"The chick that’s in him pecks the shell, 'twill soon be out," Stubb whispers to Flask before the voyage has even begun. Ahab strides back and forth on the quarter deck consumed by thoughts which will, as Moby Dick unfolds, motivate perhaps the greatest struggle between good and evil the world has ever been privileged to read. Yet it’s just a whale of an odd color, the object of this extreme vendetta, and all those diverse individuals that will eventually go to their violent deaths serving willy-nilly Ahab’s obsession are just innocents. Save one. Ishmael alone survives to tell the tale.
If the crew members of the Pequod were rather members of the good ship Speakeasy, they would complain bitterly that none of this concerns them, that there are no white whales where they live in New Hampshire or upper New York State, and that they can do very well without having to ride somebody else’s fabulous hobbyhorse to their deaths, thank you very much.
Indeed, just after getting banned yet again from Poets.org, I went back to Pw.org and tried to reintroduce the matter of Captain Christopher’s aborted ‘voyage’ on the Speakeasy for discussion, and one of the leading members replied, “You think Christopher is some sort of brave hero because he argues with a handful of prominent people who occupy one small corner of the poetry world. I think he's a brave person because of his aid work in Thailand, which as I understand it puts him in actual personal danger on a regular basis. That's real. This? It’s just so much hot air, with very little at stake.” (Just a detail here. I don’t do aid work in Thailand, but I do do human rights work and, even worse, I do write about politics--and my wife is sure it’s for that I’m going to get killed!)
Another, more politically active Speakeasy member then wrote, “[Christopher’s] attitude is as tyrannical, as unforgiving, as the tyrants he'd depose. None of us, no matter how we tried to see his points, could quite live up to the standard he was setting, for independent thought, for commitment, for whatever.”
“Why does it always return to the issue of corruption in the literary world?” the same Pw.org poster asked a little later. “Not only is it becoming a great big yawn, but it distracts from the bigger (and much more interesting) issue of engaged poetry (and poets).”
Now “corruption” is one of those words like “whales” that is so hugely emotive it can propel even quite ordinary people to take huge risks, and may in the end even sink ships as if they were presidents, or vise versa. On the other hand, it’s so easy to say, “corruption,” and everybody says it about just about everything these days, and that makes people just as easily yawn. “Can’t they think of anything better to do than block the streets with all that shouting and foul smelling stuff? What do whales have to do with issues that really matter like abortion, or MFAs, or God’s work in the Middle East?”
And so the word “corruption” can reduce anything to just a whale, not a Moby Dick!
In any case, the word "corruption" simply isn’t the word to describe the overall malaise that besets American poetry anyway—"corruption" is a relatively minor manifestation of the rot in poetry, I’d say, and I rarely use it myself. Even corrupt contests are just the tip of the iceberg, for example—poetry contests get a lot of publicity because they're so easy to see, and to document too, of course, and to prove. Also, they’re sometimes actually illegal, and nothing else I think of as a serious poetry abuse is illegal, any more than Moby Dick is illegal!
What seems to me far more interesting is to look at the personalities of those who get caught scamming the contests, or whatever--the MFA entries, or the tenure appointments, or the critical reviews even, or the lists--and then to examine not only the activities of those people in the poetry community, including their jobs, but at the poetry they write. The poet who got caught more often than any other “fiddling the books,” so to speak, and has lent her name to the "Jorie Graham Rule,” has just written her own interview at Poets.org, for example—yes, written her own interview at The Academy of American Poets. The Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory at Harvard University has just written her own interview at the AAP!
So what goes on in a mind like that, or in the minds of those who bow down before her, or in the minds of those who gave her that highest and most conspicuous poetry job in the world? Does integrity not matter in poetry? Does it have nothing to do with what we write, read, or study?
But even that’s just a whale, I agree, and we must move on even if Jorie Graham hasn’t, even if Jorie Graham is back judging contests we must move on, because that’s her whale of a problem, not our Moby Dick!
The problem comes about when the powers that be in the world of poetry decide that anything they do is just a whale, and that Moby Dick is just a red herring. That’s a key image—watch how it unfolds in one specific case, as follows.
In the Nov/Dec 2007 issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, a very well-known critic, poet, editor, publisher, conference organizer and poetry business person wrote a Letter called ROTTEN GRAPES, claiming,
(1) That the most treacherous of America’s poetry wheeler-dealers in recent history is in fact “one of poetry's most dedicated editors,”
(2) That the publisher who sent hundreds of xeroxed “personal reviews” to poets who were hoping to get real critical help from him, and then asked for $295.00 more to get them “up a level,” was “smeared,” and
(3) That any accusation against either of the above offenders was just “bullying,” “sensationalist,” and “the product of a willful misunderstanding of the process of editing and publishing poetry.”
Still a whale?
Yes, if it could have been left at that.
But what if a poet comes along who had been abused in both of the above scandals, and felt that someone should speak out against such a blatant white-wash published in such a conspicuous venue as Poets & Writers Magazine?
What if the editors of P&W refused to print that reply so the poet decided to go to the P&W Forum, the Speakeasy, to get a hearing for his complaint?
And what if he got banned from Pw.org for daring to name the name of the author of that letter along with her business partner and publisher in public, though the reasons given by the moderator were everything but: that he used a false IP, that he broke a contract, and that he misread other posters, whatever that means?
And what if that poet then moved on to The Academy of American Poets Forum at Poets.org, and was met by a whole gaggle of even fiercer moderators within a few minutes of his first post?
What if those moderators made it clear to the poet that he must not talk about anything controversial here at all, as if they didn’t know exactly who he was and what he meant?
And what if that same abused poet then got banned for just mentioning the name of the author of the Letter once again—and banned not once but twice this time, and each time for mentioning just that one name and her publisher?
And what if it emerged that the Chief On-line Editor at Poets.org was just in line to win a prize from the same publisher who had not only xeroxed the fake critique to the poet but was the business partner of the author of the P&W Letter?
And then, what if there was a lengthy tussle to find out what actually happened to the poet to get him banned, and it was clearly shown that the administrators and moderators had been frantically covering up the real reason, i.e. the naming of the names?
And what if that whole scramble to unscramble the mess then got all locked up and deleted in its own messy turn with one final, memorable remark by the Academy of American Poets' very own Site Administrator, Christine Klocek-Lim, "Apparently, rancor has a longer shelf life than a twinkie"?
Does that degree of Machiavellian intrigue, bad taste and manipulation spread over six months at two of the largest, most influential poetry organizations in America just to cover the asses of two poetry personalities not sound more than just a whale?
If it could be proved that two poetry personalities had that much power over the most respected poetry institutions in America, and that that power could be used to silence another poet just because they felt what he had to say might hurt their business interests, even though it was true and a valid public message, couldn’t that become a sort of Moby Dick for him? Couldn't it become so for all of us?
Indeed, if it could happen to him, are not all poets vulnerable to such negative forces, and American poetry with them?
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