A Pilgrimage to Ancient MFA's
On the westernmost ledge of Europe near Slea Head in the Kingdom of Kerry, huts of corbelled stone cluster by the Atlantic. Clocháns, they are called, quarried from native rock and hefted into place a thousand years ago, though a thousand years means little to these sea-sprayed fields. If not for the hand-printed sign advertising, “Dunbeg Stone Fort—Beehive Huts Ahead,” I might have trundled past, having my hands full keeping my rental from careening into gorgeous oblivion. I unfold my Yankee length from the sedan and rattle the chain until a pensioner in burdocked overalls shambles down the path to unlock the gate and collect the two Euro admission. As we climb gorse hillocks he keeps up a hum of badinage about Skellig Michael and the Book of the Dun Cow; Kevin and Colmcille and the Blind O’Driscolls, as if raillery could coax them back to life.
“Where’s home?” he asks; then mulls “Ohio” knowingly, as if to seal the secret. At the crest of a mound, he stiffens a finger at the dense, silent city of beehive huts.
They are eight flint humps rising from packed clay. I circle them, then lean against the largest, patting its warty flank. Somehow, with no moldings or wood supports, the makers have executed a mousehole-shaped doorway. I peer into the thigh-high portal, then bend deeper to enter the dark. Inside, moss and clay close in. As my eyes adjust, flecks of daylight pierce the unmortared stone.
Re-emerging into light that now seems brilliant, I wonder who lived here. I don’t know much about 8th century architecture, but it’s clear that more commodious hovels could have been dug, even out of straw. And there was wood here once, before the forests were cleared.
“Twas the poets,” crows our host, with a look that seems to mock an age that mistakes height for stature.
As he expounds on the annals of this desolate place, rhapsodizing about bards who memorized thousands of lines and fili who encoded the esoteric ‘rosc’ poetry—“the like of which wasn’t heard again until that Joyce fella”—it dawns on me that these were early MFA’s. Our guide doesn’t know the exact requirements, but the curriculum, he says, took between twelve and twenty years to complete, depending on the degree. There were brehons, a class of poet-lawyers who could splice royal lineages as far back as Finn MacCumhal, and monks who cribbed a hunk of western civ on moldy vellum. Behind the monks lurked the specter of druids, whose secret examinations were so perilous that only one in three survived.
Well, between the ritual deaths and the frigid dorms, the registrar wouldn’t have been too busy.
It’s commonplace to say that MFA programs produce too many writers. Asked if writing programs didn’t wind up discouraging young writers, Flannery O’Connor famously replied, “not nearly enough.” But it seems an odd complaint. After all, what’s wrong with breeding talent? Ancient cultures set aside resources for artistic training; why shouldn’t we? And while we’re at it, why not pipe in some heat and cut a skylight?
Over the last half-century, MFA programs have allowed generations of students from diverse backgrounds to cultivate their gifts. Even if most of our graduates don’t wind up on Oprah, they will have experienced an apprenticeship in a mind-broadening field; they will have learned principles of form and nuance that translate into many occupations, and they will have plumbed their potential for self and world-awareness. At the very least, they will have become better readers.
Thus preaches my committee in Ohio and thus have we held during the long years shaping a new consortial MFA program: a cluster of four state universities, each encrusted with a bureaucracy as hermetic as these huts. Appealing for the benediction of the Board of Regents, we spaded proposals, chiseled curricula, and spread spread-sheets over roundtables like fresh straw. The campaign took as long as it once took to certify a bard.
One document we had no trouble composing was the Needs Statement. Having viewed the dizzy graphs, we knew that there’d be plenty of applicants. In Northeast Ohio, just as across the country, the workshops are filling up.
We had a bit more of a problem when it came to explaining what we thought all these students would do when they graduate. They could teach, of course; and we put that down right away. Numero Uno. But a glance at current classes—one prof for fifteen students—revealed that none but a few would achieve this august goal. PhD’s are in the same boat: they survive at about the same rate as wannabe druids. What fraction of our grads climbs on the tenure track? The graphs didn’t say.
Without certification they can’t teach in public high schools, but they might hook up with Poets in the Schools programs, or join the swelling army of adjuncts, or coach soccer at prep school. But even jury-rigged, the ark leaked. So we needed another plank. And we found one:
While the MFA is not a vocational degree, creative writing and publishing constitute a large enterprise that requires new talent…. Major companies in Northeast Ohio depend on a supply of skilled writers and editors. The internship collaboration with local communities, as well as the teaching experience available to MFA teaching assistants, will equip our graduates to enter new and expanding writing fields.
Fair enough. The world needs editors, technical writers, advertisers; and the MFA degree is an ideal preparation for all sorts of writing, just as the committee claims. But today, with the whitecaps mounting coastal granite and the wind stinging the wildness into a wet squint, it all seems awfully tame. I think of a tenth century poem scrawled in the margins of his calligraphy by a monk in a stone settlement just like this one.
The sea is wild tonight.
No need to fear
that Viking hoards will come
and terrify me.
Do I envy that ancient poet scanning the Atlantic through a chink in his beehive hut? He faced no committees, no boards. No need to justify his scarecrow muse. But I don’t yearn to take his place. I’d miss the food and company and light and warmth, and those Vikings sound more dangerous than a provost.
Yet today I could almost yield to the conceit that even in Ohio we live on the edge of a great ocean, peering into the mist, the way these ancient hut dwellers peered out. The sea is not the Atlantic with its terrifying ships, and our universities are far from beehive huts. They are capacious, starbucked, crackling with Wi-Fi. In fact, they seem more like great longships themselves, raiding coasts the Vikings never dreamt of.
And what, to stretch this metaphor, do they raid? Why do these splendid vessels terrify?
Drenched and stiff-limbed, I think with tenderness of the rolling seas of Ohio. I’m proud of the work that my colleagues and I did conceiving, planning and implementing the NEOMFA program. From four separate entities we made a web. We forged bonds among our faculties and paved the way for a program with a virtual campus encompassing hundreds of square miles. We fostered a community that crisscrosses the rust belt. We’ve even laughed about getting a school bus. Still, I feel uneasy. I can’t speak for my colleagues, but in all our meetings I never felt truly at home. I never wrote or spoke in my own language, never thought about the wayward accidents that had nourished my own writing life or how to bring them to bear on younger lives. Not that I want to calligraphy our proposal on parchment, or chant it in rosc, or storm the Regents, proclaiming like Cuchulain, “I give no more proof than the hawk gives that he’s no dove.” But as I recall our solid, serviceable, and successful proposal, with its headings and sub-headings and graphs and samples, I wish that somewhere in the margin I had doodled, “the sea is wild tonight/ No need to fear…”
What I feared then was abandonment. If we didn’t sell our program in terms administrators approved, we would not be allowed a seat on the great ship. What I fear now, after we’ve been ushered on board, is that in composing a plan shaped by the university’s priorities, we tainted something essential at the core of creativity. It might be something felt only in the dark, when even the chinks of light fade.
I fear, even more than slashed budgets and fainting enrollment, being absorbed by a culture that tolerates but does not sustain us. I fear that in defining ourselves in foreign terms like ‘accountability,’ ‘progress,’ and ‘utility,’ we forsake the place where we are most useful, accountable to the voices that speak through us from the past. I fear that in gaining a chair at the amply-set table, we lose our way back to a grave darkness that, once extinguished, may be beyond recovery.
How would such a self-fulfilling proposal look? What would I change, after a pilgrimage to these ancestral MFA’s? It’s tempting to say I’d fling the doors open to artists and performers and visionaries and yes, even lawyers—if they were bold enough to enter a world without codicils. I’d ask students to choose an authentic art using the tools most native: sound, memory, insight, or vision. Writing is not the only way to find this place; it’s just a technology, and should not rule by fetishistic power. Of course we’d have no poetry majors, fiction majors, creative non-fiction majors, translation majors, or playwriting majors. Erase the boundaries. Instead of huddling them into genres, let specialties emerge and entwine out of immersion in all. Modern descendants of early MFA’s should know that they have more in common with the motley inhabitants of this silent city than with people who make advertisements or briefs or newspapers—or university proposals. Open the workshops. But close the craft & theory courses: veil the mysteries from all but initiates. For internships let’s have real ships. Require penniless travel and field work in pastures instead of offices. Teach work that pays the rent, engages hand and mind and frees us from selling genius to a market which twists talent to its own ends. Give credit to poems that bring rain—or in this climate, stop it. Credit for stories that sift into the underworld. Credit for not writing sequels. Graduation comes at the point of exhaustion or death or a re-entry into selfhood that bears the world inside. Yes, it’s tempting, in the slanting rain as I trudge back to my car from a hillock near Slea Head, to revise our MFA proposal. But I don’t want these changes, except in dreams where Ohio is a stormy coast. With my colleagues at home, I stand by the words we wrote.
But I want a larger space for such dreams. Or should I say—after squeezing into a beehive hut—a more intense space, so real and present that it might tint the fluorescent light of a committee room or throb in the engine of an old beater bearing a student across the whaleroad of Northeast Ohio. Let this small dark space remind us who we are, where we come from, and what, if we fail to dream, we might become.
(from By Heart: Reflections of a Rust Belt Bard University of Tennessee Press)