By Andrea Scarpino
My friend Phil, a pretty fantastic musician, recently wrote on his website about the power of the backup plan, about how everyone’s insistence that he have a backup plan for playing music was detrimental to his own development as a musician. In ensuring he had a way to survive financially if music didn’t pay the bills, he followed paths that didn’t aid his musical development. That maybe he would have been better off as a musician if he hadn’t worked so long and hard to develop and secure a backup plan, if he’d just jumped into making music instead.
Like musicians, poets hardly ever support themselves writing or publishing poetry. Prose writers have a little more hope, but even then, most of us rely on some other job to put food on the table. In fact, I don’t know a single person who supports herself financially entirely from her own writing.
So it seems most artists need to have other skills to support ourselves and our art. Do those other skills constitute backup plans? I make my living as a professor—is that a backup plan or a career that runs alongside my dedication to poetry? What would it even look like to just do poetry?
The MFA is the only degree I ever wanted. It’s considered a terminal degree but it represented to me the lack of a backup plan—in going to graduate school for something as ridiculous and elusive and non-money-making as poetry, I was choosing for myself a life dedicated to art. A life rich with beauty and language. I was choosing to do something entirely for me. What I wanted from my graduate studies was time—to read, to write, to study other people’s words—and careful attention—from my professors, other students, and myself—on my work. That I’ve been able to make a living so far in part because of my graduate degree feels like an unexpected bonus.
My mother also wanted to be an artist, but was told by her parents that they wouldn’t pay for her college education if she studied something as frivolous as art. So she changed majors. I’m not sure she ever recovered, if all the other things she’s done in her life (all of them backup plans?)—working for various orchestras, fundraising, teaching second grade, raising children—measured up to the life she would have lived if she’d followed art. My own decision to go to graduate school for poetry was maybe, in some small way, a redemption of her deferred dreams. My own small stand for art. My own small refusal of a backup plan.
Although Phil sees his focus on education as having pulled him away from music, I’m realizing that maybe my MFA was a way to renounce the backup plan, a way to embrace poetry. Of course, I could be fooling myself—maybe I, too, would have been better served by writing and reading and doing poetry instead of working towards a degree. What I do know for sure is that following art against the advice of everyone who says it’s impossible is an act of tremendous courage. An act of tremendous faith.
Poet and essayist Andrea Scarpino is the rust belt bureau chief for POTB. You can visit her at: www.andreascarpino.com