Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Nantucket, Maggie Conroy's tobacco barn, and Dean Young on the culture of creative writing

Paul and I got stuck on Nantucket (I know, the limerick possibilities immediately spring to mind) this week. Every boat off the island was cancelled due to the high seas and wild wind, but our friend Maggie Conroy graciously came to our rescue. I'd known Maggie a little in Iowa City, when I was teaching there; we used to go to great parties at her and Frank's house. We hadn't seen her for years, and she appeared as a rescuing angel, loaning us her Ford Explorer and welcoming Paul and Ned the pup and me into her amazing house. It was built, forty years ago or so, by Frank and a carpenter, constructed of cherry-wood beams from an old tobacco barn. They kept the barnlike feel -- a great room in the center, small rooms off to either side. We had a wonderful time; it was a privilege to be in the dreamy, inviting house with Maggie and our friend Joy and Maggie's dog Neville while the rain came down on the salt marsh out the big windows.

I was thinking about these friendships -- all of us brought together by times held in common in various institutions that are part of the culture of creative writing -- as I was reading Dean Young's THE ART OF RECKLESSNESS, one of the new volumes in Graywolf's series of short "handbooks" for writers. I put that term in quotes because of course there isn't any such thing, once you get past manuals or style. These little volumes, a various lot, look into aspects of craft, and their intent isn't so much to explain things as it is to complicate the conversation about craft, providing signposts for exploration.

Early in Dean's book there's a terrific manifesto/rant about graduate education in creative writing. Since MFA-bashing (and now PhD-bashing) is such a perennial activity, I want to post Dean's artful defense here.

"Let us put to rest all those huffy complaints about the proliferation of MFA programs, as if courses of study that offer support and allowance to people for the exploration of their inner lives, for the respected regard of their imaginations, their harmless madnesses and idiosyncratic musics and wild surmises, somehow lead us to a great homogeneity as well as a great dilution of the high principles of art. Some people try to convince you they love poetry by showing you how bad all the poetry they read (more likely don't read) is, just like those who love love so much they've come to the conclusion that nothing and no one deserve to be loved. Some people try to convince you poetry is so important you have no business trying to write it without severe indoctrination. But POETRY CAN'T BE HARMED BY PEOPLE TRYING TO WRITE IT! The billions of MFA programs and community creative writing workshops and summer conferences and readings, all of it is a great sign of health, that the imaginative life is thriving and important, and worthy of time and attention, worthy of conditions in which it is honored and encouraged to wildly grow. It's not a marketplace where the bad forces out the good. We are not a consumer group; we are a tribe. The MFA programs may be booming because our business is to boom. OUR BUSINESS IS BLOOMING. If there is a problem, it is in the professionalization of creative writing. J'accuse, AWP! When Tomaz Salamun was asked by one of my students what was the one thing he would like to tell a young poet, he said, Be artists, not careerists. I do realize that people have real economic concerns, and two or three years of graduate study are traditionally geared toward the establishment of a career. But realistically, all these young writers cannot be English professors, nor do many of them actually want to be. Our creative writing programs would do a better job offering students guidance in other possible employment options, suggesting courses, outside creative writing and literature that could lead them to decent work outside academe. But when I walk into a creative writing class of any kind, I am thrilled with the liberty that all of us in that room have managed to achieve through a faith in and dedication to art, and the profound sense of possibility that something one of us does can become a vibrant part of that art."

I especially love "the liberty that all of us in that room have managed to achieve through a faith in and dedication to art..." But I'd add -- and this surprises me a little -- that in the literature course I taught this spring, a seminar on Whitman and Dickinson, I had that same sense of liberty, of our freedom, dedication, courage and pleasure as readers.

And, in some way, our pleasure inside the dry barn house while the winds battered the island -- thirty miles out to sea! everyone likes to say -- felt a part of those same communities of writers and readers.


Glenn Ingersoll said...

I found myself unexpectedly delighted when I read Jerome Rothenberg's ethnopoetics writings in which he claimed that in Eskimo society (among others) each person sang their own poem(s). Each person was expected to sing one's own song, and that these poem-songs typically came in dreams, each person having their own dreams and visions and connections to the nonmaterial world. There was no one not a poet.

I liked the idea.

DJ Vorreyer said...

Dean's book -as well as yours on description- is a wonderful example of how those of us "outside" academe can be a part of the poetry conversation.

Unknown said...

I'm oddly comforted by the fact that poetry won't be harmed by my sad attempts to write it. This is just what I needed to hear as I struggle -- thank you Mark for posting this.

Robert said...

Thanks for that quote from Dean Young! It can't help remind me of William Matthews' wonderful poem "Mingus at the Showplace" about himself at 17 going to hear Charles Mingus: "He didn’t look as if he thought / bad poems were dangerous, the way some poets do. / If they were baseball executives they’d plot / to destroy sandlots everywhere so that the game / could be saved from children."

The Aiken ite said...

Thanks from an MFA drop-out, "Stay At Home Mom" or worse "Housewife."

Le vent fripon said...

it's the financial aspect of the creative writing workshop i find morally questionable