KATY BOHINC's first job was at Patterson's Fruit Farm in Cuyahoga County, Ohio at age 13. She received $4.25 an hour because farm labor was not required to be paid minimum wage (nor to be "above age"). She made donuts and came home with red marks on her arms from the lard jumping up from the fryer, but she got to bring lots of broken donuts to school for friends to eat. Else, Fisher's Tavern busing tables, Old Navy folding clothes & staring at the white walls of the dressing room, Cutco selling knives, summer camp watching children, in Beijing teaching English, and myriad restaurants, particularly Clydes of Georgetown throughout college where she worked every weekend occasionally serving her college classmates on Friday nights (fun). All of her most important work has been unpaid, including activist work in China and poetic labor in the United States. She currently very much benefits from the relative comfort of a cube in the field of marketing. She admittedly adheres to the unorthodox position of preferring the open hypocrisy of the commercial world to the hidden hypocrisy of academia.
You know, it’s a weird thing, us poets. We have this crazy existential crisis around what we do to make money. See “Kill List” reaction. Like somehow how much money we have or don’t is what makes us good or bad poets or good or bad people. And this, is sorta to blame on the historical record. We all learn in school that poets have always been bohemian poor people who rose out of the ground like unicorns somehow never really working to give us these magic tomes of amazing. I dunno. There are a lot of examples of poverty conditions leading to great writing, but we seem to always forget the examples of those who came from money or those who worked or anything else. And how horrible poverty is. On the flip side, I think those who don’t have MFAs because they couldn’t afford them sometimes feel like only the ivy league students get the glory and screw that. I don’t really know what the reality is – like if the ivy league people have any more true success in terms of writing better poetry. Certainly they get more of the resources. But as for a shiny degree actually conferring better writing capacity, I think that is not something anybody can say with a straight face.
Also, we write these poems about how reality is unstructured, and certainly the path of the poet should not be structured either, right? Like there is some kind of right way to be a poet? No. So, arguably, the challenge we all have is to maximize time to spend on poetry, minimize effort on making money, and maximize the x factor. X factor being whatever makes your mojo. Some people write well in comfort, some in bed, some in chaos, some in new environments, some in contact with people, some in solitude, whatever. That’s your thing to figure out and choose.
As for an MFA, I didn’t do one and I probably wouldn’t even if someone gave me money. Is that terrible? If I had time/money to take two-three years to do whatever, I would move to an island and write full-time and read books and email with friends all over the world. I still believe in the 1920’s trend where travel was the condition of the great writer. Something about the cultural contrast always seemed like an amazing teacher to me. And I believe in the merit of labor. One needs some busy work. It’s like the Jesuits. They would study for like, a decade. And then they would put down their pens and papers and books and go work in the fields for two years to “come back down to earth.” The lesson is that plain old labor is good for lofty thinkers.
I have dear dear friends who tell me “go get an MFA, it’s good for your career.” (I hate to say this,but they are usually Capricorns, and they have never been poets.) But honestly, if that’s what poetic acclaim is, a university degree, then I don’t want it. I’ll figure out how to make it on my own. That’s just me. But I wanted to say it. I wanted to say there are reasons beyond pragmatic ones to do or not do an MFA. And there are many ways to study outside of the walls of the academy, and it’s on us to recognize all those various ways and honor them. The fact is that higher education, particularly in our caste system of a degree platform, may control the center of distribution but no system has a monopoly on beauty and we have to fight against that interpretation because I think, actually, that art’s survival depends on it, that there be no right or wrong way to go about being a writer. MFAs are amazing but I think it is important they not be the only way.
Now if you want to talk about what kind of person a poet is, like Mao for example wrote some poetry that some people liked and does that count as great poetry when he killed arguably 60 to 120 million people? Now that, is a tricky question. The morality of the individual and how it reflects – or doesn’t- on the work they produce. Alice Notley wrote “you are not a good poet because you are not a good person”. So this, also figures into the navigation of money sources. And, I think this is why there is some honest admiration given to those who don’t get a “proper day job”, because doing so often means making compromises, sometimes moral, about one’s goodness or one’s way to make art. That said, those who devoted everything and didn’t make a back-up plan don’t necessarily ever get any recognition from anybody! And of course in a fair world they deserve it the most. Well damn, I have to say I think if someone who read and wrote all their lives with very little dies and no one notices it’s the community’s fault. Because academia damn sure doesn’t care about the not well off, or anybody who didn’t play by its rules. And it’s our job to refer the best up to the historians – such is the system of the current world. So, my words are almost up, and obviously the poetry community is not perfect, but I really do think it is one of the most wonderful things existing in this country because it gives a lot of people from tons of different paths the opportunity to get out there and do it. Just go to some readings. And that is truly a precious, precious thing.