poetry, Uncategorized

The Blessing and Curse of Subjectivity

Again I find myself apologizing for a rather extended absence from the blogosphere; I just completed another intense 10-day residency in University of Tampa’s Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program. During those days, I was privileged to sit in workshops with fellow writers and hear their opinions and suggestions regarding my work. Some, as you might imagine, were quite good. They made my work more concise, clearer, and cleaner. Other suggestions were less fruitful, demonstrating only that the reader was unfamiliar with certain literary tools/devices, or that they simply had divergent poetic sensibilities from my own.

For poets, both the pleasure and the problem come from the realm of subjectivity. Over the last three semesters for instance, I’ve had three different writing mentors. All three are well-known and celebrated contemporary poets with extensive publication histories, award-winning books, and other laurels. Each one has brought a new and valuable gift to the table, and each one has had his or her own personal preferences about what poetry should look like, sound like, feel like, and be. Mentor One had different “rules” than Mentor Two, and Mentor Three has already discarded some of Mentor Two’s hard-and-fast standards. Some like language poetry, others despise it, favoring neo-modernism instead. The list goes on and on.

These vast variations among “experts” have led me to one solid conclusion: Poetry is entirely subjective. This is not a new truth. In fact, it’s one that we were advised about from the very get-go of this MFA program. But the reality of subjectivity is just now beginning to truly evidence itself for me personally. What one editor loves, another hates, and what one professor praises, another scorns. The same could be said of my fellow students in the program — because poetry doesn’t really play by any concrete rules, one workshop participant can be just as right as another in saying yea or nay to different constructions, images, parallels, or rhymes. Some reasons for critiques have a stronger tradition than others, but nobody gets excluded from having his or her say-so.

As a right-brained creative, I like the abstract notion that poetry can be perceived and valued in so many different ways. However, as a rule-follower and a structure-lover, I find myself desiring certain definitive, concrete absolutes within poetry simultaneously. It’s a perilous and paradoxical predicament, and not unlike those faced by certain other professions — what one doctor sees as incredible treatment, another calls quack medicine. What one lawyer claims is an excellent defense, another decries as logical fallacy. Those of us in the arts, however, are especially prone to the whims of individuals’ opinions: People at the top of the literary food chain have absolute mindsets about what makes great work, and woe to the poor soul whose words fail to comply with those perceptions.

The happier side of this question coin, though, is certainly worth examination: If a reader LOVES your writing, he or she will tend to LOVE it completely. Fan followings are created upon this same psychology. There exists very little grey area between the emotional responses caused by a poem. Either the reader identifies with it and embraces it after a couple of read-throughs, or he or she casts it aside as unworthy. Sure, some folks will say, “Well, I like this piece, but it’s not the poet’s strongest,” but at the end of the day, they still follow your progress and like your Facebook page. One less-liked piece won’t totally alter overall perception (unless you really step in some deep kimchi).

The question poets are tasked with asking ourselves is this: Is subjectivity our friend or foe? The answer, I believe, is “Yes.” The artistic tastes, whims and preferences of other individuals result in publication, awards, fellowships, and the other markers of a writing life. Equally, those same sentiments result in harsh critical reviews, rejection letters, and workshop ugliness. Working in the humanities demands understanding and contending with humanity — its flaws, its beauty, and yes, its unpredictable subjectivity.

poetry, Uncategorized

The MFA — “Legitimizing” writers

I’ve always been a writer. Even when I was very young, I would write fantastic stories about spies and detectives, and as I matured, so did my writing tastes and styles.

At this point, I proudly call myself a poet. I’ve had work published pretty regularly, I have a book of my own out there, and while poetry doesn’t keep the lights on and the kids fed, it does contribute something to my existence (see prior posts). With that being said, I always felt that it was pretty important to have something that proved my “writerness” more than just bylines and a strong publication history. Hence, my enrollment in the University of Tampa’s Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program.

Yes, I know many of my writer friends out there will quickly jump to the assertion that you don’t “need” a piece of paper proclaiming that you are indeed a writer. With that said, however, the benefits of the MFA program have so far been many and great: I’ve been able to meet and speak with renowned writers, I’ve gotten an inside view of the publishing industry, and my own abilities have become refined as a result of my enrollment.

For some writers, the MFA works. Others believe that a good writing critique group can yield the same outcomes. I disagree. Your writers’ group probably will not  get you introduced to the likes of Philip Levine or Lucille Clifton. If it does, I’d love to know what group you’re attending.

Likewise, it seems that an awful lot of very well-intended people who have been told they have “talent” wind up in writing clubs or groups that are community-based. They bring in their latest piece about granny’s quilt or pappy’s old dawg and expect it to be given the same level of thought as work by Chaucer, all because their ailing mother gave them high praise for rhyming the words “bone” and “home.” Perhaps I’m being a bit snarky here, but I’ve seen this happen.

You get what you pay for, folks. The MFA is an investment in a writing career. If you desire for your writing to be a serious part of your life and not just a hobby, then a degree is the path to that reality. If you’re satisfied being a local celebrity and the “big fish in the small pond,” then maybe a writers’ group is best. As for me, I plan to keep plugging away at the ole sheepskin. One year down, one to go!