Thursday, April 24, 2008

GUEST WRITER: Christopher Woodman Speaks Out

Poets.net is pleased to offer a platform for Christopher Woodman (also known as ACommoner). In essence, ACommoner was banned from two forums for speaking his mind on the state of modern poetry. On poets.org, he was told to start his own forum or go elsewhere.

Well, "elsewhere" is here.


I am honored to have been invited by Poets.net to report on what has been happening at the Poets.org forum. And to make it easier for those of you who are just coming here for the information you can’t get elsewhere, I ‘m going to provide the essential documents first and then gradually work back through the details in subsequent posts.

But before I do that, I want you all to know how moved I have been by the letters of support that have been arriving by e-mail in the last few days, and most of all from the students who have been following all this but can’t speak up in public. It is for you I am writing above all, you new poets, it is for you that I put up with the little whips and scorns of those who have sold out to the "aspiring writer" business. And it’s laughable, isn’t it, the posturing, the trotting out of the Guidelines over and over again, the school-marm scolding! But it hurts too, you know, it's never easy to be dismissed over and over again as a crank, a loser and a bore. So it's better you let this old man carry it because he has no career or position to protect, or to prepare for either. If you young poets just understand what's happening, that’s enough. That's all I need.

Almost as much I want to thank those who have NOT supported me but still dared to contact me, in particular those few in significant positions who in the end had to tell me they couldn’t help me at all, that they had to support the decision to ban me. And I do understand that too--if you’ve landed a very good job in Poetry Management you simply can’t hang out with awkward whistle blowers like me, or even be seen talking with us. Yes, I understand that you simply have to close in behind the wagons when the going gets rough in the office. But I want to thank you good people anyway for giving me just that little tiny glimpse of favor that you did—because I know that one day when you are in a position to help you will!

So what you’ve all been waiting for: the famous/infamous PM we’re not allowed to see!

The first one went to the Poets.org Moderator named “sbunch” who had just challenged me out in public and right out of the blue, “I have no idea what happened to you when you ‘brought in material from the outside,’ and I have no additional idea why you ‘don't dare discuss material that's not already on the board.’ So many windmills, so little time.” [Fri Apr 18, 2008 10:28 pm] Knowing full well that his intention was to get me to say something about the “deleted” (more anon, I promise!) threads in public and thus get myself banned for breaking the “rules,” I replied to him by PM:

From: ACommoner To: sbunch PM: Fri Apr 18, 2008 7:50 pm

Dear sbunch,

I'm trying so hard to say what is important to say without breaking the rules of the forum or lowering its tone. You yourself have been involved in a number of the discussions that took place around the time of my banning, but as they've all been deleted now I don't think I would be allowed to refer to them.

So just for your own eyes, if you have a Saved Copy of the deleted threads, try "On Pruning," Tue Apr 08, 2008 4:15 pm. Even more poignantly you might want to look at the exchange you had with my wife on the thread called "Just One More Point Re: First Amendment...May I?" Wed Mar 26, 2008 4:35 pm--now also deleted. She is not a native speaker and comes from an entirely different cultural background so your response was extremely insensitive.

I have no bone to pick with you whatsoever, sbunch--but if as a Moderator you also function as an agent provocateur, that's not fair.

If I'm being paranoid, please do forgive me. And frankly, I think this thread has demonstrated its value a 1000 times over. Slip ups are inevitable when working so near to the edge--I do hope you'll warn me if you feel I'm in danger.

And many thanks for all your good work too, and I mean that, Christopher

Knowing how vindictive 'sbunch' could be, and how often the Site Administrator had already accused me of writing abusive PMs “behind the scenes,” as she called it, I sent a copy to the Moderator, Kaltica, as well. Kaltica is a very fine critic who is extremely active on the site and, indeed, we had had many, many interactions along the way, some of them very fertile. Because I respected Kaltica a lot I decided to send him a copy--in a sense to protect myself from slander!

From: ACommoner To: Kaltica PM: Fri Apr 18, 2008 7:55 pm

Dear Kaltica,

I just sent the following PM to sbunch--I did NOT tell him I was copying it to you.

I do hope you will feel that it was appropriate for me to contact him in this way--and of course that it is appropriate to contact you in this way too.

(You're a thrilling critic!)

All the best, Christopher

[+ copy of the PM to sbunch.]

And that’s all—that’s what got me banned!!! The Site Administrator, Chrissiekl, described the above Personal Messages as “harassing” the Moderators and “flaming" them. In her last e-mail to me she called the letters “rude and manipulative” and concluded, “I gave you many warnings...my decision is final.”

No mention was made by her at any point about what I had been discussing on the thread, nor to the specific names I had mentioned along the way. No reference was made to my last post either, and it did carry some pretty hard stuff—polite, appropriately expressed, reasonable, to the point, but nevertheless HARD.

I quote this last ACommoner post because I think it is absolutely relevant to my banishment. The PMs are, in fact, no grounds at all—the following post is grounds if you don't want to discuss what it says, or even more so if you are the successful poet-publishers who are mentioned in it and don't want negative publicity for your business activities, or to be associated with business at all!

Posted: Sun Apr 20, 2008 5:10 am “On Aspiring Writers Becoming Successful Writers”
That's beautiful, Noldo, that's a much better way to say it than I did.

Like "Zen in the Art of Archery." The physics of the action is easy, and the equipment uncomplicated. The problem lies in our separation from the trajectory of the arrow, and to reconnect with that we have to work very hard for years to recover the simplicity of the original flight.

Or meditation as the shoe we wear so that one day the foot can touch the ground--I used that image before, I think. Or what I wrote to you just above about Yeats, Frost and Neruda--"To say [such work] is obvious is not to say it's easy, God forbid--how they worked for it to arrive at such generous transparency!"

My argument is that some poetry today is more difficult than it needs to be because our teachers model difficulty as a virtue. Because who would pay that much money to a teacher that just kept handing out three sprigs of green and a small pot to arrange them in each day year after year after year? And if the teacher got the job without knowing how to place those three sprigs in the pot in the first place? Why, that teacher would talk up a storm to make it look as if the transformation were taking place anyway, and then define it in terms that nobody could understand without his or her or a colleague's professional help.

And then publish it, give it a prize, make that a big credit, raise the bar even higher, gather everybody together in a mansion in the Berkshires for the weekend to explain how it works--and if you're still willing even then, and sound right, of course, you're in!

But how's your poetry? How has it fared?

That's the risk, you see, Noldo. Deliberate obfuscation is the danger--pretension, convolution, boutique spectacle and speciosity, all of which I would say are just the opposite of the sort of rigorous study you're talking about which whittles and pares down to the bone and beyond like the artist in Ted Hughes' "Thrushes!".

And are prosodists like Kaltica part of that problem, Noldo, or TomWest? Well, let's hear from them about that.

Or Jorie Graham herself, or Joan Houlihan or Jeffrey Levine, all three of whom I feel certain are following this thread. Our trend setters in the editing and publishing of poetry in America today. Let's hear from them.

Christopher

This is the third time in 2 months I have been banned from a poetry forum, and in each case the charge was trumped up. At the Posts&Writers Forum in March 2008 I was banned in the first instance for 1.) using a counterfeit Login and b.) for welching on a contract I was supposed to have made with the Administrator. When both these accusations were exposed as a set up, I was dismissed for repeatedly "misreading" other posters and thus "looking down" on them. Specific examples were discussed in detail on the site and in every case I emerged as fair and considerate--that indeed, it was I myself who had been slandered by the Administrator.

And of course the two offending threads were locked, one called "Does a Poets Behavior Matter" and the other just "Mediation!"

On the Poets.org Forum I was first banned on March 25th for having posted "defamatory material," but after three days of clarification by other posters I was reinstated. In fact the material was already in the public domain and had already been proven to be true so the Site Administrator had no alternative but to restore my privileges. She also accused me at the time of repeatedly writing inflammatory PMs and ignoring her "numerous warnings." These latter facts were never examined because I was so easily reinstated.

And the present case is, of course, all clarified just above.

What I want to do in my next posting on Poets.net is to reveal what actually happened in all three cases behind the scenes, what facts were consistent in each and what names and personalities were involved. Indeed, I want to focus on a new aspect of the "aspiring writers" industry that is gaining a lot of influence and kudos for some very highly placed editors and publishers, yet as far as I know has never been discussed before, or even properly identified. Indeed, it is that subject that has proved so explosive in all these three instances of unfair dismissal, and I will bring the subject back in detail on this site in my next post.

So yes, the "flaming PM" is just a cover-up, and I intend to bring what it is covering up out in the open here on Poets.net where it is safe to do so. Of course I will be scrupulously fair. I will only quote facts, documents and publicity that are legitimately available in the public domain, and will make it clear when what I say is just a personal opinion on the ethical matters arising. Indeed, I would welcome comments. Poets.net is not in the Forum mode yet, but it will be soon. Meanwhile we can do a lot just like this!

So I welcome your participation.

Christopher Woodman

11 comments:

  1. Dear Christopher,

    I'm very sorry that this has happened to you. The trumped up charges are a pretty clear indication that your banning was less a matter of what you wrote on Poets.org than what you represent in contrast to the ideology and tribal participation of the PoBiz establishment. You are an incompatible element with the "Utopian" ideal of a place like Poets.org. I know you from back in the Foetry days, and I see you as one of the most honorable, considerate, and affectionate people I've ever met. These qualities stand out in what I suspect is an online poetry world where most forum posters are in their 20s or maybe 30s (i.e., a post-adolescent peer competition environment). You have a sense of grace this is fully adult and very wise . . . and this quality is sadly not recognizable in the very adolescent poetry world today.

    Equally foreign to the PoBiz (and one of its minor "cells" like Poets.org) is the attitude that holds ethics, honor, and integrity above ambition, undisciplined/unconsidered expression, and status-mongering. Again, this kind of honor comes from maturity. Although to the adolescently-minded poets of Poets.org and the PoBiz establishment today, your humanity must seem anachronistic, this really reflects a distinct lack of vision, depth, and mature perspective on their part. This lack of maturity (in the Jungian world, we might say it's a lack of initiation) has enormous impact on and implications for today's poetry. The Old Soul that was long a staple of poetry (just as much as its essential half, the New Soul or daring innovator) has become utterly alien to the poetry coming out of the PoBiz today. Your experience with the Poets.org forum has merely made you into an example of this great loss to the most ancient (and once sacred) literary art form.

    Although I fully support you and Jennifer and agree that you should acknowledge and record all of these goings on for posterity or at least for public knowledge, I worry that the root of this unfair and adolescent usage of power in the Poets.org forum administration lies in the very ideology (or impaired ideology) I described above. It is good to stir up support and focus outrage on incidents like this, but I don't think it will change the attitudes and opinions of the people that run Poets.org or its forum. My recommendation is that we who care try to direct our outrage from incidents like this into a deeper and more detailed (and above all, well documented and absolutely fair) criticism of the PoBiz mentality. That is, we need, I feel, to take our energy and drive it into the investigation of the question "Why?" Why do so many PoBiz cogs and tools and "nobles" and "peasants" alike behave and think the way they do? Why do they have such a minimal grasp of ethics? Why are they so tribalistic, cronyistic, status-hungry? Why do they hold the various (never questioned) dogmas about poetry and poetry publication and poetry community that they do . . . and why do they refuse to question them? Why has the experience of "initiated" or mature adults with adult experiences and feelings and ideas eroded away from today's poetry?

    I think that in the investigation of such questions, we will (or at least should) find that the poets who have gathered under the wing of the academic PoBiz establishment are, despite their misdeeds and apparent lack of fully evolved ethics or consciousness, really not much different than those who find themselves opposed and embattled with them. What I mean is that, poeting today involves a number of standard choices. Like, do I go to an MFA program or don't I? Do I seek publication by any means necessary or do I bide my time and hope to be "discovered" without networking or favor trading? Do I associate myself with people that are perhaps slightly "corrupt" and may require that I think and write more like them or do I go it alone and follow my own artistic vision? Do I dare to love and learn from writers who are not on the academic approved lists? There are hundreds, maybe thousands of questions like this that everyone seeking to write and publish (and maybe make at least part of a living off of) poetry faces. Most of these questions can and must be satisfied with Yes or No answers. At every fork in the road, taking one path excludes the possibility of taking the other (unless we are willing to backtrack, and that can be a whole new kind of grief).

    I think that poets like some of the Poets.org forum staffers have made a number of choices in their quests to "become poets" that led them to their current state of impaired ethics and adolescent grasp of both complex ideas and relationship with others. When you or anyone else ask them now to consider ethics more closely or whether a poet's behavior matters, you are not asking them something that they have ready access to. They are not like you, a mature adult who has wandered up and down and around and through the various labyrinths of life. Rather, they are like rats in a maze that have kept moving forward on the impulse of short-term thinking and immediate gratification and lost site of the innumerable branching options that there are in life and in the evolution of a human personality. To ask them to consider ethics in a complex, long-term fashion is to ask them to go back to some very early part of their maze and start over.

    And the truth is that back when they made those early decisions, they were children (at least psychologically), they were afraid and fragile and sought immediate rewards like comfort and protection. They had no idea that as they continued down these paths, this initially embracing and seemingly unconditional comfort and protection would cut them off from so much that is human. So when they are asked (as you have asked them) to look back to these early forks in their poeting road, they are terrified of what they might lose and of how fragile and confused they were back then. Essentially, you are asking them to individuate, to "grow up", to get initiated, to evolve . . . and from their perspective, you are asking them to do this just so a particular grievance or notion of yours can be validated. They don't understand that your particular grievances and interests have more-universal implications, implications that even would be meaningful to these PoBiz tribe members and also to human beings beyond the "small" (small in intellectual, emotional, and spiritual scope, more so than in actual population) world of poetry.

    It is easiest for them to say, "Christopher Woodman is just a foolish and selfish old man who doesn't speak for anyone. He's an insignificant nobody and a nuisance. We, on the other hand, are a tribe, a group, a community, a society. We are right and Woodman is wrong, because we are numerous and connected and he is singular and disconnected." If they didn't say this (and of course, to say this is very childish, very prejudicial, and very offensive), then they would have to go back to the kindergarten of their rat maze and stick their thumbs in their mouths and still whimper for the Great Mommy of an institution like the PoBiz to swaddle them up and suckle and stroke them. And to face and rise above that would require them to be, like you, like Christopher Woodman, an individual who like all real individuals is forced to stand alone, to stand with integrity and honor (which must have first been hard won and painstakingly cultivated).

    This kind of individuality, this dread of loneliness and lack of protection from the group is foreign to them. They are terrified of it (just as preadolescent children are terrified of the burden of adult responsibility when they begin to get a whiff of what that really means). The predicament you are in when trying to engage in ethical debate with these people is that, in order to face you, individual to individual, they would have to acknowledge their infantile fragility, fear, and smallness. Regrettably, one of the most attractive lures of poeting today (in the PoBiz age) is the potential to not be "small" or alone. The romantic notion of the poet is that, by force of individuality alone, s/he overcomes his or her initial smallness. Vision, talent, genius . . . are the romantic's medicine for the "disease" of smallness and anonymity. The PoBiz has developed an alternate system and branded its own "medicine" for the same disease poets have always struggled to overcome. This PoBiz "cure" is tribalistic aggrandizement and status-sharing. One has only to sacrifice to the tribe's specific gods and totems, accept its taboos, and stay in line, and a certain portion of medicine is handed out. All who abide can partake of the ritual of "status" to at least some small degree. Those who can work this system to their advantage (who have a talent for being able to do this), can get more of the curative PoBiz drug for the "dreadful condition of smallness and anonymity".

    But, of course, it is this entire totemic, tribalistic system that affords these portionings of status medicine. And the old romantic notions of individualistic vision, talent, and genius are anathema to the totemic system of the PoBiz. The PoBiz system is really not fundamentally different than the situation of modern business in which we see conflict between corporate giants and small, independent businesses. What is sacrificed in actual integrity by corporatism is "made up for" with PR, with spin. In business this is generally a conscious decision . . . but the decision itself is totemized and considered an unquestionable Good. In poetry (where philosophies for living have not real need to be non-fanciful), it is perhaps less conscious, but true-believers in a lie are always the best liars.

    All of this is terribly regrettable for the state of today's poetry. The qualities of poetry (and poeting) that you (and I and many others) admire and are outraged by the absence of today are not accidentally left out of the PoBiz dogmas and ideals. They are overtly and intentionally excised. They are the only real dangers to the power of the established PoBiz system. Their exclusion and elimination and tabooing are the first and greatest Commandment of PoBiz Law. Like true scapegoats or taboos, once the tribal elders drove them off into the Wilderness, any further mention of them was strictly forbidden and punishable in the most vicious and absolute of ways. So your simple questions about ethics are, for people like the Poets.org administrators (and all devoted members of the PoBiz) actually traitorous, sacrilegious, religious violations, sins . . . deadly sins and heresies. That is absurd, of course, even somewhat laughable . . . but that absurdity stands as one of the great pillars of the PoBiz and its pledge of allegiance.

    For these PoBizzers to grant you the right of a voice (in their kingdom), the status of valid humanness, they would have to question the makeup of their entire totemic belief system, the entire structure on which they have risen or which has sheltered them from their infantile fears. Telling true believers that their god is a sham, a phony, a delusion is never going to win them over to your perspective. They have far too much riding on the unquestionability of their beliefs. If they are contented believers, they will mock, ignore, and/or swiftly reject you. If they are slightly more uncertain believers, they will feel compelled to destroy and make an example of you and your heresies . . . because questioning themselves is radically dangerous and likely to cause an inner rupture. There is no room in their minds or in their beliefs for tolerance and consideration of your Otherness.

    I feel and worry that your attempts to introduce these ideas into PoBiz bastions (regardless of their tact, honor, or foundational correctness) cannot succeed. And I worry that, this failure being inevitable, you will be unnecessarily hurt and defiled by the way you have been and will be treated. And even as my blood boils, my heart also sinks to recognize this. It is unjust, but this particular injustice cannot be directly or linearly combated. You will never win a case against a PoBiz credo when the judge and jury are determined by the PoBiz. You cry out for justice, but justice will never be given to you . . . because the system of power the PoBiz uses and is, is not just, is not constructed with any sense of justice in mind. The only justice you will find is that which is inside you, that which you make. And you can bring it to the PoBiz, right up to its bejeweled gates, but I don't think you will be allowed to bring it inside the kingdom.

    And I don't think you actually have to. Right on the outskirts you can hang your protest signs and raise your pickets and pass out your fliers . . . because there will always be a steady influx of potential PoBiz inductees trudging hungrily and longingly right through your encampment. And even if these inductees still choose to go inside, the seed you wish to plant can sometimes be planted with them. Not with the already-indoctrinated (who have too much to lose and to whom you are too alien). Some you will even persuade not to go in at all. And inside the walls of the PoBiz kingdom, occasional dissatisfaction will lead people to peer down into the outskirts and wonder if your ongoing protest and campaign might have some merit. Additionally, the occasional seeds you managed to plant (probably unconsciously) in the new inductees might find ways to take root and sprout inside the PoBiz walls, increasing dissent in a grassroots, evolutionary fashion. That is, by planting these seeds (or by devoting yourself to such seed planting outside the PoBiz kingdom) you increase the chance that even poets that pass through the indoctrination and perhaps even find their way to PoBiz success or status might someday be struck with a deep feeling of dissatisfaction or even disgust. A kind of "midlife crisis" of the poeting life, and these empowered individuals may be able to disrupt the inner structure of the PoBiz in ways people like you and me never would have the opportunity to do. So, it is of the greatest importance that these seeds have strong genes that can grow deep-rooted, resilient trees. When the dissident thought awaken in a PoBizzers mind, they have to be pernicious and impossible to entirely dismiss.

    And this perniciousness is not impossible to create, because it is also the quality of all great poetry. Even if poetry isn't its medium, it is a poetic thing essentially. These seedling ideas need to be able to truly endanger the sanctity of the PoBiz mindset and conditioning. They can't be merely selfish wishes. To be truly dangerous and effective, they must be true.

    It's a long-term strategy, but I think it is more functional than trying to forcibly convert those who are already deacons of the kingdom or more functional than trying to shame the high priests into submission from our esoteric, little pulpit in the excommunicated wilderness. At the very least, I suggest that this kind of long-term strategy be given equal energy and time as those shorter-term strategies that currently prevail among the PoBiz resistance.

    Whatever the tack taken, let us always remember to keep our dignity and self-possession and honor and not throw them before hungry dogs like some unwanted table scraps. We can't do this and then convince the dogs it would be unethical to devour them. Don't let the fools and goons of the PoBiz shame you or take advantage of your immense decency and integrity.

    My Very Best,
    Matt Koeske

    ReplyDelete
  2. Christopher,

    This is Noldo2 on poets.org. I'm sorry for your banning and, personally, do not see what Christine finds "bann-able" in that post. (Except, perhaps, upsetting Steve's--Sbunch's--pride.) Please contact me on inevitably.grey@gmail.com if you want further contact.

    Even if we agree to disagree, it's fruitful to talk with my.

    Sincerely,
    James

    ReplyDelete
  3. Hello. Christopher:

    I'm a former (and very occasional) foetry poster (you possibly remember Anna?). I had numerous problems with the foetry forum--in particular, the attack mode of more than one poster--and I have concerns about the vituperative potential of this site as well. But that aside, I'm appalled at poets.org's treatment of your wife. I did not follow your trajectory at pw.org, and only saw what was going on at poets.org in a limited way. However, the incivility was, and is, distressing. You'll be pleased to know, I think, that Tom West has taken an appropriate stand on the issue.

    I do wonder, however, about the blanket dismissal of what Matt calls "poetz." Does he include all poets who have published books, won prizes, tried to make a living off being a writer? I think he does not intend to; I think Jennifer does not intend to; I think you do not intend to. But there's a danger in labeling, on both sides of the disagreement here. People become alarmed, and with reason. It is not evil to be paid for good work. I say this as someone who is not a member of the academy. I do, however, have books and journal publications--in other words, a small degree of mainstream success. It's a relief to me; also, an encouragement to work harder, become better, take my vocation seriously. I do not sympathize with self-aggrandizers in any field of endeavor. I do sympathize with people who are trying to make a living while doing good work. In forums such the ones under discussion, the difference is not necessarily evident.

    In any case, best wishes to you and your wife. I think she was brave to stand up for you with such love and dignity.

    Dawn

    ReplyDelete
  4. Christopher WoodmanApril 25, 2008 at 10:48 PM

    Dawn and James,
    I will contact you both, I promise, but it's just breakfast time here in my rice paddy and I have a huge number of chores to do before I can get down to my writing.

    Not as heavy as yours, Dawn/Anna, nor does my breath come out white while I'm doing it like yours. But nevertheless there are chores beside philosophy in my life, and indeed if I know anything it will be because I have worked so hard in the fields, on the hillsides and over the water with my hands!

    I'm deeply grateful to you both for noticing.

    Christopher

    P.S. Do read Matt Koeske's letter which now starts off this thread. I have some caveats for him too, which perhaps you do as well, but the meaning lies in the dialogue, not in the message!

    ReplyDelete
  5. Dear Dawn,

    My memory is a little foggy at this time, but as you mention you posted on Foetry occasionally, let me be forthcoming and say that I was the Foetry.com admin for it's last year of existence after Alan Cordle retired. That was where I first met Christopher.

    As to your comment about my "blanket dismissal" of "poetz" . . . first, I believe I actually referred to them as "PoBizzers", i.e., poets who seek indoctrination, allegiance, and status through the official PoBiz channels, primarily academe and the contest system . . . publication in poetry journals is more complex. I am not quite sanctimonious enough to declare all poets who seek the fruits of the PoBiz "fakes", which is what I, at least, feel a neologism like "poetz" would imply. A semantic quibble, but an important one to me, as the mistake you made in evaluating my rhetoric, though tiny on the outside, carries major subtextual and rhetorical implications. For instance, if I was actually dismissing all poets who have gone to school, won contests, or obtained college and university teaching positions, my argument would easily be dismissible as that of a total crank.

    I accept that this misunderstanding was purely accidental, but I would like you (and others) to know that we who are, for lack of a better term, "PoBiz dissidents", are commonly having our arguments "unintentionally" misread so that the readers don't have to more deeply consider their validity. The reason I joined Foetry.com and became an active member and eventually an admin there was not that I thought attacking individual poets who were involved in contest and publication impropriety was the right thing to do. I did not then and do not now agree with this tactic. I joined Foetry because I saw that there was, despite some vitriol and obvious (justified) outrage, a very valid argument to the main gripes of Foetry.com. Namely, the corruption in the contest system (and perhaps the contest system itself) was, logically, destructive to the quality of the poetry publish through it. I saw many critics of Foetry.com come on the site to chastise and issue "blanket dismissals" at the Foetry.com members simply because these members were pissed off and wanted change. Such chastisement was the easiest way to both ignore and seemingly discredit the Foetry members' arguments. As Foetry's admin, I was constantly encouraging the members to pull back from personal attacks on poets and focus on logical arguments and evidence . . . in the hope that PoBiz devotees (and more importantly, those riding the fence) would be less capable of ignoring the validity of the arguments that were being made.

    In general, I decided to do what I could do to bring stronger argumentation and intellectual credibility to the arguments that were already being made on Foetry.com.

    Secondly, as to a blanket dismissal of poets who seek support, fellowship, audience, and status through the PoBiz, I issue no such thing. That would be a dangerously simplistic argument. What I am saying is that the PoBiz as an institution (and, notably, an institution that not all of its members even recognize as a whole interconnected system) promotes beliefs, laws, and indoctrination rituals that are the main cause behind the decay of contemporary American poetry. We who seek or have sought to enter into this system of indoctrination and conformity have been asked in various ways to make choices between an inner creative vision or drive (which requires an ethical commitment, not just "selfishness") and being accepted and credential by the PoBiz system.

    The PoBiz makes it exceedingly difficult to survive as an individual or innovator. The chamber of conditioning is the university, of course. But the real conforming gallows (in my opinion) of the PoBiz is the poetry contest. The contest is the gatekeeper of PoBiz credentialing. If it is dysfunctional, the poetry and poets that are credentialed will also tend to be dysfunctional. The more these dysfunctional poets, poems, and poetics are credentialed by this gatekeeper system, the greater the power of the system to conform and limit poetry to not merely dysfunction, but also a sanctified dogma of dysfunction. That is, I think, a logical conclusion. What Foetry illuminated was that the contest system was indeed dysfunctional.

    In my opinion, the subtleties are very complex. There are no literal "puppet masters" conducting the PoBiz. Indoctrination and dogma are the real masters, and individual ambition and contemporary university administration practices provide the instinctual drive and resources. I think this all trickles down from ideological dogmas that became popularized in the universities in the 20th century (and were put into official practice with the rise of the university writing programs, which had a strong upsurge in the 70s, especially). At bare minimum, we have developed an ideological system with the writing programs that we have not adequately studied the impact and implications of (much as the "externalities" of modern industry went unchecked for ideological reasons until very recently . . . and even today, the battle for regulation and sustainability in industry is entirely uphill) . . . and we continue to live in an academic age in which university writing programs (as they now exist) are not very criticizable. Why? Because they are usually very profitable. Many people who would not attend college or would drop out (and take their tuition with them) will stay around for a creative writing education. There are even many MFA programs that take paying graduate students to help fund the program (in addition to undergraduate tuition fees). Essentially, the administration of the universities (which has grown increasingly business-like and less "educationally-oriented") doesn't really care if academic integrity is high in writing programs, just as long as they continue to be profitable.

    I recommend the book "The Elephants Teach: Creative Writing Since 1880" by David Gershom Myers, http://www.amazon.com/Elephants-Teach-Creative-Writing-Since/dp/0226554546/ , which gives a pretty even-handed account of the origins of writing programs (although it doesn't follow them into their more contemporary mode).

    So, the core of what I'm saying is that we have to look more closely in the mirror and try to figure out if we have turned an art form into a commodity or market, and if so, what can we do to correct this?

    Although I do think that going through the PoBiz indoctrination system is likely to limit the originality and perhaps also the depth of the poets who accomplish this, I by no means think that PoBiz-credentialed poets are untalented. But a close examination of the system of indoctrination suggests (in my opinion) that poets with very high degrees of potential talent are not likely to have that talent facilitated, developed, cultivated . . . and possibly even recognized in the PoBiz. The PoBiz system is not one that orients itself to the recognition and development of poetic talent. Rather, it is "designed" (really it's a byproduct of unconscious, tribalistic sociality, so we could more accurately say it "evolved") to capitalize on poetic ambition (which is like a potent natural resource) and turn this into an affordable status attainment market. It greatly resembles the New Age and Self Help markets in this way.

    More importantly, I think we (even we who are strongly critical of the PoBiz) need to recognize and admit that we are part of the system. Detaching ourselves from it is like unplugging oneself from the Matrix. We don't want to do it, and if we manage (usually by some kind of accident), we find ourselves terribly weak and nearly useless. The "enemies" are within, not without. We all carry various degrees of this PoBiz indoctrination. And the truth is that, we are so symbiotically connected to these beliefs and conditionings that we don't know how to functionally conceive of poetry and poeting without them. What we have in front of us is first the "unplugging" or reconditioning or epiphany of PoBiz destructiveness (to both the art and to those who are driven to practice it), and then the long, hard scrabble to reinvent ourselves and our poetry and poetics (and perhaps, eventually, our publication system).

    No one should be shamed for stumbling about in the dark in quest for this Holy Grail. That is the nature of all self-discovery . . . and of all art. Frightening? Hell, yes . . . and the PoBiz promises in its PR to limit this terror as much as possible. But without the full reality of this terror, this loneliness, there can be no genuine self to discover, and no bravery in the act of creation. Innovation must be met heroically, defiantly. We cannot both belong to the tribe unconditionally and create art for that tribe, art that tries to comprehend it.

    For what it's worth, I would prescribe empathy for all of us who struggle with PoBiz indoctrination. Some have already "lost their souls", we might say, and are probably beyond redemption . . . but most of us are simply being human. A significant part of being human is being both ambitious and afraid, being unconscious, not knowing but wanting. This doesn't make us evil; it's merely what we are.

    Poets and critics who work on the fringes of the PoBiz can remain relatively untainted by indoctrination . . . but at the same time, they might also remain forever ignorant of the way the system works. And so, many of these "fringe PoBizzers" are quite likely to assume that nothing is rotten in Denmark . . . and that those people who complain about the stench are cranks and embittered losers (as many of them clearly are . . . but they are not ONLY these things, that's the important distinction). Regrettably, the PoBiz as an organization feeds off of this collaborative ignorance and uses it to help prevent dissent from penetrating its walls. It all boils down to the old adage "Question Authority". So long as this is done, so long as we (as they say in left-wing politics) "follow the money" and see how the organs of the system interconnect, I think we will start to see many of the problems I and others have been noting for some time now.

    Why then do so many remain ignorant and disparage people like Christopher Woodman and the members of Foetry.com? Simply because the cost of knowledge or consciousness is dissatisfaction, a dissatisfaction that is likely to cut the umbilical cord to the larger body that sustains almost every poet in some manner or other. Consciousness is always this dangerous.

    Best,
    Matt

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  6. Dear Matt--

    I take your point. I was merely suggesting that people--not necessarily myself because I, for reasons of temperament and geography, mostly work alone--get anxious and don't know how to react to an uproar that seems to threaten their fledgling careers. I'm not saying this is noble behavior. I am saying it's human and complicated and may account for why so many people have found foetry and now Christopher so frightening.

    There is no excuse for the rudeness that Christopher and Homprang endured, nor is there any excuse for the kind of circle-the-wagons cronyism that unquestionably exists in the writing world. What I'm noting is much more individual and ambiguous. We all have our own rational and irrational fears. What clearly seems heinous to one person can be a cluttered and complex everyday mess to another. I'm not suggesting that you or anyone else should stop speaking out about the corruption you see in the writing world. I'm just saying that many people may continue to have a hard time allowing themselves to hear it.

    As far as misquoting your terminology, I apologize. That particular word was oddly compressed on my computer screen and difficult to read.

    Best,

    Dawn

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  7. Christopher WoodmanApril 27, 2008 at 5:33 AM

    Dear Dawn,
    I do understand those feelings too, and you know when I first went to Foetry in November 2006 I defended Jeffrey Levine! I even wrote the man himself and tried to comfort him and lift him out of the terrible situation I felt he had fallen into by mistake. Because to me at that time it was inconceivable that someone like the editor of The Tupelo Press to whom I had been submitting manuscripts for so many years in good faith, 8 m.s. in all, I think, could have actually tried to trick me.

    I didn't write out the check in the end, but it was very close. And even then I wrote him and tried to tell him to argue insanity--exhaustion combined with inflation, I said, and that I'd been there, done that.

    How great he would be now if he had!

    What I didn't know anything about was the size of the whole poetry movement and how many 10s of thousands of good people were either already nicely established within it or were doing there utmost to get in. Indeed, in my first years of writing in the early 90s I published so easily I believed it was a legitimate world out there and that if I worked hard enough and was honest enough both with myself and with others I would succeed.

    I still believe that, but I now I know that I would not be happy entering the poetry world if I were not allowed also to express my terrible disappointment in it, both in the quality of the poetry and the quality of some of the leading editors that publish it and judges that give it the prizes. Because as Matt so beautifully argues, we are ALL part of the problem--the problem is just us. So it's not enough just to do our God-given chores in our woods or our rice paddies, we must also make fierce decisions about the quality of both what we read and and what we write. If we just try to sound like what we read in the places we would like to be or to publish, we've sold out--and if we succeed in getting into them we are very unlikely ever to extricate ourselves in one piece (i.e. with integrity intact!)

    So those thoughts sustain me, and I've become a bit of an activist at the moment--but it's helping me a lot with my poetry too, I trust myself so much more.

    You have a wonderful voice of your own, Dawn--and you're lucky you have received recognition from editors you can trust. But you have to do the hard work too, which is to ask the hard questions of our times and not be satisfied with any answer that's provided by someone else, however distinguished the mentor!

    I'll write you more personally--I'm working on something much bigger for tomorrow. Meanwhile you might like what my wife is writing on Poets.org--she slaves over it for hours and hours. And the irony is that even in her plain, broken prose she is writing the poetry I've never been able to write.

    All the best, Christopher

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  8. Christopher--

    I'm beginning to feel the same frustrations I did with the foetry conversations, and I think I should stop writing. But I will try one last time. First, I believe in the existence of corruption in the writing world. Second, I believe in being honest about what is wrong in this world. I may be a solitary writer but I am not working with my head in the sand.

    I think you are confusing my broader empathy with endemic human confusion with personal timidity.

    And an addendum to Jennifer: I prefer not to broadcast these comments as essays. But thank you for asking.

    Dawn

    Dawn

    ReplyDelete
  9. Christopher WoodmanApril 27, 2008 at 9:04 AM

    Dear Good Dawn,
    I'm not confusing you with anything, and I'm certainly not suggesting your confused. I have nothing but respect for you, your world and your writing--of which I have read quite a lot too, by the way, and seldom enjoyed any writing more.

    Also to answer for Jennifer, in my experience of her she is one of the most scrupulous editors I have ever encountered, and I feel sure she would never do anything with your writing but respect it.

    I'll write you a letter soon, dear friend.

    Christopher

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  10. On another writers' forum, while I wasn't exactly banned, whole threads of mine were deleted for stirring the pot too much (while carefully staying within guidelines and avoiding abrasive language!). Within the PoBiz there is a definite reluctance to question the holiness of the sacred cows.

    I'm often struck by the fact in in almost all of history's great civilizations poetry played a central role in the culture. Poems were written and recited at rites of passage, at state functions, and by great men. The names of poets were well-known by common people and the virtues of their poems (or lack thereof) were vigorously debated in the town squares! Some of the earliest extant writings were poems!

    So how is it that in our modern civilization poetry has become so peripheral? How many people can name even one living poet or express an opinion about poetry?

    IMO, the "credit" for this goes to the insular navel-gazing, exclusive ivory-silo that is the PoBiz. The contests and the academic journals, and the core assumption that poetry must be difficult and obscure to protect the brand, are used, not to invite interest in poetry and raise its cultural profile, but to protect its small and still-shrinking turf.

    ReplyDelete

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