Monday, May 26, 2008

Christopher Woodman: "The chick that’s in him pecks the shell, 'twill soon be out."

"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, I went back to 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 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, 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 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, 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 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?


  1. "Twinkies were invented by James Dewan, an employee of the Chicago based Continental Baking Company, in 1933. The name came from the expression "twinkle toes," which, at one time was a brand of shoes. During World War II, Twinkies were redesigned with a banana flavored filling. The banana filling allowed Continental Baking to market their product as a nutritional substitute for real bananas which were in short supply during the war (Yes, we have no bananas?). Apparently, in 1999, a package of Twinkies was one of the items chosen by the White House to be included in their See, Twinkies, apparently have an unnaturally long shelf life. Oh, and maybe it was all those preservatives that kept James Dewan (the Twinkie inventor) alive till his 80th birthday in 1981 (he claimed to eat two Twinkies every day of his life)."

    From "Birthday Boy" on Wall to Wall Carpet website

  2. And what if one or both of two poetry personalities were so incensed that they tried to interfere with the employment of someone who rightfully shined a light on their arrogant, symbiotic ways? Would that be tortuous interference? You'd think that if one of the personalities was once a lawyer that he'd know better.

  3. Huh?

    Anyone writing any poetry here?

    I thought not.

  4. If you were a poet looking for life insurance and you decided to go for a policy that had been written by a poet, do you think you could have spotted Wallace Stevens at Hartford?

  5. And what if the publisher in question had also:

    (1.) published the poetry of his own publisher,

    (2.) published the poetry of his business partner in the organization of poetry conferences for poets who couldn't get published and would pay to meet publishers,

    (3.) published the first book of poetry of the director of the first poetry graduate institute to offer MFA credits taught by that very same publisher in how to write a first book of poetry and then get that first book of poetry published,

    (4.) published the first book of poetry of a young Stanford law student who as yet had only two poetry credentials, her mother as the Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory at Harvard and her father as a well-published (sort of like "hung!") poet at Iowa,

    (5.) and not only published that unpublished law student, but gave her a contract to begin writing her first book of poetry while she was still an undergraduate at Harvard?


    But hey, all of this is so well-known and has been out there in the public record for ages--that's why it's a yawn for people who want to think it doesn't matter.

    The difference in what Christopher has done here is not to mention any names at all--because what I think he's trying to say now is that it matters far more than those names, which indeed are in reality getting boring.

    In fact it matters because of what it's doing to American poetry, and the symptoms are dire!

    And me? I'm someone who is in in fact in a position to do a little bit anyway about it, so I can't tell you.

  6. Thanks for that, Anonymous.

    Yes, that's exactly what I meant. And if you look carefully at what I say you will see I didn't suggest there had been any illegal activity in all the self-serving locking, deleting and banning I experienced while at and I also make it clear that I haven't a clue who was influenced by whom in the P&W chain of command from Jason Chapman, IT Director at Poets & Writers, down to Motet, the moderator with the buttons, but somebody did listen to somebody else, and somebody did dirt. The same applies to The Academy of American Poets. The fact that Robin Beth Schaer, the Chief On-line Editor at, is in line for a prize at Tupelo is proof of nothing, though it does put her under suspicion, and in some more sensitive positions that would be considered an indiscretion. But certainly it wouldn't have required Robin's intervention because the Site Administrator, Christine Klocek-Lim, certainly could have 'moderated' everything that happened all by herself, as could virtually any of the moderators. Also, there were certainly moments when it was obvious the wagons were being circled tightly around the whole forum, and that all the moderators were trying, at least, to hold the enemy at bay in unison.

    Didn't work but it was certainly a show of unison.

    So what does it take to influence public opinion in the world of poetry, that's the real question. If, as I suspect, it's just a celebrity voice on the phone, then poetry has already become Hollywood, and is likely to produce about the same percentage of junk too. Yes, and let's be very clear about that too. I love Hollywood personally, but Indies even more so. Poetry, on the other hand, is my last resort when I think I'll just shuffle off this mortal coil, and when I think that the two individuals I've not been naming in this essay have so much influence over poetry, it makes me feel sorry for myself as a person as well as a poet!

    Think about that.

    (I'd love to know who you are, Anonymous--but I'm thrilled to be on board with you.)

  7. "Anyone writing any poetry here?

    I thought not."

    This sums up the stupidity of a certain kind of 'poet' offended by any machinations in the poetry world which don't boil down to 'writing poetry,' as if everything is OK as long there are great assembly lines 'writing poetry.'

    According to this silliness, 'writing poetry,' is the only criterion necessary.

    Thinking what it means to 'write poetry' in a wider context is a waste of time. We should just be 'writing poetry.'

    There is indeed truth to the remark: "I thought not."

    This opinion contains no thought.

  8. It's like all attacks on orthodoxy. If a criticism contradicts a tenet of faith it's an invalid criticism.

    If the tenet of faith is that guns make you free, then guns are a non-negotiable matter. If it's a tenet of faith that sex is bad then sex-education is a non-negotiable matter. If it's a tenet of faith that men have a much higher sex drive than women, as it is in a great many cultures in the world today, including where I live, and that true men are truly driven by sex, then you get boys taken by their fathers to brothels at 14 while the mothers wait at home with the daughters until they can be married--and the crowning irony of that absurd tenet of faith is that in addition to brothels on every street corner you get men who are butterflies and women who run the whole show!

    The tenet of faith in American poetry is that the true poet is the product of not just higher but higher and higher and higher education, and that the more a poet pays for it the more right he or she has to be truly successful.

    Anyone who suggests that the poets, critics, editors or publishers who are running this extravagant industry are self-interested, or even, God-forbid, in it for profit, is considered anti-intellectual. Indeed, I myself am mocked as a loser and an ignoramus all the time, and every word I speak is dismissed as, in a most memorable phrase I found in P&W Magazine, of all places, “the product of a willful misunderstanding of the process of editing and publishing poetry!”

    So you think the son should wash the dishes before he goes out to the brothel at 14 with his father? Just ask the mother for an answer to that question. "You must be joking," she will reply. "Any true mother would keep her daughter carefully clean at home so she can attract a true man as a husband!"

    And that's a monstrous problem, both for their sex and our poetry!


  9. "The tenet of faith in American poetry is that the true poet is the product of not just higher but higher and higher and higher education, and that the more a poet pays for it the more right he or she has to be truly successful."


    Here's the whole crux of the matter in 46 words.

    Well said, my friend.

  10. Christopher,
    I get you, but why didn't you include HIV?

    The "clean" wife at home, so carefully schooled by her mother, is infected by some other mother's son who was equally carefully schooled in how to become a reckless man, and then disguised in silk pyjamas married her.

    So in poetry all those young hopefuls in the schools, workshops and forums working and working to clean up their craft. They stay at home to be chosen like virgins while the men who really matter, male or female, are out there perfecting the disease.


  11. The little Love-god lying once asleep,
    Laid by his side his heart-inflaming brand,
    Whilst many nymphs that vowed chaste life to keep
    Came tripping by; but in her maiden hand
    The fairest votary took up that fire
    Which many legions of true hearts had warmed;
    And so the General of hot desire
    Was, sleeping, by a virgin hand disarmed.
    This brand she quenched in a cool well by,
    Which from Love's fire took heat perpetual,
    Growing a bath and healthful remedy,
    For men diseased; but I, my mistress' thrall,
    Came there for cure and this by that I prove,
    Love's fire heats water, water cools not love.


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