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MFA Update – Poet in New York

Guest Post by Christopher Soto

Christopher Soto Photo

A few months ago I wrote on this blog about my pre-MFA experience (traveling and writing before beginning my studies at NYU). And now, if it’s alright, I’d like to update you on how my first semester went… I intend to focus on detailing the poetry culture surrounding the MFA program at NYU.

So, the program is situated within the Lillian Vernon Creative Writers House. The house is located in the heart of Greenwich Village with a plethora of shops, cafes, restaurants, and bookstores around. Aside from one “Master’s Class” offered to undergraduate students (and taught by Marie Howe this semester) there are no other undergraduate classes or departments using the Creative Writer’s House. Thus, it’s only your poems and your MFA cohort occupying this private Greenwich Village townhouse, along a quiet tree-lined street off Sixth Avenue. So cute!

Some of my favorite memories from this semester have been merely writing and reading in this house. I find myself delving into books of poetry, next to a classmate in the common room, our attention only broken by the footsteps of Sharon Olds walking down the stairway. She will comment on the weather or the shine of the freshly polished handrails or just say a quick “hello” before we, students, immerse ourselves back into our books.

Anyways, in NYU’s MFA program a full course load is 8 credits per semester (one craft course, one workshop course). Classes are usually held Mondays, Tuesdays, or Wednesdays. This semester I took Charles Simic for my workshop (on Monday evenings) and Major Jackson for my craft (on Tuesday evenings). Each class meets once a week for three hours, so the course load is not too overbearing. Most everyone in the program is very self-motivated and has great passion for poetry. So the light course load is seen as an opportunity for independent study, not an opportunity for laziness. It is a place where intellectuality and creativity are cherished and encouraged. So the seats are usually filled before and after scheduled classes with students doing independent work.

The program staff, and faculty, and your classmates will let you know about journals that are accepting publications, upcoming readings in town, books that you must read, fellowships and retreats that you should apply for, they will help you workshop your poems outside of class, anything you need. I have found the community of poets at NYU to be extremely hospitable, informative, and also pretty damn diverse (for academia).

In my cohort there are people of different genders, sexualities, races, ages, economic classes, from geographical locations, everything! It seems as if everyone comes from vastly different lived experiences, is writing in different forms, and emulating/challenging different parts of the poetry cannon. We support each other in our diversity and promote a culture that celebrates each other’s differences and similarities.

When not in class, or doing independent work, students often congregate at the plethora of readings at the Writer’s House. The readings hosted by the MFA program usually occur every Thursday and Friday evening and bring in a menagerie of your favorite poets.  You’ll find yourself sitting next to Philip Levine listening to Yusef Komunyakaa recite poems, or chatting with Sherman Alexie over wine and cheese in the reception area after his reading.

On Friday nights, there is also the student run reading series at the KGB Bar. So after the Writer’s House events on Fridays, people walk over to KGB together for some drinks and to mingle in a bit more rowdy of an environment. Those readings are usually filled with more grunts, and moans, and heckles and laughs than the prim and composed readings at the Writers House. But both are equally enjoyable. NYU students also frequent readings at Columbia, the New School, and throughout the other boroughs of NYC. Oh, and there are also sporadic panels/presentations/classes by visiting poets and publishers on Friday afternoons.

Many students also run their own reading series, or journals, or work for a publishing company or any variety of other literary organizations. Some students also get involved with Washington Square Review, the literary journal at NYU.

After a few weeks in the MFA program, it will begin to seem as if every writer (and publisher) lives within a few miles of you. And for the most part, it’s true. Several times, I’ve found myself finishing up a book and looking at the author bio to see that they live in Brooklyn. Several times I’ve emailed such poets and met up with them for lunch. There is so much community to discover and explore in NYC, I find it quite invigorating.

Lastly, I’d like to close this article with advice for prospective MFA students at NYU (or any poet seeking candidacy in another MFA program or any poet trying to “make it” in NYC or…). Remember that you are not building a network, you are building a community. You are excited to meet all of these poets and publishers because you appreciate their work and share a mutual admiration for the craft of poetry. Remember to not use people as a means to an end, to not look at them for their “network.” Remember that (even with your MFA degree and fancy new poetry friends) you will likely not be making money off of poetry. You will likely not become famous because of your poetry. But in the odd chance that you do become “famous” and make “money” off your poetry, remember that isn’t what you went into your MFA for. Remember that you went into your MFA to learn more about poetry, to be around other people who were also passionate about poetry, and to write the best damn poems you could.

About the Author

Christopher Soto (aka Loma) is a queer latin@ punk poet who is concerned with dismantling patriarchy and white supremacy.  They are currently curating Nepantla, an e-journal dedicated to queer poets of color, in collaboration with The Lambda Literary Foundation. They have work forthcoming from Columbia: A Journal, Acentos Review,  Anti-, and more. They are an MFA candidate in Poetry at NYU.

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