As a part of the Brooklyn Rail's continuing series on writers and teaching, Erinne Dobson recently spoke with acclaimed poet and biographer Robert Polito, who has been the director of the writing program at the New School since 1992. Since 1996, the New School has offered a two-year graduate writing program leading to a Master of Fine Arts (M.F.A.) degree with concentrations in fiction, poetry, nonfiction, and writing for children.
Erinne Dobson (Rail): There are a lot of MFA programs out there, and certainly a lot in New York. What would you say differentiates the New School?
Robert Polito: I have a lot of respect for the other graduate writing programs in New York City, and many close friends of mine are on their faculties. Those programs are certainly part of our larger New York City writing community, and I am always pleased when occasions for collaboration among us emerge, such as the numerous graduate student reading series you now see in bars and bookstores around Manhattan and Brooklyn.
When applicants ask about the New School graduate writing program in the context of these other programs, I usually ask them to think about two aspects especially. The first is our faculty—in poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and writing for children, I believe we have the finest and most various group of faculty writers in the country. I won’t list them all here but refer you (as they say) to our Web site or to the ad in Poets & Writers. The second is our reading series—though to tag it only a reading series tends, I think, to diminish this vital element of our program.
Each semester the New School graduate writing program presents roughly fifty readings across literary genres. Some of these are large Tishman Auditorium events, such as the readings by the National Book Awards and the National Book Critics Circle Awards nominees every year. But most take the form of forums: a writer reads from his or her work for twenty minutes to a half hour, then takes part in a craft conversation led by a New School writing faculty instructor, such as Helen Schulman, David Lehman, Jeff Allen, Deborah Brodie, or myself. Students then have an opportunity to ask the writer questions and mingle in an informal way. We have a most various writing faculty, but the readings allow us to bring many more voices into the program. Besides the NBA and NBCC, we enjoy collaborations with the Poetry Society of America, the Academy of American Poets, PEN, Cave Canem, and often present evenings that feature magazines we admire, such as Fence or Tin House or the Believer. I also see our public programming, if you want to call it that, as honoring the “public intellectual” traditions of the New School. Our program is a kind of community resource for writers and readers across the city.
Rail: What efforts does the New School make to accommodate aspiring writers who work either full or part time?
Polito: Right from the start we wanted to create a program that permitted our students to work part- or even full-time jobs. Many students enter the program already in the middle of some other notable career—publishing, film production, or journalism—but they wish to come out as writers. Many, of course, apply right after college. The New School writing program aims to prepare students as fully as possible for the lives they might actually experience as writers. Writers only rarely support themselves exclusively by their writing. We teach, edit, do arts administration, and write for magazines, whatever.
All our classes, workshops as well as literature classes, occur in the evening—they start at 8 and run to 10 or 10:30. Our readings usually are scheduled for 6:30 on those same nights.
Rail: What kind of connections can prospective students anticipate making with other students? What fields does the program pull from?
Polito: Our students tend to be pretty amazing—when we go around the room at orientation in September and ask what they have been doing, it’s almost funny to hear them say they are essentially trying to leave the sorts of solid jobs most people customarily go to graduate school to get. As I say, some are feature writers; others might even be lawyers or book editors.
So while they are here, they sometimes write for publications like the Voice or the Believer, or they launch reading series, and they tend to pull their friends along with them.
Writing programs, I think, are about self-transformation. Community is intrinsic to that—not just faculty or the program administration but particularly the students. I like to see them chatting at the readings or piling into bars after class. But communities are fragile and take time to build, and they need to get rebuilt with each new entering class.
We try to formalize this a bit by requiring students during their thesis semester to form a peer group of three or four students whose opinions and criticism they’ve found helpful. Along with their advisor, students share their drafts with this peer group. My sense is that most of these groups endure for years after students graduate—they keep meeting to show new work.
Rail: How long have you been involved in this MFA program? What specifically attracted you to the New School?
Polito: I started the graduate writing program here nine years ago and was in residence a year or so earlier, as I recall, to get it going. Programs like this require elaborate and lengthy state approval, and there’s also a formal internal vetting process as well, but I’m glad the New School isn’t as bureaucratic as some universities. There’s a freedom here to do good, lively work, and that’s exciting, and rare in my experience. I suppose I was also attracted to that public intellectual tradition I mentioned earlier. Plus there’s the astonishing—no other word for it—writing legacy of the New School. We’ve been offering writing workshops for credit since at least 1931. If you were enrolled in a writing or literature class here during the early sixties, your teachers would have been Frank O’Hara, Kenneth Koch, Robert Lowell, Anatole Broyard, Kay Boyle, and Marguerite Young. I wanted to develop a graduate program that would touch base with that legacy—not in any nostalgic way but to continue it, and recast it.
Rail: The New School is well known for its visiting writers. Can you talk a little about the authors that have visited in the last year and how they’ve contributed to the program?
Polito: Our visiting writers fall into two groups—those mentioned earlier, who might read in a forum or as part of a larger literary series, and those who conduct short (usually two- to four-session) weekend workshops.
Among those who have read or are scheduled to read this year are Anne Carson, Joe Wenderoth, Simon Armitage, Gary Snyder, D.A. Powell, Tracie Morris, Linh Dinh, Minna Proctor, Jack Gilbert, Maxine Kumin, Russell Edson, Mary Karr, Rene Steinke, Greil Marcus, Amy Hempel, Francine Prose, Susan Wheeler, Alan Michael Parker, Craig Seligman, Caryl Phillips, Susan Choi, Haryette Mullen, Art Speigelman, James Tate, Ned Sublette, Jim Shepard, Don Paterson, Rachel Cohen, Major Jackson, Danzy Senna, Lenny Kaye, Fanny Howe, Yusef Komubyakaa, and Ann Hood. And that’s just a partial listing…
But we also create all these short, intensive workshops and seminars that aren’t for formal credit but increasingly compose a crucial part of what it means to be a student here. This year students could take short classes, either specialized writing workshops or literature classes, on topics that ranged from translation to editing yourself to Rimbaud, with such writers as Harry Matthews, Frederic Tuten, Susan Bell, Marie Ponsot, Pat Carlin, Rika Lesser, Sharon Mesmer, and Susan Shapiro, among many others. Last year Stephen Wright, one of our esteemed core faculty, taught a short seminar on Gravity’s Rainbow.
Rail: Does the program allow students who have declared a concentration of fiction, poetry, nonfiction, or writing for children to take classes in another concentration?
Polito: We encourage students to take workshops only within their declared concentration—two years is a brief time, and focus often proves essential—but to experience literature classes outside that concentration. Some of our students declare two concentrations, either when they apply or by submitting a portfolio of writing while they are here. These students then continue on for an extra year, pursuing the second concentration. We are seeing more of this—students who enter, say, as poets or novelists but also wish to write smart nonfiction.
Rail: The success of an MFA program is often directly related to how often its alumni and students get their work published. What are some recent publications from New School alumni and students?
Polito: The danger of answering a question like this is that inevitably I’ll leave too much out. There’s practically every literary journal you can name. But let me start with ten recent books, so you can get the range. Marc Bojanowski, The Dog Fighter (William Morrow); Jonathan Raymond, The Half-Life (Bloomsbury); Mark Bibbins, Sky Lounge (Graywolf); Carol Goodman, The Lake of Dead Languages (Ballantine); Kathleen Ossip, The Search Engine; Drew Huebner, American by Blood (Simon and Schuster); Douglas Martin, Outline of My Lover (Soft Skull); Brad Kessler, Lick Creek (Scribner); Patti McCormick, Cut (Push Press); and Kalisha Buckhanan, Upstate (St. Martin’s).
Rail: Does the program provide opportunities for teacher training?
Polito: So many young writers will teach, and it’s important that they be skilled at it. During the second year our students have the opportunity to enroll in a six-session “Teaching of Writing” seminar. Dave Johnson leads this, and I think he does a marvelous and sophisticated job at preparing students to teach college, or even high school writing workshops. We supplement this seminar occasionally with sessions specifically for poets or for fiction writers on more specialized matters.
Rail: Young writers often feel daunted by the intricacies of the publishing world. How does the program prepare students to deal with this?
Polito: Our task is to teach, to offer the strongest workshops and literature classes, and to be alert, canny advisors and editors. During the two years students are here, we really try to get them to focus on their writing. Occasionally, students will come to me as early as their first semester and ask where they should send work, and I usually advise them to wait a bit. Aren’t their poems and stories and essays likely to improve and deepen over the coming two years, especially after they spend a semester working closely with their advisor? There’s no point in sending out work that isn’t ready; this can close doors that might have been open later.
That said, we do bring in agents and editors and publishers each year to talk with the students and give them a sense of the business, both in the “how to write a cover letter” aspects and in the “state of publishing” aspects. Students also get advice and information from their teachers, and instructors do refer work that is finished to editors and agents of their acquaintance. We are seeing really wonderful work from our students. That’s what keeps us all going.