What good is a Master's anyway?
It’s been a long time since I last posted on my blog, and I’ve been very busy in the meantime. Not only have I started a new job (in a wonderful academic setting with lots of cultural and entertainment settings and events), but I’ve also started an MFA (Master’s in Fine Art) of Poetry at Manchester Metropolitan University. It’s been a hectic few weeks, that’s for sure!
For one thing, I applied quite late in the year – after umm-ing and ah-ing about where to study, and writing/collecting all of the documentation required to support the application! As part of the application and assessment process I had to provide the following:
- A sample of work (could be previously published or not)
- A personal statement about why I want to study and what I will get from studying
- A critical review/analysis (I used
by Ocean Vuong – a gorgeously evocative poem)
- A reference from someone familiar with my work who could vouch that I’d be a good student (my publisher,
, kindly provided this)
I then had a phone interview with the lovely poet and professor
, who gently interrogated me on my poetic life and involvement in the local literature scene, my future career prospects etc etc. Happily I was accepted onto the course, only a week before it started! After a bit of back-and-forth with the university about enrolment, I finally enrolled on the day of my first tutorial!
I mentioned earlier that it took a lot of consideration about where to study. A lot of distance learning options (which I wanted to do alongside working, as I did with my BA), were ‘Creative Writing.’ I already knew from my undergraduate degree that I wanted to focus on poetry (that was much broader). It’s my passion, and I just don’t enjoy writing other genres in the same way at this point in my writing career. That limits the courses quite a lot.
There were two things which really sealed the deal for the Manchester Metropolitan Writing School. Firstly, it is very prestigious - although I don’t mean I chose it for the ‘accolade’ of attending there. Established by Carol Ann Duffy, it organises nationally-recognised prizes and events, plus the teaching staff are among the finest practicing writers out there. This, for me, shows that there must be a culture of passion and quality in the school, to attract and retain such high quality staff, and to build such an excellent reputation.
gave a talk for my writing group, Blakenhall Writers, earlier this year, and she discussed the pivotal role that her MMU MFA had played in her journey to becoming a respected, published writer. The picture she painted of the support from the tutors paired with the freedom to create your own work sounded like a match made in heaven for me.
Brimming with enthusiasm, I started the application process. But why was I doing this at all? Starting a degree of any level is not a decision to take lightly. Formal education isn’t for everyone, and you have to weigh up what you will get out of it with the time, effort, and cost. I've even heard people disparage higher education, especially in relation to creative subjects, with comments such as "you can't teach natural talent" or "I'd rather learn through experience." I appreciate everyone's opinions, but here is mine.
I had to address this question as part of my application and interview, so I have a clear picture in my own mind of my reasons for doing this degree.
One question which Jean asked me was “You’re already published, so what do you hope to gain?” A really important reason for me to undertake this degree is that I do not ever want to become complacent about my own ability. I know I have improved my writing skills in the past few years – mostly from mentoring, attending workshops, and reading more widely – plus that degree, of course. I even improved enough that someone thought my work was worth publishing! But I know I have got room for improvement, and I don’t think we ever really stop having the ability to improve, so I don’t want to stop trying!
Secondly, I am really interested in knowing where I sit in terms of historical and contemporary ‘context’ – i.e. what have people done in the past, what are they doing now, and what am I doing which is similar to, different from, or inspired by this? How does poetry sit culturally – does it have power, is it political, or is it pure entertainment? I think this it is really important to write with one ear to the ground – not only to understand whether what you’re writing is ‘popular’ right now (if you care about that), but also to harness inspiration and see what poetry has the potential to do. We’ve started off with a reading module, closely studying the works of poets active in the 1900s. We research them, make notes on their lives, and analyse their poems closely. This kind of close ‘unpicking’ means that we can identify the ‘building blocks’ of poems we enjoy – or at the very least, considerations to take into account while writing. We then practice using those techniques. It’s a great way of tracking the evolution of poetry, especially through the politically and culturally tumultuous 20th century.
I want to learn how to ‘be’ a poet i.e. not just how to write, but how I can teach, inspire, lead, organise, and be part of the literature community. I was very inspired by the talk given by
back in June. She articulated very well the power of community-based projects, and I believe that this is as important as publication and accolades. Spreading a love for literature (and poetry, especially), safeguards this millenniums-old practice for future generations. Poetry has given me so much solace over the past few years. Not in the way you might think – while I find some elements of writing cathartic, what has gripped me the most is finding a passion for something. Appreciating my own talent and outputs – giving me a reason to be creative, to be interested in something. Making new friends, finding new connections, and attending events. I want to share that with people, and seeing the modules on offer as part of the degree, I think they will help me with this.
Does ‘networking’ sound terribly corporate? What I’ve found already, even in my small tutor group, is that all of these people are as passionate about poetry as I am! Not only does it feel wonderful just unashamedly talking about poetry literally for hours at a time, but I know that I can potentially expand my network of poetry contacts, and even friends. Who knows where it will lead, but how can that be a bad thing? We have weekly two-hour remote tutorials, and I leave them each week feeling like I’ve learned a lot about other people’s opinions and perceptions of poetry as a whole. I think that’s a very valuable thing when you’re writing for an audience.
One thing I definitely am not doing this degree for, is because it means I can put letters after my name, because I can then claim to be ‘an expert’ at writing poetry, or because I like the idea or ‘prestige’ of holding an MFA. For me, the value will be (already is!) in the undertaking of the degree, not the end result. Right now, I am feeling very busy juggling studying with work and other commitments, but I’m hoping this will calm down in due course, once I’m used to balancing studying again. Although it’s a big decision to make, I hope that writers who want to develop their identity, technique, and community as a writer will consider completing education in the field, because I feel like I am already reaping the benefits, and I’m so excited to continue in this vein for the next couple of years!