A little while ago, Poets & Writers published their 2012 MFA Rankings, compiled by Seth Abramson. Shortly thereafter, Sam Amadon wrote a very thoughtful letter on Coldfront that serves as a great response as to what the rankings lack.*
I don’t feel like I have a lot of skin in this game. I went to get an MFA at Columbia partially because I wanted to move to New York at the time, and partially because poets I knew and respected spoke highly of the faculty. But I’m not going to get into whether I think other people should go to Columbia.*
My problem is with the idea of ranking MFA programs in general. I get that something in us is attracted to rankings, but ranking an MFA program seems to me to be on the order of ranking art. You can like Marilynne Robinson more or less than Lorrie Moore, but they’re really just different. Choose whichever one whose style you admire, and who you’d like to read book recommendations from, because that’s what you’ll get in an MFA program. I think of an MFA like a dream book group, reading great books with really fucking smart people. I didn’t get my MFA (and, honestly, I don’t think anybody should) to get a degree. A degree, to me, signifies some utilitarian outcome. As if you have been trained to perform a set function. And, while I know an MFA is supposed to be a terminal degree to teach creative writing at the university level, I don’t think that’s what it truly should provide, because any teaching experience or training is, in most cases, secondary in an MFA program to working on your own writing.
Listen, it breaks down to this: if you are going to get an MFA because you think it’s going to have some sort of career payoff, do something else. There’s no other way to slice it. Even if you are fully funded, two or three years with a real job (or having a job and writing a book) are more likely to produce career opportunities for you than going to an MFA program. Also, if you are going to get an MFA program just to be funded and have the time to write, don’t get an MFA. Writing in the real world is where you will end up, start doing it now.
Start with this assumption: an MFA is useless. Yes, you will learn a lot (hopefully) but recruiters from Milkweed Editions and Graywolf are not standing at the doors waiting to skim off the top five percent like it’s an MBA program. I write like I write today partially because of the influence of my professors, and partially as a refutation of the influence of my professors. Writing should always strive to encompass and refute those things that try to have influence over it. If I hadn’t gotten an MFA I would definitely be a different writer. I don’t think, necessarily, I would be a worse writer, but I’d be different. Take that to mean both the all and the nothing that it is.
Ranking is stupid. We, as a society, do it too much. We want things codified, measured. We want quantifiable success, but writing is a constant striving. You will never (hopefully) find yourself in a position where you think you have arrived, unless, perhaps you get that Nobel on your deathbed. Then, just rest. But I remember thinking if I could just get one poem in a little magazine I’d have made it. Then I wanted just two poems in two little magazines. Then, I wanted a poem in a bigger little magazine. Then I wanted a chapbook, then I wanted a book. Now I want a prize. Next year I’ll want that second book and a poem in the New Yorker. It doesn’t end.
Mostly, though, all I want is that moment when the poem comes together and shows me what it wants to be. And that little electric thrill has nothing to do with a classroom, nothing to do with publications, and nothing to do with debt. And truly, the biggest piece of advice I have is, if that little thrill isn’t the thing you want more than anything else, do something different, because that’s the only goal that’s even a smidgen within your own power to attain.
Poetry is not quantifiable. It’s not better than or worse than. It’s not for or against. If you want to go learn about poetry from people you admire, go find those people and study with them. If you want an MFA and want to live in New York, go to Columbia. Or go to NYU where it’ll cost you less. If you want to live amidst the corn and get away from the city, go to Iowa. If you want to have access to an amazing poetry library, go to the University of Arizona. My advice is to think of an MFA as an opportunity to immerse yourself in poetry for awhile, not as a way to learn how to write, but a way to learn how to read. And it is not a means to an end, but rather another experience to be had. I understand people wanting to not spend a lot of money, I totally get that, but that doesn’t require a ranking system. It requires publishing how much places cost.
Whether you buy the rankings and use them to start your list of schools is irrelevant to me. MFAs are like anything. Go because you really want to. Because you’re willing to sacrifice to do that rather than do something else. I spend a fair amount of time on this blog arguing against people who bemoan the “MFA-ification” of poetry because I don’t think MFA programs have any effect on poetry. They are an environment, a space, a community, but they do not write. They do not create writers. Only the act of writing creates a writer. Don’t go to one because you think it will “make” you a writer. That ain’t gonna happen. Writing is too hard and lonely and thrilling for all of that.
* A bunch of Professors at Creative Writing programs also wrote a fairly smack-down open letter to P&W although their problem seems to be with the methodology, which I think misses the point. Would they be happier with better methodology? Or is the fact that we’re even discussing methodology in regards to what’s supposed to be an artistic endeavor weird all on its own?
* A quick side note: I feel it necessary to add that I went to Columbia with Sam, and If you want to know why I would recommend Columbia, read Sam’s letter on Coldfront. It pretty much perfectly sums up my experience with the faculty and other students. Just to put the full caveat in effect…