At base an institutional history of the initial incarnation (1980-1987) of the Masters in Poetics program at New College of California, a now defunct, alternative school in San Francisco (1971-2008), this work contributes to the field of study that has been developed over the past decade by such books as Mark McGurl’s The Program Era, Eric Bennett’s Workshops of Empire, Loren Glass’s After the Workshop Era, and Juliana Spahr’s Du Bois’s Telegram, which are concerned with the literary and political implications of the teaching of Creative Writing at institutions of higher learning in the United States. Inaugurated at the very moment that the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) issued its first formal recommendations for the hiring of faculty in this rapidly expanding discipline, defining the Masters of Fine Arts (MFA) as the degree of preference, the New College Program expressly positioned itself against such departments, while also positioning itself against more traditional departments in English, Comparative Literature, Rhetoric, and the like. It offered instead a sui generis course of study designed for young working poets to investigate the historical, theoretical, and technical aspects of their art. There were no writing workshops such as form the cornerstone of most MFA programs in Creative Writing; students studied “subjects”—from prosody, musical proportion, and the poetics of theater; to classical Greek myth, diverse African cosmologies, and medieval Muslim comment; to the Troubadours, the Romantics, and modern and contemporary American and European poets; as well as Field Theory, Linguistics, Kabbalah, and more—but all of these courses were designed to deepen the technical attention of student-poets as they grew more intimate with diverse modes and meanings of being a poet, not merely methods and manners of writing poems. The dominant mode of learning in the Poetics Program might be called “anarcho-scholasticism,” a term Stephen Collis has coined “to name a presiding ethos, a peculiar merging of concerns in…scholarly writings by poets – poets’ attempts to write their responses to other poets. They are Janus-faced works – part exegesis, part original expression – ‘creative’ in their own right, but their creativity is often located in the collagist’s eye for the found object and critical juxtaposition.” At root was a sense of history as ‘istorin, “finding out for oneself,” as Charles Olson put it, and a sense of knowledge as gnosis, a highly personal and personalized cognition and fascination. The faculty encouraged such mystical modalities of reading as the Jewish PaRDeS, the Islamic ta’wil, and ecumenical contemplative practices, types of personal exegesis that complicated both the temporality of the text and the textuality of time, turning the student body, so to speak, into a community of visionary readers, who performed analogous and interrelated, but ultimately inconvertible operations, each exegete presenting the common text uniquely, as each exegesis was inscribed in the nunc stans of a collective, living tradition of Poetry. As Collis notes, “for writers, other writers are always passages to still other writers,” and so faculty and students alike were engaged as well in both individual and collective effo¬¬rts to descry their broader poetic cosmologies.
Such a conception of eternal community depends on a temporal community in which to conceive it, and this is what the participants in the Poetics Program provided one another despite their internecine conflicts. Like the college that housed it, the program was quasi-anarchic and collectivist in both administration and academics, inviting, even depending upon, student participation in all its aspects, and insisting on Poetics “in the plural,” as the catalog put it, so what emerged was neither an aesthetic school, nor a social coterie, but what I have come to call a community of inquiry, where faculty and student-poets worked collaboratively, in official classroom contexts and in unofficial reading and work groups, often over a duration of several years, to define and redefine the Basic Elements of poetry and poetics, and to build their own alternative academic model for the study of the art.
My approach has been to directly involve myself with the relevant persons by way of interviews, with the relevant poetry by way of close reading, and with the relevant pedagogical materials by way of archival research. I have attempted thereby to imagine myself back into the program as it was forty years ago, which has meant imagining myself back into the social milieu of the program and of the city of San Francisco, the general cultural and specifically poetic landscape of the local and national scene, and the fraught political moment. I have taken my cues from the persons I have interviewed, not attempting to articulate my own concerns or discern a shape in the material until I had spoken with a dozen key figures. However, I earned my own MFA in Poetry from San Francisco State University before becoming one of the inaugural students in the Creative/Critical concentration of the PhD program in Literature at the University of California, Santa Cruz, a concentration that is still struggling to define its terms and intentions, so I also write from an invested position as a poet-scholar with experience of diverse academic and extra-academic settings, with the hope that my study might help invigorate various aspects of the discipline. Among the models I have taken for this project is Martin Duberman’s Black Mountain College, an institutional history in which the historian is implicated by way of the questions that guide it—questions about the subject, object, and mode of inquiry—and expressly present in the description of the persons that populate the text. In my writing, I have tried to weave the anecdotal with the documentary, the practical with the theoretical, the intellectual with the emotional, and the historical with the personal, in the same way that the participants in the program did, in the way, too, that they wove the critical with the creative, the warp and the weft of what may be called properly a Poetics.