Dear Emily Post-Avant,

I came across this article today, by Juliana Spahr, “Building a Better (Socialist) MFA System.” I haven’t had time to read it, but thought you’d like to see it and maybe even write about it?

–MFA Student, Iowa City, Iowa


Dear MFA Student, Iowa City, Iowa,

Of all the tiresome, handwringing analyses/quasi-self-exculpations by Poet Professors about the MFA industry that I have seen in my sorry life, I cannot recall having encountered any piece so lazily cobbled together from a haphazard series of hackneyed observations as this one. Or one so unintentionally funny, for that matter. I looked at my cat, Morrie, who was mewing at me, asking for I don’t know what, and I asked him: Morrie, is this the kind of writing and thought that our Socialist MFA students are to emulate?

I will save you, dear, from wasting your precious study time at Iowa by offering, now, a synopsis of the article, which seems to promise, from its title, some instruction on how we might go about making MFA programs more “Socialist”:

  1. We are told by the author, straight off, that Higher Education is expensive and the cause of heavy student debt, that the government makes a lot of money from this unfairly burdensome debt, that there is a contradiction between the “monetizing” of higher education and the historically “utopian” ideals and aspirations of higher education. We then learn that the author paid back a total of $70 grand to the government so she could go and teach in an MFA program herself, where “twelve or so students sit around a table…and talk about each other’s work,” and that MFA programs have grown quite a bit more popular since the late 1980s, which means, in case we’ve forgotten, that quite a few more students are now chained to lots of debt. But despite all these bad things, which include corporate MOOCs, the author still feels that the MFA program is one of the few “learning environments” where students can receive “personal attention” under Capitalism, but that, on the other hand, most MFA graduates are still white, according to Junot Diaz, in the New Yorker, and that Ocean Vuong wants to turn his MFA workshops into “healshops,” which the author demurs is probably not the best idea, since most MFA Professors aren’t trained therapists, though it is true, granted, that people want to tell their traumatic stories in poetry, although the real problem, the author goes on, is not that people need safe spaces in which to negotiate their difficult experiences, but that the “neoliberal university” makes the creation of any sort of “utopian community” impossible within it. Therefore, if the author had her way, she would kick Higher Education out of the sphere of “cultural production,” especially the production of poetry, because poetry is “egalitarian,” as evidenced by the fact that all it requires is “pen, paper, and inclination,” not to mention that it doesn’t require “cumbersome instruments” or “years of physical training,” that, therefore, it would be ideal if poetry could disassociate itself from the University and do like the Communist Party USA was doing in the 1930s, when John Reed Clubs were popping up all over the place (through which the new Stalinist doctrine of Socialist Realism was peddled, and precisely when the Moscow Show Trials were underway, and a whole generation of revolutionaries in the USSR was being taken down to the basement and shot in the back of the head, though the author seems clueless to this rather dark irony herself, and which bears remembering, given that she is advocating more John Reed Clubs), and plus, she continues, there are other examples, like Umbra, “an organization that in 1961 led a fairly intense protest against the murder of Patrice Lumumba at the UN” [sic], along with the Teatro Campesino, which was formed, the author also wants us to be sure she knows, during the “Delano Grape Strike Picket Lines of Cesar Chavez’s United Farm Workers.” But still (and now we enter a crucial and somewhat unexpected turn in the article), if we stare reality in the face and come to accept that we are stuck with what we got, for the “university is in the business of creating writers and it can’t be otherwise,” at least not for a good long while, and that it is “a meaningful cultural practice to both read and write literature, and to gather around a table and discuss each other’s attempts…even if one has to enter into a pay-to-play system to do so,” however much we might not like that last part, well, then how can we best do this, how can we realistically make the actually existing (as it were) MFA industry, horrendous and implicated with corporate and State power as it is, Socialist? Well, says the author, “one thing higher education does well is teach the traditions,” and this is one area where the MFA industry could improve, because the MFA tends to teach a canon that is contemporary and “skewed towards literature produced by its own graduates,” which is why we need a curriculum that is focused “less on contemporary literature and more on the social, economic and political forces that shape literature” (which the author does not mention might mean the MFA could just dissolve back into the English Department, making things a lot less complicated, but anyway), and that “if it were up to me,” says the author, there would also be “a series of courses on literature’s role…in various resistance movements,” after which the author goes on to list five cases, the last being “various cultural/identity movements in the U.S.” (which the author apparently seems to feel students in MFA programs have no knowledge about yet, which is curious, since there is nothing more “contemporary”), though she would also “add more practical and involved classes,” which would lead, ideally, to students doing “fieldwork projects,” including interning for poetry “websites” (which the Dispatches editors would certainly appreciate, I’m sure), or maybe for a “free skool somewhere,” but only after each student is made to “develop an individualized course of study that includes 25 books designed to help them figure out what it is they want to do, aesthetically and politically,” and that even though all this might not be the best thing, since MFA programs have led to lots of problems and stuff, they are, as Fred Moten says, the author tells us, in one of his books, pretty much inescapable, for “once something like this starts, there is really no refusing one’s way out of it.” So, in a seeming panicked impatience to end her article, apparently hoping that we all now grasp why she and her academic cohort in the Commune faction are necessary to the lives of Socialist MFA grads to come, she jauntily proposes that we conclude with “a fun party trick,” and that we imagine “what literature might be after the revolutionary destruction of capitalist social relations, even though chances are our imaginations are as hobbled by the present as anything else.” (She really does say that.) And so she ends with references to “three manifestos,” all praised for their exemplary stances, one of which is the 1960 Situationist International UNESCO communique, in which Debord and his comrades, as the author informs us, warn us that the greatest enemy facing writers and artists and the arts they practice is “the bureaucratization of art and all culture,” and that “this bureaucratization is a new phenomenon which expresses the deep interrelationship of the social systems coexisting in the world,” so that “the riposte of the revolutionary artists to these new conditions must be a new type of action,” and so this article about how to make University MFA Programs more “Socialist”– in a period when U.S. poetry has never been more compromised by its entanglement with institutional forces and their bureaucratic mores, or more disciplined to the core by State and Corporate bounty–comes to a flourishing close. And there is not a trace of humor or irony about it, anywhere.

–Emily Post-Avant