Seven years ago this month, I received my Master of Fine Arts degree from Bennington College in Bennington, Vermont. Three months from now (April 7-10), my neighborhood in downtown Denver will be crawling with thousands of MFAs from all over the country, at the annual conference of the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP). You won’t have to be a card-carrying poet or creative writer to attend the event’s full lineup of talks, readings, and panel discussions, or the associated Bookfair. If you will be anywhere near Denver in April, click here for registration details.
If you had asked me seven years ago what I hoped an MFA would get me, I would have offered one word: publication.
I entered Bennington a few years after early retirement from a natural gas company, and I spent my two years studying poetry with four fantastic teachers: David Lehman, Ed Ochester, April Bernard, and the late Liam Rector, founder of the program. It was Liam who summed up the Bennington MFA’s mission in these six words: “Read one hundred books. Write one.” I read way more than a hundred poems in those two years, and I wrote at least one decent one. I left hoping I would find a place in the literary world, publishing poems in ever-more-prestigious magazines. I dreamed of seeing a poem of mine one day in The New Yorker.
My idol was (and still is) W. S. Merwin, an American poet of towering skill and integrity, whom I visited on Maui for the sole purpose of having my photo taken with him, as he’d done decades earlier in setting up a photo of himself with Ezra Pound. I haven’t been able to locate that photo on the Internet, but I remember how reading about it emboldened me to write to Merwin and ask if I could stop by for a photo. I did not bring any of my work or ask for his help getting published. I just wanted a photo, which hangs on the wall of my studio here in Denver.
I did publish a few more poems in good literary magazines, but I grew weary of the odds and the steady flow of tiny rejection slips. The poetry editor of The New Yorker in 2007 said she received 600 poetry submissions a week. I shifted to writing book reviews for a while and continued to tend an earlier version of this blog while still noodling with my two book-length poetry manuscripts. I also helped out with an online literary magazine here in Denver, wazee.
In December of 2005 I first heard the word “podcast” uttered at a conference in Banff named “Blogs ‘n’ Dogs,” because the registration covered room, sessions, and a free dogsled ride. My morning writing time in the past four years has gradually morphed into GarageBand audio editing sessions or Skype interviews for my weekly Kindle Chronicles podcast, and on Wednesday Darlene and I are headed for the International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas to cover the eBook sector with official blogger press credentials.
So what was the point of spending two years of my life and a good slice of my IRA getting an MFA? Where’s the poetry, Jack? Where’s my place in the world of letters? Twitter? The podcast script? Here?
All of the above, actually. This MFA revises his tweets endlessly before clicking on “update.” And what I speak into my Snowball mic each Friday about the Kindlesphere benefits, I hope, from intangible lessons gleaned in Vermont about authentic voice, timing, and the right words in the right order.
I read a terrific article in The New York Times this morning titled “How to Train the Aging Brain” by Barbara Strauch. Here’s a tidbit:
Educators say that, for adults, one way to nudge neurons in the right direction is to challenge the very assumptions they have worked so hard to accumulate while young. With a brain already full of well-connected pathways, adult learners should “jiggle their synapses a bit” by confronting thoughts that are contrary to their own, says Dr. Taylor, who is 66.
Maybe beating my head against the villanelle and my own creative limitations for two years in my early 50s jiggled my synapses more than I realized. The outcome so far has been wildly different than what I expected. I have great teachers and fellow students to thank for that. I hope I will see some of them when the MFA writing flock descends on Denver in three months.