Tuesday, August 24, 2010

More than this: A larger place at the poetry table

The suicide of Virginia Quarterly Review's managing editor, Kevin Morrissey, is very disturbing, especially after reading the coverage at The HookHTMLGIANT and on Alan Cordle's blog. There are all sorts of allegations flying about, but what's clear is that VQR lost the plot a couple of years ago when editor Ted Genoways allowed belittling, offensive comments to be posted on the journal's blog about submissions they received. It was unprofessional and full of contempt for the audience, which is other poets. Depending on whose figures you believe, VQR's quarterly circulation is between 2,400 and 7,000 copies. A drop in the larger literary bucket. The blog post generated enough controversy that  Genoways published a back-handed apology, where he complained that he and the editors were fed up with passionless writing. I read plenty of poetry that is passionless and inert, but I don't use my blog to humiliate other poets. It tarnished VQR's reputation, but with a $600,000 yearly budget, I guess the journal could afford to squander some of its literary cache.

Reading the VQR coverage, Anis Shavani's laughable "critique" of America's "overrated" poets and writers in the Huffington Post, and Justin Evans' blog post about how he received nasty comments from a grant panelist about a poem, which was accepted the next day for publication and showered with praise by an editor, once again raises the question of how you determine "good" and "bad" poetry. I've made the assertion before on my blog, and still believe it to be true, that it's impossible to lump poetry into nebulous, subjective words as simple as "good" and "bad." Some shitty sympathy card verse might make you back away in horror, while it brings others to tears. You can't invalidate someone else's emotions, even if you think -- and I know some of you do -- that average readers don't know the difference between "good" and "bad" because they are part of the uneducated masses. And if that's the case, doesn't that mean "serious" poetry -- the kind published in journals like VQR, The Paris Review and Poetry -- is just being written by academics for academics?

So, I have questions for all of you who read this blog: How we can get back to the pleasure of the art rather than the jockeying for position, awards and writing personal attacks masquerading as "literary criticism?" How do we set a larger place at the poetry table for those working outside the academy? How do we make the art of poetry interesting and compelling to the next generation that doesn't want an MFA or teaching gig? How do we take the insular and make it open?

As a postscript, I received the latest issue of The Writer's Chronicle yesterday. It fell open to the center spread with details about the 2011 AWP Conference and there were the same old faces being trotted out as the literary stars of the conference. The same ones that get trotted out year after year, and while I actually like a few of them, I'd like to see AWP champion some new stars. Why isn't Oliver de la Paz's photo there? Or Steven Reigns? Or C. Dale Young? Or Barbara Jane Reyes? Or Dan Vera? Or Jackie Sheeler? Or Karen Head? Or Reb Livingston? Or Denise Duhamel? Or Cecilia Woloch? Or Sarah Maclay? Or Charles Jensen? Why isn't David Groff and Philip Clark's Persistent Voices anthology of poets lost to AIDS being touted as a headline event? Why isn't the Saint Paul slam team, which won this year's National Poetry Slam, giving the keynote address? In my head I was screaming like Hawkeye Pierce in that episode of MASH where he become so fed up with the food in the mess hall that he climbs up on a table beating a spoon against a metal tray: We want something else! We want something else! You have nothing to lose but your cookies! 

55 comments:

Kathleen Bradean said...

Insert prose for poetry, and you've described the rest of the writing world. Is there room on top of the table for me, too?

Karen Head said...

Thanks for adding my name to that illustrious group. I'm humbled.

As for the table, at least we have the infinitely large table that is the online world.

The saddest part is that many of the "establishment" writers were once rebels in their own right. I guess it is easy to get complacent when you are invited to everything no matter what you do (or don't do). These folks are in the perfect position to help younger writers, but I don't see as much of this as I'd like. There are exceptions, of course, like Marilyn Kallet, to name only one.

It's all about community folks. And that community isn't just made up of people who have tenured positions in the academy or nice book contracts with one of the biggies. That world is a bit incestuous.

The worst of all is that I just received a really touching email from a man who stopped writing poetry after twenty years because he'd only published two poems. The whole experience just wore him out, so to speak. That should never happen.

January said...

I feel like we are soul mates on this issue (and on many more, I suspect).

I like working from the inside out—creating events, venues, publications, etc. that everyday poets and poet lovers want to be a part of. You do that, too. The effort doesn’t guarantee mass audiences or increased readership. but I take satisfaction from reaching one person at a time. How do most revolutions start? One person at a time.

We need to have enough Hawkeye/Norma Rae/Peter Finch (from the movie Network) moments where we collectively say, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this any more!” Until then, the status quo remains in place. Civility stays at arms’ length, same poets read at the same events, and nothing changes. This system seems to be working for someone, otherwise we’d all be standing on the tops of tables demanding change. I put my money, however, on you, on me, and to those who care to make change in the poetry community happen by any means necessary.

I thought Read Write Poem was on their way to shifting the balance but it collapsed before it took off. Starting the conversation, doing something—those are steps in the right direction.

This is really a hot-button topic for me. Can you tell?

Honoree said...

Well, about the "Poetry Establishment."

Ahem.

Since I'm a member of a "racial minority" (whatever that means) and we get an even smaller piece of the poetry pie--more like a crumb from the crust--I spend most of my time trying NOT to get upset over the PE, because I don't want to get my pressure up (as we say Down South.) I mean, have you BEEN to AWP lately?:-) And have you noticed that, somehow with the very, very few "diverse" panel offerings, they always manage to schedule those "diverse" panels at the exact same times? And as far as those "same old faces" as featured folks at the conference, try being a Black woman and looking at those pictures.:-)
And those three journals you mentioned publish very few "diverse" poets yearly.

I just want to add another point of view here that doesn't get considered often in the world of poetry, but I do hear you and receive what you are saying. Thanks for raising these important issues in this post. We need more voices like yours!

January said...

"And as far as those "same old faces" as featured folks at the conference, try being a Black woman and looking at those pictures.:-)"

So true, Honi!

Collin Kelley said...

Excellent points, folks, and January I should have included you in that list of photos, too! Your book is fantastic, has received great reviews and you're a fresh voice in the poetry world. I wish AWP would embrace that. It's part of creating that larger place at the table.

robinkemp said...

The phrase "You say 'bitch' like it's a bad thing" comes to mind here. Beating up on "academics" is as much of a generalization as broad subjective categories like "good" and "bad," though. For some, any writer who is associated with any university in any way--whether as a current or former student, as a teaching writer, or as a writer whose primary academic focus is literature or some other non-creative-writing specialty, is an "academic." That's a broad brush.

The reason why so many so-called "academic" poets present at AWP is because it's primarily an academic group. To understand why AWP exists, understand that it split off of MLA. That happened because writers were sick of "the death of the author" approach to literary studies then in vogue. They wanted more serious attention paid to living authors, and they saw that the only way to do so was to form a whole new organization. It is safe to say that (North) American poetry would be far poorer without the past 30+ years of AWP and its programs training writers and supporting their work *in the larger community*.

Only in recent years did AWP change its name to Association of Writers and Writing Professionals. This recognizes the fact that many fine writers, such as yourself, Collin, do serious work outside of colleges and universities. Given that all members have access to the same criteria for panel proposals, and that panels aren't weighed on whether a person has an endowed chair or major book award (I certainly don't), it seems unfair to beat up on "the same old faces" appearing this year. I'm one of those whose panel was, thankfully, accepted, and I made darn sure to mix up university- and non-university-affiliate poets; private- and public-university-affiliated poets; male and female; black and white.

My bigger concern, however, is with the anti-intellectual zeitgeist (Reagan to present, but redoubled under Bush-Cheney), in which people who have greater depth and breadth of knowledge on ANY subject are pooh-poohed as McCarthy-era "eggheads." How convenient for those forces who would manipulate the less well-informed. Look at the teabaggers' grasp of the Constitution. Look at the shrimpers paid off to "clean" the oil that BP is sinking to the ocean floor with its pseudo-panacea, Corexit.

More now than ever, this country desperately needs its academics. Look behind the stereotype of aloof, disengaged schoolmarms. What you don't know can, indeed, hurt you.

drew said...

Good discussion. Thanks for opening the door on this topic.

As an aside, AWP stands for The Association of Writers & Writing Programs (not Writing Professionals, as stated above).

http://www.awpwriter.org/

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the post -- you are prodding at important questions about artmaking. I'd like to prod a little further.

You ask, "how can we get back to the pleasure of the art rather than the jockeying for position, awards....how do we set a larger place at the poetry table....how do we make the art of poetry interesting and compelling to the next generation that doesn't want an MFA or teaching gig?" Then you go on to notice the luminaries highlighted in the AWP Conference schedule, and then you give a list of names of some folks of whose work I'm a big fan, others I guess I should be ashamed to say I haven't read or heard of, and then you sort of rhetorically suggest that they (or some of them? or others "like" them in that they are "unlike" those whose pictures ARE there) should be the ones supported/advocated for by AWP via the conference. Seems like suggesting one "canon" in place of another. I surmise that there are many possible lists of poets that many folks might prefer to see being championed by AWP. I can think of a bunch of writers I admire whose work I'd love to see championed! Of course, I look at some folks on your list and think, wow, I thought that person WAS at The Table. It's all relative I guess. But...is advocacy by AWP or the academy the only way for our art to be real/legit/satisfying? To find its readership? Is that your assumption, or is that an assumption you're trying to trouble? Seems like you suggest that there is ONE "poetry table," THE "poetry table," and that what matters is who is allowed/invited to sit there. You suggest inviting a different set of writers. But what if there's not just one table? Or what if the table is the problem? I guess I'm suggesting that the way to "get back to the pleasure of the art" is to read and write poetry. And talk about it with other people who are reading it and writing it. But just inviting a new/different set of special, worthy folks to sit at The Table of Poetry won't alter the fact that there's a table in this metaphor, and not everyone gets to sit there.

Collin Kelley said...

Robin, good points, as always, but let me address the AWP bit. How come YOUR face isn't in that two page, double spread? Your book is fantastic and deserves just as much attention as the same faces that are touted year after year because they've been elevated to "star status."

What I'm talking about is equal access and equal recognition for other poets who aren't Marie Howe, Billy Collins, Yusef Komunyakaa and the usual suspects. I think most of the poets in my list work in academia to some degree, but you're not going to see their faces in the ads, or interviews or playing up their panels or readings.

The same can be said for any kind of literary conference or festival, including Decatur Book Festival. They feature the "big names" with big publishers and that leaves no room for promoting the homegrown talent, which is often better than the "big names" they're plastering on every advertisement and getting the big write-ups in the press. All writers want recognition, validation that they're not writing in a vacuum, but the current method of promotion and support is grossly lacking.

As Karen noted, thank god we have online avenues to promote and share or work or we'd be sitting in the kitchen or backyard.

Karen Head said...

Since I'm one who "threw out" some of the academic slam, I thought I'd clarify a bit.

I'm one of the those academics (or bitches, if you like), as are many of my friends and colleagues--great folks. Nevertheless, and maybe because I am in that group, I know all too well how it has become a kind of inward looking club of sorts. As academic institutions have looked to better profit margins, the number of creative writing programs has exploded. With this explosion has come a new culture at AWP, one that works under the guise of "professionalism" but really is about a kind of hard sell marketing.

When I first began attending AWP, it was about getting together with other writers to talk about writing. No one EVER walked about the book fair pushing their manuscript. In fact, it was considered really bad form. In the past six years, I've watched it devolve away from conversation to bare commercialism.

I realize we are all struggling to get published and then actually sell our books, but that isn't why I attended AWP.

The other side effect of so many creative writing programs is that we have created a community that functions for itself. We write for workshop in way too many circumstances. We are often snobs about the programs from which we graduated, the styles in which we write, and the people with whom we studied--all to the exclusion of or condescension to others.

The academic side of the house is an important, even essential, part of the writing community, but it shouldn't have an iron claw on arbitrating what is good/bad in the arts. And, let's face it--despite what is said about the "liberal academy" it is actually a pretty conservative place (and here I'm using the terms in their general definitions, not their political ones). The academy doesn't like change.

As for the panel choices at AWP, I respectfully disagree about access. Too many times I've seen excellent panels (not ones I was on) denied a place at the conference only to see a rehash of panels (often with very familiar panelists) that have been given many times before.

AWP does great work, but in every organization (especially when it gets really large) there is always room for improvement.

Collin Kelley said...

Anonymous, thank you for a thoughtful post. I wish you had included your name.

I suppose the metaphor of the table could be limiting, but I think there are ways to make it work. The chairs at that table could be regularly rotated so everyone has a bigger opportunity for recognition.

And, yes, there are dozens and dozens of poets I would like to see recognized. That list was off the top of my head at 1 a.m. As Robin noted, AWP has made an effort to be more open to different types of poets, but you wouldn't guess that by who they champion year after year. It's the same big names who have collected major prizes and whose books are published by favored houses.

Of course, I'm not saying AWP is the be-all and end-all of poetry, but it is an important and most noted gathering of poets. I just want to see it be less conservative and be willing to elevate other poets, so that the conversation about poetry is diversified beyond the academy and academics.

robinkemp said...

Karen, I totally agree re: duplicate panels at AWP, and I complained loudly about this. I suspect many others did, as well. I got a fair hearing and a suggestion that I take part in committee work. While I'm nothing more than a student-level member, not part of the planning structure, I like to think that the panel I proposed was accepted on its merits/timeliness. No one on our panel is making a million bucks a year on book deals, and none of us has an agent pimping us in NYC.

An argument I see made over and over again in recent years is that AWP is somehow working against writers, or trying to sabotage writers, or silencing writers.In the absence of evidence to support such claims, I find them a bit of a stretch. To the contrary, in recent years, AWP has opened its doors to non-affiliated writers; has offered a greater diversity of panels and keynoters; and has grown in sheer numbers. I'd venture to guess that AWP is radically different than it was when it split off from MLA.

Alan Cordle said...

I like the work of some of the poets you've named. It seems to me that you're kind of doing the same thing AWP does: most of your list has a solid blog/online presence. I'm not criticizing you or them for that -- I think poets SHOULD be active on the web if they want to be read widely. But during this transition between the old school AWP standards and the po-bloggers, how do find the overlooked gems? I don't have an answer -- maybe someone else does. Very interesting post!

robinkemp said...

@Drew--thanks! You are correct. What I wanted to say was that the name changed to indicate non-affiliated (or, if you want to go there, "non-professional" writers) also count.

@Collin--Here's the thing about awards. We don't generally dislike winning major writing awards. Folks who win such awards generally do so for having written *some of* the year's best work. That's not to say that other people didn't write *some of* the year's best work. (I'm dumb enough to believe that good work rises to the top, whether or not it gets awards, attention, or (m)any readers in one's lifetime.)

If someone has won a national award for a devastating novel, or a mind-blowing collection of poetry, then it stands to reason that he or she has something other writers might want to hear. If the book in question fits a certain theme, so much more so. If the writer has been working for many years, won many such awards, AND has new work, or perhaps is getting older/sicker, that also merits an audience, IMHO. No one conference will ever get around to everyone deserving. Surely some people's work is more deserving than others. That, to me, is reason enough to have more conferences.

Also, let's not kid ourselves here: organizing a conference (something I did quite a bit of in the '80s in another context) takes a particular skill set. Organizers argue for their favorite stars as keynoters, and (absent any particular written criteria) the pushiest voice usually wins. Some organizers only want to promote themselves, their idols, and their friends, while deliberately slighting writers with solid work who aren't part of their social circle. Such is the way of the world; offer it up to karma and move on. Such schoolyard shenanigans say far more about the slighter than the slighted.

Dawn Potter said...

I should mention that, among those of us who are writing seriously but don't have an MFA or an academic link, the very idea of attending a conference can be nightmarish. AWP is a club we don't belong to and don't have the small-talk skills to negotiate.

drew myron said...

Dawn makes a good point. Those outside of academia often do not have the funds to attend AWP.

Robert Lee Brewer said...

I believe anyone can propose a panel. I know many who have. And I would think the numbers game would prevent all great panels getting covered.

As far as the stars being featured, I'm sure that all comes back to marketing. Events have to draw an audience to stay in business, which is why the stars (who have the most followers) are front and center.

I am interested in the idea of good and bad poetry. It's a funny tightrope we walk as artists. We're often trying to learn and refine the way we craft our poems, but what ultimately takes flight is an art. And art is not graded on a scantron sheet.

jessica said...

I'm with January - we (and I'm no poet, but am an emerging writer, so am counting myself in. Hey, some of my best friends are poets :)) create our own events, refocus some of the attention, redefine whatever standard is elevated at the moment.

It's the "cool table" from high school, time and time again.

Jeannine said...

Dear Collin,
I read something recently about the whole of book publishing, saying most books only sold something like 800 copies, and that those books were sold mostly to a community - the author's community and the publisher's community. I agree that over and over, as a reviewer, I come upon some time chapbook that glitters and shines by someone I've never heard of, and tediously drag through some celebrated author's tenth book.
I think that one thing you're already doing is, as a blogger - and whatever other capacity we have, volunteer editor or reviewer or teacher - promoting the work of poets we love, whose work maybe no one has ever heard of. Heck, the first time I saw Ilya Kaminsky read, no one had heard of him but I thought he was spectacular. Ditto with Jericho Brown - wow, I thought, now there's something. I think the work you - and many bloggers, reviewers, professors, etc - do to promote good writing - the writing you in particular are passionate about - is valuable work, and might persuade someone to pick up a book. It's a risk but work worth doing.
WV: shlog, as in, poetry in a long hard shlog.

Karen J. Weyant said...

Great post! I enjoyed reading the many comments. I teach at a community college and I don't have an MFA so I am out of the "club" in many ways. Still, I have a small community of writers and readers, and that makes me happy.

Although, some day, I would like to know the secret passwords everyone in the poetry world seems to know.

Justin Evans said...

Thye poet who did not like my poems is an experimental poet, whom I have met, though many years ago. When I learned he was on the panel I was hopeful because what I sent in was far from what I usually write. To say I was upset with his comments would not be entirely accurate. I was more annoyed and disappointed than anything.

I threw away the comments page I received (along with the other panelist's notes which were more favorable) because I knew on the whole they were not worth my time. Getting the acceptance the next day was a confirmation of what you say here, and have said for a long time.

Thanks for including me in the post as part of your discussion.

Nancy Devine said...

I suggest writers seek out local sites of the National Writing Project and consider doing work for these sites. Last spring, the Red River Valley Writing Project brought poet Brent Goodman to Grand Forks, North Dakota. (where I live and the site of RRVWP)He worked with area teachers on reading and writing poetry, and he was FANTASTIC! I bet nearly everyone who commented here lives relatively close to a writing project site. Consider contacting a site and proposing a workshop and/or reading.

This is perhaps a different way of thinking about community than what you intended here, Collin. Still, I think many teachers in public schools feel uncomfortable about teaching poetry. Reaching out to teachers is a way to develop an audience. Those teachers, often, reach out to students.

Dawn Potter said...

Nancy, do you know about the Frost Place Conference on Poetry and Teaching? Reaching these kinds of teachers is our mission.

Nancy Devine said...

Yes, Dawn. I know of the Frost Place Conference on Poetry and Teaching. I don't know much about the conference, but I will check out the website. I might even do a post about it on the Red River Valley Writing Project blog, which I handle/run.

Richard Jeffrey Newman said...

I came over here via January's Facebook link. This is a wonderful and wonderfully thought-provoking post. As an academic--I teach at a large community college in NYC, where I coordinate our Creative Writing Project, in which capacity I have attended AWP for the last couple of years--and a poet with a book (three, if you count my translations), but without an MFA, and as someone involved with a local poetry group, I confess I find the table metaphor problematic. Not because I think it is inaccurate per se, but because I think the notion that there is only one table that needs somehow to be enlarged is itself part of the problem. I think it actually allows what someone upthread didn't quite call the "professionalization" of the poet that is one result of the proliferation of MFA programs to frame the problem rather than creating a frame through which to critique "professionalization." (And I guess I want to be clear that I mean "professionalization" as a descriptive and not a critical term.)

There is no way around the fact that, as MFA programs have proliferated, that proliferation has created a community of poets that needs to perpetuate itself, through publication, through jobs, through getting reviewed and so on; and there is also no way around the fact that, if you are not a part of this community, it can be very hard to get for your work the kind of attention that people within the community are able to get for theirs--independently of the work's quality. Moreover, I think the degree to which this proliferation has been national, to the degree that there is a national organization that embodies this proliferation--by which I do not mean to deny at all that AWP has made serious efforts to reach out to non-MFA, non-academically affiliated, etc. writers--to the degree, in other words, that the job of a poet as defined by this community (as opposed to simply being a poet, about which more in a moment) has become one with a national stage, I think the dynamic Collin points to is inevitable. Of course there will be a hierarchy within the community of poets playing on this stage; of course there will be politics and turf battles. Why should the profession of poet be different than any other profession?

I do not mean by this to bash MFA programs or MFA graduates; I think the people who say that the landscape of poetry in the United States has, overall, been enormously enriched by them are speaking the truth--though I know there are ways to qualify that statement; but when I was in my twenties and just beginning to think seriously that I might be a poet, I read a quote by Robert Bly (I think it was, and I know I am paraphrasing) who said that no poet should be published before the age of 30 or so. At the time, impatient to publish as I was, I thought this was utter crap, but when I look back on my life as a writer, I am in a way very grateful that I didn't publish my first book until I was 44. It's not just that my poetry was, by that time, truly ready for publication, for a public, in the deepest and most literal sense of that word, but I myself was also ready for that public in a way I could not have been 20 or even 10 years earlier. I remember the moment I wrote in my journal--I was 21 or 22--the words "I am a poet." It was one of the scariest moments in my life, because I felt like I was committing myself to a way of life, of seeing and being in the world, not a job.

Again, let me be clear about something: I am not characterizing in one broad stroke all the people who have MFAs as career-oriented writer drones. My point is less about the individuals who get MFAs--who will or will not be "good" poets, whatever the hell that means--than about what the professionalization of the poet does culturally to what people think it means to be a poet.

I realize I have gone on now for an awfully long time, especially for someone new to this blog, and I apologize for that. Clearly this topic is, as January called it, a hot-button for me as well.

Lisa Allender said...

Thank you Collin, for your timely piece.It's eye-opening to hear so many varied responses.
Forget an extra table,or playing "musical chairs" with a (revolving) set of poets at AWP, instead,let's build a tree-house and play there... ;)

Collin Kelley said...

Thanks to everyone who has commented and created this interesting dialogue. Keep it coming!

Wondermachine said...

Well thanks for the inclusion Collin. I'm actually doing two panels for AWP, both on local topics (Washington poets and the local neighborhood reading series I've co-curated for the last 7+ years). So I can't complain about the panels. Last year's AWP was my first and as a non-MFA writer I have to say I enjoyed myself quite a bit. It was overwhelming but I really loved spending time with writers I'd met (like Atlanta's delightful Karen Head) and a number of folks I met through the Split This Rock table we had there.

Will I attend after the DC one? I don't honestly know. It's an expensive proposition and the only way I swung it in Denver was finding an affordable hotel room outside of the conference area and cashing in some frequent flyer miles. If not for that, no way.

But you bring up the more important thing which is the importance of creating community and institutions (presses, zines, journals and festivals) that reflect the gold in our midst. I feel fortunate to know so many poets and writers whose work I genuinely love and consider as good as any of the big names that are out there. This has *always* been the case and speaks to the lie inherent of the scarcity of beauty in contemporary writing. We're all doing what we're doing where we are. We need to tend our gardens and ourselves. We need to hoe and weed and prune and force the literary seeds in our communities to blossom. And find ways to network in direct and humane ways -- to support those other gardens. I remain moved and envious of the amazing things you souls in Atlanta are doing. Same with the great collectives in Kansas City. There are many other burgeoning communities out there that we need to connect with to cross-pollinate our ideas.

robinkemp said...

And that is the basis, IMHO, for a series of regional community-based poetry "conventions" (or festivals, if you like). Slam teams do it. What's the big deal? Why not choose a weekend and say, "Hey! New Orleans and Atlanta poets throw down! Our city one weekend, yours another! All comers welcome!" How freaking easy would it be to match up, say, Java Monkey and The Gold Mine Saloon?

Richard Jeffrey Newman said...

I tried last night to leave a comment, but it was too long, so I posted it instead on my own blog, It's All Connected.

A brief excerpt:

[T]o the degree...that the job of a poet as defined by [the] com­mu­nity [that has emerged from the proliferation of MFA programs] (as opposed to sim­ply being a poet, about which more in a moment) has become one with a national stage, I think the dynamic Collin points to is inevitable. Of course there will be a hier­ar­chy within the com­mu­nity of poets play­ing on this stage; of course there will be pol­i­tics and turf bat­tles. Why should the pro­fes­sion of poet be dif­fer­ent than any other profession?

Rosemary Nissen-Wade said...

It's very interesting to read all this. We were having similar conversations in Australia 40 years ago, and they recur from time to time. Back then I was proud to be in the non-academic camp; more recently I was disoncerted when people began describing as 'established'. (What? When did that happen? ... Actually I had a higher profile earlier on.)

In those days what we did — and what poets in Australia, America and other countries are still doing in order to be heard — was performance. And now, as people have already noted, we have the internet.

I'm sure we're all worthy of being heard, academic or otherwise. It may be easier for some than others; well, them's the breaks. But really, are we writing for recognition or for expression, communication and the pleasure of making art?

There are too many of us now for all of us to be read by everyone. One of my greatest pleasures is reading poetry but even I can no longer keep up with work I regard as brilliant and rapturous. But this is good, isn't it? Better than olden times when few had the education or leisure to create poems.

There are many good suggestions here from the other commenters. And I think we can always count on the young to keep art alive and take it in new, exciting directions. And they are the ones with the best chance of reaching non-poet audiences ... until they in turn become established and a new wave comes up.

Of course it would be lovely if poetry was recognised and rewarded as work — but wot-the-hell, we're going to keep doing it anyway aren't we? It’s a vocation, a compulsion, a destiny, a joy. We do it first for ourselves, because we must; and then to try and reach / move others. Perhaps we can best encourage each other by reminding each other that our own fulfilment matters at least as much as other people’s opinions. Remember when all you wanted was to write even one good poem, to touch even one person?

I’m not trying to invalidate what you say, only to point out that we started doing this just because we liked it. It was play. Well, there are many ways to play.

Del Cain said...

This is a great discussion. Even here, although I write poetry and have occasional publication I feel something of an outsider. One place that renews my sense of a community for people like me is the Austin International Poetry Festival. 200-250 people getting together to share what they do for three days (and nights-all night when I was younger)and you don't have to submit or be judged or "chosen" to participate. Everyone who registers gets at least one ten minute reading slot at one of the venues. Add that to workshops, a little music, an anthology that IS "editor selected" and a lot of time spent in coffee shops, restaurant back rooms, and the occasional beer joint reading and listening you have my favorite weekend of the year. After ten years of attending it is also the source of most of my poetic friends. I'm not a huge fan of slam but Robin's right, it's the community getting together that helps create a larger community. Also, doing that in very public ways and in public places with no restrictions on who can come listen helps non-poets realize there is something for them, too. As a result, they often become one of "us."

Rachel V. Olivier said...

Where's the "Like" button on this thing? Seriously! Prose, poetry, fiction, nonfiction. Some of it is a matter of skill, but a lot of it is like high school. And like high school, if the "in crowd" doesn't want to have anything to do with me, then I'll go find people who do want to have something to do with me. They're probably more fun anyway.

jackie said...

collin, it's an honor to appear on your list -- thank you!
what a great conversation in the comments here. i'll throw in my two cents.

i went to AWP once, in support of an anthology that had just been published by soft skull press. what a disappointment! i found the whole event, including the panels, almost uniformly dull. and the chitchat, as mentioned somewhere above, a tiresome combination of name-dropping and academic codespeak.

in the past, being a poet meant writing good poetry. today's MFA culture has eliminated that standard -- if you've got the degree, you're officially a poet, whether or not you have any talent for it. once there are official poets there also must be unofficial poets. talented writers, with no MFA, no desire for an MFA (and, truth be told, no need for one) are no longer simply poets, as were the poets of the past, they are slammers or spoken-word artists or outsiders or .

yet the MFA is all about career, not all about writing. I’m sure many of the workshops are wonderful and that the talented students improve their craft. but you can do all of that without an MFA program. what you can’t do (at least not now) is get a decent teaching job.

for myself, I prefer the freewheeling community of poet-sponsored readings and workshops. there’s no brass ring, but rather the joy of joining creatively with others to share your work and hone your art.

Dawn Potter said...

Yes, Jackie--I agree with everything you say.

robinkemp said...

@Jackie (in good fun): I can't recall a single time that poets not affiliated with a university have ever engaged in tiresome schmoozing and name-dropping. Nooooo...not ever. ;D

Still waiting for that definition of "academic poet" as used today (not as used during the '50s Anthology Wars)...

kareng said...

Now I know what you were referring to elsewhere.
;-)

Over and over again, these sorts of discussions remind me of my Mom's world in visual art. The same sorts of things happen over there.Cults of celebrity, self-referential posturing,schmoozy same names and so-and-sos, swathes of art declared as "low" while dry is "high."

I think maybe part of why this happens is the result of where we put our arts culturally, in margins, operating under myths of scarcity, beholden to authority figures and corporate share holders whose folks were taught something about philanthropy.
When you have a culture that pits & views artists of all stripes as hobbyists, frivolous & frilly, you get a lot of status quo, back biting,name laddering behavior.

I mean, I'm sure it happens in Canada and other countries as well...but I don't know.What I have seen is a lot more permissiveness of variety the more central art is or the more off the margins it is~~I mean imagine an Olympic ceremony with a slam poet as part of the opening in this country?
(Man, we'd be lucky if they trot out Billy Collins....but I'm saying, it would be Billy Collins, wouldn't it?)
Why not have members of St. Paul at AWP? (I can see Khary there now, leading workshops on persona & reading). I mean, I go to readings in academia & witness students next to me literally falling asleep because famous poet X reads in monotone.I have also winced at a "poem" of very novice content emoted screamo style at a slam.Poetry IS dead from these angle.If we didn't have such ridiculous divisions, think of how everyone would grow.

I'm glad you're putting the iron in the fire, Collin.

Anonymous said...

@Jackie -- you write that "in the past, being a poet meant writing good poetry. today's MFA culture has eliminated that standard -- if you've got the degree, you're officially a poet, whether or not you have any talent for it."

Soooo....having an MFA means one is an official poet. With that and a couple of bucks you can get...a latte. I got an MFA, but I didn't get a special membership card or tattoo that gets me into the cool people parties. I'll bet if you saw me on the street, though, you could probably just SENSE my careerist, name-dropping talentlessness. Further, apparently, by getting an MFA, I am participating in "eliminating the standard" of "good poetry."

Ouch.

Really?

And "the MFA is all about career, not about writing."

Do you assert the same about an MFA in painting or in dance?

I completely agree with you that an MFA is not required to "be a poet." Indeed, I'd assert that if there's any official marking of the "official" poet, it has to do with publication and/or audience and/or readership. And some interesting questions are being raised here about who gets access to these and other avenues of recognition. The MFA ain't it, I promise you. My MFA has not, as of yet, led to anything in the po-biz but _modest_ publication. I don't mention in cover letters that I have an MFA, so I don't think I'm being published because I have one. I am not in the "in-crowd."

One more note -- an MFA will not get you a good teaching job (I am narrowly defining good teaching job in the traditional sense of a benefitted/tenure-stream fulltime faculty position somewhere) unless you have serious (2 books is very common now) publication backing up that degree. An MFA gives you the minimum _qualification_ required by universities -- an MFA gives you the eligibility to compete with the HUNDREDS of others looking for those few jobs.

Sorry, I'm a little defensive here, but as someone with an MFA I feel unfairly judged by some of your comments (and some others as well).

You say you have found joy in your writing community -- which I am glad for. I found great joy working hard on my writing with a community of writers in my MFA program.

I am the same anonymous chicken as above.

Collin Kelley said...

I think there is a mindset that young, aspiring poets have taken far too seriously and that is that they MUST get an MFA, they MUST get a teaching job, and they MUST get published by a reputable press or they won't be taken seriously as poets. I have talked to young poets like this and I'm not sure where this comes from...maybe some teacher has drilled it in to them or they've been reading Poets & Writers too much.

As Karen Head noted above, watching the young MFA students rush through the AWP bookfair trying to push their manuscript off on editors is a sad thing to watch. And they aren't subtle about it. I had two hit me up when I was manning someone else's booth at the Atlanta AWP a few years ago. And by all accounts, it's gotten worse.

Not everyone who gets an MFA wants to teach -- I get it. If you want an MFA to broaden your knowledge and technique, I think that is a fabulous thing. But people who put themselves on this "career track" to poetry are in for a world of hurt and they aren't doing poetry any favors.

drew said...

"aspiring poets have taken far too seriously and that is that they MUST get an MFA, they MUST get a teaching job, and they MUST get published by a reputable press or they won't be taken seriously as poets"

So the question is: If not education, academics or publication, what does it take to be taken seriously as a poet?

Cleo Creech said...

Some good comments, poetry needs a major image redo and repackaging campaign, some serious PR. One serious problem with the academic system has been creating (true or not) a perception of poetry as being elitist, isolated, and far removed from day-to-day life. This is deadly for the art. Historically successful poetry movements and poets have connected with a broad spectrum of people and deal with modern problems and life - it "connected" often in new and challenging ways. That gets into folk, street, and populist poetry and then the argument again on quality, but there's been many a passionate poet that's learned the ropes on the job, likewise, I wish more academics would engage in the very visceral, timely projects you see a lot of community-based poetry groups attack, like immigration reform, Katrina, and human rights. I used to think that slam poetry and performance poetry was going to reenergize the poetry world as it was main streamed, but I think it's only ended up being marginalized and walled off. I think one thing that is missing is a truly new school of poetry or even group of poets that would capture not just academic worlds imagination, but the popular imagination as well. There seems something wrong in the system that those people (whoever they are) aren't breaking through. I think too (one of my pet peeves) that words on a page are dead, and poetry books are some of the deadest of dead pages. We live in a world of the visual and computer driven messaging. Poetry hasn't kept up, we need more exciting collaborations with video artists, fine artists, and other unique approaches. Why aren't more of the literary journals working with their other creative departments?

Richard Jeffrey Newman said...

Collin write

"I think there is a mindset that young, aspiring poets have taken far too seriously and that is that they MUST get an MFA, they MUST get a teaching job, and they MUST get published by a reputable press or they won't be taken seriously as poets."

But don't you think, given the proliferation of MFA programs, that it's hard for young poets not to think this way. I don't mean this to bash MFA programs, just that I think it's not fair to put so much of the responsibility on young poets, when there is so much pressure to move in the direction of that mindset. I just think it's important to talk about what the professionalization of the poet that is the inevitable result of all those MFA programs--even if not every poet who goes through an MFA feels her or himself to have been professionalized or wants a career in academia or buys into the po-biz scene or whatever--has done culturally to what we think it means to be a poet.

Collin Kelley said...

Richard, what I want to know is who is setting these expectations and how do we make them stop? Is it because when they pick up a literary magazine or journal that the majority of people in them have MFAs and teaching gigs? Twentysomethings see this and immediately think, well, if I don't do this, I'll never be in this magazine or journal.

I would love for The Writers Chronicle or Poets & Writers to do a huge cover feature with the headline: Great poets without MFAs who don't teach. lol

cyndi dawson said...

I was weary of commenting, as I am neither an academic or a known 'poet'. I am a 'published' poet, if that ranks at all, although everyone these days has been 'published.'

This is a discussion I have had endless times. In truth, there is no real conclusion to this discussion because the issue is too broad.


what I personally feel is that it takes time for newer writers to embrace editing and spell check. Or to even consider at the very least, a workshop. When I first began writing I was absolutely convinced my poems were divine gifts from a muse who used my hand to write. Editing would interupt the flow that created the masterpieces in my notebooks. It took years of living and retrospect to see how awful some of my work actually was, and to accept that it WAS my hand and MY brain that thought that crap up.

And I WILL credit Jackie Sheeler for turning me onto workshopping and editing. The woman is a well spring of knowledge.

And, for the record, I do not for a second believe that any panel can make a definitive review of a poem. Poetry, like chocolate (couldn't say 'wine', as Jackie would tell me that's been used too often, already...!) takes on different flavors depending on whose mouth it gets into. I like my poetry dark and bitter, but some writers are good at the milkier, sweeter stuff.

Perhaps what needs to be addressed about what constitutes 'bad' writing is that 'experimental' in the internet age, where everyone and anyone can create a web page and post their work, does not mean a lack of intelligence and originality, a basic understanding of how to use language interestingly, and a habit of posting before spell checking.

jackie said...

@anonymous: let me clarify my earlier comment. I didn’t say, and don’t believe, that all MFA grads are talentless, far from it. however, if you are willing to pay their tuition, you can get an MFA in poetry and talent is not part of that equation. craft can be taught, and any writer may improve, but you still can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, and these programs seem to graduate more than their fair share of sows, based on what I’ve seen in journals and heard at readings.

no comment on MFAs in dance or painting as I’m not familiar with those worlds.

I know that an MFA doesn’t guarantee getting a good teaching job; but the proliferation of MFAs pretty much guarantees you can no longer get such a job without one.
my intention (though I clearly missed the mark!) was not to bash MFA holders, but rather to state how MFA-mills have impaired the aspirations of and opportunities available to many wonderful poets. perhaps the good these programs provide – as you mentioned, you found community there, and room to grow your writing – comes at too great a cost to the entire community, both those who have the degree and those who don’t. this is also reflected in the comment left by richard jeffrey newman.


@robinkemp – you got me on the name-dropping! but the names we undegreed (dying to say "great unwashed" here) tend to drop are rarely the biggest ones…

John said...

I have a response here.

Ivy said...

I think the question is not how to retain the pleasure of writing, rather,"How do we all do our part to re-ignite the pleasure in reading?" A community of poets helps a writer find her voice and hone her craft, in order to serve her potential readers - NOT to be validated as a poet. Similarly, people ideally go to church for fellowship to help them find their way to serve God, not to be redeemed by their fellow worshippers(ideally). This insider/outsider jostling will be rendered moot if no one reads/listens to poetry anymore.

Anonymous said...

@Jackie -- Thanks for the clarifications. I appreciate the finer distinctions. :-)

@Ivy -- Best. Comment. Yet. I think you've hit at a (the?) crucial issue here. If the MFA programs ("mills") are producing a gazillion writers of varying degrees of talent (as measured by....readers, I hope!), are they neglecting to produce READING writers? Is the problematic brand of careerism one which is writer-centered rather than reader-centered?

Also (will this be controversial? Perhaps others have moved on....), what do we get at if we say something like "let the market decide." That is, the people who want to read "good" poetry are out there. Can they register their opinion with their book-purchasing dollar? Or is that hopelessly oversimple? If there's a lot of junk writing "out there," are editors/publishers as culpable as "MFA-mills?"

Diane Lockward said...

I have nothing against the names you listed as being the same old names. What I find objectionable and hard to understand is why the same poets get invited over and over to read at events and to judge contests. With so many talented poets in the US, you'd think there'd be a greater variety. There should be.

Jim K. said...

I'm with Ivy (who has proof).We don't
necessarily have to 'dumb down' for the
public. Art curators get the public
jazzed up with "hey, get a load of this!".
It just needs flavor and passion, for both
ordered and anti-ordered. Consider the
parallels with regular art. People can
stretch. The editor needs to be curator,
though.

BadGlue said...

blah. I hate the whole mfa / contest system. I almost wrote "circle jerk" instead of system.

I think that unless the majority of poetry publications are NOT contest winning books, which are judged primarily by poets in academia, then we are going to be stuck with the present status quo no matter how many social networky gadgety book reader thingies people invent.

xoxo
Jilly

Jim K. said...

.there are populist contests
.maybe even the open mic...the gasps
.ask ivy
.just sayin

BadGlue said...

Yes but would the AWP hire those authors as headliners at this point in time?

Jim K. said...

Maybe not.Other points come, though.
The phenomenon that induces journal
cuts telegraphs other changes in AWP
support streams. This point in
time is many cusps all at once.
We endure limbo at this point in
time. Organization s reach for Pepto.
It's natural. Meanwhile, explore?

Collin Kelley: Modern Confessional

Welcome to Collin Kelley: Modern Confessional, the website for poet, novelist, playwright and journalist Collin Kelley.