Saeed Jones’ October 9 post on his blog for southern boys who consider poetry raised an important question in terms of writing and class:. As Jones himself asks, “The language of class seems to be hyperbolic at best. Sure, we can name what it means to be exorbitantly wealthy or extremely poor, but where are the words to describe the rest of us?” This is such a brilliant and necessary question to raise, and before I began to discuss the where, I think it’s urgent to ask the reason we can't readily find them.
Unlike most writers who raise the issue of class, Jones instructs us to look what’s between the extremes—something I don’t believe we do enough of. Jones’ call-to-action should be amplified. It’s a difficult thing to hear (let alone accept) when so many poets, especially those employed full-time, complain about how poetry doesn’t pay.
It’s a lie. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t feel grateful for what my poetry afforded me: health insurance. What’s greater than the luxury of living in a small, generous community where my partner and I can be shut-ins and read to one another at night before we go to bed? (Yesterday he read Young Goodman Brown.)
Most poets employed full time obviously come from MFA programs where they're encourage not to talk about class in such precise terms, as Jones asks us to do. They like to think their art transcends the particular and embraces a dumb universality. Which it can. Sometimes.
MFA students (the ones who later receive those full-time jobs) often feel unconsciously guilty that they are attending a writing program; as a result, instead of admitting their privilege in attending school, they do the opposite and claim poverty. I cannot tell you how often a best friend of mine from Syracuse claimed she was “poor.” At first I first believed her. But then as the months continued and our friendship deepened, I found out what constituted poor: she only received $500 a month (or maybe more, can’t remember) from her parents. Her mother made an investment for her that was guaranteed to pay off. Without any self-awareness, she told me that she was afraid that she may need to take out a student loan, and would I help her with the paperwork if she asked.
Needless to say, she didn't need to take out those loans.
It often made me cringe how many MFA and full-time employed poets squawk about their poverty and can call Mom and Dad for that extra hundred dollar to make ends meet and to have a little extra left over. I would like to emphasize that MFA students and part-time faculty are exploited. There's no doubt about that. I couldn't believe how much buying health insurance for me as a student took out of my already paltry stipend. However, I wasn't destitute, and living off the streets, and as poets and fiction writers we need to realize that. This isn't to say we shouldn't silence our complaints, or fight radically for more, it's just the opposite, in fact, but we do need to see exactly where we stand in relation to everyone else.
Not having is a different than not having as much as you want. If you can call someone to bail you out, you have nothing to worry about. You're doing OK. Some MFA students (and full-time employed poets) and their mock crisis of a fictional poverty refuses what Saeed is asking for: an analysis of the full range of class statuses. How can you talk about class when everyone is boasting unabashed financial ruin.
These false narratives of poverty reveal the privilege of academically trained poets. On one hand, they want to be seen as extremely charitable (look at how much I care about the world! I’m writing about it!), and on the other hand in-the-gutter poor (look at how much I’m deprived of as a writer!). This constant oscillation makes it impossible to have a genuine conversation: everyone feels the need to reveal their generous contributions to the national crisis and prove their own suffering.
Financial problems occur after graduation. When the loans are due. And you may be only able to find work as a part-time adjunct, shelling out your hard earned cash on gas to shuttle you from gig to gig to gig.
I lucked out. I got a great job.
I have $90,000 in student loan debt. I was not going to live a life that I led growing up. Screw a cheap, scummy trailer. Screw hand-me-down clothes. Screw meatloaves and casseroles.
I have no shame in tell you: Watch how many Dragon rolls you order. They do add up. And all the clothes you used your student loans on won’t fit after awhile. Too much rice can put the pounds on.