Britney, Demske, and the Ruins of Creative Writing Pedagogy

by on Apr.19, 2011

Not to beat a dead horse, but I was just thinking about how the criticisms of MFA programs sometimes contradict each other.  Take the notion that writing can’t be taught.  Along with this claim about the classroom’s impotence, you might hear someone say that the MFA homogenizes and ruins people’s creativity.  As if students were receptacles (trash cans?) to be filled in by the aesthetics of their professors and peers.  MFA students in a given program thus all digest and churn out the same poem, story, etc.  So, in this top-down analysis of power dynamics in the classroom, the MFA can only squander the student’s potential.  Writing can’t be taught, yet it can somehow still be ruined through the pressure to imitate.  What a chokehold!

One thing that complicates the idea of MFA student-as-receptacle is that we often get to take the reins, design syllabi, and teach our own classes.  For example, I just asked the undergrads in the workshop I’m teaching to compare Nick Demske and Britney. Here’s a great response from my student Alice, who kindly let me quote her:

“First of all, as we saw him read I was certain that he reminded me of something, and as I read him that feeling just kept increasing. Until I finally realized: he reminds me of Fight Club. Reading him is reading nihilistic purposefully destructive having terrible fun and killing himself, stabbing himself in the I many many times over and over. Nick Demske knows that pop culture is ridiculous, so why should he not, himself, be pop culture? Nick Demske treats himself not as an “I” that is great and powerful, in my opinion (because this is all pure speculation), but as an I that he’s scratching his head at. He even wonders himself, why some poems get claps, and who is actually reading the poem? In that way, he is separate from Britney, because Britney counts every clap and always refers to herself as The Britney, Britney proper, every Britney thing that is glued to just this one Britney which is displayed on many screens trapped in a tube with explosive technicolor Britney. Nick Demske is a dodgy “I” an antipoetic eye. Because in the poetic eye we see the world reflected. In Nick Demske’s eye, we see a tongue, and we should stick our face in it.”

Writing can’t be taught, yet it can somehow still be ruined.  I think Alice, as a student of creative writing, embraces this logic not as an impasse but rather its opposite:  as a way to approach the page anti-poetically.  Interesting things happen through the so-called ruin–or the failure to write/learn/teach in a normative way.  I haven’t asked Alice, but my feeling is she actually prefers her poetry smudged.  Smeared.  Like the ‘bad form’ of Demske’s sonnets.  Like Britney’s (and Charlie Sheen’s) implosive stardom.  Faces exposed in the throes of inadequacy and imitation.

16 comments for this entry:
  1. odalisqued

    There are many cases where a thing is critiqued by different people with contradictory critiques: this does not make one or the other critique valid or invalid. It seems like in both critiques you mention, there is some kind of truth, though not a universal truth generalizable to all experiences.

    Certainly it’s quite possible for teachers (or institutions) to harm their students, and harm their student’s art or will to make art. I’ve seen these teachers in action, and I think many of us have heard stories about such teachers, or had friends who “gave up” after encounters with abusive, predatory, or narcissitic profs beat them & their art down for a few years. This is why there is such an urgent ethical responsibility in the classroom: people can be hurt, and sometimes are. This does not contradict the other claim that some things can’t be “taught” — there are certain modes of learning that are only accessible to the autodidact, I think, or available through unguided experiential learning. Teachers can point toward these modes of learning, and I would say probably _should_, but to claim all is “teachable” strikes me as pretty false.

  2. Dan Hoy

    Hi Lucas

    Picking up on Alice’s comment, I think the reason Britney might make reference to “The Britney” instead of “I” is because “Britney Spears” is basically an authorial collective. People make fun of professional athletes for talking about themselves in the 3rd person, but this is probably a lexical byproduct of “team” thinking in sports, where you play a role in relation to other roles. It’s like there’s a fine line between a narcissist and a team player. Or no line. Anyway in this case Britney’s role would be the image itself, except she isn’t the image. She’s what suffers the image. I would argue that if Britney refers to herself in the 3rd person it’s because she’s referring not to herself but to this image construct that sustains and depletes her. I don’t know if it’s possible for her to ever truly refer to herself, but in this respect, in the attempt, she speaks for all of us.

  3. Ryan Sanford Smith

    I’ve never heard that writing can’t be taught; anyone can learn the ‘craft’ side of it.

    Talent can’t be taught, though, but of course it can be stimulated / given an area in which to flourish. This remains true regardless of arguments of what makes up ‘talent’, who has it or who doesn’t; it exists even if the particulars are debatable. Something subjectively judged still resides.

    It can also be stifled, of course. It seems, I agree, a ridiculous notion that MFAs by some intrinsic structure (and they show a variety in even this) are a mechanic of ruin, but it does seem very fair to say certain MFAs for certain writers, or MFAs in general for certain writers would stifle / ruin them, just as where they live geographically might, etc.

    It also can’t be agreed that the classroom is far from impotent without acknowledging the ‘effect’ of it, whether we think it’s good or bad, whether in reality it is good or bad for writer x regardless of how it is or isn’t good or bad for writer y. Lineage is real, impressions are real, absolutely, for better or worse; this might not exactly line up with the ‘receptacle’ metaphor but there would seem to be a glimmer of reality haunting around somewhere that it seems silly to ignore.

  4. Johannes

    I don’t think Lucas is saying that writing can’t have a detrimental effect etc, he’s pointing out that a certain (most common) line of anti-mfa rhetoric contains – or is even built on – two claims that are quite a bit at odds. I’ve noticed this too; often in the same paragraph or even sentence people will both charge that poetry can’t be taught and that it ruins students, that it both has very strong effect and that it is totally impotent.

    Of course both the terms “teach” and “write” (and “ruin”) are very general terms – teach how to write a sonnet? Teach how to have a fearless attitude towards literature? Teach through memorization? Etc.


  5. Ryan Sanford Smith

    I see two different things being described though, so they don’t necessarily seem mutually exclusive; the objects in that sentence don’t align to me.

    To repeat, no I don’t believe ‘talent’ can be taught, even if all we can agree that talent means is passion for something (this fails at some point, who can’t say they’ve met an enormously passionate writer who just couldn’t seem to muster up something compelling for the life of them?) Let’s leave it at the notion that you can’t teach someone to be interested or care about poetry; some people simply are or aren’t.

    It doesn’t seem at odds with that notion to then say particular aesthetic flavors of poetry are going to be less conducive than others to a particular writer in a particular MFA that more or less circles that flavor (or, in a given workshop, the flavors the teacher teaches, and who can blame them for teaching what they enjoy? Not me.) Or to say that the general structure / academic environment of most workshops / MFAs are going to be less conducive to some writers? The onus is on the writer to try and know that before going into an MFA, but it doesn’t mean the reality isn’t true if they’re there or not.

    I wholly agree though that no MFA, no teacher, no ‘aesthetic’, no book, etc. will ever have the power to ‘ruin’ anyone who has genuine passion or ‘talent’ or whatever word doesn’t make one cringe. There’s a large gap between ‘stifled’ or ‘under-stimulated’ and ‘ruined’. No anything will ‘ruin’ any real writer.

    People who claim they quit writing because of an MFA or because some scary domineering Big Name Poet didn’t like their book or called them a name or ignored them completely is a writer who is absolutely making excuses for themselves and they will find a great deal of wisdom and happiness in owning up this fact. If you aren’t writing poetry, you are the only reason why and you owe it to yourself more than anything else to honestly question that situation. I don’t care about the petty excuses and neither does poetry.

  6. Lucas de Lima

    Dan, does Britney really say “The Britney” somewhere? That’s great.

    odaliesqued and Ryan, I’m not really interested in debating the validity of the anti-MFA claims. My interest is in playing with and recasting the normative rhetoric of creative writing pedagogy. I like it when my poetry is “ruined” in some sense of the word. Just like how I want my “teaching” and “learning” to fail in some sense. Thinking that way preempts disappointment and helps me be creative. I hate thinking about being a successful and original writer, student, instructor, or human being for that matter. I often want to fail at the imitation of the norm, assume and declare the failure, perhaps even start out from that position of failure. This is not a new idea, of course… (I mention Nicanor Parra’s failed antipoetry here).

    The Lucas

  7. Ryan Sanford Smith


    “Not to beat a dead horse, but I was just thinking about how the criticisms of MFA programs sometimes contradict each other.”


    “I’m not really interested in debating the validity of the anti-MFA claims.”

    I saw this coming in ‘Not to beat a dead horse, but…’

    If you don’t want to beat the horse, then leave it be. If you want to beat it into dust then just say so and let’s get on with it. I don’t think you can play with recasting the rhetoric you mention without having that exact debate, and I’d be overwhelmingly intrigued to learn how you mean to do so. If you want to avoid it because the debate is tired and exasperated (on both sides), I’m on board with that too (because it is), but here horse is, brought back out before us.

    And of course you want to be ‘successful’, you’re just redefining success as wanting to fail so you can rock the failure; that’s awesome, I’m completely with you, I just don’t understand the strange need to feel that by doing this one isn’t still wanting to succeed. & being creative ‘…helps me be creative’ entails thinking about originality, no matter how problematic and laughable it often feels strive for it.

  8. Lucas de Lima

    Who doesn’t want to be original. That is what I meant by “failing at the imitation of the norm.” To me, this strategy–and that’s all it is, really–allows for a kind of success. A redefinition of success, as you say.

    I think it’s fine, and even fabulous, to recast the rhetoric of a debate without taking sides. That’s what analytic philosophy sometimes does. Plus, it gave me a reason to mention Britney.


  9. Johannes


    It’s great that you think that nothing can ruin/stifle a “true” writer. Very optimistic worldview. But: What are you basing these observations on? Have you known a lot of writers who have felt stifled? How did you measure if these failed writers had talent or not?

    To me your very “win”-centered way of looking at this evokes the platitudes always repeated by athletes who’ve just won the superbowl or actors who’ve just won the Oscars: if you just try hard enough, you can make it! Believe and you’ll make it! That’s a nice thought, but I personally have found this to be not the case for a lot of people. So what I can’t understand is your overzealous need to state this win-er-ific worldview.

    And if you don’t see what Lucas is saying about embracing failure, why not ask him to define his ideas so as to invoke a discussion from which you may or may not learn another perspective?


  10. Ryan Sanford Smith

    It’s not an observation it’s a basic philosophical belief in my world view, I don’t think it has anything to do with optimism but you seem intent on centering your rebuttals on my youthful ignorance, etc.

    It’s basically an intuition to an extent–the idea of a writer who wants to tell me they don’t want to write anymore because their MFA ruined them or Poet X ignores them / called them something negative just seems like someone who’d rather spend their time whining than writing. The observation end is more or less come from the perhaps hundred or so books of poetry I’ve read, and the ones I remember / enjoy the most, when considered personally, seem to have come from a source that would never make such complaints. If I reflect this ‘win’ ethic you ascribe to me I will accept it only so far as to say I don’t believe in people making excuses for themselves or others.

    Past that, the label fails to me. My statements above directly clash with your metaphor; if I really took that approach then I would believe ‘talent’ to be nothing more than the result of x or y amounts of ‘hard work’, which I think is obnoxious bullshit. Someone can show anyone a proper running stance, teach them about distances and tips for training, etc. but no matter how hard people work almost no one is going to run something like the world’s fastest marathon. There are a multitude of factors at play, many ungraspable in any real objective sense that we loosely call ‘talent’, born with it or not, etc.

    My whole point was MFAs / the workshop (in whatever setting, in or outside academia), etc. is clearly going to create an environment where some will flourish and some will be stifled, there’s a certain range on the spectrum here, but the extremes aren’t available, no one will magically find talent or lose it in that environment.

    My thoughts on this after many years remain rooted (I’m paraphrasing) in Rilke’s ‘Letters’, essentially talking about that inner motivation of it not being a choice to write or not — it’s what you are not what you do — and so on. By definition this means such a writer, yes a ‘true’ writer, I understand the sort of relativistic knee-jerking that occurs to this term, it’s now ‘correct’ I guess to say that there’s no such thing (but weren’t you just defending ‘great art’ in another post? Where does it come from? Not ‘great’ artists? Are great artists not the ‘true’ ones?), but obviously there are, they’re the ones doing it whether you enjoy their work or not. The ones who were ‘ruined’ by their MFAs were just playing at it, probably liked the idea of the artist more than they felt a real need to do it; how easy it is to have someone say negative adjective xyz about your work and to run home, say ‘The world isn’t ready for my work!’ or ‘There’s no place for my work!’ and give up the whole thing. Well, good, you probably weren’t very interesting, and it’s self-evident that you didn’t care so much about the writing anyway, why should I care about it? ‘There’s no place for my work’ probably being the flattest excuse in the ever-thickening book; I’m a believer and lover in the diversity of aesthetics in print and on line, and part of the joy in seeing it is the realization that this excuse is no longer valid; to be fair there was a time when such a claim was very real. That time has passed.

    I’m curious how many more years I need to keep at all this until I’m allowed a more valid footing; do I need to be over 30? Do I need to have read a thousand books instead of a hundred? Do I need to publish a book? Get tenure? Do I just need to not disagree? Very frustrating.

    I never said I didn’t see what Lucas was saying, I just found his framing contradictory, but he clarified it already.

    As far as more direct observations about writers being ‘stifled’ sure I can talk about it; the experiences are more personal than philosophical and seem potentially distanced from the topic at hand, though.

  11. Johannes

    It’s called having a discussion. I’m merely asking you what you base these ideas on? It seems you’re basing them on cliches of weak artists saying things like the world is not ready for my art work, whining, they were probably not interesting anyway etc. What are you basing that on?

    You don’t need tenure to answer that question; you just need to answer the question.


  12. Ryan Sanford Smith

    Not sure how you missed my explanation of that; to summarize for the sake of repeating the point: I have ‘x’ belief about ‘real’ artists (articulated above); people that claim to have been ‘ruined’ by an MFA or by Big Name Poet calling them a bad name / whatever fall outside of that criteria; the criteria being that at the very least they kept writing. The corollary in my view is true: you’re not going to be become talented by way of an MFA (or lack of one); someone who says they have in my standard is wrong–either they were talented regardless or they aren’t any more talented after than they were before. Again, chasms between ‘stifled’ and ‘ruined’, as well as between ‘flourished’ and ‘had talent instilled’. The accusations of having it both ways seem to fly easily in both directions; to advocate the power of the MFA is to automatically concede it must go both ways, it will surely stifle some and help others to flourish. Ideas that it can only allow flourishing or that if you were stifled you just didn’t ‘do’ the MFA ‘the right way’ seems like they should be met with a great deal of skepticism (obviously I’m not only skeptical of this idea but think it’s indefensible).

    I guess I could concede some form of the argument in saying that perhaps these ruined / ‘failed’ artists could very well be ‘talented’ by one definition, but part of my definition of talent is the passion / fortitude to always write (i.e., again, Rilke’s ‘you have no choice but to write’), so in this view they by their own (in)action don’t meet the standard.

    It’s obviously all subjective, there are certainly views where these ‘ruined’ artists, not writing poetry but complaining about the poetic landscape can be talented, it’s just not a view I find compelling or respectable. What kind of ‘talent’ is that? What kind of passion or artistic integrity is found in such a person? Who would want such to be the substance of talent or ‘true-ness’?

  13. Johannes

    Of course I agree with you that the MFA does influence people but that it’s certainly not absolute. It by itself is not all powerful and nor is it insignificant. I think Lucas argument originally dealt with people who believed the opposite: that it both is insignificant and still ruins people completely, which seems to be a contradiction. As Anne’s comment suggested, I think these absolute are too reductive.

    I see what you’re saying about “talent” but I disagree with your claim that the model artist (truly whatever, insert your own favorite word) is this heroic type of figure who succeeds in spite of everything. That to me is an argument based on “winners” and heroism; that’s not a model i find compelling. And the reason I don’t find it compelling is multifold – not the least that I am not interested in the Success and Persistence and Winning paradigm (Charlie Sheen is more interesting as an artist for coming apart than he is as a winner); it’s a model of agency and selfhood I don’t believe in; and I simply know too many talented artists who have been turned off by the poetry world or outright rejected, or made to feel that they did not have a space in it.

    I also don’t know why you would assume that they were “whiners” etc. Where do you get these images from? To me it suggests the kind of ideology at display in Forest Gump – the paralyzed vietnam vet who “whines” is therefore unhappy, he should just shut up and buy a shrimp boat and he’ll be a success/able-bodied again (through capitalism). The reason why I’m asking where you get these view of the whiners from is that I think your views perpetuate this American/capitalist ideology of the success vs the whiny loser. I’m on the side of the loser. Because often the greatest artists are total losers.

    Whenever anybody (such as me) criticize the established norms or an anthology or a poem, there’s always somebody who says, “you’re just a whiner.” This leads me to think of this criticism as a conservative defense against necessary challenges.

    The reason I have a problem with “true artist” is that it’s a rhetoric of authenticity and many great artists have been accused of being in-authentic artists (I just discussed Kara Walker and Basquiat in my grotesque class, both of whom have been accused of being inauthentic). Art is of course inauthentic, totally counterfeit. No reason it should strive to the Authentic or True. It’s MO is precisely the opposite: it constantly counterfeits.

    I believe in great artists but not in The Great Artist. Obviously I think Kara Walker or Basquiat or Aase Berg or Kim Hyesoon are great artists. I love their art. I don’t think Franz Wright is a great poet (not bad either, OK, just not great). I know you do, but I don’t. Thus I don’t believe in The Great Artist. I don’t think this is this “knee-jerk” relativism. But I definitely believe in great art – why else do I keep writing about people? I just believe in greatness as something to invite discussion, not something to shut it down, and that’s mostly how it’s used.


  14. Ryan Sanford Smith

    We can all talk about the poets we know that we feel have been unfairly rejected, ignored, derided for bullshit reasons, etc., no question there, I agree with you; what I object to as that we still pour out or sympathetic hearts to that poet when they quit writing. No, sorry, yes it’s hard, New Yorker wouldn’t touch you with any length of pole but if the writing is what mattered you’d keep doing it, if the anxiety is recognition that poet’s priorities are (understandably) misguided.

    “…or made to feel they did not have a space in it.”

    If they let themselves be talked into that then yes, I think they only have themselves to blame. If there truly is no space you make your own, this is ironically not a new routine. If they quit writing then yes, they have failed in the only real sense that failure can come in art, i.e. you quit making whatever it is that you feel your art is. If instead they sit around talking day in and out about that rejection instead of making their art, yes that is a kind of ‘whining to me’, not only a ceasing of the art but a sadly self-serving gesture of replacing the art with complaining, and your metaphor of the Vietnam vet seems to me a false dichotomy of abysmal proportions.

    It’s weird you keep ascribing these structures to me that you seem more obsessed with than I am. “I’m on the side of the loser.” And I’m not!? I’m doing nothing if not saying the ‘losers’ should not care & make their art. There is in fact a very real way to ‘fail’ at art in the truest sense of the word, and the best way to fail–really fail, not fail-as-process, etc., and that is to let the MFA or the Poet or the Journal tell you you should quit doing your art. If you quit then your passion for your own work is lacking & therefore why would I want to read it much less sympathize that you were rejected?

    Maybe one is ‘really’ the most talented marathon runner in the world, but someone told them the way they run is goofy, so they shouldn’t run marathons, and so they don’t. Sure it sucks someone told them they were goofy but if they let that stop them from running, who cares? Tell me about the one who ran anyway & then ask me why I shouldn’t respect the latter person more.

    You seem to equate my criticism of whining with criticism perceived as whining and I never made that claim, you never seem to stop putting assumptions into my mouth.

    What’s interesting now that I think about it as they what I’m really trying to talk about w/ the discussion of whining / the ‘failed’ / etc. has nothing necessarily to do with success or ‘Great Artists’; I know what I enjoy, whatever, this is the same old subjective arguments that aren’t interesting really to anyone, i.e. you mention personal taste, I indeed think Franz Wright is a great artist (more than often a problematic person to invite into discussion, perhaps), I think Berg is interesting but quickly forgettable, etc., whatever, none of this matters. We don’t need this discussion for the former discussion–I can’t define ‘great art’ or ‘great artist’ for anyone, but it’s unremarkably easy to define a truly failed artist: they let the world convince them to stop making their art, and worse some of them think it’s productive to whine about it instead.

    I don’t believe in purity either, ‘raw brilliance’, etc., no matter what romantic ideals abound even the most brilliant artists have done unknowably hard work on top of that ‘talent’. To say it again for the millionth iteration, I don’t believe any ‘approach’ is intrinsically better or best, but they are better or best for a particular artist, and while it’s just as true that some poets will flourish best in an MFA, others will flourish best in the cliche solitude, and I don’t understand why this recognition seems so hard to swallow. I think there are unfair accusations both directions, i.e. those that ‘need’ the MFA for whatever cliche reasons, or that those that flourish in solitude are only miming some ‘True Poet’ ideal…how about we drop the nonsense and simply let people do what works for them without telling them which silly box they clearly aspire to fit into?

    But yes, if there is any admirable (‘heroic’) gesture to look at, you’re saying it shouldn’t reside somewhere in the direction of those that had no internal choice but to keep writing? I should admire those of such fickle passion and petty anxieties that they gave it all up? My question stands, what kind of perspective is that? That I should buy into the ‘conviction’ that is strong enough one feels one must complain but isn’t strong enough one can’t make their art despite unfriendly terrain? Who wants friendly terrain anyway? Who are these people?

  15. Johannes

    I don’t think I have much to add at this point.

  16. Dan Hoy

    I just wanted to tell everyone that the new Britney album is really great.