Guest Blog Posts

Making Your Way in Poetry without an MFA–guest blog post by Sonja Johanson

My first morning at Bread Loaf, our workshop leader asked if everyone was familiar with the Iowa workshop model. I raised my hand. "I've never taken any kind writing class or workshop in my life, so you can safely assume you need to explain everything to me."

She double checked. "Nothing? Never?"

"Never." I confirmed. I'd gone to school for ecology, and wrote well enough to get fine grades on my papers, so I'd never taken a writing class. Since I didn't know how this workshop business was done, I figured I would take the fall for anyone else who was new at it. I'd been teaching (horticulture, not writing) long enough to know that whatever question I had, someone else in the group surely had it also. As it turned out, I wasn't alone; two other members of my workshop group were self-taught. They perhaps had more class or workshop experience than I did, but they too were journeyman writers. In these days when nearly every small college has a low res MFA program (not to mention conventional MFA programs, MAs, and PhDs), it can feel as if you are the only one out there who is winging it. Open the back pages of any literary journal, and most of the writer bios list which program the contributors have attended, or are currently attending. It seems a little preposterous, the idea of just writing, apropos of nothing more than falling in love with other people across the page. But we do it. We are the hedge knights of poetry, rolling out from under the privet, brushing the leaves and twigs out of our hair, and offering to take up the cause. We make do with our second-hand horses, our noble intent, our cobbled-together armour, and darned if some of us can't wield a sword.

sonjaIt's not that most of us wouldn't love to get an MFA–we would. We'd love to spend our time writing, meeting poets whose work we adore, developing a cohort of peers, and learning what a bright line metaphor is. But life happens, and maybe we just can't afford the MFA, or we can't manage the time off even for a low res program, or we cannot pick up and move our spouses and children in order to attend a funded program. Maybe we started a program but couldn't afford to finish, or we did the math (some writers can actually do that) and understand that there is no way we're ever going to make that money back. Maybe we did our research and found that we need craft classes more than workshops, and many MFAs don't offer a whole lot in terms of craft. Maybe we just came to poetry later in life, when our kids were older or our careers stable enough to allow us the kind of focus that writing can demand.

That's okay. There's more than one way to build a poet. For starters you should read widely, which is what moves each of us to become a poet in the first place. You can learn where your voice fits by perusing contemporary journals. Every small press and journal has a website, and on most of them you can see what their editors like to publish. You can take online classes - Al Filreis's Modern and Contemporary American Poetry out of UPenn is the definitive model for online learning, and an excellent introduction to modern poetic movements. You can join a local writers group, or you can find any number of them on Facebook, and other writers and editors will cheerfully offer you reams of guidance that would not have been readily accessible before the internet age. You can learn to read in public by going to open mics and poetry slams - the $3 cover charge at the Cantab in Cambridge, MA is the shortest money I've ever spent on a class. For $50 a year you can join Duotrope; the editor interviews tend to be non-specific and badly outdated, but the stats and weekly submission calls are useful and the tracking system is excellent. If you are fortunate enough to live close to a university which has creative writing craft classes, you might be able to get into those. If not, there are a plethora of writing programs all over the country which you can attend for a few days or a couple of weeks.  And write. Don't forget to write. It's a patchwork education, but it's what we've got.

We might have holes in our knowledge when it comes to literature, but we have life experiences that feed our writing and give us material to draw from. We are parents and teachers, lawyers and botanists, park rangers and exterminators. Reading through a journal several years ago, I saw that one of the poets lived in the same Massachusetts suburb that I did. A quick Google search revealed, to my astonishment, that my neighbor two doors down was a prolific poet. Paul isn't a professor, or an editor, he's a neighborhood dad, and he works as a sign language interpreter in Boston. That background informs his writing, and when I read it I can see parts of his world that I would not otherwise have access to. I can also easily imagine our little side street, a cranky neighbor, or the aisles in our local hardware store.

Hardware Store, Paul Hostovsky

I love the names. Of the hardware. A kind of
software that isn't for sale because it's all
free. It feels like I'm browsing the stacks
of a library of another country in
my country, with titles I have never read
but heard of: rasps, levels, squares, planes,
ceiling hooks, corner braces, removable
pin hinges. I would like to read more
about removable pin hinges. I sidle up
and down aisle 3, looking seriously
for a thing for my door, a thing I don't
know the word for. They have strike plates
for push button latches, and strike plates
for knob latches, are here are some door pivots
and swivel locks and keyed sash locks. A long-stem
heavy duty roller. A pair of torsion spring cables.
I wonder what this universal T handle is for.
I would ask the hardware store guy, but the thing is
I'm a guy myself, and I don't want him to know
I am hardware illiterate. So I continue my charade
of picking up each artifact, looking it over
thoughtfully, as though I knew the language,
as though I knew the landscape, as though
I weren't a stranger here myself.

Sometimes we feel shy about asking what a tool is for, or admitting that we don't know when it seems as if we ought to, but there's no need. Those of us who have chosen to become poets without the extra initials after our names are in excellent company. William Carlos Williams was a pediatrician, Wanda Coleman waited tables, Lorine Neidecker did research and proofreading, Wallace Stevens was an insurance salesman, and more recently, so was Ted Kooser. Self-taught poets are in the canon, in the library, and at workshop. We love words as much as anyone, and we're claiming a seat at the table.

Paul Hostovsky's "Hardware Store" can be found in his collection Naming Names, available from Main Street Rag Press.

–Originally published in The Best American Poetry blog, October 2016.

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120416-maybe-sonja-4Sonja Johanson has recent work appearing in BOAAT, Epiphany, and The Writer's Almanac.  She is a contributing editor at the Found Poetry Review, and the author of Impossible Dovetail (IDES, Silver Birch Press), all those ragged scars (Choose the Sword Press), and Trees in Our Dooryards (Redbird Chapbooks).  Sonja divides her time between work in Massachusetts and her home in the mountains of western Maine.

21 replies »

  1. Brava for this, Sonja. I don’t have an MFA but I’ve taken workshops (up to a week long) with Dorianne Laux, Carol Ann Duffy, Denise Duhamel, Tom Lux, Kevin Young, David Bottoms, and others. I run a critique group and an open mic. Let’s just say I’m a poetry junkie — I’m also a freelance business writer with an MA in music history and a love of any kind of writing. Oh yes, and Lux and Laux blurbed by full-length collection. I say all this not to brag, but to encourage others without MFAs — it can be done. Thank you for your intelligent article.

  2. Love this! Doing my submission challenge and reading so much poetry and seeing all the writer bios has been pretty intimidating and a bit discouraging for me. I would think “I’m just this little person who just started putting my work out there in my 30s with zero post high school education, why do I even think anyone would publish me?”

    I think part of the process also depends on how one defines “making your way” but definitely good to know that the MFA route is not the ONLY one. I like the term in the article “journeyman writer”… I think I am going to use that from now on! “Hedge knights of poetry” is awesome too! ^_^

  3. Always have been a little suspicious of the whole MFA route. Too ingrown, homogenous, it seems–self involved, self generating, the self same stuff. Everything workshopped to death. Academic and circumscribed, somewhat anemic. Probably my blue collar life showing, but I don’t trust someone who writes poetry “for a living” (and no one really does, they have to Teach it and run those workshops for MFA students, or they’d be waiting tables too.)

  4. Thanks for the article. I love writing poetry. I’ve taken a couple writing workshops locally, but haven’t gone beyond a BS in English Education.

    • Hi Mary! I have to confess that I understood the term instantly when I heard it (it’s the stand out metaphor in the piece – for instance, “hedge knights of poetry”). But I’d never heard it before, or even considered that certain metaphors really pop and run this risk of seeming gimmicky, even if they are not cliche. It made me wonder what other terms and ideas I am missing by being self-taught.

  5. I spent the day in an imaging center waiting on tests. To keep me sane I brought my copy of C.P. Cavafy’s Selected Poems. It seems Cavafy didn’t attend writers workshops. But I have! I hated every single one. Other than the possibility of meeting a few special friends, it was a waste of time and money. Reading other poets and talking to poets about poems has been the making of me as a poet. But those poems and poets have to be in my world and not in the rarified air of a workshop. Yet I know poets who have benefitted from participating in those workshops with particular conductors. Dare I mention Robert Hass! Yet even with my negative thoughts on the subject, I recommend every young poet to do a workshop if they ever get the chance. Don’t let wee nay sayers road bump you youngins. Ms. Sondra is a good role model for any poet. Listen to her.

  6. The untrained poet here. Loved the article. I am a History major with no training in creative writing and certainly no training in poetry, but I love to write and I am very serious about it. I am sometimes timid about submitting to journals and magazines with established poets with pedigrees, now maybe I will give them a chance.

    Wonderful article. Now I am going to go find some of your work and give it a read.

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