On the Joys of a Poetry Degree

Thursday, November 17, 2011

With a Small p

Not long ago I interviewed to teach composition at a small college. The chair of the department and his secretary both grilled me about my creative writing degree, which makes getting a job at the school in question difficult, if not impossible. 

“Your degree is in creative writing?” the secretary asked. I said that it was.“Not poetry, is it?” Half-jokingly, the chair of the department told me not to answer that. “I plead the 5th,” I said. They laughed. The secretary made a joke about the “P word” being roach spray to the hiring committee. Apparently I chose the wrong major.

I talked to a fellow graduate of my program about this, and he told me he had undergone similar experiences. The common conception of MFA grads, he said, was that they spent two years fine-tuning their use of commas. The perception that my degree is a worthless piece of paper ought to depress me. But truthfully, it only bothers me while interviewing for jobs teaching freshman comp. 

I often ask my students why they chose their respective majors. Usually, I hear, "because I want to be a (fill in the blank)." Rarely do I hear a student say, "because I'm interested in learning about the subject." This was my foolish reason for going into debt and spending countless hours reading, writing, editing, and peer reviewing—hours I could have been sleeping. In this economy, I can’t fault students for thinking with their pocketbooks instead of their hearts. 

Yet if I could go back in time I would likely make the same decision. Why study anything unless you love it, right? Jobs come and go. They are what you do to get money so you can do the things you love. I may never get a great job teaching and I may never publish another poem. I may spend life toiling in drudgery, but I’ll always have poetry to sustain - if I may borrow a line from Nazim Hikmet - the tiny jewel in the center of my chest.