When I was a little kid, I managed to convince my parents to get me a grown-up astronomy book through, I’m sure, repeated and annoying requests, and they got me the book because I had also managed to convince them that I couldn’t read.* I could, however, read, and did read, and read the astronomy book, secretly and with great haste and interest, until I got to the chapter on black holes. Black holes terrified me. Black holes scared the everliving, everloving daylights out of me. I was soon so consumed with terror about black holes that I became convinced with absolute, unshakable certainty that two black holes existed in the hallway which I had to navigate to get from my bedroom to, well, anywhere else. I soon developed a method of running with my eyes closed which I knew, from the astronomy book, wouldn’t really do much in terms of keeping me from getting sucked into the event horizon and obliterated into ions, but which made me feel better nonetheless — until, of course, I kept running into things and eventually started screaming and got in a peculiar type of trouble which consisted of a threat to take the astronomy book away. I knew there was one solution, and one solution only: to make the black holes less terrifying. And so I imagined them as a couple, a man with a mustache and a woman who wore a flower-covered straw hat, and the mustache and hat made their ion-munching machinations seem much more friendly and much less terrifying, and eventually I was able to make it down the hallway without screaming, with my eyes open, and at a normal pace.
This story has everything and nothing to do with the discussion I started and, unfortunately, had to stop for a while, about The State of Poetry These Days. The everything this story has to do with this discussion is that it is a story about perception, and how quickly perception can shift, and how quickly a quick shift in perception can alter one’s behavior. A few weeks ago, I received an e-mail from a friend of mine which described, in language far more eloquent than I could ever hope for, what that friend had witnessed happen to poetry and poets since the 1970′s. I am going to summarize this description, and hopefully not mangle it too badly, as I think it’s pretty Spot On, historically. The writer in the English department and the academy was initially a maverick, an oddity. Then, around the 1970′s, something started to happen, and that something was spurred by a fact that I think we perhaps too often overlook: the academy is a place where thinking reigns, yes, but the academy is — and some would argue first and foremost — a business. This is more obvious in some sectors than others: in college sports, for example, and merchandising, and in the ever-expanding list of amenities included in dorms as a way to attract students and revenue (which is nice, but, seriously, do we really need tanning beds in our dormitories? Really?). Then there are the less obvious places: the difficult nature of registration, for example, and the limited number of openings in classes which are required, and the increasing number of courses required, all of which can make it difficult for students to graduate in four years and therefore generate more income. And then there are places where economics is a major factor but is all but ignored: the academic program itself. I’m thinking of one school in particular who completely nixed their entire department of religious studies, axing faculty and courses until there were only occasional classes taught as philosophy classes by philosophy professors. I’m also thinking of MFA programs in creative writing, which served a need, yes, absolutely, but which also grew — and grew rapidly — due to economic needs.
So, then we have a degree: the MFA, the terminal degree for creative writers — but, as it turns out, these programs were so popular and, yes, such money-makers that they began to graduate more MFAs than there were creative writing jobs, as those jobs are relatively impossible to get and require an ever-lengthening list of credentials, titles, and publications. Many MFA programs had begun as part of or in partnership with English departments, and served a definite departmental need: the need to have writers around to teach students about essay writing. Writers who find themselves in the academy find themselves teaching Comp, and many writers found themselves doubly-Othered: both “Othered” from the public as academics and “Othered” from the English department as MFAs. I’m guessing that pretty much any MFA who has taught Composition classes can tell you that it’s often an uneasy fit, as they often face a lot of prejudice about the writer in the classroom and whether or not the writer should be there, from (these are actual true stories here, for real) being told that they have neither the right nor the brains to talk about literature or writing to being told that any class taught by a creative writer must be the equivalent of a first grade class. There are reasons behind both sides of the argument, of course, and there’s also the ever-increasing pressure on institutions themselves, and the fact that public perception of the academy does not always change at the same rate as the academy, which makes for a lot of confusion when some of the members of the department are known as “Dr” and others as “Ms.” These reasons, however, are often difficult to hold on to when tempers flare and the problems caused by this uneasy fit emerge.
There was, however, a solution: the creative writing PhD — a solution which not only could help to fix the uneasy fit but could also help with the increasingly difficult financial problems faced by universities. I know that this is a heated issue, and am therefore really going to offer some scant observations here. I think I’ve mentioned my reasons for not getting a PhD in creative writing on this blog before, but, in brief: I had to have a job, and I had to have insurance. It wasn’t an option. Plus, I really did feel — and I still feel this way — like I was done. I started studying creative writing at the Alabama School of Fine Arts when I was in eighth grade; by the time I graduated from UNCW with my MFA, I had studied creative writing for twelve years straight. I was done. The creative writing PhD wasn’t — and isn’t — for me, and I’m fine with that. People tell me that in a few years someone with a PhD will be doing my job. This may well be true. I have noticed that over the six years since I’ve finished my MFA, the PhD has mushroomed in popularity. In fact, when I finished my MFA, most students were discouraged from getting a PhD in creative writing; now, it seems almost like an inevitability. Again, things within the academy change quickly, and it may well be true that, at the age of thirty, I’ve become a dinosaur. This may well be true, and I am fine with that.
The thing that disturbs me isn’t necessarily the fact that the PhD has become an increasingly popular and attractive option for creative writers but that there seems to be so much animosity between the PhDs and the non-PhDs. I think this was well-illustrated by the experience I had at AWP, when a group of men in the front row of my “The MFA in Academia” panel said, “We’re PhD students. We’re here to tell you that your degree is worthless.”
The problem I have here, more than anything, is with the notion of worthlessness. It’s true, the PhD and the MFA are two very, very different degrees. But it is also true that they are very similar degrees. They are degrees received by people who have taken up a terrible and awesome task, which is to wrestle, day in and day out, with the very ideas that send them screaming out of sound sleep, that haunt their happiest days. They are degrees received by people who have decided to fight, day in and day out, with the blank page, and with fear, and to arm themselves against hopelessness with hope, and to not only face the things which haunt and free them but to wrestle them into a form for others to read and see and experience and understand. They are people who fight to find a way for us, as readers, as human beings, to speak to each other and to understand each other, and as human beings, and where, please tell me, is the worthlessness in that? Even if a person doesn’t have the same degree? Even if a person has no degree at all, can it be worthless if they are engaged with this primal and vitally important act? Can they be worthless at all?
The thing that bothers me most is that there seems to be a tendency towards derision, and towards division, rather than unity. Instead of seeking the similarities between us, or instead of seeing what the differences are and seeing how we can work to make those differences work for ourselves and our students and our readers, we divide into camps: the writers who have PhDs, who have MFAs, who are academics, who aren’t academics, and so on, and so forth. This bothers me because it seems so very terribly dangerous. Poetry is an art about experience, and about expression, and about individual expression, and new expression, and new ideas, and new ways to convey those ideas — and therefore, diversity is the very soil which feeds us. If we only recognize the work of a small group of people who adhere to similar ideas, similar modes of expression, and have similar experiences, we are choking the art at the root. We are the ones killing poetry, though we are the ones who lament that it is dying. We are the cause of the very problem we cry out against.
But how do we stop ourselves from being the cause? And how do we solve the problem?