MFA—Much Friggin’ Angst...
I’m not sure, but I think the creative multitudes who applied for MFA programs now hold yea or nay letters in their hot little hands. Alas, THE decision must be made.
I’ve already received omigod calls from friends who never thought they’d get in but now they’re in omigod and suddenly they’re either too good or not good enough and maybe they should have gone to Europe instead and how are they going to pay for it and omigod which one which one, and some want to teach and some want to publish and some just want a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet to tell them their sonnets don’t particularly stink, and omigod! In voices quavering with conjured panic, they seek emergency counsel. You see, I’m currently in an MFA program, and my advanced age makes me wise.
Unfortunately, I can only steer them in circles. I don’t actually say It sucks to be you, but when it comes to sage snippets, an answer to their MFA quandaries, I got nuthin’.
Don’t get me wrong. I love being a student. I’ve fallen hard for the whole nerdy shebang. My first semester at Stonecoast was nothing less than a revelation, a time to shed all that extraneous clutter that kept getting between my mind and my words. Once I realized that it would be a tad illegal to gun down the glut of perky 20-somethings clogging the mirror in the communal dorm bathroom, I got down to the business of poeting, and every day was like an explosion in my head. Exhilarating. Cleansing. Just violent enough.
In many ways I look like the ideal student, well equipped to advise on the ins and outs of MFAville. Hell, I’m smiling all the damn time. But the road I took to grad school was so isolated, so fundamentally weird, I can’t really offer any meaningful guidance without a couple of disclaimers.
I was introduced to poetry in a glorious and extraordinary fashion, in an electric circus of spitting mics, scorecards, rickety stages, neon lights, clinking glasses and smoky snatches of jazz piano. The poetry slam was the closest thing I ever had to religion. For many years, the raucous competition—better known as “that damn show” to those who have never ever been anywhere near it—was the focal point of my creative life. I learned early on that poems have muscle and breath, and that flexing that muscle could leave audiences breathless. I learned that there are ways to own a room. And, despite the slam’s rep as a burgeoning bit of silliness, I learned that poetry was more than a recreational exercise. It’s the way a life moves forward. Long before I filled out those application forms and sweated the required essays, poetry was in my bones.
I didn’t care if my words ever found a home on the page. I liked them just where they were, in the air.
Thanks to the slam, my whole artistic life flip-flopped. When I should have been in a classroom learning the basics of prosody and metrical verse, I was yelping a poem into a staticky mic at a biker bar in Milwaukee. When most young ‘uns were gathering the credits they needed to shape a voice, I was in an East German dance club reading a poem about skinheads to an audience which included skinheads--just before being knocked out cold by a framed picture falling from the wall. Everyone thought I’d been shot by an annoyed Aryan. Damn, I should write a book.
The point is that I’d lived an entire life, some say two, before I decided to MFA it. I’d published six books (when you’re not looking for them, publishers have a funny way of finding you), got plucked from obscurity by the National Poetry Series, taught on the university level and read a poem about a tree to 25,000 Japanese businessmen (by far the kinkiest thing I’ve ever done with my clothes on).
By the time I’d decided on my new direction, my focus was clear. I wasn’t counting on the program to help me find myself, unearth my true voice or establish a creative signature. In a very basic way, I’m already all the writer I’m going to be. And while I passionately want to teach, I’m not all about “gettin’ that paper” in order to work my way to the head of a classroom. Sure, that was a strong initial motivator, but I underestimated how much I had to learn. How much I wanted to learn.
But where? Where? Only one real requirement: It had to be a low-rez program. While I studied the benefits of each program I was interested in, I’m convinced that you can get what you need anywhere—if you want that need enough. That means not letting the program sculpt you, scare you or put a rip in your rhythm. This is what I need from you should be your mantra. Put it in your essay, interview the administration, stalk the faculty at readings and conferences. This is who I am. This is what I need from you. In the end, you’ll realize that community is way more important than coursework.
Stonecoast didn’t feel so much like an MFA program than it did a community of like-minded souls. I got the feeling that all that was missing, all the program needed to be truly world-class, was me. And I’ve talked to other students, and they all had that same feeling. Amazing.
Sure, I applied to other programs. Warren Wilson, for instance. (I’ll give you time for the reverential intake of breath.)
Ah, Warren Wilson. The WW. Mecca. Ol’ Warren. For years, it’s been the name that drops with a whole lotta noise. Mention to someone that you’re a graduate of Warren Wilson, hand them your grocery list, and watch them marvel at the masterful line breaks, the genius of placing bagels right below bran flakes. The dramatic arc! The alliteration! Omigod!
When I mentioned to a couple of fervent alumni that I had been accepted, but was thinking of actually not going, I was immediately warned that I was about to ruin my life, dooming myself to eternal also-ran status and years of beginning every sentence with “You know, I almost…”
“Money shouldn’t be an issue!,” they clamored--but I noticed that the clamoring always stopped short of an actual monetary donation. Ahem.
By the way, when you’re accepted into WW, Ellen Bryant Voigt calls you personally to welcome you into the fold. Maybe this happens everywhere, the program director giving you a jingle to say congrats. But this was Ellen Bryant Voigt on my phone! Imagine my surprise. And sudden pervasive panic at the thought of turning down the grande dame and maybe not living to tell about it.
Well, I’ve lived. So far. I said thank you but no thank you and there was a teeny blip of incredulous silence during which I imagined her hair turning into hissing, writhing snakes and her eyes glowing scarlet. I couldn’t believe what I was saying myself. I was passing up the chance to work with Tom Lux and Stephen Dobyns and the grande dame herself, effectively nixing all that instant poetic street cred. I got the feeling no one ever says no. Uh-oh. I’ll have to be eliminated. As a matter of fact, I think I’m being followed, but I’ve gotten really good at the duck-and-weave, so the sniper can’t get a bead on me. The sniper looks a lot like—well, Ellen Bryant Voigt.
So. For all of you clutching those envelopes, faced with that mind-numbing decision and thinking of asking for help, I can’t help you. Or maybe I can. I suggest you pinpoint your passion, live it, and don’t plan on being legitimized by a diploma. Find a community to surround you, one with the primary goal of allowing you to grow from where you begin. And give as much as you get.
Patricia Smith has been called “a testament to the power of words to change lives.” She is the author of seven books of poetry, including Incendiary Art (2017), winner of an NAACP Image Award; Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah (2012), which won the Lenore Marshall Prize from the Academy of American...