Going Negative

88743I had never heard of Anis Shivani before a few weeks ago, when I came across his 2011 piece in the Huffington Post excoriating the work of recent poets laureate, namely Sharon Olds, Louise Glück, Jorie Graham, Philip Levine, and Billy Collins. Predictably, a few of the reader comments offered praise and gratitude for his brutal honesty, but most dismissed Shivani as petty, small, mean, or not up to the task of criticizing his betters.

Being a lifelong sucker for polemics, I ordered his book, Against the Workshop: Provocations, Polemics, Controversies. In addition to the HuffPo piece mentioned above, the book contains reviews of poets Shivani actually likes (including Franz Wright, C.D. Wright, and Jay Parini, among others); a few pieces on contemporary fiction [sucking]; a piece lamenting the fact young people no longer read novels not written by J.K. Rowling; a send-up of Heather McHugh; and an essay which asserts that the MFA/creative writing system is a closed, undemocratic medieval guild system that represses good writing, titled The MFA/Creative Writing System Is a Closed, Undemocratic Medieval Guild System that Represses Good Writing.

No equivocator, he.

There’s no point in taking Shivani to task on his opinions of particular poets. I agree here, I disagree there, but so what? Only time wins that fight. In any case, if I read him correctly, the poets he savages are incidentals – symptoms of an academic poetry culture that allows too many poets and writers to prosper who might not have without some kind of institutional sponsorship. Here, I think, Shivani has half a point, but it’s hardly an original one. Entire books have been devoted to the myriad forces that shape canons, fashions, and tastes. And remember foetry.com? I also find it a bit funny that he attacks poets who have been appointed laureate of the nation, since almost no one – even within the “medieval guild system” – cares all that much about the office. Don’t like the poet laureate? Wait a year or two. There will be another.

Shivani is right to criticize the vague workshop notions of finding one’s voice (What is that, exactly? And is it behind the couch?) and honing one’s craft,  and he does so with a sharp wit; but again, there’s little here that hasn’t been offered up by others before him. Still, if you hate Jorie Graham or Billy Collins or anyone who’s edited, or appeared in, The Best American Poetry between 2004 and 2007, and you appreciate a good eviscerating for its own sake, Against the Workshop is worth borrowing.

Going Negative

8 thoughts on “Going Negative

  1. I read that “Medieval Guild System that Represses Good Writing” essay online, I think at Nic Pizzolato’s prompting. The piece seemed so much like the same old, grouchy churn heard annually from somegrumpyzoundso. Underlying the annual dyspepsia and Shivani’s upset is the sense that “I wasn’t allowed in an MFA program; therefore MFA programs are bad.” Or “I felt bullied in an MFA program, left, and therefore MFA programs are ruining American fiction.” Even worse the kind of politically alive or politically attuned fiction Shivani argues is an ideal sounds really awful. I always hearken back to (naturally) the only workshop I will ever know since I don’t teach: Arkansas, and think, okay, take just my class alone: Susan Perabo, Brad Barkley, John Thompson, and me. None of our published fiction is anything repressed or indistinguishably alike. In fact there’s a pretty wide variety of style, a huge variety of approach and concern, a remarkable insistence that characters hold jobs and often jobs that affect their outlook and inner lives. I don’t see any repression anywhere in that. I have heard this MFA is evil stuff so long, and it’s always the same. Wonder why Paul Ruffin published this sour grape? He, Paul Ruffin, came from our writing program. He publishes Bill Harrison. This Shivani book doesn’t seem constructive, and I know Paul Ruffin to be constructive and thoughtful. Mystery…


    1. Dan Tessitore says:

      I was saving my version of this paragraph for a “part 2,” but dammit Steve, you did the work for me (now how will I justify not finishing up final grades today?). To echo your points, I saw no “sameness” in the poetry wing at UA either, and I don’t see it now in the books of Alison Apotheker, Cody Walker, Beth Ann Fennelly, or my own (now long overdue) manuscript. Not to mention the books of those before and after our time there, which, if memory serves, include Tony Tost’s “Invisible Bride,” which is a far cry from any cookie-cutter confessional/lyric mode and won the Whitman.

      And yes, a sour grape oozes forth. It’s clear he’s had some experience with a program/workshop, but I found no detail of it in the book, which one can only interpret as telling, or at least suggestive. I, too, have seen the steady stream of anti-MFA diatribe for years. Enough that I’m surprised there’s not an annual “Best American” devoted to it. But where is this “repression” happening, exactly? Funny, no one ever names those names.


  2. Not a poet says:

    Having followed shivanis career I can say with some confidence that he’s not tried to do the mfa thing. Nor does he have sour grapes Bc he’s pretty much been published in every major literary journal out there. He’s someone who got to see the inside in a way most don’t and decided he didn’t like what he saw. Just Bc u couldn’t get into mfa doesn’t mean others are like you. Try a better way to criticize someone with credentials.


  3. Not a Poet,

    Thanks for dropping in, albeit nearly anonymously.

    And thanks for making it clear that Shivani never tried to learn in an MFA program. My criticism is that Shivani’s complaint sounds like a tired, old saw that is trotted out year after year: MFA programs are bad and are ruining American fiction because they make everybody write the same limpid, worthless, apolitical stuff. And I don’t think that’s right.

    Indeed he is widely published, and I admire very much his first publisher, Black Lawrence Press. An innovative press if ever there was one.

    I’m not sure what you mean by, “He’s someone who got to see the inside in a way most don’t and decided he didn’t like what he saw.” And I’m not sure what you mean by, “Just Bc u couldn’t get into mfa doesn’t mean others are like you.” Rereading what Dan and I wrote above, I think it seems pretty clear we both got into an MFA program, specifically Arkansas’s program. Do you mean ontologically one who is denied access to an MFA program is unlike others denied that same access because people are not the same? I’m just not sure what you mean.

    I’ll leave it at that, and thanks for reading and responding.


  4. Laura Runyan says:

    I know this post and the comments are almost a year old, but I just now saw them.

    Anis Shivani interviewed John McNally recently, and in the interview, Shivani repeatedly tries to get McNally to say something that undermines the workshop system, but the latter doesn’t take the bait. McNally’s comments are worth reading. (Why does Shivani look down his nose in every single photo I’ve seen of him? He’d come across as a much more pleasant fellow if he’d lose the sneer.) McNally went to Iowa at the same time that one of my friends did.

    His novel “After the Workshop” is hilarious–an extremely fun read. And anyone who ever lived in Iowa City will recognize many of the locations he names and describes, though you’ll be at no disadvantage if you’ve never even set foot in the town.



      1. Laura Runyan says:

        So glad we crossed paths on Scarriet, Dan! I like your blog. I got to know John Dufresne after I finished Arkansas by just emailing him when I was in New Mexico, where I later met him. He overlapped with Skip Hays at Arkansas. I don’t know whether you’ve met John, but he’s a nice guy, and very funny!


  5. Laura Runyan says:

    P.S. I especially like McNally’s comments on humor in fiction. Yes, Denis Johnson’s “Emergency” is a wickedly funny story (or if we’d stayed in Boston when I was a kid instead of moving to Iowa, I might have said “wicked funny”). I was surprised that so few of his students see any humor in it, though maybe that shouldn’t surprise me.


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