Poetry News

Bookslut Talks to Sarah Schulman About Cities and Poetry

By Harriet Staff


Sarah Schulman has many smart things to say about gentrification (she wrote a whole book about it), about poetry, and about MFA programs. And she's been sharing these thoughts with Jessa Crispin at Bookslut. So far they've posted two parts of their conversation, here and here. It would behoove you, dear reader, to check out the interviews in full and to stay tuned as they dispatch future installments. But for now we'd like to give you a taste of the conversation by focusing on some practical advice Schulman dispenses free of charge. First, regarding the future of cities:

Every day we read about affordable housing crises in just about every major city in the world, there are the eviction suicides in Spain, and natives of cities are being priced out or are just walking out in disgust of what their cities have turned into. Which is, expensive and yet boring, and every city begins to resemble every other. Do you think there is the ability to resist this motion? Or are we going to have to give up the idea of what New York used to be?

Who knows what's going to happen, because look at what's happening in Istanbul and Cairo and Rio? Huge megacities are in revolt right now. Will that ever happen in New York, we don't know. That's a hope. If there is no major shift in the way capitalism is enacted in the United States, people go to cities that are more open like LA or Austin, or they can adjust the way they live in a city like New York. A lot of young people have been asking me how to keep from being a gentrifier. You can't help it, that there's a housing crunch and you have to live in other people's neighborhoods. But the question is, how do you live there? Do you know your neighbors? Do you give back to the community, do you teach people how to read or how to swim? Do you work at the food pantry? Do you patronize the local stores or do you go to the $5 cappuccino places? It's not about who you are, it's not about your race and class, it's about how you behave and how you treat other people.

And then some advice for young writers:

If a talented 22 year old writer came to you and was thinking about an MFA program, what would you advise them to do?

What I usually tell them people is, if you can get a free ride, you should take it. Because it's much harder now to get anything if you haven't been through the system. I got into MacDowell, a fellow waitress wrote my recommendation. That's not going to happen now. You're not going to be able to get anything. If they're going to pay for you, you should go, because that means they believe in you and they think you can make it and they're going to invest in you. If they're asking you to go into debt for their MFA program, then don't do it. Because it means they don't believe in you, and they are using you as a cash cow for their school. You're never going to be able to pay off that debt, it's absurd. No one should get an MFA if they have to pay for it.

The better thing is to start a writers group, with real writers. To me, a writer is someone who writes. The best thing to me is to read eclectically, to go to readings, to have experiences, to live in the world, to mix with all different types of people, to take some chances, and to find some people and start a writing group. Or ask a writer you respect to teach a class. I charge $40 a class, it's not that much. Start your own thing. There used to be all these alternative schools, the University of the Streets, the Brecht. There were these left-wing places you could go and study outside of the structure of a university. As we know, universities are becoming more and more corporate, and universities themselves are gentrifiers. If you look at what NYU has done to New York City, for example, it's been one of the worst influences on the city. Now we are seeing universities that are selling their brands to Abu Dhabi and repressive regimes in China. Universities are becoming more and more globalized, corporate entities. To rely on these people to determine the artwork or the cultural output of your own time is pretty dangerous. If they're asking you for something -- money -- don't give it to them.

There's more to come, so head to Bookslut.

Originally Published: July 9th, 2013