Good evening from Boise, where I am for some reason. What reason? I was visiting my friend when circumstances began deteriorating. I was supposed to fly back to New York yesterday but on account of my asthma decided I’d best steer clear of airports and airplanes for a little bit. So now I am here, in Boise, where all the cars have bumper stickers that say “Keep Boise Kind.” The downtown is very small and the sky is very blue and nobody is out and about, least of all me, who is safely inside, I hope.
The friend in question is a friend from the MFA program where we both went to study poetry several years ago. I dropped out after the first year because they slashed everyone’s funding halfway through. I also found it creatively unchallenging, in that my professors rarely said a single critical word about my work, even poems I knew were dogshit. I did not care for this, although maybe I would have cared in the other direction if the positive reinforcement ever amounted to anything more than vaguely warm descriptions of artistic choices I already knew I’d made, having made them myself. One professor never gave us any grades at all, even on the research papers he assigned. If I recall correctly, the only time I ever received feedback from the man was during the arts and crafts portion of a classmate’s presentation on collage poetry, when we all got to make our own collages using index cards and news clippings. What a treat! Do you want to know how much this place cost? Here’s what I came up with:
My professor walked around commenting on everyone’s creations. When he got to mine I told him I’d wanted to see what it would be like if instead of making it good, I made it bad. He nodded serenely and said it worked. Was he being ironic too? Maybe, but I don’t think so, but I don’t know, the effect of this place was to slowly painfully erode any capacity I had to tell what was earnest and what was pretense. So many people in this program had the sort of Serious Writer personalities where they were constantly self-analyzing their craft and their practice and their art and the pain and soul they were pouring into it. But then everyone also constantly blew off deadlines and came to class drunk and high and hadn’t done the reading or the writing and had nothing to say about anything and this all turned out to be fine, no one in charge gave a shit. It was summer camp. You could blow off everything and it wouldn’t matter. Nothing was serious, bad was good, chaos was order, no one cared. Gradually I figured out that all I can do as a writer is develop a rigorous framework for what I think is good and what I think is bad—what gives me pleasure and what gives me pain, what wakes me up and what puts me to sleep—and then try my best to write within that framework, while also constantly reevaluating and changing it, so as to never get bored, or stale, or bored and stale. So I left.
My friend shared my frustrations with the program. She also had other, good reasons to stay. I had steady work outside of it; her work-study job was dependent on enrollment, and she was interested in the professional opportunities an MFA would provide. (I both was and wasn’t, and still am but maybe I’m not.) So she stuck out the remaining year, for which she was severely punished. Over the course of two semesters, the class bully took to harassing and defaming her—spreading weird lies about her among their classmates and contributors to the program’s literary journal, which she edited—until she no longer felt safe going to class, and stopped. Our professors, who were also her bosses, knew what was going on and did nothing. Well, that’s not true: they did tell her over and over again how bad they felt about everything. But they refused to censure the bully, their student, in any way. They told my friend they were afraid he would spread the same lies about them if they tried. They told her they were hamstrung by the university’s administration, which was taking its sweet time figuring out what to do, which ended up being nothing. Would it have been nothing if they had forced their bosses’ hands? We mustn’t ask unanswerable questions.
After a reading on campus that spring, I went up to the bully and told him that’s what he was. I may have said a few other things but I promise they were all very diplomatic, carefully rehearsed, and only lightly botched. He said thank you for the feedback and walked away. Two days later I received a phone call from campus security asking me to stay off campus while they investigated the report he filed. I said you know I don’t go there anymore right? Yes they said but we have to do this anyway. I said you know the shit he’s pulled on your other student right? Yes they said and she can file a report too if she wants. She didn’t, because there would be no point, because the most it could accomplish would be an order restricting him from attending graduation, which was in two weeks. So nothing happened, she never went back to class, the sun rose, the sun set, they both walked away with identical degrees, now she works an administrative job at a Boise nonprofit and he’s running for Berkeley’s City Council as a progressive.
I am not sure why I’m writing about this. I guess it’s on my mind because my friend and I were reminiscing about it a few days ago—reminiscing about the time two poets we once admired and moved cross-country to study with, two acclaimed writers and respected (and TENURED!!) educators with strong, good politics utterly froze in the face of a little institutional resistance. Which I guess dovetailed with my thinking in the newsletter I sent out yesterday, about the inability of improv businesses to make a real, safe home for the practice of art. At a certain point when everything was going down, my friend told me she just didn’t want to be a poet anymore; she didn’t want to be anywhere that lets this happen. Her phrasing struck me: not anywhere that does this, but anywhere that allows it. Because bullies are everywhere. Most good intelligent people have the capacity to recognize them, and it turns out to be very easy to tell them to fuck right off. But it takes a specific set of incentives to convince good intelligent people with the capacity to recognize bullying and the power to stop it that actually they have no such power. (I am not going to name names but trust me when I say the faculty absolutely had the clout to step in here.) Our professors kept telling my friend, just focus on the poetry, at least your poetry is so wonderful, your poetry is all that matters. I think they even believed it—that the practice of art somehow cancels out material threats to your well-being. It doesn’t! This is the easiest thing. Art happens in the real world. Everything bad that happens in the world happens in the study and practice of art. Sometimes that context makes the bad stuff worse; it never makes the bad stuff less bad. You can’t confront it, let alone stop it, until you admit that it’s real and it’s there, right in front of you. But I guess once you reach a certain level of safety and security you just don’t see it anymore, if you ever did.
That’s all very bleak, and I feel very bleak when I ponder it. But I also feel the bleakness dissipating. I was thinking about all of this for whatever reason I said several paragraphs ago, but also for another reason, which is that I’ve been very heartened and inspired by the mutual aid efforts I’ve seen over the last couple days, especially those for and led by arts workers. They got me thinking maybe it doesn’t have to be so bad when the adults in the room don’t have our backs. We just have to get each other’s. I don’t know how all of this will end, but right now I’m feeling hopeful it’ll be with a little more compassion and solidarity in the world. Or maybe even a lot.
I guess that’s all I have to say about that. Good luck out there, be safe, wash your hands, watch Better Things on FX, it’s really good! I also want to say that I know some people are experimenting with moving their live shows onto streaming; if that’s you, let me know and I’ll plug it. Okay, bye from Boise!