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.

Some art stuff



Life gets increasingly complicated over time. I tend to take on multiple little projects, and since I have a day job, I sometimes have to cull my activities so I can refocus on writing.

So thank you to the friend who suggested I should have a crafting room in my new place. I had been thinking of it as a writing room, but it should be more.

Over the years I have undertaken a lot of amateur art projects. Lithographs and artist’s books, pottery and collaged valentines. I like to lose objectivity in the embroidery floss aisle at the fabric store. I have a mild obsession with sewing handbags. For several months, I kept a florid visual journal using colored pencils. I used to take weird Polaroid photographs for kicks (good times, good times). I’m not saying I’m good at any of these things – that’s really not the point – just that part of valuing creativity is that the creative thing tends to leak out everywhere. Packing and moving the detritus of all these projects (or, when I was desperate and out of time, throwing them in the dumpster) forced me to think about the nature of art-making.

And this is my conclusion: art is essentially – well, disposable isn’t the right word – let’s say in transit. It passes from me and out to the world. I don’t mean that the product is worthless. My nephew wore the bracelets until they fell apart, my friends seem to love their valentines (thanks for humoring me, guys!), and somebody at the Goodwill store is going to be happy to discover that bag I made out of batik turtle fabric (uh, I hope). And yes, my mom still keeps all my pottery.

But art, the product, has meaning as we give it away.* It starts life inside us, but it’s really complete when it’s gone into someone else’s head and rearranged things a little.


* Or sell it, if you’re a professional.

How shall I live? A short list of favorite poems.

this water dropping

In honor of National Poetry Month, I wanted to share some of my favorite poems – poems that have stuck with me for years, that I never get tired of re-reading. Some folks have works of religious or spiritual guidance; I have poems. How shall I live? is the question. All these poems answer: With as much kindness and wonder as you can.

I did a little research on the ethics of posting other people’s poems to one’s amateur poetry blog. Ahem. The Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for Poetry states

an online resource (such as a blog or web site) may make examples of selected published poetry electronically available to the public, provided that the site also includes substantial additional cultural resources, including but not limited to critique or commentary, that contextualize or otherwise add value to the selections.

What I have to say about these poems is “I love this” and “This makes me happy” and “Smiley-face.” So in fairness, I don’t think I should reproduce them here; follow the links instead.

Mary Oliver – “Wild Geese”

Li-Young Lee’s “The Gift”.

Ted Kooser manages to be accessible and still a subtle, inventive, and original voice. And the guy just comes off as awesome in interviews. “After Years”

I’ve already talked about Tennyson’s work – “The Splendor Falls”

And a new favorite, Mark Strand’s “The Night, the Porch,” courtesy of Knopf’s Poetry Month emails.

This Octavio Paz poem was posted all over the walls of my college when Paz won the Nobel in 1990. I took one of the copies* and memorized the poem just through constantly reading it. And I can’t find it online anywhere in its intended format (aside: Internet, we need to talk about the impulse to center-align poems that shouldn’t be center-aligned. NOT OKAY.) So I’m breaking the rules because I think reading Paz is good for the soul. Thank you, Internet Diety of Obscure References (aka, Google Books).

*I hope that was kind of what you intended, anonymous Paz-sharing member of the administration.


Más transparente
que esa gota de agua
entre los dedos de la enredadera
mi pensamiento tiende un puente
de ti misma a ti misma
más real que el cuerpo que habitas
fija en el centro de mi frente

Naciste para vivir en una isla.

English translation:


More transparent

than this water dropping

through the vine’s twined fingers

my thought stretches a bridge

from yourself to yourself

                                                    Look at you

more real than the body you inhabit

fixed at the center of my mind

You were born to live on an island

I love that Paz recognizes this quality of  soul, of being “born to live on an island.” I’ve often felt that way. But really, the whole poem is just perfect – the spare image, the haiku-like turns, the surprising conclusion. This poem is a thing I have loved for over twenty years, which is pretty incredible.

Happy National Poetry Month, all. May you find many poems to love.

James Franco, for better or worse

James Franco, multi hyphenate

Today’s poetry-in-pop-culture moment is brought to you by actor/filmmaker/writer/serial-degree-acquirer James Franco. Going by Franco’s occasional poem for the inauguration (you can read it here), he’s got some maturing to do as a poet, despite attending the best low-res MFA program in the country and having a book forthcoming from Graywolf Press. As the recent Details interview notes of Franco’s writing, “It’s a huge body of work, running the gamut from brilliant to unbearable, at times in the same piece.” Sample lines of a poem composed specifically for the interview:

Mostly at Columbia where the students are brats
And they pay so much money they want results

Instantly, so how can you blame them for hating
A Hollywood boy who gets his book published
Right out the gate, and gets to do movies, and date
Whomever he damn well pleases, like a one ton Pink
Elephant in the room, whom everyone wants to shoot
But no one does, because they’re all begging for peanuts.

On the one hand, I love that an artist can get a magazine like Details to write, even tangentially, about poetry. And Franco seems enthusiastic about art, and thinking about art, and I hate to bash those qualities. There’s nothing to be gained by overly harsh criticism of new writers.

On the other hand, the Franco poems I’ve read so far are wearyingly self-obsessed and gratingly unmusical. Franco reports of his time at Warren Wilson, “there is still a heavy emphasis on craft…” Too bad he doesn’t seem to have taken that emphasis to heart. In a culture that’s at best indifferent and at worst hostile to my favorite art-form, Franco’s position in pop culture gives his poetry incredible visibility. James, please: put better poems out in the world.

Because whether you like it or not, you’re representing.

Little cat feet

A fifteenth century manuscript in Dubrovnik, Croatia – with cat footprints. Antique “aaawww!”

Kitty feet. It's like iambic pentameter, only shorter.

And an appropriate poem I just became acquainted with. I love the internet.

Pangur, white Pangur, How happy we are
Alone together, scholar and cat
Each has his own work to do daily;
For you it is hunting, for me study.
Your shining eye watches the wall;
My feeble eye is fixed on a book.
You rejoice, when your claws entrap a mouse;
I rejoice when my mind fathoms a problem.
Pleased with his own art, neither hinders the other;
Thus we live ever without tedium and envy.

– W. H. Auden