The Daily

Ask The Paris Review

Larger than News; Professional M.F.A. People

July 1, 2011 | by

Hi Mr. Stein. I went to a talk you gave many months ago at McNally Jackson about The Paris Review. You said something that has stayed in my mind, especially now that President Obama has said that we will be withdrawing from Afghanistan. You said that you believe what you’re doing with The Paris Review (and literature in general) was just as important as the coverage a newspaper like The New York Times gives to the wars in the Middle East. Can you explain? I see in some ways how you are making a point, but I can’t help but think that literature has to weigh a little bit lower on the scale of important things, especially against war.

Yikes! I hope I didn’t say that—I certainly don’t think it! What I can imagine saying is that, in one person’s tiny life, it is possible for art to loom larger than the news of the day. I can also imagine saying that this strikes me as a good thing. There are people the country needs to hear from regarding military strategy, and people it doesn’t. I, for instance, am someone with whom there’s not much point discussing troop levels.

Your question makes me think of Roberto Bolaño’s comic novel The Third Reich, all about a writer who sacrifices everything—love, friends, home, job—for a board game ... a board game in which he restrategizes the entire Second World War so the Nazis will win. Writers are like that. They are, among other things, people for whom the unimportant outweighs the important. What’s more (at least in Bolaño’s fiction), they are people you wouldn’t want to see involved in foreign policy, because they’d screw it up, or play—as often as not—for the wrong side.

What do you think of M.F.A. programs? A. R. Ammons says in his Paris Review interview that “it sometimes happens that these professional M.F.A. people are also poets, but it rarely happens.” Do you agree with Ammons, or do you think these places can play a meaningful role in nurturing poets and other writers? Yours, E. M.

I think A. R. Ammons is using the word poet in a special way. Poets often do. He means there are not many great poets in writing programs. It’s true: but then, there are not many great poets anywhere. That doesn’t mean you can’t learn something about poetry in a writing program. And most of them are nothing if not nurturing. For me the question is whether nurturing—whether being part of a caring community—makes for better work or for poems that people will actually want to read out there in the cold, hard world. For others, being part of that community is a powerful incentive to write. For these people, I think an M.F.A. makes all kinds of sense.

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  1. Grace Curtis | July 1, 2011 at 11:40 am

    I like your response to the question about whether or not MFA programs make good poets. Thank you. It feels neither endorsing nor condemning. (Which to me always feels like the correct response.) I am reminded of the article from The New Yorker in 2009, Show or Tell by Louis Menand in which Menand makes a similar though not quite as direct point that “It’s true [there are not many great poets in writing programs]: but then, there are not many great poets anywhere. That doesn’t mean you can’t learn something about poetry in a writing program.” I am always curious as to why this is such a big question, unless the credential causes editors to linger just a moment longer over your submission. In which case, it seems that an MFA is only one more item on the laundry list of things today’s poets must do to further themselves in what has become a very noisy literary space. (A little sad but reality.) Add it to, be on Facebook, Blog, Tweet, get lots of eZine publications, make the big cut into a tier-one journal, get the chapbook, win the contest (and, wouldn’t we be just as correct to questions the whole lot) . . . well, that’s the drill as I see it.

    Stepping back however, your statement, “And most of them are nothing if not nurturing.” resonates to me. I know for a fact that the mental discipline of the MFA program was helpful to me in my writing on many levels but I wouldn’t trade the amazing experience of it for even a book deal—if I had to choose between the two. Perhaps they don’t all have that result. In the end, if I create the kind of poem “that people will actually want to read out there in the cold, hard world.” great! If not, the MFA program was for me, certainly the most wonderful summer-camp-meets-academia experience ever. I feel very fortunate to have been able to do it.

  2. Lorin Stein | July 1, 2011 at 12:13 pm

    Thank you, Ms Curtis, for those kind words.

    For whatever it’s worth, I don’t think editors care about MFAs. Even the most prestigious MFA program casts a wide net compared to a publishing house. And in the end all an editor has to sell is the writing.

    As Frank O’Hara put it, in a slightly different context: “If someone’s chasing you down the street with a knife you just run, you don’t turn around and shout, ‘Give it up! I was a track star for Mineola Prep.'”

  3. anny | July 1, 2011 at 1:51 pm

    There are people who are good in writing poets and programs I believe. There are people no good in those two things.
    I can not tell what makes you good those things.

  4. Elan Durham | July 2, 2011 at 5:57 pm

    Yikes! The Paris Review really is more important, overall, to culture than war reporting, because war is now a major business, more or less endless, and major newspapers (will not name names) have become sometimes nothing more than mouth-pieces for convenient newspin/propaganda pieces for the CIA, FBI, and NSA; further some major news organizations that once stood for something folded house years ago, their reporters suffering terribly as a result of their lies. And the news is more a way to shape the Zeigeist, not report it. Thus, literary magazines are just as good a barometer of the news if not better, since the ‘news’ you report does not pretend to be anything but subjective reflections from the minds of your writers.

  5. Andy | July 4, 2011 at 11:29 pm

    raw life and literature; they may be on opposite sides of the tracks, but they both draw from the same well.

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