Friday, February 19, 2010

Making Poetry Cake: Re Los Angeles poetry and MFA mania.

Stop me if you've read this one before:
Last night, I was at a poetry reading and this person I'll choose not to name this time (suffice it to say he has some standing in local Los Angeles/Orange County poetry and I've mentioned him by name in past entries) made comments about poetry needing "layers of meaning" and saying it to an audience which included people with Masters of Fine Arts degrees...
[the person who told the story first e-mailed me backchannel to say it was a story with someone else as the protagonist--then later claimed that I was repeating "private" conversation, rather ironic considering that he was talking in a loud, I'm-holding-court voice where a lot of the store could hear him]

Assuming the latter part of the remark was a way of saying "it goes without saying that MFA-degree-holders already know this."

For a dumb literal-minded too-easy-to-tell-what-my-poems-mean person like myself, it's just another indication that time is passing. The type of reading where you can hear people of a fair diversity of style and skill levels is disappearing locally--although The Rapp Saloon, the Saturday Pasadena Public Library reading (one Saturday afternoon a month at the location on Washington St.) and the fourth-Saturday Barnes and Noble Encino reading [now disappeared] are three remaining examples.

Other readings ranging from the Cobalt Cafe to Redondo Poets to Two Idiots at the Ugly Mug seem to have abandoned the "talented amateurs can feature too" policy in order to subtly enforce a "let's just bring poets in who are from academia and/or qualify as prize-winning/published by respected small-presses" criteria. This is apparently a form of eugenics meant to "uplift the quality" of poetry [or "we're honored to have honored poets bless our small venues"].

To my mind, all of this MFA/who-are-you-studying-with/who-are-you-submitting-to stuff seems to be a way to make the process of poetry (rather, becoming primarily a teacher with poetry slightly off to the side) similar to baking a cake. Just follow the instructions to the letter and you'll have a career in the Wonderful World of Words!

And be careful to not display too much individuality or simplicity or attitude, or your poems won't make it to the top of the slush pile and/or you could be (gasp!) denied tenure.

It's so different than when I was a youngster of 38 and 39 when you could self-publish chapbooks and actually sell enough to make a little bit of money. Of course, Academia Worship existed then as well, but it wasn't the only game in town.

Now, it practically is. And plenty of people want to believe that if you do A, B and C, the glorious results of D will happen.

So let's all strive for layers upon layers of meaning, showers of ambiguity, a soupcon of pretension, epigraphs stolen from 17th-century geniuses--and, above all else, to give public shout-outs to the really brilliant talent in the room.

Voila! You've baked a Poetry Cake!!!!


  1. Wow, you really took a sledgehammer to my comments to make them fit into your preconceived prejudices. But rather than rehash the old MFA argument, or even the "layers of meaning" argument, let me just ask a couple of questions. 1)Was there not a variety of voices in the open reading last night? 2) How many of them had MFAs? (Hint: zero). So why not discuss the reality of the poetry scene rather than your tired old complaints?

  2. I might add that your assessment of the kinds of readers presented at other venues may not be entirely accurate. At least at the Cobalt we frequently feature readers who have not had a featured reading before and who are relatively newly involved with poetry and poetry readings.

  3. hmmm- lots of stock phrases being tossed around 'layers of meaning' which after the hundredth or so time become an empty verbal husk trashed of meaning. I have been told my poetry has 'layers' and have never figured out what that means. Yes it has a structure - metaphors, symbol, sounds that create like music harmony and dissonance. Good poetry (and I'm not talking about mine) should have some counterpoint of theme and symbol, an 'interweaving' of metaphors and figures all pulled together in a single fabric of words, of sounds - again like music - to which poetry is most accurately compared.

  4. BTW Terry I know you were reject by Cobalt and Rick who I believe is the strong arm of that venue is an arrogant ass.