I’ve been meaning to say a few things about the recent The New Yorker article, “Show or Tell: Should Creative Writing Be Taught,” which you can find here.
A couple of things, and this is by no means comprehensive. There seems to be a prevalent assumption that if a person decides to go the MFA route, then that is the only thing s/he does to carve a path to poetdom or authordom, and then, as a result of choosing the MFA path, rewards are immediately heaped upon the author’s plate in the form of tenure track positions and book contracts.
But think of all of the MFA’ers you know who go various routes, who actually form communities and take creative workshops elsewhere, outside of the academic setting, whether it’s a writers’ group which meets in members’ homes, or in community based arts group workshops.
This article is good at pointing out the genealogies, who begat whom, who taught whom, who studied under whom, in MFA programs. But exploring genealogies does not tell us much about the writers’ actual communities outside of those dreaded MFA workshops. As in my previous paragraph, communities of writers form in many places, and the MFA program is only one of these places. There is the question of how these writers’ communities are maintained, and while the set time of the MFA program guarantees that generally the same people will be reading your work for a certain amount of time, I don’t know if that suffices to maintain a writers’ community. For myself, I know that I don’t really talk to many folks at with whom I endured workshop, much less ask them to read my current work in progress.
We begin our development and our education as writers long before applying to and attending MFA programs. We continue our development and education as writers long after graduating from MFA programs. If we choose to believe the MFA is the alpha and omega of our education as writers, then that’s unfortunate.
So I am thinking then, that being affiliated with a MFA program seems to be what conventionally determines whether we are on the “inside” or the “outside” of the American literary industry. As this article states, the academic institution does indeed supply itself with writers whose literature is then taught to the next generation of students (MFA and otherwise) and potential authors. But not all writers and authors affiliated with academic institutions find their affiliations to be with Creative Writing MFA programs, and even English Literature programs. Authors come from everywhere within the academic institution, spread across disciplines even falling outside of humanities, cultural studies, social sciences.
Moreover, there are writers and authors who bypass attending academic institutions (i.e. do not attend a college or university; I am not sure if I’d classify someone who’s attended but did not earn a degree as having altogether bypassed the academic institution, but I could be wrong), for whatever their reasons. I say this just to articulate the point that not every writer attends college. That’s just a fact. By no means should this be a reason to marginalize and other said writers, when it should always be about the work itself.
One way of othering writers not affiliated with MFA programs is to label them as “outsider poets.” Right now, I am thinking of Steven Schroeder’s review of two books by Richard Vargas, which you can find in the recent installment of the Latino Poetry Review here. Schroeder has labeled Vargas an “outsider poet,” for his referencing and echoing Charles Bukowski, and as he “ignore[s] or disdain[s] many formal techniques of contemporary verse.” There is also the subject matter of Vargas’s poems: “slice-of-life snapshots of the down-and-out, big-picture social and political discourses/rants, and joke-poems, many about bodily functions and sex.”
I haven’t read Vargas’s work, so this is not a review of Schroeder’s review. As for Schroeder’s observation of Vargas’s sloppy line breaks, inconsistent capitalizations, and general flatness, I too key in on things like this is a poet’s work. I too think of ways in which cliche, abstraction, or overgeneralization can be made more interesting, concrete, specific. That is, I too “workshop” poems which I read in published collections, think of how these poems can be made more effective. So I have no complaint here, except to say there is no shortage of this kind of cliche, sloppy, and flattened work in MFA programs.
I am wondering about Schroeder’s assessment of Vargas as an “outsider artist,” an “outsider poet.” I’m really unclear on what an outsider artist or outsider poet is.
“Art Brut” is the opposite of “Fine Art,” and yet there are plenty of MFA’ed poets, and poets affiliated with academic institutions, who disdain formalism, who write raw and edgy political work, work which resists cultural indoctrination.
Outsider art is produced by self-taught artists (and how many poets are completely self-taught, that is, have never taken a writing workshop anywhere), and is disseminated outside of the conventional systems or mainstream industries, and we see that Vargas has been published by two independent publishers which don’t appear to me to exist outside of the system. Most American poets are published by independent presses, and hence, independent publishers are an integral part of the system. That is, they are “inside,” and so are their authors.
Perhaps “outsider artist” and “outsider poet” are more expansive and inclusive categories than simply not having a MFA, not teaching in a MFA program, and writing raw, edgy work, and perhaps we ought to use these terms more. Or perhaps these are just inaccurate although rigid terms which are used by poets who consider themselves to be on the “inside” to be dismissive of poets deemed by the “inside” not to belong.
Or perhaps we should just fuck this inside/outside thing altogether because it’s arbitrary and way too subjective to qualify.