5 Reasons I’m Happy I’m Not in an MFA Program

1. I would think that shelling out $20 every time I wanted to enter my MS in a contest that, chances are, I wasn’t going to win, was ok.
2. I would think that winners of poetry contests were legitimate and that by winning such a contest my poetry, too, would be legitimized. (Not that the poetry that wins contests is never good. Often it is. But the system is corrupt and tyrannical.)
3. I would spend lots of postage and time “sending poems out” to magazines
4. I would probably have paid tens of thousands of dollars for a worthless degree.
5. The idea of doing anything myself (DIY) would be a radical, foreign concept, and taboo.

It really seems like a raw deal, guys. How expensive and disempowering. I can see some exceptions, where what’s taught in the MFA program isn’t this ridiculous business of politicking one’s poems o’er the globe, or where one receives a degree other than the MFA (an “intellectual degree” like an MA or PhD), or where the degree is funded (Maine, Temple (both of which are MAs)) or where it could actually improve your writing (Brown, SFSU).

It’s not that people who get their MFAs suck. It’s the system that forces you to reinforce it financially and emotionally, to the detriment of your pocketbook and your work, that sucks. The system that makes you think that studying with a Great Poet will make you a Great Poet. The system that says that shopping your poems around to magazines is a worthy occupation of your time. The system that says you “have” to follow any particular path or agenda in order to be a “legitimate” poet.


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20 Responses to 5 Reasons I’m Happy I’m Not in an MFA Program

  1. K. Lorraine Graham says:

    “It’s not that people who get their MFAs suck. It’s the system that forces you to reinforce it financially and emotionally, to the detriment of your pocketbook and your work, that sucks.”

    This sounds a lot like what often happens in PhD programs, too.

    Employment is satisfying and expands my creativity. Oh wait, it sucks, too.

    Honestly, I think it all is kind of awful, but–hooray–everyone has different, specific kinds of awful they can and can’t tolerate. The good news is that the kinds of awful are numerous and varied, so eventually you’ll find one that is effective enough.

  2. Jessica Smith says:

    yes, totally, it totally also happens in PhD programs. I guess it happens with all hiearchies– that they need to be fed by the energy, gullability, financial resources of the young. t hat they require a certain amoung of politics and posing and posturing and pretension. i am aware that even in pursuing the DIY aesthetic I am buying into a certain power politics that says that’s ok, or “better.”

  3. Jessica Smith says:

    But, if I were in an MFA program, there would be work that simply wouldn’t be getting done; no such things as OV, 4SQ, OFC, the Anthology. And instead of getting paid to go to school I would be paying to go to school as there are few funded MFA programs.

    Actually, I could see going for an MFA in fiction, to learn the politics of fiction publishing. There’s money in that.

  4. DUSIE says:

    lol. i got an mfa, and didn’t think that way. and the only contest I have submitted my MS to is a new press which is feminist and I thought why not. I am not totally against contests…tho am suspicious of many, it’s actually a thought which has crossed my mind for Dusie…as a way of raising the funds for all the time it takes to typeset and process, etc to make any book happen, ummmm which I do now for free.

    I thought of the MFA as a way to buy time to write and study…and while Mason is by no means perfect, I liked how it was academically rounded…not that an MFA does anything for one…and not that I shouldn’t have gone to one of the schools that actually offered me anything…but that’s about ego and another subject…. and any degree could fall under the pocketbook guidelines, methinks…

  5. Jessica Smith says:

    … Susana, I think this makes you an exception to the rule. I mean, your handmade books are an exception even within the DIY world in that they’re each absolutely unique (btw folks there’s a new tri-set of Susana’s books available at etsy).

    Personally, I’m against contests as a way of earning money for presses. I understand that it “has” to be done in some situations. But with the growth/improvement of POD it seems increasingly less necessary to go that route. Seems like donations and proper pricing could circumvent the necessity of contest money.

  6. DUSIE says:

    thanks for the plug! i hope it stirs up a couple sales…i have been going crazy all day trying to get my cutter to work properly…Eileen’s book is thick and I formatted 6 per page! and my cutter sucks! 😦 it worked for like 2 days…i mean who needs a cutter for one piece or 3 pieces of paper at a time… and now i’m selling them in sets of 3 and I think xmas time is a tough time though they are great stocking stuffers and much smaller (at least Eileen’s and Eliz’s) than the rest, they’re actually the size I initially imagined…which freaked most people out…I’m glad I’ve got real troopers!

    more soon.

  7. Jessica Smith says:

    I’m planning to buy a set once my finances are a bit more under control; I get paid Friday, so maybe after that. Right now the number of outstanding checks/e-bills to be debited from my account total more than I have in the account. 🙂 as per usual.

  8. Anonymous says:

    You know, I think it’s academia in general. I mean, is it better in other fields, even into your professional schools (law, medicine, etc.)?

    No, I don’t think an MFA would “legitimize” ones poetry, but unfortunately, it seems to be a barrier towards teaching writing, which might not sound great either, but I think it’s the modern equiv. of the Inklings, though no where nearly as cool.

    Why do I desire it so much? I really have a desire to teach, and is why I’m officially applying to English and still sending poems to the CW.

    You know, thanks for posting this. You’ve got me thinking. I mean, I’m getting published without an MFA, right? What would an MFA enable me to do? Hmmmm….

  9. Jessica Smith says:

    It seems like having a book is as good a guarantee of a job as, or better than, getting an MFA. So just keep writing, and do whatever you need to do in order to write what you need to write. It seems to me, from people I know who’ve been through MFA programs, that they rarely improve your writing. It’s more about building connections, but you can do that anyway, in academia or just by going to poetry readings, corresponding with poets. Charles keeps arguing that one can get a swell teaching job without a PhD, too, though I am skeptical that one could do what he has done “in this day and age.” But yeah, it seems like finally the work will speak for itself. One hopes.

    I want to teach too. And I want to write criticism. I’m sure I don’t need a PhD to do either of these things. I don’t need a PhD to publish a book of criticism (= I don’t need to write a diss to have a book of criticism, as I don’t need to write an MFA thesis to have a manuscript). So yeah… I’m trying to figure out what I need/want and how to get that … without all the bullshit.

  10. Tony Tost says:


    I’d tend to agree with your assessment — I think the MFA as an institution is pretty brutal, but doesn’t necessarily have to be if both 1) it’s funded, 2) it can find away to operate without the assumption of some kind of ‘prestige’ system.

    That said, some nice things about my MFA program (Arkansas): 1) it is funded, and though the pay is minimal, the cost of living is low enough in Fayetteville, AR that a single, young-ish person can get by w/o loans; 2) it’s four years, and funded, which is good if you’re basically just looking to get a lot of writing done; 3) if you know anything about poetry going in, you know it’s so out-of-any-mainstream and so UN-connected to any kind of circuit that there’s no need to really be bullied by your profs (they couldn’t hook you up w/ anyone if they wanted to, & they don’t really bully anyway because they’re so off the beaten path) or to waste your time schmoozing. You could maybe schmooze your way into the Formalist, but that’s about it.

    Bad thing about Arkansas: if you’re doing something w/ any sort of innovative slant, it’s four years of feeling fairly alone artistically, unless you get lucky and a few kindred souls end up there at the same time.

    But the good thing I guess about that is a certain amount of self-reliance can accrue, and you end up being very appreciative when you do find people you have a kinship with.

    Right now, my Ph.D world feels pretty different. Much less overtly, or even subvertly, competitive (but that might just be my situation — I don’t think anyone else in the program is interested really in post 1950 poetry — but I don’t get much sense of people competing/fighting amongst each other for favor, jobs, etc in other fields). Also, much much more rigorous, which makes it much more rewarding, as a program. I can actually see myself walking out of here thinking about “my training” without using those scare quotes. To be honest, I’m kind of giddily happy with my situation right now, as compared to past work/school situations.

    I can’t ever recall considering, to myself or others, post-MFA, as my experience there as any kind of training. I’ve met & connected with about 100x more poet types after moving to North Carolina than I ever did in Arkansas, just by virtue of the people living here & nearby, & thru blogs.

  11. Tony Tost says:

    Oh, and thanks for filling me in on the name of the dude doing the Proprioception talk a few weeks ago — did you go? Was it good? I’ve been away from the blogs for awhile, so apologies if you mentioned it earlier. I think I’m gonna try to email the guy over break to see if he’d email me a copy of his talk.

  12. Jessica Smith says:

    1. Wait, what program are you in that’s making you “giddy”? I don’t think I’ve ever heard a graduate student say that 😉 … I think UVA is preparing me very well for the job market, but I don’t think it’s an intellectually challenging program. I think, and at least some of the students here agree with me, that the graduate courses are equivalent to junior/senior level courses, even at schools as “bad” as Buffalo. So it’s preparing us, I think, on a certain superficial level. Much like the lousy kind of MFA programs do– preparing you to be “professionally” X, without necessarily making any improvements to your craft/intellect.

    My opinion about graduate programs and funding in general is this. Go anywhere you can get funding as long as the program doesn’t completely rob you of your soul. I’m not going to blame anyone who chooses to go to some factory-like MFA program if it’s funded and they want “time to write,” I just hope they know that it’s not necessary to follow all the rules that some programs set up, in order to be a “real” poet. (Blah blah blah…)

    2. No, I didn’t go, but he’s a grad student here and it was a diss chapter presentation, so I’d imagine he’d be happy to talk to you about it. He has a book of poetry, too, but I haven’t read it. Are you MLA’ing?

  13. K. Lorraine Graham says:

    I repeat myself, I know, but it just depends on what you can/want to do and what makes you the least crazy.

    If you get funding, want to write a bit, and are interested in getting better adjunct work and or community college work, then being an informed avant-garde writer getting an MFA might work well.

    Or maybe you write better poems as a lawyer. We all need incomes, and most of them are corrupt somehow.

    Life=preparation to be employed.

    School=preparation to be employed.

    MFA/PHD=preparation to be employed.

    Teaching is a profession. Teaching is a job. School teaches you to get a job, not to be creative. And yes, often we are creative in spite of school and jobs. Of course there are exceptions, we can all think of several, thank G-d, but they are exceptions.

  14. Jessica Smith says:

    Sure. That notwithstanding, I’m grateful I haven’t been nursed on the basic assumptions of most traditional MFA programs, which is that one must “pay one’s dues” (through patronage, tuition, entry fees, subscriptions) & climb some particular ladder to be a “real” poet. When there are, as you point out, many ways to be a real poet.

    I’m not so much talking about “avant-garde” poets. I’m talking about that other breed of young poet, the ones being raised by the SoQ, so to speak. So to be silenced. I think it would be expensive and disempowering to be in that system. I like the system I am in, although I recognize that it is also a system.

  15. wickedpen says:

    Right there with you.

    I wound up in an MFA program largely because it was here at the school I already worked at and I get tuition remission as such. At the time, I figured it couldn’t hurt. I’ll admit my coursework and reading lists have opened up my work in different ways, but can’t believe the crap they keep shoveling into most of the student’s minds (the one’s who don’t know much beyond what they’e told.) I’ve pretty much had to just try to ignore the career aspects they try to market (the contests, the endless submissions to indifferent journals, the horrors of self-publication)and only focus on the writing, which is hard when they seem so damned intent on molding you in the stereotypical poet role.

  16. Anonymous says:

    Personally, I’m against contests as a way of earning money for presses. I understand that it “has” to be done in some situations. But with the growth/improvement of POD it seems increasingly less necessary to go that route. Seems like donations and proper pricing could circumvent the necessity of contest money.

    it feels good to be back again.

    well, there is a differnece between fiction presses and poetry presses. poets are fine with a xeroxed 8.5×11 stapled in a corner and calling it a magazine, this is rare in fiction–wallace’s sub-modern is probably the closest, and he started in poetry.

    i guess my comment is basically that for fiction presses, and their authors, POD is less attractive as fictioneers often will determine which press (should they be so fortuante) based on print-runs.

  17. Tony Tost says:

    No MLA for me — neither Leigh (my wife) nor I have seen our friends & family in Arkansas/southern Missouri for awhile, so we’re driving back for the holidays. Though this looks like a good year to go to MLA, what with Perloff orchestrating a real poetry emphasis.

    I’m doing my Ph.D. work here at Duke, which is pretty intense, at least compared to the other places I’ve gone to school: a community college, a small Christian college, and the MFA at Arkansas. The theory type course in particular are pretty rigorous, and my faculty advisor person (Priscilla Wald) is a very intense and supremely competent saint.

  18. Anonymous says:

    Poetry, poetic discourse, and poetic education are not confined to post-graduate institutions, so when you pay for an MFA program or invest your time in a Ph.D. you are not buying access to fruits of poetry as much as investing in your career (more as a teacher or academic than as a writer).

    The idea that an MFA degree per se can legitimize your poetry is a very shallow one. Have you (reader–not Jessica) ever encountered a piece of criticism that suggests the academic degree of the poet as a positive quality?

    It is the intersection of money and ideas that makes this topic so interesting, confusing, and messy. If one thinks that one’s writing is able to be improved by post-graduate work and that is the reason for enrollment, then the program must be viewed as either a privilege or a financial sacrifice. Otherwise one is investing in one’s career.

    Post-graduate programs are not the only way to improve writing, reading, and everything else poetic. Can you imagine Bernstein or Silliman saying, “If you want to improve your poetry, get thee to the nearest university or college”? Moreover, workshops often consist of immature or novice writers who can’t really benefit from the setting. A fair amount of work should be done before investing in an MFA, if it is to be done at all. (Berrigan: “I am master of no art.”)

    On the other hand, the situation is not great if you are enrolling in one of the programs as an investment in your career. The job market is extremely competitive. There is a major surplus in the number of advanced degree holders and a relatively small number of positions. Everyone reading this blog is, of course, exceptionally bright and would be granted tenure-track positions as soon as we applied. But there are a lot of people who are not finding consistent work, not to mention tenure-track work. With this surplus of degrees, universities are able to find a consistent source of adjunct profressors. The high surplus makes the adjuncts expendable, and from what I understand my editorial assistant salary is not so bad compared to the peanuts thrown to adjuncts.

    Erin O’Connor, who writes the higher-education blog Critical Mass, http://www.erinoconnor.org told me about the excellent resource at http://www.invisibleadjunct.com . That blog and all the surrounding materials are necessary reading for anyone thinking about grad school.

  19. Steven D. Schroeder says:

    I agree with those who are suggesting this is an issue across many types of degrees. As an editor, I’ve encountered numerous MFAs who couldn’t write and PhDs who didn’t know literature. As a resume writer, I’ve encountered numerous MBAs with no business sense, people with master-level degrees in human resources who don’t have the faintest clue what goes on a resume or what the abbreviations of their certifications and affiliate organizations stand for, etc. I’m just glad I didn’t go straight into grad school out of my BA–I would have floundered.

  20. sandrasimonds says:

    The University of Montana is a Great Place to Get your MFA!

    Go Griz!!!

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