Thursday, May 31, 2007

(Almost) An Argument Against MFAs

In New York Magazine, Australian-born novelist Peter Carey has a smart and humane article on coming of age as a writer by way of MFA programs: "A New York Writer's Catch-22." (Thanks to my colleague Adele for drawing my attention to this one.) It includes a pithy description of one of the major issues MFA students face -- the cost of their education and the unlikelihood that they will be able to recoup those costs through their work:

"And here is what seems most insane—young and not-so-young writers take out student loans to get M.F.A.’s in creative writing. This does not add up. I once taught in the M.F.A. program at Columbia, and so I know the extraordinary gifts that student debt can confer. But the Marshian in me says it’s impossible to start a life committed to literary fiction when you are $60,000 in debt. The very size of the loan assumes there is a market, a business to go into, a living to make. But the hard truth is that only a sucker writes literature with the intention of making money. This was so obvious in Australia in 1961, you never needed to say it. Today, when people seem to be breaking through all around you, it might be good to bear in mind that the only reward you can rely on is in the work itself. And, of course, they do know that. A while ago, I went down to Strand with my then 13-year-old son and we were, of course, selling books and we watched the buyer separating the sheep from the goats, without understanding which was which. When the judgment was made, he pushed back at us a pile of really good novels. These, it turned out, were the goats. I said, “But surely you can sell Rohinton Mistry.” And he said, “We don’t need fiction.” And I thought, Where am I?

And I thought, quoting Beckett to myself, Imagination Dead Imagine.

But those twelve students sitting round the table have to forget way bigger things than money. In particular, they must forget that they’re walking out onto the same field as Proust, Joyce, Woolf, Conrad, Austen. This should be enough to stop anyone. Of course, it never has been."

Surprisingly, despite a lengthy discussion of his own development as a writer in Australia, outside of the MFA system ("There was just one literary agency in Australia in 1962, but I didn’t know what a literary agent was," he recalls. "As for an M.F.A. in creative writing, I’d never heard of such a thing. Denied these distractions, all I could do was write."), Carey does not follow this argument to its logical conclusion, that maybe his students could become equally talented writers without the expense of the MFA.

If the chances of emerging as the next great author are so slim, why not suggest that they do as he did, and go someplace far off, and work, and write? Maybe that's just a silly and naive proposition. Then again, he is part of the MFA system now, so maybe the "extraordinary gifts that student debt can confer" have gotten to him more than he thinks.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Kevin Young Kicks Ass

And really, that's about all I have to say. I've mentioned previously that I frequently turn to his book Jelly Roll for inspiration. His poems are witty, musical and seemingly effortless, all at once. Now I'm reading his latest collection of poems, For the Confederate Dead, and enjoying it mightily. Here's a fragment for you, from his poem "Bedlam":
"No such thing
as sleep--just the noise
of night, cars kicking

up country roads--
even the silence
shouts. No one raises

glasses or hell--
just kids, well-
behaved, who walk

home old ladies
refusing tips.
No thanks. What

are we coming to?..."
Good stuff. Go buy it!

And by the way, as someone who appreciates books as objects as well, let me add that designer Gabriele Wilson at Knopf has done beautiful work for Young's books. Ms. Wilson's cover designs have been praised by many others but I gladly add my name to that list. In the publishing version of fantasy football, she'd be my designer and Graywolf my publisher. Well, I can dream, can't I?

Thursday, May 24, 2007

The Muse Smells like a Bar

I went to The Danny's Reading Series last night to see three poets including Sam Witt, who's shown some staying power over the last few years. Not sure if it was the poetry, the beer, or just a couple of hours out of my head, but something clicked and lo, a path forward to poems did appear. Today, writing outside (per one of my Not Working strategies and because it's getting toasty in our non-air conditioned apartment), I felt more relaxed than I have in a few weeks and was able to draft two poems that I think are pretty good. If I'm lucky not too many holes will have appeared when I read through them with fresh eyes tomorrow.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Strategies for Not Working

Writing part-time and working part-time has generally made for a good balance. I feel like I have enough time for writing but am still connected to and invested in my job, which I honestly enjoy. I expected that I would have some difficulty maintaining a boundary between the two; after all, my job is fast-paced and I work from home, so that boundary is really just a click of the mouse on my Outlook account. I worried that my own neurotic tendencies and workaholic nature would get the best of me, and I'd find myself laboring on a proposal when I should be drafting poems.

I've found those anxieties to be warranted, at least to some extent, but not in the way I expected. Not working is easy; not thinking about working is another matter altogether. It comes down to an imbalance in expectations and pressure. No one but myself is holding me to account for my writing, but I'm accountable to a number of people for doing my work. If I don't write, nothing much happens. Maybe two or three of my readers will ask what's going on. On the other hand, if I fail to do my work, I will get in trouble and eventually be fired (and rightly so).

So keeping my morning writing time free of work tasks is generally a simple matter of refusing to open my work email or open the folder on my desktop that holds all my work-related files. But on weeks when work is hectic--when I have too many deadline-driven projects and time starts to become an issue--just focusing on my writing can take real willpower. Reading Keats this morning, my attention kept wandering ahead to my to-do list for this afternoon. It's a frustrating experience that has motivated me to find ways of clearing my head. Here are some of the things I'm doing:
  • Making work lists: I'm being more diligent than ever about tracking projects at work and clearly listing out daily and weekly priorities. I find this helps me avoid some of the mental hand-wringing that happens when I'm worried about forgetting something.
  • Setting daily/weekly writing goals: In addition to the overarching goals I set for myself at the beginning of AWY, I'm trying to come up with smaller, weekly goals to keep myself on task. The hard part here is not allowing myself to get away with busywork -- going through the motions of writing without actually investing myself in it, purely for the sake of meeting the goal.
  • Changing my writing environment: I'm a creature of habit but that doesn't mean I can't recognize a rut when I'm stuck in it. This doesn't necessarily entail huge changes, but small adjustments, like where I sit when I'm writing (since it's spring here in Chicago, I've tried writing out on our back deck a few times) or putting some quiet music on (jazz or blues I prefer -- nothing with lyrics, which are distracting).
  • Righting the pressure imbalance: In other words, doing things like redoubling my commitment to sending out new work to my readers, or asking my wife to demand to hear new poems from me at the end of every week -- anything to balance out the pressure I feel to get my job-related work done.
  • Practicing rigorous focus: Which is not to say I know how, exactly. But I'm trying to find ways to block out all thoughts of work during my writing time. For example, I've discovered that reading aloud, or at least moving my lips with the words, decreases the chances that I will space out. The rest is a kind of mix of meditative practice and sheer stubbornness.
Having listed out these strategies, I notice that I'm still essentially accommodating my behavior to the demands of my work (without addressing what may be real issues on that side of things as well). So I should say another thing I'm doing is communicating more clearly with the people I work with about my capacity to take on new projects and meet the demands I face. To date, they have been flexible and understanding when I cry uncle.

Friday, May 18, 2007

First Local Submission

When I started AWY, one of my goals was to submit to a range of journals, including at least a few in the Chicago area. I have been lax about that so far, but today I'm sending off a submission to RHINO magazine in Evanston. RHINO publishes only poetry and comes out once a year. Qwerky, somewhat, but hopefully they will like one of the four poems I'm sending.

Speaking of Chicago-area literariness, I'd recommend that anyone interested in keeping up with local readings and events check out Literago, a (relatively) new site run by two ladies hoping to show Chi-town is no chump when it comes to writerly affairs. I check the site daily these days.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Reading Keats, Considering Comix

I'm reading Keats' poems and selected letters at the moment, both of which have proved inspiring except for when I recall how much he was able to accomplish in so little time. Then it's almost overwhelmingly humbling. The contradictory responses I have when reading this kind of poetry are alarming in their extremity; one part of me clamors to write poems that are just as good while another asks why even bother trying? Fortunately (for me, if no one else) the clamor usually prevails. "Try again. Fail again. Fail better," right?

On an entirely different note, I've also been considering what form a new kind of poetry, befitting a culture of assemblages, collage and remixes, might take. I've envisioned something that draws on and adds to the shape and force of other writers' work: the poem as symbiont, perhaps literally attached to its host. I think of the telescoping tangents and intricacies of Chris Ware's graphic novels. Words inspiring additional reflection or reaction. The poem as a small system of planets orbiting a central star. Well, it sounds interesting in theory. I'll let you know how things turn out in practice.

Monday, May 14, 2007


(Because I've always wanted to title a post with that word, that's why.)

As part of my ongoing reclaim-some-momentum campaign, I'm gearing up for another submission this week. Boston Review, Shenandoah and TriQuarterly are some of the possibilities, though I'll be looking for others over the next few days.

Of note to anyone else out there who is looking for publishing opportunities, Poetry magazine has announced that, in June, July and August, its editors will only be considering work from poets who have not previously appeared in its pages. It may not mean a lot, but it could at least improve one's chances. See you in the slush pile.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Who's Ready for a Trust Fall?

Reading William Logan's 1999 essay "Four or Five Motions Toward a Poetics" this morning, I was struck by his discussion of the "trust" between reader and poem. "Trust," he writes, "... is the poem's ability to proceed without distracting the reader with clumsiness of technique, while offering benefit to the reader's imagination equal to or exceeding the energy expended in reading." Essentially, he characterizes "trust" as that which keeps the reader going when she or he has no idea what the poet is talking about. The reader continues in good faith, with the assumption that some illumination will come later. Readers whose trust is rewarded, he suggests, will tolerate increasingly greater risks.

For many, Logan is a controversial (some would say reviled) figure in poetry, but I think the contract between poet and reader is worth keeping in mind. I think it provides at least some explanation for why contemporary poetry is not more widely read; readers, whose trust has been betrayed by poems that lead them into labyrinths and funhouses, can hardly be expected to follow without hesitation. That's not to say that poems must avoid labyrinths and funhouses completely, only that, eventually, they have to show the reader the way out.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Finding a Goodly Writyng Notebook

This weekend I bought a new writing notebook, having realized that the old one had only two or three blank pages remaining. I'm not hugely picky about my notebooks but I do have certain standards. Criteria, you could say. Buying a new one got me thinking about what those criteria are and my reasons for sticking to them, which I shall present here forthwith:

1) Light weight: Because where I go, it goes. Heaviness is a disincentive to keep it with me.

2) Paperback-sized: Because that makes it easier to stack with the other books I'm prone to carrying around.

3) Durable: Because coffee is bound to be spilled and it is sure to be dropped and generally banged around. I'm especially careful to look for notebooks with strong and flexible bindings, and I prefer those that lie flat when open.

4) Plain: Because it is above all a working journal and I need to feel free to make a mess of it. Like other writerly types, I frequently receive truly lovely journals as gifts, but I can't use them -- filling them with my scribble just makes me feel guilty. The writing notebook has to be both canvas and dropcloth.

5) Unlined: Because it allows my creative spirit to roam blithely about the page.

6) Black: I don't know, it just feels right. Plus it hides the scuffs and stains (see #3).

Looking for a good one? I highly recommend the classic Moleskine notebooks (which is what I ended up with this weekend). Simple sketchbooks sold by art supply shops will fit the bill as well. I'm also a softie for the old black-and-white speckled composition books, though they are a little too big for my liking and the pages are lined.

Friday, May 04, 2007


After a couple despondent weeks, today I finally was able to write something worth keeping (or at least I think so), and I've got another idea for a poem in the chamber. No telling whether this spell of creativity will last but I'm happy for the time being. Check back next week for an update.

In the meantime, since I've been thinking so much about the conditions necessary for writing, here's a Friday quote for you:
"For a poem to coalesce, for a character or an action to take shape, there has to be an imaginative transformation of reality which is in no way passive. And a certain freedom of mind is needed--freedom to press on, to enter the currents of your thought like a glider pilot, knowing that your motion can be sustained, that the buoyancy of your attention will not be suddenly snatched away."

-- Adrienne Rich (from "When We Dead Awaken": Writing as Re-Vision)

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Poetry in Motion

Maybe it's because I've been traveling more often lately, but I've found myself fixating on the strange rhythms and patterns of business life, the purgatorial cab rides and waiting rooms. What's interesting to me is the way people strive (with varying effort and degrees of success) to remain individuals and retain some humanity despite spending vast amounts of time in environments that are designed specifically to minimize individualism for the sake of efficiency. Small gestures stand out: the stewardess mothering the exhausted businessmen and women on the late flight between cities, the cabbie telling his life story to someone he's just met and will likely never see again.

It isn't easy to write poems about any of this without floating off into the realm of sociology or descending into cliche, but I do think there are poems here, however transient they may be. In the context of huge, otherwise dehumanizing systems, small gestures become disproportionately meaningful. I think good poems mimic those small gestures, connecting what is individual and specific to what is larger and more universal.