The last thing my workshop professor told me as my MFA’s first semester concluded was: you get three significant breaks: winter, summer, winter—write, use them well. Then she said something about something magnificent always happening during a break, but the pressure of having to produce work was enough for me to worry about. I flew back to Florida to visit my family, naturally—to make the story short—not much work was done—(two poems?) which I feel many people would see as miraculous progress, but I tend to throw away most of what I write anyway, so who am I kidding? Someone in my program told me that Roger Reeves told them that reading is also writing, so, in any case in that sense, I was productive as hell. But, I guess, the question I’m dancing around is: how much work is expected of us in the MFA? And, where does self-discipline come in? I don’t know if it’s the classes I took this semester, teaching methods, or whether I’m just not feeling poetry at the moment, but I haven’t been as productive as I thought I would be.
But most people I spoke to said they had the same problem in their first semester: lack of productivity, depression, problems getting accustomed to the city, etc. At least one thing rings true: the community is strong, and if anything, I’m constantly learning from my cohort (sometimes, even more than what I learn in my classes).
A candidate in my MFA program keeps telling me she doesn’t think she’s worthy of being the program, that she hasn’t written in months and that nothing she writes feels like it’s ready or even poetry. I think this can happen to all of us—but, if the MFA program is a space where we’re supposed to be our most productive, how come do so many of us have problems producing work? Don’t get me wrong, so many people, and I’d say most people, produce work—one specific poet in the program wrote most of his poems before a major reading of his; I, actually, brought in a new poem every week during the semester. Yet, the city is too expensive, the program demands a lot of work, rightfully so, and then there are the lives we are all trying to live as well. This, I assume, is the challenge of pursuing an MFA in a city like New York—the world of poetry is at your fingertips, some of the best events in poetry in the world happen on a weekly basis here—and then, on the same night you have to choose between three major poets reading their work at different venues spread out across the freaking island.
A professor of mine, on the first day of teaching said, I just came back from teaching at [insert major writing program here] and let me tell you, they are so isolated from society—NYU is a much better experience. Flattering—however, I can’t help but wonder, then why is this unnamed, renowned writing program so darn successful? How is it that it’s producing so much fame, and renowned writers—I mean, NYU is as well, the latest National Book Award winner Robin Coste Lewis, and finalist nominee, Ada Limón; last year’s Pulitzer Prize winner, Gregory Pardlo; and a myriad of others—but how is it that these two programs demand the same levels of rigor, when the living conditions, significant factors that affect day-to-day living, are so extremely different?
I’m essentially asking a nature vs. nurture kind of question or, not really, maybe I’m asking: what is it that we learn from? Do we, honestly, benefit from location when it comes to learning? A part of me wants to say: no. Although, I always tell people, especially those applying to programs, that I found it quite funny that upon applying to programs, all the programs I applied to in the South (in states like Tennessee and Texas) rejected me, while all the schools in the NYC area accepted me—my work often being intense, sexual, dealing with being a gay latino, among other things. Location could be about aesthetic—although, there are Southern writers in the NYC programs I know, as well as extremely masculine, male heterosexual writers. But, I feel, that if a program wants to guide itself through aesthetic, then in that way, location could be beneficial. Perhaps the surrounding marshes of a southern location will wet and complicate the gothic aesthetic of the work, or the quick and ruthless rhythm of the city will be cause for reflection within chaos. Nevertheless, from my short experience, in what I consider (perhaps with a bias) an aesthetically diverse program, I take a lot from my day-to-day experiences, and learn a lot more from the minds of my peers.
For example, when I arrived at Florida State University for my bachelors degree, I didn’t go in with much hope. The only thing I had demanded and asked of myself was to not go to Florida for several familial and personal and naïve reasons. However, when I started my creative writing degree there, I met some of the most brilliant poets and professors I have, to this day, ever encountered. People that had studied in places as different from Columbia, in NYC, to Akron, Ohio. Wherever they had been, they had imbued themselves in books and living.
I’ve always thought that poetry is about vision, and about perspective—you must learn to see the world through the way that you truly see it. The life around you will shake you and move you to places you wouldn’t expect because you’re too busy noticing the incredible within the mundane. How do we benefit from location? I know I benefit from the inconsistent, often violent, and then peaceful maze of the city, but only because it’s what I was looking for, for myself, for my work, and the life I wanted to live. So far, I’ve noticed that the MFA is an experience where most of the work is yourself, and the time you spend with your peers—also, demanding rigorous work of yourself, and pushing yourself to write every day. Human beings acclimate to most environments they’re thrown into, and some work better in certain conditions—but I don’t know if that professor was right about isolation—what is it that poets (and writers of all genres) need in order to produce work? If it boils down to learning, surround yourself with the very best, with like and radically different minds, suck it in like a sponge, swallow, and then purge it all as you should.