Thursday, July 30, 2009

Moving = Blerg

Saturday I face my third major move in three years. I am upgraded to pro status. The trailer hitch is installed. The stuff has been pared and pared and pared down. The cat valium has been drawn and quartered.

There’s no help for the moving sadness though. It took me a year but as I’ve said goodbye to people this past week, I realized I had more friends, and I’d settled in more than I thought. Some of Nola I can take with me. Peychaud’s bitters, Camellia beans, Crystal hot sauce and an oil barrel-sized Tony’s. Against moving wisdom I’m hauling a tub of Mardi Gras loot. (Need sparkle pretties).

Here’s some of what I can’t pack:

1. My local grocery, Zara’s on Prytania. Many times, as a writer/online teacher, Zara’s was my only outing of the day. It never disappointed. The wall of gumbo, 23 brands of hot sauce, all parts of the pig, King Cakes, Creole tomatoes, Zapp's. And most important, standing in line to cash out which leads to…

2. Random conversations with Louisianans at the store, at bars, on the street, at the bank...

3. Tropical flowers. Courtyards.

4. Parade!

5. The rattle of streetcars on St. Charles. I can only hear them in my apartment during the wee hours, when traffic is low and they can speed.

6. Candy-colored shot gun houses.

7. Evening walks. Last night I was so close to a new kitten. It seemed every palmetto shrub housed a litter of fuzzies. I was strong and did not put any in my pocket. But it hurt. Every time one jumped out, I wanted to name it for a cross street. Marengo. Delachaise. General Taylor. Antonine.

8. Playing shows at the Hi Ho Lounge and Checkpoint Charlie’s and Whisky Dix. Late night drinkies with my bandmates where we, through the help of Absinthe, solve the world’s problems.

9. My writers’ group, which I found through the improbable source of Craigslist.

10. Poolside cocktails on balmy nights with the Gulf breeze that makes everything feel possible.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Nola Writer Wins A Room of Her Own

I confess the phase"Gift of Freedom" strikes me as unfortunate, rather like ad copy for a maxi pad. But hey, for $50,000, pass the Diva Cup. For those who don't know, the Gift is a grant based on the Woolf principle that every women needs a room of her own. Rooms require cash.

One hard adjustment, Post MFA, is losing this instant community of writers gathered together for a purpose. I moved to Nola so that I could meet writers, thinking that given the history writers would be here. They are, and I have met quite a few. Although without the MFA structure it's kind of like corraling fleas.

Barb Johnson is a Nola writer I never met. She seems cool though.

I'm almost applied for this grant last fall. I thought as a 40 year old with 22 years of restaurant experience, I might qualify for that romantic vision — Woman of a Certain Age Pursues Dream. I'm glad now, reading Johnson's bio, that I didn't bother. She runs an all woman construction crew rebuilding homes here in Nola. And she can write. She made the ever-awkward statement of purpose pretty.

Yay! Women writers over 40 are no longer Bronte shut-ins coughing blood into lace hankies.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Immediate impression of tonight's Myopic poetry series

Tonight two duos of traveling poets read in the back of what is usually the spacious front of the second floor at Myopic bookstore. That is, I mean the poets & crowd were relocated to the back, by the cooking & gardening sections (incl. "nature" and "essays" and someone was leafing through a belly dancing book that must have gone rogue on these misclassified shelves. And next to 1,000 Cookie Recipes was an owner's manual for manic depression). First duo: Farrah Field & Jared S. White. Second duo: Maxine Chernoff, Paul Hoover. All poets were haloed by two notable "feature" gardening books, displayed on the loping shelves, cover forward. The Plague of Frogs and Purple Thumbs. I admired Field's ability to not wrestle the binder clip off her stack of poems as she turned the page, one handed, with microphone in the one paper-flipping hand. I would have thrown it across the room (the binder clip) had it been me, but it contained her pages nicely. Her poems reflected a person motivated by the interior of a vehicle as a mirror for framing what passes/goes on/goes by outside a vehicle. White had nearly marginless but carefully double-spaced prose. To make, at the sound of it, what did not sound like prose poems. The poems had neither line breaks, stanza breaks nor--as I've said--margins. Squished right to the very "tops" of each side of the paper--.5 inches away from falling right off the paper. Carefully plumbed the depths of particular handling of curious objects. Chernoff's theme poems demonstrated/believed that to remove words from the page, revealing a skeleton outline, provided more depth, more relief. Hoover used writing prompts taken from a famous writing-prompt giving group who I should know, but don't recall knowing and can't recall what was told to me just this evening. Some samples...
n+7: incorporate a noun into a poem, then locate this chosen noun in the dictionary. Follow this with six more nouns that follow your first word in the dictionary, in order.
jingle: self-explanatory
course description: Hoover prefaced this poem by rhetorically asking the audience "so you all went to college (?)" Write a poem as a course description
haikuization: make a longer poem into a haiku, haiku yourself, or someone else('s poem)

Neither Chernoff nor Hoover mentioned flarf. So I mention it to you. Here it is. Beyond the sentiment here, what I like about this article is the opening bit about our technology crazy! world, what with facebook, twitter, etc. Then, here marches the careful deliberations of two poets challenging and embracing the landscape of electronic everything...Finally, at the very end of the article, the writer's plug to catch him by email or follow him on, yes, twitter.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Hitting the Highlights, Vilnius Style

The big stuff, so far:

  • Canadian embassy reception at the Vilnius Novotel. Dressed up writers eating canapes is pretty much the same anywhere in the world.
  • Poetry workshop with Peter Cole. Instead of sitting there silently while other people comment on our work, we are asked to guide the workshop through our thought processes. As Peter says, the chinese character for sincerity is literally a man standing beside his word. So we have to stand up for our words, if we can. It is disconcerting. Soul-ripping, actually. Like drinking self-doubt from a can.
  • Travel writing workshop with Laima Vince. Next Friday, we get to go to the KGB Museum, which is housed in the old cells where the KGB used to interrogate prisoners. The guides/docents at the museum used to be former prisoners, but now said former prisoners have retired and passed on their stories to young historians who guide tour groups and answer questions.
  • Tomorrow, Trakei Castle.
  • Tonight, Lithuania's version of Mexican food.
  • Rain. When it's not raining, it's threatening rain. Sun is a ruse that hides the rain until it is upon you. All is puddles and ringworm fear. Yesterday, a bus drove through the flooded gutter just to splash us. And succeeded. Extravagantly.
  • Then there was the toddler at the beer garden, picking receipts up from the ground and holding them up so his mother could light them with her cigarette. Apparently it's OK to play with fire here if your mother lights it for you.

Montana MFA Proves Faculty Jobs Can Happen

I saw through the New Pages blog that California State University, San Bernardino, has a new MFA prog (inaugural class this fall). I went to go check it out, since a friend of mine is putting in apps this year.

Lo, on the faculty page, I saw the name Glen Hirshberg, Montana MFA. I have never met Glen Hirshberg, or ever heard of him before, but it's nice to see people from my alma mater doing well.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Breakfast in Vilnius and other issues

I can't stomach sweetness in the morning. When I wake up, I crave salt. This urge is especially strong here in Vilnius, perhaps because when I wake up here it's dinner time at home.

In the mornings I've been visiting a local bakery on my way to the Institute, where our workshops are held. In addition to the dozens of sugary pastries that turn my stomach before noon, there is a small case of savory selections set to the side of the register as if for me. There are kibinas, football-shaped wads of buttery dough filled with ground meat that is seasoned with onions. These are my favorite. There are also the bandele su farsu, bread rounds that are topped with sesame seeds and have scalloped edges pressed together to encase similarly seasoned meat and shredded carrot. The shell of it tastes like a slightly sweet soft pretzel. I choose the bandele for mostly aesthetic reasons, or on days when there are no kibinas to be had.

The proprietess of this particular shop is as much of a draw as her carb-loaded offerings. A smiling blonde woman, she knows no English but is single-handedly responsible for every Lithuanian word I know. Aciu being the thanks I give for her patience with my ignorant, monolinguistic American ways. Supienu being the milk she suggests I take with her no-nonsense kava. Kava being a word that speaks for itself. Like a kindergarten teacher, whe emphasizes these words as she uses them with gestures and slow enunciation so I can pick them up.

On Wednesday, my blonde angel of the morning was sadly away, replaced by a surly younger brunette who clearly hated me. Especially hungry, I ordered two kibinas and a kava supienu. As I chose a place to sit on the small patio outside, I bit into my first kibinas only to find the normally brown meat a sickly shade of pink. I ate it anyway because I was hungry and did not want to confront the surly brunette imposter. I began my second kibinas and found the meat inside bright red. Visions of an unending night on the wet floor of the dormitory's tiled and reeking washroom danced before me. The washroom with open and rusting pipework. The washroom with only one working stall (out of four). If the food-borne illness didn't kill me, the tetanus surely would.

I threw the suspect food in the trash. Lesson learned: Beware the surly brunette and her meats.

Forthcoming: Getting e-mail rejections from litmags while abroad, workshop stories, and a visit or two to Antakalnis Cemetery.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Independent Bookstores: They Still Exist

"It feels like a giant bookstore with all the bullshit cut out, leaving just the good stuff."

Hey Seattle residents: My MFA friend's brother's girlfriend just opened Pilot Books, a bookstore dedicated to small press titles. Imagine browsing free from the sight of book covers that make you seriously question the validity of human existence.

Location: upstairs in the pedestrian mall at 219 Broadway East.

Link to article in The Stranger here.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

How Much Further, Papa Smurf?

Countries visited in the past 42 hours: 3--4 if you count my country of origin

Number of sloppy, wet meltdowns in the past 42 hours: 2

Number of hours of travel left to final destination: 6, by bus, after a 5-hour wait in the Tallinn bus station, Estonia

Number of meltdowns building as I type this because I can't figure out how to make parentheses with this keypad: at least 6

Number of fiancee's thrown into the Gulf of Finland: none yet

Number of beers in the past 42 hours: < 1 so far, which may account for the increased meltdown incidence on this trip.

Lessons learned:
  • I'm not as patient in the face of discomfort as I was when I was 22, which is the last time I took such an ill-planned trip to Europe.
  • Moomins are cute. I want one.
  • A Trina without beer is no Trina I want to know.
  • Vilnius is not an easy city to find. It's kind of like that room in Hogwarts that only shows up when someone really needs it. There are, like, no trains or buses or planes that go there. Apparently, I don't need Vilnius enough yet.
  • Maybe cruises aren't so bad. Sure, the food's bland, and the ports are touristy, and your companions are old and afraid...but you always have a room waiting for you, and you don't have to lug around your luggage, and pretty much everything is paid for already, and you don't have to use maps if you don't want to. And there's a pool, right. God, I'd love a pool right now.

About ten minutes ago, I was pretty sure I was willing to pay any price to just go home and forget this ever happened. Now I've had a quarter of a beer and the Internet cafe has lulled me into a calmer place with the dulcet tones of Phil Collins. Nothing can put things into perspective like a P.C. drum fill. Tomorrow is another day and, god willing, it will find me in Vilnius.

I haven't had a chance yet to look over my workshop materials. I know that I'm up first, but beyond that, I'm completely unprepared. I'd like to think that I'll catch up on the bus tonight, but, if past experience holds true, I'll be passed out and drooling on Doug's shoulder about five minutes after the bus pulls out of the station.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Only in New Orleans

When I marched in the MJ second line, I took a picture. A man, assuming I was a tourist shouted, “Only in New Orleans, darlin!” Next to me a woman gushed, “Oh my God, I love it here. I’m moving here. This place is so much better than New Jersey!” She had the Nola fever.

True, amazing events like an MJ second line are only in New Orleans. It’s a crazy, wonderful place. Sometimes though, it’s just crazy.

The weather forecast this week is thunderstorms. A break from the heat is nice, but while New Orleans might be celebrated for its food, music, and diverse culture, the drainage system is lousy. My car flooded this spring because of a rainstorm (Not hurricane. Not tropical storm. Just heavy rain.) A thousand dollars later my Camry was bleached for mold and the wiring under the carpet painted gold to prevent rust. My neighbor’s car was RIP. I was lucky that the engine and transmission did take in water.

I confess when my mother first said she would give me her Camry I was grateful but not excited. A silver VW Golf hatchback would have excited me. Or a Prius. Camrys don’t handle exactly, nor are they sexy. But after driving one for three years, can I just say:

Camry you have taken me out West. You have retraced the journey of Laura Ingalls Wilder. You have spun out on an icy mountain overpass and kept me safe. You have towed a U Haul trailer across the country with a 4 cylnider engine. You did not run out of gas nor falter when I evacuated for Gustav.

Mucho respecto, Camry.

I need my car to move in two weeks. I need my car to get me through grad school. And this poor, much abused, lion-hearted Camry deserves better than a watery death.

My street floods. My surrounding streets flood. Unless you have elevated parking, your car will flood. People tow from their elevated parking spots or keep them gated. Their water gushes down on my street. My landlord offered elevated parking a mile away. But it’s really no fun to walk a mile in torrential downpour.

My courtyard also floods. I arrived sopping at my house, to find six inches of water. To get to my apartment, I took off my shoes and waded through what looked like a cholera pool. I prayed I would not step on a drowned rat. I believe I already mentioned the torrential downpour. Right before I get to my door, a banana bunch cracks off a neighbor’s tree and drops on my head.


That night, after a long day of writing and grading papers, I’m ready to relax with a glass of wine and Season Four Weeds. But my landlord sprayed the courtyard that morning, before the rain. Going to open the wine, I heard clicky-clacky scuttling noises. Bad feeling followed. I flipped on the light. My kitchen looked as though it had been redecorated in cockroach wallpaper.

Yeah, I freaking freaked out. I hate nasty chemicals but I busted out the Raid in one hand and wielded my roach shoe (the one I keep handy for murder) in the other. I had this bizarre personality takeover. As if I were in The Matrix and just downloaded “Roach Ninja.” It was like watching this other person at work. I’m pretty sure there was a great deal of screaming and yelling involved. And then a roll of paper towels and Clorox.

Thus concludes my bad day story. Thank you.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

New Orleans, I'll Miss You

My lease ends in two weeks here at 1521 St Andrew in the Lower Garden District. That means a year has passed since I plopped on Anne Marie’s doorstep, soaking sweaty-wet, having dragged a trailer 2,285 miles from Montana, two spitting cats in the back seat.

The cats and I have returned, full circle to the The Moviegoer malaise days of summer. We are back to collapsed on the floor, panting and boneless. Mardi Gras beads droop in the trees. My tiny tropical courtyard, what functioned as fall/winter/spring adjunct office, is once again an uninhabitable mosquito fest.

July and August in New Orleans are the January and February of Montana — it’s best to hole up and wait for better times. For now life is hot weather hibernation, a slowing of the metabolism and mind. I wish I had a pool. Growing. Sleepy.

The end my time, of course, inspires reflection. Writers can’t help but want to describe New Orleans. We try and we try. One of the best reads of my past year was the Oxford American post-Katrina edition. Capturing New Orleans as a whole is impossible. The OA was wise in that it abandoned that doomed approach, and let each writer tackle a specific.

I certainly don’t feel up to the task of taking on Faulkner, Warren, Percy, or Toole.

In these situations it's best to quote Welty. I underlined this passage from One Writer's Beginnings two years ago.

“I’ve never resisted it when, in almost every story I ever wrote some parade or procession, impromptu or ceremonious, comic or mocking or funereal, has risen up to mark some stage of the story’s unfolding.”

Monday, July 13, 2009

Dialogue and character/setting tips from WWE

World Wrestling Foundation's entertainment division, WWE, can be counted on for high budget B-movie magic. 12 Rounds (#1 in the most-rented wall at Blockbuster, I'll have you know) features a flannel-clad, pug loving character played by professional wrestler John Cena. Things you can learn from 12 Rounds, useful for writing, are as follows:

1. FBI Agent with a trouble past must always carry a matchbox car. Nervous twitch: flipping car hood back and forth to remember the past and assuage the guilt over lost comrades/sting gone bad.
2. Preferred dog breed to escape explosion of home which claims the lives of unwitting plumber who arrived to fix the gasket man-of-the-house promised to fix but didn't citing money troubles: Pug
3. Preferred New Orleans hotel to stage elevator explosion caused by tampering from a rogue air conditioning maintenance person who was really bad guy: Hotel Monteleone

I ask myself why be a poet, obscuring up the place, when all you need are direct proclamations to convey urgency/surprise/dismay/anger? Why be a poet when dialogue--direct and clearly enunciated--can provide all the cues necessary for proper (re)action:

1. "I can't stop the train!" Streetcar operator upon learning streetcar's break lines were cut as the car barrels toward street festival.
2. "Get out of the way!" John Cena's response to people in the way of said streetcar.
3. "He played me all along!" Cena's response to realization that, regardless of his choice of multiple paths in each round, the bad guy would have killed those people/blown up that building/stolen all that money.
4. "You sonofabitch!" Angry John Cena outburst directed toward well-intentioned but reckless-choice-making, matchbox-car-toting FBI agent following the near explosion of bomb strapped to beloved's chest.

Fiction and Nonfiction

A friend of mine reports that her university paid Junot Diaz a fat sum to cruise up, read, curse like a madman, eat lunch, reap the worship, and split.

Can we say, dream job?

I would like to be Junot Diaz. His website opens to a simple flash of words — The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao — and a quote from Michiko Kakutani proclaiming him one of “contemporary fiction’s most distinctive and irresistible new voices.”

A member of my Nola writers group forwarded this 2008 Boston Review fiction contest winner as the lagniappe, a published story we read each week in addition to our own work. While Diaz is the fiction editor of BR, Chris Abani judged the contest.

I had two long paragraphs that I wrote but I'm not even going to post. Just go read the story, and then, read the comments after the story.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Wave Books Poetry Weekend and other stuff

Received from Wave Books:

Dear Friends, Hello to you all. We are writing to you with an update about the Wave Books three-day poetry event, this coming August. We've receivedenthusiastic responses, both from people who have confirmed their attendance, and also from some of you who are excited to attend, butare finding yourselves unable to afford the current price. We want tomake it possible for as many of our readers and supporters to attend,so we are reducing the price, and have added an additional option forattending: We are REDUCING THE PRICE OF THE EVENT PASSES to $75 ($50 students).The passes will get you into all of the readings, the filmscreenings, book arts presentation, with access to the Henry ArtGallery and exhibitions. The pass also grants you local bookstorediscounts, and includes a welcome packet with additional informationand materials. We are also offering a FULL SCHOLARSHIP to 10 people who would beotherwise unable to attend, and who can confirm they will be inattendance for all three days. Through the generosity of a donor, weare able to offer 10 Full Scholarships, which include all of thebenefits and materials for a regular Event Pass. We are hoping thatthese Scholarships will make it possible for those who cannototherwise attend to be there for the entire weekend. Please email usat, and let us know a little bit aboutyourselves. Act soon, as this offer will disappear quickly. Please let us know if you have any questions at all. You can reach usat, or visit the Wave website at We greatly appreciate your interest, and we look forward to seeing you here in Seattle this August! Sincerely, Wave Books 1938 Fairview Avenue East, Suite 201 Seattle, Washington 98102


Dear Friends & Neighbors,

Hello to you all. This is Brandon Shimoda, writing from Wave Books --

I am writing with additional news regarding Wave's three-day poetry event, this coming August at the Henry Art Gallery. By now you should have received an update from us, with the news of the reduction in event ticket price. In case you have not, tickets are now available for $75 ($50 student rate) ( In addition, we are going to be offering a limited number of Day Passes. Day Passes will be available locally (only), for $25, and for those individuals who are only able to attend single days. Day Passes will be available for Friday and Saturday only; there will be no passes available for Sunday events.


So, if you're in the Pacific Northwest and have the inclination, you should go.

In other news, I'm headed to Vilnius next week with Summer Literary Seminars. I hope to blog the experience, but in this life there are no guarantees.

In still other news, poems are up here and here. The latter includes audio! Whee! The wonders of the Internet!

Speaking of which, I love me some online journals. Say what you will about them, they reach a greater audience than print journals, which usually have a circulation of no more than 2,000-3,000. In addition, there are so many possibilities for visually and aurally presenting your work. And there's no paper involved! No USPS (Have I mentioned my bright-burning, undying hatred of the USPS lately? The fuckers still haven't figured out how to forward my mail the 1.5 miles between Ballard and Fremont and It's been over a month since I moved. Fuckers)! Downsides: no money (which is also an upside, since readers don't have to pay to read), excessively long acceptance-to-publication waits, and the possibility of the journal folding overnight (which, given the state of the economy, is as much of a danger with print these days).

Montana MFA Faculty News: Kevin Canty

It’s no exaggeration to say Kevin Canty transformed my fiction. I’m not saying that I’m a genius now, but if you saw what I was writing before — well, you would understand. Spring semester of 07 was a transformative, if horribly painful molting that involved multiple nights of tossing, turning and hand wringing. But at the end I was a better writer.

It’s also no exaggeration to say that Kevin is one of the best short story writers working today. Maybe I’m biased but I don’t believe so. I can like you as a person but not like your writing.

I like Kevin as a writer and as a person and he has a new collection out, Where the Money Went. I’m waiting until I move to order it, so that it will arrive at my house, but I have heard two of these stories at readings and I loved them. KC has this amazing way of creating stories that feel effortless even as you are transported to this familiar, yet alternate universe.

And he’s great reader.

If you have a chance to attend these readings, do it.

I already missed the plug boat for New York City, July 8, at Joe's Pub, but apparently it was sold out anyway.


July 14: Shakespeare & Co., Missoula,
August 4: Elliot Bay Book Co., Seattle
August 6: Powell's on Hawthorne, Portland

Here’s where Elle recommends Kevin as summer reading.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Try Us Again (More on Lit Mag Rejection)

There is a sad thread in the Poets & Writers Speakeasy labeled “Encouraging" Rejections? I am naturally drawn to sadness so I like to read it. Maybe it's the quotation marks that get me. Or the question mark. One thing is for sure – sometimes it's hard to tell if a rejection is also encouragement to resubmit, or if the lit mag is Just Not That Into You.

For example, Crazyhorse:

We are sorry this particular manuscript (with emphasis on "this particular") was not selected for publication in Crazyhorse. We hope you will send us another soon, though.

Could they mean? Do they? But then…

We could not publish Crazyhorse without the fine writing we receive.

Meaning the editors didn’t notice anything especially fine about my writing in particular, they simply need “writing.”

C. Michael Curtis, long-standing fiction editor of The Atlantic Monthly, has a great essay How to Read Rejection. Among topics such as why-cutsey-cover-letters-brand-you-amateur, he discusses how editors must sacrifice kid gloves for the sake of clarity, because there’s deluded psychos out there. The Atlantic Monthly apparently had to stop typesetting their rejection letters in italics, because people read too much into it.

Curtis confirms that encouraging rejections are legit. Traditionally, these have manifested as a handwritten postscript. Now there’s this new trend, the encouraging rejection form letter. The Speakeasy Forum has determined AGNI sends these. Maybe this development has to do with the oft-discussed “MFA proliferation,” meaning there’s more work circulating that shows promise, but isn't quite seasoned. At Cutbank. we debated adding the "try us again" form letter to our repertoire. Having read for a lit mag I can vouch there is a huge difference between the "no way" and the "not bad" pile. Although it seems to me if you can’t be bothered to write a short note, then the work can’t have been that compelling.

Last week I received two encouraging rejections, one Xeroxed and one handwritten. My gut reaction to the form letter was that I would submit the same piece somewhere else, but not resubmit a different story to that lit mag. The handwritten, of course, will recieve another story stat.

Friday, July 3, 2009

On Lit Mag Rejection

We of the 3 P's have pledged to relate our post MFA travails in uncensored glory. In the interest of keeping this promise I will not wait until I’m published to post, but shall reveal the soft white underbelly of rejection.

The second fiction story I ever wrote I naively submitted to The Mid-American Review contest. A few months later, I got a note! (They are kind about that there). The note told me I made the top eight. Eight was underscored to emphasize this achievement. Not bad for a fledgling attempt. I was pretty excited and figured my submission life was on its way. Fire a story off. Send it out. With a few more tries, get published.

You see what's coming. You’re smart.

In the past year I have managed to make lit mag submissions/rejection a part of my routine. Every so often I sit down, pick a story or essay and shove a few copies in brown envelopes. This is the Post MFA life — generate new work, revise old work, send out work. Pray that someday editors and agents will enter the mix.

I fly to the mailbox everyday dreading (yet strangely hoping, why?) for an envelope with my handwriting on the front. Experience has taught me people email when they want you. I personally have never received an acceptance in the mail. Still I check that box like a mother waiting for news from her son at war. Even if he's dead I have to know.

Many of us Montana MFAs have racked up pubs in top lit mags this past year, which is encouraging. It’s nice to think we didn’t spend two years in a deluded la la land, playing artist, which sometimes (quite honestly) is exactly what the MFA feels like. An MFA acceptance is this happy/dizzy/hurrah! moment. You have been noticed as possessing Talent. But in the end, sharing cocktails with published writers you admire is not same as being one of those writers yourself. Graduation looms. The sinking pit of dread creeps. Nobody wants to be the girl who cried writer.

I still enter The Mid-American Review contest every year for sentimental reasons (plus it’s one of my favorite lit mags), but haven’t received a note since. Sniff. Someday TMR you will embrace me. Maybe I’m that girl you made out with once and years later she’s driving by your house, but often crumbs are exactly what we subsist upon.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

The Case Against the Master's Degree

The New York Times has opened up a space for "debate" over the worth of graduate education. The discussion is pretty heavy on the con side. Some pertinent excerpts:

"Not all degrees are equal — a master’s in anthropology or art probably has less incremental earning power than a M.B.A. or advanced engineering degree." --Richard Vedder, director of the Center of College Affordability and Productivity and instructor of economics at Ohio University

"I have had too many students over the years who have gotten masters and even doctorates find themselves in debt big time, unemployed and forced to start all over in their mid-30s. If you do find a program that will enhance your prospects for a job and better life, then before your enroll, you need to figure out how you are going to pay for it and, if you must borrow more money, whether you can really afford to take on additional debt."

"One of the dirty secrets of many research universities is that they treat master’s students as cash cows that fund other activities. To make matters worse, with many faculty members uninterested in teaching, students cannot assume they will get what they are paying for."

--Mark C. Taylor, chairman of the religion department at Columbia University

"The M.A. degree is neither fish nor fowl nor good red meat." --Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, president emeritus and professor of public services at the George Washington University

"In some fields, such as business or engineering, a graduate degree typically boosted income by more than enough to justify the cost. In others — the liberal arts and social sciences, in particular — master’s degrees didn’t appear to produce much if any earnings advantage." --Liz Pulliam Weston, author of “Easy Money,” “Your Credit Score” and “Deal with Your Debt.”

"I just finished my M.A. in the humanities, and am unable to find work teaching at a community college (which is what I had planned to do with this degree). Luckily I had a full fellowship, so I don’t have any loans to pay, but I’m back to where I was before I went to graduate school: jobless, broke, and wondering why I didn’t study business administration." --Serapli, from the comments


I have a master's degree in English from Western Washington University. I can't say for sure whether it has added to my cache in the job market. While I do have a job that I love (maybe "love" is a tad strong; revision: like OK most of the time) and that could be considered to be "in my field," I didn't get it because of my education. I got it through a friend. Most of the skills I use on a daily basis come from other jobs I've had in the past or are self-taught; I can't attribute them to my M.A. coursework per se. However, I did gain on-the-job, transferable skills like classroom instruction and nonprofit management (of a literary magazine) that inform my current work. In addition, my time at Western was (and continues to be) a great networking opportunity.

As for the cost, it ran me about $3,000 in loans. The rest was covered by my TA-ship. Was it worth it? Yes. Would it have been worth it had I paid for it out of pocket? Probably not. Given my current salary, there's no way I would be able to pay off the debt in anything close to a timely manner.

Certainly, there are other, non-monetary criteria for measuring the worth of an M.A. (or M.F.A.). I'd be interested in hearing about other standards for measure.

P is for PhD!

When terminal isn't terminal enough —

Two more 2008 Montana MFAs shall join me in the doctoral quest this fall:

Youna Kwak: French Literature at NYU

Catherine Moore: Media, Art & Text at VCU

Congrats, friends!