Let’s take it as a given that no one studies poetry for the money and fame, or at least not just for the (pitiful) money and (marginal) fame. You can count the number of poets in the United States who make a living off of their book sales on one hand. Bestselling business writer Daniel Pink and others have argued that the M.F.A. is the M.B.A. of the 21st century. It’s true there are more and more programs every year and, thus, more newly minted M.F.A. graduates. And anyone who’s read a profile of Steve Jobs knows how vital aesthetics and creativity have become in the new economy, how they drive innovation. Whatever people say about an M.F.A. in writing—and they say a lot—such programs are certainly hotbeds of creativity.
Former Maine Poet Laureate Betsy Sholl notes, “It’s a degree for people with a passion for [this] art, who value writing over huge salaries.” Getting an M.F.A. in poetry seems to require that one shed most practical considerations about the future. Of her M.F.A. students at OSU Cascades, Arielle Greenberg (My Kafka Century) says, “Some of them want jobs, but I do my best to quickly disabuse them of that.” When asked why they do it, graduates of poetry M.F.A. programs talk about a compulsion to make little machines made of words. They want the time, feedback, and inspiration that an M.F.A. offers and a more intense engagement with the craft.
Poets choose programs based on reputation, faculty, location, and the opportunities it affords (like teaching or interning at a literary magazine or press). Funding is also important: Keetje Kuipers (Keys to the Jail) notes that she choose the University of Oregon over a program that promised connections because it was fully funded. She didn’t want to pay the price if she found that she didn’t want to write.
Once they begin a program, poetry students often encounter some surprises. They find that the poet mentoring them is not who they supposed it would be. They find community in unexpected places, including (gasp!) with fiction and nonfiction students. They find their work changing in unanticipated ways—and not only due to the influence of their teachers. Columbia M.F.A. Lytton Smith (The All-Purpose Magical Tent) says, “Being shown new ways to construct a poem weekly by my fellow poets made the M.F.A. invaluable. I’m sure I wouldn’t have written my first book without [the program], as much as my saying that will annoy a certain segment of the poetry world.”
Every poetry program has its workshop horror stories whether real or apocryphal—a poem in the voice of a stray kitten, a teacher who picks favorites, another who belittles students—but most M.F.A. poets give good reports about the care and high standards with which teachers and students read their work and the relationships that can form as a result.
And what happens once the thesis is handed in? Greenberg hopes her students will have found community more than connections. Sholl (Rough Cradle) says, “There are connections, and then there is the work of writing well.”
It is clear, though, that many graduates benefit from doors that are opened, even just a bit, by colleagues or teachers during or after their M.F.A. experience. Kuipers says, “My professors and program directors seemed to be waiting to see who would put in the hard work [after the M.F.A. was over]. I had to earn their help, but I got it eventually.”
Regardless of what happens after graduation, the community created in an M.F.A. program can confer something more lasting. Vermont College grad Marita O’Neil, says, “The friendships that I have because of the M.F.A. get me through the difficult days.”
Gibson Fay-LeBlanc is the author of Death of a Ventriloquist and a freelance writer and teacher living in Maine.