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What’s Your MFA Program Like?

An Unscientific Survey of MFA Graduates

As Interviewed By: Joan Houlihan

Brown University, University of Iowa, early to mid-90’s

1. What did you learn in your MFA studies that has advanced your development as a poet-and that you believe you couldn’t have gotten elsewhere? Specifics, please.

I attended two MFA programs, Brown University and the University of Iowa. I had spent several years out of school working various menial jobs and writing and reading in total isolation. One very important aspect of attending an MFA program was simply to be able to share my work and to stop just bouncing off the walls of my own skull-after a while, that left very little room for development.

[private]I had a very bad experience in Brown’s program, but learned a great deal from reading and talking about (with non-MFA students) what is broadly called “Theory” and which was (and is) very big at Brown in general-though not in the creative writing program, which, like most such programs, was very anti-intellectual. I was also introduced to various writers with whose work I hadn’t been familiar, some of whom (like Mei-mei Berssenbrugge’s) has been very important to my own development.

At Iowa what I really got that I couldn’t have gotten elsewhere was a sense of community-though I met some writers at Brown whose work I admire and with whom I still remain friends, it was really at Iowa that I met a cohort of writers with whose work I felt a real affinity and with whom I really bonded personally. I am still in close touch with some of those people, and geographically scattered though we are now, we still share our work and our thoughts regularly. They give me the assurance that I am not alone in this endeavor.

2. Did your peer critiques in workshops help your work? If yes, in what way(s)? If no, why not?

Class critiques are always a hit or miss affair-sometimes they were useful, sometimes they were utterly off the mark. At Brown, because there was an aesthetic orthodoxy into which my work didn’t fit, class discussion was useless or worse-my work was openly attacked on more than one occasion. At Iowa, people had much more helpful and interesting things to say, in general-they were at least open to trying to understand what I was attempting to do in my poems.

3. What was the “political” atmosphere at your program? Was it competitive, e.g. vying for attention/favors from “stars?” Favoritism?

At Brown, as I said, there was a very definite aesthetic orthodoxy into which my work didn’t fit, so I was really a total outsider. I was used to that role, so it didn’t at all inhibit me from doing my work. But there were very definitely favorites played.

Iowa was very competitive in that everyone in the poetry program vied for the attention and favor of Jorie Graham. Indeed, she was the reason I went to Iowa, since she was my favorite poet at the time. But in order to be a favorite of Jorie’s (and I would certainly have been happy to have been one), one had to be a sycophant to a degree that I just wasn’t capable of even if I had wanted to do so. Jorie certainly had very clear favorites, but in general one had to submit to being totally remade by her to achieve that status, and her attention tended to be somewhat fleeting.

I had the feeling that people in Iowa’s poetry program were waiting around hoping to be anointed by Jorie. I would have liked to be anointed, but I wasn’t going to wait for it (it would have been a long wait)-and I sent out poems constantly and really started publishing while I was at Iowa.

4. How difficult were your classes? How was your work evaluated? Graded? Criteria for judgment?

Academically speaking, MFA classes are a joke. The workshop classes themselves could be interesting and stimulating, but any other classes in either MFA program I attended rarely attained the intellectual level of introductory undergraduate classes.

At Brown, creative writing courses weren’t graded. At Iowa, one pretty much automatically got A’s. In terms of faculty judgments on student work, if there were any coherent principles behind them, I could never discern them.

5. Who were the model poets in your program? American and contemporary only? Were you satisfied with the reading assignments?

One workshop I took at Brown had assigned readings (by means of which I was introduced to some interesting poets), but that was the only workshop I took at Brown or Iowa in which we had any sort of required readings. Jorie Graham would occasionally bring in a poem or two to her workshop that she found striking or illuminating. In the forms classes at Iowa, we pretty much only read contemporary work.

6. Do you think there was an aesthetic predisposition/prejudice in your program? If so, what?

At Brown there was a definite aesthetic prejudice toward a watered-down version of “experimental” poetry, which basically meant a set of rhetorical (and even typographical) gestures stripped of any intellectual or aesthetic content. It was sort of like wearing the right clothes. As I’ve said, I didn’t wear the right poetic clothes, so I wasn’t one of the cool people.

Iowa was much more eclectic, because Jorie Graham (the dominant presence in the program) had a rather wide range of poetic and aesthetic interests. Jorie definitely had agendas she would push in workshop, but these varied from class session to class session as various things caught her attention-sometimes they even contradicted each other.

7. What was your goal in attending an MFA program? Artistic development? Teaching job? Book publication? Networking? Other?

My main goal in attending an MFA program was not to go back to doing data entry, to be honest. I did also want to grow and develop as a writer, and to break out of my isolation. After my very negative experience at Brown, I wanted to go to Iowa in the hopes that I would have a better MFA experience-and yes, I did hope that Jorie Graham would like my work and take me under her wing. The more “practical” aspects (to the extent that doing an MFA is practical) were much more hazy, though I always wanted to be published, and sent out constantly from the time that I graduated from college.

8. What’s the connection between poetic talent and a career teaching poetry? How about between poetic talent and critical/teaching ability? Do you think your program prepared you to teach?

Looking at the people who are ensconced at various programs around the country, I would say that there is no connection whatsoever between poetic talent and a career teaching poetry. (Sometimes I think that there’s no connection between poetic talent and a career publishing poetry.) I do think that it’s more likely that a poet who is actively writing and who is doing interesting work will be at least a stimulating teacher, but teaching and writing are completely different skills, and to be good at one isn’t at all to be good at the other.

As for my programs preparing me to teach, at Brown I taught an intermediate level undergraduate poetry workshop which I enjoyed a great deal, but I never received any guidance on how to teach it-I just winged it. At Iowa I had a minority fellowship from the university (and actually never got a penny of financial aid from the workshop), so I didn’t have the opportunity to teach.

9. Judging from the quality of your peers’ work and analytical skills, what do you think of the admissions policy at your program?

Brown had some talented people, though I feel that for some of them, their attempts to fit into the poetic orthodoxy distorted and damaged their work-the poems they were writing on entry into the program were sometimes better than the poems they were writing at graduation. Brown was also a very small program, which could be quite claustrophobic at times.

When I was there, Iowa had a very large number of poets I thought to be very talented and interesting. There was also, of course, a large contingent of talentless dolts, but that’s to be expected anywhere. Iowa is a very large program, and the advantage of its size is that there’s a large pool of people you can wade through in order to find the people with whom you can connect poetically and personally.

10. Do you think your program was worth its cost? If yes, in what way(s)? If no, why not?

I would never have paid to attend an MFA program and could never have afforded to if I wanted to (I went to Brown instead of Boston University because the financial aid Boston University offered me was a bad joke). An MFA is an utterly impractical degree to pursue, and is only worth doing if one gets money to do it (or if one is rich, which a shockingly large number of students at both Brown and Iowa were and undoubtedly still are).

11. In what way(s) could your program improve?

There isn’t enough time in the world to count the ways.

12. What was the best part of your experience? The worst?

At Brown, the best part of my experience was taking English classes outside the creative writing program, reading theory and talking with smart, interesting people about theory. The worst part of my Brown experience was everything that had directly to do with the creative writing program, besides the couple of friends I made there.

At Iowa, though Jorie Graham was a very interesting if sometimes frustrating teacher, and working with Heather McHugh over a summer was immensely helpful and heartening; by far the best aspect of my experience were the writers I met with whom I still remain friends and whose work continues to inspire and challenge me.

***

Bennington, Low-Residency, 2001–2003

1. What did you learn in your MFA studies that has advanced your development as a poet-and that you believe you couldn’t have gotten elsewhere? specifics, please.

At my program I think I learned a sense of great self-confidence in terms of my work, but even more so in who I am as a writer. I think before the program there was a part of me that felt presumptuous identifying as a poet, despite my life focus being the writing and reading of poetry. Perhaps it was more so that sometimes I didn’t want to identify myself as a poet because I witnessed some sad displays of networking, schmoozing, flattery, and ego in the “poetry world.” I wanted to have integrity in everything I did from the creation of a poem to being at a reading to trying to publish my work. I wanted to feel like I didn’t have to change who I was in order to get a poem written, heard, shared, or published. What Bennington did was present me with a myriad of writers and mentors that I found I could admire as poets, and as human beings. I learned so much about how to stay true to my beliefs. I’m not sure I could have found that at another MFA. The philosophy at my program seemed to be that they take writing seriously, but they don’t take themselves too seriously. To me that meant egos were expected to be tossed out the window and everyone worked towards the goal of learning and writing. There was such little competition and that was everything to me.

2. Did your peer critiques in workshops help your work? If yes, in what way(s)? If no, why not?

Yes and no. I’m not always a huge fan of workshops anyway, which is why a low-residency was perfect for me. Yes, in that I got to hear new ideas and new views on my work, and I tried to take it all very seriously and work with the suggestions. No, in that some of the comments in some of the workshops could often be superficial. For example, I felt like I hear a lot of suggestions for minor adjustments in terms of diction or syntax instead of looking at the work on a deeper level. Often the professors would come in and make those more major comments. But I should mention that this varied and some workshops were much more productive and of a higher quality than others.

3. What was the “political” atmosphere at your program? Was it competitive, e.g. vying for attention/favors from “stars?” Favoritism?

I felt so little of this, thankfully. If there were politics they were well hidden from the students, or at least from me. I’m not sure if it was because the genres were so well mixed and integrated, or if it was because the ages varied so drastically, but there was very little competition amongst students. In fact, I truly believe that within my class we celebrated each other’s accomplishments, no matter how small or large. Some of us won prizes, some of us didn’t. Some of were published, and some of us weren’t. It didn’t seem to me that any one particular student was treated differently by the professors. I think it goes back to the idea that we were all there to learn and that we were all trying.

4. How difficult were your classes? How was your work evaluated? Graded? Criteria for judgment?

At a low-residency program you don’t really take “classes, “but you go to lectures during each of your 10-day residencies. Of course there are no tests, there’s no attendance taken at lectures. But students go faithfully, and I have to say that I often learned more from attending a two-hour lecture than from taking entire courses in college. They were challenging, intelligent, sometimes intimate, and often intense.

Packet work throughout the semester was not graded, but essays were evaluated by professors and poems were commented on. The comments on both the critical and creative work were sharp and in depth. That’s what I lived in this programs. There’s nothing like the 1:1 contact a student can find at a low-residency program.

5. Who were the model poets in your program? American and contemporary only? Were you satisfied with the reading assignments?

I think many people focused on James Wright, both students and professors alike. He seemed to be someone we all went back to, but I think this is true for so many poets in America. Otherwise the models often varied. There was a lot of mention of new, young American poets. There was a lot of mention of the English writers, South American writers, the Eastern Europeans. But really it was totally varied and that meant for an exciting experience.

6. Do you think there was an aesthetic predisposition/prejudice in your program? If so, what?

I couldn’t find one. I studied different poets with each professor with whom I worked. One semester I focused on some of the Beat poets and on the New York School, another semester I studied some Language poets, another semester lots of Lyrical poets and some from the Confessional School. There was such varied taste among the professors which made for a wonderful sort of smorgasbord of poetry.

7. What was your goal in attending an MFA program? Artistic development? Teaching job? Book publication? Networking? Other?

I went in feeling very solid in the fact that I knew I wouldn’t get a book out of this experience, I knew I wouldn’t be handed a teaching position, and I didn’t want to network. I wanted to learn more than I already knew about poetry, and I wanted to know how to feel more comfortable in terms of the interpersonal side of the poetry world. Of course I met people, wonderful people, but I didn’t want to seek people out who I thought could propel me. I mean, there’s not too far to be propelled in the poetry world. It’s a small place. It’s not Hollywood, no one’s getting rich, and luckily for me that’s not what it was all about. My program cared about learning, which was perfect for me at the time.

8. What’s the connection between poetic talent and a career teaching poetry? How about between poetic talent and critical/teaching ability? Do you think your program prepared you to teach?

I don’t think there’s a great connection. I don’t think you can look at a book of poems you love and assume that poet is going to be amazing teacher. From experience, I know that’s not always the case. And I also know that I’ve encounter some work that I’m not a huge fan of, and the authors of the work were some of the best teachers. I think teaching has a lot to do with caring about what your students learn and having the ability to reach them, and that doesn’t really connect, in my mind, with the writing of an amazing poem. One is very insular and the other very public.

My program didn’t focus at all on teaching. I think if I were to teach I would only be prepared because I watched, almost studied, the way my professors dealt with me as a student. I spent a lot of energy looking at them as teachers and witnessing what worked and what didn’t. But there was very little open discussion of teaching. We were there to learn to be better readers and writers, but not necessarily better teachers. That aspect was almost entirely out of the picture.

9. Judging from the quality of your peers’ work and analytical skills, what do you think of the admissions policy at your program?

When I first arrived I really wondered about the admissions process. There was a varied level of work-shopping. Some people had never been in a workshop before, and being someone who had spent years and years in workshops, I was really curious about that. In some ways offended by it. But I quickly learned that these students had other things to offer, things maybe I didn’t have on my resume. Everyone in my program came in with such potential it was overwhelming. We were a group of people on the verge of something exciting. We wanted to learn, and that was utterly important. By the end of my two years I thought little about the admissions policy and just grew to trust from my experience there that the administration was making wise choices.

1 0. Do you think your program was worth its cost? If yes, in what way(s)? If no, why not?

I do. I’m paying it all back now but I have no regrets. Low-residency programs tend to be more affordable anyway, but it’s certainly not cheap for a degree that was, for me, about personal and artistic development. I didn’t come out with a new job and a fancy new car. I came out with loans, and that can be the reality of these programs. It’s important to know that going in. But what I learned from my professors was invaluable. Their letters, comments, and voices arise in my mind on a daily basis. My writing expanded and improved, and overall I feel like a better writer and a better person. For that I’m glad to pay these loans.

11. In what way(s) could your program improve?

I believe I wrote this in some of the evaluations there, but towards the end I really hoped for more discussion of the publishing world. They had a publishing module, but I didn’t find it extensive enough. I wanted to hear more of the stories of my professors and their experiences when they were younger writers. In a public forum I wanted to hear more about their journeys, their struggles.

12.What was the best part of your experience? The worst?

The best part was sharing ideas and letters with some of the most amazing and respectable teachers out there. For me there wasn’t a worst part. I had a pretty incredible experience and I think that’s because I was realistic about what I could gain from the program.

***

Columbia University, 1999-2002

1. What did you learn in your MFA studies that has advanced your development as a poet-and that you believe you couldn’t have gotten elsewhere? specifics, please.

I suppose that depends on what you mean by “development as a poet.” I have done well making connections with a small number of people in power, and have managed to gain some truly wonderful friendships. And there is no doubt that being in an atmosphere so focused on literature, not to mention the time I have been given to write, has proved invaluable. But the effect is largely one of exposure and osmosis, rather than direct reception. I have learned a great deal, but have not been taught very much. And all that I learned I believe I could have gained from a small set of trusted readers.

2. Did your peer critiques in workshops help your work? If yes, in what way(s)? If no, why not?

No, for a number of reasons. I would hardly call myself well-read, but even I was taken aback by how little my peers had read, especially with respect to international and older poetry. It was as if for them the world of poetry had begun in 1950’s America. There seemed to be a great deal of concern among them to be reading the trendiest book of the month (nothing wrong with that), but there was a distinct lack of regret for not having read, say, enough Blake or Ovid. So the foundation for many comments was an ignorance of what had come before or beyond us. But lack of a critical vocabulary, or, for that part, a critical faculty, was a much more profound problem. Rather than give an explanation of what they liked or disliked or why, or to offer suggestions for directions in which the poem might go, or provide already existing examples of other poems that were attempting something similar, they often confined their comments to vague generalities, such as “I really like the emotion in this” or “I’m not sure about that adjective.” Worse still, most people remained silent, and when forced to speak, would often only say “I agree with so and so.” It often seemed they wanted to say more, but didn’t know how.

3. What was the “political” atmosphere at your program? Was it competitive, e.g. vying for attention/favors from “stars?” Favoritism?

In the extreme. Often, the focus of conversations would not literature at large, or our own writing, but who was favored by whom, and why. Jealousies and rumors circled like a kind of toxic oxygen. A few people made obvious efforts to let their work speak for itself, trying to impress people in power only by improving their own work, but more often there was a lot of brown-nosing. And while competition was rarely apparent on the surface of things, it often seethed below a thin patina of politeness.

4. How difficult were your classes? How was your work evaluated? Graded? Criteria for judgment?

The classes were not very difficult. Although we were expected to read a great deal, we were rarely put upon to demonstrate any knowledge of it. There was the occasional paper in literature classes, but that was about it. Our writing was not so much evaluated as commented upon, and teachers tended to reveal their criteria only in scattered, isolated terms, when reviewing single poems. Always there seemed to be a great deal of concern over not hurting our feelings, so it was rare for even the worst poem in class to not receive a few empty compliments.

5. Who were the model poets in your program? American and contemporary only? Were you satisfied with the reading assignments?

It depended on the class. In a few cases, the narrowness of the landscape was suffocating, but in general the breadth was expansive. Satisfied would be an understatement.

6. Do you think there was an aesthetic predisposition/prejudice in your program? If so, what?

Again, it depended on the instructor. Although they rarely announced their predilections, it would become apparent quite quickly. Some seemed to be looking for something very specific, often something close to their own work, while others seemed to appreciate a variety of styles.

7. What was your goal in attending an MFA program? Artistic development? Teaching job? Book publication? Networking? Other?

All of the above. But it was the networking opportunities that convinced me to attend.

8. What’s the connection between poetic talent and a career teaching poetry? How about between poetic talent and critical/teaching ability? Do you think your program prepared you to teach?

Although poetic talent can provide certain hands-on insights, I don’t think it’s required for a teacher to be good. The second case is a more interesting one. I would argue that unless a poet possesses some degree of critical faculty, their work will suffer. Not only will they be unable to revise, but to write clearly in the first place. My program prepared me to teach in as much as it prepared me to write. Good examples of writing and teaching could be sought out, but neither was imposed on us. Resources were there, and in abundance, but it was up to us to find them.

9. Judging from the quality of your peers’ work and analytical skills, what do you think of the admissions policy at your program?

It’s difficult to say, because although I find the quality of the work uneven, and the analytical skills severely lacking, I’m not sure that it’s better at other programs or anywhere else for that matter. So although they often appear arbitrary, with talented and sometimes accomplished writers often in the company of lackluster tyros, that might be a fair representation of the current status of American poetry.

10. Do you think your program was worth its cost? If yes, in what way(s)? If no, why not?

It remains to be seen, and in many ways, I will probably never know. I know that it has helped my writing, but I don’t know how much more I gained by attending a paid program than I might have received for free in a local writing community.

11. In what way(s) could your program improve?

I think the methods of evaluation should be more rigorous. Instructors should present their criteria from the outset and hold us to them as a group. They should also worry a lot less about hurting our feelings. They should allow for a healthy sense of competition in the classroom, as opposed to the ubiquitous political competition that their unspoken preferences foster. Also, workshop comments should themselves be commented upon. If someone makes an unsupported argument, the instructor should ask them to explain themselves, rather than nodding his head and moving on, pleased that the student offered any comment at all. And at all times, they should be presenting us with jaw-droppingly great poems, not merely decent ones or ones that seem to match their own personal aesthetics.

12. What was the best part of your experience? The worst?

The teachers in both cases. When a teacher opened up a new vista, a new world of thought and consideration, it was an amazing experience. When they offered endless strings of stale superlatives to praise embodiments of their own narrow aesthetics, it was hard to stay awake.

***

Texas State University, 2002–2003

1. What did you learn in your MFA studies that has advanced your development as a poet-and that you believe you couldn’t have gotten elsewhere? specifics, please.

In short, the most important thing I learned at my MFA program is how (not) to run a workshop if I am to ever teach. As a poet though, I did gain more confidence about my writing, to trust myself more and ignore others, how to submit properly to journals (and a teacher suggested journals for my writing, some of which were new to me. Not sure about how this effects me as a poet—but I did learn how readers (fellow students) do not like to read more than one page of poetry.

2. Did your peer critiques in workshops help your work? If yes, in what way(s)? If no, why not?

In a class of 16 (including teacher) only two students helped me, and that was mostly with punctuation-and also my teacher helped me with this. From three workshops, one was most beneficial. I am actually still waiting for feedback from one instructor (6 months later). Basically, one teacher encouraged the students to talk, one did not want us to say anything bad about a poem-which in turn left the class at a standstill, and not constructive, and one other just talked mostly about himself and other writer friends.

3. What was the “political” atmosphere at your program? Was it competitive, e.g. vying for attention/favors from “stars?” Favoritism?

From a faculty that I worked with, (4) only one had favorites…(well all teachers had favorites, but only one showed it in class.)

4. How difficult were your classes? How was your work evaluated? Graded? Criteria for judgment?

Not difficult at all, in fact a bit boring at times. I often wanted to be reading more and more. We were graded A, B, C, D, or F. Workshop grades were earned by class participation, having at least 6 poems in a workshop, 14 in a final portfolio, and attendance.

5. Who were the model poets in your program? American and contemporary only? Were you satisfied with the reading assignments?

American and contemporary mostly, yes, unless one signed up for a special class on a poet… reading assignments could have been broader, including criticism, biography and a poet’s collection.

6. Do you think there was an aesthetic predisposition/prejudice in your program? If so, what?

No. But workshops had NO idea how to workshop a prose poem, and in a way there was one teacher who did not like them.

7. What was your goal in attending an MFA program? Artistic development? Teaching job? Book publication? Networking? Other?

To take time off from “real life” and have the time to write. To gain confidence (maybe even approval of some sort), and yes, advice on publishing (could it really happen), networking, development (only because there would be time to write), and teaching credentials.

8. What’s the connection between poetic talent and a career teaching poetry? How about between poetic talent and critical/teaching ability? Do you think your program prepared you to teach?

Not broadly, but for a workshop, only because I know what I would not do.

9. Judging from the quality of your peers’ work and analytical skills, what do you think of the admissions policy at your program?

No standards. The poetry that came in was to pay the electric bill-high school poems, writers with no discipline, goals, and many students did not read much poetry (never mind book reviews).

10. Do you think your program was worth its cost? If yes, in what way(s)? If no, why not? No and yes.

My one year was cheap: about $4,000. The time I had to myself was worth it. Out of five classes I would like my money back on one (a class on Lowell, Bishop, and Roethke-poets I like to read, but the class was conducted as a church) and from another class I would like half of my money, because the peers in the workshop gave me nothing to work with.

1 1. In what way(s) could your program improve?

Gosh, there are really too many. Mainly, I was hoping for a more vigorous and rigorous experience. In a seminar room of fifteen writers, I expected more than three students to discuss the issues at hand. Although a couple of teachers structured their seminars to be challenging, I still felt that the overall dynamic of the program was uninspired.

12. What was the best part of your experience? The worst?

The best: time to write. A productive relationship with a teacher, who has suggested places for me to submit my work. The worst: being awarded a scholarship, but administration made a mistake and I never got it. After the ceremony was conducted, after I had lunch with the donor, I was told what happened.

***

University of Massachusetts, Amherst, early-80’s

1. What did you learn in your MFA studies that has advanced your development as a poet-and that you believe you couldn’t have gotten elsewhere? specifics, please.

No comment.

2. Did your peer critiques in workshops help your work? If yes, in what way(s)? If no, why not?

Poem by poem, the critique helped. I hadn’t developed much of a consistent style or voice then, so can’t point to much if anything that I learned from my peers in the way of principles to apply to my writing in general. We had some very strong poets at UMass Amherst in the early 80s, and their comments were as good as those of the teachers in many cases.

3. What was the “political” atmosphere at your program? Was it competitive, e.g. vying for attention/favors from “stars?” Favoritism?

Very little competition among the poets. Although I’d have to say there was a visible ranking in tiers of talent, which somewhat defined social behavior. But there was little “sucking up” to the celebrity teachers.

4. How difficult were your classes? How was your work evaluated? Graded? Criteria for judgment?

The workshops varied by teacher. Madeline DeFrees was the toughest critic, but probably the best at “teaching” principles / technique. James Tate more than anyone seemed to have favorite students, but he always said things we could all take to the bank; for instance, he talked about the important of voice. And he frequently brought in poems to read at the beginning of class, and of huge variety. From Thomas Hardy, to Ted Kooser, who I’d never heard of, but because of Tate I was well aware of him when a few weeks ago he was named the new poet laureate. I was in the first graduate workshop (and maybe the first workshop) that Russell Edson ever taught. He told us all we had As in the class, no matter what we did. His best advice was: “You’ve got to write a lot of bad poems. But it’s ok. Paper is pretty cheap.”

5. Who were the model poets in your program? American and contemporary only? Were you satisfied with the reading assignments?

We rarely had reading assignments as part of workshops; in fact, never. The program was extremely academic though, 60 hours total, 30 of which were for standard grad coursework in literature, etc. So I was exposed to as much medieval lit, Old English, French 20th century, and Elizabethan as I was contemporary. The contemporary exposure did come through workshop discussion, and although it wasn’t required reading, I made a point of reading as much new stuff I was hearing about as possible. Most of the poets satisfied the language requirement by taking a translation workshop, which further exposed us to familiar work in its original language…e.g., Rimbaud, Breton, Octavio Paz, etc.

6. Do you think there was an aesthetic predisposition/prejudice in your program? If so, what?

No. This was before the LangPo craze, although it was just getting off the ground. In the lit classes, some professors were well versed in deconstruction, though in the Wednesday afternoon lectures (for instance) the arguments and discussion among the listening faculty made it clear that there were broad and widely different interests in critical theory represented across the faculty.

7. What was your goal in attending an MFA program? Artistic development? Teaching job? Book publication? Networking? Other?

Teaching job and artistic development were the goals, but I was creatively stifled as a poet during those three years. I reveled in the academic study, fortunately. Certainly, the friendships made then were helpful, but I was not a conscious networker; at least not toward some future leveraging of connections. Many were, though.

8. What’s the connection between poetic talent and a career teaching poetry? How about between poetic talent and critical/teaching ability? Do you think your program prepared you to teach?

The main connection between poetic talent and critical/teaching skill lies in the ability to take advantage of the moment, so to speak. In writing, the unplanned ideas are the ones to seize on, develop, and let take you in some direction you hadn’t imagined. Workshops should be about something similar, for both student and teacher. A talented poet in a workshop — whether that’s the student or the teacher — will offer/receive original ideas generated on the spot, through brainstorm and ensuring conversation, which can greatly improve a poem … or at least suggest a new direction that the writer can pursue later. Good teaching certainly requires preparation, and regular reading — both of original text and criticism — is a natural interest of most serious artists I know. While it satisfies a curiosity and love of literature, it also informs and influences ones own work.

9. Judging from the quality of your peers’ work and analytical skills, what do you think of the admissions policy at your program?

It was more loose some years than others. There were a few real clunkers accepted into the program beginning my 2nd year; not just my opinion. One was asked to leave, two others left of their own accord.

10. Do you think your program was worth its cost? If yes, in what way(s)? If no, why not?

Yes, and it was quite affordable. Teaching assistantships were available to anyone who wanted one, and it covered tuition and provided just enough to live on (at least between 1980 and 1983).

11. In what way(s) could your program improve?

A more consistent faculty would have been nice. During my second year, neither of the “star” poets we had come to study with were present… both had taken sabbatical or a year elsewhere. This may have improved over the past 20 years.

12. What was the best part of your experience? The worst?

No comment.[/private]

This post was written by:

- who has written 11 posts on Contemporary Poetry Review.

Joan Houlihan is author of three collections, most recently, The Us (Tupelo Press, 2009). Her other two books are: Hand-Held Executions: Poems & Essays (2003) and The Mending Worm, winner of the 2005 Green Rose Award from New Issues Press. Her work has appeared in many journals, including Boston Review, Poetry, Harvard Review, Gettysburg Review, Harvard Divinity Bulletin, Black Warrior Review, Gulf Coast and Pleiades, among others, and has been anthologized in The Iowa Anthology of New American Poetries (University of Iowa Press, 2005) and The Book of Irish-American Poetry--Eighteenth Century to Present (University of Notre Dame Press, 2007). Her critical essays on contemporary poetry are archived online at Bostoncomment.com and she is a contributing editor for the Contemporary Poetry Review. Houlihan is founder of the Concord Poetry Center in Concord, Massachusetts and of the Colrain Poetry Manuscript Conference. She teaches in Lesley University's Low-Residency MFA in Creative Writing Program in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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