Letter to an MFA Applicant by Samuel Amadon
The new Poets & Writers MFA rankings have just come out. And I have to say: don’t buy them.
Maybe that’s not fair. I guess all I can really tell you is what happened to me. First, I applied to eleven MFA programs and got into none. The rejection letters went to my parents’ house, where I didn’t live, and my mother had to call me every day and tell me that nothing had come or who had said no. I got a little confused. The next year I applied to sixteen programs. It was all I thought about. Not writing, and not going to a program, but the list of programs I was applying to. I kept adding programs, but for weird reasons: to balance out the aesthetic of the list or to add something a little quirky, as if the list itself was what I was creating a list for. That year, I got into seven programs. Full-funding at two schools I didn’t really want to go to, some funding at two schools I really did, and no funding at three. Though I never would have expected it, I ended up going to Columbia.
At that time, there had been no new ranking of programs in years, and the perception that MFA programs were unrankable still persisted. But in web forums and other places applicants discussed schools, Columbia was viewed as a good program, but one that you would be foolish to attend (or even apply to) because of the cost. I paid. Or rather, I borrowed. I was going to borrow anyway and it wasn’t that much more. I mean: I was twenty-four. So I saved some money and I sold my car. I went all in. When I got there, it turned out everyone else had gone all in too. No one ever skipped a workshop. No one ever said they didn’t feel like writing. We knew the exact amount we were paying for every hour of school and we held every one of our teachers accountable.
They delivered. My first workshop was with Richard Howard, who doesn’t run a workshop. Instead, he reads to the class once a week and students meet with him individually at his apartment: once a week and for at least one to two hours each time. By the end of my first year, I had spent over sixty hours in Richard Howard’s apartment talking with him about my poems. That’s insane. But it’s not just Richard. My workshop with Lucie Brock-Broido met six times after the semester was over, and for five hours each time. Timothy Donnelly met with me and read an entire manuscript of mine before I had even taken his workshop, which, incidentally, also met extra times and usually ran one to two hours over.
The essential explanation for why Columbia is such an expensive program is that it’s part of the School of the Arts and not the English Department. That also means every class I took there was in the School of the Arts and taught by a writer or by a critic who knew they were talking to writers. Besides the workshops I took with Timothy Donnelly, Lucie Brock-Broido, Richard Howard, and Mark Doty, I studied with Mark Strand, Ben Marcus, Marjorie Welish, Ilan Stavans, Richard Locke, Henri Cole, Mark Wunderlich, and Helen Vendler. Everything I did fed into my writing and that was what all my teachers wanted.
I didn’t get any teaching experience. But I’m finishing a PhD from University of Houston now, where I’ve gotten plenty. I went into debt. But, and I say this to the poets in particular, I wasn’t ever going to have any money anyway. Am I saying you should go to Columbia? Not exactly. Am I saying you should go into debt? No. I’m really not. It was probably a really stupid thing to do. But I loved it and I became a better poet because of my teachers and because of the incredibly amount of time and energy they put into me and my work.
None of this shows up in a ranking. Which is why this year’s Poets & Writers ranking of full residency programs puts 46 schools in front of Columbia. So forget fair: what I’m telling you is that’s absurd. But it’s also absurd that there are 46 schools that are better than the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, which ties with Columbia. There aren’t. I can tell you there are 29 professional baseball teams that are better than the Houston Astros, but not that there are 49 MFA programs better than Boston University, and certainly not that there are 59 schools better than the University of Maryland. Why? Because the Astros have actually lost more baseball games than anyone else in the league, but the Poets & Writers rankings are based on what people who haven’t actually attended these MFA programs think of their websites.
You’re not getting an MFA to get funded by an MFA program, nor to have a good teaching load, nor to move somewhere with an ideal cost of living. You’re getting an MFA to have your writing taken seriously by serious writers who you respect. There’s no way of knowing ahead of time if someone is going to be a great teacher and especially not if they’re going to be a great teacher for you. But I swear that anyone who tries to tell you teachers are not the most important part of an MFA program has been spending too much time on the internet. Don’t buy it. Put the rankings down.
Pick up the books of the faculty. Pick up the books of the alumni. Try to talk to people who actually go to these programs. They aren’t the ones voting in these rankings. But they are people who can tell you if a young faculty member is bright and full of energy or bewildered and doesn’t know how to handle graduate students. They can tell you if the Pulitzer winner is never going to learn your name or is going to keep meeting with you four years after you graduate. Read about the programs. Don’t go into debt—or do—but make your decision about your writing and the writers you want to work with first, and money after. Don’t buy these rankings. I mean really, don’t buy the actual rankings. Tell your friends not to too and hopefully, someday soon, Poets & Writers will stop printing them.