Before I learned the ins and outs of the clusterfuck that is Canadian literature, I had to master the art of The MFA Voice™.1
Imagine uttering your lines through the back of a breathy fan. Augment the aesthetic with thick denim, bushy hair, ornate glasses, and a faux-knitted beanie—anything to further absorb any soundwaves escaping your mouth. Read each word at awkward cadence, with swaying emphasis on conjunctions (“this house…AND…our love…”). Every phrase generated so far back in your throat that it’s almost guttural. You know you’ve reached reading-voice Nirvana when everyone begins to crane their neck forward. Study their scrunched faces, riding that sweet spot between pensive and pained.
This half-guttural half-breathy performance, I quickly learned, was a sort of calling card for Toronto literary readings. After I published my first collection, one of my best friends joined me on the line-up for a local Toronto poetry reading. Two east-side poets bringing the house down on Queen Street—what could be better? We matched denim outfits and paired poems together, in order to bring some Scarborough to the metropole. Climbing the uneven steps of a Queen Street bar, we thought we had found some kindred spirits: poets, the lot of them, chatting away beneath the weighted blanket of old wood smell and a reverent hush around a microphone stand.
When we thought that the quiet would lift once people got comfortable—well, the comfort never did happen. Poems about fishing, which should have undulated with the sea, met few ripples in delivery, let alone a splash. About city life and the thrilling danger of the night? The cadence of a flickering Trinity Bellwoods light. I thought, then, I’d begin my set with a comfortable opening.
“What’s good, y’all?” Mortuary stares. Too forward?
Several readings later, I thought I had a handle on Poetry Reading Etiquette. In the dead of slushy winter on Bloor Street, I made my way to a reading venue. Below my faded, decade-old Timberland boots, anti-lawsuit salt crunched underneath every step. The din of banjo music crescendoed when I opened the door and passed through the halls. A familiar old wood smell and hush around a Sennheiser. A few kindred spirits seated amidst the dusty couches, but nonetheless, a room that matched the snow dunes outside. This time around, I skipped the early exhortation and read my work. Fifty percent guttural, fifty percent breathy, one hundred percent pseudo-meditative.
When I reached the fourth poem on my list, my heart sank. A favorite on my reading lineup, it involves interacting with the audience and soliciting their sound effects to become the backdrop to my delivery. Was this too forward? Sure enough, after the reading, some very white, very well-meaning audience members approached me. The usual response to my public speeches or comments outside of the literary world were a familiar backhanded compliment to any racialized Anglophone opening their mouth to articulate their knowledge: You’re So Eloquent. We’re poets. They couldn’t possibly hit me with that—right?
* * *
An hour to the east by train, charisma expressed itself more freely than it did in my downtown Toronto explorations. Young Black and Brown folks would gather in the back channels of Scarborough Town Centre mall. There, a sanctuary beats to the emphatic pulse of hmm and the crisp snap of responsive thumbs. In my hometown, spoken word is the poetic blood coursing through our community arteries, offering nourishing oxygen to each artistic breath.
A direct descendant of performance poetry, spoken word emphasizes the aesthetics of sound, rather than the visual page. One enjambs—makes line breaks—by controlling the tempo of their articulation. On stage, the artist stands behind the microphone, performing their work as if each phrase emerged from the tenderest depths of their bodies. Sometimes, they meander among the audience, piercing eye contact and rhythmic gestures to exhort the message of their stanzas into the masses. In hip-hop, that word-forward performer is called the emcee, the four-count beat their rhythmic sanctuary. These are poetry readings otherwise: memorized or otherwise, your piece is read to a crowd to excite them into a collective, and read for that collective to spring them into movement.
But not all poetry readings need to burst from the gates with the energy of a slam poet. In the embrace of an Ann Arbor bookstore, queer Brown poets delivered their dulcet epigraphs to the quiet contemplation of their audiences. In San Francisco, I watched my favorite poet, a CHamoru writer living in Hawai‘i, punch tenderness into our ears with verses for his daughter. And with the tidal caress of a seashore, he uttered a phrase that leaves me breathless today. Drowning is the last lullaby of the sea.
What, then, makes The MFA Voice™ so egregious? What is it about the contemporary literary reading that compels you to remove yourself from the words you pained to write on the page? We begin with the obvious. The audiences are white, often university-educated and performatively discerning, inculcated from years in the academe. In The Program Era (2011), literary historian Mark McGurl shows how the post-World War II rise of the professional Masters program for creative writers—the MFA—reinvented the writer’s craft to reflect university curriculum. As more marginalized people entered the university, so too did the new professionalized creative writing programs have to rethink what constituted literary excellence. Both the gatekeepers—English department faculty and wealthy white educated audiences—held the keys for what would be considered admissible writing. And for that, you had to be professional, marketable, and reverent. In MFA fiction programs, McGurl tells us, one was encouraged to utter the refrain familiar to minority creative writers alike: Find Your Voice.
The MFA Voice™, then, is perhaps a coping mechanism against the professionalization of creative writing, a craft that needs degrees of vulnerability. Maybe that vulnerability hushes you. When you excavate stanzas from the catacombs of your personal trauma, they might claw at your throat, afraid to emerge unless you’re gentle with their delivery. What’s worse, this literary self-flaggelation becomes necessary to produce The Marketable Work™ for journals and publishers. Or, at least, for some kind of reverence from one’s own very white, very well-meaning peers. The collective trauma, then, produces the MFA Voice™, that safety blanket of the literary reading.
And somehow, at some point once you’ve Found Your Voice, you graduate into that next stage of creative writing life: The Emerging Voice™. In perfect MFA Voice™, you read and write and apply for grants and submit to journals and get rejected by journals and pitch books and wait a year for a response and keep reading in very hushed tones at literary events and Tweet with your kin about how shitty it all is and write again with your Emerging™-branded vocal cords and dominant hand. All this, over and over again, ad nauseam, until maybe, some very white, very well-meaning peer (or award committee member) tells you that you’ve finally reached that pinnacle of literary statuses, The Established Voice™.
Until then, keep your head down, and read as quietly as possible.
* * *
What is a world beyond the MFA Voice™? Maybe it begins by demanding that our voices were never emerging to begin with. In our myriad pitches and tones, from the murky depths of our literary esophagi, whether or not we actually utter any words at all, we have always made poetry.
My beloved denim-donning poetry comrade from the Queen Street reading took matters into her own hands. As far east as accessibly possible on the subway line, she organized a reading for Scarborough kinfolk. In the crowd and the lineup, we bore witness to those “voices” of the east end, outside the purview of the MFA Voice™: spoken word poetry, experimental performance prose, and all forms of writing, from late high school to middle age and beyond. Our esteemed organizer encouraged—nay, insisted—that we snap and cheer when someone’s work stirs us. Before she returned to her seat, she introduced the event’s host, who approached the stage, arms outstretched, ready to lead us into the literary Promised Land.
“What’s good, y’all?”
1 Thank you to Leanne Toshiko Simpson at the University of Guelph-Humber for giving me this terminology.
Adrian De Leon is an Abagatan (Southern) Ilokano writer and educator from Manila by way of Scarborough. He is the author of Rouge (2018) and Poetry Editor of the forthcoming collection FEEL WAYS: A Scarborough Anthology. He is Assistant Professor of American Studies & Ethnicity at the University of Southern California.