Poet Steve Roggenbuck has built a career for himself without traditional publishing credits. He’s got a unique style and role models and he recently explained why he dropped out of his MFA program. I’ll talk about a couple of his points.
my #1 main problem with my MFA experience
i was seeking feedback from people who had different taste from me. why did i think that MFA students and older poets in academia would be an ideal writing group for me? they’re not really the main audience i’m trying to reach. some were a closer fit than others, but usualy i disregarded most of the feedback they gave me, because their comments just reflected how much they didn’t “get it.”
This makes sense. I get it. This paragraph came after a listing of problems he had with his professors. So they didn’t get it, sure, but at the same time I wonder how much respect he gave them? Sounds like he tried, but professors don’t know everything but they do know some things. This is a hard balance–to have the humility to know what you don’t know, but to also process what you know to be true for your own writing.
It also speaks to a larger issue about art being “institutionalized” and if real art can come out of institutional setting. Should the professors be there to provoke or to offer refinement or both? Were they trying to be provocateurs to Roggenbuck? If he would’ve become a better poet because of their suggestions and judgment? Steve thinks not, but it’s impossible to say.
It’s obvious that his ability to engage and do things differently is outside of the corporate poetry meme-plex, and all profs know is what worked for them.
Are there things he could’ve learned? I think so. But at the same time, he really admires Walt Whitman and I’m sure there are many others. He’s done well at taking what he needs from poets of the past, and giving them the modern spin. He’s certainly come up with a lot of nonsensical lines, but many memorable ones so he’s just like any other person who’s ever written. At this point, it’s really hard to argue with his decision.
there is no “good writing” that is totaly aside from personal preference. of course you can learn from people who have different taste from you, but many professors (and writers in general) believe that what they like is actually “good writing” and what they dislike is “bad writing,” so that makes the process a lot harder.
This is an attitude that I see in a lot of writers younger than me, but I don’t think it’s true. There is bad writing. There is good writing. But it does depend on the goal. As Steve notes later, the professors didn’t get his audience, so the changes he would’ve made on their suggestions would’ve been bad writing for his audience.
Also, there are commonly accepted writing standards for certain communications. An essay looks different than a billboard. Formal research is different than a friendly email. An essay the length of a billboard would be a “bad essay.”
Steve’s frustration is in the fact that poetry can take on all of that and then destroy it. Poetry is supposed to be the place where those conventions don’t matter as much. It’s good to know the rules so the rules can then be broken. I don’t know how much Steve knows the rules of poetry, it doesn’t matter as much. But in my limited interactions with him, he seems smart, he knows that a sonnet is/was powerful because of the descriptions because of the emotions it was describing at the time.
He also knows there needs to be a new vocabulary and a new way of framing the world. The world has changed and poetry can change too.
when you try to please people outside your ideal audience, you often end up ruining aspects of your work that really make it outstanding to its right audience.
yes, good one.
i have $33,000 in student debt now (i had none before the MFA), and i didn’t even finish my program. so the financial impact of an MFA can be significant…
yep, student debt sucks and it’s hard to justify that much money if you’re not excited by what you’re doing or experiencing.
if your goal is to become a better poet
then it’s pretty obvious you don’t need an MFA for that. here is the basic way to get better at writing: read another poet’s work, be 100% honest with yourself about what you like and dislike in it, realy look closely at which language choices created the effects you like and dislike, and pay attention to the patterns you find.
But an MFA can help you do that stuff. It can give you discipline and focus and a chance to dive into the work and the styles. To be honest, most people don’t have Steve’s drive that’s pretty obvious, so an MFA may actually help people do this. But do you have to? No, obviously not. You have to weigh the pros and cons and what you want to do with your money.
the thing is, people act like the only poetry career is teaching, when that’s simply not true. check out the book how to make a living as a poet, and its sequel how to make a life as a poet. those will stimulate your creative thinking and help you identify many other possibilities. also recognize that there is no hard separation between “poetry” and other artforms, especially now with the internet.
It’s also true that a lot of companies need good writers. The guy from Groupon made a killing basically writing poetry. And other funny stuff.
Putting things in an interesting and succinct way is not a dying skill. It’s becoming even more important. Every poet doesn’t need Steve’s choices to be successful. They just might not be as famous:).
be honest about what works for you
this factor is not discussed much in relation to MFAs, but if you pay attention to a lot of this post, you’ll recognize it’s my personality that made my MFA an especialy bad fit. i’m very self-motivated, self-confident about my writing, and i have my own vision for my work.
There you go. That’s the truth.
Just to be clear, I don’t have an MFA (but I do have an MA in English). Sometimes I think an MFA would’ve been better for my overall career goals (more writing, less teaching) but I also really enjoyed my time doing the MA and was curious in my research. So there.
Anyway check out Steve’s stuff and his videos and books if you’re not familiar with him. He’s doing a bunch of interesting stuff.