In May of 1995 I accepted a three-year University Fellowship from Syracuse
University, to pursue a Masters of Fine Arts degree in creative writing. I was
a combat veteran of the Gulf War and I had used the Army College Fund to earn a
BA in Philosophy. I was a working class kid who had resolved to avoid working
for as long as possible. And now, for the next three years, I would be paid a
little over ten thousand dollars a year to write poetry and to take classes in
prosody and literary history. I felt like I had won the fucking lottery.
And I hoped that I was gaining something even more important than the financial support and the time to write; I hoped this would be my ticket into the “big leagues” of American poetry. Since my childhood, I had liked reading and writing more than anything else, but prior to attending college, I could never have imagined that any such thing as an MFA program existed. Like many civilians, I had assumed that all writers, even poets, supported themselves primarily through book sales and free lance checks—this despite the fact that I had never bought a book of poetry, and did not know anybody else who had ever bought a book of poetry. But during college I began to read quite a lot of contemporary American poetry and I noticed that virtually all of the poets I was reading had attended graduate programs in creative writing, and that they taught creative writing. I became aware of a complex web of graduate programs, literary journals, grant committees, writing conferences and artists’ residencies, and I began to realize that having a career as a writer was dependent upon inserting yourself somehow into that complex web. And without the financial resources and family connections necessary to land an internship somewhere in the publishing industry, my only real option was to attend a prestigious graduate program in creative writing.
If you had asked me at the time: “Why are you getting an MFA?” I would have given the proper, high-minded answer: “Because I love poetry and want to spend more time honing my craft and perfecting my art.” I was a good student, after all, and I actually did love poetry. I had even read quite a bit of poetry, which is quite often not the case with MFA students. I really did want to become a great poet. I wanted to write poems that would make people feel the same way I had felt the first time I read Rilke or Keats.
But even more than that, I wanted to become a successful poet. I was an American, after all, and I wanted my own version of the bourgeois American dream, even if my own version of it was decidedly literary. I wanted to have poetry books with my photograph on the back. I wanted to be admired by pretty, bookish women. I wanted to give readings in bookstores and on campuses. I wanted to be a sophisticated, liberal intellectual who drank wine with other sophisticated, liberal intellectuals, while talking expansively about literature and life, and last week’s New York Review of Books.
To my readers who are sneering as they read that last paragraph, I can only say that I join you in sneering. My “literary” aspirations were petty and mediocre and my ideas about high culture were naïve and politically uninformed. During the four years between my discharge from the army and my admission into Graduate school, the life of an academic poet had appeared before me, seeming as a glamorous reprieve from the much more mundane possibilities I had previously envisioned for myself: working at the post office; becoming a social worker; teaching high school English and coaching wrestling.
And I actually believed that attending graduate school was a necessary step in becoming a “real” poet. To be accepted into a highly regarded MFA program felt like a tangible stamp of legitimacy—an important institution was officially recognizing me as a poet. They were even giving me money. And attending a good MFA program seemed like an important first step in accruing even more stamps of legitimacy. Intellectually, I realized it was mendacious to equate institutional “stamps of legitimacy” with actual artistic merit. But emotionally, I craved that sort of institutional legitimacy. I was that odd sort of young person that American society often creates—my entire life I had been poor, but thanks to my education and to the media, I had learned to identify most strongly with the anxious ethos of the middle class. I wanted financial security and social prestige. I wanted some sort of official recognition of the fact that I was indeed a poet, a real poet, and not just a hobbyist.
Among contemporary American poets, it is a widely accepted truism that creative writing programs and workshops have, on balance, adversely impacted the overall quality of poetry written during the last fifty or so years. The culture of the graduate school workshop is one of small-minded careerism and tepid, uninspired aesthetics. This is even acknowledged by most American poets who teach in graduate school workshops, although all of them of course exempt themselves from the critique, along with their closest friends, their more powerful allies, and their most promising students—and anybody else they should happen to network with while teaching at summer writing conferences.
While most criticisms of the poetry workshop tend to be vague and facile, one must always remember that “vague and facile” are not necessarily synonymous with “incorrect.” The MFA system has most certainly contributed to creating an aesthetic of cautious mediocrity throughout contemporary American poetry. Thanks largely to the influence of the workshop system, most of contemporary American poetry currently being published is boring and culturally insignificant. For this reason, it is a fit topic for any critic who truly cares about and loves poetry.
One of the most well known attacks on the workshop system is Donald Hall’s 1988 essay, “Poetry and Ambition,” in which Hall argues that poetry workshops teach students to mass produce aesthetically insignificant and forgettable “McPoems,” the literary equivalent of fast food. It is somewhat ironic that this landmark criticism was made by Donald Hall, who is a very boring and bad academic poet, and a textbook example of a careerist poet masquerading as a latter-day Robert Frost. Hall was the American editor for the famous New Poets of England and America Anthology of 1957. It is an extremely dull read, but was crucial in terms of establishing a map for literary power and influence during the second half of the last century. Perhaps the high point in Hall’s public career was his appearance in Ken Burns PBS baseball documentary, where he talked prettily about the Boston Red Sox and their immortal left fielder, Ted Williams. And Burns’s dull, middlebrow, studiously apolitical and outrageously celebrated documentaries can actually be viewed as spiritual kin to Hall’s own uninspired verse.
Still, despite the fact that Hall is a bad poet, his essay is full of valid and trenchant criticisms, and I owe it a debt of gratitude. I read it during my final year in graduate school, at a time when I was deeply mired in depression, alcoholism, and morbidly self-absorbed poetics. I was the poetry editor of Salt Hill, which was at the time beginning to emerge as a nationally recognized and distributed literary journal, a fact that I took very little pride in—I couldn’t articulate a single reason why Salt Hill was any better than, or even different than, the countless other small literary journals we were competing with for shelf space in book stores across the country.
Still, Salt Hill was managing to catch on—we were becoming what you might call a “credible CV line” and one year we even managed to publish a poem that got selected to appear in the much celebrated (at least in Borders and Barnes and Noble) Best American Poetry anthology. You know the one—revolving guest editors, chosen from among the most celebrated of American poets. Each year there are about thirty or so Creative Writing Mafia Godfathers (and mothers) who absolutely have to be included, or else there will be some serious fall-out at the top of the academic creative writing world. Pretty much every year you can count on seeing: John Ashbery, Louise Gluck, Gerald Stern, Philip Levine, Robert Bly, Jorie Graham, W.S. Merwin, Donald Hall, etceteras. Of course not all of the same people get included every single year, it depends a little bit on the particular guest editor. Each guest editor has many less successful friends he or she wants to pick and most of the editors usually have a former student or two that they’d like to help launch. And let’s be clear: each guest editor probably picks at least some poems that he or she really likes a lot. I’m not a cynical man, after all.
One year the Best American Poetry Series somehow got hijacked by Adrienne Rich. Rich caused something of an uproar by having the temerity to place, alongside all that bad poetry by middle class white people, a number of bad poems by inner-city high school kids and federal prisoners. Adrienne Rich is certainly not one of my very favorite poets (I think some of her work is pretty interesting and ambitious), but I do appreciate her for having accomplished such an amusing cultural prank in the name of genuine social justice.
Although I was the poetry editor when Salt Hill got selected for Best American, I didn’t actually pick the honored poem—the credit for that goes to a very hard working and committed founding editor named Michael Paul Thomas, who was almost entirely responsible for launching Salt Hill and making it a big success. From the very first issue, he had a great talent for soliciting and publishing not-very-good poems by famous poets.
It was a really big deal to get selected for The Best American Poetry Series. Not a lot of journals have had their poems picked for Best American—look through Poet’s Market, if you don’t believe me. Getting selected means a journal has “arrived” on the scene in the world of academic creative writing. We were listed in the Best American credits, right alongside the big boys like PloughShares, The Paris Review and APR.
The poem selected was “The Difference Between Pepsi and Pope” by Denise Duhamel. At the time, she was a real comer in the poetry world—probably still is; I don’t keep up on that sort of thing anymore. I once observed her networking at a Poets and Writers conference in Washington D.C. She was really good at it, and her poems had a sense of humor, and they were a little bit more original and inventive than most. She has a book called Kinky that contains a series of poems about Barbie, and it is a pretty funny book. The poem that we published was pretty good, too, as I remember it. But there was something strange about it. The title was lifted from a poem by David Lehman called “The Difference Between Pepsi and Coke.” Duhamel’s poem contained a pointless digression, which seemed like it had been included exclusively for the purpose of heaping praise on the Lehman poem.
Now David Lehman is of course the series editor of The Best American Poetry Anthology. I remember when Michael showed us the poem, I commented, “Hey, this is sure to get picked up by Best American.” Naturally I was joking. Surely a poem praising David Lehman could not possibly get picked to appear in an anthology where David Lehman was the series editor. Surely there were other, less embarrassing choices available. We published another poem in the very same issue by Duhamel that was just as good, maybe even better, and it didn’t heap any praise at all upon David Lehman.
But damned if the one praising David Lehman was not picked up for the big showcase. The guest editor that year was John Hollander. In his largely incoherent introduction to the edition, Hollander confessed that he had only even read directly from 40 literary journals. I have a hard time believing that Salt Hill, only then in its fourth or fifth edition, was one of John Hollander’s 40 favorite literary journals. If Hollander only bothered to read forty journals that year, I find it quite surprising that our own very new journal was among the chosen few. Many copies of that issue sat for a year or longer in the Salt Hill office, and were sold off slowly, a few at a time.
Incidentally, David Lehman is known as the person who coined the derisive phrase “PoBiz,” for the purpose of describing the academic poetry world.
I was also in the process of finishing my own graduate thesis—seventy pages of poetry, maybe ten of it actually any good. Still, despite the fact that I wasn’t happy with my manuscript, I was diligently preparing it for the book contests. As the poetry editor of Salt Hill, I had received countless review copies of new poetry books, and while I didn’t think my own manuscript was very good, I knew it was no worse than most of the books I received in the mail. Aside from one or two poems, I knew my manuscript could not possibly contribute anything meaningful to the poetry world, but I was also about to graduate. I had a small, but for me, substantial amount of student loans to pay back. I wanted to get started on my career, and that meant I had to start publishing my poems and that I had to win a book contest.
The only way to get a job teaching creative writing at a college (aside from no-benefits, 12 grand a year adjunct work) is to have at least one nationally published book. And the only way to get your first book published is to win a contest. Because there is no profit in publishing poetry, the majority of poetry publishing is subsidized by the contest system. Thousands of poets enter the book contests each year—especially young poets, fresh out of graduate school. Publishers hire a famous, established poet to judge the contest, and they charge participants a twenty to thirty dollar “reading fee.” It’s like buying an expensive lottery ticket, although often times this lottery is rigged. Even the least cynical observer would have to concede that in at least a quarter of the contests, the judges know going in that they will be selecting one of their friends or former students.
Most workshop poets will swear up and down that they are always concerned first and foremost with the quality of their poetry. Well, I won’t try to speculate on what truly motivates other people. I only know that during my last two years in graduate school, I was almost always on some level concerned with trying to put together the sort of manuscript that might win me a contest. In terms of my work, this meant that I spent less time struggling after my own poetic vision and more time trying to imitate already successful poets.
I was mired in the early stages of mediocre careerism, and I knew it, and it was leading me into spiritual crisis. I simply could not articulate a single reason why it was important for me to keep writing poetry, given that poetry seemed to be culturally insignificant and that my own work clearly did nothing to challenge this fact. It all just seemed like so much chatter, and the only reason I could figure out for trying to pursue my own career as a poet was a self-involved desire to add my own chatter to the rest of the noise.
I knew that the workshop culture lay at the center of my emotional and artistic discontent. But when it came to poetry, the workshop culture was the only world I’d ever known, and so I just didn’t have the perspective, or the vocabulary, to criticize it. Hall’s essay was very useful in this respect. One passage, in particular, accurately described the pathetic course my own literary ambition had taken:
At twelve, say, the American poet-to-be is afflicted with generalized ambition…at sixteen the poet reads Whitman and Homer and wants to be immortal. Alas, at twenty-four the same poet wants to be in the New Yorker…
Of course, not three months after I read this essay, I went to a Poets
and Writers conference in Washington D.C. where Donald Hall was a featured
panelist. So clearly Hall is not offended by the professional poetry world when
it is celebrating him. And there is a definite strain of upper-class elitism
throughout the entire essay—a casual over-valuing of the traditional literary
cannon, as if the Norton Anthology was some sort of objective historical record. At
one point, Hall waxes nostalgic about his Harvard years, providing a small list
of his fellow students who also went on to become famous poets.
One of the clear messages that comes across from “Poetry and Ambition” is: “You wannabe poets need to leave the New Yorker to real poets like me and Galway Kinnell.” Despite his high minded rhetoric, Hall’s main complaint seems to be that workshops have made the club too big, that they have made it too easy for the riff-raff to join.
Hall’s smartest criticism of the poetry workshop is that it requires poets to write poems too quickly:
The weekly meetings of the workshop serve the haste of our culture. When we bring a new poem to the workshop, anxious for praise, others’ voices enter the poem’s metabolism before it is mature, distorting possible growth and change. “It’s only when you get far enough away from your work to begin to be critical of it yourself”—Robert Frost said—“that anyone else’s criticism can be tolerable…” Bring to class only, he said, “old and cold things…” Nothing is old and cold until it had gone through months of drafts. Therefore workshopping is intrinsically impossible.
This is essentially the conclusion I had reached by the end of my first
semester in graduate school. There were a lot of poems I simply would not bring
to my workshop meetings. Any time I wanted to do anything vaguely experimental
or strange, I knew bringing it to workshop would prove to be an exercise in
futility. It wasn’t that my workshop mates were stupid—indeed, whenever one
of them brought a strange or experimental poem of their own to the workshop, I
tended to say stupid things myself. Workshops require
participation—especially graduate workshops. You have to say things about the
work your fellow poets bring in. But when a poet hasn’t yet figured out what
he or she is trying to do in a given poem, it is pretty useless, even
counter-productive, to start giving the poet all kinds of advice on what to do
with the poem.
Sometimes a poet does bring something strange and experimental to workshop, and nobody understands it—the poet probably doesn’t understand it yet, either. Everybody sits around the table and says: “Wow, this is really trying to do something different.” Or often times the members of the workshop and the presiding professor react with a certain amount of hostility—“What is this, some sort of crazy experiment? It certainly doesn’t look anything like a poem to me!” It’s not cool to be strange in a graduate poetry workshop, which is kind of alarming, when you consider how strange some of the greatest poets seemed when they first appeared on the scene. It’s hard to imagine, for example, that Emily Dickinson or Walt Whitman would have been warmly received into a graduate workshop, had the institution existed in the mid-nineteenth century.
More often, the poet brings in the same basic “poem” he or she has already figured out how to write by borrowing a lot of syntax, phrasing and rhythms whole-cloth from poems that he or she has read under the recommendation of one or another famous poet-professors. Not surprisingly, rules about what constitutes plagiarism are treated with a great deal of moral relativism among workshop poets. Roughly speaking, it considered fair use by way of influence when you borrow from a more established or older poet, but it is considered plagiarism if you borrow from a peer. One poet in my workshop, a young man from the South, used to catch a lot of shit for borrowing lines or phrasings from poems by other poets in the workshop. Yet when I closed one of my own poems with a partial phrase and an entire rhythm I’d obviously lifted directly from a poem everybody was familiar with by the National Poetry Series Winner Roger Fanning, everybody called it one of my very best poems. This double standard always baffled my younger workshop mate. As he once said to me: “I don’t see what’s the big deal if I used one of K’s lines. The manuscript I used to get accepted here has a dozens of lines I stole directly from Stephen Dobyns.”
When everybody brings in poems that are basically derivative and uninteresting, the workshop is able to flow along nicely: “Oh, another poem about your mother dying!” or: “Another poem about fall!” or: “Another poem filled with trite observation about the mystery and beauty of the everyday world!” Everybody can relax and start talking with more confidence, although even now, the conversation only addresses the most superficial aspects of craft: “Hey, maybe you should break this line here,” or: “How about switching this word,” or: “Maybe instead of this flower being a rose, it should be a tulip—a tulip is slightly less self-consciously poetic.”
Because academic creative writing programs purport to be places where writing is “taught,” workshop discussions tend to focus almost exclusively on craft, although generally only at the most superficial levels, since most students in MFA programs are not well read enough to discuss craft with any degree of subtly or sophistication. Discussing a poem’s subject matter is verboten, aside from commenting on whether or not it is lucidly presented. Now craft should be important to any poet—at the most basic level, a poet is a person trying to arrange language in such a way that other people will think that it sounds compelling. But to pretend that craft has traditionally been the primary concern of poets is to ignore most of the Western tradition and a good deal of the Eastern. Certainly John Milton was a master of iambic pentameter, a virtuoso at metrical substitution, but to say that Milton was primarily concerned with craft is like saying that Oliver Cromwell was primarily concerned with battlefield tactics.
Blake and Shelly wanted to radically alter the collective consciousness of the entire race, but in the academic poetry workshop, a much more mediocre ambition is encouraged: that of getting published in magazines or in books that might be read, at most, by five thousand or so people. Of course the best way to get published is to make your work sound as much as possible like other work that has already been published. No matter what a poem might be about, the goal is the same—to make it look as much as possible like a respectable Shaker cabinet.
This not only promotes a cautious and constipated aesthetic, it also promotes a basic sameness of themes. Most academic poets are middle class, even upper middle class, and so the accepted themes for academic poets tend to be pretty middle class: I used to play catch with my dad; I helped my sick parent die; I learned to cook with garlic from my old immigrant grandmother; sometimes I feel a quiet and modest yearning after a New Testament-style Heavenly Father; I take stoic satisfaction taken in some basic aspect of daily middle class life like eating authentic Irish porridge or listening to Opera broadcasts on NPR. When a political theme does manage to creep into an academic poem, it is usually some sort of safe, liberal-palaver that nobody reading could possibly disagree with—prejudice is hurtful, Vietnam was hard on all of us, too bad there are poor people, ethnic cleansing in Eastern Europe is somber and sad, etceteras.
Poetic themes that don’t adhere pretty closely to general middle class experience are often subtly criticized in an academic poetry workshop for being “unclear” or “obscure.” And to be honest, by the time most poets make it into a graduate workshop in poetry, especially a competitive one, they have pretty much already learned what topics are acceptable to write about—they wouldn’t be there if they hadn’t. There are exceptions—one guy in my MFA program wrote a very long and highly entertaining (if morbidly self-indulgent) series of poems about his life as a cross-dresser. And, of course, for the poet who is not interested in writing about the trials and tribulations of middle class American life, there is always the option of becoming a surrealist.
But for the most part, the Academic creative writing world is a white world, a white, middle class world, and it is filled with the same quiet, well-mannered bigotry that one finds everywhere else in the world of the white middle class. A middle class white male poet like Billy Collins writes trite, bland and perfectly friendly poems about being a white, middle class male and he is roundly praised for somehow managing to articulate some sort of “universal humanity.” But when poets of color write about their own life experiences, it is common for white academic poets to dismiss their work as “agenda poetry.” This isn’t to say that white middle class academic poets have no sensitivity to a certain type of liberal, middle class multi-culturalism. For example: many white middle class poets write about listening to Jazz. In fact, poems by middle class, middle aged white guys that awkwardly refer to Jazz constitute one of the growing genres in the world of academic poetry.
The world of academic creative writing is also pretty male centered and dominated, even sexist and misogynist, although I am inclined to believe that the program I attended in Syracuse was an exceptionally outrageous example of the old boy’s club run amok. Three different people, including two eye-witnesses, told me that a male professor once drunkenly berated a woman in his workshop for writing too many poems about sexual abuse (and to give an example of how cowardly academic creative writers tend to be, this particular star poet’s abusive, outrageous behavior was meekly tolerated for years, and then when he finally went too far and got into trouble with the University, people who had been kissing his ass and drinking his scotch for several semesters suddenly started coming forward and complaining about how scared they had always been of him). A woman poet told me that another male professor once condescendingly informed her that he didn’t think rape was a worthwhile topic for a poem. And many of the younger male student-writers in the program felt entirely comfortable using misogynist, homophobic language in casual, classroom conversations.
Of course there is room at the top of the academic poetry world for people of color, gay poets, and women (especially if they are attractive), so long as they adhere to the official workshop ideology of “craft first.” Again, I will reiterate: I consider craft extremely important. But from my experience, “craft” within the academic poetry world tends to be synonymous with the most cautious and bland aesthetic. And furthermore, by training large numbers of young poets to view craft as separate from, and by extension more important than overall artistic vision, the workshop system helps to ensure that the majority of poems recognized and published in official “PoBiz” venues will be small and mediocre of vision.
Bertolt Brecht wrote: “One cannot write poems about trees when the forest is full of police.” The dominant ethos of the graduate workshop is one hundred and eighty degrees opposed to this: “But one must write poems about trees! Because if we start writing poems about the police, it might cause narrative confusion and compromise the unity of voice! And it might make it harder to get published or to win government grants.”
Recently I had a poem accepted by a new literary journal being put out by some graduate students. I had mailed them the poem about eight months ago, and the acceptance letter contained a brief apology for the long delay in replying. But since I spent quite a bit of time working on a fledging literary journal myself, I understood entirely. Starting up a literary journal is hard work—long hours and no pay. Once a journal gets established within a graduate program, the affiliated university will occasionally endow a small stipend for one or two editorial positions, but for the most part, everybody is working for free, and working pretty hard.
So I could imagine dozens of perfectly understandable reasons why my poem might have stayed with them for month after month. It might simply have been misplaced—believe me, when you send your poems to a small literary journal, you should be resolved to the fact that your work might end up getting lost: crammed down deep in somebody’s sofa cushion; carted off into the bedroom of some editor’s child and used as a background for drawing pictures of cats and clouds and trees; misplaced with an entire stack of poems in a forgotten desk drawer.
Or the journal itself might stall out, mid-issue, for several months, even for good: perhaps some sort of feud exploded among the faculty, leaving everybody in the program feeling emotionally battered, casting about for another program that will accept them as a transfer. Or maybe the editor and assistant editor were a hot romantic item early in the semester, but now they’ve had a messy breakup, and the resulting tension is so icky that nobody wants to attend staff meetings anymore. Hell, a fistfight might even have broken out among the staff. These sorts of things happen all the time on small literary journals, especially the ones that are associated with graduate school programs.
It is also likely that the editors in question had liked my poem, had maybe even liked it a lot (it is a swell poem), and wanted to publish it, but first they were waiting to see if they could get any poems by more famous writers. I understand this, too, entirely. When graduate students get involved with a literary journal, sure, maybe they are partly doing it out of a passion for literature—maybe some of them are ONLY doing it out of a passion for literature. But some of them, at least, are also doing it because they recognize it as an avenue for career advancement—a way to increase their visibility within the world of academic creative writing, to begin marshalling a power base of friendships and favors. Working as an editor on even a small-scale literary journal can be played for a networking bonanza. It allows you to meet lots of other poets, even famous ones. Some poetry editors even attempt to openly trade on their position in order to get their own poems published in other journals. Once I mailed some poems to a journal run by MFA students and not even a week later, their poetry editor mailed me a batch of his own poems. I never mentioned in my cover letter that I was affiliated with Salt Hill, but I was listed in a couple of different places as the poetry editor—somebody who was fanatically up to date on the markets (and plenty of scrounging, young Academic poets are) would have recognized my name.
Working on a literary journal is one way to go about becoming a playa’ in the PoBiz world, but only if your literary journal has managed to become “established.” The year I went to the Poets and Writers conference, Salt Hill was becoming “established.” There was a definite murmur about us on the convention floor. Many somewhat well known poets, people with one or two books published, dropped by our table to chat. Michael Thomas, our founding editor and a brilliant networker, managed to get us into the VIP lounge, so that unlike most of the people at the convention, we got to look at Robert Bly and Galway Kinnell up close.
Now there are hundreds, maybe even thousands, of literary journals in the United States, but a relatively small percentage of them are able to garner the sort of informal and widespread recognition required in order to insert themselves into the loosely drawn web that constitutes the “officially recognized” academic creative writing world. The reason Salt Hill was able to do it is simple: we had published lots of famous poets. It’s a well known fact that within the world of academic creative writing, a literary journal is judged much less on the literary quality of its content and much more on the star quality of its table of contents. People making the rounds at the convention would stop at our table and pick up a copy of our journal and invariably their eyes would head straight to the table of contents: W.S. Merwin, Charles Simic, Brigit Pegeen Kelly, Allen Grossman, Albert Goldbarth, Heather McHugh, Stephen Dobyns, Jean Valentine and etceteras. As they scanned Salt Hill’s list of contributors, their eyes would sometimes bulge. Then they would put the journal back down and reach across the table to shake my hand: they were very glad to meet me. Maybe Salt Hill was new and maybe they hadn’t actually even heard of it yet, but they could tell by our list of contributors that we were a legitimate publication, very respectable. In the months after the convention, I received about two dozen poetry submissions, with vague, chatty cover letters addressed to me personally, declaring how much the writer had enjoyed his or her conversation with me at the Poets and Writers convention. Now I was in the early stages of a very bad bout of depression the weekend of that convention—I promise, nobody on this planet can honestly say that he or she had an enjoyable conversation with me that weekend.
I don’t know that many poetry editors would admit that they cared about a poet’s biography when they get a poetry submission. If you look through The Poet’s Market, almost all the submission guidelines have some sort of high-minded sentence to the effect of “we publish the best poetry we receive, no matter who sends it to us.” And for a lot of journals, this is probably true. But a lot of people, especially graduate students, don’t really have the self-confidence or even the reading ability to form their own critical judgements. So if they receive poems from a poet they’re already familiar with, they will read them more carefully and generously. And if they open a submission envelope and the first thing they read is a cover letter that says: “I’ve been published in Poetry,” it’s going to get their attention. Even if they think most of the work published in Poetry sucks, they also know that Poetry rejects most of the work it receives. For a lot of editors, prior-publication is treated as a kind of letter of recommendation. When they see that another, more prestigious journal has already given a poet the stamp of approval, it makes them feel much more comfortable doing the same.
So there’s a good chance that the journal in question was holding my poem, waiting to see if they could get a more famous name to take my place (actually, it is a fairly long poem, and they could easily publish two or three much more well known poets in the space they have instead given to me). Like I said, I don’t really blame them. When graduate students go to the trouble of putting together a literary journal, it is only natural that they should try to use it as an opportunity to increase the quality of people they do business with. After all, it is practically un-American to labor for no kind of reward at all. Of course, my own publication bio includes poems and reviews in at least a few fairly well-known small journals, and I actually teach creative writing at a college, so within the world of academic creative writing, I’m not exactly an embarrassment to the contributor’s notes. Somebody scanning the contributors notes could say: “Well, I’ve never heard of this guy, but he’s been in The Marlboro Review and Poet’s Lore and The Harvard Review, and I’ve heard of them, so I guess it’s okay to like his poem.”
Maybe I’m exaggerating the kind of impact the contributor’s notes have on the reception of a literary journal, but I’m not exaggerating by much. If you want to start a literary journal, and you want it to be an effective networking tool, you need to make it into the type of journal people want to be published in, even people who can publish wherever they want. And the easiest way to do this is to get poems by as many famous poets as possible. They don’t even have to be very good poems, just poems that have a famous name attached to them. In the early days of Salt Hill we were glad to publish anything by a well-known poet, without regard to literary quality, although there were actually a few times when almost all of us voted to reject poems by well-known poets. Luckily, Michael Thomas always had the bigness of vision necessary to over-rule us.
One way for a young academic poet to start acquiring publication credits is to write reviews. Every classy, academic-type literary journal has a review section. Getting a review published is far less difficult than getting an actual poem published—there simply isn’t as much competition. I never wrote a review that I wasn’t able to get published. It’s a wide open market—a lot of academic creative writers shy away from writing reviews, because they think it will actually require them to spend time reading and thinking about poetry.
However, they are largely mistaken in this belief. Writing reviews that are good enough to publish in literary journals is quick and easy. When I first joined the staff at Salt Hill, I read and reviewed three books in one weekend—and I spent most of the weekend drinking bourbon, and then throwing up and holding a bag of ice to my temples. And everybody on the staff agreed that my reviews were very good—meaning that they looked like the type of reviews that might be published in any other academic literary journal.
At this point, as a service to my readers, I will explain how to write a review for a poetry book in one hour or less—and I mean a book that you have never even read before. I have used variations of this formula to write several reviews that were published in credible literary journals—and not just the one I edited. And I would say that ninety percent of the book reviews I have read in academic literary journals were also written with this one-hour or less formula; at any rate, they certainly could have been.
Step one: Start by establishing that you are an erudite and well-read critic. Open the essay with some sort of literary anecdote: “In an American Poetry Review essay, Edward Hirsh once wrote…blah, blah, blah” or “At a poetry reading, Mark Strand once remarked…blah, blah, blah” or “In his important work on the Romantic poets, The Visionary Company, the renowned critic Harold Bloom observed…blah, blah, blah. It doesn’t actually matter if the opening anecdote actually has any relationship to the poetry book you are reviewing. This opening bit of rhetorical flourish is merely to establish that you have been to graduate school, or that you were at least an undergraduate major in creative writing at some place like Sarah Lawrence.
Step two: Write: “In his/her recent collection of poetry, *insert name of book here*, poet X a. reconfirms that he or she is one of the important voices in contemporary American poetry b. establishes him/herself as one of the important voices in contemporary American poetry c. emerges as one of the future voices of American poetry.” You also might want to mention the poet’s earlier work. You needn’t be too specific—just mention an earlier book title or two (obviously you don’t need to have actually read them), so that the reader will know that you are up to date.
Step three: Turn over the book and read the blurbs by other famous poets (there is a forty percent chance that one of these blurbs will be by David St. John). Paraphrase the first blurb into your review. Now actually read through a section of the book, until you find five or six lines that seem like they might demonstrate the point being made and then quote them in the body of your review. Don’t worry, this shouldn’t take more than fifteen minutes or so—most book blurbs are so vague that you can safely follow them by quoting almost any section of the book at all, or for that matter, almost any section from any other book.
Step four: Repeat step three. If there are more than two blurbs, repeat once more.
Step five: If you have actually read the book and have any original ideas about it, this is the place to share them. By now, your readers have seen you parrot the words of at least two famous poets, so they will believe that you deserve to make one or two points of your own, provided that they are modest and not too specific. If the poet you are reviewing is not very well known, you can even offer a minor, very gentle criticism, as long as you concede that this does not diminish the over-all quality of the book.
Step six: Repeat step two.
Step seven: Repeat step one.
But what if you read a book and didn’t like it and now you want to write a negative review? It’s not impossible to get a negative book review published. I once wrote a scathing review of a book by an East Coast poet and managed to get it accepted by a literary journal published in California. But for the most part, negative reviews are rarely published. After all, the world of academic poetry and creative writing is really just a very complex web of networking and patronage—a bad review is always going to offend somebody, or at least somebody’s friend. You can’t step too far out of line before you step on somebody’s toes. Besides, there’s so much favor to be curried by writing vacuously glowing raves, why would anybody waste the time cultivating potential enemies?
But I did write and publish one viciously negative review, in the last issue of my tenure as poetry editor at Salt Hill. I felt like I had to do it, as an exercise in spiritual emancipation. The book I went after was Larry Levis’s posthumous collection, Elegy. At the time, it was the hot book in the world of Academic poetry. The American Poetry Review seemed to be publishing poems from it in every issue. Michael Thomas had even managed to secure one of the poems from the book for an earlier issue of Salt Hill, and he had also dedicated that issue to the memory of Larry Levis.
However, the book was terrible. Readers of academic poetry might remember Levis’s trademark, prose-like and entirely unrhythmic lines, and his trademark use of the typographical symbol “&” instead of the actual word “and.” He had always been a terrible poet, and his final book was especially bad, loaded down with clunky phrasing and monotonous syntax, and heavily seasoned with manipulative and sentimental pseudo-spirituality. One evening, after a graduate student reading, I was talking about how horrible it was with another poet, when two or three other student-poets chirped up to declare that they thought the book was great. Of course, when I asked them why they thought it was great, they were naturally unable to render anything like a specific answer—the best one woman was able to do was to repeat that she had found it “gorgeous.”
Normally I would have just dismissed this as yet another example of the fact that most MFA poets are incapable of independent thought. But at the time, I was also trying to decide upon a book to review for the next issue of Salt Hill. So I actually wrote a very detailed, thorough and savage review of Elegy, taking no small amount of satisfaction in the fact that I would quite possibly be the only person in America who was publicly acknowledging how terrible it was, which meant nothing less than also implying that the whole of the academic poetry world (including my own journal) was riddled with hypocrisy.
I do not want to exaggerate how big my gesture was. I was a nobody in the academic poetry world before I wrote the review, and I have remained a nobody since. And probably no more than five hundred or so people ever read my review. But I have to think that at least some of those people became very upset and irrationally offended by it, doubly so because my attack was thorough and convincing. I do know through the grapevine that there are at least a few people in the world who have heard my name only in connection to my review of Elegy, and that they think I am an asshole for writing it. For a writer like myself, a refugee from the academic poetry world, such knowledge is a comfort, cold though it may be.
During the first year after I completed my MFA in poetry, I moved back to my hometown of Portland, Maine. I got one job as an adjunct creative writing teacher at the University of Southern Maine, and another job working with developmentally disabled and autistic people. I had a manuscript ready to send out to the poetry book contests—almost all the poems in it had been through workshops, or had at least read by one or two poet-professors. I didn’t send it to any contests, though, because I was too broke. I did send out batches of my poems, sporadically, to literary journals, and got some of them accepted for publication—much more sporadically.
By my second year after graduate school, I had thrown away most of the poems I wrote during graduate school. The new poems I was writing were much better, and much more fun to write. I wrote them entirely by myself, without seeking the advice of any workshop mates or mentors. By my third year after graduate school, I had a new manuscript—one that I honestly believe deserves publication. However, I remain too broke to enter book contests, and I can no longer even imagine a time when I will not be too broke to enter them.
But in the last couple of years, I have also come to the conclusion that reading fees are a pretty absurd waste of money. In the first place, even if I am as good a poet as I think I am, my chances of winning a book contest are still statistically miniscule—in fact, if I am as good as I think I am, my chances are probably even more miniscule. And then, even if I did win, what would I actually be winning? A ticket to the disgusting world of academic politics? Suppose I should get lucky and win a major book contest. Then what? There would just be new, more heated competitions waiting for me on the other side. I’d have even more pressure to keep networking and glad-handing my way through conferences and readings. And suppose I should get lucky and win more contests and publish more and more books, always with the very best publishers. Suppose I should become a “famous” academic poet. Then what? A “dream job” teaching in an MFA workshop, having to deal with a new generation of desperate and hungry young academic poets looking to break into the PoBiz?
I decided: No thanks to all that. I will continue to send poems to literary journals that I think are carefully edited—which counts most of them out, and especially most of the more “prestigious” ones. And I will never waste my money subsidizing the book contest system, although it means I will quite likely never publish a book of poems, unless I can come up with the money to do it myself (in which case, it will not be considered a “real” book in the academic poetry world). Essentially, I have reached the conclusion that being a poet and a pursuing a career in academics is impossible. Maybe not for everybody, but certainly for me.
From time to time, another poet will ask me for advice about applying to MFA programs. I don’t recommend against it in all cases, but I do suggest extreme caution. Unless you come from a family with money and your daddy is going to cut off your allowance if you aren’t doing something “productive,” there is no way an MFA is worth paying for—and I don’t care what school it is. If you can get into a program that will give you a tuition scholarship and a stipend or TAship to scrape by on, it might be worth doing, just as a break from actually working. It does give you a lot of time to read and write. So if you are a full grown man or woman, and settled comfortably into your own skin, and you won’t mind being surrounded by a large amount of social hysteria and anxious careerism and general hypocrisy, then a Graduate Program in Creative Writing (provided they offer financial support) might be just the place for you.
DAN RESPONDS: Thanks, Briggs. All of what you say is true & your presence as a former INSIDER gives it an 'authority' (at least to academics) that I- as someone who never went to college will never be seen to have, no matter how great my poems or essays are. Chronologically- Hall is a bad poet & a hypocrite. I recall how he gave me a blunt critique of a subsidy published book I sent him. I appreciated it because it was the 1st negative comment I'd ever gotten. But that 21 year old's doggerel was still better'n anything Hall has ever written- why couldn't he see his own crap? Much less his wife's? I am torn between the posit that they are all knowledgeable game players, or total boobs. Either way it is an atrocious state of contemporary poetry. David Lehman is noted as the 'Jack Barry' of poetry- a big fixer of hierarchy 3rd behind only the detestable duo of Bloom & Vendler. That poets anywhere 'borrow' is not a crime- that they do not borrow 'good' things, nor make them better than the original is the true plaint. 'Borrowing' is the only way to learn- just borrow from a Whitman or Emanuel- not a Hall or Giovanni. I repeat the dare to you, or any other poet out there- show me a journal that in its lifetime has ever published as many good & interesting poems as are on Cosmoetica- even if you drop me & the Neglected poets. There is nothing else even remotely near it in quality! I agree if I hear another white middle class man rave on how he loves jazz I will puke. Gimme rock or the blues anyday- even most classical music. And Burns has gotten worse since The Civil War- Baseball was mediocre & Jazz terrible- please someone put Wynton Marsalis out of his misery! You are right about academic 'craft'- compare their craftings to anything I've ever written. Obviously music & enjambment are not included in their definition. However Brecht- a terrible poet- (no wonder the Krauts turned to Chuck Buk as a hero, their landsman were horrid after the War) represents the other end of the dark hall- most people have neither the poetic skill nor personal maturity to write effective political poems. On Cosmoetica compare Lyle Daggett's good 'personal' poems vs. his 'terrible' political pap- then look at my 9th Murder. 50 years ago there were about 50 journals- now 5000+, a 100-fold increase while the population has not doubled. There was not enough good poetry to fill the 50, much less 5000. So, lazy editors of course go to resumes before the poems, themselves. Plus, as you say, it's a way to connect- in their desperate desire to be 'known'. This is why Cosmoetica exists. I am free & far above that nonsense. And years from now when the current poobahs are worm food some 'young turk' publisher will 'discover' me after 30 years & I will be an 'overnight sensation'. And the folks then will, while praising my greatness & integrity, will continue to suck ass & ignore the Dan Schneiders of 2035 or 2060 or 2220. Your comment on reviews is a perfect description of all reviews- especially MN's biggest asskissing machine- Eric Lorberer's Rain Taxi- a horrid magalog I will assail soon. Once- at a Borders reading by his City Pages buddy- Josie Rawson- I asked the pudgy Eric (stuffing his face with Oreos) what he meant in his blurb about her verse doing some ethereal thing he described it did? His reply was a shrug as he kept on eating. Great point about David S. John- one of the many Dead White Davids- also including Citino, Mura (yes, he's whiter than you or I), Smith, Rivard, Etter, Wagoner, Wojahn, etc. As for the sexism- you are right on- I will name names- it is well known that 2 former 'hot' babes in the poetry world of the 1970s were Carolyn Forche & Naomi Shihab Nye (& Nye is still a very attractive woman). As for who look at the blurbs on their early books, I recall when both came to read a few years back at the Hungry Mind (now Ruminator) bookstore how several female academics- railed to colleagues (I sat behind them) how the 2 were 'sluts', 'whores', & other such names even as they groveled to the faces of these women. It is a sad state. Thanks for the confirmation.
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