Sunday, February 3, 2008

Are MFA Programs Dying?

Around 7:30pm, Marie (known as MMM Hayes) and I walked into the reception hosted by NEOMFA. There were several receptions each night during AWP NYC, most with drinks but no food – possibly because food is too expensive in midtown Manhattan. Curiously, this one offered cheese, dips and chips. I wondered if that was the reason the room seemed more packed than others.

Over the usual hubbub from the mingling crowd, the aloof position of a woman sitting alone in the far left corner caught my eye. I picked up a few corn chips (the cheese and dips were already gone) and walked over to her table.

As soon as I sat down, the woman, who wore a red wool-silk scarf and looked to be in her sixties, said, "MFA programs will die in a few years."

I was intrigued. "Can I quote you?" I said, and fetched out my recorder. I held the recorder in front of her chin. She did not blink.

"The associated writing programs are heading for depression or recession. The fact is that they are turning out MFA students who have no place to get jobs to teach creative writing. The other problem for them is that there's no place for them to get published. And ultimately, we are not a country of readers. A great translator has said that only one percent of this huuuuge wealthy country reads serious literature. I'm saying that literature is not widely read here, except during the college years. The biggest reading population is young women from 25 to 35 or 40."

(On the other hand, I heard during the conference, that the number of AWP panels has become so big, it is increasingly difficult to organize each year.)

After a brief discussion with Marie on the small readership in the US, she reiterated:

"My point is that there's no place for people who get MFAs to teach. They have a one in twenty-five chance of getting a job in creative writing. There's no place to publish their books and make money from them, because we have a very small serious readership in this country."

She believed her gloomy prediction for the future of MFA programs.

"Then why are you here?" I asked.

"Because I'm a poet," she said.

Her name is Daniela Gioseffi, an established poet who teaches the "Writing with Social Conscience" workshop in New York.

She generously gave Marie and me each a copy of her poetry book, Blood Autumn, and signed it for us.

Going out, we saw that the Poetry Foundation's reception was next door.

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