I have come to believe that workshops are only in part responsible for the uniform, unambitious, minor products of poetry that we see over and over again.Read the full interview here.
There are other elements, an entire paradigm that includes workshops, MFA programs, and contests that contribute to this. And the key in your question is the word minor. Although these works are uniform, unambitious and would be minor, it is the paradigm that is elevating these drab works of banality to a level of major–and this, the entire paradigm, is the problem.
The problem with the current paradigm is that it is simply based on credentials and apparently has little or nothing to do with quality of product whatsoever. When a very good, mature poet cannot get a job teaching other poets simply because they don’t possess the “club card” of an MFA degree, but a twenty-something with little or no experience is able to get that same job because they do possess an MFA, then there cannot help but be a deterioration in the quality of the writing.
Another major aspect of this contemporary paradigm is the acceptance of contests as being the only possible means by which to publish a book.
I know people who have recently been in classes in MFA programs whose teachers stated very bluntly, “you must enter contests in order to publish.” This is unacceptable and writers as a whole should not accept this as fact. If the writers did not affirm contests by entering them, then the whole problem would go away on its own accord.
Contests do nothing but two things. First, they impose a fee where there never used to be a fee, and second they force the publisher to publish a book no matter how bad it is as long as it is better than the others in the contest. No one wins in the contest model.
All of these fees, contest fees, reading fees, MFA fees, and the acceptance of these as the only paradigm in which writers may be assessed put money at the heart of the art. By putting money at the heart of the art we as a society have completely given the art over to capitalism and greed and ladder-climbing and survival of the fittest, not survival of the art.
The current paradigm is allowing money to become the arbiter of taste; those with the money to obtain the MFA and pay to submit both to magazines and to book contests will be deemed poets. Those without these means will be left behind in the dust even though much of their work is equally as good if not better.
The whole paradigm is setting itself up to discriminate along socio-economic lines, and this is something that everyone should be working against in this day and time.
The Current Paradigm
New York Quarterly editor Raymond Hammond, in a wide-ranging interview with Anis Shivani, makes these trenchant observations: