Friday, September 9, 2011

Babes in Poetryland

Babes in Poetryland by Michael_Kelleher

The recent controversy over Blazevox Books’ publishing practices, by Internet standards now an ancient five days past and quickly fading from memory, brought up a lot of philosophical issues regarding small press publishing and also about what one might call the author fantasy in contemporary American culture.

The economic issues of publishing have been covered pretty thoroughly at this point, with Reb Livingston’s posts at No Tell Books providing a needed dose of economic reality to the conversation. Johannes Goranson touched on some issues regarding the author fantasy at his own blog.

Most of the posts I’ve read, especially those denouncing Blazevox and Geoffrey Gatza, fall to moralizing and are thus completely useless. Moralizers set out to delineate a set of boundaries one dare not cross and then show one after the other how the person they are denouncing has crossed them. Black and white are the colors of this world. It is a stable, unchanging place, infused with the universal values of “civilization.” Context doesn’t count. The rules, the bounds, the system and the establishment are justified a priori. It is the job of we, “the cultured,” to protect established norms.

Otherwise, well, you may have heard of the Visigoths.

But context does matter, and the context of writing and publishing poetry in early twenty-first century America is a messy one. Thus, I think it might be useful to take a look at the context out of which this particular controversy has arisen.


In Poetryland, we like to deny that economics play a part in what we do. It is easy to think this way because none of those who live here make any money from the writing of poetry. Some of us make paltry sums from giving readings or selling books at readings. Some of us make paltry sums publishing the work of others. Some of us (myself included) get paid to curate public performances of poetry. Some of us get paid to teach the writing and reading of poetry at colleges and universities. Some of us get invited to read at conferences and make a little money at that. Some of us get grants, awards, fellowships, residencies, and so on. But none of us, and by none, I mean none, gets paid for the poetry itself. It is a simple fact.

There is an equally simple reason for this state of affairs. Most people don’t read poetry (hell, most people don’t even read), and because they don’t read it, they don’t buy it. At least not very often. Because few people purchase poetry, there is no market for it. And yet there is an enormous glut of people writing and performing it. One could understand this glut if there were some monetary reward attached to it.

People don’t go to Hollywood to become artists. They go there to get rich (and famous). People don’t start rock bands so that someone will write a good review of their work in Rolling Stone. They start rock bands to become rich (and famous -- and to get laid). Despite the astronomical odds against becoming rich or famous in Hollywood or as a rock star, there is at least some infinitesimally small chance it could happen. People do become rich and famous in Hollywood. People do become rock stars.

No one gets rich off poetry.

Which means that the main driver of the poetry market glut must be fame. But fame? Really? Can you name a famous living poet? I mean really famous -- on the level of a rock star or a Hollywood celebrity? I didn’t think so. The late David Foster Wallace once said that literary celebrity in America is comparable to that of a mid-market TV weatherman. Poetry celebrity, then, must be comparable to the key grip on the mid-market weatherman’s set.

Perhaps its better to say that poets are driven to Poetryland by a desire for status of some kind. Social status, perhaps. If one teaches, perhaps professional status. I mean, what else could it be that drives us all to glut a non-existent market with a worthless product that is ultimately a drain on our financial and emotional well-being?

It’s fascinating to me that even the Poetry Foundation, with a hundred million dollars to spend and an astute businessman with a strong sense of marketing at the helm, has not been able to create an economically viable market for poetry.

This could be a great challenge to all the marketing gurus of the world: create a viable economic market for poetry books. I’d give them an unlimited budget with one caveat: if you fail, you have to foot the bill yourself. I don’t think any would take up the challenge. After all, in order to effectively market, you have to have a viable product to sell. It has to do something for the consumer.

But what does poetry do for anyone?


Let’s assume for the sake of argument that what drives people to Poetryland is a desire for some kind of status in a society that gives little if any status to poets. So what kind of status do they seek? I think the answer is status within Poetryland itself.

Who, after all, reads poetry? Answer: poets (some of them, anyhow).
Who, after all, goes to poetry readings? Answer: Poets and their friends and family.
Who teaches poetry workshops? Answer: Poets
Who hires creative writing faculty? Answer: Poets, for the most part.

So we can begin to see the outlines of Poetryland. All one need do to enter this enchanted place is call oneself a poet. But this only gets your foot in the door. It gives you very little if any status at all in Poetryland to be a poet without, say, a book--or a good teaching job. Within each of these categories -- the “published poet” and the “creative writing professor poet” -- exist sub-categories, each with their attendant level of Poetryland status points.

For instance, the lowest level on the totem pole in the “published author” category is the “self-published” author. Historically, this category was reserved for the wealthy. Books have always been expensive to produce because of high specialized labor costs and high material production costs. Additionally, these costs required high print runs which meant there were warehousing costs in addition to everything else. Over time, the pejorative term “vanity publishing” became associated with this activity. This despite the fact poets like Walt Whitman and William Blake and John Milton and many others self-published their work.

In truth, the term “vanity publishing” is reserved for those whose self-reliance did not ultimately secure the desired literary fame. We can laugh at these sad sacks the same way we laugh at actors who waste their lives doing TV commercials and walk-on roles in daytime soap operas. They’re losers. Each of us enters Poetryland for the first time certain that we will never allow ourselves to stoop to the level of the “vanity” poet. We’d rather die or -- more likely -- leave Poetryland behind than subject ourselves to that.

Wouldn’t we?

Now, one step above this level are those who start their own magazines or presses in order to self-publish. There is no word for this, but we all know what I mean. In this instance, the frustrated author creates a publishing outlet for herself, but hides this fact by also publishing others. By creating a legitimate brand for others, she at the same time provides some cover for her vanity.

Next up are those authors who blindly send their poems and manuscripts out to magazines, presses and contests for publication. These authors achieve a special status because somehow they have overcome the odds of getting published and have gotten their work out to the world by means of what could only be one thing: talent.

That’s right friends, it takes talent to get published by someone you don’t know and who doesn’t know you. Why, the very fact that they don’t know you means that they must have good taste, recognize talent when they see it, and believe heart and soul in the authors they select.

Doesn’t it?

Now, there is still some sifting to do among the “chosen” ones, and this has to do with our sense of the selectivity of the publishing outfits. A combination of legacy, history, reputation, distribution and, yes, money, gives status to the various outlets that publish poetry. The more of each of these a publisher has, the more status the denizens of Poetryland accord to the authors they select.

Those published in the appropriate venues are, quite literally, chosen.

And once they have been chosen, they qualify for other forms of Poetryland status points. These include, grants, awards, and good creative writing jobs. Now, because so many people want to enter Poetryland and only a select few can be chosen, an entire industry has arisen that allows people to pay for entry into Poetryland by way of a terminal degree program. Some of the graduates of these programs, despite not really being “chosen,” are given jobs teaching others, thus creating a sub-economy of the un-chosen who nonetheless seek and find some form of status in Poetryland, always of course with the knowledge that they are not “chosen” and thus don’t really deserve what they’ve got. For this reason, they fight for the status quo that much more forcefully. Anything that threatens the status level they have a achieved must be defended against at all costs.

(There was an interesting study published recently about voting habits. It sought to discover why poor voters would willingly vote for lower taxes for the rich. The assumption had always been that they did so because they hoped to one day be rich and therefore developed an identification with the interests of the class to which they aspired. What the study found, however, was much more base in nature. They discovered that people voted for lowering taxes on the wealthy not because they aspired to personal wealth, but because they wanted to be certain that someone else was always poorer than themselves. This, I think drives much of the status-seeking in Poetryland. We protect the status quo because it allows us to imagine someone else is below us, no matter how far down the ladder we really are. We need to imagine that people are “vanity” publishing in order to legitimize our fantasy that being “selected” blindly matters more than doing it ourselves. This, I think, is at the heart of the “vanity” publishing aspect of the Blazevox discussion. )

Meanwhile, the elect smile and generously take on occasional judging duties to help initiate a few new members into their circle, lest it die out completely or become hideously deformed through inbreeding.


The various strata and sub-strata of Poetryland outlined in the previous section delineate the values of what has been called, variously, “mainstream poetry,” “official verse culture,” “workshop poetry,” and “aesthetic conservatism.” What money does get channeled into Poetryland most often gets directed into their accounts, with a few scraps here and there thrown to alternative “voices” who manage to garner enough cultural capital outside of Poetryland (or from certain segments within it) to demand their attention. Otherwise, they remain blissfully unaware of alternative poetry lifestyles, which have no “official” status, no legitimacy, & therefore do not count.

But there is a whole history of small press culture in Poetryland that both critiques mainstream culture and offers viable alternatives to it. There are places, obviously, where the two meet, and others where they do not.

New Directions press is an alternative press fueled by a personal fortune and thus not subject to real market demands. This lack of subjection to the market allowed the press to champion modernism despite a persistent (and ongoing) backlash against work considered difficult, opaque, impolitic, or just not polite. Over time, New Directions has a achieved enough status points in Poetryland to be able to pass some of those points on to authors it chooses to publish. Or they just have a good eye for talent. That’s for you to decide.

So that is one alternative. To have a personal fortune at one’s disposal and to use it to make an aesthetic argument. Not many have such a fortune and among those that do even fewer are willing to risk it on so lowly a thing as poetry.

Another is to take the means of production into the hands of the workers, in this case the poets. If one looks at the history of the avant-garde at least since WWII, it is these alternatives, in which poets willingly become “culture workers,” which have fueled aesthetic innovation in the writing, publishing and theorizing of poetry.

The most threatening aspect of the Culture Worker model is that it calls into question aesthetic judgment. It questions the authority of the judges, the legitimacy of the presses, and the whole machinery of judgment upon which the professorial/elected class of poets depends for its livelihood.

In the case of contests, it asks, “Who are you to judge?”
In the case of presses, it asks, “Why should I respect your poets more than I respect those who self-publish?”
In the case of the machinery of judgment it asks, to mostly stunned silence, “Why judge at all?”

I once sat in on a discussion between Robert Creeley, whose Divers Press is one of the most important examples of small press publishing getting important work into the world when the mainstream would have nothing to do with it, and a non-poet English Professor at the University at Buffalo. The question of aesthetic value came up. Creeley suggested that value was created in the work, or rather, in the process of making, poesis, and in the community (or “company”) the poet/publisher built around the work (here defined as writing, aesthetics, and publishing). The professor then asked, But how are we to judge whether or not it is any good? To which Creeley responded, Who cares?

In Creeley’s mind, the process of determining aesthetic value was absolutely secondary (if not tertiary) to the work of the poet. Which was not to say that poets don’t have any base interests in their status in Poetryland, but that their job is to both write and make an argument for their work at the same time. Those who depend on presses, universities, critics, etc., to make their argument for them have no real stake in the aesthetic and political questions of their time beyond whatever “status” they might achieve by being one of the chosen or maintaining the status quo.

The Culture Worker model further threatens the image of the heroic author, in which the artist functions as a kind of celebrity or star giving off rays of light that illumine the lives of all they touch. Because of this great power of illumination, the artist should never be subject to thoughts about money, economics, administration or anything else tainted by brute necessity, lest they dull the light.

The Culture Worker model democratizes the relationship between the author and the publisher. It views them as co-conspirators. The work of selecting, editing, designing, making, marketing and distributing a book is viewed as equally important to the writing itself (and the writer himself). I have been to several small press conferences over the years and I have seen that they fall into two categories: those that value publishing and the community of artists, editors, designers and so on it creates around one or several aesthetic ideas; and those that value the status of the authors published by certain “legitimate” presses.

I am partial to the former.

At those conferences based on the Culture Worker model, we talk about books, bookmaking, fonts, stitching and sewing, editing, marketing, and the work being published or self-published by the presses. At the latter, the writers with the most status are flown in, give a quick reading and are taken to an exclusive meal before leaving town. In the other room, the small presses attempt to sell their books to no one.

There are other alternative models in Poetryland worth noting. These involve small communities of like-minded or like-born writers banding together to counteract a perceived under-representation in mainstream literary culture. Presses founded on ethnic, racial, sexual and gender identity arise all the time to make arguments for various kinds of equality in the publishing worlds. These, too, create viable alternatives to the mainstream model.

What binds all of these alternatives (many of which I’ve barely touched on) together is the fact that they value building community over building resumes. Which is not to say that there is no status-seeking within alternative culture either, just a recognition that in terms of quality of work, there is no reason to trust Norton or Penguin or Graywolf over Blazevox or Ugly Duckling or Green Integer. In fact, the opposite might be true.


What I earlier called “aesthetic conservatism” can be defined as follows. The belief that literary value is inherent in a poetic work and that there are certain specialists, be they critics, academics, editors or publishers who -- like perfumers that can sniff out not only the kinds but quantities of each aroma in a given perfume -- can sniff out literary value and compare it to the accepted or inherited (the latter suggesting also the class structure on which this concept is founded) value of all literary works, thus preserving the universal aesthetic order from one generation to the next.

I guess we want to believe this is true in much the same way we like to believe we go to heaven after we die. If only.


And so let us turn once more to our babe, the aspirant to Poetryland, naive and innocent, standing before the gates, quietly importuning the immortals:

Please, Lord, please. Smell it on ME!


tyrone said...

maybe your best post ever....

Michael Kelleher, North Haven, CT said...

From you, T, that means a lot -- thanks!

D Hadbawnik said...

i second tyrone -- everything i've wanted to say and more.

and i'm assuming we have an unborn babe to thank for your ability to churn this out? hoping that comes soon...


Chris said...

This is great, but I feel obliged to add a small quibble: Though the idea that all rock bands are formed for sex or money is way off (and more so day by day, as the likelihood of making money off rock music collapses); certainly, the scene that I was part of in Portland had a lot more in common with your poetry model than with your Hollywood model.

Michael Kelleher, North Haven, CT said...

Thanks, D. And Chris -- sounds like a great community in Portland. I just meant that for music, even in the new economy, the fantasy of being a rock star is based on something that does exist in the world, that is, Rock Stars. They do exist, are rich and famous. So, however deluded your dreams of becoming one might be, you are at least basing them on something real. In poetry, on the other hand, there is no reality principle at work. There is no real celebrity in poetry, no real fame, and certainly no wealth to be had from writing it.

Tina. said...

Wow, Mike. This is awesome!

eccolinguistics said...


Henry Gould said...

I'm a self-publisher. And I believe in what you call "aesthetic conservatism". So I guess that puts me at the bottom of both barrels.

Why do people start writing poetry? Because they like to read it, and they sense they have a talent or a vocation for it. What is "it"? According to you, there are no real standards, there is no good or bad in art & poetry. You mock the "conservative" stance as a class throwback, an inheritance, an ideology for the rich & the aristocrats. But quality is a craft thing : quality is a "worker" thing. The drive to make something perfect & beautiful is one of the main underlying motives - along with the other one you emphasize, the desire to participate in some positive communal shared social effort.

But when you scoff at aesthetic values, you undercut the whole interest in art. Why bother with it, if it's not powerful & beautiful & perfect? Why clean up & decorate your apartment? Why play the piano?

D Hadbawnik said...


i don't think mike is trying to throw away 'aesthetic values' so much as questioning who gets to set them. at least that's my reading.

Michael Kelleher, North Haven, CT said...

Henry -- I don't scoff at the desire for poetry to "beautiful, powerful and perfect." I do not deny the fact that certain poems affect me more than others, that some of them have changed my life. I just don't believe that there are objective or universal standards for perfection, power or beauty.

I don't think I can say that something you find beautiful is not objectively so, or vice-versa. I would not claim that a poem which leaves me feeling nothing but moves you powerfully has no power, but neither would I say it has 'universal' power, since it doesn't affect me.

And if you can give me an example of a perfect poem and can explain to me why it is objectively perfect, then I am all ears.

But I am not really talking about aesthetics per se in this post. I am talking about how certain assumptions about aesthetics reflect class positions that become embedded in the social hierarchies we construct in our perceptions of cultural value.

The idea, for instance, that poetry should not be tainted by economic concerns, is an aristocratic class position dating all the way back to the ancient Greeks.

Which is to say I applaud both your self-publishing and your desire for perfection, power and beauty, none of which I find incompatible with my critique.

Gloria Frym said...

Thank you for this, Michael.
Gloria Frym

Kent Johnson said...

This is a terrific post, Mike. Bravo.

Amy said...

Really nice post -- I enjoyed it a lot.

I get the feeling you were exaggerating (or simplifying) on purpose when you said that certain groups are creating certain things for certain concrete objectives (fame, fortune, status)... I've known a lot of creative people in my life, and without exception they do what they do because they are compelled to do it and because life has not conspired to make it impossible to do it. Some of them think they "should" get paid for what they make, but that's not the driving force, not the thing that made them make it, if you know what I mean.

And I'm guessing every creative person knows that.

Michael Kelleher, North Haven, CT said...

Hi Amy--I realize that many poets are driven by something other than a desire money or fame-- they have to be -- but this still does not explain why there exists such a glut of artists working in an artform with almost zero return in material benefits.

It makes sense that there are a million people trying to become famous actors because there ARE famous actors. It does not make sense for so many people to try to become poets because there are NO famous poets. At least not in this country.

Yet people go deeply into debt paying for MFA's that will not only not get them jobs, but might not ever help them get published. And even if they do get published, publication will not do anything to help them pay those grad school debts.

It's an absurd situation that cannot be explained (in my mind) by a mass-love of the art of poetry. If this mass love existed, then at least SOME poets might make a living off their writing, yet none do.

florine said...

Great post and comments. If only conversations were like this all the time.

Unknown said...

Great post. Gets backstage where we all do our business...

Mark Folse said...

A great post and great comments all. The analogy to the indie band world seems quite apt. Even jazz comes into question. Why do people go into it, when the records don't sell and you have to work like a dog playing just to scrape by? The days when someone like Louis Armstrong could become a popular figure (and yes he mixed pop with jazz but he could still play wonderfully into the 1950s).

I think the Culture Worker model is the only viable one, and it it no ways dispenses with aesthetic value, only the prevailing aesthetic value of academia. Ultimately one makes poetry and makes books of it in hope to be read, and the audience is small but as discerning as the fan of jazz. If a Culture Worker venture succeeds it is because it has found away around the economic barriers to reach an appreciative audience.

Henry Gould said...

Mike writes : "The idea, for instance, that poetry should not be tainted by economic concerns, is an aristocratic class position dating all the way back to the ancient Greeks."

I'd like to see an example of this. Ancient Greek poetry is completely suffused with awareness & knowingness about power relations, politics and economics : Hesiod, Homer, Sophocles.... & these are the relatively UN-polemical ones.

No one was more political than the Greek poets... unless it was the Hebrew ones.

You don't know much about the radical character of poetry, because you are too busy trying to make it "political"... old Marvell, Milton & Shakespeare were more political than you will ever be, sorry. Read it & weep.

Michael Kelleher, North Haven, CT said...

Henry, I think you are misreading "economic" for "political." Again, I am not talking about the content of poetry or its role in society. I am talking about the state of power relations within the poetry world and how certain attitudes toward labor and money reflect the values of the upper classes, an attitude which dates back to the ancient Greeks.

shanna said...

"this still does not explain why there exists such a glut of artists working in an artform with almost zero return in material benefits"

My husband supposes that people who might otherwise want to be famous for something else come to poetry because of the art forms it is the easiest to pretend: There's no equipment or materials needed that are not fairly common (pen/paper at minimum, vs. visual art or music where paints/canvas or instruments/amps must be purchased). Poetry's basic vocabulary is language, which most people have the benefit of knowing (vs. muscial scales or music reading skills, or grasp of perspective and color theory, etc.). And, poems are shorter than short stories, essays, or novels.

Poems, in other words, are the easiest thing to fake. If you want to be a lead singer, but can't sing or play an instrument, poetry. If you want to be a writer but can't write great sentences and paragraphs, poetry.

He can say this because he's not a poet, I guess. (And he doesn't mean Poetry is deficient or many of its participants actually good!)

Combine this theory with the (now obvious) fact that a lot of people writing/publishing/hoping to publish poetry *don't seem to actually know* that there are so few material benefits like fame & moolah.

Michael Kelleher, North Haven, CT said...


I think your husband has a point. I have theorized as much myself, though not as thoroughly. I would add that the invisibility of the poetry world to most people makes it seem like a place with a low-level of competition. It looks like a place where anyone can succeed, even if only on a modest, local scale. As your husband says, it is easy to fake it, and from an outsider's perspective it looks like the competition can't be too great. Following the market logic of my post, a logical person might conclude that an invisible artform with almost no readership must have a very low bar for entry and a pretty lax system of merit.

I too am amazed at so many commenters' amazement that poetry books sell so few copies. I think this speaks to the enormous lies people are told (at least implicitly) in MFA programs. There needs to appear some material benefit to getting an MFA, otherwise why would you go into $50K or more of debt to get one? Most MFA programs are university cash cows that depend for their finances on maintaining this fiction. If people knew there was no money, no fame, and almost no employment to be gained by getting an MFA, more would likely do something else.

And like students in Humanities PhD programs, everyone tells themselves that they are only doing what they do for the love of thing itself, not for money or glory or whatever. Most assume that they will be one of the increasingly few who get jobs or whatever else, and the universities do little to dissuade them from their delusions, despite knowing full well that the odds of even getting a full-time job with benefits are approaching astronomical proportions.

D Hadbawnik said...

scroll down to gallery 3, tom orange's essay, "thoughts on poetries of the long now" -- he talks about a lot of these same issues.

Philip Thrift said...

This is a great post (I got here via @PoetryFound) and covers a lot of ground. There is one thing that doesn't make sense to me, and it has to do with what is meant by "being published". For example, I went to one of the publishers you mentioned (BlazeVOX) and looked at an intersting poetry book, but saw it was not available as an ebook -- either Kindle-mobi or Nook-epub. That means I wouldn't buy it. (On Amazon it was not available there either for Kindle.) Print is moving to e- so fast these days, but it seems poets (maybe more than other writers?) are oblivious to this. Bothering with print books may soon be a thing of the past.

Michael Kelleher, North Haven, CT said...

Phillip -- Blazevox is in the process of putting most of its books into e-book form. One of my own is now an e-book, the other is not. Blazevox is way ahead of the curve in that respect, but it is time consuming to re-format all the books in their catalog, not to mention get the approval of the authors t do so. It's basically like doing the book all over again. In time, I think you should see all of them made available.

Lacey Pruitt said...

This is the smartest argument on the debate I have read yet.

sherry said...

Great post, Michael, thanks!

Anonymous said...

In many ways, the poetry scene is similar to the DIY indie music scene in Brooklyn, or Austin, or Portland. It is a scene that is collective and non-competitive in the sense that the complete lack of a viable market tables the need for competition. People consume shows and seven inches at a startling rate, but everyone still has a day job to pay the rent. So, deceptively, it takes on the appearance of a community. But non-competitive does not equal nurturing. And increasingly, the idea of an artists' community seems like an archaism. Though baseline enjoyable, what is produced by the Brooklyn DIY scene is largely amateurish, dilettantish, lacking in professional polish. I suspect the situation is similar in 'Poetryland.' And so, the idea of writing poetry increasingly becomes a mode of magical thinking—a shield from the practical concerns of the world. Just as self-expression at all costs has supplanted technical competence (i.e. earned self expression) as the 'purpose' of individual human existence (and thereby generated a glut of mediocre, morally-unaccountable self-appointed artists running amok), calling oneself an 'artist' or 'poet' these days is largely no more than shirking personal responsibility and spitefully consigning oneself to self-imposed poverty. It isn't aesthetic value that matters in art, but the underlying ethics.

Rosemary Nissen-Wade said...

And nowhere any mention of vocation!

Michael Kelleher, North Haven, CT said...

Many poets write out of a sense of vocation, but that's not what I am writing about here. I am talking about the MFA industry in the U.S., which hoovers up thousands of borrowed dollars a year from would-be poets with the promise of a place in the poetry world. Meanwhile, there is no place for them there because there is not market for their work. They can't make a dime, yet the are willing to go deeply into debt with the hope of gaining something. If it were about following their vocations, the MFA industry in the U.S. would quickly die.

et said...

Wow, I had somehow missed all this until the NEA thing of today. Love your posts on this, thank you! And don't forget Gertrude Stein, self-published! xox Have a great day.

Mary Kasimor said...

I am getting into this after the fact, but I want make a comment. I will continue writing poetry, regardless of why. I think that poets write because they love to write and they love poetry. There could be no other reason. It is also quite nice when someone responds positively to a poem or a book. It's tough when no one wants to publish a poem that the hardworking poet has put her love, passion, word skills, etc. into; however, it's art and art is somewhat subjective. I feel very fortunate to be writing poetry and remembering the ego thing because it can really destroy a person. I feel like a phoenix who keeps rising from the ashes. I guess in order to be a poet, a person has to be touch. That's all I want to say. (Oh yes--am reading Anne Carson, and her poetry is so wonderful!)

Mary Kasimor said...

I meant to say "tough."