Crisis? What Crisis?
The Rise (and Plateau) of the Academic
Creative Writing Program
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The growth of post-structuralism during the seventies also parallels the proliferation of M(F)A Creative Writing programs under the broader auspices of the academic English department. In some ways, graduate Creative Writing programs are the opposite of graduate programs in post-structural theory. While the latter may be more elitist, the former may seem more populist, less hierarchical and not as specialized. Yet, the two have some similarities, as both can be seen as reform efforts, or even reactions, in response to the mid century populist upswell and culture clashes of the 50s and 60s.
Coming to poetry in college during the eighties, I inherited the myth that in the 1950s and 1960s, the percentage of, as well as absolute number of, people who read poetry and other forms of literature had risen (and not because of Iowa’s Writing Workshop). Affordable, quality, mass-marketed paperback books and middlebrow publications encouraged a more literate populace and made literature seem much more inclusive and relevant to the needs and demands of the first generation college students during this time. Ginsberg, Baraka and others could use the mass cultural media, and cheap affordable paperbacks by viable independent publishing houses, as a bargaining chip in negotiations with the more exclusionary academia.
Ginsberg vs. Chuck Berry
Ginsberg, for instance, could become a popularizing poet and public intellectual due to a mass-cultural industry that publicized a censorship trial (and a corporate think-tank that assumed that even ‘radical’ beat poetry and communist folkies like Pete Seeger were less of a threat to the established order than the more dynamic poetry of contemporaries like Chuck Berry), and their popularity trickled up so even less ‘populist’ poets could benefit (Creeley’s For Love sold over 10,000 copies, which rarely happens today).
Because the culture producers and culture consumers of this time were the last generation who weren’t so raised by TV, mass media needed ‘high literature’ to lure people in, and this worked both ways (since mass media created more interest in poetry—and literature in general—than academia did). By 1960, the hegemony of the old elitist guard of academic formalists had been chipped away by the somewhat wide coalition that was collected in Donald Allen’s New American Poetry anthology. The 1972 Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry that was used as a primary text in many colleges through 1987 brought together an even wider array, including many populist public intellectual poets like Ginsberg, Baraka, and Adrienne Rich alongside the more traditional ‘poet’s poet’ (say Wallace Stevens, Elizabeth Bishop, John Ashbery or Robert Creeley).
An Eclectic Canon
By Timberg’s definition, one could see this anthology as emblematic of the Middle-brow consensus at its best: it brought a populist groundswell in closer dialogue with the more traditional ‘trickle down’ canon. Sure, there wasn’t an absolute agreement over literary merit, but the debates were exciting and empowering as ‘high culture’ and ‘counter culture’ clashed with each other, and even found common ground against the mediocrity of corporate ‘mainstream’ culture. Finally, literature could be more capacious, and not simply at the mercy of the whims of the aristocratic patrons.
Since this new, more eclectic ‘canon’ included more than a few writers from the Black Arts Movement who had a very populist aesthetic, I believed that being a populist poet or public intellectual speaking to a general audience could be a viable option. Working class writers were finding working class readers, both inside and outside of the academy.
Cool to Read
By the seventies, Creative Writing Programs seemed to be a way to empower these consumers of culture to become cultural producers, as there was a widespread assumption that literacy would continue to grow (kids thought it was cool to read, and not just because of Schoolhouse Rock or Sesame Street, etc.). M(F)A Creative Writing programs during the last third of the twentieth century were sold as more progressive and inclusive than the standard degree in English, and in some ways they are.
For a while, it permitted more aesthetic freedom (without having to be necessarily intimate with the canonical Euro-American tradition many questioned), and a temporary autonomous zone, an island, a green zone of contemplation, somewhat sheltered from market demands — in short, a false economy.
These programs even created more jobs for writers in the absence of large scale public funding; theoretically, it could spread the ‘gospel’ of contemporary American literature?— especially in a country in which most of us only become aware of poetry and contemporary literature in general by attending college. I certainly have found working within these programs to be very useful in widening the range of legitimate academic options for those who wish to reach a more general audience and speak in a more common language than specialized post-structuralist discourse and conventional English Literature degrees allow.
But, even as Creative Writings were expanding and thriving during the 80s, it became clear when the second edition of the Norton Modern Poetry anthology came out, that trends were turning the other way, that populism was less and less a value in the academy, and poetic fashions were imitating Reagan’s trickle-down economics. Meanwhile during the eighties, Hollywood and TV gained in influence over American culture and realized they really didn’t need poetry anymore as paperbacks and college tuitions rose in price, while schools became increasingly underfunded. Proposition 13, for instance, took funding away from K-12 programs, so increasingly there became less demand (if not need) for literature at the same time the supply of potential producers increased.
So even if some of the work that emerged from Creative Writing programs over the last 40 years has been able to seduce and challenge readers and listeners and yet be accessible, and that accessibility didn’t water, dumb, or tame it down to the lowest common denominator for those raised (razed) on violent sit-com propaganda, such work increasingly would not find its readers or audiences because of external and internal structural obstacles that were becoming rigid, insular, and reified. The institutional structure and culture of M(F)A programs eventually fell prey to the law of diminishing returns for potential students (consumers). [See Endnote 1]
I refer to the law of diminishing returns of graduate creative writing programs as a crisis, but some argue that these programs are actually doing what they were set out to do in encouraging an ‘Amway Pyramid’ of elitism and de-valuing populism (‘the system isn’t broken, it’s fixed!’).
As studies such as Eric Bennett’s recent Workshops Of Empire show, the MFA Creative Writing program was initially designed to ‘discourage the abstract theorizing and systematic social critiques to which the radical literature of the 1930s had been prone, in favor of a focus on the personal, the concrete and the individual. While workshop administrators like Paul Engle and Wallace Stegner wanted to spread American values, they did not want to be caught imposing a particular ideology on their students, for fear of appearing to use the same tactics as the communists. Thus they presented their aesthetic principles as a nonpolitical, universally valid means of cultivating writerly craft. The continued status of “show, don’t tell” as a self-evident truth, dutifully dispensed to anyone who ventures into a creative-writing class, is one proof of their success.’[Endnote 2]
In the broader scheme of things, this anti-populism is nothing new. In post-enlightenment European and American culture, poetry had largely been an elite endeavor, not meant for the masses. The literary Modernism that developed in the first half of the 20th century — Pound and Eliot, etc — continued this tradition with its often explicit snobbery (and classism and racism) toward mass people’s poetry such as song lyrics, jazz saxophones and collaboration.
From this perspective, what was happening in the 1980s was a ‘return to normalcy’ after the challenge of the sixties (except maybe some first generation college students — including previously excluded women and non-whites—could now be tapped as creators). But, despite this, some of us still hoped that the heroic struggles that allowed the populists to cross over in the previous generation effected some change and was not just a passing fad.
But in the (protracted) meantime, the proliferation of college creative writing programs thus came to create a new consumer, one who would have to pay to play, as it were (analogous to what was happening in the music industry at the time). The rise of graduate Creative Writing programs created a climate in which one paid for the privilege of being read by a select few (mentors, gate keepers) who had risen to their position of prominence through the old pre-MFA system in the post WW2 era, or increasingly in the MFA era. And, as Creative Writing Programs proliferated, the disconnection from popular culture widened.
I don’t primarily blame the MFA Creative Writing programs for creating this debt plantation dynamic. They were institutionally powerless to fill the void that had been left when mass media began to abandon literature; as a result, literature, like pop-music, had lost whatever grounding it had during the fifties and sixties and even into the seventies.[Endnote 3]
This increasingly lead some poets and writers to scorn the whole grad school paradigm. But as that recent book MFA Vs. NYC points out, Creative Writing Programs were increasingly becoming the only game in town — at least if you don’t consider hip hop or rock music as poetry. Others of us thought we could work within academic structures in hopes of changing them from within, though it became increasingly obvious that academia was becoming as insular as its Riot-Proof Campuses built during the seventies as it was in the early 1950s. And, for the most part, very few people who didn’t identify themselves as poets read poetry or attended the forum called the ‘poetry reading.’
Today, the number of unemployed and underemployed graduates of Creative Writing programs is higher than ever, while there’s also a crisis in public education on a K-12 level: high-drop out rates, terrible student-teacher ratios, and miseducation (that tells students that Columbus discovered America while relying on a ‘common core’ literary curriculum that reifies the traditional white male standard of excellence, even when it occurs in ‘black face,’ as if Phillis Wheatley’s ‘Twas Mercy That Brought Me From My Pagan Land’ is the founding poem of a Black Art Aesthetic).
While such aesthetic/ideological underpinnings still dominate the landscape of many of today’s Creative Writing programs, it’s clear — as I discovered as a teacher in an MFA Program — that there’s an increasing feeling of discontentment coming from within in the academy — by student/consumers, first and foremost, as well as some of the best and brightest minds who are either turned away or not offered enough incentives to consider a possible career (or vocation) in creative writing.
Interventions such as the annual Rethinking Its Presence: Racism in MFA Programs conference at the University of Montana show that many writers and teachers understand that the need to change the academic (as well as the non-academic) cultures in which creative writing circulates, and is ‘vetted,’ must be addressed in two distinct, but overlapping fronts: the aesthetic-pedagogical as well as the institutional.
On an aesthetic-pedagogical level, we need at the very least to expand the repertoire of stylistic strategies, and content, taught and encouraged within Creative Writing programs, but in order to do this I believe we must think and work both within and outside the academy, and consider the depth of the rift between ‘academic’ and ‘non-academic’ creative writing that still exists today, despite some ‘crossovers’ and what remains of schools like Naropa.
In his manifesto, ‘The New Perform-A-Form [A Page Versus Stage Alliance],’ Thomas Sayers Ellis brilliantly diagnoses today’s (aesthetic) crisis, and suggests the kind of conceptual re-orientation of consciousness that needs to occur to help address these issues, and make more room for our fellow ‘straddlers.’ You could say he creates a new genre, or he just gives a name for practices that have existed but fall through the cracks in the reductive economy of naming. For instance:
A perform-a-form occurs when the idea body and the performance body, frustrated by their own segregated aesthetic boundaries, seek to crossroads with one another. This coupling, though detrimental to aspects of their individual traditions, will repair and continue the living word.
Perform-a-forms do not lie (on the page or on the stage), frozen in little boxes or voices, unable to interact with the reader or listener, as if on a table in a morgue.
Perform-a-formists seek a path around both Academic and Slam Poetry, to eliminate the misconceptions between them, and to balance the professional opportunities (in publishing and employment) opened to each.
You can’t workshop a perform-a-form but you can participate in its creation and correction.’ (Ellis, 2009, 71-73).
Ellis acknowledges that such a move could be ‘detrimental to their individual traditions,’ but it is his belief that the advantages would far outweigh the disadvantages, especially if they can ‘balance the professional opportunities opened to each.’ I wholeheartedly agree, and hold these truths more self-evident than the wisdom of ‘show, don’t tell.’ Ellis, I believe, gives eloquent voice to the frustrations of many I’ve encountered both inside and outside academia, who often get turned off to ‘poetry’ by teachers and their force-fed Frost, and their ‘segregated aesthetic boundaries.’
That Ellis uses the word ‘segregated’ instead of ‘specialized’ is also highly significant, because in the official reality the distinction between ‘academic’ (page) or ‘slam’ (stage) is still highly racialized: ‘And while it is rare to attend a poetry festival or a conference and see poets (established and emerging, white and black, academic and non-academic) being treated as equals, consequently it is even rarer to discover literary editors and publishers open to ‘all’ levels of class intelligence. The first task of activism of any perform-a-formist is the removal of all one-dimensional judges of craft.’
As a teacher of creative writing at a community college with a very diverse (and mostly non-white) population who has seen my students (young and old) not being treated as equals to the writers at the (mostly white) schools I’ve taught at, this issue is something I try to address in the classroom. But there’s only so much one can do in a classroom, and in the confines of an English department (whose segregated aesthetic boundaries still don’t make enough room for the kind of poetry that’s called Hip Hop, for instance). We need to consider institutional change; in fact, that could be a great collaborative assignment in a creative writing workshop….in which we could each participate in the creation (and correction) of our works in progress.
On an institutional level, if MFA Creative Writing programs could mandate practicums in which grad students would be sent into elementary schools as, say, Kenneth Koch did, it could (1) widen the audience for literature, (2) provide a community service for underfunded K12 schools and (3) create job possibilities for grad students. Since there are many unmet needs in K12 schools, and many unemployed workers in MFA programs taking out debilitating loans for a very expensive ‘lottery ticket’, this can address several crises at once. But MFA programs have, for the most part, gone on pretending there’s no crisis. And, for some, I’m sure there isn’t.
In conclusion, the rise of the MFA programs, like the rise of post structuralism, in academia, was a reformist movement. Both were a reaction to the challenges raised by students, and others, during the 1960s. [Endnote 4] Whether or not these trends were intentionally devised to crush the potentially revolutionary plans being proposed to make academia a more truly broad based institution at the time, it’s clear that many who have tried to work within these structures have come to the conclusion that the ideological underpinnings need to be rethought to liberate literature from its hierarchies, and make the degree more valuable.
Addressing the structural racism in both Literature and Creative Writing programs, and considering other practical solutions (whether seen as pragmatic or revolutionary) could benefit the profession, and, more broadly, American culture as a whole. If it is simply not possible within the confines of academia, or in the mass media marketplace, we should at least consider the need for a new community-run model of education, or grass roots cultural institutions that can educate, entertain and employ us.
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Endnote  Things To Do When Your MFA Students Ask For Advice: When I taught in an MFA program, my students often asked me for advice on whether they should consider enrolling in a Ph.D. program. Of course, I can’t make the decision for them, and I tried to be as neutral as possible in considering their needs and abilities, and today’s economic/cultural landscape (which I don’t want to reduce to a ‘job market’), in weighing the advantages and disadvantages of each. They also wonder why I needed a Ph.D. to get a job in an MFA program, when the other teacher was able to get published and find this job with only an MFA?
I offered a historical interpretation: In the seventies, when the other teacher received her degree, it was much more common for professors to get hired with (only) a Master’s degree than it was for my generation at the turn of the twenty-first century. Many of us in the nineties who probably wouldn’t have tried to get a Ph.D. if we had been around in the seventies, found ourselves enrolling in Ph.D. programs after getting creative writing degrees because we needed to hedge our bets, or not put all our eggs in one basket in the more competitive market of the nineties. And from what I can see, the market is even tighter now (this was the Bush2 years before the Great Crash of 2008). For these reasons, I might be more likely to advise that it would be prudent to work towards a Ph.D, but that degree is also a victim of academic inflation, and offers no guarantees, and even the likelihood of more debt. On the other hand, another advantage of the Ph.D., for me, was that it allowed me to buy time; for while I was working on my Ph.D., I was also publishing my first three books, as well as in many magazines, so that by the time I received the degree (which itself wouldn’t have been enough to get this job), I already had a national poetic reputation which I didn’t have when I graduated from the M.A. program. But that, too, may be harder for your generation, especially because I had the advantage of paying for my Masters degree with a TA that allowed me to be a teacher of record, which, alas, this program doesn’t allow.’
As I witnessed students laboring amidst the increased cost (and devaluation) of the Graduate Degree, I felt a crisis bubbling up beneath the surface. I saw brilliant young writing communities form among Graduate students only to fall apart they second they graduate, once the harsh economic realities of ‘the real world,’ compounded by being saddled with debt, hit them with post-degree hangover. I questioned how long can this last? I could understand why some thought it was a scam, almost like a soldier coming back from Afghanistan or Iraq who questions his or her youthful idealism. And I wondered if the MFA programs are ultimately a sustainable business model, and if, as teachers, we’re powerless to lower the costs, can’t we at least create more opportunities to counter academic inflation and the devaluing of the degree?
Endnote  The devaluing of the degree, and the academic inflation that occurred as the academic factories churned out more of a supply of potential culture workers resembled an Amway Pyramid, or the bubble economy of the housing market. Eventually it would have to crash.
Endnote  As well as a reaction to the earlier ‘forgotten’ non-academic public intellectuals of the 1930s and 1940s who had lost much of the source of their livelihood after the defunding of New Deal writer community service programs, and the era of McCarthyism.