Khalil Murrell, Program Associate, Poetry
Disregarding short bouts with writer’s block, I approach the daunting question posed by the blank page with greater ease and more tools—more colors in my poetic palate—than ever before. Much of this growth as a poet has resulted from attending an MFA program. The writer who entered grad school two years ago is completely different than the one who will turn in a final thesis to graduate in May.
Though I’m not convinced the MFA is necessary or pragmatic for all writers, particularly full-time residency programs, it does become a milestone event if you choose this route. Getting a Master’s in Fine Arts is a viable option for many who wish to hone their poetic skills and cultivate community with like-minded people. And since “Mom, I want to be a poet” may not get you a standing ovation at the next family dinner, it may also help to appease family members who had hoped you’d be a lawyer. In fact, completing your MFA is like finishing med school or an MBA (except with less money-making potential, but similar debt).
Of course milestones such as these always beg the big question: what’s next? In particular, what will you do with your thesis after the MFA? And perhaps a more subconscious question, how will this relatively “professional” activity enrich and complicate the mere artistic desire to create (poems)? Naturally, capitalism offers an easy answer to these questions: morph it into manuscript, shop it around and publish! publish! publish!
But in many ways life as a writer becomes more complicated once you drop the pen and certainly as you mature as an artist. Sometimes I miss a simpler time when I first came across Sharon Olds and Lucille Clifton and understood the power of memory and personal/family histories. Or, years later, when the world began to open up for me as I read Leaving Saturn by Philly native, Major Jackson, and saw myself (and my neighborhood) literally and figuratively – young, black, working-class, and male – in a piece of literature for the first time. (See Mr. Pate’s Barbershop and Euphoria). And believe it or not, I even miss the time when I foolishly wrote bad love poems (but good to me at the time) before the word “workshop” ever invaded my vocabulary.
Since then, including my intense work on my thesis—which will become the bulk of the infamous first book—refreshing encounters with art are, at times, pushed to the side by the business of poetry. Questions such as, “(Where) are you submitting?” or “How close are you to publishing your book?” too often become the nature of poets’ conversations. For me these are important questions but not the most urgent ones.
Even in the healthiest, most non-threatening MFA environments—and I have had the pleasure of attending this kind—there seems to be widespread emphasis on publishing, whether it is an unspoken and unquestioned assumption or clearly stated in formal and informal conversations with classmates or professors.
Most if not all of my writing buddies have responded positively to the opportunity to publish. They seem pretty ambitious about their work, though some more than others. They are very disciplined about getting their work out there. In fact, one friend created an Excel document to track her submissions. Another keeps some type of document on his iPhone. And they always seem to have three or four poems forthcoming or pending. This all makes sense for them, especially since we’ve given so much time, effort and money in attending a top graduate writing program.
But some of them seemed shocked when I said I wouldn’t be interested in publishing any poems for some time, even poems I feel are ready. I’m content right now with just trying to write good work, with sending poems (of mine or others) in the mail, as gifts, to friends who may or may not know anything about poetry. I’m satisfied with making sure I leave my program with an authentic—rather than workshop—voice, with trying to create something beautiful out of bewilderment or sadness. I realize this may sound overly romantic if not inauthentic, like the guy who says, “I’m working hard at the gym to get ripped with muscles, but I don’t care if anyone ever notices.” Of course I want to publish at some point. Of course I want to squash the voices of doubt in my head, with a success in writing that could validate my decision to take this path. But a little romanticism has done very little to hurt the masses. And I’d like to hang on to mine a little bit longer.