THE BEST AMERICAN POETRY? This past weekend, various bloggers noticed that the 2005 edition of Best American Poetry contained a poem by Stacey Harwood, wife of series editor/poet David Lehman. Apparently, Davy and Stacey were keeping their marriage on the downlow, but then someone found out that Stacey had alledgedly been a busy bee writing anonymous glowing reviews to promote the 2006 edition at Amazon and elsewhere. Jim Behrle (blogger, poet, critic and cartoonist) called Stacey out in his Amazon review, only to have it erased. Anyone who's visited Jim's site lately will either A) be tickled or B) pissed off at the hilarious lampoon of BAP, Lehman, guest editor Billy Collins and various poets included in the new edition.

Poet and New Hampshire Review editor Seth Abramson has succinctly laid out the charges against Lehman and BAP, and of course Foetry has been tracking it. As Behrle noted, most poets with blogs have remained silent on this subject. Obviously, they don't want to rock the boat and piss off Lehman (who apparently pre-screens mags and journals and makes recommendations to the guest editor) because being included in BAP is like a golden ticket to the chocolate factory.

I know, I know...I really should care more about this scandal, but at the moment, I could care less. This goes right back to the observations made in my Poetry In Crisis??!! post on Sept. 7 that caused such a stir. Poets are going to publish/give awards to/get well-paying gigs for their friends, colleagues, students, former students, lovers, husbands and wives. It's been going on for decades, and it shows no sign of letting up. You have to decide if you're going to let this stuff ruffle you or if you're going to give it the middle finger and get back to writing your own work, which may or may not appear in BAP one day. It shouldn't matter. When I sit down to write a poem, I don't think: "Oh, my god, is this going to be good enough to get into Poetry or BAP? What will Davy Lehman and Christian Wiman think? Oh, dear, oh, me..."

As I said in that earlier post, I firmly believe there is no such thing as bad poetry. It all comes down to personal taste. After reading a few selections in the new edition of BAP, I would say Billy and Davy were sniffing the mediocrity Sharpie pen when making their list of who to publish, or maybe they just owed some favors. Some of the poems -- in my opinion -- sound like high school writing exercises, yet they are deemed the best poetry in America. So be it. One Amazon reviewer said these were the "wrong poems by the right poets," another was excited to see newcomers (?) like Terrence Hayes and Kim Addonizio included, while several were just snarky about Billy choosing "accessible" poems with little skill or substance. Again, personal taste.

Let's be honest for a moment shall we: You "get ahead" in poetry by getting to know other poets. You invite poets you like to feature at your at your readings, you solicit poems from same to be in your journal, you write reviews for poets you like and admire, if you have an MFA, you use the contacts you made there to further your career. This is no big mystery. It's how the po-biz works. You get in the game, or you sit on the sideline. It's totally up to each poet how much or how little of the game they want to play. Those who get an MFA, pursue publication as if their life depends on it, mix and mingle with the elite (or sleep with them) are going to go further than those who sit at home waiting for the invitations and accolades to come pouring through the mailslot...electronic or otherwise. All poets know this is true, it's just another one of those things they don't want to admit. Take the blue pill or take the red pill, Neo.

After being published in numerous journals and magazines for about nine years, I decided around 2002 to self-publish my first book and nominate it for a couple of awards. It was all part of getting my name out there and finding a wider audience...being the proverbial publicity whore. Am I ashamed of this, as some have suggested I should be? Nope. Do I list in my bio that I was nominated for these awards? Yep, because whether you self-nominate or someone does it for you, it's still nominated isn't it? Oh, yes, I know there are poets out there who cringe at this, who find it unseemly and unprofessional. Well, you'll just have to fuck off. I believed in my work enough to risk putting it out there on my own dime to see what would happen. I have no regrets. Sorry if that offends anyone's sensibilities or esthetics. And chew on this: when you spend thousands of dollars entering your manuscript into the contest lottery, aren't you self-nominating? Aren't you paying $25 of your own money and praying to be selected for an award -- which is publication? Uh-huh.

Since then, I've had a book picked up by a publisher, been nominated for awards by others and solicited by journals to submit poetry for publication. I am grateful...thrilled...for the success I have had. Will I ever get published in BAP or win a Pushcart or be on the cover of Poets & Writers magazine? I have no idea. It's not something I worry distracts from the writing. So, my fellow poets, ask yourself: What's distracting you?


C. Dale said…
Good post. Mostly, I distract myself.
jenni said…
Collin, can I say something without it being taken the wrong way? eh, who cares. The fact is:

I love you, bro.

You're so dead on.

This is the first I've heard of the BAP scandal. Just goes to show how much I give a shit.
Cheers for your words.
Justin Evans said…
The standard for fame I have held to since I was a teenager was having my birthday mentioned on Entertainment Tonight. Until I see some inane trivia question about my shoe size featuring me, Woody Harelson, and Joe Pesci, all this talk about getting famous doesn't mean a thing.
M. Shahin said…
Another excellent post Collin.

Poetry for poetry's sake and nothing else. I didn't know the poetry world was so competitive and governed by its own laws but at least I'm getting a clue now.

You have to get our poetry out there as best you can, since the few holding the keys are not willing to share.
Collin said…
I'll have a hit of whatever Montgomery is smoking/snorting. ;-)
John Gallaher said…
I'll go as far as to say I agree with you two-thirds of the way. Where I part is where you say, "As I said in that earlier post, I firmly believe there is no such thing as bad poetry." And go on to label it "personal taste."

I don't have a strong opinion against your assertion, because we all know "worth" and "value" are under such tension, and often the ones putting them forth are steeped in reactionism . . . but there is something in my soul that cries its pitiful "NO!" when the gates are blown wide and we have a field of value-less taste.

But, the more poetry I admire has gotten dismissed and criticised by others, the more I wonder what the value lines of poetry signify, and why I should care. OK, I know why I should care, because I have strong opinions . . .

But, the idea of a value-less open field, though it sounds nice, actually just serves to maintain the fragmented nature of contemporary poetry, and help prop up nepotistic editorial practices: if it's all just taste, then why not put anyone one wants into BAP for any reason?

There must, somewhere, be a larger conversation. Inclusive, but with some sort of measuring device. What that would look like, I've no idea.
Another great post. Applause.

JGallaher has a good point. But poetry can be a lot like television. Remember how long Three's Company ran? Gees. Was that great television? I don't think so. But I think sometime people want sit-com, sometimes people want low brow, tell-it-to-me-again cinderella-harry potter.

Just because they called it the Best American Poetry doesn't mean it is.

Ok, I'm not awake yet, have a big head cold, so I know this is incoherent. Am hitting submit none-the-less.
Collin said…
J, I totally understand where you're coming from. I also wish there was some type of standard we could set good and bad poetry by, but at the moment, it really does come down to personal taste.

Imagine getting all of today's contemporary poets in a room and getting them to agree on what they think is great poetry. Never gonna happen. There's plenty of poets who think Billy and Ted write banal, cliched missives rather than poetry. Olds is continually dismissed by fellow poets for being confessional. When Hall was recently selected poet laureate, I read at least a dozen snarky, nasty comments about his lack of poetics. There are a hundred other least.

What we like and dislike IS personal taste. When Lehman and Collins were picking the poems for BAP 2006, they fragmented poetry further by continuing the trend of publishing a majority of the usual suspects. And many of those my opinion...are terrible. But, that's my own personal taste. Taste and opinion often walk hand in hand.
Nick said…
Let's see: I don't have an MFA; I don't schmooze & unfortunately I'm monogamous. Hmmmmmmmmmm...Anybody have a cheerleading costume I can borrow?
If there's no bad poetry, there's also no good or great or best poetry. I can't agree with that assertion, and I won't start telling people "Your poetry is definitely to my personal taste." There's taste, of course, but there's also good and bad.

And the BAP series is lame on many levels. Good thing I don't throw money down that hole anymore.
Peter said…
Great post, Collin.
Let's all get past the snarkiness, and back to writing the poems.
Collin said…
Thanks for the comment, Steven. I'm still waiting for someone to show me the set of rules that regulates what is good and bad poetry, other than personal taste and esthetics. I've yet to hear anyone offer up a definitive answer to this. Anyone...anyone...Bueller...Bueller...
Setting aside for a moment that practically every artistic manifesto ever written was an attempt to set down just these sorts of rules, do you refuse to believe in any physics because no one has successfully offered a Grand Unified Theory of the universe?

And if I may pose the question implicit in my first comment, don't you think that the denial that there is any poetry is bad makes it impossible for you to ever convincingly say a poem is good, either?

If I felt as you do about poetry, I wouldn't be writing it. Without good and bad, it seems hollow. Without good and bad, it's all mediocrity. Count me out of that worldview.
By the way, sorry if I seem overly confrontational. I don't particularly enjoy that aspect of it.
Collin said…
No worries, Steven. I didn't find it's all part of the ongoing debate. I'm glad you've joined in.

Personally, what I consider "good" poetry is what moves me...what makes me come back to that writer, or book or single poem again and again for inspiration. Sexton, Stan Rice, Margaret Atwood, Olds, Alice Walker...those are the folks who keep inspiring me to write.

Plenty of poets/critics/readers hate Sharon Olds poetry. Does that mean it's "bad"? Aren't we back to personal taste again?

Earlier this week, a co-worker had ripped a poem out of the New Yorker that she loved and put it in my mailbox. She came into my office later and asked if I had read the poem. I told her I had and it didn't move me at all. She gushed about how fabulous it was and what it made her feel. I felt nothing.

Maybe rather than labeling poems as good or bad, we should say whether they moved us or not. Isn't poetry supposed to move us? Maybe it's just time to start thinking beyond the black and white of good and bad. There's just too much gray area.
Michael said…

Refreshing commentary. So many points I agree with.
John Gallaher said…

I was thinking about this a bit, and your good/bad, or taste, got me try to get myself into these issues a bit more (on my blog). I'm not comfortable with "it moved me" any more than I'm comfortable with "good/bad" dichotomies, or saying it's all just "taste."

But you are right, no other contender jumps to the top . . . and any set of principles one might use to give one language for poetry evaluation also can be reduced, if one tries hard enough, to the subjectivities of taste, or worse, whim.

On the other hand, again, if such is the case, why complain about BAP?
Collin said…

I agree, being "moved" or not really isn't any better than good or bad, but since we have yet to find the words and language to measure poetry, saying I was moved feels more emotionally honest at this point.

Thanks for furthering the discussion on this. That's why I made the post in the first place. I know the idea of "no bad poetry" is a polarizing comment, but it stirs up debate and discussion. That's what I like.

Cleo said…
Every artform has it gate keepers, painting has curators, novels have publishers (and Oprah), poetry has this funky inbred network of journal editors and academians.

I really agree -- that all poetry has merit, but then the problem then becomes, there's just so @#$%-ing much of it. How am I ever going to wade through every poet out there in search of someone who really connects with me? That's the role of the gatekeepers just to help filter and distill down that huge nebulous cloud of poetry.

So we really have to choose our gatekeepers wisely and believe that they're making a good faith effort to do their best -- I'm not sure that's always the case.

I love anthologies, they present a nice buffet sampler of what work is out there, you get to browse, and then if I get a taste of something I really like, I can go find out more about that poet. They're probably my main way of discovering new poets.

Funny thing is when I recently bought my BAP2006 I also bought Garrison Keillor's "Good Poems for Hard Times" I actually enjoyed that collection much more than BAP2006. Sure Keillor can be a bit cheesy and nostalgic but I also think he is a thoughful man with integrity that is much more in tune with mainstream American than any of the BAP crowd. And I wonder which book had more people reading poetry?

That being said. I still hold to the assertion that poetry is in a holding pattern waiting for it's next shot in the arm. I take a lot of comfort that the most famous and lasting American poets were mostly "outsiders"; E. Dickenson, W. Whitman, the Beats, Maya Angelou.

We will have that happen again, and for another generation American poetry will be energized and vital and people will give a damn. Then academia will get their claws into whatever new has come along and take all the fun out of it too. Then it all starts all over again.

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