Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Po-Biz and Po-Comm: Picking Up From Craig Perez on the Poetic Industrial Complex

Pardons off the bat if this post tends to loop around a bit. My thoughts are doing the same.

Seth Abramson follows me on Twitter, so I feel the need to add something necessary and relevant to the ongoing conversations happening at Barbara Jane's and Craig's blogs, among others, about the Poetic Industrial Complex and This Thing Of Ours (snort) called Abramson Leslie Consulting, an organization of Seth's that gives manuscript feedback to prospective MFA students.

Can I just say, first of all, what a brilliant quixotic term "Poetic Industrial Complex" is? First heard it at Barbara's blog, and it's a way better term than the uninspired, reductive "po-biz." The business of Poetry truly is a Complex Industry, and it is an Industrious Complex of schools (academics and aesthetics), publishing houses, and institutions. It is very real, sadly so, in all its hyper-endowed, degree-granting, wine-sipping, award-winning-yet-poorly-selling glory. All it lacks is a flatheaded Hamburglar as its very own Warren Buffett.

Okay. Necessary and relevant.

Full disclosure: My own experience with an MFA program was not entirely pleasant. I met some wonderful people within it, got some good reading lists, started to think differently about some poetry. And I made a handful of good friends. But I left it in a bad way, and I got into it for the wrong reason, at least for me. In the poetry world, I was already who I wanted to be—an organizer, a curator for a reading series, member of a community (communities, really) of writers. But there was also this idea that in order to take myself and my community to another level, in order to attain...key word, folks...legitimacy in my dealings, I had to have the credential. "This is our director, Rich Villar. He got his MFA from..." And so forth.

Where did I get this idea? I had friends whose tenures in MFA programs ended badly, stopped them from writing, led them to dump entire manuscripts in the trash, that sort of thing. Others were struggling for jobs against academic institutions that suddenly wanted them to go get a Ph.D. So why did I need academia's stamp of approval on what I do? Why did I need three letters on my CV to trail after me on lunches with potential funders, or in emails to industry professionals? Or at dinner with my friends? Why did I have to invest my legitimacy in an MFA?

The more I began to move about in this busy and toothless monster called the Poetic Industrial Complex, the more I realized I didn't have to. I'm a fairly gregarious person, and I have friends who are poets, fiction writers, novelists, editors. I know who and what I like, and I know who and what I don't like. I didn't need a program director or connected classmates to show me around and tell me how to maneuver within that world. And to be mission-specific: I knew who and what I needed to call upon to help us with the mission of building and maintaining communities and audience around Latino/a poetry.

And then I discovered something else: I really don't care what a group of random strangers have to say about my work. This is not meant to be flip, because I did make some good friends in my program, but I also think I could have saved them a great deal of investment by realizing this sooner. I already have close writing comrades. I already have community. If there is work I really need to publish, if there is a book I really need feedback on, I can send it out to one of several friends I'm thinking of right now.

I have everything I need as a writer and an organizer, and I don't need an MFA to get it. Never did. Some might call that elitist. Or privileged. Some days, I'm inclined to agree with the elitist part. And yes, I definitely feel privilege—but it sure ain't white privilege.

Why we're here: Well, Craig Santos Perez asks, "Why is the ALC (Abramson Leslie Consulting) for-profit and the Acentos Foundation for-free?" Ah, this is the question for the ages, at least for me.

First, a glossary for the uninitiated:

--Abramson Leslie Consulting: A consultancy firm started by Iowa Writers' Workshop graduates Seth Abramson and Chris Leslie-Hynan for people interested in the pursuit of MFA's and Ph.D.'s in the field of creative writing, fiction and poetry. Their purpose is to take your manuscript and mold it into work that is admissible on the graduate level. Think of it as home improvement for your poetry...or, depending how shitty of a writer you are, EXTREME MAKEOVER MANUSCRIPT EDITION.

--Iowa Writers' Workshop: The Holy Grail of writing programs. Super-competitive to enter and super-competitive to stay in, it is known by some graduates as The Shire, The Promised Land, Shangri-La; by others as Mordor, The Ninth Circle of Hell, Valhalla. Depends which fellowships your degree gets you into (and it will get you into plenty).

--Acentos Foundation: A small group of people with a big sounding name. The hopeful non-profit arm of a reading series in the South Bronx that now boasts four programs as part of its activities: the reading series itself; a Latino poetry festival being planned for April 2010; an online journal that publishes Latino/a writers four times a year; and a free, open-to-the-public series of writing workshops going from September to May every Sunday afternoon—and by extension, a community of engaged poets, many Latino and Latina, who get together each week to generate and comment on new work.

If we limit the comparison to workshops, the question is still a little unfair. ALC offers very specific services to a very specific group of people: manuscript consultation to potential grad school enrollees. The Acentos Foundation offers free writing space and some critique to anyone who wants it, provided they're willing to travel to the Bronx to get it. Which is kinda specific too, now that I think about it, but what can you get in the Bronx that you can't get at your local two-bit writers' circle? (Well, actually...there is the list of top tier workshop facilitators we manage to pull every week: Martin Espada, Lorna Dee Cervantes, Thomas Sayers Ellis, Aracelis Girmay, Ada Limon. Et Cetera.)

Still, here are two different products, so to speak. You can't pay for manuscript advice with us in the Bronx. Likewise, you can't go to ALC and expect them to help you unlock the difficulties of translating Xavier Villarrutia's decimas. There's differences. Where are the similarities?

It is, as Craig points out, in our stocks in trade: access. We offer access, ALC offers access. To what? Writers. Writing. Poetry. Insight from older writers, more experienced ones. But while consultancies and MFA programs would like you to pay for that access, organizations such as the Acentos Foundation, and increasing numbers of others like Macondo, Cave Canem, VONA, PAWA, etc., do not...or they ask for substantially less. The old argument used to be, well, you can stay in your little knitting circle and pay nothing for people to pat you on the back, or you can pay your mentors to tell you what you need on all levels of the game, plus pick up a degree that will get you a job.

Well. What happens when quality writers become accessible, or when they choose to de-commodify knowledge into a service for a group of people (Heavens to Betsy, Lord forbid), or when they choose to make poetry's healing and transformative power into a community act? We become a threat. Or, our work becomes political and ranty. And all the old arguments that are slowly dying away, especially since the MFA doesn't guarantee a job anymore.

It's not like we don't have models for this (June Jordan). It's nothing new. It's just that now we can debate it and talk about it. I'll admit, I'm biased, but well, what else is new.

I'm spent. Maybe you guys will pick it up now. Comment below, por favor!


Sheryl said...

Hi Rich,
Great post. I just wanted to add that a Phd most certainly doesn't guarantee a job either.

Rich Villar said...

Ha. No, it most certainly does not. :-) Nice to hear from you, Sheryl.