Monday, August 08, 2005
My undergrad cw classes at the Univ. of Pittsburgh were pretty competitive, all about proving to so-and-so that you had read such-and-such so you would get picked to do the student reading at the bar. There was a definite 'scene', in that the value of the work only existed, for some people, within certain parameters, ie. it didn't matter if you wrote good stuff and you had a class with someone, if there was a hierarchy that you didn't work to squeeze into, then you didn't matter or, worse, didn't exist. And I think that's a top-down thing... if faculty members don't play favorites in a program, then students don't have to feel like they've got to one-up each other. Of course, in that same program, their was even a tension between faculty members that one could feel as a student. I recall that my senior workshop leader was not a tenured prof, although he was an incredible reader & writer, and there were two senior workshops, either him or the chair of the creative writing program. (I think he may have had different teaching philosophies and/or felt undervalued, which I think he was). Several students bitched, went behind his back, etc. because they had not gotten into the other class ... this did nothing for the ego of our prof, who was treated with disdain by several students through the term & he responded in kind to the entire class.
For a while, I found that whole cw atmosphere to be truly hurtful to my work and to my spirit as a critical reader... I think I'd even compare it to becoming stunted in the formative years... because I got to a point where I only wanted to bring poems to workshop that everyone would praise & love, so, I couldn't bring first drafts -- and if a poem was shite and I was stuck, I'd abandon it before bringing it to my cannabilistic peers and ambivalent profs. I know that I too had become a bit of a vulture, seeking out only the elements I could tear to shreds, without figuring out what I could learn from my peers by seeing what they did well.
However, I am in an MFA program & I love it. It is a low-resideny program at Antioch University in L.A., a historically nontraditional, self-directed, socially-conscious school, so that certainly has something to do with it because when I looked for a program, I wanted something that would help me develop as a writer & human being in the world, not just teach me to "best" my colleagues. So, there's practically no competition -- most of the competition that I've experienced is entirely self-inflicted (read: self-doubt, coupled with being humbled by the brilliance of my peers). I think the lack of competition has alot to do with the low-res model... I'm very independent (& in some ways isolated from my peers). I work closely, and connect on a very individualized level, with one faculty mentor for an extended period of time. For the majority of my experience, I've felt like my mentors could be working with me & me alone; so I've never felt the need to jockey for attention or outshine someone else. I really get to focus on improving my work, without have to judge it against how my professor is treating someone else. I feel like I've arrived a place where I can focus that competitive force between me & the poems - mano y mano, duking it out until the only one of us is left standing.
I read an essay by Dana Gioia recently that said because poetry is so rarely reviewed in mainstream media most reviews are overly positive... as if just having the book published & then reviewed is reason to celebrate (which, it is.. but...). So, that being said, I don't think a positive review means much of anything... I think I go into almost anything that has been critically acclaimed with an element of cynicism. Again, returning to the previous question for a second... I think some c.w. programs actually bring down level of writers critical powers by forcing students to read the work published by their university press or the profs friends, and then giving flack if a student questions the quality of the work (at least, this was my personal experience). I think its always important to question work. In a seminar that I recently took about leading workshops, the lecturer said she nearly always starts a workshop by having the students critique a piece by a famous writer. So, the group spends 30 mins tearing apart Rita Dove or Billy Collins or whomever (without knowing who it is), then when the writer's identity is revealed the point is, we all need help sometimes & even published poems aren't perfect.
On the flipside... at this point in time, a poet is really her own best friend... when I host readings, I encourage shameless self-promotion (as do most hosts that I've seen). Power to any poet, that can write a genuine critical analysis of his own work that the work can hold up to... I know, I'm generally my own harshest critic, I think I'd end up writing a negative review of my own work... or half-hearted accolade... and I've never seen these reviews of Whitman's (although now, I'm really interested!), so I can't say for sure, but I'd guess they're not any kind of flowery, over-exaggerated prose... I could be wrong.. I don't. But, either way, I think every poet should aspire to write a book that will weather his own criticism.