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The Writing Life: An Interview with David Biespeil

2013 December 3
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The Writing Life

Note: David Biespiel, acclaimed American poet, is the author of numerous books of poetry including the newly released, Charming Gardeners (University of Washington Press). Furthermore, he is a writing instructor and author of a book about creative process—Every Writer Has a Thousand Faces (Kelson Books). Biespiel is the founder and president of an independent literary studio, The Attic Institute, in Portland, Oregon. I met with David, at The Attic in southeast Portland, to discuss Creative Writing, Master of Fine Arts programs. With application season for MFA programs upon us, I thought it would be interesting to hear about Biespiel’s opinion on the matter, and, let’s face it, I wanted to glean some wisdom from this long-time writer and mentor.

David Biespiel earned a Master of Fine Arts from the University of Maryland; however, he never actually applied to the program. He was pursuing his PhD at the University, and fell into the MFA program, then continued on to earn his PhD. He’s been variously involved in MFA programs around the country, and currently conducts a yearly graduate workshop at Oregon State University in Corvallis, Oregon. Biespiel also teaches for a low residency program—the Rainier Writers Workshop, through Pacific Lutheran University, in Tacoma, Washington.

I wondered what drew Biespiel to a low residency setting. He says, “I came to it coincidentally. They asked me to give a presentation and things just developed from there.” Biespiel speaks highly of the people involved in the program and their sense of community, and also the excellent work he’s seen over the last few years.

Given Biespiel’s long career in the field of Creative Writing, I asked him to tell me what he thinks are the most important criteria for selecting an MFA program. “You need to look at who you want to work with, study with.” He says it is important to seek out writers with whom you have “kinship” or share in creative “sensibility.” Again, Biespiel advocates for the value of working with a community of writers: “The more you think about what you can be a part of rather than what you’re going to get out of it, the more you’ll actually get out of your experience.” As other sources say, Biespiel agrees that the number of people in the program, the location, and the setting are all relevant factors in selecting a program. Most importantly, in his eyes, the program has to be a place where you’d be happy to get off the grid. “That’s all the MFA is, a rest stop on the highway of reality, where you can look inward, grow, and write.”

David and I get off on a tangent about genres, dynamics within workshops, and space for experimentation in different writing programs. I ask Biespiel why it seems that so many MFA programs advertise the opportunity to study more than one creative writing genre. He says that you have to step outside of the context and take a look at the bigger picture. Faculty are hired as writers within specific genres, but once they’re engrossed in poetry, fiction, or non-fiction, they realize what a narrow focus that can be, and they may see room for cross-fertilization. “This is radical to the Academy,” claims Biespiel. By offering multi-genre study, these programs see it as a way to break down the borders between genres. “Really, there are no borders” Biespiel insists, and adds that to younger writers coming into these programs, it doesn’t seem quite as radical because they’re approaching from outside Academic environments.

In terms of the workshop experience of MFA programs, Biespiel says that sometimes competing aesthetics in the programs can create such tension that you can lose control. The argument can come down to the value of the aesthetic instead of making the poem the best poem that in can be. Biespiel’s advice? “It’s important to protect yourself. But, for the most part, once you’re in a Creative Writing program, it’s not nearly as competitive as it seems from the outside.” He says that writers tend to be very supportive. And, realistically, people’s talents and strengths are all over the place. David did add that, in his opinion, the problem with some Creative Writing programs is that they might try to steer you away from failure; so, sometimes you end up not discovering something because you’re protected from potential failure.

Of course, we’re really just talking about approaching the MFA, but still I ask David Biespiel if he thinks it’s important for candidates to think about what they will do after they earn their MFA degrees. “No,” he says, “There’s a lot of anxiety about that, but the MFA is really just an opportunity to look in thyself and write.” And the point of the programs is that you’re not alone as you do that; you develop as artists within a community. Literary friendships are an important component of these programs. Speaking of his own literary relationships, Biespiel explains, “It’s fascinating to observe their [literary friends’] writing and work as it develops over the course of a lifetime. I was a Stegner Fellow… Oh… 25 years ago! And those relationships are still intact. They’re some of my closest friends. They have to be.”

If we could return to the rest area/highway metaphor, David says to think about it this way: “You have to keep driving after you leave the rest area. You’re driving on to other destinations… you don’t just magically arrive at them.”

Just because I can, I ask Biespiel one last, grandiose question: Why is it important that we continue to do this—to write poetry, to pursue writing as a Fine Art? “Poetry is a precious commodity,” he answered. In a society that so heavily emphasizes materialism, Poetry is the antithesis of commodification. “A poem is an experience, not a tool, not a commodity.” Of course, he admits, poets are not outside the commodified world, they do participate, “but in their hearts, they resist materialism. Poetry exists in a gift economy; you can barely sell a poem!”

And this is no news, really. But Biespiel says that by studying poetry, that in programs like the MFA, “it’s about the making.” It’s not about readability or selling a poem, in his opinion, “it’s about writing better and better poems.”

What do your “literary friendships” mean to you and your creative process?

If you’ve ever experienced “failure” on a creative project, what did you take from the experience?