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 about...it distracts from the writing. So, my fellow poets, ask yourself: What's distracting you?