigoberto Gonzalez’s cane (now what’s this about a cane?), promote your chapbook and reading, or your friends’ chapbooks and readings, or shove manuscripts into the hands of publishers who no longer accept unsolicited submissions.

All this poking fun as a way to distance ourselves from the conference belies its importance, which is social, literary, economic (book sales and fundraising), and anthropological (hotel bar gawking). So during this downturn, how can AWP improve it? Here are my suggestions:

* Invite fewer well known poets (I think this is Nick Twemlow’s “serious poets” category) to read in increasingly cavernous ballrooms with gigantic chandeliers and empty rows. Reducing money spent on their high reading fees could add to the kitty for other things.

* Increase support for offsite readings–the reason why there are so many empty seats in the ballrooms. Many others have argued these are the best part of the conference–a place for airing new works, nabbing cheap alcohol and bites (no hotel catering charges), forging social connections, playing video games and pool, and watching burlesque.

* Lower the cost, or create a sliding scale, for tables at the book exhibit. More DIY publishers, websites, blogs could afford to sell their wares if registration fees were based on their annual revenues.

* Provide scholarships for plane fare and lodging for non-academic poets who cannot apply for faculty development funds (what a racket!).

* And one non-conference suggestion: Offer health care to self-employed poets by negotiating a contract with a national health care provider. This would probably require poets to register as sole proprietors of a business, an inexpensive process in most states. (If you earn a reading fee, get paid for publishing a poem or teaching a workshop, or work at landing all of the above, you’re self-employed.)


Posted in Uncategorized on Thursday, April 22nd, 2010 by Emily Warn.