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Juliana Spahr Interview

 

Juliana Spahr edits with Jena Osman the book series Chain Links. She recently edited with Stephanie Young A Megaphone: Some Enactments, Some Numbers, and Some Essays about the Continued Usefulness of Crotchless-pants-and-a-machine-gun Feminism (Chain Links, 2011). She recently wrote with David Buuck, Army of Lovers, a book about two friends who are writers in a time of war and ecological collapse (forthcoming from City Lights). And she recently organized with Joshua Clover the 95 cent Skool and the Durruti Free Skool. Her most recent book is Well Then There Now (Black Sparrow P, 2011).

 

 

Emily Carr teaches writing and social action, science fiction, and the sexual politics of meat at the University of California Santa Cruz. She is the author of two books of poetry--directions for flying (Furniture Press 2010) & 13 Ways of Happily: Books 1 & 2 (Parlor Press 2011)--four chapbooks, & a Tarot novella. In 2013, excerpts from Emily’s Tarot novella Name Your Bird Without a Gun are forthcoming from dancing girl press & the Fairy Tale Review & Up the Shinbone Superlatives, a chapbook of fairytale poems, is being published by horseless press. While Writer-In-Residence at Camac Centre d’Art this summer, Emily composed Straight No Chaser, an artist book that experiments with “the poetry of fear.” Materials include a seafoam green Hermes 3000 typewriter, spray paint, scotch tape, a fold-out Athens city guide, & the insatiable appetite of Frieda, Camac Cat. For a sneak peak of this and other artist book projects, visit www.ifshedrawsadoor.com or check out the Summer 2011 Adaptations issue of The Western Humanities Review.

 

 

 

EC: In “The Craft Can Be Taught But Not The Art” in Poets On Teaching: A Sourcebook, Timothy Liu suggest Roland Barthes's The Pleasure of the Text, Rainier Maria Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet, and Wallace Stevens’s The Necessary Angel as “seminal training manuals” for poets. What seminal training manuals would you suggest & why? Can you also comment on his assertion that craft—but not art—can be taught?

 

JS: The term “seminal training” is making me laugh. But moving beyond that, today I would say Pascale Casanova’s World Republic of Letters, Edouard Glissant’s Poetics of Relation, and Gertrude Stein’s Lectures in America.

 

I always get confused about what is “craft” and what is “art”? Do you think he means by “art” that magical thing that might be “really good craft”? Art for sure cannot be taught. I’m not even sure craft can be taught. I’d probably say the history of the genre can be taught. And the genre conventions. And the social uses of the genre. And stuff like that. And then maybe something about the intentionality of the author can be discussed.

 

But I don’t mean to completely dismiss ideas of what makes things good. I feel I know good writing when I read it, but I’m not convinced that I know all the good writing when I read it or that your good writing is necessarily my good writing. Etc.

 

EC: In “Reading” in Poets on Teaching: A Sourcebook, Lisa Jarnot talks about her resignation from a teaching post at Brooklyn College’s MFA as “part of a decision to stop contributing to a system that seems to me to do more harm than good.” Can you talk specifically about your decision to remain part of the MFA system? What positive contributions do you see the MFA system making to the craft and careers of young writers?

 

JS: I have so many mixed emotions about this MFA discussion. It keeps coming up. And I’ve had several long discussions with Joan Retallack and Connie Vosine and Jill Magi about the MFA on email recently. One of my hesitations is that much of this discussion is so focused on the MFA as the problem and then tends to oddly avoid some of the larger questions around higher education and its role in maintaining and intensifying class divides. So parts of the critique of the MFA feel diversionary in that they keep missing the really large problems with the education factory in general. I’ve said this before, but I don’t think there is necessarily something bad about twelve people around a table talking about their own work (and at moments the work of other poets). It can, of course, be a mundane and boring practice but I do not think that it will destroy US literature as we know it. Nor will it destroy the brains of those who do it. Literature is much larger and more complicated than that and the MFA is not strong enough to do that sort of damage.

 

I love people who have the guts to quit their jobs. I have neither the guts nor the cunning. And if I had to answer mundanely, I would say that I remain a part of the MFA system because I have for years attempted to get a job as a critic, which is what I trained to be and what I feel most comfortable as institutionally, and have not been able to pull it off. I stay in my job because it pays me money and because most of the time it keeps me interested (and part of my interest in my job is in attempting to understand the economic forces that are so dramatically reshaping it in this moment). None of this though means that I get to pretend that teaching in an MFA is an innocent job. Nor do I get to absurdly assert that it is a form of political activism. I also, though, am not convinced that anyone needs to keep themselves pure from the MFA. Of all the ways I contribute to a system that does more harm than good, I’d probably put teaching in the MFA system as one of my lesser evils. Below eating meat.

 

At the same time, there is much that I do not like about educational institutions in the US right now. The MFA is a pay to play degree. Some pay with labor (teaching classes). Some pay with student loans. Some pay with cash. Like many aspects of contemporary life, it is never going to be innocent of these economics. And these economics are going to shape it in various ways. Although the MFA is not (yet) a significant part of the for-profit educational sector, it is a degree that tuition driven colleges and universities tend to support because it brings in tuition dollars. Which means that is a degree created on the backs of student loans. And there are many reasons to be suspicious of student loans.

 

And yet, at the same time, no one makes anyone get an MFA. There have been a million articles now in Poets & Writers about how the MFA does not guarantee meaningful employment, how it is basically a luxury degree. Often the critique of the MFA assumes this poor stupid consumer. And it is probably worth remembering sometimes that those that pay to get an MFA, whether through labor or with cash or with loans, are not necessarily stupid. They might just be people who are forced into making less than ideal choices to engage with an educational system that does not well represent their interests because they live in a capitalist society which provides next to no support for any sort of intellectual life.  

 

That said, there are these obvious things about the MFA. We know it is a degree given by institutions of higher education and so it is going to be shaped by the certain hierarchies and counter-utopian processes that define higher education in general. It will always have a community that was determined by who is willing to show up and pay in some way for a few years. Its community will not be long term. Admissions will never be determined by the community that pays to enter it but will be determined by those hired by the college or university. Those who enter the community will have a limited impact on who gets hired and on the future concerns of the community. These are all significant limitations.

 

And despite some of these limitations, there are also interesting other possibilities. The community has the opportunity (and where I teach now this is true but I realize it is not true at all places) to be more racially, ethnically, sexually, and economically diverse than the friendship communities that so defined literary movements of previous centuries like the New York school or the Beats or Language writing... People with complicated schedules might wander in. People with various accessibility issues. (This one is one of the most interesting to me; I rarely see people in wheelchairs at community poetry readings which are often held in less than accessible locations and yet I regularly work with students who use wheelchairs.) People with children. Etc.

 

I think what I’m trying to say here is that it often feels as if this discussion has very little nuance. And doesn’t question much what is useful or worth keeping about various sorts of educational factories. And also doesn’t leave room for critique of more community organized forms of education which are also full of counter-utopian impulses.  

 

But none of this means to dismiss the sometimes heroic efforts of poets who support the genre without being paid by an institution of higher learning. This work is so crucial. The way that poets love to self-educate, love to educate, love to free skool, love to reading group, means that there are a lot of opportunities for people who decide they do not want to get an MFA. I understand Jarnot’s desire to put her energy there. And it is the right move.

 

EC: What, in your opinion, is an “ideal” MFA curriculum for a three-year program? (Jarnot’s follows, for your reference…)

 

JS: I loved the Jarnot program when I saw it. And I wish she would teach it. I would love to enroll in it. I admire her confidence.

 

My only hesitation about her curriculum, and I’ve talked some with Joan Retallack who has a similar “vocational training” idea: I think it is a nice idea but I worry that poets who are teaching would not be really great at this sort of pedagogy. I’d also like to argue that education can be something frivolous and unrelated to vocational concerns and that should be ok also. The MFA makes me most nervous when it claims to be a teaching credential. It makes me least nervous when I think of it as a short period of time in which people can get out of their cubicle and read some books and learn some shit in a way that their parents and grandparents see as aspirational rather than lazy.

 

Here is my attempt to do something that is based on Jarnot’s ideas and in dialogue with hers and yet with my idiosyncratic concerns:

   

 

THREE YEAR PROGRAM

 

Ideally, the program will enroll a total of thirty students with six faculty. One administrator will be hired. Faculty and administrator will be paid equally. Tuition rates will be set by faculty after studying the financial situation of the admitted class. (Admissions, however, will be need blind.)

 

Each year, there will be a M/W/F lecture-based seminar literature class that will be taught by various faculty. And a T/Th presentation of student work class. All faculty and students will be in attendance for all the classes.

 

At beginning of each year, each student will develop with one faculty member an individualized course of study that includes fifty-two books. All reading lists will be published after they are finalized. Students will support each other in their reading, meeting in small groups as they desire and as their reading overlaps. At end of year, each student will have a discussion with the all faculty committee on their work and their reading.

 

Students will do fieldwork in their second year. There will be a class to support the fieldwork that will be attended only by second-year students. Fall semester will be fieldwork preparation. It will include things like the study of pedagogical theory, especially its liberation traditions, guest lectures about the ethics and problematics of various “service learning” models, study of literary magazines and reading series and publishing series and their role in presenting and cultivating various literary traditions. At end of class, students will present fieldwork projects that they will undertake in the spring semester. Projects could have a pedagogical focus (such as teaching a free skool somewhere) or a “relational aesthetic” focus or an editorial focus (a reading series, a journal, a press, a website, etc.). These will be critiqued and developed through classroom discussion. In the spring semester, the class will provide support for students as they work on their projects.

 

Students will present a manuscript to the faculty at the end of their third year.

 

Successful student progress will be determined by the faculty at the end of the year meeting. Students whose manuscript is found to be deficient may enroll in another year to finish their manuscript. They will not be required to attend the M/W/F classes but will be required to attend the T/Th presentations of creative work.

 

 

ROTATION FOR THE M/W/F LITERATURE SEMINARS…

 

YEAR ONE, Fall and Spring: Historical overview of poetry focused on national traditions.

 

Diversity of locations and continental coverage required but specific locations depend on faculty interest/expertise and also availability of guest speakers. Care should be taken to split the areas of study between the literary traditions of colonial nations and colonized nations. Each history should begin with pre-literate literary traditions. Faculty will share responsibilities for teaching this course.

 

YEAR TWO, Fall, M/W/F: Study of poetry’s role or non-role in various resistance movements.

 

Focused attention on the Paris commune, the Situationists, Nicaragua, movement poetries of South Africa, and various cultural/identity resistance movements in the US. Faculty will share responsibilities for teaching this course.

 

YEAR TWO, Spring, M/W/F: Contemporary poetry in English and in translation.

 

Focus dependent on faculty interest and expertise but attention should be paid to aesthetic and cultural range. This course should be considered as adjacent to the fall M/W/F course and should be in dialogue with it even as it should take care to cover poetries that might see themselves as oppositional to what is conventionally called “political poetry.” Faculty will share responsibilities for teaching this course.

 

YEAR THREE, Fall and Spring, Study of individual books.

 

Class will study individual works. One book every two weeks. Books to study will be determined by faculty expertise and interest. This class will rotate among faculty at two- week intervals. Faculty will meet together to determine the book list prior to this year. Faculty will share responsibilities for teaching this course.

 

 

 

 

copyright © Juliana Spahr & Emily Carr