Friday, April 22, 2005

 

Some people have asked me why I haven’t done an in-depth piece about the outing of Foetry.Com and its subsequent demise. After all, the New York Times saw fit to do an article about the investigative website whose self-announced goal was to expose cronyism at the heart of so many poetry contests.

There have been a couple of reasons. First, too much of the discussion about Foetry.Com has been fueled by the way in which the site went about its business. Was Foetry.Com a legitimate exposé of a layer of corruption at the heart of poetry or was it just an expression of resentful paranoia? My own perception is that the situation doesn’t have to be an either/or kind of question in which one has to pick a side. Rather it feels to me more like it’s a both/and circumstance, but that unfortunately means that the two aspects of the question are inextricably linked together. Which makes it difficult, if not impossible, to have much intelligent discussion about the problem.

Further, we ought to be asking ourselves if Foetry even asked the right question. What is it about contests that is supposed to make them less subject to nepotism & other literary fixes than, say, the hiring process at any college? Or publication, especially by a trade press? Or the peer review process of an academic journal? Is taking the money from hopeful wannabes in a contest any more contemptible than taking (much more of) their money for summer writing conferences? Or what about the 400 creative writing programs that turn multiple candidates for the 15 to 20 tenure-track jobs that open up every year in the academy? What is so different about the dynamics of contests? Nothing. Nada. Zip.

A lot of people claim that poetry is non-economic, which is a statement I understand, but which I think is more false than true. Rather, it’s an economics of extreme scarcity and subjective authority, which sets it up perfectly to be a test case for the worst possible instances of human coercion and duplicity. When I was a student in the 1960s, English professors routinely slept with their students if they so chose. Everybody knew which professors had reputations for this. That level of coercion largely got cleaned up – one of second-wave feminism’s greatest feats, actually – but the underlying dynamics haven’t changed all that much. Power still corrupts. The absence of any objective test means that it gets to do so largely without checks and balances.

The flip side of all this is that the psychology of anonymity that goes into contests – and in the review of papers at some refereed journals – also strikes me as pathological. It’s the absolute inverse of the idea of poetry as community. Richard Howard giving an award year after year to graduates of the program at Columbia & nobody else is community, however much it replicates the family life of the Sopranos. I’ve actually thought for some time that “blind contests” have it all wrong. Rather than manuscripts sans names, the judges should see & review just the names, nothing but the names. At least that way people would be judged on their professional reputations and their lifetime contribution to the art.

Without a community for these awards, they mean relatively little. The Pulitzer gets publicity because it offers newspapers a chance to congratulate themselves – poets & novelists are just along for the ride there. But even something like the Yale Younger Poets award has devolved from a state where it had modest credibility once upon a time. Winning an award like that is more of an albatross than a benefit to one’s career. And some of the more recent winners have actually been among the Yale’s best, but you wouldn’t know it. A Yale winner gets less community exposure than somebody publishing a first book with the Subpress collective.

I know there are exceptions to this for the same reason that we all know that there are exceptions to this – because they stand out as exceptions. And that is the real news.





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