Friday, April 25, 2008

Guest Writer: Matt Koeske Offers a Message to Christopher Woodman and Other Poets Outside of the Po-biz

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

______________________________________________

(This post has been elevated, with permission from the author, from the comment section.)

4 comments:

  1. Here is something ACommoner posted on poets.org. If the PoBiz is so damn corrupt, how come he's trying so hard to break into it?

    "As to where I'm coming from personally in this scheme of things, I do not really qualify as a "successful poet" despite my substantial credits simply because I have no "aspiring poets" paying me for my services, not one. Indeed, I am not affiliated to any institution or part of any publishing process, nor do I teach writing workshops, serve as a mentor, get invited to meet-the-publisher weekends, organize poetry readings, festivals or picnics, do reviews, write blurbs or even get asked for my autograph. I also agree that I should still be described as an "aspiring poet" simply because I haven't yet published a book. On the other hand, I'm a truly unique "aspiring poet" in that I have never met or been associated with a "successful poet," or indeed have met anyone in the poetry business at any level that I could have paid to "help" me (workshop my poems, tell me who else to get in touch with, help me to understand how publishers think, explain to me exactly what a first book looks like, "lift me up a level" spiritually etc. etc. etc.)---but for ONE GLARING EXCEPTION. I have submitted as many as 12 manuscripts, each one accompanied by a cheque, to at least 40 separate organizations that have engaged "successful poets" to judge the poetry contests and open readings I entered between 1992 and 2008 (I have 6 m.s. out right now). Those judges have all been in my pay, so to speak--and to quite a tidy sum. I estimate that in those 16 years I have spent about $12,000.00 on trying to get one of those "successful poets" to "agree that [my] poetry is good," in Jaimie_mu's phrase, i.e. to select one of my books for publication."

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  2. Christopher WoodmanApril 25, 2008 at 10:35 PM

    Thank you for that, whoever.

    It is indeed a GLARING EXCEPTION, and I know I have to address it, i.e. why I, Christopher Woodman, have tried so hard to get published over the years, and why even I, an old man living in a rice paddy in Asia, has tried to follow the ordinary, contest or open-reading route.

    I will do a whole post on that side of my development eventually. But just because I may never encounter you again, "whoever," just let me say it was mainly ignorance. I simply didn't know anything about what lay behind those announcements and ads in P&W!

    But it's even more complicated than that now, as I still have manuscripts in the few contests and open-readings I trust, and will continue to send out my work as well. So I also have to address the whole question, why do I want to get published at all?

    I'd be delighted if you would like to comment on what I say right here. If you've been following what I have been saying on Poets.org, we might be able to develop that dialogue further.

    Do challenge me--honestly, I long for that. Certainly I don't like to be laughed at or ridden out of town on a rail (as I was!), but I long for sincere challenges to my assumptions, which as assumptions are ALWAYS LIMITING!

    Indeed, read over Matt Koeske carefully and see how HE challenges me too.

    As the owner of the site said to me in an e-mail, "take a deep breath, Christopher."

    And I did, and it was worth it, and here we are!

    Christopher

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  3. It seems to me that if the "mainstream" won't publish you, there are two options: you can do an Emily Dickinson, continuing to write as you want without publishing, but preserving your work for posterity; or you can do a Walt Whitman and publish your work yourself. That is even easier nowadays, what with the Internet and all; as my spouse says, anyone with a computer and a laser printer can have a chapbook. Dickinson didn't live to see herself acclaimed a great poet; she must have been one of those who value the work for itself. Whitman, on the other hand, sent a copy of Leaves of Grass to Emerson and had the satisfaction of being "greet[ed]...at the beginning of a great career." I suppose which you prefer is a matter of temperament. Shooting for the Emerson endorsement is iffy, though. I favor doing the work for its own sake. You can still send it out, of courses, but if it is rejected you can take it philosophically and carry on with what really matters. And you never know what posterity will say about you.

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  4. Christopher WoodmanApril 27, 2008 at 8:54 AM

    Dear Anon,
    Yes, the work for its own sake--always the work for its own sake.

    The fact that I started writing poetry as an avocation so late in life, 50 no less, yet published my first poem so relatively easily, and a long one at that, and in The Kenyon Review of all places just 2 years later (forever be with Marilyn Hacker, ye gods and ye gophers!), I had the advantage of starting off on the right foot. On the other hand, the right foot was very much the wrong foot as well, as it never occurred to me there was a whole Pilgrim's Progress Slough of Despair out there too, a Babylon of Bards, so to speak, a Poetry Stock Market. I bumped into that quite by chance when I got baited and switched in a poetry contest some years later, and I suddenly woke up to the fact that there were simply far too many people out there wanting far too few places in Poetry Paradise, and that unless I had connections I stood no chance at all of ever getting anything more published ever again, and scarcely haven't.

    This development spans a mere 14 years in the History of Poetry, from 1992 to 1996, Marilyn Hacker to Joan Houlihan!

    And now, dear Anon? And after now? What do we do now, Emily Dickinson or Walt Whitman or The Whitman?

    You may be surprised to hear me say this, but I say we do all of the above. We write for ourselves as did Emily Dickinson (who I firmly believe always wanted to be famous--knew she was a genius and was just waiting for the inevitable recognition to come, which it did), bother people horribly like Walt Whitman did Emerson in the full flesh with our perfect beard and blue eyes, and send out every year to The Whitman, the NPS, the Honickman, and eventually the Emily Dickinson at the American Poetry Foundation when we've failed long enough to be 50! In other words, we complain like hell, wear a Foetry pin in our lapel, astonish at the Y when we can, and keep on reading our own writing to ourselves. Then one day we succeed or we die, and the beauty is that if happens to be the latter we'll never know that we didn't!

    And I mean that, Anon. And if you want me to be more polite or precise, ask me some more when I've had less to drink.

    With great hopes for your own success and most rewarding career, and I really do mean that, my friend, Christopher

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