Sunday, October 29, 2006

Considering an MFA?

I'm not doing an MFA program. Why I made that decision is a topic for another post, but I don't know that it was the right one and I don't think I will know until sometime next year, if ever. For now, I go merrily along down my own path.

However, if you're thinking about trying out for the MFA squad, it's worth picking up a copy of the current issue of Poets & Writers (Nov/Dec 2006), which features a section on MFA programs, including a piece written by my friend Nell Henderson on the top five in the country. For those keeping score, they are currently the University of Iowa (#1), Johns Hopkins and the University of Houston (tied for #2), and Columbia and the University of Virginia (tied for #3). My money's on UVA to take out Hopkins in the finals.

Nell is one of the smartest people I know, so it's no surprise that she brings some healthy skepticism to the task of comparing these programs to one another and to the central premise that creative writing programs can be objectively scored or ranked in the first place. I also appreciate her attention to one detail that is often, bewilderingly, brushed aside: the enormous costs of many of these programs, and to what extent these institutions are able to offset those costs.

Anyway, if you're considering applying for an MFA, check out Nell's article first. It'll give you a good sense of the top (ranked) programs and possibly get you thinking about some of the other issues and questions surrounding these programs as well.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Practical Poetics

Over the last few years, I've become addicted to reading poets' accounts of the more quotidian side of writing -- how they got started, what they do when they get up in the morning, where they find inspiration, how they avoid bankruptcy, etc. I find these essays uniquely inspiring, perhaps mostly because they show that Charles Simic or Donald Hall or Galway Kinnell struggle (or once did) with some of the same challenges I do. I look to them for tips on self-discipline and survival. Those that focus on craft also make a good substitute for a writing class in a pinch.

Props to The University of Michigan Press for almost single-handedly propelling this genre through its Poets on Poetry series, for which Donald Hall and David Lehman serve as editors. It includes dozens of books on writing by just about every major American poet. Especially noteworthy is Donald Hall's Claims for Poetry (originally published in 1982), an anthology of some of the best essays on poetics I've read yet. The essay that starts it off, A.R. Ammons' "A Poem Is a Walk," shifted my entire perspective on writing. If I were going to teach a class on writing poetry, I think Claims for Poetry would be the only required reading beyond actual poems.

Plus, who could resist that retro green cover? The stick-on font? The two-tone urine-yellow lettering? The dorkiness is so overwhelming it's transcendent.

Anyway, more Poets on Poetry books will surely be on my own reading list for the coming year. If you have other recommendations, let me know.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Rate the Rejection - Virginia Quarterly Review

First up, with the dubious honor of inaugurating the Rate the Rejection series: the Virginia Quarterly Review.

Now, VQR is probably my favorite literary journal of the moment. I'm fond of it not just because it hails from my hometown, Charlottesville, VA, but because editor Ted Genoways has completely overhauled it in a way that I believe demonstrates a new model for a successful, high-quality publication. VQR is innovative, sports full-color photos and graphics and consistently features an eclectic array of writers and styles that somehow always works perfectly. I've ordered subscriptions for friends and wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone. Seriously, you should do it now -- here's a link to the VQR website.

Getting my rejection note from VQR was hard, but not unexpected. I can only imagine that, with their newfound success, they are getting truckloads of submissions. But is their rejection note as professional as their product? To the slip!

Rating Summary: Printed on 3x5" cardstock, VQR's slip gets points for paper quality. It's not flimsy and the print is clear. The language itself is straightforward and succinct. But, in the end, what's most depressing about rejection slips is their cold, generic quality, and VQR's professionalism only seems to enhance that. I realize they can't give personalized feedback to everyone, but even a short hand-written note, along the lines of "sorry, totally wrong for us," or "maybe next time" would do. Getting something this perfunctory and uninformative seems especially harsh given how long they took to get back to me: five months! Sorry VQR, that'll cost you.

The Grade: C+. Just a touch above average. But responding faster might have gotten them within striking range of a B.

Click here for more about the Rate the Rejection series and links to other rejections I've rated.

What This Is All About

For a long time now, I've wanted more time to work on my own writing. Now I have an opportunity. I'm cutting back my hours at my full-time job for at least a year, with the goal of producing a collection of poems ready for publication. To keep myself motivated and productive, I'm thinking of this experience as a kind of do-it-yourself MFA program and an experiment in balancing life, work and writing outside of an academic environment.

Thus, "A Writing Year." I plan to use this blog to document the process from start to finish. In other posts I'll talk more about my decision, my goals, how I worked things out with my boss, and so on. As I was preparing for this year, I was struck by how few resources are available to anyone who wants to write on their own. If things go well, I hope that this blog helps fill that void.