Ploughshares poetry editor Skoyles (Writing, Literature and Publishing/Emerson Coll.; The Situation, 2007, etc.) turns in a third volume of memoir, this one taking him to the wilds of Iowa and beyond.
Stealing a page from his fellow poet Kenneth Rexroth, Skoyles calls this an “autobiographical novel.” In Rexroth’s case, it was at the lawyers’ insistence to skirt libel laws; perhaps Skoyles merely liked the ring of it, for there isn’t much actionable in these pages, even if there’s plenty of good if mostly inconsequential dish. Some decades ago, MFAs were comparatively rare and writing programs few. Enrollees aspired to sleep with Auden (or, if he were dead, some other British substitute), a faculty wife or maybe some untouchable classmate, for, writes Skoyles, “[w]ith women, we were sensitive, bearing the burden of witnessing our nation’s militarism, the savage effect of the Dow Jones on the poor, the illusion of the comfort offered by religion.” In short, everyone was on the make while seeking to make good poems (and stories and novels), all careerists “hell-bent to become poets.” Some did: Skoyles’ classmates included David St. John and Larry Levis. Some dropped off the face of the earth. Skoyles survived the politicking, knife-concealing back slaps of the workshop and sexual shenanigans long enough to make his way through an interview (“Verna casually asked about my outside interests as she undid her scarf and shook out her raven hair”) to become a member of the workshopping professoriate—maybe not the carefree poet of his youthful dreams, but at least someone paid pretty well to analyze and write poems.
Mostly entertaining but not terribly searching. Readers seeking a more exacting view of MFA literary careerism should turn to Tom Grimes’ Mentor (2010) and its predecessor, The Workshop (1999).