I'm so far behind in the poetry orbit that I'm in danger of being lapped by Pluto, but I did happen to catch Khalil Murrell's Poetry Friday entry over at the Dodge Blog. I've enjoyed what the Dodge folks have done with that space, and Murrell's essay is interesting and well written, but there are couple of inconsistencies I'm struggling with.
When he says early on that "completing your MFA is like finishing med school or an MBA (except with less money-making potential, but similar debt).", I'm OK with it, though the difference between medical school and an MBA is huge -in both effort and application. In the sense that each area of expertise has a logical education terminus, I agree.
Next, in considering what to do with the thesis inside that terminal degree, Murrell asserts that "Naturally, capitalism offers an easy answer to these questions: morph it into manuscript, shop it around and publish! publish! publish!". Starting to lose me here. Having already asserted that there's no money in poetry and kept the work "professional" in quotes, it's misleading to call the drive to publish a capitalistic exercise, no matter what that implies.
"But in many ways life as a writer becomes more complicated once you drop the pen and certainly as you mature as an artist.". Hmm. Certainly no one can argue that maturation implies an acceptance of complexity, bit I don't understand how seeking publication equates to "drop(ping) the pen". This seems dramatic, and inappropriately so for someone familiar with the process. Going on to add "And believe it or not, I even miss the time when I foolishly wrote bad love poems (but good to me at the time) before the word “workshop” ever invaded my vocabulary." again speaks to nostalgia for a less complex, more youthful time, but doesn't speak to an older self who isn't writing.
Again speaking of publishing exclusive of or in preference to writing, Murrell notes that his writing buddies "are very disciplined about getting their work out there. In fact, one friend created an Excel document to track her submissions. Another keeps some type of document on his iPhone." This moves from nostalgia into naivete. Is it really such a surprise to track submissions? to navigate a spreadsheet program? To have such information handy?
Closing up his approach to completing his degree, Murrell notes "I’m satisfied with making sure I leave my program with an authentic—rather than workshop—voice, with trying to create something beautiful out of bewilderment or sadness." I've written about and empathize very much with pursuit of genuine voice. But the naivete is even louder here. Unless the point here is advocacy of college for college's sake - a strange sentiment for graduate school in this century - this implies that there is no connection between the conscious decision to pursue advanced education the desire to advance in one's field. Now, I don't think that Murrell's really saying this; I think he's just frustrated with the priority that publication has in some people's minds. However, when he adds that "I realize this may sound overly romantic if not inauthentic .... (b)ut a little romanticism has done very little to hurt the masses.", think frustration really clouds his position. I suspect many poets with a certain level of talent and accomplishment find the "romantic" opinion of the amateur - the "Hey, I've written a poem! Everyone needs to read it!" - more frustrating than the publish or perish attitude of the jaded professional.
Perhaps I'm picking nits here. And (Disclaimer Alert!) I'm not an MFA candidate and not likely to become one anytime soon. But I think most professionals like me, who went to graduate school specifically to learn and apply particular skills for the purpose of being and being recognized as someone more accomplished in a given field, I think Murrell's argument is (admittedly) romantic, but also deliberately incomplete.
Which may actually specifically make it poetic, now that I think a little. Maybe I'm way off after all.