2015, Archives, July 2015, The MFA Years

Reasons To Go Out On A Limb (Alternately: Pursuing an MFA)

When I’m back staying with my parents—usually on school breaks or work breaks or what have you—I end up working at the restaurant that I’ve been at for years. During this most recent little break, at the end of May, I was chatting with some regulars that have seen me come and go for almost ten years now. They’re a married couple with a penchant for white wine and sitting at Table 1.

“We forgot what you’re going to grad school for!” said the woman, a stylish Belgian lady with flowing scarves and salt-and-pepper hair.

When I told them it was a Masters in Fine Arts in Creative Writing, I could see that the couple didn’t quite know what to think. “Of what practical use is that?” asked the woman, her accent making the question sound more dramatic.

“Oh, very little practical use,” I said, and then we all laughed and she began to question me on my real-world practical skills (I do have some, I promise). This whole exchange forced me to examine the reasons I used for coming to graduate school, especially to get a degree that, unfortunately, I often must defend to non-writers.

There are a lot of reasons to go out on this limb, for deciding to pursue this degree, and I’ve written about them before. Most of these reasons still remain true—the support of a creative community, the ways that I can challenge myself with my craft, the chance to learn and grow as a creative human—but it’s interesting for me to look at reasons to actually stay in grad school, especially with two semesters already gone. As I look down the barrel of my last year at Columbia (this is terrifying to type out, actually), I think about how valuable my experience has been.

I’d have to say that one of my reasons to continue grad school is this: my classmates and professors all have this poetic hunger. Part of it is the ridiculous sort of shared understanding that the MFA creative writing department has. Not everyone agrees politically or culturally or even on craft/rhetorical choices, but one thing is central to all of us: we all agree on the importance of the word itself in life.

This poetic hunger seems to force us all to challenge ourselves to find or make new opportunities for anything that will benefit our relationship with poetry: readings, lit mags, pedagogy, learning how to use a printing press, meeting with professors out of class to talk about ecopoetics or meditation or what publishing means, eating dinner with visiting authors (I got a delicious risotto at a dinner with Jo Ann Beard). I don’t know if Columbia College students have more of a Do-It-Yourself attitude than other programs, but that’s something that attracted me to this program over other schools—it seems like if we want to do something, we can make it happen.

Sometimes this hunger does lead to some weird discussions about poetry, which is what we live and breathe. We talk about what writing means to us, or how creativity affects our lives, or what to do in those oppressing moments of writers’ block. This conversation does lead to some really odd analogies, because we are constantly trying to figure out what poetry means to us, and why. One of my classmates said, during my poetics seminar, “Let’s look at poetry like a 30 minute children’s show.” And then everyone scribbled down that quote, because we all knew it was ridiculous, but the fact that my classmate had said that was representative of everything: you have to think creatively to figure out poetry, to figure out word art, to figure out why words have all clammed up inside our arteries, choking us from the inside.

It means everything to have people that understand the pull of words, to be able to talk about them full-time.

Since Columbia College is an art school, there’s this emphasis on craft and generating new material. (Obviously, I can’t speak to other programs, but I do love this atmosphere.) I’ve grown obsessed with rhetorical choices. These are the questions I ask myself and my classmates: What rhetorical choices did this poet use to achieve this effect? In workshop, how are fellow poets working to achieve their effects? How does truth and honesty affect poetry? How do different forms achieve different effects? Writing is a representation of something; my classes all seem to, in one way or another, interact with this idea of how representations work, how writing works, and why.

I’ll close by writing about one moment that happened at the end of my Graduate Poetics Seminar. Our professor had had some extra broadsides from a reading that had happened a couple years ago, and the printing itself was really well done—all the type was flawlessly handset, and there were the renderings of televisions down the side of it (the reading was from a book of haiku he’d done about Peyton Place, the 1960s show).

The class kept teasing him about autographing our broadsides for us, and so finally, as our class came to a close, he signed each copy. Endearingly enough, he wanted to think of TV puns for FullSizeRender(19)each of us, so he would labor over each autograph, deliberating his wordplay. After presenting my copy back to me, he chuckled and asked me if I liked the inscription.

That was during our last class meeting, and I walked out of the classroom while he was still thinking up good signatures for the remaining broadsides. It’s hard to describe why this moment was so special—it was this summation of kindness and words and learning and poetry—it was all the best things about having the support of a caring, artistic community, all of us in this together.

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