Poets.net Survey: A Narrative Response

Please comment on this post here.

(The following essay by Matt Koeske appeared as a comment to Thread: Writing Forum Survey--admin.)

I'm very happy to see this conversation happening. I mean the one that evolved out of the survey more so than any direct reply to the survey's questions. I am entirely in favor of the ever-vigilant examination of the rhetoric of us who identify as "outsiders" and support Foetry.com's and Poets.net's missions. And Robocop's points [comment section] are, in my opinion, excellent ones . . . and without the whiff of elitist/insider dismissal of the other that is what we "others" tend to hear so much of the time.

For instance, I think Robocop is entirely correct in suggesting that the rhetoric of this survey is misleading in a partisan way. That is, the subtext of the survey implies and reinforces an outsider/insider or tyrant/victim dynamic between forum moderators ("insiders") and unaffiliated and "dangerous" dissidents ("outsiders"). I found that I was not able to really answer most of these questions, at least not simply . . . as I found them leading and inclined to simplify and pigeonhole responses and responders. Not that I failed to understand and appreciate the subtext of the survey. The sentiment (tinged with necessary outrage and drive to change) is valid and extremely important, but perhaps the time for such a survey and its implication of an Us vs. Them call to arms has not yet come. And I mean primarily that those called on to "join the outsider army" are being asked to pick sides before they have been convinced or otherwise (honestly) wooed. It's not time yet to dig foxholes (and may never be).

That said, my only experiences on a poetry forum have been with Foetry.com and Poets.net, and a handful of the same people have been involved with both. On Poets.net I know my voice will be tolerated and probably even appreciated much of the time. My experience with Foetry.com was mixed. Many people seemed to appreciate my more essayistic and "literary" posts, but a number of Foetry regulars made it clear that forum posts were "supposed to be" short, simple, unreflectively emotive, and free of argument (in favor of bald and unexamined opinion). I saw this as small-minded and self-defeating, and I continued to both write my essay-posts and to argue for the value of such a development of argument and idea. I owe it to the awareness and respect of Alan Cordle that he also saw value in my approach and entrusted Foetry.com largely to me after he retired. That is perhaps not the most accurate way to explain what really happened. In fact, when Alan retired, I tried to argue for a coalition of the regulars (the "Anti-foets") to collectively take charge and install no leadership.

As I was perhaps the leading voice in stumping for this democratic coalition, it turned out that (as anyone involved in activism might expect) I ended up with the lion's share of the responsibilities. I tended to see this as similar to the common cartoon scene where one person is volunteered because s/he forgot to step backward along with everyone else in line. Even though I repeatedly declared that I was happy to do anything I could to further the cause of Foetry.com (within the scope of my sense of ethics), I did not in any way want to be in charge of Foetry.com . . . as it turned out, that was precisely what happened (and by default rather than election, I might add).

My one year tenure as Foetry.com's admin was admittedly frustrating for me. I attempted to push Foetry toward becoming a more journalistic PoBiz news source and "poet's advocate" information archive. I argued for organization, better research and presentation, and a new dedication to fair-mindedness and clarity. But I tried to remain conscious of the fact that I was, ideologically, more radical than many of the Anti-foets when it came to my objections to the PoBiz system (which I felt should be both boycotted and critically deconstructed). Recognizing this, I made every effort to not stamp Foetry.com with my personal philosophies. A significant part of doing this was to call for volunteers to take on various projects (research, mission statement writing, organization and verification of evidence against poets and judges involved in contest and publication improprieties, a formal FAQ addressing the many repeated questions and attacks Foetry.com received to which no definitive and readily available answers were available, etc.

But perhaps because this sense of a conscientious and more-professional, grassroots, activist organization required more disciplined (and more carefully reflected upon) efforts from a "staff", combined with the general disillusionment we all shared regarding Alan's retirement, things never came together as I had hoped (and felt was necessary in order to make Foetry.com viable and useful for poets). At the same time, I was an odd "choice" as an admin, because (similarly to Alan) I had already "retired" from the whole poetry game by this time and stopped writing and reading poetry. My investment was based entirely on the fact that I felt what Foetry.com wanted to achieve was a just objective and greatly needed support from those who recognized this (and also had the sense to direct this objective and the grassroots outrage behind it toward useful, ethical, and intelligent reform).

But I came to feel that if I, a person who had lost interest in poetry in almost every way and no longer had any personal poetic ambitions, was the most enthused about the cause, the future of the cause was in sorry shape. I was ready to move off into my prose writing and pursuits of psychology, so I felt ready to retire from Foetry.com along with Alan. We discussed this and agreed that it was time to shut down Foetry.com . . . feeling that handing off the reins to yet another loyal supporter was bound to only pass the buck and stick them with the same burdensome situation that we found impossible to resolve. Our hope was that, if anyone really had the drive to continue the Foetry.com mission, s/he would simply start over and do so on his or her own and sans Foetry.com's baggage.

And this is precisely what Jennifer has done . . . and I hope she can understand that the reasoning Alan and I implemented in our closing of Foetry was intended to be an act of kindness and support for whoever took up the standard next . . . and not an attempt at forbidding access to a resource.

I mention all of this in the hope that it will serve as one example of the difficulties of constructing any kind of forum community and suggesting that there are all kinds of ways in which an ideal of that community fails to function in act. Humanity must be preserved at all costs in any organization . . . and that includes individualism, a right to speak and to disagree even with one's fellows. At Poets.net, we are just beginning, and there will be growing pains. I am completely tolerant of this, but at the same time, I have already (both privately and publicly) spoken out on behalf or restraint and careful strategy. What I appreciate (and recognize as a rarity in any group dynamic) is that my cautions have been seriously considered by all those involved in Poets.net. This dynamic is pushing us closer to a democratic ideal, where decisions are made with collective reflection while also giving plenty of space for individual expression. Instead of the group (or a dictator's) psychology conforming the published products at Poets.net, the group has given the right of equality and voice to all who would speak. And so far, there has been a significant amount of self-criticism on this forum.

This is such a unique and wonderful thing, that I hope it will come to be appreciated and respected by more and more who visit Poets.net. And I hope that many of these people will understand that the beginnings of this kind of functional democracy are going to have their hiccups and belches. I'm reminded of the Dr. Seuss story, "Yertle the Turtle", in which a "plain little turtle named Mack" finds that the only way to rock the ridiculous system of King Yertle's oppressive supremacy is to issue a small burp . . . and the whole hierarchical stack of turtles comes crashing back into the pond. I think there should be tolerance for these occasionally "unseemly" burps coming from those people on the bottom of the stack, those people barred from entering the Kingdom of Poetry. This tolerance and understanding of the nature of dissent and outrage are what (as far as I have seen) are most lacking in the criticisms and dismissals of Poets.net (and Foetry.com) coming from "insiders" and PoBiz devotees and wannabes.

The main reason I wanted to be involved with Foetry.com when I joined was to contribute the thing I realized was my most useful attribute: balance and rational (or at least complex and articulate) philosophy. I didn't want to just jump in and amplify the voice of outrage and injury that already rang out loudly from Foetry.com. I felt that what Foetry.com lacked was a devotion to credibility and an adequate consideration of how others not in its camp perceived its rhetoric. If the harshest critics and smug dismissers of Foetry.com had been correct about the "shrill, self-centered whining in the name of sour grapes", then Alan and the other devoted people at Foetry.com would have made every effort to dispose of me and my attempts to encourage balance and credible reform. But not only did that not happen, I even wound up as the admin of the site.

That is a testament to the intelligence and fairness of this group . . . the best and brightest of which have reemerged to keep fighting the good fight through Poets.net. These good people are capable of reason and change. But sometimes we will make blunders in the pursuit of a cause. This is, in my opinion, not any kind of justification to dismiss what is being attempted here. What IS being attempted is a bold and original adaptation, the evolution of an entirely new life form in the poetry world. So long as dissent is allowed and listened to here, this evolutionary event with progress toward fitness. Individual voices will be tolerated and yet they will listen to and influence one another. We should not fall into the same position that the original malcontents with democracy voiced. Democracy is a complex system, and it needs time to evolve and self-organize. The alternative is some form of royalism or dictatorship or party elitism.

So I encourage all who would question the way Poets.net presents itself and its ideas to continue voicing criticism (but not sniping dismissals, which are not in any way useful for anyone). Thus far, Poets.net has demonstrated that these criticisms, even when they hurt, are being considered and can in fact lead to change. That the people here are willing to listen and reflect on anything that is being said to them already demonstrates the unique and rather wonderful potential this site foreshadows. Where else in poetry today is there this much willingness to self-criticize and even change directions based on well-argued critique?

Even as I have already voiced a number of criticisms and calls for restraint to the people posting, commenting, or being quoted here, they have continuously impressed me with their ability to reflect and seriously consider the values of mission and fairness even over personal desires and injuries. The call-outs Jennifer has posted declaring that freedom of speech is granted and admired here are not blown smoke. For those of you who don't like what is said on Poets.net, come and voice your dissent and criticism . . . and do so intelligently. That is how progress is made.

My Best,

Matt Koeske


  1. I've just made one quick pass through this essay and can't find a single point of disagreement. I believe that poets.net is the successor not only to foetry.com, but also to the failures of the forums at poets.org and pw.org.

    Like Matt, I'm pretty disillusioned with po-biz -- not ready to say the foets have won, but not very interested in reading the dreck they keep churning out on behalf of and for each other.

    Jennifer's got an amazing site going here and I admire what she's started. I hope others will contribute their skills, content, and criticisms to make it the place on the web that turns po-biz around.

  2. I remember once when I was a boy and the snobby rich kids wouldn’t let us into their party. They were rude and laughed at us, told us to go away. So we left. But we didn’t hang around in the front yard waiting for a dollop of lobster bisque. We went out and bought some wine and had a bigger, better party in the woods.

    I suppose you could call me the ‘outsider’s’ outsider, but I realized long ago that Academia and Business, alone or combined, are counterproductive to good poetry. There is no way one can be part of any current system or ‘establishment’ and produce purely original poetry. I’m not saying that a poet should be ignorant or untrained, just that once you have learned the basics you must fly on your own. Intellectual inbreeding results only in endless reference and repetition of predecessors until one fades in their shadow. Influence by contemporary friends and heroes further dims the flame of independent insight and originality.

    Study your history. Most who broke the idol of precedent, who followed the light of their own lamp, came in from the woods.

  3. Gary, here's to the woods!

    Alan, will you be in charge of beer?


  4. I love lobster bisque and I am going to wait here until I get some.

    Monday Love

  5. "Intellectual inbreeding results only in endless reference and repetition of predecessors until one fades in their shadow. Influence by contemporary friends and heroes further dims the flame of independent insight and originality."

    Gary, well said!

    But isn't true that 'good poets imitate, great poets steal?'

  6. Good poets learn.

    Great poets forget everything they learned.

  7. I like what you say, Gary, and I know it should give me hope. "Study your history," you encourage me at the end, "most who broke the idol of precedent, who followed the light of their own lamp, came in from the woods."

    But came in where? You're talking about poets who have done the long, hard work both on the craft and themselves, and have found their own voices. I want to know what do they do next, where do they settle down and with whom do they sup?

    There's an essential ingredient to all this which is so close to us we hardly see it: we contemporary poets are bedevilled by such unrealistically high expectations--we still imagine there's an audience. The reality is that never in the whole history of poetry has so much been promised to so many poets, yet in reality so little been ready. Before it was easier, even in the early 90s when I first started publishing. I got hand-written notes from Theodore Weiss, whole letters from the likes of James Laughlin and Alice Quinn on old, mechanical typewriters that needed ribbons, and real engagement from Joseph Parisi and a good scolding from Marilyn Hacker. All that's impossible now, not because the editors aren't that good anymore but because too many poets have the same expectations. And why shouldn't they, after all, insiders or outsiders they're still poets and as such long to be read and even to get rejected with good feedback's not too bad.

    Now that's just a fantasy.

    Because those days are over in America, and I guess pretty much forever. Once you come in from the woods fully initiated in the mysteries of life, love and art, even as a poet, what's offered is just a playdate!


  8. "Good poets learn.

    Great poets forget everything they learned."

    Gary, that's pretty good. Is that yours?

  9. Christopher,

    I imagine one could still have correspondences with poets and editors today. It depends on where you look. Or, what kind of letter you write. I'm sure I could get a letter from Alice Quinn, not if I sent my poems to the New Yorker, but if I wrote her a letter saying how much I admired her book on Elizabeth Bishop. Or, if you are doing research, or writing an article with a positive angle, I'm sure a lot of doors would open. Of course, you wouldn't find a Samuel Johnson or a Goethe; you'd find someone no smarter or learned than yourself. Wouldn't that be a drag.

  10. To my knowledge. God only knows what's floating around in the subconscious sea. :-)

  11. Gary,

    I like it.

    Maybe you could polish it up into:

    Good poets remember.
    Great poets forget.


    Good poets learn to remember.
    Great poets learn to forget.

  12. Not a touch on Gary's original.

    "Good poets learn.

    Great poets forget everything they learned."

    Of course it's partly a result of the shock in the context, but it's also the eccentricity of the grammar. Both the ear and the mind's assumptions are ready for the present perfect, "have learned," after the usual sort of forgetting as cast in the present tense. The past simple isolates everything that has been forgotten. It creates a total disjunct, and invokes a whole universe of endless present in the particular way poets "forget."

    The present perfect is the tense that makes the past operative, with the past simple it ceases to exist.


  13. "By Jove, I think (s)he's got it!"

    It's called poetry.

    Thank you, Christopher.

    (Now buy the books, for God's sake!)


  14. P.S.: Christopher, take it from a Taoist. You think too much.


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