There is a lot of discussion about rankings of MFA programs and the like, and some very good poets, both MFA graduates and non-MFA graduates have weighed in, mostly all affirming the MFA is merely one path on the way towards becoming a better poet. Of course they all sing the same tune: The MFA's real value is in the time a program gives one to think about poetry, read poetry, read and write essays on poetics, and yes, write poetry. However, I think there still remains a few things left unsaid, especially for those writers who have chosen, for whatever reason or reasons, to not go the MFA route.
I really don't know how this is going to go over, but I would like you all to know, as you start reading this post, I am sincere. Not sarcastic, not mean-spirited, and certainly not as an inside joke. I am writing this from the perspective of a poet who has had a modest amount of success without having gone the MFA route.
I used to wonder if I was ever going to be the kind of poet who wrote books about the craft of writing, write essays on the writing process or the teaching of writing (you know the kind that you get in your college writing courses or your methodology courses) but I quickly discovered that my life outside of collegiate academics was going to be a huge handicap in that regard. It took me a while to get over that. I was, if I can be honest, a bit put out about that and I a small part of me began to mourn the loss of whatever non-poetry contribution I might have been able to make. But then I eventually got over the fact that I was not going to have any real influence in the world of poetry. How did I do it? I realized that very few poets, regardless of graduate credentials ever get the opportunity to weigh in on the matter of poetics. This is not the same thing as never willing the Pulitzer or winning a Pushcart. I have been nominated for the Pushcart, but that was probably something which came to me 5 or six years too early. The truth as I see it is this: I may have plenty to say as far as poetry goes, but sooner or later it really only matters if I am going to listen to my ideas because in the end, it's really only my poetry that matters, or should matter.
It was a strange time, I will admit, when I thought my ideas would be taken seriously by writers. I thought if I joined in enough conversations I might accumulate some level of gravitational pull and some day be asked for my opinion on various issues of poetics. It wasn't for a while that I discovered I would never have that sort of career, if one can even refer to a life in poetry as a career. What I slowly discovered was by making the decision to remain outside of the system of higher education I was closing the door on having a voice in those sorts of things. That is, if I ever had a chance to have a voice in those matters. Hard as it may be for some poets to hear, we need to hear our chances at shaping poetics is slim to none even if we are amazing poets and thinkers. I believe this is one reason functions like AWP are so popular and the MFA is so highly debated. These things give poets the chance to feel as if they (each of us?) have a say in the direction our chosen fields take. But let's be honest for a moment or two. Having a panel at AWP may be a fun prospect, but that isn't where real change takes place. It's more celebratory collaboration and résumé padding than it is real insight into the real issues of pedagogy and heuristics. Having an MFA offers much the same when looked at through the lens of professionalism. The MFA for most writers is a feeder route degree into the grown-up pool of creative writing. It's like Mr. Miyagi's black belt. It says you are serious enough about writing to deserve a second look. What you do from there is up to you, but don't expect anyone to put aside what they are doing to pay attention to you for too long.
My life as a poet became considerably easier when I gave up the dream of making a difference to anyone other than myself and looked to simply wanting to be a part of the community. Therein was the good, the bad, and the ugly. Without the burden of trying to say something of importance I was able to concentrate on saying something important to me. However, that meant I had to come t terms with being the kind of poet I am, getting rid of yet another set of false impressions and accepting something still closer to how the real world operates. At times I swear I have made a profession of giving up my preconceived notions---not just in poetry, but most every aspect of my life. Further, I had to accept the reality I had never said much of any real consequence as it applied to writing theory.
Still, we all crave to be an active part of our community. Imagine the family doctor. I doubt the family doctor looks at the heart surgeon and feels slighted that he never focused on surgery. Most likely that family practitioner is quite happy with the fact the experience of going through college, medical school, residency, and internships. Just like there are different kinds of doctors, there are different kinds of poets. Some who have an MFA and/or a PhD, and those who don't. Some who make a big splash in the poetry world, and those who barely break the surface or cause a ripple. Find out what kind of poet you want to be.
And you will have those people who argue that it matters where you go to get your MFA the same way it matters where your doctor went to medical school. After all, I like TGIF as a concept, but I would be really uncomfortable with anyone who graduated from the TGIF Medical School of Barbados. At the very least I would be checking the diploma to make sure I didn't see any BBQ smudges. To these people I would remind them, poetry isn't medicine, and medicine is not poetry. They are not analogous. With poetry you don't need a degree because nobody's life is at stake, and it doesn't matter where you get your MFA degree from if your real goal is poetry. If you are really interested in poetry it shouldn't matter if the program costs you $8000 per year at a state school with in-state tuition, or $22,500 per year at a private institution. Figure out how much you are willing to spend on the opportunity to study poetry and find a school you think you will enjoy. Those rankings? Yes, I know that grant money is important and having money makes a difference when you've got bills to pay, but if you are really interested in poetry and money is an issue, then it should be your goal to find a cheap program and not worry about how many book prizes your program has amassed. Oh, just one more little factoid to nail the coffin shut: I teach high school in Nevada. I have a Master's degree, and I will most likely make more money than you ever will if you decide to teach college. Being a poet should never be about the money.
In short, it isn't just the ranking of MFA programs which is wrong, nor is it the criteria upon which they have been ranked which gets me going. It's the fact that too many people have become dissatisfied with all of the possibilities out there in the world. Just like politics, we have allowed ourselves to be sucked into the either/or fallacy. To earn the MFA or to not? That is the only question, and we continue to play into that instead of rejecting the premise that poetry should have anything to do with anything except what we, ourselves as individual poets say it should be. I for one refuse to answer that question because it is too private an answer to discuss in public.