Monday, August 30, 2010

Arguing for Poetry During a Recession

At the University of Hawai`i, the best verb tense one can hope for these days is the conditional. Our building might be renovated next year. We might get a new secretary. In truth, we will get a new secretary, but we will also lose one who works for us now: a gain and a loss equals a might. We might get a new hire in creative writing. This last has occupied my weekend, as I am--for this semester only--director of creative writing. And because last year alone we lost five creative writers from our faculty.

I am arguing for a hire (albeit still a hypothetical one) in poetry. I am arguing that the literature and oratures of Asia and the Pacific (part of our university's mission statement is that we specialize in that region) are more often than not poetic: there are mele, chants, poems in English and translation. I am arguing that our offerings in literature and cultural studies, to say nothing of composition and rhetoric, are heavy on narrative fiction. (Each semester I wade through course reading lists, only to discover that many of the courses whose titles are "Literature of..." are actually courses in "Fiction of . . ." or increasingly "Non-fiction of...") Where poetry is taught, it's taught more as content than as the result of a process, a language game, an art. I am arguing that, while I sometimes find it hard to fill a class in the reading of poetry, courses in writing poetry are well attended, that the only exposure to poetry many of my students get is in such courses. (Easy to avoid that phobic subject, if it's simply not available.) I am arguing (again) that the cultures of Asia and Pacific are often best seen in their poetry, music, hula. I am arguing that, if we are to create an MFA program, we need more than two faculty members who teach poetry on the graduate level. I am borrowing an argument made by Adam Aitken, our current Visiting Writer, that all writers should study poetry, because poetry is all about language. I am arguing that the community is full of poetic energies in its journals (Bamboo Ridge, `oiwi, Tinfish) and in the slam scene, which draws enormous audiences and--more importantly--draws young people into poetry. I am arguing and arguing and arguing.

But we live in a time of scarcity, so my arguments do not seem practical. We live in a time of scarcity where there is more demand for fiction than there is supply of fiction writers to lead workshops. We live in a time of scarcity, when poetry is (as ever in our culture) marginalized as extra, as luxury, as something very few people want to buy. That they don't go to the store to buy it proves that they don't want it (surely a Catch-22 for the poetry pedagogue.)

It's easy simply to get angry, but the fiction writers have a point, too. We work with a lot of graduate and advanced undergraduates who write fiction because they want to. Many of them are extremely good at it. (I know, because I am often called upon to be on their committees, and I read their fiction.) Given too many holes in the curriculum, perhaps all we can do now is fill them in, as we watch fresh potholes form. The ride is awfully bumpy. We could use some of that "slope maintenance" going on down the highway from where I live.

One colleague asks why we are so hung up on genre, anyway. I suspect the reason is that job descriptions are easier to write for fiction and poetry than for "writer." I would much prefer the latter, myself, sometimes, but in a time of scarcity, damn it, I want a real poet who can spread the love of the art, and of its various engagements with language and culture, to our students.


rodney k said...

Hi Susan,

Interesting post, and good luck in the struggle! I'm stuck with two impressions about MFA programs that are probably wrong. One is that they're guaranteed cash cows--that whether people want poetry or not, it seems they'll pay for the privilege of not working for a couple of years to write it, and that cash-strapped universities find MFA programs lucrative, or at least financially self-sustaining. Is that true?

The other is that fiction--esp. the memoir and novel--is seen to pay, so MFA students on the prose side nurse the hope they can recoup the losses they sustain in shelling out for the degree. (Though poets with MFAs, I guess, maybe figure they can teach poetry somewhere for $$). Does that play a role in decisions about hires?

I guess the tenor of these questions reveals that I'm pretty cynical about the MFA biz, on the prose and poetry side. But I'm heartened by your description (one that might actually work against your arguments for a poetry position with the higher-ups) of how much poetry's happening on the ground there without any help from an MFA program at all. Good luck!

susan said...

Thanks for the comment, Rodney. I'm not a big MFA pusher, myself, but my chair is. So if he wants to start such a program, methinks he'll need more faculty!

And yes, I think MFAs are (or aspire to be) cash cows. Lord knows we could use some cash around here to go with our cows and their deposits!

susan said...

Also, Rodney, I see what you might mean by undermining my message, but the journals Tinfish, `oiwi, and Manoa are situated in the English dept. and Bamboo Ridge is run by people who studied, worked, taught at UH. Much of the literary activity here comes out of Manoa; while Honolulu is a city of some 800,000, it's pretty small in many ways.

Krib's Ink said...

Hi Susan,

While I have no solution, I would like to add that during my course work here at UH, my best and most fulfilling courses were indeed poetry courses. From a single poem (Nina Cassian's "Ordeal"), I chose to be an English major. I don't pretend to be a poet, but I have learned how to be a better writer because of studying poetry. My point? For me, poetry provided the meaning I so desperately needed and also helped me segue into other areas of English. I had one professor in particular that exposed me to wonderful poetry and opened my eyes to language. I hear she's also a huge Cardinals fan...



susan said...

Thanks, Krystal. While I'm rethinking the Cardinals, in the wake of the Glenn Beck rally, I'm not rethinking how much I often miss that class you were in. That was a keeper.

Jill said...

UH lost five writers from the faculty? Wha? Do their names still appear in the "People" section of the UHM English website?

susan said...

Good question, Jill. I went to look and yes, they are still there. All the information is out of date.