Thursday, October 15, 2009

Statement to MFA workshop October 13

Tolerance Project Coordinator Rachel Zolf read out the statement below to her MFA workshop class on October 13, 2009:

This presentation is supposed to be about an Issue in Writing, I have materials for us to look at and discuss, but in the past few days an issue has been raised by another teacher in the program in regards to my MFA project, and it seems I haven’t been clear enough about my project, so I’d like to clear that up first. In order to do that I have to be very clear about the context behind my project. I think this will provoke a good discussion, so please bear with me while I outline the context.

On the first day of class we had about a minute to tell the class about ourselves and our work. I quickly explained that because of the discriminatory laws of the US federal government, when my female partner got a job as a tenure track professor at [university name edited out], I was unable to legally move with her from Toronto to New York, because our relationship is not recognized by US immigration authorities. I had to obtain a visa to stay here by some other means, and the only real choice was becoming a student. Hence my appearance in this MFA program, even though I am an award-winning mid-career poet with four books published by established literary presses and my work taught on graduate level English lit classes in several universities in North America.

Now obviously it is a strange situation for all of us to have me in this class. But it’s important to note that my situation is not unique in some ways. I have a number of other peers with multiple books and who have taught in colleges for years who are also being forced to go back to school and get the MFA credential that has become essential to getting any creative writing teaching work in North America. There is a big critique in the literary community about this, because as you well know, writers generally have to go into huge debt in order to pay for the MFA. The critique of the MFA as a disciplining institution acting as a cash cow for university endowment programs has been going on for years, and is in fact kind of clichéd.

Back to the one minute intro from the first day, I also told you I was working on a conceptual writing project where 85 writers, artists and thinkers from across North America had donated written and visual material to me, and that I would make poems for the MFA from this material. I also said I had a blog for this project. What I didn’t have time to say is that my project is called The Tolerance Project, and it is using the constraint of having to make poems only from the donated material as a means to examine the constraints that I have had to go through and am operating under in order to be here in the US and in this MFA program. I am of course here in this class partly because the US federal government doesn’t “tolerate” queer people. It was only the other day that Congress finally decided that killing people just because they’re queer actually is a hate crime, and they seem to be approaching the thought of repealing the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, so that, as Philly poet CA Conrad quipped at an event last night, the US military can finally put rainbow stickers on tanks and machine guns. My point is that the US government is very far from recognizing my same-sex relationship and enabling me to live here freely with my partner on the spousal visa that I would have easily received if I had been a man.

Obviously you can gather that a key aspect of my work is its political content. But I’ve always approached that work through polyvocality and the use of investigative documentary sources and practices. I never have just one voice and stance in my poems; they are always multiple and generated from large archives of collected research material. The book I have coming out in the spring is on Israel-Palestine and has only three phrases in it made by “me.” The rest is all collaged from human rights documents, books and other sources. Hence the reason that The Tolerance Project is framed as a collaborative project, where I have collected an archive of material to work with. I don’t believe in originality or the supremacy of the authorial voice. I agree with Walt Whitman that we each contain multitudes, multiple voices framed by our interactions with the various people, technologies, media and institutions that we deal with every day, and I let those multitudes be on the page.

I’m not sure if any of you has gone to my blog over the past six weeks since the start of the program. The blog was easy to find by googling me, and it was never meant to be a secret. The reason I have a blog is so that the 85 people who contributed to the project can see when I have used their donation in a poem. I have given every donor a barcode and post the barcodes used after the poem so they can check and see if their barcode has come up. They get barcodes not just to play up the DNA aspect of them contributing a poetic trace of themselves, but also so that the donors remain anonymous until the end of the project. This is intentional so that no one is distracted by reading the poem through the lens of a particular recognized author’s name. I truly see these poems as collaborations and have had some fascinating discussions regarding originality and subjectivity as a result of the comments made in the comments section of the blog and elsewhere. The blog encourages the public to make comments and give feedback on the poems, with the aim of my revising the poems based on cumulative feedback as an aspect of the final MFA thesis. I guess you could say it’s kind of a like a reality tv show for poets.

The key problem that seems to have arisen unbeknownst to me is regarding my taking the constructive criticism that you put on the poems I brought to class and putting this criticism on the blog in a completely anonymous form. I never assumed this would be a problem, and if there was a problem I assumed that people in the class who went to the blog would have told me. So for example, for the poem, “the Tradition,” the one on breastfeeding and all the chemicals in the milk, I wrote on the blog all of the workshop feedback I thought would be constructive to start with in terms of revising the poem. Here’s exactly what I wrote preceding that poem (btw, since this controversy I have taken down all the comments and we can discuss that more in a minute):
Some comments on Poem 2: “Poem has too much repetitions. It grates on listener’s/reader’s ear”; “a little preachy...look at tuning some passages of melodrama”; “I almost wanted to see some less robotic mixing in the beginning”; “I think plain, clear language could make it stronger, ie cut the repetition of not really me and simply refer to it as a child…it gets worn from overuse”; “hmmm very both motherhood and sex, lube and oils, perhaps just my reading”; “'economics and labor time and biology' could be too direct”; “reminds me of The Talking Heads’ 'Heaven'”;“'Hand this over./Pass this on' feels a little chain-letter like to me”; “'raisons' as intentional misspelling?”;“Follows some directions of the 'contemporary' canon, but explosive”; “Suggests the speaker is a kind of machine, so the speaker is the engine oil, what needs the additive.”

So that’s an example of what I would write preceding a poem (and just for the record, I don’t have a child). I deliberately didn’t post the positive comments, because they don’t really help in the revising process. The aim was that the online public would look at the poem and the comments and make more comments on the poem, that it would open up the workshopping of the project poems beyond just the few voices here. And that I could show donors actual critique on their poetic donations from relatively unbiased MFA students. Many donors are established poets from earlier generations that didn’t have to take an MFA in order to teach. So the project plays with the interesting fact that many of the people of earlier generations that are teaching poetry workshops have never actually undergone the workshop process themselves. In fact, one thing I like about being here is learning from established writers like [name edited out] how to teach these types of classes.

Given that all the comments were completely anonymous and blurred together as a collective response, I had no idea it would be violating the “privacy” and “sanctity” of the MFA workshop, as I have recently been told. I’ve never been in an institutional workshop. In fact, the only workshop I’ve ever taken was a two-day one almost 20 years ago where I actually wrote my first poem. I worked on my poems and books first with carefully matched mentors, then with peers and peer editors. I have also edited a number of books of poetry myself and was the founding poetry editor for The Walrus magazine, which is like a New Yorker or Harper’s for Canada.

The focus of my project is not this particular MFA. The blog doesn’t even name where the MFA is taking place, as what is most important for my project is that it is a collaborative take on the MFA as an institution within larger state apparatuses. That is the key concept behind my project, a deconstruction of how “authors” and “voices” are created through the process of the MFA, linked with how difference is “tolerated” (or not) in general in the US. I wanted to provoke a look at how the MFA works as a process, by deliberately blowing up the authorial creation and feedback process beyond this room. There is a long tradition in the art world of looking at the workings of art institutions such as art museums and art collecting practices and the creation of the artist as a commodity. In fact, if you remember the poem I brought last week about Adrienne Rich and the form letter…that is from my book Human Resources that looks at capitalist and corporate structures and even has a poem about famous American conceptual artist Andrea Fraser videotaping herself having sex with a collector for $20,000 and displaying the tape in an art gallery. How's that for an exposure of art as a commodifying institution?

I apologize if I haven’t been clear enough re my project. That was unintentional. In fact I wish we had more time in this workshop structure to describe each of our projects and ask each other questions. Now I’d like to ask you how you feel about your constructive feedback being used in my project, and if you would object to it being posted on the blog. Another alternative if that seems too public is I could post the anonymous constructive criticism in a more private space like my Facebook page and only give access to “friends,” ie my project collaborators and other literary colleagues interested in the project. Or if any of you didn’t want me to post your comments on Facebook either, that would be fine. Just let me know.

So to be clear, right now the poems I’ve brought to this class and my lit class are posted by themselves, with their barcodes. I have pulled the comments that came out of the classes off the blog. I’ve put them for now in a note on Facebook that is only accessible to my Facebook friends, but I can remove specific comments by specific individuals if need be.

I’d also of course feel very happy if any of you wanted to contribute to the reality poetry show with even more comments on the poems posted in the comments section on the blog. I put a call out that I particularly welcomed “asshole” contributions, given that if you know anything about the comment sections on poets’ blogs, they have always been seething pits of assholeness. That’s partly why I wanted to have a blog for this project, to draw the assholes out, and expose them a bit. But so far they’re laying low.

Anyway, I hope that clears things up a bit.


  1. You should be permitted to do whatever you wish with the comments about your work, in my opinion.

  2. This is fascinating to me as a teacher of creative writing whose only two workshops were as an undergraduate. I have had Ph.D.'s in my workshops (over summers) who need the MFA to teach CW. Very odd state of affairs. In any case, thanks for including me in your DNA, though as an adoptive mother, I'd rather call them adoptions.

  3. I don't understand why anyone would make supposedly-helpful suggestions to your poems without the understanding that you might incorporate those comments into the finished work. I find it rather distressing that The Workshop wants all traces of its own handiwork erased from The Poem, while at the same time foreclosing the possibilty of any poetic work being done outside The Workshop (not to mention the outside The Poem).

  4. I'd be very interested in hearing more what folks have to say about "privacy" and "sanctity" in light of Rachel's point that the spotlight was not on any particular MFA program, but on the relationship between these programs and larger state apparatuses.

    As someone who is faculty at a prominent MFA program, I believe that this project offers an important aperture into how MFA programs fit into bigger pictures.

  5. You have identified nothing about the people who made the comments, therefore you have violated nothing. I certainly hope you will include some of the comments in your final work and tell all these wankers where to go in the process. This kind of behaviour is an insult to poetry, to your work and to you. And a huge waste of time and energy that could be better spent writing.

  6. This is all very fascinating and the poems are gorgeous, Rachel; don't stop. But as an MFA grad, I know why your classmates are bothered: their critiques sound a whole lot dumber in black and white than they did in that windowless room. I mean, that's obvious. Yes? But it merits mentioning.

  7. So, a few things. First of all, I support your project and the posting of comments, and I think it is absurd to say there is "sanctity" in the MFA workshop. For the purpose of disclosure I must say that I am in the same MFA program as you, though we have not met or had the slightest interaction that I know of. I first came across this blog the second week of the semester and told some of our peers that there was someone in the program doing something brilliant, finally.

    However, there are some issues which I think your enthusiasm may have caused you to overlook. Many of our classmates are very young, fresh from undergraduate programs, and while they have the excitement for poetry they still trust very much in the system. They are looking at this program through the fogged lens that lets them see the glory of themselves as future masters, and the slightest moment of instability that they feel may give them pause. I'm not saying that giving them this is a bad thing, it is perhaps the best lesson one can learn, but it is a point that you should consider. Also, having been a provocateur in the program to a certain degree, one has sat to a room of golden silence after reading a poem and ready for the critique, most of these people are scared of anything that challenges them. Rather than accept and learn from your experience, they feel threatened by it, like it somehow diminishes their voice (and, quite frankly, you have been presenting their criticism on this blog with a certain amount of arrogance, again not a bad thing), but when we make comments we do so in the hopes that we will be heard, not laughed off, though most comments should be laughed off.

    Our program buys into the "positive and nurturing" MFA philosophy, whether it be because of cynicism ("why not nurture, they'll never go anywhere anyway") or a true desire to progress the arts I don't know, but any critique of the system will draw out the ire, especially by the individuals who stand to face the direst consequences, i.e. the position of teaching creative writing will fight for its life while being exposed as a fraud or mocked in any way. These may not be your conscious desires, but it is a side effect of this project, whether you admit it or not.

    Anyhow, the most important lesson I learned in the MFA so far: "When they tell you something isn't working, do more and more and more of it."

  8. Given that all the comments were completely anonymous and blurred together as a collective response, I had no idea it would be violating the “privacy” and “sanctity” of the MFA workshop, as I have recently been told.

    There's nothing sacred about a workshop, nor is there anything private about it. That you went to such lengths to ensure the anonymity of the people you share that space with is a credit to you, and the people who are complaining need to get over themselves in a big way.

  9. I empathize deeply with the state-sponosored homophobia of the US government and its lack of recognition of your relationship with your lover in terms of immigration status.

    My criticism of your expressed reasons for enrolling in an MFA program spring from different concerns.

    I am not holding back. You say that you want feedback. Well, I am going to directly flesh out the picture that you seem to have created of yourself to me and in the eyes of many people with whom I have discoursed over the last few days.

    I find it most alarming that, in outlining your reasons for pursuing an MFA degree (apart from immigration issues) you seem to have bought into the arrogant, hyper-commercial notion of an MFA degree as essentially empty careerist teaching accreditation.

    This cynical notion is opposed to a far less bitter and egotistical understanding of the MFA degree as a means to go beyond your own aesthetic status quo, to interrogate your own "business-as-usual," and to explore fresh perspectives that truly engage the coursework that you are and will be exploring.

    By announcing your MFA project before engaging substantively in that coursework (however vital your project may be); by figuring out your MFA thesis without engaging in any substantive coursework or deep interaction with your professors beyond a few weeks; by doing these things you set up an implicitly adversarial relationship between yourself and your teachers, your coursework, and your peers.

    In effect, this relationship communicates (if not explicitly) to them that you don't really care about growing, changing, or learning anything new; that the feedback of your peers may be good for revisions as "touch-ups" but that your direction is SET and everything is about your own situation, your own stance, your own vaunted publishing background, and your own ego.

    As you cavalierly suggest in your statement, you stand apart from your peers. The lack of basic educational humility is ludicrous and shaming to say the least. Do you realize how you come across?

    At this point, I can't imagine that you would make a particularly generous teacher-with-an-MFA-degree if you can't seem to think beyond your arrogance and consider the gravity of how you come across.

    In fact, your approach negates the entire work of growth and change required for ANY educational program when you put forward that your project supersedes the advice of your teachers and meets the requirement of the MFA thesis.

    In fact, it does not seem to meet the requirement for the MFA thesis because it is business-as-usual for you; it was generated prior to coursework; it was formulated without MFA advisers' input; and it simply endorses the "conceptual" approach that you have already been mining instead of going beyond (or truly interrogating) your own past approaches to TRULY learn something that ***challenges*** you and shifts the ground of your artistry.

    In short: you could have done this project on your own. So, apart from immigration issues and gaming the system to get an academic post, why are you wasting your teachers', your classmates' and your own time in an MFA degree?

    As a future teacher do you REALLY think you will be able to simply smile and endorse your students work almost wholesale as you seem to want them to do for you (besides small-scale revisions and touch-ups)?

    In effect, do you even give a darn about truly teaching anyone in the future in a way that mirrors how you **could*** have been guided if only you were open and not bitter?

    Like so many, many other people, it seems you simply enrolled in an MFA program to GAME THE SYSTEM.

    This lacks integrity and I find the picture that you have created of yourself to be decaying and it is not even week 10 of the fall semester for most schools.

    That's my criticism.

    Can you, will you, actually hear it?

  10. well, this anonymous, unlike the one above, has no empathy with homophobia, state-sponsored or otherwise... and remembers sometimes that competence is sometimes mistaken for arrogance by those who don't like having their woolly toque pulled up over their eyes.

    why recite platitudes? i find rachel is trying to place some serious challenges to a program and system that, if it is worth its salt, should be able to respond to those challenges and open itself to them instead of saying: you! back down in your hole!

    i see nothing wrong with walking in the door with an idea... and seeing how that can be influenced, shaped, altered... and how it can shape other ideas and paradigms... there could be a really constructive conversation going on here...

    and it's not private; the inside is outside here...

  11. Re: the comments from anonymous on 11:25 PM on October 31: What a load of twisted pseudologic and telling Freudian solecisms!

    Let's talk about arrogance. Boiled down to their essentials, these comments amount to the following: "How dare you enter into an institutional structure with a negative hypothesis about its methods and objectives? How dare you challenge the participants in that system to examine that structure and their roles in it? How dare you come into this system with an idea of your own? How dare you pursue your course of inquiry without submitting to the very conditions of supervision and control it is partly your objective to question? How dare you use the position you have been so benevolently granted within this institutional structure to advance a project that is critical of that structure, and how dare you attempt to critique the criticisms of that project you receive therein?"

    Wow. Even taken on their own terms, the commenter's objections are often nonsensical: in what way is the "notion of an MFA degree as essentially empty careerist teaching accreditation" a "hyper-commercial" one? Isn't commerciality precisely what such a notion protests? And I know it's just a grammatical error (at least I hope so), but it's not promising when one starts out with the claim that one "empathize[s] deeply with the state-sponosored homophobia of the US government." This may be a cheap shot on my part, but I do think this sort of self-undermining expression is indicative of a deeper, more fundamental confusion on the commenter's part.

    Any system that can't tolerate being "gamed" when the alleged game consists of nothing more insidious than a legitimate interrogation of that system's efficacy doesn't deserve to sustain itself.

  12. I sincerely believe that it is projects like Rachel's that can actually save MFA (or MA) Creative Writing Programs from their entrenched irrelevance in the name of aesthetics (or even so called "ethics" that wish to keep creative writing in a "hobby bubble." It is the "hobby bubble" attitude that is the problem--and yes it has class and race dimensions too, especially in times of economic meltdown. In times of economic meltdown, we should be appreciating different, innovative, paradigms for creative writing--like Rachel's. And if you don't, well, it's at your own peril.

  13. (a comment in 2 parts)
    What's with all the anonymity here in the comment polis? Do I sense fear? I think so.
    I am a Canadian living in the USA on a J1 visa, which is what scholars and students with no green cards can get to work or study for the short term in an institution. This visa can be acquired only via a sponsoring institution and is attached to a specific job or role, only for its duration. When I cross the border, my eyeballs and fingerprints are digitally scanned and stored. I am also in the USA because my partner is here. Although we are female/male, marriage isn't possible for reasons I won't get into. Like Rachel, I have no MFA; in fact I have no BA either. I presently teach as an adjunct in a writing MFA, as well as in a fine arts MFA. Last year I went through the application mill to find a secure job. I had some screening interviews at the MLA. They seemed to go well. My work is respected and widely read; I'm lucky these days. I didn't get on a short list that time round, which was of course disappointing. Later I received a private letter from one of the committee members. She explained to me that her committee had been very interested in hiring me, but that their Dean had blocked me, because I have no MFA. She said they would have gone to bat for me, but another department had failed in that respect the previous year, so now there was a precedent. No artists or poets without MFA's would be hired. The letter was a very kind gesture. Obviously its writer was disappointed in her institution.
    In Canada, until very recently, most poets did not study in MFA programmes because those programmes were atypical. There were very few. Most Canadian poets do not have MFA's. We think there are many ways to become a poet, even a very good poet, and so we set about inventing ourselves and our communities.(and our arguments and enemies! We do not follow the support and nurture model of learning-- it's more the swill and swear model.) There is support for us. We are not treated as mavericks or oddballs, as poets without MFA's are treated down here. There are grants, public library lending rights fees, royalties, advances for poetry books, etc. Poets can be freelance because there is still universal medical coverage. So it's possible to make a very modest living translating, writing for the art press or editing, among the more obvious options my friends and I have explored.
    In the USA poetry is professionalized. Not much swilling and swearing. Not much argument. Lots of etiquette. In Canada, we think argument, conflict, contradiction, position taking, is part of discourse. Poets take positions and fight them out. In the USA, we think support is the role of a poetry community. And yet the institutions really support those who have the credential. Everyone wants to be in an institution, within that safety. Fair enough. Since there is no public realm here, no safety net, anyone without private means must find an institution or perish.
    Perhaps the sphere of the workshop is a faux-public, a placebo for the free discursive space a public realm once guaranteed. This is a kind of tragedy. Even so, in my workshops, I struggle to teach my students to argue and disagree, to take stands. It's difficult; the status quo is to like and be liked: to like the poem, the poet, this line, that approach, this feeling, that word, etc. I try to ban liking from the workshop.

  14. Violating the "privacy" and "sanctity" of the MFA workshop seems like a bizarre criticism to have leveled against this project. I could see if individual people did not want their comments in class surveilled or bcc'd without their permission. But in a way this project is all about crediting the sources of appropriation, which is why that accusation seems so ironic. And really overall, classes are a public space, especially for teachers who are routinely evaluated by their students and held accountable for things they say through an institutional evaluation process. Outside of that, terms like "privacy" and "sanctity" seem to evoke a fear of the demystification surrounding the workshop, as if we might actually find out how the masonic order churns out people who write mediocre poetry or "how the magic happens"

  15. That said, I really like what Rachel is doing. I don't think the poetry workshop is a personal growth space, a la Esalon, or whatever those 70's places were called. We have our therapists for that. I think the workshop is a political space. Rachel is revealing politics, and it makes everyone very uncomfortable, so uncomfortable that they won't sign their names to their comments. It is my sense, after 3 years in this country, that its internal politics are controlled by fear-- fear of having no job, no medical coverage, no community. (not mentioning the obvious fear of the foreign) I think Security Level Orange is very much in operation in MFA programmes and among poets. I think the border of every practice is patrolled in the way that the American national border is patrolled-- keep those strangers out, those whose papers aren't in order, those who may disturb things. Do nothing suspicious. This is called integrity. I have played the game in order to have my little visiting positions, which are the positions available to an MFA-less poet. But we all know this: nobody needs an MFA in order to write a poem. It's another mode of regularization. Because of love and politics and economics some of us step through some of the hoops. Rachel is displaying the hoops publicly instead of pretending they're natural. This is what an engaged poet does. This is a real time engagement with form. Why agree to protect the naive? Why not explore together how power works? She has guts. Maybe a little more arrogance would be in order, if this is arrogance. I'd call it discourse, simply.

  16. When Rachel first announced her project, I thought that – by using poems from a transnational community as source texts -- it was structured to test the concepts of originality and self-expression within a creative writing MFA program. And the project was also going to foreground the social context that it is as taking place within – the USA’s nonrecognition of same-sex partners and restrictive immigration policies. The project struck me, to use a phrase from Walter Benjamin as an investigation of “the projection of the historical into the intimate” and also a critique based on a reversal, of a projection of the intimate into the historical and structural (from the state to the university to an MFA program to everyday life). These aspects seem to solidly put the project within the history of conceptual art and its two strongest tendencies: institutional critique and the reconfiguration of artist as producer. So the roots of this project can be traced from Walter Benjamin, through the institutional critique phase of conceptual art up to the type of art as commodity critique that Andrea Fraser has spectacularly engaged in. Given this, it would seem like an ideal project for a research university with a radical heritage. In the statement on her blog, Rachel is pretty clear about the critical heritage of her project and points out that part of her project is to take the workshop feedback as also part of an institutional mechanism. I know of many MFA projects in visual arts that have done similar things and have not met with the same nervousness (and most forms of institutional critique have been institutionalized in the art world…).
    And Lisa’s comments (which just came in as I was writing) also show what is at stake beyond the feelings in a MFA workshop (which is the space that Rachel’s project was exactly aiming to be outside of). There is a simultaneous professionalization of the university and the “creative industries” in it and the precariousness of many jobs in universities. So writers and artists are being asked to do more to get less (and being asked to be “flexible” and move from city to city and negotiate the tough J1 visa which was the class of visa clamped down on after 9/11). This set of relationships is what critical/conceptual practises are supposed to show or reveal: the dialectic of possibility and restriction, of forms and scales of “freedom” and, of course, the possibilities of art as a form of knowledge/research/expression. So rather than critique being understood as “arrogance”, I’d rather think of it as “sincerity” (in the way the Objectivists drew on sincerity).

  17. I think I commented earlier on this project/blog or maybe on RZ's facebook page something to the tune of "having done an MFA, i'm assuming this is comic genius." I was being an asshole but i was also being serious. At the risk of this turning into the predictable canada/US opposition, i'd like to say that i did an MFA in canada and on the first day in my fiction workshop a (male) prof told us that we could be critical but not unkind. I remember wondering about the maddening ambiguity of this statement. What is "unkind" varies hugely from individual to individual; if that's the policy of the workshop, then there is no way to protect oneself from accusations of not being a constructive "contributor" -- you are on the slippery grounds of well-that-was-my-experience and feelings-are-real. There is an expectation or code that is never fully articulated -- if it were, kindness would be revealed as censorship. Aside from my intuitive sense that this is all about an unspoken code of decorum, I think that it needs to be said that this is likely also about liability from the POV of the administrators. If you were to have a litigious classmate, they could create a lot of trouble for your school. Copyright! Privacy issues! Whether or not this could/would occur universities are preemptively hyper-reactive and self-protective around legal risks (they are corporations, after all). When I read the initial project statement I thought it might be shut down for liability issues veiled as something else. I hope I wasn't right and this really is about something as Pythonesque as "the sanctity of the workshop." The word "privacy" screams institutional legal red flags for me (I worked for several years as a journalist at the student newspaper during my BA and we saw this kind of crap all the time). Good luck.

  18. Also in 2 Parts:
    Thank you, Rachel, for brilliantly allegorizing the inequities built into U.S. human trade and wage labor laws that we, as a so-called “LGBT community” face, and that “we,” as so-called U.S. citizens, are all complicit in. Complicit in our quietisms, in our inadvertent and habituated othering, in what appears even here on the blog: neo-liberal fundamentalism after fundamentalism. Were your project “only” to expose the apparatus of “homosexuality as debt,” it would be an important detournement. Yet, the project is so multivalent. That its allegory pivots around the Academic Industrial Complex, that “cash cow” that is, and is increasingly, the Masters Degree, makes for a truly multi-channeled and collective project that will connect up several, interrelated substructures of our un-doing.

    Thank you, Lisa, Jeff, and Kasey—for contextualizing this for us, and for “signing” this document. Rachel, I think it spot-on to make anonymous the comments I hope will be reposted. Indeed, it’s important to go beyond recognizing, but always pushing poetically the polyvocal, fractured and multiple construction of the subject/agent—I am certainly, the multitudes; and the conditions under which identifications are constructed, even the very names we are given, constantly call out for witness and analysis. Yet here, like Lisa, I find it fascinating to see who signs their comments and who decides to “remain anonymous.” As a locus for ascriptions of responsibility, but also for purposes of delving into why just this set of comments is identified with just this name, or not: it’s interesting that the vast majority of writers out there would like to make sure their names are attached to their good poetic works, but not to anything that might be crucially controversial sans accolade. Or might simply be slip of the tongue. Or a thought sketched out in a moment of self-defensive wounding.

  19. Part 2...Going on far too long, and mainly I decided to chime in here in order to riff off of what Lisa posted. And to give anecdote to what Jeff was getting at. Before I started teaching text arts (got the job as inside gig, along with the fact that I’d simply published a couple of poetry books – another e.g. of the normative professionalization here, what makes one “qualified”), I spent about seven years as a union organizer, organizing several different job categories, among them graduate teaching/research assistants and adjunct professors. Chances are I probably organized at the institution where you are, Rachel. And there was, indeed, a pervasive anti-union sentiment among most of the MFA writing students that I organized, at several different institutions. It initially shocked me that there seemed to be such a crevasse between the arts and left social activism—I’d have predicted that disenfranchised writing instructors at corporate universities would be predominantly “pro-union,” even if many students were just out of college, etc. This, especially after the fact that a) we’d just won (were the first place to do so in the U.S.) domestic partnership healthcare benefits for same-sex couples, and b) had drafted, as addendum to bargaining, a comprehensive student/work visa protection proposal for internationals, one that would ensure that internationals would be protected from losing their job or benefits during a delay in visa processing (this was in the wake of September 11, when “administrative review” of J-1, H1B, etc., was especially high, and there was still hope of stopping some of the legislation that ended up leading to many of the invasive practices Lisa mentions). The link to that document is below for any interested.

    The reasons I got for why MFA students would not support unionization were largely twofold: either the MFA student came from a management family, was “well to do” and so did not support unions and/or didn’t consider themselves “workers,” or the MFA candidate was so deeply in debt, so beholden to their advisors, so on the fringe of an institution, that “rocking the boat” was simply unthinkable. I found that this sort of alienation manifested in the mimetic/institutional reframing (or deframing) of the socio-political use value of aesthetic production. Either poetic practices are “too meaningless” to be “work” or sites of political activation/critique, or such practices are fetishized as being transcendent of work, of “politics.” Jeff’s pointing out that this project’s critique via submission, as well as its dissensus has a trajectory that goes back to Benjamin is extremely helpful. To riff on that as I sign off here. The beginning of Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory also seems crucial, here, not just as it relates to your project, Rachel, but as it relates specifically to some of these posts and other reactions within the institution: “Only by immersing its autonomy in society’s imagerie can art surmount the heteronomous market. Art is modern through mimesis of the hardened and alienated; only thereby, and not by the refusal of a mute reality, does art become eloquent.” (AT, 31)

  20. Um, just to say, from Erín Moure, that at least one person (me, Nov 1, 12:23pm) was anonymous just because too lazy to figure out how to get my name up there... and my name, which may not be my name, doesn't really matter, my views stand regardless. Just so laziness doesn't get reconfigured as part of conspiracy, I write again, signing, to remind (for it should have been clear) that Rachel's project is a most excellent and essential one, for all the reasons described by Lisa, Jeff, etc.

    And I really do remember being called on the carpet at work and being called arrogant, and I thought about it, and I said, no, competent. sometimes arrogant is competent mixed with standing in opposition to a status quo.

    (just figured out the name thing)

  21. This project infuses a much needed critical examination of so many structures and assumptions. And I agree strongly with issues raised by Lisa, Jeff, Chris, Erin, Kasey and others. Coming into an MFA with a project that forces reflection upon the system of course will make some feel threatened. But obviously systems need to be examined. The MFA has always been a political space, it's just that the politics often go undiscussed. I'm grateful to Rachel for discussing them openly and creating a platform for others to do so. I also don't think that her project supposes a "cynical" view of of the MFA. A cynic would say nothing and assume that things will always continue wihtout change. Standing up is always the most optimisitic/pro-active or courageous view. Somewhat surprising that an anonymous commenter would use the word "arrogant" to describe a project and a poet who discusses her use of research and examination of various political issues throughout her work. This type of awareness (outside the "I") is too often lacking in poetry.

  22. I am not anonymous, I am Margaret Christakos.

    Online practices of latency and listening are important are aspects of the discourse we create. If I write

    now is it to really contribute the edge of my thinking through these issues or to protect and defend, to build

    an offense. Usually both. Sincerity

    not all bad. Sincerity a ruse. Inclass workshops need to be competently facilitated each do they

    participant in the room both completely defended and open for takedown. The reason hah

    conversation online benefits from facilitation is that various positions set up to produce bulwarks against other positions. But real

    learning transformed discourse occurs within heated spaces of difference. One needs

    who needs the diversity of argued positions to encounter an enlarged, more elucidated field of

    contention and possibility. These forms—what is their poetic—I post

    a long comment where I go off at the mouth, beautifully

    competent, without the perforations and translocutions of conversation— tend to rigidify and grow brittle. I don't

    I know. I'm interested

    in the is it complex complexity of this faceoff anon non--what becomes whose voiceoff. The critical moment, whether it's deciding

    whose poem has merit and saying this and why or which person, the client with 10 items or the cashier with repetitive strain syndrome, in the lineup scene at the grocery store is getting screwed over by the manager's policy to allow only 8 items, a critical moment about deciding

    when to say I will tolerate this with conditions. I will tolerate this moment of posting a text here bolstering the field of difference which is sort of the insignia of body but also an absence of body, I will tolerate with conditions.

    Remember and consider or reject the rules of this blog do not have to mimic the rules of the institution or the MFA workshop

    How is the tolerance project about tolerance, and how or can various voices are here be construed as in some way potentially productive of tolerance, or is tolerance only ever a toxic liberal fallacy that requires our camouflage in gang identity. Crazy to post this, or not strategic enough, or treacherous. Or agent of? Can sentences fragment when an argument needs to be made.

    Is whose workshop a place to work on form as well, and should not the online post be an erasure multiplicit and contradictory, or not.

  23. Though I'm so sorry to hear about your disgraceful--but altogether unsurprising--treatment by the US Government, I'm absolutely delighted to discover your project. The pissing and moaning is a sure sign you're onto something good.

  24. Hmm. I agree that it's stupid that the US government wouldn't grant a visa based on a marriage legal in your own country. However I find, like one of the other commenters, the assertion that you've been "forced" to go into an MFA program as a result to be disingenuous. If you really think the MFA is such a waste of time, and for you in particular, why didn't you go into a different program where you'd learn something new? Couldn't you think of a single other strategy that would have saved you from the horror of an MFA? I can think of a whole bunch of things I'd *like* to learn about. I can't fathom spending the time and money and sheer work on graduate school if I didn't want to be there. Or the degree of privilege it takes to think of graduate school as a hardship.

  25. I am definitely enjoying your website. You definitely have some great insight and great stories Undergraduate Project.