To MFA or not to MFA…

… that is the question. And I’m not the first to ask it, obviously. There’s a near-continual debate, in writing circles, about the MFA – is it good for poetry? is it bad for poetry? – who cares! can we even afford it? What happens to a person of color in an MFA program? I’m strangely relieved that the debate is still a lively one. And I don’t see it dying down anytime soon.

I had a friend who was in school for her MA/PhD, and she had a classmate who had already completed an MFA from Iowa, and was getting an MA in art history at a prestigious liberal arts college. I was like, dude, you’re telling me he goes from highly regarded program to highly regarded program, just collecting degrees that interest him? Yep, he was. He was – and I feel like you can see this coming – from a well-off family. I wished, fervently, that I was him. Well, not a dude – but intellectually curious, gifted, and rich. You get the idea. A life of studying things I love? Sign me the fuck up!

So if I were independently wealthy, I’d get an MFA. If I wanted to teach, I’d certainly do it. And I think it would be awesome. But so would all of life be kind of awesome if I didn’t have a day job, worries about retirement, and all the various constraints on my limited life energy that most of us have.

I used to spend a lot of time thinking about how much I wanted more freedom. But in day-dreaming, I kind of shortchanged the freedoms I do have. I can’t throw all my structures away and go live in a yurt. But I can make choices, find out they’re right for me, or all wrong for me, abandon one path for another, abandon one path for no path, start over, double down, doubt everything I’ve ever written, send it out anyway. And maybe it’s the cynicism of encroaching middle age, but I spend a lot less time fixated on the pie in the sky these days. I suspect that a certain amount of pragmatism is a necessary step to actually getting what I want.

So here’s my life: I have a non-literary day job, and I squish poetry in wherever it will fit. Poetry, for its part, is remarkably agreeable about this. It understands my need to do sometimes a little, occasionally a lot, go down plenty of blind alleys, and on some days ignore it completely (mystery leak in kitchen, evening spent crying, important episodes of Gilmore Girls to watch, etc.)

It’s true that I often feel like less of a Serious Poet because I don’t have an MFA. I’m continually impressed by people who pursue them, whether full-time or on top of a job, or with small children at home, because they want to teach or because they just feel like it’s the right thing. We’re a tribe. I want success for every writer. I support every writer doing what she most wants to do. But I also accept that some things are not me, or not me at this moment.

At this moment, I think my writing benefits more from small, persistent actions than from grand, sweeping commitments.

And poetry holds, generously and gently, the imperfect life. The life of compromises. The life of the worried, the hopeful, the confused. I’d even go so far as to say poetry welcomes it.


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