An event.

The day I received word I’d been awarded a sum of money for poems about loving men–in fact, a particular man–a friend of mine and I were publicly humiliated by two teenage boys for being gay.

I’ve been writing about this incident since it happened, recording my intellectual and emotional responses, pulling the event apart; letting it hurt me, pushing it away; being a subject to it and a master of it.

Even now, writing this blog post, my first instinct is to minimize–minimize the event itself; minimize my anger, frustration, embarrassment, and shame; minimize the significance of when and where it happened; minimize its overall importance to this community and to my friends and to me.

In fact, more than minimize, my first response is to apologize for responding. To apologize for having been hurt and embarrassed and shamed by it, which, by extension, may be an apology for being gay in the first place.

That I am starting out this writing with these hazards and explanations is, too, a kind of apology.

Dear America: you hurt me, but it’s not your fault.

Dear America: you have fucked up your kids and now they are fucking me up.

Dear America: you remind me I am less.

* * * *

I can hardly bring myself to recount what happened.

To do so is not an act of empowerment. It feels more like a confession–which, again, implies that I am the guilty one, that I am the one who transgressed, that I am the one in the wrong, who broke the law, who should be punished. I do not want your sympathy, reader. I might not even want your compassion.

You should know they were recording our reaction to them on a camera phone.

This might be the ultimate crime. Not that this happened, but their harassment of us was a performance–we were made to perform for their delight, their mockery–something they could share with friends and the world via YouTube.

While we sat there eating our Chipotle.

* * * *

We had committed the crime of losing our self-consciousness.

We had been lulled into the suggestion of safety, that we were in a safe place, that our identities were no one’s concern. That we were undetected. Flying under the dominant radar.

We were wrong.

* * *

More minimization: their actions were so stupid, childish. We shouldn’t have cared. If we were not gay–and maybe this is my fear in sharing the story–we would have laughed. But we are gay, and we did not laugh.

My first instinct–a new one–was to rise out of my chair and beat the ever loving shit out of them.

I own that response. Look, this is my whole life we’re talking about, of being literally and figuratively pushed around for seeming gay–not even being gay, just seeming gay. For something that is, essentially, only the business of someone I am actively loving. Which excludes about 307,999,999,999 people in the world.

Their joke was what you’d expect from high schoolers–something about when spring training starts, and did we know that pitchers and catchers need to show up three weeks early?

* * * *

Our first instinct, when they approached us, asking a question, was to help them.

* * * *

Our shamed reactions, captured on camera.

* * * *

That moment–the one where your personal difference is handed to you like an object, like an albatross you have to wear around your neck.

I have not healed from shame. It hurts less as I get older, doesn’t debilitate me quite as much, but it continues to exist.

It waits to be called upon, then too eagerly reappears.

* * * *

This is my home people, my city. This is where I live my life.

It is not more theirs than mine. This country is not more theirs than mine.

* * * *

I wanted to kick the shit out of them. They left. My friend and I sat, speechless.

What is the right recourse in this situation? Someone please tell me because I would like to know.

I sat there, my appetite dead. Half-eaten lunch, nausea. The two boys walked by the plate glass window where we sat. I started him down. I did, I gave him the look, the one that says, “Fight me.”

He stared back. Then was joined by 8 friends.

I looked away.

* * * *

Before they left, they all watched the video. I watched them watch it. I watched the 8 of them stand there, laughing.

One of them looked back at me, pointed at me, made a gesture like a batter hitting a baseball, almost fell over laughing.

Please explain what is the proper way to respond to this.

Para-mourning

paramore.jpg

As many of you know, one of my favorite bands experienced a significant rupture this week. Paramore lost two of its (cutest) founding members, Josh and Zac Farro, and while Haley and the other two are resolved to go forward, I can’t help feeling like I caused this. Let me explain.

I have a track record. Some people are, you know, really bad at dating and leave in their wake a trail of broken, destroyed hearts. My wake is full of broken bands, broken dreams, forgotten LPs. Since I was a teenager, the bands I’ve loved have experienced that most monumental of changes: break-up. Here, I’d like to take a moment and share my memories of the most difficult break-ups:


Panic at the Disco
Formed: 2004
Destroyed: 2009

I was as surprised as you were when Panic first dropped their exclamation point (Panic!) and then bifurcated into two groups: the persisting Panic at the Disco and the Young Veins, a 1950s-inspired Beach Boys redux. Their first album was equal parts The Killers and Fall Out Boy, and their second equal parts mescaline and The Beatles’ Sargent Pepper. Since the split, there’s been no activity from the half of the band I still like, unfortunately. Boys, I’m out here waiting.


Stefy
Formed: 2002
Destroyed: 2010

You’re like, “Who’s this band?” But that’s because you’re not gay and/or don’t hang out regularly in gay bars, where this band’s campy indictment “Chelsea” was a standard for about a year. Their only release, The Orange Album, is awesome–fun pop music. A few months ago I read an update that the second album I’ve been waiting 4 years to hear isn’t happening, and Stefy Rae released a solo single for the Sorority Row soundtrack. Which I almost bought.


Veruca Salt
Formed: 1993
Destroyed: 1998

Veruca Salt formed when actress (and Nick Flynn’s girlfriend?) Lily Taylor introduced Nina Gordon and Louise Post, who formed the powerhouse harmonizing vocal and guitar section of this band. Their first album was notable for pairing distinctly feminine childhood experiences and pressures against a fuzzing backdrop of guitar rock. It was the 90s. We did things like that. In 1998, the women had a monumental falling out and the band, under Post’s guidance, completely reformed, but was never the same band. Gordon went on to release a single that belonged on adult contemporary rock radio, a song that probably nursed many a high school freshman through a nasty break up of her own.


Fall Out Boy
Formed: 2001
Destroyed: 2010

Pete Wentz (Mr. Ashlee Simpson) and Patrick Stump were the core of this band, contributing words and bass (Wentz) and music and vocals (Stump) for a few albums. They were definitely a powerpop rock band if there ever was one, but what set them apart were Wentz’s irreverent and often punning lyrics (representative song title: “I”m Like a Lawyer with the Way I’m Always Getting You Off”), but the real star, realized perhaps too late or not at all but mainstream media, was Stump’s voice. Athletic, robust, and seemingly unlimited in range, it was unbeatable in rock music. But it seems like fame, and maybe some competition, split everyone up. Wentz went off to lick his wounds with Ashlee, while Stump has tried (and ostensibly failed) to launch a solo act in which he, perhaps overcompensating, plays all the instruments.


Luscious Jackson
Formed: 1991
Destroyed: 2000

Electric Honey was one of my favorite albums of the late 90s, and for Luscious Jackson, it seemed to represent a complete gelling of their formerly eclectic sound, influenced by pop, rock, and hip hop in equal parts. It was also their swan song, as it turned out, and the band evaporated not long after. Now, I get excited when I watch the “Beer Bad” episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (season 6), when Buffy watches the video to “Ladyfingers” while drunk out of her increasingly Neanderthal skull.


Ben Folds Five
Formed: 1993
Destroyed: 2000

The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner was released just as I was on the cusp of graduating from college, and its “wtf am I doing with my life” anthem “Army” was especially significant. Ben Folds Five’s blend of piano, blues, and rock, along with smarmy and/or heartfelt lyrics, was fun at best and totally gutwrenching at worst (“Brick”). They were gone too soon, and none of Ben’s solo albums ever lived up to the group’s promise.

Further Considerations of the MFA/Not to MFA soliloquy

One point I wanted to get at in my last post was that I think some of the MFA program objections come from a sense that the degree, in some ways, might be perceived as credentialing the quality of someone’s writing. I think non-MFA graduates fear or worry that without an MFA, their level of artistic merit might be perceived by others as subpar or at a disadvantage.

Of course, you can’t credential quality, I don’t think that has ever been the purpose of advanced study in creative writing. The only thing the degree credentials is someone’s ability to teach at the college level or below or elsewhere; and even then, it isn’t a hard and fast requirement outside of academia. At The Writer’s Center, for example, we made a choice to avoid requiring an MFA in our pool of instructors, instead opting for significant publication, generally a book with an established national press, as the main credential, along with demonstrated ability teaching or facilitating groups. This allowed us to welcome in workshop leaders who may have cut their teeth outside of academia but were exceptional teachers and mentors to developing writers. It also meant that having an MFA alone wasn’t enough to lead workshops with this, and I still stand by that standard.

The balance between the artist and the professional is one writers who strive to exist in the uncomfortable world of the writer-teacher must learn to live with. Those of us who lead busy professional lives in cubicles or office towers sometimes fantasize about the freedom the writer who has no full time work must feel, while the full time writer, from the familiarity of his or her home office, sometimes shops in the internet and fantasizes what he or she could do/buy/visit if only they had a larger or more steady income.

The MFA is not a key, and it is certainly not a gate. It’s also not a ticket to ride, a seal of approval, a merit badge, or a trophy. It’s just a description of some time spent doing something important, devoting thought, energy, and time to craft, study, writing, and revision.

The MFA is right for some people. It is wrong for others. It can be particularly wrong for writers who end up, for whatever reason, in the wrong program, for writers who have a unique, experimental, or unpopular aesthetic, or writers who don’t play well with others. None of these traits bar those people from having strong and fulfilling careers, but the MFA–the wrong choice for them–might make them feel that way.

Other writers can’t devote the time or expense to such education. This is also not a problem. But every writer will tell you that a writer’s life is often full of complicated, uncomfortable, and difficult choices, from how we manage our time to how we earn our money to how we care for the people we love. Being in an MFA program (or outside of one) has no bearing on your chances for success if your partner or spouse is left out in the cold while you sit typing away night after night or, conversely, while you devote all of your free time to your family instead of to your writing. For people who have difficulty balancing, though, the MFA can provide a brief, concentrated opportunity to develop the focus, habits, courage, and wherewithal to make those decisions and relationships effective–and, as I’ve seen all to often, it can also evacuate your life of anyone and anything that doesn’t suit or support your writing lifestyle.

Writers who can (somehow) afford to live artful lives in NYC are doing something right. I don’t know what it is. Certainly, writers there have access to a rich, diverse, and supportive community of writers, editors, publishers, and the like–including workshop groups, community centers, famous folks, and lively reading series. Those are all wonderful resources to help a writer at any stage–MFA or no–grow and develop.

But for the other 304 million Americans who live outside NYC, the choices can be a little more scarce, a little more clandestine, a little scarier. Is there hope, then, for the writer without an MFA who chooses not to live in New York?

I have an idea.

Let’s stop criticizing the existence of MFA programs and focus more on how we can collectively support the development of writers before, during, after, or in spite of those programs. This false dichotomy–the MFA writer against the non-MFA writer–is useless to all of us.

One thing that was so wonderful about starting to blog back in 2004 was that it felt like being part of a movement, writers taking to keyboards to connect with each other and exchange ideas. Of course, this was before Facebook, before annual conferences became huge and numerous, before our world decidedly changed. But what I miss most about that time is the openness–we were all in this together, creating together, encouraging each other.

In the end, isn’t that what this whole debate is getting at? How do writers make friends with writers and become linked colleagues? The MFA is one way. NYC is another way. But there are many paths. No path is better than another. The path can only be more right for us as individuals.

To MFA or Not to MFA: That is the Question (that will not die)

This week, we saw yet another essay debating the merits of seeking graduate-level education in creative writing. It’s starting to feel like this writings are on some kind of cycle. Perhaps we’ll be subjected to one every semester from now until the obliteration of the academy.

It got me thinking about what’s underneath all this concern. For the rest of this essay, I’ll be using poets/poetry as my nouns, but consider there a place for the fiction writer in this discussion as well.

The arguments generally tend toward the familiar, lamenting the poet/writer’s retreat into the academy, where lackluster teachers receive tenure in exchange for roping in the mindless-but-monied chum in the form of paying students whose tuition supports the university as a whole. Or that we are suddenly creating more poets than we know what to do with. Or that American poetry itself is in some kind of vast existential crisis of readership/of content/of expertise/of relevance.

All of these things may be true. Likely, they do not matter much in the greater scheme of things, though.

We are still reading essayists describing the difference between now (the MFA mill) and “before,” the time when that model didn’t exist, when aspiring writers either wrote blindly and alone or were fortunate enough to catch a famous writer on a good day and then engaged in several years’ thoughtful correspondence, during which time the famous one coached the soon-to-be-famous one. For we can be sure that all writers who engaged in the correspondence-apprenticeship model became famous, right? Because we have no existing correspondence of any writer who ultimately did not become famous. Let’s be reminded that even Emerson wrote enthusiastically to Walt Whitman upon reading the second edition of Leaves of Grass. “If it worked for Walt…”

And today, aspiring writers pay to be in a room with a famous (?) one, who may or may not care about them, who may or may not be sober, who may or may not be a person one would want to spend many hours locked in a room with.

Clearly, we are in a crisis.

Clearly, we should return to the earlier model. With fewer poets mucking up the publishing world, surely my book would win the Yale/Whitman/insert prize. Let’s also remember that, up until the mid-1950s/60s, most poets were white upper class men with Ivy League educations who had generally traveled or lived abroad, and had both the wherewithal and the resources necessary to devote one’s life to the monastic existence of one who makes the poems.

But I’d say that model might be best left to the Modernists. Just as Ezra Pound cried that it was time to make it new, it is time for us to make the making of it new.

With that in mind, let’s agree on some stuff:

> There ARE a lot of MFA programs. My God, there are. You see this either two ways, really. You either think it’s fine or you hate it. Yes, we are producing a lot of writers these days. Yes, we are credentialing a lot of people. Yes, we are creating experienced literary magazine editors and community program teachers and composition teachers.

Composition teaching used to be called the “faculty wives job.” Perhaps it’s a good thing that credentialed teachers are in those classrooms! They are also teaching in community centers, prisons, libraries, living rooms, hospitals, war zones, assisted living facilities, and arts centers around the country.

I’ve always thought that making more poets was a good thing, since it created more readers of poetry (theoretically). If more people are reading poetry, then more people are reading books, talking about poetry, thinking about poetry, supporting poetry readings and events, creating reading series, founding journals and magazines, and generally working to widen the reach and impact of poetry. This is a change from the former model, where only the highly educated, wealthy, and/or pretentious elite had access to “literature.”

I’ll also say that it doesn’t matter if we’re making more “good” poets. Do photography MFA programs worry they are creating too many photographers? While some MFA graduates will go on and become literary superstars, some will go on to write in their diaries. And there is certainly nothing wrong with that.

For some people, the teaching credential is valuable. For others, the time to write. For still others, the community of writers with whom they work. These are all valid and valuable reasons to pursue an MFA degree. An MFA degree is also only required in the case of the first concern.

That some people think there are too many MFAs circling the waters at AWP might mean they are concerned that there are too many people gunning for the same job openings. And some of them are right to be concerned because the economy + highly competitive job market = some people turned away. And sometimes, the wrong people are turned away. But that’s life. There are other options.

There is a whole nation of people who are writing right now. Writing and reading are not dead. In fact, our culture is entering an era when it seems like arts engagement is at an all-time high. Never has art been more accessible, more available, or more necessary. People you’d never expect have novels-in-progress in their drawers, furtive poems scribbled out on cocktail napkins, and memoirs in their heads. People want to write. There is no reason why they shouldn’t try.

The world is already full of reasons why people shouldn’t write. Let’s not be part of creating another one.

Neologisms

I’m making a list of neologisms and I need your help.

Please drop a few in the comment section. What are your favorite? I’m especially interested in neologisms that:

> are American in origin
> pervert an existing word (like “blamestorming” from “brainstorming”)
> elide two existing words (like “frenemy”)
> have come into common usage in the last five years or so

Many thanks!