Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

MFA Culture, Creative Writing and Zolf's Tolerance Project

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As of late, I have found myself in MFA land. It is a strange land, a land where one has to find proper ground, acclimatize and eventually find voice through practice. Along the way, one predominate question has come up: how does a writer grapple with obtaining an MFA at one of our country’s leading art institutions when there is little sign of this practice in the curriculum? Unlike the United States, where most practice-based universities have established MFAs in creative writing, I discovered that none of our three art practice-based universities (Ontario College of Art and Design, Nova Scotia College of Art and Design and Emily Carr University of Art and Design) offer a comprehensive practice-based MFA in creative writing. That blew my mind. I am startled by this low number of practice-based graduate programs at such institutions in comparison to the phenomenally large number of published Canadian writers working on an international level and compared to the level of representation and respect Canadian writers get on the world stage, not to mention how common this connection between practice-based universities and creative writing is in the United States.

After a little research, I discovered that there are few MFA programs in creative writing in our country (University of British Columbia, University of Victoria, Concordia University, University of Toronto and Guelph University) along with a proliferation of MAs offered, but as I mentioned earlier, none at any of our arts-based universities. At the institution where I study, I did discover a new minor program in creative writing has been established recently, which does lead me to believe that creative writing is on the radar, and so it should be — writing should be represented within the pedagogy of practice-based arts universities, shouldn’t it?

The MFA program I am in is an interdisciplinary-based model, and so I forge ahead considering it a great opportunity to lay new ground as the sole creative writing practitioner in the bunch. So, here is the thing. While I have already incorporated some of my writing practice into my work, there is no reference point and no opportunity to grow as a writer along with other writers. Strange indeed, the lone writer in a sea of other art practices. I began to imagine what it might be like to have an established and recognized creative writing program within the art university setting in this country and felt a pull to champion this.

Last month, I went to New York to meet with the folks at Parsons, in order to work towards taking their three-week writers’ colony this coming summer as a residency for my MFA. There I was referred to the work of Rachel Zolf, specifically The Tolerance Project, to help me with some of my questions related to pedagogy around creative writing.

In speaking about the project, Zolf states:

The focus of my project is not this particular MFA. The blog doesn’t even name where the MFA is taking place, as what is most important for my project is that it is a collaborative take on the MFA as an institution within larger state apparatuses. That is the key concept behind my project, a deconstruction of how “authors” and “voices” are created through the process of the MFA, linked with how difference is “tolerated” (or not) in general in the US. I wanted to provoke a look at how the MFA works as a process, by deliberately blowing up the authorial creation and feedback process beyond this room. There is a long tradition in the art world of looking at the workings of art institutions such as art museums and art collecting practices and the creation of the artist as a commodity.

I must admit, this project stopped me in my tracks, regarding my newfound passion to champion another creative writing MFA program in Canada. Zolf’s project brings to mind such rich questions about the commodification of pedagogy within creative writing practices and in general, to the point where I begin to deeply question what it is that I am even looking for by seeking to legitimize my practice by way of a degree.

I always love it when I am asked to be critical of my passions. I have now developed new motivations for obtaining an MFA, and I’ve developed new ideas about whether it’s a good idea to advocate for the inclusion of creative writing graduate programs in Canadian institutions. I see arguments both for and against the idea. What I do know is that it is always a great idea to look critically at the relationship between economy and education, and it is even more important to use consciousness and collaboration to foster environments that truly inspire writers within their practice. As always, I look forward to learning from everyone whose hope it is to create and nurture writers in their journey.

Now deep into my MFA experience, I also have found some compassion for those who diligently work within a large institutional system, bound by policies and procedures and even further bound by funding and outside influences, to begin to wield the difficult balance between creating inspiring learning environments and meeting requirements that must be met in order to keep the institution funded and functioning. What a tricky position.

Just last month I attended the “Homework” conference in Windsor and was delighted to sit in on discussions regarding pedagogy and artistic practice. Much was discussed, including “open sourcing” education, taking it away from the institutional framework and into more collaborative and less hierarchical methods of interchange. It will be interesting to see what comes of the art school model in general and, more specifically, how creative writing will fare in a changing model of pedagogy.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Toronto’s New School of Writing as an exciting approach to the creation of a rich and collaborative articulation of a new perspective on how to foster a rich exchange of ideas about writing. Check out their website for their recent offerings.

Melanie Janisse is a native of Windsor, Ontario where she retains memories of old docks jutting out into the Detroit River and the smell of hops. Melanie began her education by leaving home early and wandering around the abandoned houses of inner city Detroit, and then the intense forests of the Canadian West Coast. Formally she holds degrees form Concordia University in Communications and Literature and from Emily Carr University of Art and Design in Photography. Melanie has resided in Toronto for the past nine years, keeping active as a visual artist, poet, designer and shop owner. Her work has appeared in Luft Gallery, Common Ground Gallery, Artcite Gallery, Dojo Magazine, Pontiac Quarterly, The Scream Literary Festival, The Southernmost Review, The Northernmost Review and The Windsor Review. Her first poetry book, Orioles in the Oranges (Guernica Editions), tells the tale of on old Metis legend, allowing it to dovetail with Detroit's gritty modernity in an unforgettable series of prose poems. Melanie is happy to be a part of Open Book: Toronto ruminating about books and book-like things around Toronto.