Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Proposal: A Self-Publishing Poets Coalition

Gary et al.,


Like Jennifer, I am also fully in support of self-publishing poetry. The current poetry publication system is broken and should not be perpetuated by anyone who either has unique talent or cares about American poetry as an art form. I feel that to place our poetry into this system today is to devalue it (perhaps even to condemn it).


We had a number of discussions about this on Foetry.com. Here is the main one. If you check this out, you will see that a number of the Foetry regulars opposed self-publication (in what I felt was a very regressive--sorry guys--attitude). If we don't have the vision and drive to recreate poetry publication in America, then American poetry will continue to be worthless, a disposable commodity. Equally, if we continue to seek poetic credentialing from the PoBiz publication system, I think we do so primarily out of shame and a lack of consciousness . . . we do so in ignorance.


I propose that some kind of loose coalition of self-publishing poets should be formed. Poets who share a feeling of frustration (if not disgust) with the PoBiz publication system and who recognize that it will never change if there is no competition from a superior publication model challenging it.


I think such a coalition has to be very careful not to fall into the same traps and practices that are common in the PoBiz. In other words, I don't think the coalition of self-publishing poets should be a mutual promotion society that thinks it is justified to blurb each other's books. I suggest, alternatively, a renewed dedication to genuine criticism (yes, even of our friends).


What the coalition could offer self-publishing poets is a little protection and the empowerment of numbers in the self-publication game. For instance, these poets should speak up for everyone's right to self-publish and to live or die by the criticism of and reader reaction to what one publishes. We should be honest with ourselves and others about how difficult this kind of attempt is (especially in the face of PoBiz indoctrination prejudice against self-publication). The coalition could be helpful in sharing information about self-publication resources and experiences.


Perhaps, there could also be encouragement among self-publishing poets to post some free poem samples on personal websites (which could be linked through a coalition page). It isn't hard to get a feeling for a writer's poetry after reading a couple sample poems. If the reader likes these, then purchasing a self-published book should not be too radical a move. If they dislike the sample poems, no harm done and no need to spend the money for the book.


The coalition would not have to worry about trying to promote any of the poets who belong to the coalition. And as it grew, it would become more likely that the best self-published books would be read and reviewed (by other coalition members, most likely). As this new publication system evolved, it would eventually attract the attention of those outside the coalition . . . and thus force competition upon the PoBiz publication system.


I think it's important to note that many books of poetry sell only a couple hundred copies or less (and the majority of those go to libraries, friends, and family). The idea that self-published poetry (especially if organized through a coalition system) could compete in sales with PoBiz poetry is not even remotely radical.


But it is up to poets of talent to back self-publication and dispel the stigma that clings to it and is reinforced by PoBiz dogmas and superstitions. As many have said, the PoBiz publication system is really just a more subtle vanity press system. If a coalition of self-publishing poets strove to create and reinforce a merit-based system instead of a vanity system, the weakness and commodification of much PoBiz poetry would be quickly exposed.


The thing such a coalition would need to get past, in my opinion, is the idea that publication is (and must be) the gatekeeping mechanism for poetry. Publication can be manipulated and has only a limited amount to do with the quality of poetry. Fair criticism, word of mouth, and reader interest are the more potent determiners of poetry's value . . . and also its legitimate sales.


This self-publication coalition alternative is entirely viable and not at all difficult to create. The real hurdles are our own vanity and indoctrination into PoBiz dogmas and taboos . . . our precious shame and small-mindedness. What such a coalition requires most is courage. I believe something like this is the only way to change (and I think it's fair to also say, "save") American poetry.



I encourage all to comment on the proposal of a self-publishing coalition and the topic of self-publishing poetry. Please offer your criticisms and feel free to debate. If there is some interest in such a coalition, we will need to do some careful brainstorming to make sure that it cannot become a clone of the PoBiz system. I would suggest that the best way to achieve this is to analyze and understand the PoBiz publication system as thoroughly as possible . . . and use the knowledge gained as a negative model which the self-publication coalition model would seek to reject and remedy.


My Best,

Matt Koeske

27 comments:

  1. In case it is asked, although my opinions on self-publishing poetry stated above represent my well-considered opinion on the matter, I have not chosen to self-publish my own book in print format. I had intended to do this and may still get around to it some day, but I no longer write poetry and had no interest in spending the time trying to self-promote the book. I have not seen any indication that there is a poetry-reading audience interested in my rather esoteric and complicated poems. If that changes, I will probably put the book in print and make it for sale. For now, it is available in its entirety online: What the Road Can Afford.

    -Matt

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  2. I think one of the glaring problems with self publication (and not just with poetry) is that anybody with the money can do it. There is no need to impress anybody with your work, regardless if it is good or not. The companies that publish your work don't care if it sells one copy because they have already gotten their money. With self publication would also come the responsiblity of self promotion which can be quite taxing on the author. At this point you would find yourself back to square one: You have to convince somebody else that your work is worth buying.

    I think the concept could head in the right direction, but not by every author choosing to self publish. I think a coalition should band their resources together to create [i]independent[/i] publishers. If we all have a stake in not only our own work, but each other's work then the plan might take shape.

    This wouldn't become an ultimate fix though. Let's say that a poet out of the "coalition" becomes successful and is well recieved by readers. A nice contract and promises of wider distribution could lure authors away from independent to traditional publishing. We see this with musicians "jumping fence" all the time.

    I still think it comes down to getting people interested in poetry again. You bring back the public with their wallets and things will head back in the right direction.

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  3. Matt wrote, "PoBiz publication system is really just a more subtle vanity press system. If a coalition of self-publishing poets strove to create and reinforce a merit-based system instead of a vanity system, the weakness and commodification of much PoBiz poetry would be quickly exposed."

    Bingo.

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  4. Anonymous wrote:
    "I think one of the glaring problems with self publication (and not just with poetry) is that anybody with the money can do it. There is no need to impress anybody with your work, regardless if it is good or not. The companies that publish your work don't care if it sells one copy because they have already gotten their money."

    Valid points, indeed. But is it really harmful if a crappy and "vain" poet shells out a few hundred bucks on the venture and makes nothing back? There are millions of ways to throw away money in our culture. The positive silver lining in a self-publication system is that readership would be the primary sales generator . . . not PR, not "false-advertising". If (and it is a notable if) readers were wiling to purchase the book based on the quality of its sample poems and, perhaps later, some positive reviewing or word of mouth, the "false advertising" system of current PoBiz publication could be avoided. We are so immersed in the rhetoric and ideas of the PR industry in the U.S. that we don't often enough stop to question this status quo (e.g., the "manufacture of consent"). It seems to me that the current system of book and poet promotion in the PoBiz has proven itself to lack adequate credibility. There is hardly any real poetry criticism at all . . . and that's the biggie. But we also have openly admitted (and shamelessly justified) publication favor-trading in the PoBiz. I can't even tell you how many people used to come on Foetry.com and state baldly that this was just the way it was, and therefore we should accept it. Additionally, we have a contest system playing gatekeeper for the publication of all new poets and perhaps most previously published poets. 1.) Is that contest system the best that can be done for the publication and dissemination of the highest quality poetry being written today? 2.) Is that contest system adequately regulated?

    Of course #1 is greatly dependent on #2. But I see numerous problems with a gatekeeping contest system for poetry even if those contests could be adequately regulated and made entirely merit-based.

    I agree with you that POD publishers don't have the same obligation to take care of their authors as dedicated poetry publishers do. But poetry publishers have so little to offer their authors today that POD doesn't offer significantly less. Also, POD doesn't have the negative mark against it of gatekeeping based on status quo styles/topics/affiliations and publication favor trading. POD and self-publication are what we make of them. They will relate as much integrity as we infuse them with . . . or as little.


    Anonymous wrote:
    "With self publication would also come the responsiblity of self promotion which can be quite taxing on the author. At this point you would find yourself back to square one: You have to convince somebody else that your work is worth buying."

    That's one of the largest problems with self-publication, but again, poetry readership is so small and so inbred (i.e., academic) already, that convincing a few hundred people to purchase a GOOD book of poems is not exactly a Herculean labor (more like an inconvenience). And I hate that end of the business as much as anyone. But that's something a coalition of self-publishing poets could affect . . . simply by raising awareness of the demands and realities of self-publishing poetry. What's needed is good criticism and word of mouth. Personally, I would be just as willing to spend 5 (or 15 or maybe 25) minutes or so reading a self-published poem on someone's blog as I would be willing to spend the same amount of time scanning a major poetry journal. I'm a bit cynical about poetry, perhaps, but I can tell within reading a few lines of a poem (about 95% of the time) whether I am going to like and/or admire it's experiment, voice, and craft. I gave up reading poetry journals years ago because I never found poetry that appealed to me at all (granted, my tastes in poetry are probably unusual and highly specific).

    I think that if good poetry and poets were getting fair criticism . . . and that criticism distinguished itself by its fairness and insight, people would buy the books of poems, self-published or otherwise. So the real goal would be to get good and fair poetry criticism out there for people to read. Regrettably, the few critics there are tend to be partisan for their favored schools, styles, or cronies. And as my old Foetry comrade, Monday Love, used to trumpet, there is a distinct dearth of excellent poetry critics writing today (especially those willing to self-publish or write reviews on blogs for all to access freely). In my more cynical moments, I even wonder whether the lack of good criticism in poetry today (which is essentially a lack of "good thinking" in and about poetry today) is merely a matter of the people possessing enough intelligence and critical awareness to offer such criticism feeling that the world of contemporary poetry is as a whole a waste of their time and energy. In other words, both the potentially "great poets" and the potentially "great poetry critics" of our era could be simply doing other things with their minds. Poetry (actually the PoBiz, but the PoBiz has made the claim that it IS poetry, and many, even intelligent people, have been willing to accept that) is beneath them. I think there is some legitimacy to this sentiment (and it is commonly shared by the educated or intellectual population of America who are not poetry readers).

    Without the dedication and emergence of such critics, no alternative form of publication will develop. And it's also possible that without such critics, no great poets will develop either.

    The PoBiz is largely characterized by the distinct lack of useful criticism. Only with genuine and excellent criticism will the PoBiz trend be overthrown. Self-publishing poets (or at least a coalition of them) will have to encourage such criticism. Part of belonging to the PoBiz "party" today is the privilege to "opt out" of real criticism (and whenever a poet gets nailed by a rare piece of criticism, they are shocked and appalled!). But frankly, that privilege should not be a lure to poets of genuine talent and integrity. The PoBiz allows the poet-making machinery to be focused on what a poet wants for her or himself, on his or her ego. "I want such and such a privilege because it makes me feel like a poet." And membership (with obedience) purchases this. But the reader of poems should be the real "gatekeeper" and poet-maker. The PoBiz does what it can to remove this factor. And is it then any surprise that the quality of the PoBiz product is lacking?

    Trying to become a poet and identify as a poet (in our society, especially) is a big deal on a personal and psychological level. But I see no value in making this status for sale . . . and purchasable at the expense of originality and excellence in the poems themselves. As hard as it is to become and be a poet in America (I mean a decent one), the journey, in my opinion, is well worth the scars. It is part of what forges original and individuated voices. Like a sheltering surrogate-mother (one you can rent), the PoBiz system seeks to spare its children some of this hardship . . . but this can only be achieved with the "externality" of conformity and, it would seem, the redefinition of poetry as being more about the poet than about either the art, the language, or the audience.


    Anonymous wrote:
    "I think the concept could head in the right direction, but not by every author choosing to self publish. I think a coalition should band their resources together to create [i]independent[/i] publishers. If we all have a stake in not only our own work, but each other's work then the plan might take shape."

    I'm not opposed to independent publishers in general. But I think the PoBiz has demonstrated that when these independent publishers arise in order to merely publish a group of associated poets regardless of the quality of their poetry (and just to promote them/each other) this does nothing in itself for the quality of American poetry. Again, the problem is that there is currently no criticism that will effectively dismantle these PR efforts. If such a poetry press or journal venture was itself merely a coalition of mediocre poets using the guise of a press or journal to publish themselves, this should be nailed by real critics.

    What I think could be possible in a self-publication coalition is that the slipperiness of promotion is set aside and genuine criticism is invited. None of us might like it if critics and readers unanimously (or largely) pan our poems, but at least these people are entitled to their opinion. There are no back room deals, no false advertising. If the members of a self-publication coalition desired only to see their poems in print and cared nothing for poetry in general, then they could have no effect at all on the state of poetry in America (and would probably gain no credibility). In fact, such "coalitions" form very frequently (as I'm sure you know) in the production of journals, e-zines, and presses that have relatively short lives. This is, in my opinion, already a significant part of the PoBiz . . . the adoption of this favor-trading and self-promotion model (at the expense of integrity and ethics). But those independents who adopt this model are emulating the PoBiz elites and insiders without either questioning the source or trying to restructure it.

    I would argue that such independents have not adequately "unlearned" the academic, PoBiz indoctrination they were raised on . . . and so cannot see/are not really conscious of alternatives. There is a distinct lack of self-examination in this mindset . . . and that lack of self-examination seems to carry over into the craft and creation (and conception) of the poems it produces. The "highly specific" taste of mine in poetry I mentioned above includes a greater degree of self-(and human-)awareness in poets . . . which I have noted is almost universally lacking from PoBiz-published poets today. And it should be no surprise that this is the case, because people lacking such self-awareness are precisely the ones most likely to buy into and perpetuate a system such as the PoBiz offers . . . where ethics, integrity, criticism, readership, and individuality/innovation are given such little regard.


    Anonymous wrote:
    "This wouldn't become an ultimate fix though. Let's say that a poet out of the "coalition" becomes successful and is well recieved by readers. A nice contract and promises of wider distribution could lure authors away from independent to traditional publishing. We see this with musicians "jumping fence" all the time."

    Yes, that would definitely happen. This is a big theme in Hiphop today, especially. But those Hiphop artists who remain "underground" continue to write songs that criticize the "sell-outs". So we could say that genuine criticism is being expressed and disseminated, even if there is more power and wealth in mainstream music. The underground in Hiphop still thrives. And the "sell-outs" rise and fall quickly. That's the typical price of selling out: you lose both your integrity and your longevity. It's a devil's bargain.

    None of this is to say that going with a bigger publisher in poetry has to constitute a selling-out. It is for both the poet and her/his readership or critics to decide if the movement to a more mainstream publisher compromised the artistic quality of the author's poems. I would guess that in all such moves, there is a very real danger of this. Unlike with Hiphop and poplar music, such "selling-out" for poets is much less tempting (or should be), because even the "mainstream publishers" are unlikely to offer much more exposure or audience. The poet in this situation also runs the risk of alienating previously loyal readers. If a poet wants to publish so that readers can enjoy and experience his/her poems then selling-out is less of a temptation. But if the poet's motives for publishing are to be able to put the book publication on an academic vita and obtain a job through this credential, perhaps these motives have already compromised the genuineness of the art.

    I feel there is a common flaw in the reasoning of poets on this issue. What I hear in the subtext of the academic publication craze for poets is that the actual poetry itself is merely a currency for ambition and status. This attitude devalues the poetry itself . . . and what kind of poet can create in an art form that s/he has inadequate valuation of and respect for. I simply don't think poems should be a currency for career . . . and any poems used this way are unlikely to also be genuine and important Poetry.

    Yours,
    Matt

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  5. Tom West said:

    "We lack honest critics, honest score keepers, or, at least, a recognizable SYSTEM of reviewing and tracking new and significant work."

    Matt Koeske said:

    "Fair criticism, word of mouth, and reader interest are the more potent determiners of poetry's value . . . and also its legitimate sales."

    and:

    "I have not seen any indication that there is a poetry-reading audience interested in my rather esoteric and complicated poems. If that changes, I will probably put the book in print and make it for sale. For now, it is available in its entirety online: What the Road Can Afford."

    Poets.net said:
    "Book Review Thread: Poetry"

    We can get the ball rolling right here. Why doesn't Tom West (or Christopher Woodman) review Matt Koeske's book on Poets.net?

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  6. Who wants to welcome a critic?

    A critic is the tiger, the wolf, introduced to an island of breeding rabbits.

    Why is there so much conformity and huddling together in poetry?

    Ask the rabbit.

    Even the thought of a critic terrifies.

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  7. Natural selection keeps a population healthy.

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  8. Hi Gary,

    I'm sure that both Christopher and TomWest would give fair and honest opinions of my book should they choose to review it. And if they want to, they are (and have always been) welcome to.

    But seeing as though I count them among my friends and comrades, I'm not sure it would do much to kick off the coalition on the right foot. Not that I would expect (or demand ;)) positive reviews from them as favors. One thing I admire and find fascinating about both of them is how differently they think both from one another and from me on many issues of poetry and poetics. Yet I consider them both to have sophisticated and compelling philosophies and tastes, and enjoy the contact I've had with their difference (every bit as much as I do their similarities).

    In addition to the previous association among us, I'd suggest that I am perhaps not the best candidate for an inaugural review, since I no longer write or read poetry . . . and consider my sole involvement in the realm of poetry these days to be as a prose essayist with an activist/reformist agenda. And I came out of "retirement" for that alone.

    Still, I have a little poet left in me . . . and that poet would be flattered by any attention, positive or negative, my poetry received. When I was still "practicing", I was never discouraged by or subjected to an abundance of negative criticism. Much more damningly, I found myself and my writing the recipient of confusion and disinterest. Which in many ways are worse than scathing critiques . . . if for no other reason than the poet can never learn anything from such reactions.

    Although I consider my poems solid in general, I conceded years ago that they were not the stuff of revolution and probably deserved the confusion and disinterest they typically provoked in poetry readers (if such a strong word as "provoked" could even be applied).

    I do think that a first step in a pre-coalition could be something like seeking out and noting poems published only on the web or self-published in print that are noteworthy. We could dump these poems or web pages into a pool of links and hungry critics could grab one or two out of the hat, so to speak.

    If my poetry were to be reviewed, I'd prefer that it be plucked from such a hat rather than benefit from my potentially privileged relationship with the reviewer.

    I do appreciate the recommendation, though. Maybe TomWest and Christopher will feel differently when they get a chance to chime in. In which case even a belated open season on my poems would be an intriguing if unexpected experience for me.

    And if I was deemed not poetically fit to survive (to borrow your metaphor), hopefully my carcass will at least provide some nutrition to the hunters :) . It is better for the ecosystem in this instance that they eat and persevere.

    Best,
    Matt

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  9. First, let me qualify my comment above. This natural selection, as it were, has produced all the delicate flowers, magnificent birds and exquisite creatures with which we are surrounded, has it not? Even tigers and wolves, like rabbits, are beautiful in their way.

    Matt:

    My sincerest apologies for volunteering you to cross the minefield first. You seemed like a courageous soldier.
    And then I asked Tom and Christopher to go out and gather your remains.

    Nevertheless, isn't this what we're all talking about? This site was specifically designed to be the antithesis to Pobiz. With Bugzita's approval, all should use it to its full potential! Let's set the world on fire!!!

    Gary

    P.S. And by the way, have any of you cheap bastards ever actually BOUGHT any of the self-published poetry you so fervently defend?

    Aha! :-)>

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  10. Christopher WoodmanJune 4, 2008 at 12:21 AM

    Dear All,
    I blinked (i.e. I went to bed at the antipodes) and woke up to find I was so far behind I felt old again!

    Let me say first that some of us have already been discussing using this site as a platform to model a new sort of criticism--we had a taste of it at the very end on Foetry, and you all might like to go back to the Archives and see how successful we were. It was just at the time that the Tupelo scandal broke, and we wanted to see if the "award winning" poetry of its publisher would stand up to our sort of review. You can find an example of all that on the thread called "Workshop the Experts: Jeffrey Levine"--the poster called "rperlman" who figures prominently in the discussion was Joan Houlihan, so it's a pretty dramatic read!

    We also looked at the poetry of Carol Ann Davis, the editor of Crazyhorse, who had just asked Jeffrey Levine to star in her new Publishing Institute at the College of Charleston--he was being asked to teach a whole course on the judging, editing and publishing of first books of poetry, speaking of the wolf in the chicken house! He was also just publishing Carol Ann Davis' first book, minor detail--on, and on, and on ad infinitum.

    You can find those critiques on the thread called "The Crazyhorse/Tupelo Publishing Institute"--all easy to find in the Foetry Archives.

    My own feeling is that Poets.net in Blog form is serving us extremely well at the moment as it is, and we should wait to resume our special critical function when it's converted to the Forum mode sometime this summer.

    I personally can't wait!

    But at the moment we're discussing Matt's ideas about SELF-PUBLISHING, and that reminded me that it is almost exactly a year since the demise of FOETRY. How about that?

    Have we made any progress?

    Well, I went back and looked at my last post just as the good ship was gurgling down in our tears, and I realized I had written my contribution to this discussion at that very time. But with what a difference--because a year later we are really ready now to address precisely the situation Matt is defining in his essay.

    So here's a streamlined version of what I wrote for Foetry on May 24th, 2007 [Last Post—as in Taps]--and Jennifer brought over to her other site, Postfoetry, to inaugurate our convalesence!


    A NEW IDEA that has been suggested to me is that an uncompromised poet like myself should give up on conventional publishers altogether and do it himself. And I’ve thought a lot about that recently and want to explain why I feel self-publishing can never be a viable alternative to conventional covers and blurbs and reviews, even for an old man like me. For I still feel strongly that with the exception of those blessed interventions that friends make in one’s personal life, the True Poetry I crave by my bedside will always have an established Publishing House on its spine—which tells me the poems got verified in the first place, that they got out there, heard and reviewed, and hard, and of course that they passed all those tests and so got sold. For this simple reason the job begun at Foetry can never be over until all the naked emperors have been laughed off the stage, and all the tin-pot cultural tailors have been sent packing--along with the young, starry-eyed sycophants, of course, oohing and aahing out back at KP. Others will come crawling out of the woodwork at that point, of course they will, so I for one am prepared for a wait. Because as long as there are tenured positions that depend on what you publish and your prizes, and students willing to pay to be trained in the skills you need to get them, and even expert poets who will pay to make contacts in the business, then there will always be unethical editors and publishers--and unethical poets too, mind you, sort of poets anyway, who will fiddle the reviews and the lists in their favor!

    So why, then, can self-publishing never take the place of house-publishing?

    Start like this. The authorship of a poem is as much involved in its fineness as the provenance of a prehistoric bone or artifact. If you can’t be sure whether a bit of bone is human or simian, as in the case of the Piltdown Man fragments, for example, it has no intrinsic value. The same can be said of a newly discovered painting by a painter I much admire, the Sino-Cuban Wifredo Lam, because although the painting will undoubtedly be just as erotic and mystifying as any Wifredo Lam, it will almost certainly have been turned out by one of the numerous Cuban counterfeiters that manipulate the contemporary art market. And as soon as I know its not really by Wifredo Lam it’s no longer erotic or mystifying for me—in fact it doesn’t interest me at all anymore because it’s never been touched by him! And the same can be said of a previously unknown haiku by Basho, for example, or a fragment by Sappho—because we all know that such poems are routinely turned out by junior high students under the guidance of gifted teachers. Indeed, one of the most wonderful things about art in general, and poetry in particular, is that on occasion almost any human being can create a work as moving and profound as a master. By the same token, we also know that any master is capable of dashing off an adolescent sketch on a wine-stained tablecloth, yet you or I would give an arm and a leg for it and hang it on our walls forever if we could be sure. And the converse applies too, of course--if some other Tom, Dick or Harriet did it we’d throw exactly the same sketch straight in the machine, and never invite them again!

    The fact of the matter is that everyone self-publishes every time they open their mouths or doodle by the telephone, but what is created only becomes valuable as a created object if it can be tied irrefutably to the life-time struggle for perfection and meaning of a man or a woman with a name.

    So poems need contexts, they need dates, they need provenances and they need to have been worked on by credible masters for a long time, and hard—and they need to be examined, turned upside down and inside out by dedicated, incorruptible reviewers and critics. It's as if poetry has to be notarized with a heavy stamp, certified as genuine articles—and that’s what publishers do, or at least that’s what we pay them to do. For publishers too must be certified over time. We have to come to trust them or we don’t pay them anymore, as we’ll never pay what-his-or-her-name ever again for their services. Great editors and publishers win their reputations in time--little ones lose them, for sure and forever!

    The next step is not self-publishing, it’s impartial expert analysis, first by poets themselves alone in their studies, and then by critics we all come to trust, public and passionate. And leave the craft schools out of the equation altogether for a good 10 years, I would say—then bring them back in when new standards have been forged, fresh precedents have been set!

    Christopher

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  11. There's certainly no need to apologize, Gary. If anyone wants to review my book, I completely welcome it. I merely thought that there should be no possible accusation of cronyism and favor trading (even though TomWest and Christopher would, I believe, be entirely honest and willing to point out my poetry's shortcomings . . . and perhaps even its strengths :)). As I used to say on Foetry.com, it's the appearance of impropriety that is faultable (although that was in the context of poetry contests).

    I am entirely in favor of "natural selection" in poetry criticism.

    As for reading self-published poetry, I can't really walk the talk because I haven't read any poetry in a couple years now, self-published or otherwise. I would just as happily read self-published poetry as mainstream-published poetry. I hold not inherent prejudice against it. But I generally dislike all the poetry I read (especially contemporary).

    My criteria of poetry judgment tends to be significantly different from the norm today. I place much more emphasis on things like voice, vision, and philosophy than I do on workshop craft and "wellmadeness". I find the aesthetic reasoning behind what passes for wellmadeness in poetry (the workshop model) to be suffocatingly limiting. I really only appreciate poetry that is clever and compelling enough to change my mind and shake up my worldview.

    When I finally accepted that poetry today had nothing to do with using language to aid the evolution and adaptation of human consciousness to the predicament of being human in the modern world, I lost interest in the form . . . and went back to my roots in depth psychology (where interest in such things is still tolerable).

    It is more the mindset than the talent that turns me off from today's poetry . . . and when I did read the stuff, I saw no difference in this regard between self-published and PoBiz published poetry. I believe in the ideal of self-publication in poetry, but even the outsiders have a great deal of unlearning and detox to do before they find a genuinely innovative and perhaps radical approach to poetry writing.

    If change is to come to American poetry, it will come from outsiders. But the outsiders who manage to forge a synthesis of integrity and talent will have to survive the madness of isolation, prejudice, and bafflement . . . like tribal shamans who must experience dismemberment and reassembly before they are fit to practice their craft.

    What I saw all too often as Foetry's admin in its last year (and as a regular member before that) was that, even among the so-called barbarians, PoBiz indoctrination held most of the chips. Many members battled with the "foets" as a substitute for battling the foet-within. I empathize with the extreme difficulty of this fight, and I don't think these people should be judged too harshly. But I don't think there is any chance of "victory" (or success) externally when the battle within has no yet been won (or at times even waged).

    Even when some name "foet" was exposed and critiqued for his or her improprieties, we at Foetry.com did not have enough vision to suggest viable alternatives most of the time. I was surprised at first to see how much resistance my occasional attempts to promote self-publication met with among many of Foetry's most loyal supporters. But then it became clear to me that some of these people, even as they realized many of the flaws in the PoBiz system, were not conscious of their own PoBiz indoctrination. They held to conventional taboos and prejudices without seeing all of the longer term ramifications of the indulgence of such beliefs. Essentially, their criticism of the PoBiz was of the "few bad apples" variety. Whereas I don't see the problem with the PoBiz residing in its personages (and never had any interest in persecuting them). To my mind, the PoBiz is a systemic failure that specifically breeds so-called "bad apples". It doesn't merely let a few slip through the cracks.

    The PoBiz is not people, not an evil elite. The PoBiz is belief and indoctrination. It's the devil that can convince you it doesn't exist.

    I found the realization of my alienness even among the dissidents discouraging, and it served as yet another reinforcer of my growing feeling that poets and I are just not living in the same psychological universe. I preferred mine :) . . . so I left poets and foets alike to theirs.

    I don't read or write romance novels or self-help books for the same reasons.

    -Matt

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  12. I wish I hadn't used the word "analysis," because the new kind of critic I'm talking about is not detached and clinical at all, but rather passionately engaged with each poem he writes about, connected to it with his life blood, so to speak, as if his or her life depended upon that poem. Indeed, our critic is fascinated by what the poem can give him or her, how it can change a reader's life--like Philip Larkin does even when he's embarrassed just to be in the church and has no idea what to think about or even where to look! Our special critic isn't particularly into craft, either, even though he knows it like the back of his hand. He's into the poem as a human artifact, and from the very start he's hell bent to be sure it's genuine, not just if it scans or looks good!

    Which also means that if it's funny he's got to be laughing, and if it's erotic the whole world takes on a shine!

    And he NEVER talks about poetry as a "sacred art," either--because our critic knows it is but also that if you say it it probably isn't!

    On the "Workshop the Experts" thread on Foetry somebody came up with the concept of a "boutique poem"--well, the new generation of critics who will preside over the establishment of our "fresh precedents" won't be shopping or even in the mall.

    No more shopping!

    C.

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  13. Criticism which authenticates a poem as a genuine or fake "artifact" is a fascinating idea, Christopher.

    A critic needs to be an archaeologist, an historian, have a good ear, be well-read, be an honest and balanced personality, have no friends; isn't this the guy Socrates was looking for, and could not find?

    Also fascinating, Christopher, is your idea of the 'fragment' by Sappho, and how almost any hack could write something similar, and yet, it wouldn't be Sappho.

    How do we as modern poets get out from under this archaelogical rubble? Or do we embrace history and make it our style? Is that unavoidable?

    TS Eliot was thinking hard about this stuff, obviously.

    Who are the legitimate publishing houses now, Christopher? Macmillan, Doubleday, Faber and Farrar, Straus, Giroux are owned by one German corporation, right?

    I'm not sure what Penguin's history is.

    Great discussion, guys. Keep it up.

    TomWest

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  14. I still think banding together to create a coalition of independent publishers would be a solution.

    "But is it really harmful if a crappy and "vain" poet shells out a few hundred bucks on the venture and makes nothing back?"

    Yes, if you Have thousands, and tens of thousands of crappy poets publishing their own works. There is no watermark. No prestige left. Readers aren't going to jump in over and over again to self published crappy authors. They aren't going to want to wade through hours and weeks of dribble to find that diamond in the vast miles of literary ruff.

    But even if that author fail, guess what, the publisher still got his money. Somebody still got payed. The author is left out to dry.

    Established publishers are not only investing in your work, they are putting their reputation on the line. As Christopher said, they were "verified."

    My idea as an independent publisher is not so we can cheer each other on so much as we are invested in each other. We have to be wiling to put our own reputations on the line for others. That would be the mark the poetry must pass in order for us to publish it. As a group of self publishers you are competing against each other. Nobody would be there to tell you this poem or that wasn't very good before publishing.

    Also, I think you need to evaluate what your agenda is. Are you in it for poetry or to start a war against the PoBiz? It's not both.

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  15. Last word on self-publishing (in no particular order):

    Alexander Pope
    William Blake
    Walt Whitman
    e. e. cummings
    Ezra Pound
    T.S. Eliot
    Edgar Allan Poe
    Robert Bly
    Lawrence Ferlinghetti
    Robinson Jeffers
    Alfred Lord Tennyson
    Percy Bysshe Shelly
    Robert Service
    Carl Sandburg

    Not to mention,

    R. Kipling
    H. D. Thoreau
    W. E. B. DuBois
    W. Cather
    T. Hardy
    N. Hawthorne
    E. Hemingway
    V. Woolf
    O. Wilde
    D. H. Lawrence

    Jeez…go figure! We even know their given names, these complete unknowns who first self-published.

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  16. Christopher WoodmanJune 5, 2008 at 3:47 AM

    Good point, Gary--impressive list.

    Could be extended quite a bit if you go back pre Caxton.

    Now the challenge is to figure out what happened to put the editors and publishers into the picture. Short reign though it's been, scarcely over a century, it's been influential for sure, and certainly must have served a need--like maybe numbers.

    I could count on the fingers of one hand the number of people I know to whom I could send a self-published book of my own and expect they would actually read it. Sure, I could perhaps count on the fingers of both hands the number of people I've heard of but don't know personally who could read my book if they wanted too as well, but I have no way of knowing that if I sent it to them they would even open the parcel.

    But here's the real clincher. If one of those ten people liked my self-published book enough to write a full-length review of it in the NYRB, I wouldn't need to self-publish at all, or ever be engaged with flogging my book again. Just one!



    Nobody responded to my "new idea" that the PoBiz is a direct result of too many successful English teachers teaching too many gullible students--or perhaps 'naive' would be a better adjective to describe everybody involved, and the bane of universal education. In my day education hurt, but then we were still being prepared to lead, in government, polite business, and battle, not to go on to graduate school.

    When I was at Cambridge the Ph.D. was still considered an American gimic. The only further degree taken seriously in Britain was the M.A. which you got automatically by just staying on at Oxbridge. There was no other way.

    In addition, nowhere in the world do teachers fawn on their students like they do in American "Introduction to Poetry" courses, what is more in "Creative Writing Workshops." Too much feel-good has created one whopper of a market for a whole industry based on the fragile aspirations of writers!




    And related, Tom's question about publishing houses: "Who are the legitimate publishing houses now, Christopher? Macmillan, Doubleday, Faber and Farrar, Straus, Giroux are owned by one German corporation, right?"

    I never heard anyone criticizing the Medici as illegitimate patrons of the arts.

    Christopher

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  17. Dear Christopher:

    "Nobody responded to my "new idea" that the PoBiz is a direct result of too many successful English teachers teaching too many gullible students..."

    Sometimes no reply is the best reply of all...it means everybody agrees with you!

    "I could count on the fingers of one hand the number of people I know to whom I could send a self-published book of my own and expect they would actually read it."

    Although I am a devoted bibliophile (I even scolded Ron Silliman for saying books would become obsolete - see post, below), I also recognize the need to utilize all available contemporary resources. I have found a compromise you might consider, Christopher. I have published ZERO poems on the web, thank you. My work can only be had on good old paper. However, I sell these books only on the web (amazon.com, barnesandnoble.com, etc., etc.). This is the POD model and makes them available to millions. And they DO sell!

    If people like your stuff, word will get around. If not, it will simply hibernate until the next generation arrives.

    Natural selection.

    **********************************
    Here's my post:

    Gary B. Fitzgerald said...

    Ron Silliman said:
    "We are moving...toward a day on which poetry is something that exists primarily on the web, having made the migration away from print & bookstores to a degree that right now seems unfathomable. Those older poets who currently refuse to publish on the web – they do exist – will discover soon enough that they have painted themselves into the proverbial corner."

    Balderdash,
    Poppycock,
    (and)
    horsefeathers.
    February 25, 2008

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  18. Christopher,

    Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, where John Crowe Ransom and other Rhodes Scholars hatched the New Criticism and the Academic Validation of Criticism and Creative Writing, now offers a Ph.D. in "Enrollment Management," the latest piece in the great Credentialing Industrial Complex, the Big Business of Higher Ed, or Big Ed.

    The English professor who helps to spread a good, general knowledge of literature is a valuable addition to society, but the disinterested teachers and readers of literature are selling out to the Creative Writing machinery, while the lower grades have been failing to educate kids; grade school teachers are trained not in literature and science, but 'grade school education,' which hinders real development. My very bright son would be on drugs right now, if I had listened to his grade school; if a kid fidgets, they put him on drugs. I realize this is another topic: the training of poets in the lower grades.

    Ransom said "Schools need to credential the critics of the new writing," and soon after that, the "new writing" was taught and produced by the schools, as creative writing workshops took over university english departments. Ransom said that the professor of literary history, the disinterested professor of old, was useless, and had to be replaced by university-trained critics. Literature used to set the standard; now writing 'reflects' the worst aspects of life, so the worst aspects of life set the standard for literature. I don't mean to say that 'life's hard knocks' should not be depicted in literature; they should, all of it should. But there's a sublte difference between literature which describes these sorts of things, and literature which, in its very soul, is a reflection of these sorts of things.

    It is not surprising that this subtle transformation occured, since critics who are trained to appreciate the new writing are not going to apply 'old standards' to the new writing; otherwise the professors who teach Homer and Pope would be allowed to serve as critics. Naturally, the critics trained in 'the new' will eschew 'the old' and into that vacuum rushes an appreciation of whatever the new writers are writing about: actual reflection of actual life, hyper-realism, literature stripped of all that once made her attractive. The barbarians win.

    So I'm not quite ready to accept your thesis, Christopher, that too many Americans were spoiled by the English professor, because the English professor, proper, surely helped as much as they harmed. I blame insidious modernism and its mission to 'modernize' letters to 'reflect' the 'wasteland' of contemporary life. A wasteland exists only if the poets (only if we) allow it to exist.

    TomWest

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  19. I don't think it was too many good English teachers as it was not enough. During the Cold War, Americans were afraid of the Soviet Union and demanded an emphasis on science and math to compete. Producing scientists that could build better rockets and bombs became the priority. Producing better poets took a backseat. Today, English teachers do not place an emphasis on poetry and literature because they don't know where to start teaching the students. What's considered good today has become subjective as a result. Not to say there are no good English teachers, but even they face an uphill battle. They are caught in between "teaching to the test" and trying to catch up students. Many teachers today assume their students won't understand or appreciate it.

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  20. In another generation or two, or even right now(!), will the literate non-specialist even know these writers at all? It would take at least four years of college to study this list so one could actually understand the significance of each writer, and how they relate to each other. And this is a very partial list. I'm sure that no college student today is getting that kind of education. And the student especially interested in poetry goes onto graduate school where they study the poetry written by their professor and his or her friends...



    Alexander Pope
    William Blake
    Walt Whitman
    e. e. cummings
    Ezra Pound
    T.S. Eliot
    Edgar Allan Poe
    Robert Bly
    Lawrence Ferlinghetti
    Robinson Jeffers
    Alfred Lord Tennyson
    Percy Bysshe Shelly
    Robert Service
    Carl Sandburg

    Not to mention,

    R. Kipling
    H. D. Thoreau
    W. E. B. DuBois
    W. Cather
    T. Hardy
    N. Hawthorne
    E. Hemingway
    V. Woolf
    O. Wilde
    D. H. Lawrence

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  21. Christopher WoodmanJune 6, 2008 at 1:28 AM

    Dear Anonymous Just Before This Post,

    The assumption behind what you say is the nutshell--and it's so much the knee-jerk assumption of contemporary poetry-people in America today it's become the whole kit and caboodle. "It would take at least four years of college to study this list so one could actually understand the significance of each writer," you confidently affirm. Nonsense of the very first order--any avid reader well-trained in thought, whether a physicist or a veterinarian, can read poetry. It's a con to say you have to study poetry to read it properly, an absolute con--like the authors who say read my book and you'll be happy, or a better leader, or even irresistible in bed. That's marketing, and what you say about studying those poets to be able to read them is just marketing you know by whom.

    Like the best selling power-of-positive-thinking authors, they want you to buy them, don't you see--they want you to sign up with them and keep on paying in installments!

    Intelligent. well-trained minds have always read poetry, and read it very well, thank you. Indeed, 'contemporary poetry' wasn't even on the curriculum in the past--even in my dinky past!

    Hard training in thought, mental hurdles, impossible expectations, exams to bend the mind around in long-hand, and debates, debates that flayed you alive sitting in an armchair by the fire with your tutor, a great scholar--oh my God, the fear and the trembling!

    The result? Minds ready to read poetry, even on the battlefield!

    Christopher

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  22. Christopher WoodmanJune 6, 2008 at 6:36 AM

    This is way premature, as we're not even a forum yet at Poets.net--effective already to be sure, but imagine what we'll be like when we can follow what's happening without being contortionists!

    My dream is we'll do public critiques on-line, in depth, mutiple voice reviews of books we believe in, published or unpublished. That will be our only prize--no money, no publication, no readings or promotions. Just solid, in depth, passionate and ruthlessly honest reviews in public. And I tell you, it will become the most sought after 'prize' in American Poetry, because it will be just about who the recipient is and what he or she writes about, and how well.

    You'll apply in 3 stages. Here's a stab at them:

    STAGE ONE
    1.) A one or two page letter in triplicate describing who you are and what you write about. As it's very short it will be a waste of time to say much about your credits, degrees, job, or mentors, and by the time we're doing this poets will know that's not what impresses us anyway. What we will be looking for is the most engaging human beings for a start, and then how they talk about their poetry. That's all.

    2.) One sample poem in triplicate, shortish (no limit applied). This poem is me, it says. This is how I want you to know me.

    3.) A one or two page critique of that poem written by the poet, also in triplicate--this is what I'm trying to do, this is how I write and this is what I hope you will have noticed.

    STAGE TWO
    A short list of the poets who interest us most(as long as we feel we can manage). Each will be asked to send us three copies of a whole book of poems accompanied by an optional two page personal introduction to it.

    STAGE THREE
    A series of intense Critical Reviews of those books posted on-line at Poets.net.

    STAGE FOUR
    An open forum for on-line feedback: from the author, of course, but also from anyone else who either knows that poet's work and would like to contribute, or is merely interested in a particular review, including ideas about where the book might be submitted--or even invitations from editors and publishers who like the sound of it.

    With three readers we might manage a short list of 30 books for Stage Two, 9 for Stage Three. My feeling at the moment is that we would NOT publish a list of those 9 poets as if they were finalists, nor would we rank them or review them in some sort of order of merit.

    Indeed, a book that gets quite harsh treatment in some aspects might actually be the best book, which would be up to the world to decide in the end. We would also have no connection with publishers or promise any special recommendations beyond what we write in public on-line--the reward is the dedicated close-reading, and of course the exposure.

    I made that up as I wrote it just now. It's the Monsoon Season here and everything's wet. There's a funeral going on in the village--oboes are the sound of grief and make me reflective.

    And you? How's this strike you?

    Could this turn around American poetry?

    Christopher Woodman

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  23. Dear Mr. Woodman,

    I have been following your discussions with TomWest, Sawmygirl, and Monday Love, with much interest.

    TomWest makes a great case in Poets.org that creative writing cannot be taught. I more or less agree with him.

    Gary Fitzgerald provided a rather large list of authors and anonymous above wondered whether students today are learning the authors on this list. You replied, "nonsense," that one does not need to "study" poetry, echoing TomWest's remarks on Poets.org, but was anonymous trying to say that students are not being exposed today to authors of the past? Creative writing cannot be specifically taught, but don't you think professors of history who keep alive authors of the past serve a purpose? I think what TomWest is saying is that professors used to teach history and provide a context for poets, but now with the rise of the creative writing industry, students only study the recent past, and only for the latest style, with an eye to their own fashionable compositions.

    I like your last post about the "four stages," and I'm with you on the changes you are trying to effect.

    It's an honor knowing you, sir.

    Sally M.

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  24. Sally M. has hit the nail on the head.

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  25. Christopher WoodmanJune 8, 2008 at 9:39 AM

    I agree with Gary completely, Sally M, and it's an honor to have you with us (and how I hope I know who you are!).

    And you've got your finger on the part of the argument that I always leave out, and I'm always suprized on reading myself over that nobody pastes me for it. I grew up in a world in which people talked to each other about great things--I heard it as a child. I also started studying history before I even knew there was a past, or that people grew old, or that culture was fragile and could grow old and die too.

    That's of course what I leave out, because I'm too close to it and assume everyone was schooled in what I was too.

    But they aren't. They don't necessarily have the time or the wherewithall to honor that past, which may not even be there's! "Don't you think professors of history who keep alive authors of the past serve a purpose?" you ask. " Professors used to teach history and provide a context for poets, but now with the rise of the creative writing industry, students only study the recent past, and only for the latest style, with an eye to their own fashionable compositions."

    And poetry's is dead in its tracks!

    Do keep coming back, Sally M. We need you.

    Christopher

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  26. Thank you, Christopher.

    I LOVE history. I don't know how much I can contribute to the poetry discusssion. My friends ask me why how all of this is relevant. I think when Jorie Graham cheats on contests, for instance, it does matter to the poetry. Perhaps I'm naive.

    Sally M.

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  27. Anonymous wrote:
    "But is it really harmful if a crappy and "vain" poet shells out a few hundred bucks on the venture and makes nothing back? [Matt]"

    Yes, if you Have thousands, and tens of thousands of crappy poets publishing their own works. There is no watermark. No prestige left. Readers aren't going to jump in over and over again to self published crappy authors. They aren't going to want to wade through hours and weeks of dribble to find that diamond in the vast miles of literary ruff.

    My arguments to that would be 1.) that this needle in a haystack search for good poems is no different with poetry journals (from the well-acclaimed to the duct taped). That was precisely what my experience was with reading journals for years. In all the journals of poetry I read, I never once dog-eared a page or made a photo copy or made any effort to return to a single poem. I know that my dislike of mainstream contemporary poetry is extreme . . . but I suspect that many readers of poetry who also (and perhaps primarily) read other kinds of writing are completely familiar with this experience.

    2.) The issue of "wading through" is moot, because no one who glanced at a free sample poem or two on a website is going to give it more than a few seconds to prove that it's special or worth reading. I would bet that (as I once did), many readers of mainstream poetry journals feel obligated to sludge through the fourth rate poems that they face, because "these poems are supposed to be good" . . . says the PoBiz . . . says the one year backlog and the 1-3% acceptance rate. These crap boxes are much more likely to waste a reader's time (due to their combination of pretension and larger circulation). A self-pub poem has to start with a bang and keep gnawing away at the reader or it will never be given any attention. And really, this attitude many of us have toward poems is not a bad thing. They have to deliver something and they have to do it fast. I could pick up any poetry journal and read the first three lines of every poem and tell you within about 2 or 3% margin of error how I feel about the poem and would continue to feel if I had read it in its entirety. This is how thick rhetoric in poetry is, how packed full of choices, attitudes, and intentions. That is, I'm saying this not only because I am a curmudgeon, but because there is so much said in the pretext of every line, word, rhythm, structure, and line break choice in poetry. Much more, it seems to me, than most poets even realize (to their detriment).

    If a poet alienates me with certain (generally either pretentious or dimwitted) attitudes toward language and idea (or human psychology) in the first few lines of the poem, then I want nothing to do with them. Poets that write well but can't think, that have no complexity are a dime a dozen. Sure, this skimming approach means that we might miss out on a few wellmadepoems . . . that are nonetheless boring and unoriginal . . . but I think that the extreme emphasis today's poetry readers place on wellmadepoems is a product of their workshop indoctrination, which insists on a highly domesticated sense of what poetry can do and express. That is, only people who have been through the workshop system or sucked up its indoctrination vicariously by apprenticing at the virtual feet of workshop poets give a rat's ass about the wellmadeness of poems. "Real" readers demand much more from poetry . . . and after those more important things are delivered on, perhaps they will notice the elegance with which the whole poem came together. But this emphasis on wellmadeness is entirely academic, and I think it should be acknowledged as such. The ecosystem or interrelationality of a poem should be complex and invisible, not something for the reader to trip over unintentionally. To discover a poem's ecosystem should be a private thrill on the fourth or fifth reading. A poem that puts its wellmadeness or system of being full forward is, in my opinion, a poor poem. Both wellmadeness and the complex elegance of masterful poetic ecosystems are really the concerns of the authors. The fact that so much emphasis is placed on this aspect of poetry by readers only demonstrates that there are no valid readers of poetry who are actually reading poetry. Poets in the PoBiz tend to write for other poets . . . just as academics in other fields write for the specialists in those fields. But in poetry, this academicism constitutes a lack a vision. Inbreeding is dangerous to art . . . and all art has struggled with this inbreeding at least since the beginning of early modernism. This Problem of the Modern in art has not been solved, in my opinion.

    The sense of craft in the university workshops (and most poetry journals that dredge the products of these workshops) is really quite paltry and small-minded. There is so much more to the craft of poetry than what is taught in MFA programs. All they provide is production line basics . . . most of which should be overthrown as soon as the poet begins to develop his or her own voice.


    Anonymous wrote::
    But even if that author fail, guess what, the publisher still got his money. Somebody still got payed. The author is left out to dry.

    Again I see this as no different than conventional publication today. Poet's rarely make any money. But if you publish a book of poems and (just for the sake of argument) manage to sell 500 copies (perhaps by hypnotizing or drugging passers by), you will probably make more money than a poet who wins a contest and gets a $1000 advance. Marketing for poetry is practically non-existent, and the little that there is is not very effective. Seeing an ad for a book in a journal that shows it's glossy cover and a couple generic blurbs is not going to make even the mush-minded avid reader of poetry buy the book. Good sample poems, positive word of mouth, and reviews from trusted critics are the only things that have marketing power for poetry. Other than name-pimping and shaming/bullying readers into purchasing books (e.g., "you have to read the new book by so-and-so or you are just not keeping current!" or "well, I guess I should read the new Jorie Graham book because so many people [probably her students ;) !] are talking about it").

    And somebody's going to get paid (other than the author) for book production costs no matter what. Most of the publishers of poetry make the little profit they can from grants of various kinds. Not book sales. Also, more and more poetry publishers are sending their book productions out to POD publishers . . . who are thus still getting paid the same amount (where then does the extra money go? Not to the authors). Poetry books by themselves are not making anyone money. The money that's come into is charity (grant) money. Except when (even more frequently these days) it comes from manuscript submissions . . . which makes poetry publication similar to a lottery, with the exception that there are not enough regulations on contests to guarantee absolute fairness. So it's like a lottery with very crappy odds (and expensive tickets!) unless you are 1.) somehow in the favor of the judge or editor, or 2.) already published enough to make your manuscript a pretty safe bet. As for #2, this is a factor that was not much discussed on Foetry.com, but is perhaps even a larger concern than "cheating" or other judging improprieties. Namely, if a poet has never published a single poem or has published very few and in less circulated magazines, there is a predictably smaller chance that their book will sell as much as the book of a poet who has more and more prestigious journal publications (or prior book publications). Therefore, it is a safer gamble for editors and publishers to award manuscript/publication contests to more credentialed entrants. This also steers the emphasis of judgment away from the actual quality of the writing.

    Something similar could also apply to poetic styles. It's a safer bet for a publisher to publish a poet who is more or less affiliated with an aesthetic "school" or who writes in a "familiar" style than it is to back something wild and original. Maybe the wild and original poet has higher highs but also lower lows (as is often the case with true experiment and daring). Well, that other middle of the road poet provides uniform quality (at the expense of significant highs). Readers are less likely to find fault with what a publisher publishes if they stick to the status quo. There is a ready-made readership for poems that "already exist". But the result of this tendency is the reinforcement of mediocrity in American poetry (not to mention the subtextual message sent to all poets and poetry readers that risk-taking and innovation are discouraged). Play the game by the rules. Stay in line. That was a workshop credo in the schools I attended.

    And of course, none of this is an issue with self-publication . . . which eliminates middle men and ulterior motives.


    Anonymous wrote:
    Established publishers are not only investing in your work, they are putting their reputation on the line. As Christopher said, they were "verified."

    Per the above, there is a hidden cost in this . . . and the way various publishers construct their senses of reputation warrants closer scrutiny. If you want to build a reputation as a risk taking press that promotes interesting and unusual poets, you will have to take the chance of putting out some schlock (that may have only been superficially exciting and unusual). If you construct your sense of reputation as tried and true, straight and steady, you are more likely to miss the diamonds in the rough.


    Anonymous wrote:
    My idea as an independent publisher is not so we can cheer each other on so much as we are invested in each other. We have to be wiling to put our own reputations on the line for others.

    My feeling is that this system is only as effective as the people maintaining it are ethical and visionary. If the publishers are unethical and/or lack vision (or perhaps taste), this system of independent presses (which is already widely in use) will not inherently produce good poetry.


    Anonymous wrote:
    That would be the mark the poetry must pass in order for us to publish it. As a group of self publishers you are competing against each other. Nobody would be there to tell you this poem or that wasn't very good before publishing.

    That's what critics and reviewers are for. It's not like most of the publishers of poetry today look at the poems submitted to them and say to the poet, "Bob, these are well made and written 'in the right style'. They would definitely sell books for us . . . but they lack the radical edge of great poetry. Even though those edgy poems will only sell half as many books, we think we would rather back one of those than your conventional offering."

    I think it's fair to say that the real champions of innovative and unusual poetry are not actually publishers (small or large) . . . but critics. Publishers are not typically the most intelligent and forward thinking people in the poetry world. They might promote themselves as such, but I believe that ability to recognize and valuate a genuine innovation in poetry would have to come from a critic of real vision and sophistication. Many publishers of poetry are mediocre poets themselves. They are neither great poets nor great critics. They like poetry and are interested in promoting it. Right off the bat, (in my cynicism) I find this suspicious. When there is so much apathy in our culture regarding poetry and so much crap getting published, why would someone want to encourage this? To me, this demonstrates a lack of sophisticated taste and reason. If one really wanted to promote good poetry, one would be wiser to try to promote first rate criticism. That would weed out the detritus and help the real gems rise into wider reader awareness.

    Promotion of poetry in and of itself is NOT a good thing . . . and the fact that it is so often taken as such by so many PoBiz acolytes (most of whom gravitate toward publishing and editing) strikes me as evidence of the daftness and even selfishness (narcissism) of these pundits of aesthetic taste in this art form.


    Anonymous wrote:
    Also, I think you need to evaluate what your agenda is. Are you in it for poetry or to start a war against the PoBiz? It's not both.

    There is no valid arena in which to create poems today, in my opinion. Therefore, I feel poeting is a misguided enterprise. At least it is for me. If you share the beliefs of the mainstream poets and worship the PoBiz mentality and system, then times are grand. I feel that, as ridiculous as it might sound, the best a poet can do today is to make some kind of resistance against the PoBiz or try to expose or dismantle a bit of its machinery. Only after some of that is done can great poetry return to America. But today, the PoBiz instantly commodifies everything defined as a "poem". To place ones poems into this system with faith that it will treat them with respect and champion and preserve them is to throw pearls before swine.

    I understand that my position on this is too radical for almost all poets to accept (and probably even consider). But poets tend to be good believers and have a distinct faith to them . . . even the "atheists". I am not like this. I see a system that cannot either produce or tolerate great poetry in absolute control of the definition of poetry in America. That is simply grievous.

    So I gladly put aside my poetic ambitions in favor of trying to raise consciousness about the PoBiz and throw down dangerous questions and arguments at its feet. This is, in essence, how I practice my poetry (when I practice at all). I was always a fiction-influence prose poet anyway, so the step over into prose is a small one for me. But in my opinion, people don't "hear" poetry today. They don't see it as a valid medium for argument or consciousness raising. So, I don't try to reach or convince people through poetry. The language itself is the real medium of the poet . . . not poetry specifically. This is something that is regrettably lost on many poets today.

    Best,
    Matt

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