On Thursday, May 12, my MFA program will be dead.
Minnesota State University Moorhead started its MFA program in 1995. Now, after reaching the legal drinking age and sending over 120 graduates out of Minnesota’s Great White North, the program will be over. Then-Governor Tim Pawlenty’s budget wrangling has something to do with this. So do the administration powers that be. The Arts are always the first to go. But I’m sure the dissolution of the program will make some people happy, people who despise MFA programs because there are too many of them. Because they promote a certain type of culture. I will pose the radical idea that my MFA has been one of the best things I’ve ever done and that I’ll be sad when it’s gone, when my degree is something that no one will be able to earn from the school I attended. In short, I agree with Dean Young as he writes in The Art of Recklessness:
Let us put to rest all those huffy complaints about the proliferation of MFA programs, as if courses of study that offer support and allowance to people for the exploration of their inner lives, for the respected regard of their imaginations, their harmless madnesses and idiosyncratic musics and wild surmises, somehow lead to a great homogeneity as well as a great dilution of the high principles of art. (5)
I can safely report that homogeneity was far from the large wooden table upstairs in Weld Hall where my poetry workshop classes met. I became good friends with two fellow students, Julie and Mary, and our work couldn’t be more different. My friend Julie’s work was sensual, visceral. Mary’s poems usually involved elements of play like word games (she once brought a poem to workshop that was entirely Wingdings and read it aloud like a regular text). As for me, in my second-to-last poetry workshop, when it was my turn to have my poem critiqued, John said something like, “Nate, are you just fucking with us?” My poems were not especially emotional or goofy on purpose. When he said that though, a little light switched on above my head. I had stumbled upon something.
Besides giving me time to help find my poetic voice, my MFA gave me the opportunity to teach for the first time and an office (that I haven’t had since). I was in a class with fellow graduate students learning how to teach at the same time as I was teaching a room full of undergraduates in a basement classroom. I had no idea what I was doing, but no one does the first time. Eventually, Mary and I co-taught a mixed graduate student / upperclassmen course in literary editing and publishing, a class whose students made the school’s literary magazine, Red Weather. I was in this type of class as an undergraduate at Ball State University, so to be on the other side was a great experience. Teaching with Mary lead me to start Spooky Boyfriend, my short-lived literary magazine, and Spooky Girlfriend Press, still alive and kicking.
There are other things though, more subtle, seemingly “not as important” that happened while I was at Minnesota State, things that may not have happened otherwise. One of my professors, Kevin Carollo, introduced me to the work of Michael Earl Craig and Mary Ruefle, easily two of my favorite poets. Living in a basement apartment on 18 ½ St. South, I rediscovered a love of sports, specifically baseball and hockey, more specifically, the Minnesota Twins and Minnesota Wild. I was briefly in a band, Jack London Antarctica, where we recorded a “demo” of sorts before Colin disappeared, never to be heard from again. I developed a writing routine that I still stick to today. I fell in love with Minnesota and desperately want to go back to live and work.
Really, all I mean to say is that I’m so thankful that my MFA took a chance on me. Someone who then, and still now, has no book out there in the world. Has won no prestigious writing award. Has not been in the pages of a well-regarded and widely-read poetry publication. Young writes, “Some people try to convince you they love poetry by showing you how bad all the poetry they read (more likely don’t read) is, just like those who love love so much they’ve come to the conclusion that nothing and no one deserve to be loved” (5). My application to Minnesota State contained this type of poetry. Some years ago I found my writing sample I sent and cringed. But they took a chance on me because the professors I had at Minnesota State loved poetry so much, they thought everyone deserved it. They saw a glimmer of potential in me. There’s no way I can fully express my appreciation to them. All I can do is write this, in lieu of being there on May 12, thankful that the MFA program gave me what I needed the most, that it was there for a bad poet like me.