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Why I’m Applying to MFA Programmes in America

February 6, 2012

This kind of exposition isn’t usually my thing: it carries a sense of justifying (or even apologising for) my decisions that makes me uneasy. But I needed to order my own thoughts re: what I’m doing next, if only so I can have my reasons set down in front of me where I can look at them and be confident in them. I’ll admit that it’s probably not obvious why I’ve decided that I want to do a poetry MFA in the States. It certainly seems sudden. But the move West is one I’ve been mulling over for about a year now. It’s one that has required a lot of mulling. I’m currently enrolled in an MLitt – arguably the British equivalent of the MFA – so it seems redundant to want to do both, I guess.

It’s not. As much as I don’t regret taking the MLitt, what I’m reading (and consequently writing) has changed significantly in the past year or so. This is down to external influences like recommendations from friends but it has to be said that the immediate availability of new American literature online is a big reason for the shift. And what’s being published in these online publications is generally very different from what I’d been encountering on home soil.
In the creative writing class I took as an undergrad, the concrete was valorised over the abstract almost constantly. Sentiment and post-confessional internalising were evils to be purged. Formal experimentation didn’t really come into it.
That seems to have set the tone for my subsequent experiences as a writer in the UK. Any mention of poetry in the media seems limited to older poets with established reputations and comfortable mainstream inclinations, or younger poets making a name by emulating them. Don’t mistake me here: I still think that Carol Ann Duffy (for example) is a fine poet. But I get no sense of danger from that mainstream—nothing about it fizzes or yelps or clangs in my heart any more. It’s treading water, or at least gives that impression in my daily existence.

It probably didn’t help that I played it safe throughout my undergrad, taking Contemporary British & Irish Poetry over American Poetry Since 1950 because I knew so little about what was happening on the other side of the pond. My dissertation snuggled easily into a poking-around of linguistic trends in Britain. In a way this was a microcosm of what I was doing in life: staying in my comfort zone. But I’m done being comfortable.

I want abstraction and experimentation.

I want to shout about my joy and my despair.

I want to cheer loudly, not clap politely.

I want to curse freely in my poems without apologising to the reader.

I want to write poems that just don’t make sense and have it not matter because sense is as subjective as everything else.

I want to not get tied up in the definition of terms like ‘prose poem’ or ‘hybrid text’ because a piece is a piece and under its skin everything is really poetry.

If I wanted to do any of that here, I’d have to accept being sidelined as inaccessibly weird or—god help me—postmodern. To be a postmodern poet in the UK often entails being brushed off or sneered at by the aforementioned mainstream, stuffed into a revisionist anthology that makes too much of you or entering a publishing circle-jerk. That kind of academic foppishness and self-imposed martyrdom is just not for me.

But in America I can sense hope! In the online independent scene you can be as odd and frank and lyrical and serious and madcap and jovial and maudlin as you like, as long as you do it honestly. If you want to write a surrealist piece of ekphrasis with Homeric allusion woven in with found material from all ten seasons of Friends, you can FUCKING GO FOR IT. That is an ethos I can get on board with. And yes, I’ve joined in and (so far) been accepted. There are people like James Tate  and Heather Christle and Melissa Broder and Gregory Sherl (among countless others) who are testament to making this pop-culture-lost-generation-totally-bonkers century work as a shiny new poetry machine.
Yes, I’ve made myself a small part of that, via the internet. So why up sticks across the ocean when I’m involved from where I am?

Because I need to see it or I’ll lose it.

I can feel change and excitement firing through my veins every time I get a little bit closer to the heart of it. I know people who’ve been there (and back) and I love that I can party with the cool American kids digitally but it’s not enough. Breaking out of my parochial existence via the internet has made me better, but the writer I’m becoming can’t thrive here because (comparisons to whiny hipster mantras aside, please) there isn’t a place for what I’m producing in Britain any more. What I’m producing has been irreversibly altered.
It saddens me that there is no longer any palpable bridge between the poetry communities of the UK and US and god knows I am willing to start building but I can’t make a bridge without seeing both sides. I don’t want to forsake British poetry, I want to foster the thrill and the terror and the punch-in-the-gut-you’re-human! feeling  I get from American poetry, on both sides of the Atlantic.

Britain, I still love you but I’m not living in you. I’m existing in you. America: you have my heart. I am applying to MFA programmes in you so you can have the rest of me.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. February 13, 2012 5:03 pm

    I feel like the extent to which these things are embraced vs. sidelined is variable even within the U.S, in terms of the academy Where are you going to apply?

  2. February 13, 2012 7:28 pm

    Tim,

    I’m sure you’re right, but it seems a lot less variable on this shore! But even the U.S. mainstream has been historically less rigid — as is illustrated by the academy’s ready acceptance of the revisionist anthologies of British poetry I rambled about earlier. A lot of it comes down to the U.S. being bigger, both in terms of land and people. I feel like the opportunity to vary my experience and immerse myself in a change of culture will do just as much good as involving myself with specifically more ‘experimental’ writing communities.

    As for where I’m applying, I’m still perusing schools’ websites and investigating funding and the like, but top of my list so far are Vanderbilt, LSU, and VT. Maybe Iowa / UT Houston / NYU if I grow the balls. I’d welcome any thoughts you might have on the subject though!

  3. February 14, 2012 7:39 pm

    Houston is a great program (I’m an undergrad there right now, which is why I didn’t apply to the MFA here, since it has the same professors and stuff).

    I will let you know where I get accepted and end up going and I expect you to apply to that place!

    • February 14, 2012 10:19 pm

      Hi Justin!

      I take that statement as you volunteering to be bombarded with questions about Houston once I get a definitive list together. I hope you’re ok with that.

      Do let me know of any acceptance(s). Good luck!

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