Before anyone get the idea this is going to be another shot across the bow in the never ending stupidity which is "to MFA or not to MFA," it isn't. This is about the benefits of not being a part of the academic world of poetry, and how my life as a poet benefits from this decision, albeit an unconscious one.
First, I need to acknowledge a little envy. I want it known that if I had made other decisions which pointed me towards the university system, becoming a part of the larger academic world of writing and poetry, I would not think my life to be any less thrilling or fun. In fact, there are times when I envy the opportunities some of the poet-professors I know (mostly through blogging and Facebook) are having because of their position within this vast universe. What I am going to talk about is how one should not feel guilt or as if they lack something because they have not chosen a life in academia as a support system for their life in poetry. Enough said? Good.
I was just now looking through my copy of Poets on Teaching: a sourcebook, edited by Joshua Marie Wilkinson, when the thought hit me how lucky I am to not be an academic. Oh, I teach, but I teach high school, and as such, do not really qualify on the same level as many of the people who identify as poets. Oh, how the world is bloated by the poet-professor or the professor-poet. Oh, how the world is crowded by the many adjunct professors clinging to the university system in the hopes of full time employment and the slight fragrance of tenure. As I was reading, and finding more than a few names I admire, I realized writing this sort of entry for this sort of book is part joy, but invariably part work. Not just in terms of the writing of such articles, but in the pursuit of such opportunities to have one's ideas put upon the public community of writers---int his case, the very specific community of poets. I might dare say I am one of the few non-professor/instructor types to have purchased this book. After all, it is the college professor and instructor who needs such a framework or sampling of pedagogy. As a high school teacher who drifts between teaching such diverse subjects s English, Honors Seminar, History, and Drama ( I am even guilty of teaching Biology for a year), my pedagogy consists of a much larger portion of classroom control than those who teach college.
Here is one stereotype which does get me every time: College professors go through undergrad, graduate, and post-grad studies without being required to take one classroom management or "methods" course if they know how to navigate the collegiate system, yet somehow, a PhD magically confers credibility as a teacher.
My point is this: If one is going to be a professor and a poet at the same time, more than a small amount of effort must be made clarifying one's aesthetic and beliefs regarding poetry. There are papers and conferences. There are articles and seminars. There is the search for publication. Some universities rooted in "Publish or Perish" even have a formula for their poets, where three poems equals one academic paper. to be honest I have no idea whether that s a good ratio or not. I don't have to know because I do not have to be concerned with such things. Any and all time I spend on such matters is entirely voluntary. If I want to write a book review, I have my own standards to follow (I never review a book I received for free) and if I want to talk craft or pedagogy ( I hate that word by the way) I am free to say as much or as little about it depending on a whim. I have no tenure committee to apply to, kneel to, or even fit into my consciousness. I simply write down my poemy thoughts here on my blog free form and only the most basic of spell-check to guide me. In the words of Walt Whitman, "Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself." And what's more, I know I contradict myself on almost a daily basis when it comes to my writing.
And because I do not mix my poetry with my career (my students nor my administration cares one bit whether I am a poet, and nor do any of the people I work with) I am free to address my poetry on my terms, without the pressures of trying to conform to a university system or ensure my position and ability to provide for my family. That isn't to say I don't have professional issues or pressures, but I do not have any professional obligations as a poet, which is a great comfort, considering all of the other neurosis I have regarding my poetry.
I also have to confess I am pleased as punch not to have the debt multiple stages of graduate and post-graduate studies would most certainly laid at my feet. I graduated debt free from college thanks to the Army College Fund. I attended graduate school through the University of Nevada, Reno, paying at most $127/hr in a program for Literacy Studies. Did the program further my understanding of poetry? Slightly. Was I able to complete the program while working full time? Absolutely. Did I graduate debt free, able to pay off each year's tuition with the pay raise I received each consecutive year I was in the program? You betcha! And while saying this is not meant to be a condemnation of anyone's path which took them into student debt to realize their dreams of being a PhD, I must confess a few things. I cannot conceive of the amounts of debt I have seen some acquaintances admit to in similar conversations. Maybe I did not have the level of devotion to a dream as they did/do, (and I know some poets would point to their poor estimation of my art as evidence) but my first commitment has always been to my family and my ability to provide for it. Not having that debt in my life means I do not feel beholden to any path other than that which leads me to take care of my family. I also must confess that having the salary I have (based upon holding a Master's Degree and 14 years in the district) I make a lot more money than any adjunct and more than any of my contemporaries would in my preferred regions (namely Utah).
Not having been the part of any university has had its problems. I do not have the support network other poets have, and I cannot ever count on that support. I have even been snubbed more than once by poet-professors and former professors of mine who refuse to even respond to my e-mails---even if just to tell me to go to hell or fuck off. It's as if my success has made me a non-entity because helping me has no Quid Pro Quo element. Because I cannot wash their backs, they will not wash mine. It's not a great contributor to my decision to opt out of the contest system, but it did inform my decision. That in itself has pushed me to test the limits of the poetry community and find hard evidence poets can survive without the university system. At 44, I have published (with a lot of help from some fine poets and wonderful editors) four chapbooks of poetry, and two full length books of poetry. I have another full length book coming out soon, and I did it all without being a professor. It's not that I couldn't be a professor, just like I know most every poet-professor I can think of would still be a wonderful poet without being a professor, it's just that it is possible for me to be a poet more easily because I am not a professor. I am certain many poet-professors feel the same way about the things being a professor has given them.
For anyone who thinks there is only one path for anything, I would point to Ron Silliman's entry in the above mentioned Poets on Teaching, when he quoted Malcolm Gladwell's idea of it taking 10,000 hours to be competent at any one thing. I know my 10,000 hours are better for not being a part of a college or university.