Tuesday, June 20, 2006

LDC On CU's New MFA Program and "The Diversity Debate" Going On At The MFA Weblog

I almost never discuss "work" here unless I mean my creative work or the good work of others. But I decided to post these comments I posted this morning on Tom Kealey's MFA Weblog, a blog I just found this morning. You can go there and check out the original question Tom posted from a writer searching for creative writing programs as well as another comment I made on a related post here. [Oh, yeah, this also covers my flarf.]

Come to CU Boulder. Despite being one of the oldest Creative Writing Programs in the country for serious writers, we just received our MFA; it's brand new this year. The long delay had to do with state university red tape in that Fort Collins (CSU) already offered one and we could not replicate programs within the university system. That policy has changed now, so we're free to go. We, too, operated under the assumption expressed here in this forum by some which, as my esteemed former colleague, Ed Dorn, once put it in a meeting in which I was pushing for a PhD if we couldn't offer an MFA -- "What writer --that you respect -- has a PhD in Creative Writing?"

But that was then, and we live (and work) in this millennium.

I don't think anyone has addressed the original concern: style and race/gender issues. And this: "It's tricky, navigating what's a problem of cultural/gendered impasse, and what's a legitimate writing problem."

I've seen too many students break down in tears with frustration over this. Students of color, that is, or, the term I prefer: People of Experience; racism, sexism, homophobia are all experiences which only rarely translates to the page. But they are locked and layered within language as language is embedded history -- and, most importantly, these experiences are the consequences of historical facts and acts: The Asian Exclusion Act, slavery, The Bear Flag War, The Treaty of Guadalupe, the Jim Crow act, Amer-Indian genocide, the American Eugenics Society which sponsored generations of federally funded abortions and involuntary sterilization of "negroid", "mongoloid", and indigenous American Women, including tens of thousands of Puerto Rican women. Euthanasia was carried out in Guam and the Soloman Islands and supported by a congressional hearing. All facts and acts which would take, at least,, a 4-year program to uncover, to study, to understand -- too much to explain to ourselves, sometimes, much less to people who have *no idea* as they are beyond the horizons of the direct experience of the, shall we say, consequences of these acts and actions. For example, I knew about the forced sterilization of American Indian women which went on for decades because it affected me directly: while my hippie friends could live the lives they imagined and carved for themselves, I couldn't go off and join them (in the "Bear Tribe", for example, a local commune I was interested in joining) I couldn't because once I graduated from high school, if I were out of work or "vagrant" or otherwise apparently destitute or "derelict" (there were other, legal terms I can't remember now) as a Native person, I would be sterilized -- even before the "Free Love" issue, which would have been grounds for forced sterilization on its own. (Bet you never had to think about that when imagining your futures as a new grad, huh?)

And, hey, I'm a poet -- who has time for all that? Well, some people have the luxury of not having to think about it. Or, write about it. I could tell you anecdotes for months about students in workshops telling other students: "Well, this doesn't seem like the way Black people act" and "I wouldn't have guessed that this poem was about a Chicano, he's too debonaire" (I know this will make her cry if she reads it and remembers the workshopping of her father poem) and never having the freedom to write about anyone but your own race (if you're raced) and if you do (and why not?), never having anyone actually read the words you wrote on the page, what for all that other stuff "you represent" and all the, mostly harrowingly destructive, stereotypes "you people" provoke. I tell you, it gets dang exhausting. And MFA programs are no worse or better -- my own experiences as a PhD student included having my own mentor, in class, say (about anthropology and American Indian history) "Who cares! Who wants to hear about the losers?" and (concerning feminist theories and Lacan) "What can you say about a vagina? There's nothing there!" Sometimes you just gotta laugh, ya know? Oy ve, indeed. Can you say holocaust? And, do it with style?

But when it comes to your own writing, it gets personal. And for me, a poet who has always said that "Poetry is an exercise in freedom", it's simply limiting -- limits being the death of any creative act, from choosing to give birth to birthing that "Great American Novel" -- and wouldn't ya know it, just when some of us, POEs, are just getting close, The Great American Novel is declared dead and someone else has rediscovered African masks, for example, and it's all postmodernity from there.

Here's a real example: one of my students was the recent Pulitzer finalist, Luis Urrea. He writes it all: novels, poetry, essays, songs, feature articles, literary nonfiction, and is a brilliant cartoonist and collage artist besides beng a musician (he sat in with the original Remainders). He came to our program from Harvard where he taught comp and rhetoric, and he was teacher in the Writing and Rhetoric program while at CU. Once, when the chair was addressing a large gathering of grad students in the department on pedagogy, he went around the room suggesting examples of what students could teach, when he got to Luis he hesitated, too long, sputtered a bit, then declared, "And you," (had he forgotten or even know the name as he addressed the others by name?) "you can teach the corrido!" Now, Luis may be a lot of things, including fluently bilingual, but he is no expert on the "corrido" -- it's kinda like telling a Shakespearean scholar who "happens to be" white (as Lucille Clifton once said before reading a poem: I don't "happen to be black: my mother's black, my father's black, my grandmother's black ..."), after a long hesitation, "and you, you can teach Hank Williams songs!" Now, see, he may have nothing against Hank Williams songs, but you get my point. As we say, and said, shaking our heads when I was told what occurred: Como siempre! Same old Same old. Problem is, it robs you of your differentiality. It robs you of your choice. It robs you of your change.

Too long for a blog, or even, perhaps the written word.

Try trying to come and break bread and morphemes with us. We have a new and developing fiction program which includes the Jamaican born poet and novelist, Marcia Douglas. We have a replenished and enriched poetry component which will include a new tenured poet, Ruth Ellen Kocher. I can't promise more of the same, or not, or anything truly new. Perhaps that's up to you to produce. To synthesize from the grit.

When it comes to this question (thanks for this great blog I just discovered today!) of choice of Creative Writing Programs, I always answer como siempre: "That's the wrong question. You should be asking yourself, 'Who blows the top of your head off and where do they teach?'" Second question I ask is: "Can you live there?" Not, "can you write there?" As this, for everyone and in different times in our lives is different. For some are like wolves and only if they are demarcating and dwelling within their territories does the Muse speak (Hey, I can say that, I'm a just a poet) to them. For others, they can never home a language until they are away from it, and dwelling within it in their memories and the imaginaire of it. Third question: Is this person accessible? Nothing worse than going to a place far away to study with someone who won't have anything to do with you. Or, worse yet, when they do, uh, all they want to do is do you. This experience not exclusive to younger female POEs. (sigh) That pesky history again.

And, to the last. We have various resources to support POEs (all quite murky dunking to attain) and use them whenever we find "The Best.") I, for one, never look at GREs unless it's a borderline and questionable in quality manuscript or if it's a great manuscript but the app is getting bad reviews due to low GRE scores. I, for one, only consider the manuscript. It's either excellent or it's not -- successful or not on its own terms. The sample manuscript is everything. To me. And,, even if it's not excellent, "promising" might get you in as well, no matter who you are, what ya got or who you know. (I save reading letters of rec until the last.) And anyone applying to MFA programs, if you have published works, send them, too, unless the app specifically says not to -- I read those too, especially carefully -- along with new work.

And, if you're a POE, especially from my block, you better be The Best. Sample of The Best? Sherman Alexie. I tried to recruit him as an undergraduate by simply, when I travel around the country, asking CW profs and instructors: "Who's the best?" If I were going to select a fellow native person to "represent" than she or he better be not just "any Brown face" as I am so often placed, but The Best. Unfortunately, for us -- he never made the move as he never finished his BA having walked out of required courses: US History 1A and B. Hahaha! Having advised a President, now, he could endow his own Chair. Hahaha. Ha!

Anyone interested, just contact me at Lorna dot Cervantes (at no-bot) colorado (you know) edu if you're a serious poet. Contact the Director, Jeffrey DeShell, if you're a fiction writer or "other" (a discussion topic in itself) and please say that I directed you to him. If, you're a serious poe-POE (haha) and want to get down to it, and correspond, you can try me at "home", my blog site at lornadice.blogspot.com where you can find my home email address or just shoot me a query, to me, LornaDee, at my full name domain, LornaDeeCervantes. And remember, we don't hold our students to any one particular genre. And, we must adhere to graduate school standards under the English Department. And, of course, you must take literature courses.

But, as I always say on the first day of class: "Read. Read. Read. Write. Write. Write. And the rest will, pretty much, work out for itself." And, "Writers don't work in a vacuum."

Sorry for the length. Thanks, again, Tom. (I think you have one of The Best right now in Alison Stine, I believe she's there on a Phelan.) This is a valuable site. I hope it's okay if I plug my own program here. As a writer of "diversity" and an 18-year faculty member of a CWP, I thought I should respond from that point of view.

Maybe CU -- Write In The Rockies?
(just a little slogan I invented when I was directing)

Hope that helps.


Blogger jeannine said...

Terrific discussion. Thanks!

8/7/06 14:38  

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