Why My MFA Is Better Than Yours, or “Poetry in Person” the Reading

14 Apr

You know, I don’t usually go in for the agonizing comparisons between poetry MFA programs.  Each one is different:  some are more prestigious to attend, some are more rigorous, some are better funded, but if you find your time in one useful, then that’s really all that matters.  My humble MFA comes from Cal State Long Beach, which is a very reputable state school, and I was blessed to meet a wonderful group of fellow writers while there, teachers and students, who helped me tremendously (and continue to do so).

However (here it comes), this reading I recently attended at the New School made me throb with envy.  Literally.  Palpitations.  Because the reading was organized to coincide with the publication of Poetry in Person: 25 Years of Conversations with American Poets.  If you’re anything like me, then I know you’re thinking:  a) WTF is that? and b) that’s one hell of an unwieldy title.  Let me explain. 

Poetry in Person is the distillation of Pearl London’s legendary class at the New School, in which, over the course of thirty years, she invited some of the greatest, big-league poets in modern American poetry to come talk to her class about their writing, specifically their works-in-progress (which is what the class came to be called).  In-progress, as in drafts, doodles, scraps of paper, notations, all and anything that would peel back the process of writing and revision for her lucky, rat-bastard students (yeah, yeah, I’m sure they were all lovely people).  After London’s death in 2003, her son contacted the head of the New School’s writing program with a tantalizing discovery:  three cardboard boxes full of cassette tapes.  It seems that London, in addition to being a very devoted and exacting teacher, had also taped AND SAVED her sessions.  The book is a culling of twenty-seven years of master classes.

Good lord.  Can you imagine how interesting and inspiring and awesome those classes were?  The reading organizers managed to gather five poets who’d participated in London’s classes to read to the collected audience.  Are you ready for the barrage of amazingness?  Here goes.

Robert Pinsky -- ah, Pinsky!

The Great Edward Hirsch

Feisty Maxine Kumin

The Haloed Paul Muldoon

Well hello, Stanley Plumly

I had never seen any of these folks read in person, so I felt like I won Poetry Bingo or something that night.  In such a sea of good poetry, and good poets, there were a few things that stood out to me:

– Pinsky’s reading style is very, very different from his normal talking voice.  It’s almost a little off-putting, but it also makes you sit up and pay attention.

– Kumin’s poem, “For My Son on the Highways of His Mind,” is friggin’ amazing.  Almost song-like, it’s so beautiful.

– Ed Hirsch seems such a good, likable guy.  I loved his poem “Wild Gratitude,” which was almost named “August 13.”  Which would have been a real shame.

– I couldn’t understand a damned thing Paul Muldoon said.  I’m sorry.  I’m rarely accent-challenged, but there you go.

– Stanley Plumly is the hottest old guy I’ve ever seen.  Forget Sean Connery.  Plumly has a wonderfully husky, deep vibrato that makes you want to just curl up next to him.  I know, he’s old enough to be my grandpa.  I don’t care.

I have to get my hands on this book–I’m just waiting on a coupon.

Hope you’re reading good things,

Jho

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