Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The most underappreciated profession in our entire society is the public defender. They are paid terribly, almost never given the financial (or other) support they need to do their jobs properly, are treated by the general public with all the respect accorded to a Mafia consigliere, if not a pedophile. Yet they are the sole line of defense for our most vulnerable citizens against any possible miscarriage of justice in the hands of an exceptionally powerful, and oft brutal, state. In many respects, the integrity of the Constitution rests squarely on their shoulders. And their clients – who include many people guilty of the worst crimes imaginable – are no prize either. Plus I know, because I have quite a few friends in the field of criminal defense, that it can be the most pressure filled job in the universe. Some of your clients just might get killed by the state, depending on where you work. And depending on how well you did (or didn’t) do your job.

Which may be why I usually cut Seth Abramson, a former public defender, a little slack when I see him behaving like a lawyer amidst a gaggle of poets. And, as you’ll see, I’m going to cut him a lot of slack here. I don’t think that there is anything wrong with his consulting firm assisting wannabe writers in getting into the MFA or Writing Ph.D. program of their choice. Poorly marketed, ineptly priced, perhaps. But I don’t think what he is doing ultimately is any different from the more established poet who sets up their private workshop or one-on-one writing consultation/mentoring services – and there are dozens of those around. What is unique about his service is its business-like approach. This fits in perfectly with things Abramson has done in the past, such as ranking writing programs entirely by the funding they make available to students, rather than by the kinds of writing they promote, nor even by the percentage of graduate students who may get the rare job in the end.

Underneath each of these activities on Abramson’s part lies a larger vision of poetry in American life. It’s really worth taking a hard look at this, because Abramson’s take is new & different. And important. As I have noted previously, I think that Abramson overestimates the actual number of publishing poets in English, which suggests (to me at least) that, if I could fully fathom it, I would likewise disagree with his sense of the absolute number of wannabe poets who might be out there, thinking about enrolling in a creative writing program somewhere, the TAM or total addressable market for his consulting services. What I don’t disagree with Abramson about at all is the underlying trend towards dramatic expansion in the number of poets, potential & practicing, in the USA. And his attempts to monetize this perception of his point in interesting – and conceivably disturbing – directions for what they imply about poetry.

Let’s envision a spectrum. At one end of it is a world in which the right (and ability) to create poetry lies in the hands of a select few, often controlled by the church or state. At the far end is a world in which poetry has become the birthright of every literate human, something any thinking individual would want to practice. At this end of the spectrum, poetry aspires not so much to the “sphere of light” or attendant “five-foot bookshelf” of high modernism, but rather something closer to yoga, pilates or t’ai chi. Not necessarily a spiritual practice – tho it clearly can be one in the hands of the right people – but not exactly not one either.

Implicit in Abramson’s view of poetry, this spectrum is historical time. We are moving away from poetry as a literature – let alone as a canon – toward poetry as a practice, not so terribly different from mindfulness meditation (or maybe mindfulness meditation turned inside out, towards words rather than away from them). Not that vestiges of the older ways won’t linger on – they always do – but their role going forward can only be much less forceful, less hegemonic. Who cares ultimately if the SoQ monopolizes all the prizes in the world? You still have your notebook & your text. There are many more avenues today than there were just five years ago to get your work to your friends, what with Lulu & e-publishing. And do you really need to reach more than your friends?

I’ve never seen Abramson articulate what is going on in quite this way, but he doesn’t have to. He’s acting on this vision. In this perspective, the dramatic growth in creative writing programs around the U.S. is not a bad thing, but a good one, and not just because it creates jobs for MFAs. Rather, it is creating the infrastructure for a new world of poetics, one that is both larger & more decentralized, potentially more democratic, where poetry borders on a recreational activity as much as it does an intentional process. Imagine, 10 or 20 years from now, that all of today’s book clubs have become local writer’s workshops.

How one feels about this, I suspect, has a lot to do with where one sits on that imaginary spectrum. In this regard, I’m pretty old school – I still feel that the big questions are the ones posed for the most part under the banner of modernism. And that the really big questions have to do with what went wrong with modernism (short answer: lots) and can anything be done to go back & do it right, rather than the disparate conundra of the postmodern, so-called.

On the other hand, I don’t feel poetry as a practice is a threat. If anything, it’s close (and increasingly closer) to my practice. Which may be the side, or aspect, of slow poetry that resonates with me. But at the same time, I don’t necessarily feel that it’s a choice, either. Perhaps it’s because I’m not sure – not at all – that I buy the idea of this spectrum & the sense of inevitability that seems to attach to poetry as a growth market. Which is what Seth Abramson has been all about.

Perhaps this is because I’m old enough to recall the last great period of educational expansion, which ran between the end of World War 2 & 1973. It was a period that saw a dramatic expansion of colleges & universities, and the first glimmer of expansion among creative writing programs as well. Many of the New American & School of Quietude poets alike lived during the latter part of this period as a kind of celebrity migrant labor, moving from one visiting professorship to the next. Even a school without a writing program, like Berkeley, had on its faculty at the time Josephine Miles, Tom Parkinson, Ron Loewinsohn, David Henderson, Lillian Hellman, Denise Levertov, Richard Tillinghast, James Tate, Robin Magown & Robert Grenier. After Levertov left Berkeley for Tufts, she was followed by Grenier, who was in turn followed by Kenneth Irby, a grad student at Berkeley.

All of this came to an abrupt end on January 27, 1973, when Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird announced the end of the draft, and the creation of the all volunteer army. Without the impetus of the draft (with its none-too-subtle stay-in-school-or-die subtext) the expansion of higher education – and especially of the liberal arts – leveled off dramatically. Ph.D.’s no longer were guaranteed jobs, and writers who had jobs dug in as best they could to keep them.

It’s instructive to note what English Departments did in order to survive the downturn. Away with Spenser, Chaucer, Milton, courses few undergraduates wanted to take. Increase the number of creative writing classes. At UC San Diego, the growth in the number of writing courses was such that the already existing faculty had to figure out how to meet the need for writing instructors without inadvertently turning the department over to (shudder) poets. They did this by creating a rotating visiting professorship – I was one of these in 1982 – and by using adjuncts, local poets who could be counted on to work for peanuts & with no benefits to speak of. The whole point was to maximize the number of writing teachers while limiting any control on their part of the parent department.

I would say that this was the dynamic at many schools that first gave rise to writing programs as separate, autonomous entities. It gave the writers already on campus a chance to direct their own work lives and maybe offer a few real jobs to otherwise suffering adjuncts. In the two instances I’ve been able to watch reasonably closely, the persons arguing for the new program did so on the grounds that it would increase enrollment without demanding significant resources on the part of the school. “It’s a money maker,” I’ve been told. More than once. (And it’s in this context that Abramson’s roster of MFA programs ranked by the amount of support they give to students might make some real sense … at least, if that were the primary consideration & the schools listed were otherwise equivalent to one another.)

But all of this is a scenario predicated upon a market of unending growth. It presumes that within a couple of decades, we’ll all look back at just how few poets there seemed to be in 2009, compared with the hundreds of thousands in 2040. If at some point the ongoing growth of the post-secondary educational system should have a hiccup on the order, say, of the end of the draft, there are going to be a lot of creative writing programs on chancellors’ short lists of departments to cut. And there are going to be even fewer jobs for graduates of these programs.

I’m looking right now at the funding crisis in the California college systems, which are facing cuts on the order of 20 percent for the next school year & thinking to myself that, as in so many other things, California once again looks very much like the canary in the coal mine here. And I’m reminded of something Jack Gilbert said, more than once, while I was in his classes at San Francisco State in the 1960s. It was not quite a mantra, but he said it often enough that all of his students got to hear it. “The most important gift I can give any student in a writing program is to advise them to stop. If they are going to be a writer, they’ll be a writer whether they’re here or not. But getting a degree won’t make them a writer, it won’t even make them a decent teacher of writers.”

That may be right, but Jack’s presumption was that most of them weren’t writers, regardless of what degrees they had. He clearly bought into the five-foot bookshelf conception of literature & wasn’t so terribly certain that it shouldn’t be trimmed to a two-foot bookshelf at that. Abramson, two generations later & operating on a very different framework, looks at the 17,397 applications that the 50 most selective creative writing programs had last year. He knows that most of the applicants applied to multiple schools, but he also knows that there are something like 800 degree granting writing programs right now in the US. Even if we presume that half of these schools offer the degree only at the bachelor’s level, and that the less selective schools get fewer applications (say one-third fewer) than the “top 50” (some of which admit fewer than two percent of all applicants), that still yields a total of 98,989 applications just for one year. If the average applicant applies to six schools, that still means that some 16,500 people, actual individuals, tried to get into MFA programs. That is Abramson’s TAM for his services. The questions for his embryonic program are: can he reach these applicants, what percent can he convert into paying customers, and how much better than “the average” applicant will they do? I’m pretty sure that he must know what the real numbers behind this little back-of-the-napkin exercise happen to be, what that actual average is, and possibly even what level of acceptance his customers need to reach in order for him to go forward saying that he can increase your chances of getting into a program by X percent.

But all of this implies what I would call a close linkage between the number of would-be writers (not all poets by any means, since these numbers also comingle fictioneers, screenwriters & playwrights, & those mysterious practitioners of the “personal essay”) and these writing programs. While I do think it’s true today that most poets at least have a B.A. in something, that hasn’t always been the case, and there’s no particular reason to think that it always will need to be the case. The vocationalization of college is apt to shift the terms of the process as are any future sense of aesthetics. If writing does manage to cross over from the Great Books sphere-of-light role in general culture to something more akin to your local yoga class, administrators & educational theorists are going to look hard at the role of writing in the curriculum.

This leads me to my last question: what percentage of those 16,500 hopeful souls really are already writers? With the advent of e-publishing and the internet, the barriers to first publication are lower than ever. Yet I recall when I was in the writing program at SF State, as well as in the English Department at UC Berkeley, always being surprised at how many of my peers imagined themselves to be years away from “being ready.” I had, after all, started to publish before I went to college. This makes me realize how much this little kerfluffle over AbramsonLeslieConsulting, and the questions it raises about writing (which are really what generates the emotional energy over its presence) is just the tip of a very large iceberg. What we do know is this: writing is changing its social function in our society; many would-be writers see the MFA as a means for responding to, maybe even surviving, these changes; the MFA itself is changing its role with regards to writing; there are a lot of plausible responses to this & Seth Abramson’s is one.