In Class With Professor Michael Ryan, Co-Director of the MFA Program at UC Irvine
A primary mission of Frontier is to provide high quality resources and practical help for serious poets—so we’ve been reaching out to poetry professors to help give clarity to this strange journey and stranger craft. This month, we got the chance to hear from Michael Ryan, Co-Director of the MFA Program at UC Irvine.
What is the most common piece of writing advice you find yourself giving your students?
Michael Ryan: Try to learn to use the poems you love as teachers—how a poem you love causes you to love it, from its handling of its subject to the arrangement of its sentences, lines, and sounds. There also have been many prose writers and thinkers over the years who have shaped my outlook and my work, and also composers, and painters, and stand-up comics. What feeds you are what Lewis Hyde in The Gift calls “reservoirs of available life.” Aren’t we all an amalgam of what’s been given from other sources, whatever they are, that sustain you, nourish you, enliven you and enlarge you? Whatever does that for you is something you can respond to. For an artist, your response is your responsibility, to answer what you love with your own art, to write the poems only you can write.
What’s the best thing about teaching poetry and creative writing?
The jokes. The spirit in the room. I have been lucky to have some of the very best MFA students in the country to learn from: smart, gifted, earnest, literate, and devoted—who are there for one reason: to become better poets. I’ve now taught poetry for exactly fifty years: it hasn’t been a job, it’s been a privilege.
Do you consider writing poetry a spiritual act?
For obvious reasons, it’s increasingly easy to confuse your vocation with your career, but it’s useful to remember the etymologies of the two words: a vocation is “a divine calling to a religious life”; a “career” is a racecourse. Writing poetry is a practice. Nothing ever gets written perfectly. The practice is doing it again and again as well as you can for the pleasure and the joy and the necessity of doing it– necessary, for me, because I can’t live without writing. I need it as a practice to deal with the fear and frustration and despair that everybody suffers. That I suffer. Writing allows me to enjoy the rest of my life. I need to write so I can do an imitation of a decent human being when I’m not at my desk.
Michael Ryan is Distinguished Professor of English and Creative Writing and Director of the MFA Program in Poetry at the University of California, Irvine. He previously taught poetry writing at Iowa, Princeton, the University of Virginia, and the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers. He has published five books of poems, a collection of essays, an autobiography, a memoir, and a novel. Five of the books were New York Times Notable Books of the year. The autobiography was reviewed on the front page of the New York Times Book Review and the memoir was excerpted in The New Yorker. His poetry has won many awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Whiting Writers Award, the Lenore Marshall Prize, and the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award.