No One Writes Poetry For the Job Prospects
The complaints about MFA programs and their proliferation are many and legion, and in some cases, I even agree with them, or at least with the possibility that such conditions could possibly exist. But I can promise you that what Clayton Eshleman is worried about isn’t really an issue.
The hundreds of undergraduate and graduate university degree programs offering majors in writing poetry and fiction worry me. This system is producing thousands of talented but unoriginal writers, many of whom would not be writing at all if it were not for jobs. Once upon a time, there was a “left bank” and a “right bank” in our poetry: the innovative vs. the traditional. Today the writing scene resembles a blizzard on an archipelago of sites. Not only has the laudable democratization of poetry been compromised by being brick-layered into the academy but with few exceptions there is a lack of strong “signature” and a tacit affirmation of the bourgeois status quo, the politics of no politics.
All I can figure is that Eshleman hasn’t seen the state of the academic job market in creative writing (especially poetry) lately, and by lately, I mean at any point in the last 15 years. If there’s been a year in which there were more than 25 tenure-track jobs available in poetry lately–and I’m including jobs where creative writing is more a sideline than a primary area of teaching–then I don’t remember it, and I’ve kept a fairly close eye on it. Anyone who goes into an MFA program thinking “if I crap out some poems, I can get a cushy job” is going to be smacked in the face pretty quickly (by reality, not by me).
Now, if Eshleman is suggesting that there are people in those jobs who wouldn’t still be writing if they weren’t forced to publish in order to gain blessed, blessed tenure, maybe that’s a bit more defensible, but even so, that’s a small percentage of the academic workforce, and there’s no way they’re producing the incredible volume of poetry being pushed out into the world.
It’s completely possible that MFA programs are pushing out thousands of “talented but unoriginal writers,” but it seems to me that every generation has those anyway–at worst, MFA programs gather them together into more easily recognizable groups, the easier to ignore them (if you buy into the theory, that is. I don’t.). And if that’s the worst thing an MFA program does, well, it ain’t genocide.