Thursday, September 19, 2013

MFA Students Speak: Is an MFA Worth It?

Posted By on Thu, Sep 19, 2013 at 10:00 AM

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Calgary Martin, MFA in Poetry candidate at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign

Tell me about deciding to apply for an MFA. Where were you in life?
I had wanted to do it for several years, even before I had my BA. It was kind of a naive, overly idealist impetus to return to undergrad—"Someday I shall be in school for writing and I will only write and never wait tables again!" I was 22, maybe, and I had a friend at the time who was at UNCW, and I couldn't believe she was being paid to do what she was doing and able to rent an entire house next to the ocean for peanuts.

I remember, when we met, you said you had applied once before. What happened the first time around?
I applied to eight schools the first time. I was accepted to two schools, and waitlisted at another. No one gave me enough money to justify going, especially since I'd taken out loans for undergrad. I wavered between taking the offers I'd gotten because I wanted to leave NYC, and one of the schools, Montana, was a lot closer to my parents. So when I decided not to take the offers, I did it knowing I'd apply again and double down, as they say.

I wanted to ask about, like, how some programs sell prospective students on the idea of "license" or "permission" to write, which is to say the student pauses capital­-L Life to pursue the degree. Has this been true for you? Do you feel permitted?
That's a good question. I feel like, at least among my friends, the majority of us were never going to go anywhere that didn't fund us. For me, personally, I never was able to transcend NYC service industry living because I didn't have the energy to try to inject myself anywhere else. I wasn't writing as much as I wanted to be. And I wanted the opportunity to put something else that was potentially more relevant on my resume.

I think, for a majority of people, an MFA is a very practical, or even in some cases, the most practical, decision to make. There's definitely a misconception that an MFA is this frivolous thing that trust-funders pursue because they have the money to waste.

What are you afraid of post-­MFA? The Adjunct Life?
I think it's important to be level-­headed and remember where you are during the process of the MFA. Yes, at some point it will be my main responsibility to assemble my manuscript, but I’m focusing on the work itself for as long as I have the opportunity. I know that most people end up teaching 3 to 5 or 6 or 7 classes as an adjunct. This summer, I waited tables again for awhile because we don't get paid in the summer. Being back in that world, but with a book, is definitely a fear. I can’t think I would hate adjuncting as much as I hate waitressing.

Are you hopeful about post-­MFA life at all right now?
I get kind of excited about it sometimes. I’ll probably apply for fellowships, maybe PhDs—I don't know how I feel about the latter, really.

What's been your biggest disappointment with the program so far?
Probably how much of the time I thought would be devoted to writing actually goes toward teaching. It gets easier the more experience I have (I have lesson plans now; last year I spent hours lesson planning). Teaching, as a job for an aspiring poet, is swell, but it's a tremendous commitment. I think it sounds a lot niftier to an applicant than what teaching actually is. But I’m not complaining. I'm here to get an MFA, but I still definitely have to juggle and manage my time to be able to write. This will obviously vary depending on the kind of program and the required teaching load.

Has it been worth it so far? This is also, I guess, another way of asking about your expectations for an MFA. I don't glean from this conversation that you were expecting anyone to "tell" you how to be a better poet.
Ultimately, yes. I think I'm in a program where there's definitely close guidance from a small faculty, and even emotional support when it's needed. They also give us a lot of freedom to write our own way. There are nine poets in the program and not a single one of us writes in a style that is similar to the others'. I think that's kind of remarkable, and it keeps us from becoming a homogenous unit. And I work on Ninth Letter, and have an opportunity to be the Assistant Poetry editor in my third year. I love doing that. And because it’s a small program, we're all pretty close so there isn't any true competition or any weirdness like that.

As far as my expectations, I just wanted to have the time to write a book. Obviously that's a process, and I'm not thinking about the book right now; I still have an entire year before a book is on the table. I also think I had a vague notion coming in that I could be "better ­connected" after the experience, and that's definitely true; you meet people, you have experiences, and you find yourself in a world that's more involved in your interests than you would be if you weren’t in a program. The MFA is definitely a ridiculous prospect in a lot of ways. You are ending your old life to go write. And the implications of that can kind of vary between fiction and poetry.

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