Rachel Zolf’s Tolerance Project: In the Belly of the MFA Beast

[Thanks go out to Chad again for pointing this out to me.]

Go to Rachel Zolf’s The Tolerance Project, read her Statement to MFA workshop. In October, some problems began after some peers in her workshop became aware that some of their negative comments had anonymously been posted on the blog above the poem that they were critiquing. Charges that Zolf was “violating the ‘privacy’ and ‘sanctity’ of the MFA workshop” were made–exactly the kind of attitude that began to annoy me so much when I was in an MFA program.

The blog itself, which Zolf describes as being “kind of a like a reality tv show for poets,” documents and functions as a source of feedback and critique for her proposed thesis project in the MFA program she started this Fall. It is conceived as a large scale collaborative project which is an examination of the MFA institution from her position within a program and using the contributions of more than 80 poets who are teaching in MFA programs as the material for the poems (the statement describes it in more detail).

Here’s an excerpt:

The focus of my project is not this particular MFA. The blog doesn’t even name where the MFA is taking place, as what is most important for my project is that it is a collaborative take on the MFA as an institution within larger state apparatuses. That is the key concept behind my project, a deconstruction of how “authors” and “voices” are created through the process of the MFA, linked with how difference is “tolerated” (or not) in general in the US. I wanted to provoke a look at how the MFA works as a process, by deliberately blowing up the authorial creation and feedback process beyond this room. There is a long tradition in the art world of looking at the workings of art institutions such as art museums and art collecting practices and the creation of the artist as a commodity. In fact, if you remember the poem I brought last week about Adrienne Rich and the form letter…that is from my book Human Resources that looks at capitalist and corporate structures and even has a poem about famous American conceptual artist Andrea Fraser videotaping herself having sex with a collector for $20,000 and displaying the tape in an art gallery. How’s that for an exposure of art as a commodifying institution?

We need more writers like her actively challenging the stagnating culture of poetry workshops and the dominance of mainstream Romantic ideas propagated within them. And we need more poets who think of themselves as artists and their poetic activity in relation to the rest of the art world, within which poetry undoubtedly belongs.

2 thoughts on “Rachel Zolf’s Tolerance Project: In the Belly of the MFA Beast

  1. Read a few Romantic texts, why don’t you… especially German Romantics.
    (Don’t just take Marjorie Perloff’s word for scripture.)

    Yes, the MFA system is lame. But this sort of pseudo-thought is even worse.

  2. I love several of the Romantic poets, though I’m not a fan any Germans to my knowledge. Rothenberg’s third volume of Poets For The Millennium is a great read and a wonderful eye opener for any who might believe that Romanticism is just hoity-toity bourgie bullshit.

    I agree that Perloff’s word is not the end of matters, but I do not find her very easy to dismiss. I don’t fully accept this sentiment anymore that Laureate poetry (I do like that term) is just a poor remnant of the Romantic period. That is too simplistic, especially since the Romantic period was such a diverse time in English language literature (again, I’m not a specialist as you are in German Romanticism, though the music was pretty great).

    There are obviously significant differences, though, between the typical subjective positioning of the Speaker in Laureate-type poetry (those institutionalized in most anthologies and most published and financially supported) and those authors who are working from the now-not-so-radical moves of certain Modernists and any avant-garde that followed. Relative to the role of the author in much of Romantic era poetry, this is a significant break on the part of avant-garde.

    I hate anonymous comments, by the way. It’s pretty cowardly. You say nothing meaningful about “pseudo-thought” here. WTF do you mean by that anyways?

    And why am I wasting so much time responding to this shit?

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