- Should I not go somewhere because of certain professors teaching there, just in case they eventually leave or die or get fired?
- Since I am a minority, gay, or something that isn't whitebread male or female, will they hate my poetry or will I not be accepted there?
- Does the difference between a 2 or 3-year program really matter all that much?
- Would it benefit me to do a low-residency gig?
- Will it really benefit me to get into someplace like Iowa or Houston versus a program that isn't talked about a lot?
I applied right out of college and the only school out of 10 I got into was VCU (and graduated in May '07). I was waitlisted at Maryland and Hollins, and both of them later said no. VCU wanted me to come there, the professors called me, all of that. I was flattered and surprised, mainly because the portfolio I sent was horrendous. They must've seen something in my work, because I was really surprised anyone wanted me.
One of the best advice former professor Christopher Bakken told me was, "Go far away." He actually told a bunch of hopeful MFAers this in our later undergrad years at a meeting. I applied to places like Montana and Arizona, and had they accepted me, there's no way I would've wanted to go. I was too ambitious and maybe shouldn't have been in the traveling respect.
VCU was perfect. Larry Levis taught there, which is one reason why I applied, and a reason why I think many still apply to VCU. I'll always love his work, even though there are plenty who think otherwise. After his death, though, his legacy seems to grow exponentially both here and elsewhere. It was also 7 hours away from western Pennsylvania, which seemed far, but not too terribly far.
I was 22 and was left to the world of Richmond. And great family support of course. I'm turning 27 in December, and I suppose I wanted to write about all this because I wouldn't trade it for anything. I know it sounds cliche, but I've heard about some pretty awful MFA experiences, and some of them surprisingly coming from folks I went to school with. Weird how it all works out.
One of the other things I see and hear of lately is, "I didn't write the poems I wanted to write." I guess I don't get that. Isn't that the point of workshop and all those new people and professors. Set of the cannon and see who gets blown away? Maybe my naievete helped me, since the first year or two I did horrendous work. I think a lot of us do. My the second-half of the second and most of the third, I was writing the poems I needed to write. I was, however, writing the poems I wanted to write for the first two years, but they were just plain bad. Again, I think that's usually the case. But if you're not going to have the balls to write the poems you need or want to write, then shouldn't you go cower somewhere else and not be in a workshop? I'm not sure what it comes down to, and there's no cut and dry or blanket statement to speak of probably, but I think there's a lot of regret from many who don't give it their all for whatever reason. Pride. Fright. Feeling uncomfortable. Out of Place.
I was also lucky to come in with five pretty brilliant people, all of whom I think will have books sooner than later. And we didn't go to a school known in the rankings to win awards or prompting MFAers to publish books while they were in school. Having David Wojahn for a professor, who's pretty much always on point, and Greg Donovan, who when he IS on point is fairly wise and inimitable, helped a lot. And maybe that's a big thing too. You come in with a certain amount of people and a certain type of people, and they influence you in good and bad ways. Some don't come in with a great bunch, but I certainly did, and for that I'm thankful.
My biggest problems lied with a few other professors outside of the creative writing department. One pretty much thought I was a racist, involving a story too inane to delve into, and actually showed this video on the LA Riots in our rhetoric class, basically because of me, for that highly nonsensical and way-fucking-blown-out-of-proportion "reason." I was pissed off, hurt, appalled, and saddened by the whole ordeal. She's now in the deserved lower-level of academia, and almost got fired over some other shit that she pulled. I haven't seen her since. Karma's a bitch for sure.
The other was a professor for whom I was a TA, or as he called us, "graders." I didn't put up with his bullshit, and by the end he knew it. Still, for some reason he was out to get me. In the world of academia, as many of us know, the smaller the reward the greater the fight. I'm not sure how trying to ruin my MFA years was going to help him feel better about himself, but he tried to say a bunch of things that weren't true and get some kind of... I don't know, penalty against me? Get me relieved of my TA duties and my ability to get my MFA at VCU? It was an awful experience, but I did learn a lot from that, and I know never to treat anyone like that too.
But all in all, I'd say you have to be balls to the wall. Your first year or two, especially in a 3-year program and if you're not someone who lived there previously, should be all about footing, both in living and your writing. Maybe that's a good reason to go ON to a three-year rather than a two, unless you're already a badass and need the degree, like Bob Hicok. I think he did that at least. I can't imagine getting out and thinking I wasted my time. And like Wojahn always said, "It's not what you hear in workshop now, it's what you're going to remember later," and the important stuff I imagine you do. We all do in some way or another, I think, even if the experience is awful for some in whatever ways they end up going through it.