Friday, February 2, 2007

Poetry and Sycophancy

Poets are the only writers concerned with artistic purity- when you talk about marketing many poets get squeamish. What Fiction writers and plumbers do well tell a story and sell it to an audience is something poets disdain it seems too much like commerce for poets in the USA.

But what poets are very good at; least the USA is creating closed systems. Huge poetic echo chambers if you like for their ideas. Today most poetry books are published by small presses. Most poetry centered literary magazines are non-profits and most literary centers that specialize in poetry are personality driven.

There are implications of this reality for poetry. I write this as the owner of a small non profit press, Cracked Slab Books. We recently awarded our first Cracked Slab Books Heartland prize to Poet Michelle Noteboom. William Allegrezza and I were very careful to pick the right book and to read the mss. blindly before we made a decision. I am not saying we are perfect but we did not pick our friend's books and there are books from our friends that merit publication but we did not pick Michelle's book because we felt that she could help us as poets in the future which is so often the way poetry books are chosen in contests.

I am also guilty of having friends publish my books and being invited to read at literary centers and series that are curated by my friends but it does not mean that this reality does not require critique on what it is doing to the art form. Most presses, magazines and literary centers/reading series today are run by poets and these projects are vanity projects. How many prizes have been given to people by their friends?

I believe that this reality is the result of the overload of academics within poetry. Most academics in poetry or creative writing get their positions because of reputation, not as with other academics original research or articles.

The result of this is that 'publication' means less and more at the same time in poetry. A friend's press picks up your book or someone you know is judging a contest- you win and you parlay this into an academic job. If you are politically well connected, have written something good in the past your life is easier. Originally the MFA as it was conceived at Iowa was an advanced degree for working writers and poets. It was a degree for people who wanted more education but whose vocation was writing. Today however the MFA is the way to connections
as a poet to enter the closed system.

Today this peculiar academic culture has seeped into poetry. Friends run literary centers and they invite and pay their friends to give workshops on poets who they know. Literary magazines publish friends and small presses are devoted to publishing a closed circle of poets. The result of this closed system is that poetry is full of the same type of people. The blog culture as well is a closed circle we all read the same blogs and the echo chamber continues. What is needed is new blood and deep debate rather than the pablum that masquerades as reviews.
How many poets are to be celebrated not because their work is fine but because they know someone at Fence?

Poets should challenge society-Poets should make people uncomfortable and poets should be interfacing with society and if society won't listen we should speak louder. Closed systems will not make poetry what it needs to be.

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