Wednesday, January 03, 2007

To accompany the Modern Language Association (MLA) in Philadelphia, the local paper ran an upbeat article with the improbable headline “Creative Writing, Poetry are Hot,” indicating that

There were 69 available creative-writing jobs advertised across the nation in October, up from 52 in October of last year.

This should be ever so promising to the graduates of the more than 400 creative writing programs that are currently members of the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP). With, say, an average 10 graduates per program per year in all creative writing disciplines, some 4,000 new MFAs have a 1.7 percent chance of actually scoring a teaching job. Unless of course you consider the 4,000 still unemployed graduates from those programs the previous year, which would drop the prospective number down to around 0.8 percent. Unless of course you also consider the graduates of the year before & the year before that. You get the picture. A new MFA may have a better chance of getting hit by a car than landing a teaching job.

Hey, it could be worse. Try publishing a novel. The annual write-a-novel-in-one-month event in November is said to have started out with 80,000 participants this year and ended with over 13,000 having been written. Imagine exactly how many of those will see the light of day at FSG or Knopf.

AWP advertises that it represents some 28,000 writers. The circulation of Poets & Writers is currently 60,000. And there are 69 creative-writing jobs advertised. Such is the definition of “hot” in the current job market.

The meat market aspect of the MLA has always been its darkest side, and I glimpsed that in passing again this year, interviewers stressed out by watching people whom they know to be brilliant & creative “blow up” during the process, interviewees who, in the words of one, watch their opportunity “just lay down & die on the interview table.” Especially tragic are the members whose badges no longer reflect any institutional affiliation and who are doing one last round of interviews, wondering if this is the final year they will even get that far, beginning to recognize that having a Ph.D. or MFA isn’t ever going to get them a job. And that a life of adjuncting is the very best they can hope for.

Happily poetry isn’t about teaching or the academy any more than it is about the trade book industry. The Venn diagram overlap between these three worlds gets to be less every year, and we’re at that point now where these three circles barely even touch.

So how contrast that bleak picture with the great energy, joy & camaraderie that was manifest everywhere at the Philadelphia Arts Alliance for the annual offsite reading, an event that has been going on annually since Rod Smith started it in 1989 & which Aldon Nielsen likens to a "floating Burning Man of verse?" Tho the University of Alabama Press sponsored the event this year, it is held off-site so that all of the local poets (somewhere between one third & one half of all the readers) don’t have to pony up an MLA membership just to go to a reading.¹ One of the great things about this event is being reminded so palpably that poetry is a community. The great myth of the poet as operating purely in isolation, offered to us first as tragedy (Emily Dickinson) and then as farce (Jack Gilbert), is in fact just that: myth. There are a few poets who work better off by themselves, but so many more of us are not unlike Jack Spicer, who may have been a misanthrope, but thoroughly depended on his beloved circle, whether at Aquatic Park in the afternoons talking poetry & listening to Giants games over the radio, or at Gino & Carlo’s saloon, or at the various homes & locales where the group, as group, met, including the Hotel Wentley (now the Polk-Sutter apartments), 707 Scott Street or the San Francisco Public Library, site of the Magic Workshop.

Poetry obviously is not only a community – there is still that blank page, just waiting – but that it is also (always already as we used to say) a community as well is precisely the recognition that separates the post-avant from the old avant-garde formations (the latter admitted community only with rigid gating requirements, such as the membership invitation rituals both of the surrealists &, more recently, Oulipo). And when you’re in a room with as many people who know why they write what they write – which has nothing to do with jobs, schools or trade presses – the actual joy of the occasion is terrific.² This is the sense in which poetry truly is “hot.”


¹ Note to self: think through more carefully this year the role of those few academic presses, including (but not limited to) Alabama, California & Wesleyan, that show a serious commitment to post-avant literature. They are neither small nor trade presses, and their role is more complicated than just fitting “in between” those two worlds.

² Consider, for example, the “rejection sonata” presented by William Howe & his three collaborators at the off-site reading, a sound poem worthy of the ole Four Horsemen based entirely on “we regret to inform you” type language