"Of course it’s a contrivance to go back to any beginning and talk about what you thought then, how you felt, why you did as you did. Even what you did. Memory’s distorting jack-hammer makes remembrance, if not a false claim, at least somewhat a pretense. What can I say that’s undeniably true about that two-year period when I went to Columbia for my MFA in creative writing? I’d already been to a number of universities; I had a BA and MA in Sociology from Northwestern University, I’d also earned a BA in Photography from what was then the Polytechnic of Central London (and since has been renamed Westminster University). I’d also trained to be a physician assistant at St. Louis University. I knew a good deal about what happens when one sits in a classroom and listens. I had also taken the odd class here and there (in French, in photography, in book arts). Overall, I’d found degree programs to be the most promising solution to the problem of wanting to acquire a feeling of relative comfort about one’s relationship to even a minuscule piece of the vast body of all-there-is-to-know. When I came to Columbia, I wanted to know more about poetry. More about writing it and more about reading it. How can one pay attention to audience, I wondered, while simultaneously ignoring it? How can one subvert the inevitable resistance to the artifice of broken lines? What was the attraction to pattern—meter, rhyme and other phonic echoes? Who was worth reading? And who said so? And why did they think it?
I had certain models in my head for what might happen at Columbia. I knew what a writing workshop was, I’d taken a few. And critiques in fine art photography are not that different in structure (a small group, a table, a few hours shared commitment to the abstract idea of “betterment.” In the most basic sense, the classes in the writing program met the expectations I brought to them. The workshops were workshops. The seminars were not unlike the literature classes I’d had in the past, although now, in addition to examining the text from any number of points of view, we paid special attention to the writerly decisions an author continually makes. There was new weight given to craft, to the architecture of the text, to the careful (and sometimes insistently careless) making. There was, however, was a major difference in all of the classes—workshops and seminars—and the impact of that difference on my overall experience was definitive: it was the cohort of students.
There is inevitably some self-selection involved in a voluntary group. Whatever other variables were at play (finances, location, etc.) what was unarguably true was that a significant number of the students who were there with me were some the most talented and creatively intelligent people I’d ever met. Whatever I was learning in the classroom, which was inestimable, it was greatly enhanced by what I was learning from my fellow students. All of us had been drawn to Columbia because it promised the kind of learning that one hopes for, from teachers who are exceptionally talented and enormously successful in their fields. We got that, but we also got each other. It’s impossible to tease apart the combination of those two aspects. Those students, and my teachers, would go on to form the core of the community of writers that has sustained me. I continue to learn from them and from the work they produce. They’ve published books, won prizes, and have consistently been singled out for attention because the poems they write have a quality that is theirs alone. Their work adds to the vast landscape of contemporary poetry.
In 2006, I had the opportunity to go back to the program as a visiting professor. In spite of the time between, things were very much the same as when I was there as a student. Columbia continues to attract the best beginning writers and to maintain an environment where they can thrive. The students in the classes I taught were intelligent, articulate, and extremely talented. The poems they were writing represented a rich aesthetic range. Their teachers had exposed them to a wide variety of poetic practices; they had introduced them to a critical vocabulary that allowed them to be exact in their analysis of a poem’s strengths and weaknesses. The creative license they gave each other, and which was encouraged by their teachers, meant the work they were doing was distinctive, and compelling. Three years later, a number of them are already publishing books and winning awards.
Like most, I’m no stranger to ambivalence. Particularly when it comes to institutions. Yet, I’m not at all ambivalent about my time at Columbia. There is nothing I would go back and change. It was an extraordinary time. I had remarkable teachers and the students in my classes were truly exceptional. Those two years gave me an excellent foundation for becoming the poet and teacher I am. I’ve never stopped being grateful for that beginning and I don’t mind at all publicly declaring it. I’m rather happy for the occasion."