Monday, June 6, 2011

The Incestuous Poetry Relationship

I had a one-year subscription to Poet & Writer magazine, six issues at a deep discount of $10. I've always enjoyed this magazine, since it pulls together a broader variety of writers and writing topics than do many other magazines for writers. Often on my travels I will enter a Barnes & Noble, take one from the rack, buy a vente house blend and sit and read it. Usually I find such good things it it that I'll buy the issue and read it in the hotel. So eventually I took the subscription. P&W is heavy on features: the writing life, debut novelists; debut poets. It is short on the writing craft, moderate on industry news, and what news it presents is usually done through features. A little short on regular columns, too, compared to other writing mags.

I read these issues slowly, only on Sunday afternoon, in our sun room, falling asleep and reading in several sequences. I'm currently working through the January/February 2011 issue, the last one of my subscription (which I did not renew). The covers says it is "The Inspiration Issue." Under the heading of "The Literary Life" are many interviews of writers, but a series of short interviews of debut poets especially caught my eye. These are poets who had their first collection published in 2010. What I found instructive was the university attended/degree earned and employment of these poets. Let's see how the columens will format, as I know the spaces will look right on my screen but probably not once published.

Age         University        Degree        Employment
41           Iowa                 MFA         theatre writer/critic
30           Warren Wilson  MFA         creative writing teacher
39           Columbia          MFA         mother
27           Wisconsin         MA           library worker
34           Iowa                 MFA         PhD candidate
29           New Mexico     MFA        teacher
30           Oregon             MFA        job hunting teacher
32           George Mason  MFA        PhD candidate
39            New York U    MFA       assistant professor
39           Utah                  MFA       associate professor
35           New School (NYC) MFA PhD candidate

All degrees save one are masters of fine arts, and almost all now work at teaching others. Is this the way poetry publishing is going? If so, it's incestuous. Others have said this before me, that the MFA-based system results in inbreeding of poetic technique, begetting the same poetic technique, as those who are taught by MFA profs become MFA profs.

C.S. Lewis had a word to say about this, as I discussed a couple of months ago:
Great authors are innovators, pioneers, explorers; bad authors bunch in schools and follow models. Or again, great authors are always 'breaking fetters' and 'bursting bonds'. They have personality, they 'are themselves'.
We certainly have poetry "schools", in the broadest sense of the word. And we've had 'em in the past, too.

Of course, I admit it's quite possible that this magazine is not all that representative of the full range of modern poetry. It might be only a small part of it. Still, I wonder if this isn't at least in part explanatory of why poetry is so unpopular these days. P&W is a magazine filled with adds for MFA schools and workshops. Every university and college in the country that has a creative writing program has an ad in each issue of the magazine. The ads almost always feature a rustic cottage surrounded by trees and meadows. A photo of some poet who's supposed to be famous but who most likely I never heard of is inset, and the ad includes a list of faculty and visiting professors, almost all of whom I never heard of. Low residency requirements are typically trumpeted.

The ads that are not for MFA programs are for writing retreats or workshops. The ads that aren't for any of those are for contests. The ads are so similar from issue to issue that I pretty much stopped reading them.

So P&W is of some limited use, but I really like it. I'm keeping these issues, and may refer back to them from time to time. But watch out for the problem of the incestuous poetry community I will.

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