About 6-9 months ago, I started seeing all of the Facebook post of peers of mine talking about either submitting for MFA programs, or receiving their letters of acceptance/denial. I have always wanted to get my MFA in creative writing because, I mean, who would not want to sit with a bunch of other talented writers and talk craft and politics all day, To broaden your network and stay up late reading and discussing great works of poetry and prose. In my head that is what an MFA program was all about, and I was here for it. Admittedly I did not know much about MFA programs, I was a computer science major in undergrad and did not start really writing til well after college, before doing some research I thought MFA’s where a natural evolution and most writers who were able were in favor of it.
Then I started to research it….and lets just say google is a cruel place for MFA’s especially to writers of color. So something was not matching up, the enthusiasm of my peers vs the actual data out there on MFA programs were at odds. Whether or not to get an MFA is a topic that has been written on exhaustively, however I am curious to know how that boils down specifically in the lens of our subculture. i.e “MFA’s for performance poets or NAH?”
As I see it, over the past couple of years there has been a surge in the number of performance poets pursuing their MFA’s, When I first started performing, slam had a strong sense of anti-establishment, (still does just in a different way), and one of the biggest establishments was the whole world of “academia”. Performance poets did not need nor desire the co-sign, accolades or degrees. They had the streets, they had the ear of the people, that this movement we were starting was more real, more visceral and impactful. Slam poets were by and large made to feel like their work was not valid or “real” and did not have a place in the national conversation and canon on what poetry is. Due to this fact there was almost a purposeful dissonance from all things academia. Performance poetry was the voice of the unheard it was the rage against the machine.
I know I cannot make a sweeping generalization on this, but from my perspective that was the general state of affairs. However, the tide has DEFINITELY changed, more and more performance poets are wanting to carve out their place in the world of academia, and “academia” has started to recognize performance poets as writers, whose works are just as valid and relevant as any traditional poet. I would actually argue that there are programs/journals/residencies where poets who have a background in Performance Poetry are regarded just as relevant as their counterparts that found poetry/creative writing through a more traditional route
I want to point out that all of the above points are just a tip of the iceberg there are a TON of more nuanced points I am glossing over, this is by design, as to not turn this into a longform essay about the combative relationship between the two subcultures over the last 20 or so years. I really want to focus on the present day, and the pros and cons on obtaining your MFA in creative writing. I will however throw out there that anyone who feels they have the chops to write comprehensively on the relationship between the academia, and slam and how it has morphed in the last decade I would be super open to that.
So, If we rewind a bit, the actual trigger for this blog post is from a conversation I was having with a poet who said “I feel like I need an MFA for my work to be respected in the same regards as traditional writers” he also stated that “An MFA is what I NEED to hone my craft of writing and become a better writer” I found this problematic and curious at the same time. I wondered if an MFA is even necessary if the end goal is anything other than Teaching in an MFA program (there is an overwhelming consensus that if teaching is your end goal an MFA is definitely needed) So if you want to write fiction, or poetry, or all of the writing careers in-between is an MFA really necessary?
*Note – earlier I alluded to “google being a cruel place for the subject of MFA’s and POC” when trying to determine if an MFA is “worth it” there is a HUGE part of this conversation that deals with the concept around what is “right” being dictated in large by white men, and that lens has largely disenfranchised/silenced women writers and writers of color. In that, MFA programs actually erase the voice of minority groups in an effort to bleach everyone’s voice and mechanic of creative writing to be what “they” deem to be “correct”
I get that, so lets base this conversation on a premise that your MFA program is woke, that it shames those other MFA programs and your MFA, has faculty and staff that does not espouse nor support that type of erasure, cool…ok SO the question remains should I get my MFA??
- Network – the network you gain from going to an MFA program is cited as one of the biggest Pros
- Critical Analysis – In an MFA program you will have peers from all over with different experiences that will be critique your work in an effort to make you a stronger writer
- Reading – Learning how to read like a writer, is one of the common benefits stated, this helps you better your own writing
- Discipline – MFA’s MAKE you sit down and write, you can’t make excuses you have to have structure and write to deadlines
- Cost – the biggest discussion point by far was the cost of an MFA and does it make sense to go into debt when there is no tangible return on investment if you are not deciding to teach.
- Indoctrination – One of the biggest complaints I found was around the faculty and staff determining what is “right” or good and as a student having to conform to that, having your work tore down because it did not fit in the pocket of what your particular program thought was correct. One of the common themes from people that recommended the MFA spoke about how impactful their particular advisor or faculty was. Indoctrination can erase your voice, which can erase your story and make you a carbon copy of the status quo [read white male writers] in a way that does not promote diversity of thought which we all know is tragic
- Elitism – This goes hand in hand with indoctrination, many of the articles I read lamented on the absolute elitism of some of these programs.
In my research I found several articles that broke down the pros and cons, but one article that was particularly insightful was from the site Flavorwire Entitled “27 writers on whether or not to get your MFA” In this article they found 27 accomplished writers ones who have their MFA and ones that don’t.
They asked the 27 accomplished writers 3 simple questions
- Do you have an MFA?
- Do they currently Teach in an MFA program?
- Would they advise a writer to get an MFA?
If you go to the link above you can see all of the responses, it is actually very insightful to see what the writers had to say, I have copied a couple of them below.
The overwhelming answer was NO, I actually had to dig to find people that really believed that an MFA was the way to go to have an established writing career. Now it should be noted that I do not know anything about the writer of the above article, therefore I can’t state that the “feedback” was not solicited with any bias, but by and large the lion share of the writers said that unless your MFA is free or you don’t take on any large finical debt then go for it, if not then the money would be better spent experiencing life and seeking out workshops and WRITING.
It is also always ironic to me when people who have ‘said’ thing, say don’t do what I did, while not speaking to the advantages they received from the thing they are telling you not to do.
So what do you think? What are your experiences? I would love to know from where you sit, and the circles you are in if you think an MFA is “worth” it. (I know the term worth can mean many things for many people) so let’s re-frame it if you were to get an MFA, or if you already have one, what are your motivations?
For part II of this topic I will be interviewing several performance poets who went and got an MFA, or are currently pursuing one, and will be breaking down the pros and cons particularly for performance poets or individuals who feel themselves to be part of this subculture, and see if post graduation they felt like an MFA was definitely the way to go!