Friday, October 23, 2009

The First of A Series of Responses to Saeed Jones' Blog Post Concerning Class and Poetry

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.

17 comments:

  1. Poetry and class for a long time were never worth mentioning in the same breath, because almost all the poets who were published and put in the canon were wealthy or raised with privilege.

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  2. I was just looking at how many poets-with-jobs (pwj's--a rare breed) went to extremely fancy undergrads. The pervasive awarding of MFA's by state schools pretends toward some sort of egalitarianism but those first college degrees portend a fancier future.

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  3. Good post. I worked full time in public health while attending my MFA program, so there's where the health insurance and the ability to pay for my education came from. As an adjunct, it's that same full time job which pays the mortgage, etc.

    I once did a reading with two Canadian women poets in SF's Mission District, and the affected poor look of the hipster art scene really insulted them. One of them told me she was the daughter of miners, and grew up in a mining town, in which "looking poor," was something their parents and community frowned upon.

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  4. "Not having is different from not having as much as you want."

    Very well put. Thank you so much for responding to my thoughts. You're really keeping the conversation going which is exactly what I hoped for.

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  5. This is a great extension of the conversation. This post does a great job of identifying how the economic privilege of being able to attend an MFA program dispels the poor-poet stereotype. Or being able to write and get paid (which presupposes some formal education in the background) as privilege itself.

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  6. "Not having is different from not having as much as you want."

    I want to echo Saeed in saying that that is an absolutely true statement. I can't tell you how many times I felt like laughing/crying when my roommates were bitching about not having money, yet spending $80 on Trader Joe's groceries (every week), while I was eating rice and crashing random cultural events for the free food.

    In response to Barbara Jane Reyes: your story reminds me of all the "homeless" kids on Telegraph Avenue.

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  8. What's a stake in claming "poverty"? I've seen it work in the classroom as a kind of authenticity claim-- usually an accusation against someone else ("you don't know poverty, and I only I can speak on behalf of the poor here")-- and it tends to function outside of the classroom as either an idle complaint ("I'm so poor") or a request for assistance ("can you pick that up, I'm so poor"). I'm curious if we could talk more about why people make this claim-- since we suspect that it often made falsely (even though mostly we're pointing out that someone claimed poverty unfairly while we can claim it honestly). What is the knowledge/wisdom we're saying that poverty confers on the person who has endured it or remains in it?

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  9. I might have answered my own question in rereading-- I think that we're mostly resisting the romanticization of poverty-- the narrative that says that poverty is a wise place of carefully selected values and being in touch with what "really matters." I think that we're saying that poverty is not romantic, it's awful, and we resist those moments when someone claims a value or wisdom to poverty that feels false.

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  10. Excellent points, Steve, and excellent questions, Jason.

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  11. I like meatloaf.
    But, also, I think people who can call anyone, even a distant relative, for money are not, and will never be, poor. I do think people who have never been poor romanticize it, like it is somehow purer than life tainted by money. I wonder if this is not at the heart of some simplicity movements. But, interestingly enough, these movements seem to be popular with the upper-middle class.

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  12. And consider the opposite, to claim wealth. Culturally, we're not "allowed" to brag about our wealth. Is it in conflict with our traditional protestant values?

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  13. Since authenticity was already mentioned, I'll chime in to say that's what I think it's all about. Being authentic. I don't think it's about class, really, not because class doesn't exist, but because there are deeper issues. I think it's also about shame. Sometimes a nebulous shame based on social acceptance, cliques, and being in the in-group. Who hasn't claimed to be something other than who they are, in order to be accepted into a group, in order to fit in? Who hasn't lied in order to be liked?

    Anyone who can go do an MFA, even some of those who are on full scholarship, is definitely in a privileged position relative to anyone who makes minimum wage or works in an office carrel all day long. But is that really about class, or is it about opportunity? Certainly wealth can create opportunities which lead to privileged positions.

    But lack is a state of mind. The psychology of lack is universal, no matter what class one comes from. It's built into our culture.

    That a rich(er) student worries about money in a culture in which everyone worries about money, a culture in which how much you earn defines your character, a consumer culture whose economy is driven by creating need (lack) via advertising and marketing—in such a climate, who wouldn't worry about money? Safety net or no? Worrying about money is an ingrained habit. Everyone worries about money because our entire culture keeps sending us continuous signals that we'll never have enough, be good enough, wealthy enough, etc. The American Dream is built on this myth.

    I agree, a lot of the time all this worry and self-made drama strikes one as the privileged worrying that they can't afford Prada rather than Gucci. Disconnected is the exact word for it. Yet MFA graduates worrying about issues of class and politics can seem just as disconnected. For those of us outside the academy, it's an issue of class only in the sense that MFAs are the "insiders" and non-"professional" poets are the "outsiders." It's hard to take seriously.

    A few decades ago a writer's best form of education was considered the school of life: go out there and do odd jobs, meet different people, see the world, travel, learn, and then you'll actually have something to write about. Writing based on life-experience, rather than on academic study, privileged or otherwise. If poetry has become so insular that no one but poets cares about it, it's because so many poets assume their professional career tracks must be academic.

    If there is an MFA class—I mean that those with MFAs are themselves definable AS a class, which is also rarely discussed—it's partly in that most academic poets haven't really experienced enough of life, especially so soon after leaving college, to really have much to write about. So they write about the nothingness that they know. Which may be one reason we keep how poetry is disconnected from ordinary life.

    Who can take seriously a poetry written from a place of faux authenticity, based on nothing but school? Don't claim that it doesn't show in the writing, because it does. Living a little adds depth to one's art.

    Trying to fit in to the crowd is what drives shame, when the individual is shamed by the crowd for being different. Are we talking real "difference" here, though, or is this much ado about nothing? Are people who can be bailed out by their parents really ashamed of that—does it represent a personal failure, somehow, to know that one has a safety net in an otherwise uncaring world? Obviously, complaining about another's dishonesty when one is not so different from them is a bit hypocritical. And that too is an enemy of genuine authenticity.

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  14. Thanks for your honest take on poetry (MFA students) and class. I would hesitate to belittle casseroles and meatloaf though! :)

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  15. Dear Mr. Steve Fellner, Thank you for such an inspired and thoughtful post about the issues of class and the writing of poetry and graduate programs in poetry. As a Latino man who came of age as a boy in poor working conditions and who is in the process of obtaining an MFA degree in poetry, I understand the struggle. I also understand that poetry can only keep people warm if it is a metaphor and not in reality and this is not something that is romantic, it's real. I never knew who my father was, my mother died when I was very young and the only person who cared for me was mi abuelita, who is now in a wheelchair. And I am the one who sends HER money because of the fucked up health system in this country. Luckily I have a caring and loving partner who is very supporting towards me and my dream of being a writer which is already on the way to being realized. All the other students are eating meatloaf like Dr. Write and that is fine, let them eat. I agree with your assessment, and I have no idea what Mr. Jason Schneiderman is talking about. Maybe he should get a job.

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