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in september 2010 i started the poetry MFA program at columbia college chicago. i had a mixed but mostly negative experience, and i dropped out in november 2011. after i left the program, i focused on writing and building my internet community full-time, couch-surfing to stay with internet friends for free, riding cheap buses, and living frugally. because of all the new experiences and friendships this created, and because of the success i’ve had “doing my own thing,” i’ve said dropping out of my MFA was the single best decision i’ve ever made. but there’s so much drama in the lit world about MFAs, i don’t want to just add a hyperbolic soundbite to that conversation. in this post i want to really provide details and insight into what my MFA experience was like and why it was such a bad fit for me personally, to help others decide whether it might be useful for them or not
[if you don’t know, MFA means “master in fine arts,” it’s a type of graduate degree, and they’re pretty controversial in the lit world. people think you “can’t teach writing” and stuff, so they think MFAs are actualy ruining poetry. it’s a pretty loaded subject. i don’t side with either extreme in the debate, but my MFA was pretty bad for me, and i want to tell that story.]
the professors i studied with in my mfa program
professor #1: i was excited to take a workshop with her because her writing seemed experimental, appreciative of nature, and loosely anti-capitalist. i felt like she would encourage my wacky experimentation!! but it turns out she was quite closed-minded about what kinds of experimentation she found interesting or valuable. she liked the poetry i submitted with my application, but when i started the program a year later, i was exploring different styles. influenced by flarf, i was writing almost all funny poems, and she didn’t value the humor at all. she felt my poems were jokes without substance. she wrote on one of my poems, “save this for your blog,” which i found condescending, not to mention totally oblivious to the power of the internet. that comment and her attitude in general led me to more fully embrace the role of “internet poet,” partly just to spite her
professor #2: i took two classes with him because he was so much better for me than prof #1. he was very kind and usually upbeat, i had very warm feelings toward him as a person. i didn’t love all his writing or all the suggestions he gave, but he seemed to respect that i had my own vision and that one of my biggest influences was a rapper, etc. i requested to have him as my thesis advisor, but i got placed with someone else. (if you do pursue an MFA, i highly recommend seeking out the faculty you like most, and when you find them, really forge tight bonds. i regret i didn’t get closer with this prof.. maybe he could have been my lief-raft in the storm, u know?)
professor #3: she was all about writing from pain, and in 2011 i just wasn’t interested in that at all. i wanted to make people smile and laugh with my poems. she talked about how poems are the most “honest” when they explore deep pain that is difficult to write about—tragedy and loss and stuff. that was valuable for many class members, but i wasn’t at all receptive to that message at that time, and it just frustrated me that she dismissed other posibilities of good writing. this was also the teacher who didn’t understand my misspellings at all. she wanted there to be a logical reason or justification for each specific misspelling. once in class she said, “as someone who doesn’t really use the internet or texting, what does this poem do for ME?” and in my sassiest in-class moment of all time, i jus responded, “maybe it’s not for you !! maybe you’re not my audience !!”
my #1 main problem with my MFA experience
i was seeking feedback from people who had different taste from me. why did i think that MFA students and older poets in academia would be an ideal writing group for me? they’re not really the main audience i’m trying to reach. some were a closer fit than others, but usualy i disregarded most of the feedback they gave me, because their comments just reflected how much they didn’t “get it.” if i followed their advice, i would’ve written poems they love, suited for publication by journals and presses they love—but i want to write poems i love, and which myyy people love
there is no “good writing” that is totaly aside from personal preference. of course you can learn from people who have different taste from you, but many professors (and writers in general) believe that what they like is actually “good writing” and what they dislike is “bad writing,” so that makes the process a lot harder. the fact that this problem persists in 2014 is beyond me, but it does. if you’re going to ask for someone’s feedback on your work, ideally they should be the kind of person you’re actualy trying to reach! sure, keep an ear open to haters, check if they’re saying anything useful—but dont hold yourself to a standard of satisfying everyone with diferent tastes
when you try to please people outside your ideal audience, you often end up ruining aspects of your work that really make it outstanding to its right audience. there are people who love my writing specificaly because i playfully misspell words on purpose; it’s become a trademark that sets me apart. yet almost all feedback i recieved in my MFA suggested i remove my misspellings. if i would’ve taken the advice of my MFA teachers and peers, i would’ve made my work considerably less exciting to my right people. when you make compromises like that, your work can be “pretty good” to both audiences, but the trade-off is not worth it. be outstanding to your right people. “pretty good” writing never changed anyone’s life !!!
[of course there can be pressures to conform or seek imperfect audiences outside of MFA programs too, i think chasing reblogs and likes on social networks can cause similar problems! especially in your formative years i think you should get feedback mainly from yourself and people whose opinion you trust]
my #2 main problem with my MFA experience
i didn’t have enough independence to pursue my own vision, choose what to study, etc. (this might be better in other programs.. also maybe not everybody wants as much freedom as i do..) i wanted to take a typography class as part of my MFA so i could make better visual poems, but my poetry program made me get permission from two different authority figures to enroll in the class. then afterward, they wouldn’t allow me to take any other courses outside their usual curriculum, not even an independent study with a poetry professor. my program thought it knew what i needed to learn as a poet, instead of trusting me to follow my own excitement
luckily i was able to twist many of my major assignments so i could study topics that i cared about anyway. but there was one paper where the prompt was so narrow, i could not find any interesting angle, and i did horrible. when i’m able to study what excites me, i go above and beyond, i love being a student and i’m good at it. but my program did not allow me that freedom often enough. typically i felt uninvested in my classwork, and i just did it on the train to class, saving the bulk of my time for the work i was really excited about doing on my own
and #3: student debt
i have $33,000 in student debt now (i had none before the MFA), and i didn’t even finish my program. so the financial impact of an MFA can be significant, although some programs offer tuition waivers and fellowships
so far, the debt has not been a huge problem for me, but for some people it could be. i got federal loans, i pay them through Nelnet, and they are pretty flexible. i pay about $229 each month via the “graduated repayment plan” (lower payments at first, higher payments in later years), and when i can’t afford $229 in a month, i can usually delay until the next month and pay $458 then, without any fees. i know some people who have successfully postponed their loans for years without paying, there are ways to adjust the plan if your income is very low. i’ve heard private loans are much worse than federal loans though
the thing that irritates me most about the student debt is that columbia college chicago actually received $33k from me. that hit me one day, and i felt kinda upset. my program simply did not provide me with $33k worth of value… not even close!! and yet, there is no money-back guarantee. i’m an unhappy customer, but they get to keep all my money anyway. that just seems like bad business… they shouldn’t be able to get away with that
if your goal is to become a better poet
then it’s pretty obvious you don’t need an MFA for that. here is the basic way to get better at writing: read another poet’s work, be 100% honest with yourself about what you like and dislike in it, realy look closely at which language choices created the effects you like and dislike, and pay attention to the patterns you find. filter everything through yourself and pay attention to what you feel. then repeat that process with hundreds of writers (or twitter users, or song writers, don’t limit ur influences!). get others’ opinions on your poems by sharing them with friends whose taste you trust. and then keep going, keep going, keep going !!! it can take years of hard work to really get good at moving people with words, but if your focus is on doing what u love with it—not just doing what random older writers tell u to do—then you’ll frickin love it every step of the way, and you’ll want to work more than anyone at it
if your goal is to make money with poetry work
first i wana say i respect that. many people rant against MFAs by saying, “don’t pursue poetry for a career, keep your poetry separate from money!” but as you know, we only have one life on earth. and jobs usually take a lot of your time, especially if you want to support family or others. ultimately, if you don’t make money from what you love, you probably won’t get to do it nearly as much. so i think it’s very valuable to at least try making money from what you love
the thing is, people act like the only poetry career is teaching, when that’s simply not true. check out the book how to make a living as a poet, and its sequel how to make a life as a poet. those will stimulate your creative thinking and help you identify many other possibilities. also recognize that there is no hard separation between “poetry” and other artforms, especially now with the internet. so usualy the same ways that musicians or visual artists make money are available to poets. i’ve made money from taking donations at readings, selling t-shirts and books, selling poster poems, and writing custom poems for people. i could make money from youtube ads (or other forms of advertising or sponsorship), selling giant poems on canvases, selling spoken word albums, selling dvd’s of my videos, or teaching poetry workshops outside the university system. academia is not the only path to support yourself with poetry work !
be honest about what works for you
this factor is not discussed much in relation to MFAs, but if you pay attention to a lot of this post, you’ll recognize it’s my personality that made my MFA an especialy bad fit. i’m very self-motivated, self-confident about my writing, and i have my own vision for my work. all i really wanted from an MFA was encouragement, tips about other writing to possibly study, and time to do the work. i didn’t want to be forced to study something for a full semester if i decided it bores me in the first few weeks, i didn’t want a ton of specific assignments about the kinds of poems i could write, and i didn’t want a “mentor” relationship with teachers whose work i didn’t even love that much
i’ve found a lot of value in admitting who you are and what works for you, and owning it. if you’re like me—if you mainly know what you wana do as a poet and you just need time to do it—then i think you can probably find better ways to get that. if you’re looking for direction and community, i still think you can probably find better ways to get that. but it depends. are any of your favorite living poets teaching at an MFA program? if so, that could be a good reason to go. or if you’re dead set on being a creative writing teacher—like, teaching is your passion, not just poetry—that could be a good reason to go
well… i respect you either way and i love you. just try to apreciate life and help others ok, that is a more important topic. we only get to be humans one time. be nice to people and i think it’s ok to go to an MFA or not
thank you very much

in september 2010 i started the poetry MFA program at columbia college chicago. i had a mixed but mostly negative experience, and i dropped out in november 2011. after i left the program, i focused on writing and building my internet community full-time, couch-surfing to stay with internet friends for free, riding cheap buses, and living frugally. because of all the new experiences and friendships this created, and because of the success i’ve had “doing my own thing,” i’ve said dropping out of my MFA was the single best decision i’ve ever made. but there’s so much drama in the lit world about MFAs, i don’t want to just add a hyperbolic soundbite to that conversation. in this post i want to really provide details and insight into what my MFA experience was like and why it was such a bad fit for me personally, to help others decide whether it might be useful for them or not

[if you don’t know, MFA means “master in fine arts,” it’s a type of graduate degree, and they’re pretty controversial in the lit world. people think you “can’t teach writing” and stuff, so they think MFAs are actualy ruining poetry. it’s a pretty loaded subject. i don’t side with either extreme in the debate, but my MFA was pretty bad for me, and i want to tell that story.]

the professors i studied with in my mfa program

professor #1: i was excited to take a workshop with her because her writing seemed experimental, appreciative of nature, and loosely anti-capitalist. i felt like she would encourage my wacky experimentation!! but it turns out she was quite closed-minded about what kinds of experimentation she found interesting or valuable. she liked the poetry i submitted with my application, but when i started the program a year later, i was exploring different styles. influenced by flarf, i was writing almost all funny poems, and she didn’t value the humor at all. she felt my poems were jokes without substance. she wrote on one of my poems, “save this for your blog,” which i found condescending, not to mention totally oblivious to the power of the internet. that comment and her attitude in general led me to more fully embrace the role of “internet poet,” partly just to spite her

professor #2: i took two classes with him because he was so much better for me than prof #1. he was very kind and usually upbeat, i had very warm feelings toward him as a person. i didn’t love all his writing or all the suggestions he gave, but he seemed to respect that i had my own vision and that one of my biggest influences was a rapper, etc. i requested to have him as my thesis advisor, but i got placed with someone else. (if you do pursue an MFA, i highly recommend seeking out the faculty you like most, and when you find them, really forge tight bonds. i regret i didn’t get closer with this prof.. maybe he could have been my lief-raft in the storm, u know?)

professor #3: she was all about writing from pain, and in 2011 i just wasn’t interested in that at all. i wanted to make people smile and laugh with my poems. she talked about how poems are the most “honest” when they explore deep pain that is difficult to write about—tragedy and loss and stuff. that was valuable for many class members, but i wasn’t at all receptive to that message at that time, and it just frustrated me that she dismissed other posibilities of good writing. this was also the teacher who didn’t understand my misspellings at all. she wanted there to be a logical reason or justification for each specific misspelling. once in class she said, “as someone who doesn’t really use the internet or texting, what does this poem do for ME?” and in my sassiest in-class moment of all time, i jus responded, “maybe it’s not for you !! maybe you’re not my audience !!”

my #1 main problem with my MFA experience

i was seeking feedback from people who had different taste from me. why did i think that MFA students and older poets in academia would be an ideal writing group for me? they’re not really the main audience i’m trying to reach. some were a closer fit than others, but usualy i disregarded most of the feedback they gave me, because their comments just reflected how much they didn’t “get it.” if i followed their advice, i would’ve written poems they love, suited for publication by journals and presses they love—but i want to write poems i love, and which myyy people love

there is no “good writing” that is totaly aside from personal preference. of course you can learn from people who have different taste from you, but many professors (and writers in general) believe that what they like is actually “good writing” and what they dislike is “bad writing,” so that makes the process a lot harder. the fact that this problem persists in 2014 is beyond me, but it does. if you’re going to ask for someone’s feedback on your work, ideally they should be the kind of person you’re actualy trying to reach! sure, keep an ear open to haters, check if they’re saying anything useful—but dont hold yourself to a standard of satisfying everyone with diferent tastes

when you try to please people outside your ideal audience, you often end up ruining aspects of your work that really make it outstanding to its right audience. there are people who love my writing specificaly because i playfully misspell words on purpose; it’s become a trademark that sets me apart. yet almost all feedback i recieved in my MFA suggested i remove my misspellings. if i would’ve taken the advice of my MFA teachers and peers, i would’ve made my work considerably less exciting to my right people. when you make compromises like that, your work can be “pretty good” to both audiences, but the trade-off is not worth it. be outstanding to your right people. “pretty good” writing never changed anyone’s life !!!

[of course there can be pressures to conform or seek imperfect audiences outside of MFA programs too, i think chasing reblogs and likes on social networks can cause similar problems! especially in your formative years i think you should get feedback mainly from yourself and people whose opinion you trust]

my #2 main problem with my MFA experience

i didn’t have enough independence to pursue my own vision, choose what to study, etc. (this might be better in other programs.. also maybe not everybody wants as much freedom as i do..) i wanted to take a typography class as part of my MFA so i could make better visual poems, but my poetry program made me get permission from two different authority figures to enroll in the class. then afterward, they wouldn’t allow me to take any other courses outside their usual curriculum, not even an independent study with a poetry professor. my program thought it knew what i needed to learn as a poet, instead of trusting me to follow my own excitement

luckily i was able to twist many of my major assignments so i could study topics that i cared about anyway. but there was one paper where the prompt was so narrow, i could not find any interesting angle, and i did horrible. when i’m able to study what excites me, i go above and beyond, i love being a student and i’m good at it. but my program did not allow me that freedom often enough. typically i felt uninvested in my classwork, and i just did it on the train to class, saving the bulk of my time for the work i was really excited about doing on my own

and #3: student debt

i have $33,000 in student debt now (i had none before the MFA), and i didn’t even finish my program. so the financial impact of an MFA can be significant, although some programs offer tuition waivers and fellowships

so far, the debt has not been a huge problem for me, but for some people it could be. i got federal loans, i pay them through Nelnet, and they are pretty flexible. i pay about $229 each month via the “graduated repayment plan” (lower payments at first, higher payments in later years), and when i can’t afford $229 in a month, i can usually delay until the next month and pay $458 then, without any fees. i know some people who have successfully postponed their loans for years without paying, there are ways to adjust the plan if your income is very low. i’ve heard private loans are much worse than federal loans though

the thing that irritates me most about the student debt is that columbia college chicago actually received $33k from me. that hit me one day, and i felt kinda upset. my program simply did not provide me with $33k worth of value… not even close!! and yet, there is no money-back guarantee. i’m an unhappy customer, but they get to keep all my money anyway. that just seems like bad business… they shouldn’t be able to get away with that

if your goal is to become a better poet

then it’s pretty obvious you don’t need an MFA for that. here is the basic way to get better at writing: read another poet’s work, be 100% honest with yourself about what you like and dislike in it, realy look closely at which language choices created the effects you like and dislike, and pay attention to the patterns you find. filter everything through yourself and pay attention to what you feel. then repeat that process with hundreds of writers (or twitter users, or song writers, don’t limit ur influences!). get others’ opinions on your poems by sharing them with friends whose taste you trust. and then keep going, keep going, keep going !!! it can take years of hard work to really get good at moving people with words, but if your focus is on doing what u love with it—not just doing what random older writers tell u to do—then you’ll frickin love it every step of the way, and you’ll want to work more than anyone at it

if your goal is to make money with poetry work

first i wana say i respect that. many people rant against MFAs by saying, “don’t pursue poetry for a career, keep your poetry separate from money!” but as you know, we only have one life on earth. and jobs usually take a lot of your time, especially if you want to support family or others. ultimately, if you don’t make money from what you love, you probably won’t get to do it nearly as much. so i think it’s very valuable to at least try making money from what you love

the thing is, people act like the only poetry career is teaching, when that’s simply not true. check out the book how to make a living as a poet, and its sequel how to make a life as a poet. those will stimulate your creative thinking and help you identify many other possibilities. also recognize that there is no hard separation between “poetry” and other artforms, especially now with the internet. so usualy the same ways that musicians or visual artists make money are available to poets. i’ve made money from taking donations at readings, selling t-shirts and books, selling poster poems, and writing custom poems for people. i could make money from youtube ads (or other forms of advertising or sponsorship), selling giant poems on canvases, selling spoken word albums, selling dvd’s of my videos, or teaching poetry workshops outside the university system. academia is not the only path to support yourself with poetry work !

be honest about what works for you

this factor is not discussed much in relation to MFAs, but if you pay attention to a lot of this post, you’ll recognize it’s my personality that made my MFA an especialy bad fit. i’m very self-motivated, self-confident about my writing, and i have my own vision for my work. all i really wanted from an MFA was encouragement, tips about other writing to possibly study, and time to do the work. i didn’t want to be forced to study something for a full semester if i decided it bores me in the first few weeks, i didn’t want a ton of specific assignments about the kinds of poems i could write, and i didn’t want a “mentor” relationship with teachers whose work i didn’t even love that much

i’ve found a lot of value in admitting who you are and what works for you, and owning it. if you’re like me—if you mainly know what you wana do as a poet and you just need time to do it—then i think you can probably find better ways to get that. if you’re looking for direction and community, i still think you can probably find better ways to get that. but it depends. are any of your favorite living poets teaching at an MFA program? if so, that could be a good reason to go. or if you’re dead set on being a creative writing teacher—like, teaching is your passion, not just poetry—that could be a good reason to go

well… i respect you either way and i love you. just try to apreciate life and help others ok, that is a more important topic. we only get to be humans one time. be nice to people and i think it’s ok to go to an MFA or not

thank you very much

  1. garethspark reblogged this from livemylief
  2. catharsisly reblogged this from livemylief
  3. queenofthewigglybookworms reblogged this from livemylief
  4. joeroggenbuck reblogged this from livemylief and added:
    This essay is awesome, plus I took the picture!
  5. okiesolikeyeah reblogged this from livemylief
  6. haeccitiesofconflict reblogged this from daycathy
  7. daycathy reblogged this from livemylief and added:
    This essay encapsulates the friction inherent to CW programs: they were founded based on the atelier approach, the guild...