Tuesday, March 17, 2009

 


Seth Abramson

The other day, when I wrote about Marjorie Perloff, anthologies & critical assumptions in a changing context for writing, Seth Abramson responded with the following comment:

Hi Ron,

You really need to revisit that "10,000 publishing poets in the U.S." figure. I know you've used it before, and believe in it, but honestly – given that 10,000 poets have graduated from MFA or Ph.D. in Creative Writing programs in just the past five years – there is absolutely no possibility of it being correct. Likewise, if you consider the number of print and online poetry journals in operation being close to 1,000 (or perhaps over it), and each publishing several dozen (or many more) poets per year, it becomes clear that the number of publishing poets is around 50,000. If by "publishing" you mean only poets with collections, I think that's an incredibly (with all due respect) wrong-headed way to look at how poets publish poetry. Those without books deserve to be counted, lest we – and I won't dwell too much on the fact of it being you doing this – seriously, seriously underestimate the breadth and depth of the poetry community.

Be well,
Seth

Seth’s note made me happy, because (a) I already see people all but faint when I make the claim that there are 10,000 publishing poets in the U.S. and (b) I concluded some months ago that my estimate was low – my only real question is how low. I came to my conclusion working from the fact that my blogroll has swollen to over 1,000 names – and is becoming less & less complete all the time – when I know full well that less than one in ten poets currently has an active blog that discusses poetics (indeed, this would still be true even if I included all the poets who have blogs that only print their own poems, or simply quote poems that they like, two groups I generally do not include here because I don’t see them as furthering discussion between poets, which has always been my primary goal).¹

And I’ve also thought about the ongoing impact of creative writing programs. I don’t think these programs create any poets whatsoever, tho they may encourage more people who write poetry to try & publish who otherwise might not do so. So in that sense they do add to the total. However, when I think through the numbers, I don’t get a figure like 10,000 poets having graduated over the past five years. I don’t know what percentage of the creative writing programs offer graduate degrees, but last I noted there were still somewhat under 500 such programs in the U.S. Being graduate education, these are not huge departments: on average, how many students matriculate from one in any given year. 20? I think the actual average is closer to half that. And at least half of those graduates are focusing on other, more remunerative genres, from fiction to drama or screenwriting to the “creative essay.” So you would need 500 programs graduating 40 students every year each to yield 10,000 poets over a five year period. There is no way this is happening.

Further – and this is the other key dynamic here – what percentage of recent MFAs publish in their first year or two after graduation? Not just books, but anything. The figure is well under 100 percent. More important, what percentage of them are still trying to publish five, ten years post graduation? I would argue that this number dwindles fairly quickly. The gap between college, where you have a ready context for your writing, and the “real world” where you have to make one up, especially if you don’t already happen to live in New York or San Francisco, is the largest single barrier young poets tend to confront, tho having children has a pretty significant impact as well. Those MFA grads who get at least marginally decent teaching jobs – 50 to 60 a year manage that feat – may be professionally goaded into publishing just to keep their positions and move toward tenure. But I’ll wager that the percentage of MFAs that never get a teaching gig who are still publishing five years after graduation is under 50 percent. In practice, this means that we would need 500 schools graduating between 60 & 80 students per year to reach something like 10,000 new poets to add to those already publishing. How you then get from that to 50,000 I can’t begin to imagine.

Now I’m aware that the number of people in the United States who actually write poetry must easily exceed that higher figure. You could persuade me that it exceeds one million, just based on my experiences running a community writers workshop in San Francisco’s Tenderloin. During any given year that I ran that workshop (1979-1981), we had roughly two percent of the adult population of that inner city community show up, half of whom were writing poetry. Spread out over the entire nation, such a percentage would get you to seven digits, but there are reasons why the Tenderloin might well be (or at least have been) a disproportionately writerly population. And the number of poets there who were actively trying to publish was barely in double figures.

All of which is to say that I don’t think 50,000 passes the “smell test” – it just doesn’t sit right. But I do agree with Abramson when he suggests that 10,000 increasingly doesn’t pass it either. An actual figure, which would take an enormous amount of labor (and fairly significant cost) to track down – and which would then be instantly obsolete – falls somewhere in between.

 

¹ Where it might exceed the one-in-ten threshold would be if we also added in the most numerous of all categories: Dead Blogs. Including those embryonic ones that never get past the third or fourth post. But since Lynn Behrendt has been helping me with the blogroll, we’ve been diligent about getting Dead Blogs off that list.

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