Poetic Industrial Complex: Outsider and Insider

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.

20 thoughts on “Poetic Industrial Complex: Outsider and Insider

  1. I have a working definition of ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ in this context. Outsider writers are ones who are unhappy with the way the business of literature is conducted and see part of their jobs as writers to change that system. Insider writers are either content with the way things are or if not, content to work within it anyway. When I say the business of literature, I mean a publishing regime that reads your CV before they read your work and so on. In Australia there is a culture of fear amongst writers, any critique of the way things are done can easily damage your chances of a career by upsetting the ‘gatekeepers’ so the insiders and the outsiders are fairly easy to pick.

    • Hi Paul, these are good working definitions. I think that most of us are actually in between, or that we move between “in” and “out,” OK with some parts of the industry, and discontented with other parts of it. In this country, similar to how you describe it in Australia, there is a fear or at least suspicion that if you speak out against this system, then this lessens your chances of getting “in.”

  2. It is all subjective and relative, of course. In one sense, the Times being so “inside,” catapults much of its views to the public eye instantly and widely, and so readers or commenters are periphery in that sense. With poets and the MFA, I think there are many cases where the MFA leads to very little in the publishing, drive, and consistent writing that no degree can instill for the long haul. Obviously, the MFA does many wonderful things for a person in many instances, too. Some MFA faculty surely feel “outside” to some degree being surrounded by PhD’s at a university. I imagine some MFA people like their “outside” status because of their poetics and anti-politics politics. Genre bending poets. There are also cultural variations, where something like the AAWW may seem very “inside” to some APAI writers without books, especially if they aren’t in NYC. I think of relative outsiders like Jack Hirschman, who is nontheless a poet laureate. And how about Julia Vinograd and poets like her? Just thinking out loud here. I subscribe to the ideas in the later part of your post, where you question the opposition-like labels in the first place. At least as far as the large majority of poets are concerned, all of them are “outside” when it comes to general readership and book sales relative to popular memoir writers or someone like Joyce Carol Oates or an exposé on Alex Rodriguez (of the Yankees). Still, degrees of any kind are good. But as you note, they’re just the beginning.

    I’m posting here also because your term “outsider” and “insider”caught my eye. I have co-authored a textbook/reader (Freshman Composition level) that is coming out soon with Prentice Hall. We have framed the book to represent the “outside,” “inside,” and “in-between” so that students (hopefully) will get a sense of various positions and recognize the validity of their own perspectives, cultures, and interests—and selecting readings for the book was a challenge. For instance, instead of MLK Jr’s (wonderful but over-anthologized) “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” we are using an excerpt from Mumia Abu-Jamal’s “Live from Death Row.” We have some staples, such as Alice Walker and George Orwell (how’s that for “insider”?), but we also incorporate writers such as Bakari Kitwana and Arundhati Roy, whose work somehow has escaped many college level readers/anthologies. We also have essays from Elizabeth Wurtzel (“I Got Nasty Habits”), essays on punk-rock culture and illegal downloading, and even poems from Espada, Turner, and Park. Anyway, sorry I got off the subject here.

    Great post and good reading, as always.

    • Hi Lee, thanks for your comment. Yes on in-between. As I’ve responded to other comments here, I believe there are more in-betweeners than anything (specific to the American poetry industry). And yes again on subjectivity/ies. I am not sure why folks continue to insist upon absolutes/binaries.

  3. The best thing in any art form is when a new artist/writer/musician comes up that completely surprises you. And you’re left thinking where the eff did that come from? You’re left thinking – this is effin genius!!!

    Although one day, three weeks or 2 years later you might end up modifying your opinion. The outsidery nature of some artists’ roots – or their differentness can come from any number of things: ethnicity, umm madness, a collision of their own twisted ideas of what is possible and the other art they have seen, read or heard.

    You get lots of bands that try to sound like The Velvet Underground and fail – but perhaps sound great in their own failed way. My point being – I have a point, I’m sure – that the processing nature of an MFA program might well encourage people to be better, but blander – more Coldplay than garage rock – but ultimately once you leave the garage and submit yourself to critical opinion your work will always change. It’s Heisenburg’s uncertainty principle: by observing an act, you change the act itself. Thus the only ‘true’ outsider art can only ever exist when done by people who have no idea that it will ever be seen by another – a person in a mental hospital purely concerned with their own work; or a child, or someone writing in a diary – once you consider the idea of a possible audience you are no-longer a true outsider – and can at worst become a parody of what you started to do. Someone who deliberately works in a naive way, someone who refuses to spellcheck, just because…

    So I think it’s nice when it happens – when someone does do something wildly different – but the problem with reading lots and lots – is that you can usually start to see where even the most weird person is coming from, you start to compare their work to Celine or Kathy Acker or B.S. Johnson. The great challenge for a polished MFA writer or for a raw and rabid outsider writer is this:

    do something new. Show me something you have have never done before. It’s easy to be a one-trick pony, harder to be a … no, I was going down some twisted metaphor road there. I’ll leave it. With an example, Chuck Palahanuik – seemed weird and interesting at first; is now trite and predictable, and yet he’s still doing the same thing.

    • Thanks for your response Mark. I agree with you about the “outsider”/”garage band” gradually making its way “inside,” and specific to writers, someone like Chuck Palahanuik as a now mainstream writer. I do like to think of that outer to inner movement, and I do believe that applies to most artists, given their experience and exposure over time. So my issue with labeling Vargas an “outsider poet” has to do with the fact that he is positioned on the “inside,” as a published author on multiple independent presses.

      Still, I believe “edgy” does happen with artists during and post-MFA, and perhaps it’s a different kind of edgy than when artists are pre-MFA. Perhaps it’s the artists’ conscious decisions to “achieve” edgy.

      A lot of great comments here, so I do promise to respond to all of them.

  4. This is an interesting post – and the city that almost broke me poems – the idea itself was so dope that i wanted to echo it, but as for outsider/insider – i think folks are making way too much of MFA programs. I mean, can you imagine someone saying insider doctor versus an outsider doctor? We want art to be subjective, and maybe it is, but we also want there to be things that key in on talent, whether it’s handling of a linebreak or what have you – and it’s sort of wild for me to think that only writers who have an MFA understand linebreak. I mean it’s just not true – so the forced dichotomy is making us lose sight of what the MFA is, and I think in the best case, it’s just a place to learn some rules and get some structure. Just like medical school or any other place where you learn a complicated craft and then step into the world where you talents prove themselves to be lasting or not.

    One of the ironies in this, is that I think the real reason people question MFA’s is because poets don’t make money – and the question behind the question is how can you pay for a degree that doesn’t guarantee any money at all and worse how can you pay for that and walk away knowing what you could have taught yourself. I believe though that the MFA is valuable for a number of reasons, not least of all the insistence that there is value in what can’t be marketing – because I’ve never met a poet in an MFA talking about making the big bucks. Now let me imagine being in law school or in an MBA program or an intern with (fill in Wall Street firm now bankrupt or on the edge of being bankrupt) – the talk of money would fill my days –

  5. Hi, and thanks for the consideration of my review. I don’t think that terming Vargas an “outsider poet” is in any way denigrating in itself, and it certainly wasn’t intended as such. In sociological terms, I too am an outsider poet, possessing no MFA degree, working outside the university, and publishing my book with a very small press that terms itself a “publisher of weird little books.” Since I think Vargas’ poems set him up as opposing what he sees as a stodgier type of poetry, the “outsider” term seemed to fit stylistically as well.

    The MFA route certainly isn’t the only one or necessarily the best one, but it’s clearly the predominant one that gets covered by the largest media outlets and gets the most money thanks to its university ties. When poets who don’t go that route get coverage in, say, the New York Times, a major portion of the article goes to mild shock that they in fact did it another way (e.g. recent Frederick Seidel and August Kleinzahler profiles). I don’t agree with any of those situations, but I can’t simply ignore the reality of them either–referring to someone as an “outsider poet” in this framework is simply taxonomical to me, and provides worthwhile context, much as listing some of the jobs mentioned in Vargas’ bio does.

    I certainly agree with you about there being plenty of slack, lifeless work coming out of MFA programs, and that a more precise definition of terms or more thorough discussion of what we mean can be valuable.

  6. HI all, gentlemen (and all my sistahs are where in this conversation?), thanks for all the great responses here.

    Dwayne, I like what you say here, that a degree program is a degree program, a place where you learn a complicated craft and then carry that with you into the real word. As you and Steven say, there is that overemphasis on MFA, as seen in the public freak out when a success comes to a writer without one.

    Steven, thank you for responding to my post. I am happy to hear you meant no insult by “outsider,” and I actually wonder if Vargas has articulated publicly his belonging to a group or category called “outsider artist.”

    So there seems to be a consensus here that these labels are way rigid and do not really fit us, how we come to poetry, where/how we work.

  7. “Or perhaps we should just fuck this inside/outside thing altogether because it’s arbitrary and way too subjective to qualify.”


  8. i think the gist of it is similar to a comparison i recently read (though i can’t remember where)in that certain parisian salons of yore or poetry collectives that arose outside of an academic institution, for example, tended to produce writing that was seemingly more authentic, more “street cred.” when one enters an MFA one loses this street cred. now i know, you can argue and justify or cite examples to prove otherwise, but (regardless of examples) this distrust of MFA writing will be the common consensus and, in my view, it is unchangeable. personally, i will see a poet in an MFA program as one too submerged in the poetics of his/her era… buried in a coterie so to speak (or i will plainly see them as a naive college student). and what is most relevant is the worry that the gap between readership and writer is widened too far when young writers are trained only to write for other writers. in this case i always use the guitar player analogy where “guitar music” about the instrument rather than the music kind of creates its own inbred subculture (as seen from those nerdy metal-guitar magazines on the racks). likewise, this is how i see those (can i say nerdy?) college lit mags on the racks as products of an inbred aesthetic, rather than one that resonates wider than academia. and lastly, the idea of professionalism: does a degree really make you a professional artist? or can you be an amateur that happened to have paid 30-50 grand for it? and does professionalism tend to sterilize an art? turn the artist into a technician?

    personally i will not pursue an MFA. but i will study and write as much as those that do. i will talk with my friends who are writers, readers, and poets that i have met at readings and elsewhere. i will also try to meet older writers if i can for advice (this i wouldn’t pay a thousand buck for though) and i been lucky enough to correspond with a few.

    • miguel: something a lot of people don’t realize is that meeting older writers and asking for advice (and getting it!) requires a certain degree of skill in socializing and networking. For someone like me who is clinically bad at such things, attending an MFA program may be the only way to find anything even resembling mentorship. In other words, an MFA program can be of use to someone who is an outsider by their very constitution.

      • Exactly. Thank you. In other words, it’s one (of many) practical and strategic things a writer can do to develop or improve her situation as a writer. I hesitate to use the term “career” here, just because folks can jump the gun and interpret that as “careerism.” But the fact is that if we want to get gigs (readings and publication), then we are consenting to be in the business, and even to have a career in the business.

        I just came from a reading in SF tonight in which a teacher in a MFA program (SFSU, where I got my MFA) recommended one of his students to be one of the featured writers, and then brought in another student to read his work (which is in the voice of a woman). So right there, look at that generous mentorship he was practicing. Who wouldn’t want to be a part of that, have someone have your back like that. Not to mention as a professor he’s helping them improve their writing.

  9. hi, really interesting discussion here.

    Lee, if you’re still following this thread, what’s the name of the textbook/anthology that you’re co-editing? It sounds absolutely fantastic. I’d like to keep an eye out for it when it arrives.

    I think what Mark said above about newness and difference is right on. There’s definitely that problem with being a one-trick pony– the challenge is to keep changing, keep evolving, not ossify or cave into a brand mentality. My old high school librarian would talk about loving early Hemingway but despising the later stuff where he started sounding like a parody of himself. (Though I can’t corroborate this myself since I’ve only read early Hemingway.) I think a counterexample of a one-trick pony who bucked the odds is Henry James. Essentially he dealt with the same themes, the same plots, the same kinds of characters throughout his whole career. And he essentially used the same aesthetic device, except that he kept magnifying it over time, going deeper with it, resulting in the later novels that stylistically look totally different from the early ones, except that you can clearly see the germ of the later style in the earliest works. So he basically had a few ideas, a few aesthetic and thematic strategies, that he kept working at and making richer and richer, until he arrived at new places within what might at first appear to be old terrain. What this says to me is maybe it’s not so much a question of discarding old styles and picking up new ones to stay current (like how Madonna and Bowie kept shedding their persona of the moment once it got popular and moving on, though this continual re-makeover could become a schtick in itself), but of finding new significance and potential in the small handful of good ideas that you do happen to have.

    I like what Miguel said about being “buried in a coterie.” While there are special, irreplaceable things that can be gotten from coteries (which are not, by any means, confined to academic or MFA programs), there is also the danger of becoming too immersed, paradoxically too parochial in one’s perceived cosmopolitanism. There is a time for confinement and immersion, and there is a time for stepping back from the “closed system” and looking at the big picture from an as un-brainwashed state as humanly possible. (Now I will fade out from this commentbox by issuing more fake quotes from Ecclesiastes, set to the tune of a Byrds song…)

  10. Pingback: Daughter of the Ring of Fire » Blog Archive » Inside-Outers, MFAers, and Poetry in the Margins

  11. Most definitely an “outsider” here. Dwayne’s comments spoke most directly to my feelings on the issue, so thanks for that. And thank you, BJR, for another great post.

  12. “we should just fuck this inside/outside thing altogether” yeah, I agree here. And I also agree with ekswitaj above that one “requires a certain degree of skill in socializing and networking” — that requires a good amount of time and energy that parenting or work might not allow.

    A friend of mine also points out: “Steve Earle dropped out of high school at 14 & I think he’s one of the best songwriters alive today.”

  13. Pam, it is called “Outside In: Writing to and from the Center” (Prentice Hall). Contact me if you have any questions about it. I’m sure I’ll post on my blog when it’s out. It’s listed with a July pub date on Amazon, but I don’t think it will be out that soon.

    I’m enjoying this thread, Barbara (et al). I got to thinking about the territoriality of rhetoric (to borrow Nevin Laib’s term) as it applies so well to the poetry terrain, the MFA/non MFA, etc. The degree holds great meaning, despite what politics may come (and they usually do, right?). I teach at the two-year college level, which is outside (but not entirely) the mainstream (university poets) but also exactly mid-stream or mainstream in the sense that it bridges the haves and the have nots quite literally. There are 20,000 students where I teach—some ex-gang members, some on their way to Stanford or Cal, or writing books, some ex-gang members on their way to writing great books—and I teach poetry and composition there. There is a poet and faculty member from a nearby two-year (community) college who wanted state minimum quals to change, to require an MFA or significant publication equivalancies in order to teach creative writing. I don’t want to be exclusionary, but I agreed with him on many levels, as the degree and/or significant publications ought to mean something when it comes to teaching poetry.

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