SEPTEMBER 20, 2015
1. American Poetry 2010–2015, A Brief Anecdotal History
AT THE RETHINKING POETICS conference in June 2010, we heard the literary critic Marjorie Perloff discuss Vanessa Place’s Statement of Facts. She said that the book was a real page-turner, and that it showed that the victims of rape are as bad or worse than the rapists. We can’t remember the gender composition of the room, but the audience that day was mostly white. Many people noticed that no one said anything in the moment. When one of us wrote about these remarks following the conference, Perloff chastised us for simplifying her position, which she qualified by referencing the “sheer evidence of the police reports and court documents” presented in Place’s book. Such documents, Perloff wrote, prove that “the culture of rape is largely a socio-economic problem”: in Los Angeles, it occurs “mostly among Latinos … in ‘families’ that live in terribly cramped conditions.” (The scare quotes are Perloff’s.)
At the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) conference in 2011, Claudia Rankine presented a talk on Tony Hoagland’s poem “The Change.” The narrator in Hoagland’s poem is watching tennis and “wanting / the white girl to come out on top, / because she was one of my kind, my tribe.” It describes Serena Williams as “so big and so black” with “some outrageous name like Vondella Aphrodite.” Rankine’s talk at AWP was generous. She discussed her own complicated response to Hoagland’s poem, and the many possible ways of reading it. She asked what it meant that Hoagland said his poem was “for white people.” Rankine’s talk ends like this: “My alertness, my openness, my desire to engage my colleague’s poem, my colleague’s words, actually demands my presence, my looking back at him. So here I am looking back, talking back and, as insane as it is, saying, please.” In response, Hoagland wrote a letter claiming that “The Change” is “racially complex” and not racist, and that white liberal apology is “not just boring but useless.” That one has to get dirty if one is going to talk about race. He writes, “I don’t believe in explaining my poems to other poets; they are part of my tribe, and I expect them to be resilient readers.” Hoagland’s recycling of the term “my tribe” — used by the racist narrator of “The Change” to describe white people — to describe his fellow poets is something that probably occurred to many of these readers.
On January 26, 2014, Anselm Berrigan, Dana Ward, and Lauren Shufran read at the Copula reading series. When Copula existed it was, notoriously, a mostly white and mostly male reading series. Later, Simone White wrote about that reading, about being “inexplicably drunk and frustrated by the impossible whiteness of the room I found myself in.”
At an AWP offsite reading in February 2014, Krystal Languell attended a reading where a male poet read a sonnet cycle at least twice as long as the other readers’ sets. In her report from the field, published on the VIDA website, Languell described how the “air in the gallery was thick with ‘father’s cock’” and how “Male Poet proclaimed: ‘I sucked her brown pussy’ ‘after three Molly,’ and followed this up with what can only be described as a thundersnow of jizz imagery.” We were not there so don’t know what the room looked like.
In the spring of 2015, Place, who had for years been tweeting passages from Gone with the Wind (intending, she claimed, to provoke the Margaret Mitchell estate to sue to protect Mitchell’s racist language), came under criticism for her presentation of this project. A petition to have her removed from an Association of Writers & Writing Programs committee drew 2,200 signatures; the AWP removed her. Place responded by saying she was “sorry for hurting people of color” but “not sorry for forcing white people to re-enact the soft comfort of individual denunciation.” She ended her statement with the claim that “This is a necessary cruelty, and I believe in necessary cruelties.” She was saying something that presumes a mainly white audience, a “tribe” of “resilient readers” very similar to Hoagland’s.
In April 2014, Junot Díaz published “MFA vs. POC,” an article about his experience in the MFA program at Cornell in the 1990s. Among his mostly white peers and instructors, Díaz noted, “Race was the unfortunate condition of nonwhite people that had nothing to do with white people and as such was not a natural part of the Universal of Literature, and anyone that tried to introduce racial consciousness to the Great (White) Universal of Literature would be seen as politicizing the Pure Art and betraying the (White) Universal (no race) ideal of True Literature.”
In April 2014, the Brooklyn Poetry Summit was held, modeled on the East Bay Poetry Summit with readings at Wendy’s Subway, BookThugNation, The Old American Can Factory, Unnameable Books, and Molasses Books. Again, a mainly white room, a mainly male room. Judah Rubin after the event:
Over the past week (since the Brooklyn Poetry Summit) there has been a lot of talk about the race/gender balance (or complete imbalance) of that event. As one of the co-curators of that event, I would like to apologize for the limitations that were on display in terms of curatorial design. While some of this limitation was due to cancelation, lack of technical capacity, money, timing, etc., much/most of it was due to a failure, on the part of the curators, at effacing privilege in favor of making sure “the show went on.”
In late October, Zoe Rana Mungin, an MFA student at UMass Amherst, published an open letter about being one of two black students in her program. She described a workshop where, despite the teacher’s attempts to open a conversation about racial micro-aggressions on campus, her classmates still erupted in shouting and crying when Mungin discussed the racial bias she’d experienced in discussion of her own work. As she says, “But let’s be real: this isn’t the first racist thing that’s happened to me in this class or in this program. Someone has told me that they don’t want to be in workshop with me because even though I’m a good writer, I write about black people.”
In January 2015, a group calling itself Mongrel Coalition Against Gringpo began to issue a series of statements about race and contemporary literature. Much of their critique was focused on conceptual poetry. On March 16, 2015, Kenneth Goldsmith responded to the critiques of Mongrel Coalition by reading one of the medical autopsy reports of Michael Brown as art, as conceptual writing at the conference Interrupt3 at Brown University. He edited the piece so that it ended with language about Brown’s penis being unremarkable. Goldsmith called this “massaging” a “dry text.” It was repeatedly noticed that the room was mainly white. Rin Johnson: “As my anger rises, I begin to count how many people of color are in the room: 3, 4, 5, 7, 8 maybe.” Aaron Apps: “How many people of color were invited to be keynote speakers at this ‘experimental’ conference? How many people of color are on faculty in Lit Arts? How many people of color are in the room? 2? 3? 4? 5? How many truly, economically precarious bodies? 0? 0? 0?” Even John Cayley, one of the organizers of the conference, noted this and claimed “tremendous efforts to diversify the program” but also claimed that the “organizers’ inability to do so reflects the issues of diversity in the arts.” (We might rephrase: organizer’s inability reflects organizer’s inability.)
Even in the last few weeks, as we were preparing this piece for publication, yet another anecdote: a white poet named Michael Derrick Hudson published a poem under the name “Yi-Fen Chou” in Prairie Schooner. This went unnoticed until Sherman Alexie included the poem in the Best American Poetry and Hudson admitted, in his bio note, that he had taken the name because he thought it would make publication easier. His poem had been rejected, he claimed, forty times under his own name, but only nine times under the name of Yi-Fen Chou. It is hard to know what to make of Hudson’s reasoning that an Asian name makes the publication of a poem easier, an assertion which would require a much more detailed accounting than the rejection history of a single poem. Suffice it to say, for now, that there is a lot more evidence (including Hudson’s own fairly extensive publication record in established poetry magazines) that it might make more sense for an Asian poet seeking publication to assume the name of a white man rather than the other way around.
This is only a selective list of moments when something about race or gender boiled over in the literary community in the last few years. During the period of time this list covers, we probably attended over 100 readings between the two of us. Maybe 200. Mostly poetry readings, but not all. The readings we attended were held in a wide variety of locations: college and university campuses, living rooms and back yards, museums, imperiled collective arts spaces founded 30 years ago, new community centers affiliated with free schools, and independent bookstores. They were organized and sponsored by English departments, student groups, autonomous individuals and collectives, curators, nonprofit arts organizations, booksellers. By our friends and friends of friends. By former students. Some had institutional funding and paid readers an honorarium. Some didn’t. Some passed the hat or did a Kickstarter campaign to cover reader travel costs. Some organizers were compensated for their labor and some did it for free. Some of the organizers identified as white. Some did not. Which is to say that the readings we attended did not share any common relationship to institutionality, funding, public space, or even sociality. While we often saw friends, colleagues, and acquaintances at readings we attended, we never saw the same people or groups of people at every reading. They overlapped and they diverged.
But, in almost every case, the readings we attended took place in a mainly white room. When we say mainly white room we do not mean to ignore people who do not identify as white who were in the room. We doubt the room was ever all white. But it wasn’t in any way reflective of the diversity of American culture as documented by the US Census, and certainly not reflective of the diversity in the urban area — Oakland — where we most often attend readings. (Just for context, in the 2013 census 37 percent of the US population identifies as other than white. In Oakland, 65 percent of the population identifies as other than white.) Among the readings we attend, there are a handful of exceptions that we can think of: those held at the college where we work (we will say more about this later) and those organized in the name of specific racial or ethnic identity affiliations.
We are, thus, insistent on something structural: at most of the readings we attend, the room is mainly white. This is true even when the readers do not identify as white. This is true even when the readings happen in urban areas with an other-than-white majority. We’re also fairly confident the mainly white room defines most of the readings we didn’t attend, that it defines any number of different “schools” of writing, from anything that might possibly call itself experimental to anything that might call itself lyric. From Vanessa Place to Tony Hoagland, a mainly white room. From Brown University to University of Iowa to Holy Names University, a mainly white room. From the 92nd Street Y to the St. Marks Poetry Project to the Omni Commons, a mainly white room. The reasons for this are what this article attempts to understand.
When we say mainly white room we do not want to ignore possible exceptions to this mainly white room. As we shared earlier drafts of this article with friends and presented it as a talk, someone would inevitably say, “but there is a thriving literary reading scene with many mainly other than white rooms.” When we asked which reading series they meant, they would mention a few and then add, “but I never go.” We would diligently go and look up the schedule of these reading series only to find that they no longer existed or barely existed. Or we would spend hours looking at their photographs on social media, only to find ourselves looking at mainly white rooms. It is not that we do not think there are rooms out there that are other than mainly white. We know of a few. Down the street from where we live, at a used bookstore, Lyric and Dirges meets every third Wednesday. It has a small audience but the room is not mainly white. Every so often a series called Culture Fuck — a “feminist, anti-racist performance space for radical outcasts, passionate queers, gender liberators, intellectual non-conformists, and everyone else who loves to break rules and subvert social propriety” — holds a reading somewhere in the East Bay. These readings also do not have a mainly white room. But we have had to actively search out these exceptions, and after many conversations and hours of research, we do not think we are overlooking a thriving racially diverse literary scene. Nor do we think the presence of these exceptions negates the larger structural argument we are making. The fact that many (if not all) of these exceptions are, as we have noted, organized in the name of specific racial or ethnic identity affiliations seems instead to point towards the problem of the mainly white room as a structural given. (That said, we do not feel confident including in these observations the other exception routinely presented to us by early readers of this article: the rooms of slam or spoken word. We are not convinced that these rooms as currently configured represent a significant structural exception to the mainly white room, although they did so as recently as the 1990s. And while slam and spoken word scenes are just as embedded within not-for-profit and educational institutions, they function quite differently than the relationship to higher education this article attempts to understand.)
With a few exceptions, the room at these readings we attended was not noticeably male in the same way that the room was noticeably white. There is a chance this is specific to the Bay Area, which has a long history of queer and feminist writing scenes and presses, although we are also somewhat hesitant to assert this without more thought, without some quantification. But we have also noticed a lot of moments where something about gender also boiled up in the last year. On March 26, 2014, for instance, at a reading hosted by Copula at Wendy’s Subway (this one, two women and two men), at least three women were given drinks dosed with what was probably ecstasy. In August 2014, a small group of people in the bay area released an anonymous online statement about “ongoing issues of misogyny and gender/sexual violence in our communities.” By fall, four men associated with Alt-Lit were named as rapists by survivors of various gender identifications. Alexandra Naughton and Dianna Dragonetti published, on their short-lived Tumblr site Empath, a blacklist of writers and editors, including those four, they identified as predators. In October, Linda Kleinbub wrote in the Observer about being roofied at a New School MFA reception. That same month, The Hairpin published a piece by Emma Healey about a relationship she had with a poet professor when she was 19 years old. She calls this relationship abusive. She writes about telling her story at a writing residency with other women and hearing their stories about “men across the country in the same loose network — writers, editors, teachers.” She continues, “I heard about rapes and assaults. I heard about violations of trust and instances of gaslighting. I heard about men who had threatened women with legal action to stop them from talking about what had happened between them.” In April 2015, Quaint Magazine published an article by Kia Grooms in which she talked about finding a photocopied communiqué on the floor of a bathroom at the AWP conference written by “the Invisibles” that named seven male writers as harassers of women. By summer, one of these men had a lawyer send letters threatening legal action to anyone who mentioned his name in conjunction with the allegations.
Further, because we have been trying to quantify gender representation in literary culture for some time, we knew some things about gender that shaped the room at these readings, even if these things weren’t always visible. We knew the larger room of literary culture skews fairly male. In 2007, we counted the numbers of men and women and those who refused this binary in “experimental” literary anthologies, and we noticed that, between 1960 and 1999, women made up an average of 22 percent of the writers. (None of these anthologies included anyone who refused the gender binary.) A few years later, in 2010, the organization VIDA started “the count,” an annual project where they count gender identification in 39 journals that they have subjectively determined to be important. If you add up the “overall” numbers of the 39 journals counted in 2014, there are close to 4,000 women, 8,000 men, and one transgender person. Recently, we worked on getting some numbers on literary prizes by counting the winners announced in Poets & Writers. In the two years of 2010–2011, more women than men won prizes: over 900 women to over 700 men (one prize winner identified as transgender and there were three people whose gender identification we could not determine). But those over 900 women split among themselves $10 million and those over 700 men split $16.5 million. Women tend to get a prize that is on average about $10,000, while men tend to get a prize that is on average around $22,000. Another way to put this: women get more entry-level prizes (they might even possibly apply in greater numbers!) but fewer later-in-career prizes awarded on the basis of reputation. Since its inception in 1981, The MacArthur Foundation has awarded $500,000 literary fellowships to 59 men and 38 women. The Poetry Foundation has given the $100,000 Ruth Lilly Prize to 19 men and 10 women. The Lannan Foundation has given its $150,000 Lannan Literary Award to 23 men and seven women. The Academy of American Poets has awarded its $100,000 Wallace Stevens award to 17 men and four women.
Obviously these two identification categories — race and gender — intersect. All the time. And they also operate independently. All the time. When we say “mainly white room” we are trying to understand its relation to gender representation too. We are trying to understand what we might now call a sort of corrupted sociality. Why does the sociality of US contemporary literary production skew so white and so male?
These observations are a beginning. While we noticed that it is almost impossible to talk about one without talking about the other, we want to stress that they are not in any way parallel. We sometimes thought of them as orbiting around US literary production but circling erratically on two widely different orbits. At moments these two categories brush up against each other, only to knock each other off course. Although they are so resilient that they often just adopt new wobbling and different orbits.
We are not the only people who have noticed this mainly white room. It is much discussed. Those who are in the room often comment on its whiteness with a kind of bafflement. Judah Rubin seems baffled as he blames himself in his statement about the Brooklyn Poetry Festival, but even if he had done a better job as a curator the room would probably still have been mainly white. Just last week, we heard the bafflement when a colleague (who does not identify as white), who teaches at a major public university, credited the whiteness of the undergraduate creative writing major in which she teaches to its being not as economically rewarding as, say, engineering. We heard the bafflement when a different colleague (who does identify as white) credited the whiteness of the MFA creative writing program in which he taught to a lack of adequate recruitment funding and said that all the “good” writers who did not identify as white went to schools with larger stipends, as if “good” writers who do not identify as white are a scarce commodity. We heard it at Small Press Traffic when a conversation about sexual violence and feminist organizing in Chicago, New York, and Vancouver turned towards the familiar exclusions, the whiteness of the women’s poetry listserv, the person who identifies as indigenous who didn’t attend because she felt her concerns would never be part of this conversation.
And this, too, is a selective list of the bafflement we heard during just one week of our lives while we were writing this.
A time in which over nine days we went to eight readings, most of them in mainly white rooms.
As we talked with friends after these readings and talks during this week of our lives, we heard ourselves blame the MFA for the mainly white room more than once. When we did this, we used the term sloppily, as a short hand for higher education. We were not even sure who the MFA was really. So we started there, by trying to understand the MFA. We started by going to IPEDS, the federal database of integrated post secondary education data. We started assembling data. We ended up with 36 spreadsheets, one with 21 tabs of data sets.
2. The Program Era and the Mainly White Room
It was not completely unreasonable for us to begin with institutions of higher education. We are both products of these institutions (one of us with an MFA and $13,000 of debt remaining from the original $27,000 borrowed who has paid, to date, over $30,000 back; and one of us with a PhD who last year, 20 years after graduation, made a final payment on the more than $70,000 required to pay back the $30,000 originally borrowed). And we got a lot of our information about how to be writers through higher education. So even though we thought of ourselves as being in opposition to the conventions of “academic verse” because we were more or less “experimental” writers, higher education had provided us with most of our information about literature and literary culture. We started thinking of ourselves as writers in the first place because we took classes in the writing of poetry at school. Higher education also pointed us towards social groups and scenes we wanted to be a part of, towards writers we wanted to know, some of whom we went on to know as friends. And now we both teach at institutions of higher education.
One of the things that quickly became obvious to us once we had these 36 spreadsheets, one of them with 21 tabs, is that creative writing programs really started to take off in the 1990s. Prior to the 1990s, many writers taught in higher education and this shaped the aesthetics of American literature, as the scholar Mark McGurl has shown in The Program Era. But it is not until the 1990s that the idea that one should necessarily turn to higher education if one wants to become a writer becomes an idea that more than 6,000 people have each year. This does not mean that every writer-to-be will, or has to, do this. Chad Harbach argues in his essay “MFA vs. NYC” that there is also another, just as powerful option: live in New York City, or some other major urban area, and attend readings and talk with other writers afterwards. In recent years, social media has made interacting with other writers more accessible and less dependent on urban centers, but it still remains the case that living in a major city helps a lot.
Still, beginning in the 1990s, more people earn a degree in some sort of creative writing than in the past. At the end of the 1980s, a little more than 1,000 degrees in creative writing were awarded each year. By 2013, close to 6,500 thousand were awarded. Here is a visualization of the run up as it shows up in IPEDS data from 1988–2013:
There are many reasons that people give for the growth in creative writing degrees. These reasons are mostly benign, if often dismissive of the pedagogical possibilities of the MFA. Some accuse the degree of being “soft.” McGurl mentions its “reputation for leniency,” calls it “a therapeutic educational enterprise.” A related explanation is that a great deal of self-exploration is tolerated in the creative writing workshop and this makes the degree attractive to many because much about US culture encourages narcissism. Steve Almond makes this argument in a piece titled “Why Talk Therapy is on the Wane and Writing Workshops Are on the Rise.” Some discuss the rise of the MFA in relation to the decline of liberal arts at the undergraduate level. A recent New York Times article quotes Jean McGarry saying that MFA students are less prepared due to “undergraduate education that emphasizes specialization and pre-professionalism, with little room for the arts, reading or writing.” In his essay “MFA vs. NYC,” Chad Harbach, after noting that many MFA programs are so “lax and laissez-faire as to have a shockingly small impact on students’ work,” they are “an ingenious partial solution to an eminent American problem: how to extend our already protracted adolescence past 22 and toward 30, in order to cope with an oversupplied labor market.” To this we might add that, in the age of MOOCs and large lecture classes, the workshop might be one of the few remaining classrooms where there is some concentrated, personal attention to student work.
The majority of these reasons have to do with student desire. It is obvious that people have to want the degree for universities to feel motivated to create programs. But there are many economic pressures that induce colleges and universities to expand and aggressively advertise and recruit for programs in creative writing. We do not think it is an overstatement that, prior to the 1990s and the intensifying financial pressures that brought about the corporatization of the university, English departments tended to have a studious lack of interest that bordered on disdain about the teaching of creative writing. And top-tier schools still tend to not offer graduate degrees in creative writing. Of the top 10 universities according to USNWR rankings, only Columbia has an MFA program.
The story of how these financial pressures show up in the college where we work — a small liberal arts college that admits self-identified women and people assigned female at birth who do not fit into the gender binary — might provide a useful illustration here. In 1990, the board of the college voted to go co-ed. In response, students went on a strike that they won after two weeks; the board backed down and the school did not go co-ed. Despite the outpouring of support, the college still had significant enrollment issues. Administration responded to this in the 90s by focusing on co-ed graduate programs. Between 1990 and 2013, graduate students went from 25 percent of the total enrollment at the college to 40 percent. The MFA in creative writing was targeted for growth. During the same period, the number of MFA graduates in the creative writing program more than doubled, from an average of 13 to 34 annually. This growth was not under department control. In 2005, after a long discussion, the department decided that they wanted to admit a smaller, more selective class. It was clear that “targeted for growth” meant adding more students, not more resources. But the president of the college held the acceptance letters until the department agreed to admit everyone on the fairly large wait list. This resulted in the largest class ever admitted.
The monetary stakes of this were fairly significant. The college raised graduate tuition by 384 percent between 1990 and 2014. This again echoes national trends, although the tuition increase at the college where we work is more extreme.
Yet the college did not need to lay out much more in resources for this growth. It responded by increasing adjunct hires. In 1995, only 16 percent of English department courses were taught by adjuncts. Even in 2000, that number had only risen to 22 percent. But as enrollment in the program grew, so did the number of course offerings. Tenure lines were the only thing that didn’t grow during this time. And by 2005, 44 percent of English department classes were taught by adjuncts. That number crept up to 68 percent by 2015. Again, this growth echoes national trends; roughly 75 percent of all instructional faculty are now contingent.
Here is a crude way of understanding this: the sticker price on the MFA at the college where we work is $326 per classroom hour per student (or the college would bring in $3,912 for every hour of class time if a class is fully enrolled and everyone is paying full price), but the college pays adjuncts about $22 per classroom hour per student (or around $264 per classroom hour). This might explain better than anything else why about 300 colleges and universities added a graduate degree in creative writing between 1975 and today. Most of these programs are cheap to run (no studio space or lab space required, low technology needs, very deep adjunct pool) and tuition generating.
As is probably clear, this is not a story about higher education’s commitment to making our nation’s literatures stronger, so much so that they all decide to offer more degrees in creative writing. Instead, our story is one where it is very advantageous for colleges and universities to start new degree programs because they can hire cheap contingent labor to run them.
It is not that these colleges and universities are necessarily evil. Many, like the one where we work, are filled with attentive and engaged faculty. These faculty members are thoughtful about the pedagogical possibilities of the MFA. Many become lifelong mentors of their students. But, an attentive and thoughtful faculty does not negate the fact that colleges and universities are caught in a series of related pressures, among them unsustainable attempts to remain competitive in terms of facilities and run-ups in administration costs (some of which are the fault of their administrators and some of which are imposed on them by outside forces like accrediting agencies). Public institutions, which have fewer enrollment pressures and have tended to be late to the MFA game, are also forced to increasingly act like private schools as states cut their budgets; a number have added an MFA program in recent years.
To the extent that the small-against-its-desires-not-really-thriving-but-carrying-on college where we work has been successful in generating tuition, or in carrying on, however unevenly, it has been thanks to a series of contradictory forces. What McGurl calls the Program Era began to percolate post–World War II, when over two million veterans went back to school with funding from the GI Bill. By 1950, the US Government spent more money on tuition than on the Marshall Plan. Louis Menand notes that “[t]he key requirement of Title II was that the tuition assistance be used only for study in degree or certificate programs, which is why creative-writing courses grew into degree-granting creative-writing programs.”
This history set the stage for a moment we would argue is far more crucial to this story: the 1992 Higher Education Amendments that increased student loan limits and added the possibility of unsubsidized loans, thereby dramatically expanding the number of students eligible to borrow. This allowed colleges and universities to raise tuition at staggering rates over the last 20 years and expand the pool of potential consumers. Today, creative writing degrees are tuition generating in large part because of student loans. The federal government made $41 billion off of student loans last year and projections suggest that they will make $127 billion over the next 10 years (with over three-quarters of this coming from loans to graduate students).
But our question was less about these economic pressures and more about what sort of sociality these economic pressures were creating. Who was enrolling in these degree programs? What we found is that creative writing students identify mainly as female and white. In general, women are well represented in masters programs and even more so in the creative writing MFA. In 1988, the year IPEDS began reporting creative writing separately from other graduate study in English, women earned 52 percent of all masters degrees awarded nationally and 60 percent of all MFA creative writing degrees. In 2013, 66 percent of all MFA in creative writing degrees were awarded to women. Here is a visual of the number of women-identified MFA in creative writing recipients nationally compared to the number of women-identified in all masters degrees in the United States from 1995–2013:
Undergraduate degree numbers reflect this too: in 2013, 65 percent of those who earned a BA with a major in creative writing identified as women.
The racial identification of those who get the MFA in creative writing is a very different story. We had noticed over the years that the readings for the MFA program at the small liberal arts college where we work did not take place in the mainly white room that we were used to seeing in the living rooms, museums, bookstores, not-for-profit, and collective arts spaces where we attended readings. For a long time, we thought this was true of MFA programs in general. We actually wrote some things about this, about how maybe the MFA might provide entry to people who feel excluded from or just not that interested in the mainly white room that defines a large number of autonomously organized events. We saw the MFA as a possible alternative to the mainly white room. We thought it might provide access for those who lacked cultural connections or urban possibility to become writers on their own.
As we compiled 36 spreadsheets, one with 21 tabs, we saw how wrong we were. The racial diversity of masters degree recipients has been on the rise over the last 20 years, if slowly, from 25 percent of graduates who identified as other than white in 1995 to 36 percent in 2013. We would need to look at more data to understand how that growth is distributed across different disciplines but can say with assurance that it’s not due to the MFA in creative writing, which has stayed consistently low during the same time period, going from only 12 percent of graduates who identified as other than white in 1995 to a minor increase of 18 percent in 2013.
Again, these numbers hold true for undergraduates as well. Nationally, in 2013, only 21 percent of BA in creative writing degree recipients identified as other than white. (We did not look at the statistics for degrees awarded in other fine arts, but the numbers in the study Artists Report Back: A National Study on the Lives of Arts Graduates and Working Artists for degrees in art are very similar: “81 percent of arts graduates are White, non-Hispanic.”)
Our first thought was that the small liberal arts college where we work, with its disproportionate diversity in relation to most MFA creative writing programs, was unique. (In 2005, that year of very inclusive admissions, 41 percent of the students where we work identified as other than white, while the national average for MFA programs that year remained as low as ever, at 14 percent. That basic ratio has remained the same: in 2013, 48 percent of students in the program where we work identified as other than white, versus 18 percent in MFA programs nationally.) We had some guesses as to factors that might make the program exceptional in this regard: its location in Oakland, its reputation for social justice concerns, certain faculty and their relation to feeder programs (one of our colleagues, for instance, co-founded VONA, “the only multi-genre workshop for writers of color in the nation”). It’s also important to note that in 1996 the state of California passed Proposition 209, with the result that race, sex, and ethnicity were no longer allowed to be considered for admissions. This had a dramatic change on the number of African-American, Latino, and American-Indian students attending a UC. The direct impact of this is felt in undergraduate admissions (UC Berkeley, for instance, admits 58 percent less of these students as a result of these changes; currently only three percent of UCB students identify as “Black or African American”). And it is probably not a coincidence that the undergraduate student body of the college where we work gets increasingly diverse during these years.
But in its dependence on tuition dollars, the bulk of which take the form of federal and private financial aid, our college is not unique. So we began to wonder about the racial identification of students in programs at other tuition-dependent colleges, but also at colleges unlike the one where we work: top-tier programs with full funding and generous stipends. While the creative writing MFA is undeniably and overwhelmingly white, how is that whiteness distributed? And what relationship might exist between racial identification and funding?
And so we made some more spreadsheets.
Before we could do that, though, we had to identify programs like and unlike the one where we work. The latter was fairly straightforward; programs that offer full tuition remission tend to say so in their materials. For additional information on these schools we are particularly indebted to a recent project by Robin Tung, “Affording the MFA,” which lists those programs that offer full tuition remission, at least 9,000 dollars in stipend, and healthcare, for all students for the entirety of the program. Over 30 programs nationally meet these criteria and their acceptance rates hover between .86 percent (Vanderbilt) and 6.5 percent (University of Arkansas). The odds of getting into a fully funded program are not dissimilar from those of landing a tenured job. Johns Hopkins receives over 600 applications annually for 12 open slots. We arbitrarily selected 14 of these programs for our data: Arizona State University, Boise State University, Bowling Green State University, Johns Hopkins University, Louisiana State University and Agricultural & Mechanical College, Syracuse University, The University of Alabama, The University of Texas at Austin, University of California Irvine, University of Michigan Ann Arbor, University of Oregon, University of Virginia-Main Campus, University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Vanderbilt University.
Programs at tuition-driven colleges don’t tend to advertise the discount rate on their declared tuition price. The discount rate is the amount of discount on tuition that schools need to offer on average to get students to enroll. Determining the actual cost of tuition (sticker price minus discount rate) at colleges and universities for any one student is close to impossible. Each college and university has a large staff of people who, student by student, use a secret algorithm of merit, need, and what the market suggests people will pay that they use to award what they call scholarships. College websites and other admission materials do not explain how that funding is awarded and at what rate. The complications of this system are so intense it makes airline seat pricing look transparent. (The college where we work has an average discount rate of over 50 percent for undergraduates and regularly has as few as one or two students paying the price listed on the website. The discount rate for the graduate program is often over 35 percent, but as high as 50 percent in many programs, and only a handful of students, so far as we know, have ever paid the listed price.) These schools also don’t tend to advertise their acceptance rates or how many applications they receive annually. To identify this second group for our data, we relied on information gleaned over the years from colleagues, friends, and former students who have also worked in or studied at the following schools (including the one where we work). Our list here: Brooklyn College, California College of the Arts, Columbia College (Chicago), Columbia University, Emerson College, Hunter College, Mills College, Naropa University, The New School, New York University, Otis College of Art and Design, Sarah Lawrence College, and School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Because they are fairly expensive and offer limited funding, we started calling these schools “debt generators.” And some of the anecdotal information we have heard includes staggering amounts of debt taken on while earning the degree: students who graduated with $55,000, $70,000, or $120,000 owed to the federal government or Sallie Mae. Information on student debt by specific programs and even by institution is particularly hard to obtain. (Again, at the school where we work, some faculty — concerned about the possible amount of debt that students take on to attend — have repeatedly requested information about the average amount that graduate students borrow to get an MFA. They have not been able to obtain it from their own admissions office.) It is collected by the Department of Education along with other data from reporting institutions, but only accessible to those with an administrator password (someone who works at an institution in an administrative or staff role, most likely within offices of financial aid or admissions).
As we looked at these two groups of schools, we noticed some things. One thing we noticed is that the large numbers of students who graduate from debt generator schools tend to be more female and less white than graduates of fully funded programs. In 2013, 28 percent of students at the debt generating schools identified as other than white, and 68 percent identified as female. At the fully funded programs, only 19 percent of students identified as other than white and 58 percent as female. It’s worth noting that those who identify as male and white do especially well at fully funded programs. In 2013 they represented 30 percent of all graduates from fully funded programs but only 22 percent at the debt generators. Only one number remains consistent for all the schools we looked at: those who identify as male and other than white hover around 6 percent on average. So when programs do enroll more students who identify as other than white, they almost always also identify as women. In 2013, 21 percent of graduates from debt generator schools identified as women and other than white. At the fully funded programs, that number was only 10 percent.
The debt generator schools also produce far more graduates, over 500 in 2013 versus around 200 from fully funded programs. According to the AWP, there were 214 total MFA programs in 2013 (and that’s not counting an additional 153 MA creative writing programs). Which means the two groups of schools each represent a little less than seven percent of all MFA programs nationally, yet the debt generators produced 17 percent of all graduates, while the fully funded programs generated a moderate and equivalent seven percent of total degrees. It is an open question to us what the consequences of this will be. There is a chance that these schools might diversify the MFA in creative writing, finally, as the debt generators are graduating not only way more students, but also way more students who identify as other than white. This visualization illustrates the number of graduates who identify as other than white between 2001 and 2013:
As that chart shows, fully funded programs are more or less not admitting that many more students who identify as other than white over time (from 14 to 19 percent), whereas the debt generator programs are somewhat diversifying (from 17 to 28 percent) as they are growing. But still, this is one area that could use even more spreadsheets. This data just talks about differences between 28 schools divided into two categories based around funding.
To recap what we found:
- Those who get a degree of some sort in creative writing identify more often as women than as men.
- A small percentage of these same degree recipients identify as other than white.
- While the racial identification of degree recipients in higher education in general has over the last 20 years begun to resemble the racial identification of the nation at large, that of creative writing program recipients have not.
- MFA creative writing programs that offer full funding tend to enroll even fewer students who identify as other than white.
And yet, the degree does not do much for those who pay for it. Many take on significant debt to get their MFA, and as our endless spreadsheets seem to indicate, those who do not identify as white do so more often because they tend to graduate from schools without funding. This is also debt that, because of gender and race wage gaps, they often have more trouble paying back. Not only are female MFA students at high risk of sexual harassment, they remain dramatically underrepresented in many of the aspects of literary culture that they might enter after graduation, that they might need to get tenure. They get less prize money. They show up less often in anthologies. Their books are reviewed less often and they are reviewers less often. While total MFA and undergraduate creative writing degree recipients identify as women close to 70 percent of the time, neither the writers for mainstream media nor the authors published by small presses nor the winners of major prizes are 70 percent women. Instead, they are around 70 percent men. The percentage is exactly flipped in all those arenas where one might obtain something, from visibility to wages. The intensity of the disparity is numerically intense and repetitive. We do not think it likely that other social systems, which serve as feeders for these scenes, like the NYC publishing scene that Harbach describes, skew so heavily male that they would explain this disparity. And we are not buying the recent confidence gap analysis here either. Women are clearly confident enough to show up for higher education.
The MFA system does not employ that many MFA graduates itself, and those who do find teaching jobs are disproportionately contingent. While we do not have data specific to creative writing faculty, a 2011 AAUP report shows that full-time tenure track faculty were 58 percent male that year, and a 2009 study by the National Center for Education Statistics shows that women make up 51 percent of all adjunct faculty. A more recent, smaller survey by the Coalition on the Academic Workforce, in which adjuncts self identified, shows the proportion of female adjunct faculty to be closer to 60 percent. Again, race and gender orbit around the same planet but at different rotations and rates. A report by the American Federation of Teachers notes that “underrepresented racial and ethnic groups are even more likely to be relegated to contingent positions; only 10.4 percent of all faculty positions are held by underrepresented racial and ethnic groups, and of these, 7.6 percent — or 73 percent of the total minority faculty population — are contingent positions.” It’s often noted that in the 1970s 30 percent of faculty in higher education were contingent and that this percentage has since flipped, such that contingent faculty now comprise 70 percent of all faculty in higher education. The faculty in the 1970s was mostly white and male. The erosion of tenure has overlapped precisely with the entrance of women and those who do not identify as white.
The PhD data is different, but not unrelated. Whenever we give a talk on this subject, or discuss it with colleagues, there is always a moment when someone says something like: well, thank goodness PhD programs at least are not part of the problem because PhD students are funded. This is usually said by someone who teaches or studies in a PhD program. And at first we wanted to just add a note that whether someone enrolled in a program pays with labor or pays with loans, they are still paying. Also PhD students are often forced to supplement their stipends with loans; slightly over half of PhD students in the humanities take out student loans.
But once we started compiling spreadsheets, we noticed a few things that seem worth pointing out. Just for context, the PhD in English is just as female as the MFA in creative writing, about 60 percent on average. And only 29 percent of its graduates identify as other than white (which is, if nothing else, higher than the 18 percent of the MFA in creative writing programs).
But more interestingly, the PhD experienced a version of this run up in graduates story much earlier. The number of English and literature PhDs awarded in the United States peaks in 1973 with 1,412 awarded. From there it declines in the 1980s, hitting a low in 1987 of 669. And then it begins go back up, increasing somewhat throughout the 1990s where it hovers from the mid-1990s onward at an average of about 1,300. Here is a visualization of the number of PhD recipients in English from 1955 to 2013:
While the employment crisis for PhDs has gotten a lot of attention, there is not a lot of evidence of an overproduction of PhDs. If you concede that the MFA’s main reason for existence is as a teaching credential (and we do not, though many do), there is a lot of evidence of an overproduction of MFAs. Just as a sort of joke, we aggregated the number of MFA graduates from 2000 forward and subtracted the small number of tenure-track jobs that were available in creative writing each year and we got this visualization:
While the number of creative writing degrees awarded yearly increased from less than 1,000 to more than 6,000 from 1990 until today, the number of tenure track creative writing jobs increased from around 50 in 1996 to a little over 100 last year. Worth noticing here is how intensely the MFA system resembles a Ponzi scheme. The number of graduates increase six-fold, but the number of jobs only double. We also suspect that there will be a decline in open tenure-track creative writing jobs in the near future, as colleges and universities realize they cannot keep adding new programs at the rate they have been without reaching likely market saturation (some of the large debt generators are already seeing declines in enrollment in recent years). And there does not seem to be a need for a degree in creative writing outside of teaching.
The PhD crisis does not look anywhere like the employment crisis for MFAs. Since 2004, the JIL has listed around 9,000 tenure line jobs in English; during this same period 12,000 PhDs were awarded.
Presuming that the only reason one might get a PhD is to get a job, which is a fairly safe assumption, there is still an obvious surplus. This chart is a bit misleading (because it only shows jobs advertised and includes open rank hires), but what it shows is that the overproduction of PhDs is nothing like the overproduction of MFAs. During this period, over 24,000 MFAs were awarded for around 900 possible jobs, suggesting that 74 percent of its graduates might be considered surplus. It’s our guess that, if it were not for the endless numbers of MFAs and MAs who create a constantly renewable reserve army of the unemployed and thus maintain adjunct pay rates, there would probably be no job crisis for PhDs. Colleges and universities would be forced to compete for faculty. Instead, the current situation is a sweet deal for them. They get to use graduate programs to generate tuition and, at the same time, create a constantly renewable reserve labor force that they can employ at unlivable wages to teach in these same and other programs.
But we should also add here: blaming the MFA in creative writing for the employment problem in higher education is a bit like that parable of the men in the dark feeling the elephant. It is a very small part of a much larger story of state disinvestment, and administrative decisions to pursue money-losing technology partnerships and scientific research, to fund construction projects, and also their own salaries.
3. But Back to That Mainly White Room
We don’t know what the relationship is between this peculiar situation of a two-tiered degree structure, skewing mainly white and female at all levels, with one degree devaluing the other, and the mainly white room of US literary production, alongside the larger room of big money prizes, publications, and reviews where women and those who identify as other than white are consistently underrepresented.
We do know that the story about race is harder to tell. While we have some firm numbers about the racial identification of graduates of creative writing programs, we do not have similar data about that larger room of publication, prizes, reviews, scholarly attention. There are some obvious reasons. Racial data is hard to get. People self-declare on admissions to higher education; the federal government requires those numbers; they assemble them in IPEDS. That is how we got data on MFA programs and that is how AFT and other groups got some of their data on contingent labor. We have been reluctant to collect our own data around race because we do not want to impose a racial identity on anyone. One cannot read bio notes and find a pronoun that easily indicates one’s racial identification as one can do with gender.
But it is not impossible to tell a story about race that might begin to explain that mainly white room. In fact there are a number of obvious things to say. And here we want to sort of do an about-turn, a zooming out and backing up, to understand and remember that in the 1970s a number of thriving literary subcultures broke ties with literature’s often presumed universalism and instead wrote literatures that made clear that they were allied with and written for various specific communities. At this moment many writers grouped together under a self-declared ethnic or racial or sexual or class identification and wrote from and about that position rather than as a generic “American.” Many, although not all, of these literatures were created and nurtured by various cultural nationalist movements. Many of these movements had a special interest in the arts as a place that can represent and preserve cultures and their values, as a place that is ideal for political education and debate. And these various cultural nationalist movements created patronage systems such as publishing houses, journals, anthologies, and reading series to distribute and promote the work of their milieu. The creation of the Black Arts Repertory Theatre/School in 1965 by Amiri Baraka is often seen as a foundational moment here. But it is just one among many, and while certainly important, it had predecessors. Umbra, a collective of mainly Black poets, was founded a few years before, in 1962. And in 1965 the El Teatro Campesino was founded on the Delano Grape Strike picket lines of Cesar Chavez’s United Farmworkers Union. The Watts Writers Workshop was also founded in 1965 after the Watts Riots. The Centro Cultural de la Raza, focused on Chicano, Mexicano, Native American, and Latino art and culture, in 1970. The Nuyorican Poets Café, with its roots in the New York Puerto Rican community, in 1973. Bamboo Ridge, the workshop and the press that publishes mainly literature written by Asian Americans in Hawaii and has preserved and cultivated a literature in Pidgin, in 1978. Arte Público, with its claim of providing a national forum for Hispanic literature, in 1979. There are many other examples.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, it often looked as if a major national uprising might possibly happen. There were major rebellions in Rochester, Philadelphia, and Harlem in 1964; in Watts in 1965; in Cleveland in 1966, in Newark, Detroit, and Minneapolis-St Paul in 1967; in Chicago, Baltimore, Washington, DC, and Cleveland in 1968. Politicized bombings were a regular occurrence. There were over 4,000 bombings between January 1969 to April 1970 in the United States. Universities were having a similar moment of militancy in the 1960s with huge protests and shutdowns. After Kent State, as Kirkpatrick Sale notes, “students at a total of at least 350 institutions went out on strike and 536 schools were shut down completely for some period of time, 51 of them for the entire year.” The movements that nurture and support movement literatures in the 1970s played a major role in this radicalization. In short, there would be no Nuyorican literature without the Young Lords and no Young Lords without the working class Puerto Rican communities of the Lower East Side. No Black Arts movement without the various black cultural nationalist movements and none of these would exist without the working class black communities of New York, Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Oakland. There would be no Chicano/a literature without El Plan de Aztlán (a statement of Chicano/a cultural nationalism that was written at the 1969 National Youth Liberation Conference that deliberately called for cultural independence, for the commitment of “all levels of Chicano society — the barrio, the campo, the ranchero, the writer, the teacher, the worker, the professional — to La Causa”). And there would be no Plan de Aztlán without Crusade for Justice (founded by poet and militant Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales) and no Crusade for Justice without the working class Chicano/a communities of Denver. And so on.
And it is important not just to remember this moment but also to notice that all the radical parts of these movements got killed. Got killed in multiple ways. One way was economic. Gentrification meant that the cultural centers that were supporting more radical and anti-capitalist literatures, most of which were located in urban working-class neighborhoods, slowly lost their demographic reason for existing and also could not afford the high rents. But state repression played an enormous role. The Watts Writers Workshop was burned down in 1973 by FBI informant Darthard Perry. The story behind Perry’s burning of the Watts Writers Workshop is probably not yet fully told, might never be completely understood, but government interference in the arts is not just limited to this sort of direct action. The FBI targeted African-American writers in particular during the late 1960s and 1970s for monitoring. There is not yet a lot of evidence that the FBI’s relation to writers was, with the exception of the Watts Writers Workshop firebombing, much more than monitoring. Though clearly the state took a much more aggressive stance with groups such as the Black Panthers, for instance, and in the case of Fred Hampton and Mark Clark moved from monitoring to actual murder. But the goal of that monitoring, and the murdering too, was to discourage future action, discourage also writers and others from making alliances with cultural national and anti-capitalist state antagonists or considering themselves to be a part of these movements.
At the same time, there was already a powerful pre-existing counter-insurgency that is the synergy between private foundations and the US government. This synergy consolidates and surges after World War II. But it intensifies after the mid-1960s. Just as certain forms of cultural nationalism had their own literatures and support systems for these literatures, fear of militancy — a fear that was provoked by the riots that happened between 1965 and 1968 in the United States — guides US social policy in the years that follow and creates a counter-insurgent literature and well funded and powerful support systems for it. This constantly mutating ecosystem of privatization and institutionalization at moments works through destruction, as in firebombing the Watts Writers Workshop, and at other moments through a peculiar sort of appropriation and occupation and neutering as foundations work with the US government to fund a mainstream artistic multiculturalism along with a number of economic development initiatives, university area studies programs, changes to school curricula, and other initiatives.
The same fear of militancy that led to the development of arts organizations modeled on movement literature’s community-attentive production models but without its anti-capitalist fervor also led to the transformation of US universities. The Rockefeller and Ford Foundations and the State Department were there too, with funds to neutralize student resistance, often formed to be in alliance to these movements. In Represent and Destroy, the scholar Jodi Melamed argues that this transformation did not merely prepare certain members of marginalized groups for incorporation into “multiracial managerial classes”: it also executed “a counterinsurgency against new knowledges produced by social movements,” in which “English departments and discourses of literary multiculturalism did the lion’s share of the work.” The consequence is that these synergies put US literary production largely under the control of a business elite rather than centering it in working class cultural activist communities.
In his work, Mark McGurl does not locate the program era as an attack on the new knowledges produced by social movements, and he is oddly ecumenical about higher education’s role in 20th century literary production. He concludes The Program Era with a series of rhetorical questions: “[D]o we not bear daily witness to a surfeit of literary excellence, an embarrassment of riches? Is there not more excellent fiction being produced now than anyone has time to read? What kind of traitor to the mission of mass higher education would you have to be think otherwise?” But one of the limitations of McGurl’s book is he is so focused on higher education that he misses the moments when literary production thrived outside of higher education. He has, for instance, some disdain for Chicano/a literature, because he only notices its appropriation by higher education and not its origins in the resistant moment that also produced El Plan de Aztlán. This means that he unfairly presumes that Chicano/a literature is created for “the increasingly paramount value of cultural diversity in U.S. educational institutions” and is yet another “new way of accumulating symbolic capital in the fervently globalizing U.S. academy, pointing scholars toward valuable bodies of expertise they might claim as their own and offering a rationale for the inclusion of certain creative writers in an emergent canon of world literature.” This unwillingness to trace larger histories and to see higher education as a manipulative force is one of the failures of McGurl’s otherwise excellent project.
We do not intend to suggest that cultural nationalism is the right way. But we do want to remain attentive to what was unique about the late 1960s and 1970s: that it was a time when some forms of literature had an unusually tight connection to thriving political movements, to cultural politics, to working class communities, to anti-capitalist and anti-nation-state nationalist imaginings. And this closeness provoked a counterinsurgency from the state and private foundations that continue to shape US literary production today.
This is where the problem with the MFA extends beyond predatory lending. It matters if those who want to become writers no longer take a workshop at the Watts Writers Workshop, but instead take it at a liberal arts college. And it matters not just because those writers go into debt. It matters for what it does to literature and to the communities that produce it.
4. From Actual Explosions and Actual Brutality to Strategies for Professional Growth
Around the time Amiri Baraka founded the Black Arts Repertory Theatre/School, he wrote a call for revolutionary theater with “actual explosions and actual brutality.” While his call was never actualized, he doesn’t seem to have been joking.
Here, in absurd contrast, is a handout we have given students in our poetry workshops:
At our most optimistic, we imagined this pie chart not as a guide to professionalization in communities of mainly white, mainly male back scratching, but rather as a demystification of the many ways that one can enter into conversation with other writers and traditions, can participate in writing scenes that at their best are places where education continues, often for life, in the autodidactic reading group, in the discussion after the reading, in the arguments and debates among those who take the stakes of literature seriously. We imagined this chart as reminding students that higher education isn’t the only way, that there are many ways to be a writer outside of higher education, after they graduate.
We feel far less optimistic about this chart after compiling our spreadsheets, after listing the moments where racism and misogyny boiled over in the mostly white room.
And yet it remains an open question to us how direct the relationship might be between the growth of the MFA and the series of events we listed at the beginning, even as we are also convinced there is some relationship. Our analysis is limited, a mash-up of some things we know and some things we suspect and some things we cannot really figure out. The idea that literary culture is inextricably bound to institutions such as higher education cannot help but reshape the concerns and content of literature. This is the argument that McGurl makes, and it is one that we make too, although without his optimism. But at the same time, we do not want to imply that there was a prelapsarian moment prior to this. Our guess is that literary scenes have always been as predatory as the general culture. US culture is racist; literary scenes are just as racist. US culture is sexist; literary scenes are just as sexist.
However, while higher education is probably as racist as any other US cultural institution, the MFA in creative writing seems to also have unusually small amounts of students enrolled in it who do not identify as white. Does this make it more racist? We do not know. But it does suggest that something is off. And while autonomously organized readings are probably as racist as other US cultural institutions, many of these too seem to have an unusually white room. And at the same time, a reminder of that wobbly orbit, while higher education is probably as sexist as US culture in general, this seems to not discourage women from enrolling. Why this is so is what we are trying to understand. It would probably be easy to blame this on the legacy of second wave feminism, with its focus on workplace and educational access for middle-class white women. And we might accept this as an answer if we only looked at the MFA as a privilege and did not consider how white women borrow money for a degree that is fairly useless to them when it comes to getting published or otherwise rewarded. That said, it would be just as reductive to say that white women are being unfairly taken of advantage here.
It seems telling also that, before we spent all this time with the IPEDS data, we thought that the MFA was less white than the mainly white room of so many autonomously organized readings. And it very well might be. It might be that, even though the MFA skews so disproportionately white, it is still significantly less white than the mainly white room of many autonomously organized events. Why don’t people move from the (relatively) diverse classrooms of the MFA to the mainly white room of the poetry reading? It might be that the experience of the MFA for people who do not identify as white is so dispiriting that they walk away. It might be that their experience of the mainly white room is so dispiriting that they never go back. Talks with friends and students over the years have suggested as much. One told us incredulously that the gender dynamics she encountered at the few readings she attended were far worse than those in the hyper-masculinist punk music scene. Another said there’s no part of his social life that isn’t multi-racial; why would he want to be part of a writing scene that’s so relentlessly white?
It might also be that those who walk away are walking away into other rooms, or creating them. There is surely much we are unable to see from the vantage point of our social circles, work lives, identity categories, and geographical locations. But so far as we can tell, the only rooms that are not mainly white are, as we noted earlier, organized with an explicit mission to amplify the voices of those who have been historically underrepresented in unmarked (i.e., “universal” literary culture), those who are not in the mainly white room. Or perhaps we are left with this formulation: US culture is segregated; literary scenes are just as segregated.
In trying to figure this out, it seems naïve not to notice how little possibility there is for writing outside of higher education and businessman-led foundations. It seems telling, in other words, that when June Jordan decided to start Poetry for the People, an arts/activism organization, in 1991, she did it at UC Berkeley and not at a community-run center in Oakland, that its mission had an “academic focus,” that it aimed to bridge the gap between the university and the community. We are not arguing this is a failure on Jordan’s part. Rather, it is an indication that things are structurally different in the 1990s than they were in the 1970s. One could perhaps argue that Jordan’s move is perhaps a sign of a new inclusiveness on the part of higher education, but only if one ignores the IPEDS data.
Then, in the other direction, we’ve noticed a number of free schools and social centers that have been created recently as alternatives to higher education, which ideally would also, one would hope, be part of making the room less white. And yet many still have a mainly white room. A number of those readings, for instance, that we attended over the last year were at the Omni Commons, a collective space actively interested in anti-capitalist and anti-racist organizing. Many events we go to there at the public school, the various one-off reading groups and other sorts of events, are not mainly white, yet the poetry reading room remains mainly white.
We’ve also noticed that many of the social centers that organize themselves around racial identifications and creative writing today do not claim to be resistant or hostile to the mainly white room of literary institutions, or to US nationalism. Cave Canem, founded in 1996 and funded by the same Ford Foundation that played such a dramatic role in the destruction of movement literatures, talks about their commitment to “the professional growth of African American poets.” Kundiman offers arts programming so as to “inscribe the Asian American story onto American experience, transforming and enriching the landscape of our national culture,” and is proud of their graduates who are admitted to top-tier programs. Kundiman and Cave Canem are regularly official Literary Partners of the AWP (which is interesting, because the AWP exists to represent college and university writing programs, programs that have, historically, replaced these sorts of cultural projects). We do not want to take down Cave Canem or Kundiman or any of the other attempts to counter the pervasive racism of higher education. As the MFA bubble swells, and as it takes part in the appropriation and redirection of social movements, it makes sense that various writers who are underrepresented might want an advocacy group if they are going to be successful within such a setup.
At one point we asked ourselves if the answer would be a more racially representative MFA. And while we are not against it and would for sure prefer it, a more representative MFA is just that, a more representative MFA. A more representative MFA is not free from many of these questions: even at the program where we teach, where diversity is much higher than the national average, students who identify as other than white express common frustrations about a faculty that remains far less diverse than the students, about classroom environments where neither teachers nor students are equipped to address race when it boils over. Their frustrations are not just pedagogical but are also structural: about their debt and about the mainly white and male room of possibility that awaits them after graduation. A more representative MFA would still be a predatory lender. It would still be a part of the privatization of literary community. It exists in its current state because of particular economic conditions. And it will go on with or without us in the face of any individual call for its abolishment.
We are not alone in our attempts to rethink this mainly white room. It is something that is up in the air, a constant question — a question that, we should acknowledge, probably has as much to do with the recent uprisings in places like Ferguson and Baltimore as anything else. We think it’s worth noticing that something new is happening, or it feels that way to us. Heriberto Yépez, for instance, when writing about many of the events we have recounted here, recently claimed that “North American experimental poetry is undergoing an unprecedented crisis this year and last week an historic shift occurred.” (The shift of “last week” that Yépez refers to is the cancellation of the Berkeley Poetry Conference after many people dropped out in response to Place’s work and the recreation of a new conference called “Crosstalk, Color, Composition” that featured work by writers who do not identify as white, although it still had a mainly white room.) What we are seeing in the discussion about Goldsmith’s “The Body of Michael Brown,” in the discussion about Place’s Gone with the Wind project, in the calls for more attentiveness to gender and the calling out of sexual violence in writing scenes, is not burning the mainly white room down and walking away. It’s the possibility of burning the room down from the inside, in order to build a new one where it stood. It’s not what we think of as the soft boycott, the moment when someone gets fed up with being tokenized or can’t deal with listening to one more example of literature that re-deploys racist language to critique racism or sexist language to critique consumer culture or war and thus walks away but just as an individual, not as a call to action. This soft boycott is the moment we have heard about again and again from students.
We looked again at that handout we have given students in the past and realized we don’t really have a problem with two-thirds of it; we would still feel comfortable telling people to write really good poetry and send it out for publication or to self-publish and we think creating new communities around writing is more important than ever. But now we might include “burn it down” as one way to interact with existing communities. We might remind ourselves that burning it down is a form of making something new. How it will change remains an open question. The question of what to build next still remains unanswered. We do not have an answer. We are not sure we are the ones who should even attempt to answer this question.
We have ended this article many different ways, made various arguments about what is or what might be done. These arguments now seem either inadequate (reformist) or unrealistic (smash the MFA, the AWP, the private foundations, the state). At moments we struggled with our own structural positions even as these structures were created without our consent but to our advantage. We are telling this story unevenly because we are telling it through our lived experience as white women, a story inextricably caught up in our shared work life. And yet it also feels crucial that these stories be told as one story, one destruction of a form of artistic community, even if we have benefited at moments from some of the forces responsible for the destruction. Finally, we agree with McGurl when he argues that “[w)hat is needed now […] are studies that take the rise and spread of the creative writing program not as an occasion for praise or lamentation but as an established fact in need of historical interpretation: how, why, and to what end has the writing program reorganized U.S. literary production in the postwar period?” For us, for now, the best we can do is work to understand so that, when we create alternatives to the program, they do not amplify its hierarchies.
As we worked on this paper, we bothered a lot of people for advice, details, and feedback. We owe debts to Elmaz Abinader, Amanda Armstrong, David Buuck, Chris Chen, Amy De’Ath, Joshua Clover, Jena Osman, Jocelyn Saidenberg, Jennifer Tamayo, Truong Tran, and Heriberto Yépez. None of these people should be held responsible for our analysis. Claire Grossman was superhuman with the IPEDS numbers. Lindsay Baile also helped us. Earlier versions of this paper were presented at the MLA Subconference in Vancouver, the UCLA Graduate Student Conference on Excess, and the Naropa Summer Writing Program.
A note on the data: Unless noted otherwise, all information on undergraduate and graduate creative writing degree programs and students presented in this paper was drawn from the IPEDS Data Center (accessed June 22, 2015). We used only final release data. The bulk of our research was conducted within the “Compare Individual Institutions” option, working with variables available through the data center. We looked primarily at completions by year: total number of degrees conferred by program, award level, race/ethnicity, and gender. Program designation is tracked in IPEDS using the Department of Education’s Classification of Instructional Programs (CIP) codes, first developed in 1980. CIP is a taxonomic system that uses 2-digit codes for around 50 broad instructional areas, and 5-digit codes for sub-categories within those areas. Creative writing was not included as a 5-digit subcategory of English Language and Literatures until sometime after the 1985 CIP revision. 1988 was the first year for which we were able to select the 5-digit creative writing CIP code as a variable along with total number of degrees conferred by award level and gender; 1995 is the first year for which we could also select race/ethnicity alongside these other variables. 2013 is the last year for which we were able to extract data.
When looking at racial identification, we first selected variables for total white students by gender, then the total by gender of those whose racial identification was unknown (that is, who chose not to identify their race). We then subtracted these numbers from the total number of graduates in a given year to obtain the total number of students who identify as other than white that same year (rather than selecting all specific racial/ethnic categories used by IPEDS and reporting institutions). At least one study suggests that those students who choose not to identify their race predominantly identify as white at other moments, and we suspect that the total number of white students in all areas we looked at is higher than represented. For the purposes of this paper, we decided to look only at the percentages of students who chose to self identify their race.