The most recent book launch I went to was Nikolai Duffy's in Manchester. Most of the crowd were friends and colleagues of Duffy's, some of us students, many of us students of English and Creative Writing, most of us poets ourselves. Duffy's work was an innovative collection of poems with an over-arching narrative which explored grief, loneliness, and had a smack of eccentricity which gave the collection a very British feel, which was no bad thing.
Throughout the evening looking around everyone was recognisable in some way, either due to having recently published a collection, started editing a magazine you read, or are at least teaching you and / or someone you know on a Creative Writing program. For students of English and Creative Writing, you know and respect everyone because everyone around you is somehow successful and well-known, and more importantly you know that you yourself will remain a relative unknown during, and for some time after your Creative Writing course.
The problem of the Creative Writing course is expectation and subsequently impatience - during such courses students often learn which small presses to tap up, how to write publishable work and perhaps the most intimidating factor - students have their writing endlessly shaped by workshops with their peers, and now assume that if you are not publishing your first collection before you are 30, you are a failure.
This push is apparently what makes you a good writer, and indeed it is true that a lot of the writers I respect and admire today have graduated from and usually are teaching on Creative Writing postgraduate degrees. The problem is however that the Creative Writing degree is a monster which feeds itself.
It seems that it is the degree rather than the writing it produces is the most important factor when trying to get published, as if the readers are somehow going to be fooled that bad poetry is good just because someone managed to earn a degree in the art of its craft. Even mentioning that it is a study in progress can bolster a young writer's chances of being published, at a lot of magazines where seemingly tradition and formality reign over innovation and experimentalism.
I say this loosely, as England does boast many a small press whose purpose is to champion innovation, but they are severely outnumbered by those perpetuating poems which could have been written 40 years ago. As a student poet myself I have fallen at this hurdle many a time; to write poetry as you expect a poem ought to be written, rather than to write poetry the way you want the poem to be written. This is down to the popularity contest feeling surrounding the poetry world, surrounding the stars of Creative Writing degrees, to write something populist and be liked is one thing, to write something innovative and to struggle is another.
It is my personal choice to eschew a Creative Writing degree as I don't believe it can help me personally grow as a writer. Recently at the launch of an anthology I was published in the editor asked me if I studied creative writing. I said no. Her immediate response was: "Why?" - again I realised I was in a room full of Creative Writing MAs and PhDs. But not me. I still choose to study English, but I study the theory and criticism of novels and poetry rather than the direct construction of them.
One of the most productive aspects of an English Literature course is the endless reading. Your reading list is full of books you have to read and know in order to write your essays and pass your exams. I sometimes wonder if a Creative Writing course demands such knowledge of past and present literature? It must do, as many students of Creative Writing fall into the trap of emulation, and before even speaking with the poet you can tell they are a huge fan of (most commonly) Sylvia Plath, or Ezra Pound, poets still describing themselves as "imagist" nearly a century after Imagism.
Nevertheless my decision to break with Creative Writing as study may work against my progression as a poet. I can't drop anyone's names when submitting to magazines; I'm not studying under any poets the magazines already like. My work has not been workshopped by my fellow students, the only feedback I receive is the level of applause I can gauge after each performance, the less the applause, the more that poem needs.
My advice here is not to avoid Creative Writing courses as I do believe for some people they are the best route to take, and can give a young writer the confidence to reach their fullest, most impressive potential. My advice here is to not assume these programs are your only way in. Things will always be slightly harder if you are not studying Creative Writing as you're not constantly surrounded by poets but maybe that's a good thing. Give yourself some breathing space, and don't try to rush to the finish line before you can recognise Imagism from Flarf.
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