VerseDay: The futility of unconventional poetry

I’m a poet. Whether I’m a good one or a bad one is, I suppose, open to debate. But the fundamental fact of my life and career is that the business activities that define my professional existence these days are Plan C, at best. If the world worked the way I wish it did, I’d make my living writing, publishing and teaching poetry. (And ideally, I’d be earning a living wage.)

I thought I was on this track back in the late 1980s, when I entered the Masters program in English at Iowa State University (that’s Iowa State, not the Writer’s Workshop over in Iowa City). During those two years I immersed myself in writing and produced The Rainwater Chronicles, a pretty decent book for a 20-something student. I was on my way. I thought.

But then something happened. I submitted to a lot of journals, but most of my work got rejected. I’d look at the poems that those magazines accepted instead of mine and shake my head – all I saw was an indistinguishable mass of sameness. I’m convinced you could have stripped the names off all the poems in an issue of Poetry, set them before a studied reader, and that reader would have had no hope at all of discovering which were written by different writers. In some cases he or she might have come away thinking it was all by the same writer.

And that writer would no doubt have been an award-winning product of the aforementioned Iowa Writer’s Workshop, which has become something like our national academy – a sanctioning body of style that subtly, but thoroughly, decides what is and is not acceptable literature. I don’t want to paint too broadly, because it’s a program that has produced some remarkable talents, including Charles Wright, whom I regard as the greatest living American poet. But the collective effect of the program has been to establish a robust old-boy network and to homogenize style.

Was all of my work better than what they were publishing? Of course not. Was some of it? Even looking back 15 years later with a more critical eye toward my own work, I think so.

In this environment, you have precious little chance of succeeding on any scale if your work is different. And mine, for better or worse, was different. Whereas the mode of the day is minimalist, tightly focused, mundane and “controlled” (always hated that damned word as it’s applied in writing workshops – others would get all steamy over the control while I regarded the limp, passionless slab of white bread on the page and tried to figure out what exactly there was that needed controlling) my work used way too many words (by the reckoning of the jurors) and was ambitious in its attempt, even apocalyptic. I might fail, but I always preferred the grand failure to the small success.

If you want to argue that it’s my own damned fault for refusing to play by a fairly obvious set of rules, fair enough. That’s a factual criticism, even if it’s a bit on the aesthetically unsatisfying side.

So I walked away. Said fuck it to the whole corrupt game. I kept writing, but I didn’t submit anything for probably 15 years. Then a couple years ago I decided to have another go, only to learn that not much had changed. The Internet afforded a world of new and less conventional outlets, which was great, but the establishment remained what it had been. And regardless of what I thought about the credibility of these new forums, there’s not a search or tenure committee in America that’s going to give a fair shake to an online journal.

As it turns out, the establishment was perhaps even more corrupt than I’d imagined. An online watchdog site called Foetry had declared war against the poetry business, targeting the old-boy net and rigged competitions with a vengeance. Foetry was run by an anonymous source who seemed pretty informed, and the insider response was predictably vicious.

As of May 18, Foetry has closed its doors.

We believe we have made an impact on the PoBiz and helped bring some much needed attention to the fraud, favor-trading, and corruption that have led to the marginalization and commodification of American poetry and the homogenization of its has done all it can do in its present form. It has chiseled a small crack in the façade of the academic poetry industry, and allowed people to peer in on the poet-making machinery. What we saw was almost universally dissatisfying. But we were not all of one mind regarding what to do about this dissatisfaction. We, as poets, had never dealt with issues of ethics, activism, and philosophy before . . . not within our own little space of ambitions and inspirations and pecking orders. Not within our own tribe.

A new forum, Post Foetry, has emerged in its wake. It appears to be carrying on Foetry’s mission to out “known and suspected contest cheaters” and promote open and fair contests.

I can’t speak to the specifics of who is and isn’t clean, but as a guy who felt compelled to abandon his career dream because he couldn’t hack his way into the inner circle without selling out his artistic vision, I wholeheartedly support these goals.

So, since it’s never likely to see publication in a real journal, let me offer you a chance to read “Archipelago,” a long poem about the suicide of a friend.

And since Verseday is a community participation feature, I’d love to hear from you about your favorite poets who don’t quite (or didn’t, if they’re now dead) fit with the conventions of their time.

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30 replies »

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  2. One always winds up sounding such a whinger, “I’m a misunderstood artist, no-one wants to buy my work, they’re all philistines and corrupt!” But, yeah, I hear you. And I know how it feels.

  3. I’m more than aware of how my comments might be read. And if people haven’t read me and concluded that maybe I AM worth the time, that’s exactly how it’s going to come off. So I try to be honest about it and admit that maybe I’m a little biased. And then I hope they read the piece I attached, so at least their opinions of me are informed. I can certainly deal with that – if there are fair criticisms of my writing, I’m a big boy and hopefully what people say will make me better.

    The problem is that the system keeps that from happening because it keeps me from being read. THAT’S the problem….

  4. Hi,
    It was so fine to meat the fellows. My destiny looks quite similar to yours in spite of the fact I am not a poet. My profession is the application of the poetry to daily walk – I am looking through the window and the street recall the mirror.

  5. yeah, readership is pretty much what its about. and this article didn’t sound like whining to me at all. it’s a reality. so there’s an alternative, a vibrant “underground” of poetry, each journal having their readership of several hundred, and many not wanting to republish something that’s been published elsewhere. so every poem labored over by a writer needs to be laboriously shopped around for a venue – all for the grand reward (maybe) of a contributers copy. or for a few readers to lay their eyes on a poem you’re proud of, that you feel is a well-crafted piece of artistic expression. and the big ‘legitimate’ pubs? tough to get something out of the ordinary past the interns and on to the editors is what I suspect. thousands of submissions to sort through. so maybe it becomes (or seems like) a brown-nosed world of connections and conformity that many poets, by their very nature, are repulsed by. And yeah, probably a lot of poems that don’t get published are crummy poems. but maybe plenty just don’t follow the party line of poetical correctness (what’s Ron Silliman call it, the “school of quietude” or something?), or don’t have the right name to get past the initial screening. Or maybe they just don’t fit the vision of the journal. Who knows for sure? Every year I make sure I get something sent out to one of the big ones – currently I’m waiting on the Paris Review – but, frankly, I’m better off spending my efforts submitting stuff to the independant press. I can live with that, and not only be happy, but grateful for the poetry-loving efforts of each of those editors. But make an actual living at poetry? that’s a long shot.

  6. Thanks for the thoughts, Jim. You’re this Jim Benz, right? Very nice piece of work that.

    To some extent you and I are free from the demands of the poetry life, I guess. I’d like lots of acclaim (heck, I want to do arena tours), but I don’t need it professionally. I can pub with the places you describe and it doesn’t hurt my career. But if I wanted to be a poetry professor, it would hurt me a great deal, because even the most brilliant of the new outlets aren’t regarded with the same credibility that the Paris Review is.

    So being on the outside is liberating in many ways, and that liberation is probably why so much of our best poetry is to be found in small online pubs instead of the biggies. But at the same time, it’s a shame we have to choose….

  7. I ache for criticism and analysis of my writing because I want to be good at it. So I started writing for practice on a blog and searching for other self-publishing venues via the internet. Still, I haven’t even tried to formally submit anything to a venue that would be considered exposure. I haven’t because of a complete lack of confidence stemming from a lack of structured education (and acceptance or even application to the formal ranks) in the field; I haven’t tried to penetrate the wall, but I can sense it from beyond the moat without even seeing it. The ivory tower is always visible, though.

    So even the artistic expression in itself seeks readership. There is some gratification from just the expression, but it doesn’t come to full fruition until read critically and responded to.

  8. Right – the thing we sometimes lose sight of is that poetry is communication, and that means it needs a receiver or two. There is a speaker seeking a connection and a message that wants to be heard.

    I have no objections to filtering and gatekeeping and certifying functions in principle – not all writing is equally good and it’s a necessary thing for us to promote that which is best.

    But those functions have to respond to artistic and aesthetic criteria. Art is central to our ability to understand and critique the political, social and cultural order, and when it begins reproducing those same dynamics and responding to power, privilege and connections that have nothing to do with merit, it loses all of its value.

  9. well, it doesn’t lose all its value – as you said in the essay, much excellent poetry is written within the limited scope of the established heirarchy, but the door seems to be shut to work that doesn’t fit the narrow scheme of ‘quality’ being espoused. I just think this is typical of any discipline, particularly in a large population. I don’t like it though. At a poetry reading last night, I had a meltdown at the mic – because the readings were held in a coffeehouse that shared space with the heirarchy of the writing elite in this city, and the people who came downstairs from their own activities felt some need to talk very loudly, making it not only impossible to follow what was being read by other readers, but also very difficult to read your own stuff. All the frustration you speak of came out of me in one snide sarcastic angry diatribe, and I embarrassed myself horribly. Because I get pissed off at this stuff. That’s why I was glad to see what you’d written Sam.

  10. Running on Empty

    (how does this happen?)

    and every day
    for the last several permutations, I am

    the embodiment
    of emptiness, a multi-dimensional
    emptiness, a reduction

    of excess
    into dubious song, unsung
    on dimensions of bliss.

    (I put string theory to shame.)

    today, as I’ve long
    suspected, I might
    curl up and disappear,

    or I might stumble
    into an unmentionable zone
    of perhaps, or instead

    I might go outside
    and wander aimlessly, blinded
    by the light of day.

    (yeah, blinded.)

    I think I’m on the verge
    of discovering a new realism
    of invisible dimension

    in my black heart, a dimension
    of the aimless quandary,
    inherently amiss.

    Indeed, today I’m on the cusp
    of charting new trajectories
    to the absolute

    (freezing point)

    of worthlessness. in time,
    I’ll make time stand still
    and pay attention

    while I stumble
    into a drive-by shooting
    or a lake or oncoming traffic or

    perhaps I’ll just keep on
    until my feet give out.

    (incidentally, walking is heaven.)

    so, now I propose
    that everyone should walk more
    and care less.

    further, I have come
    to the conclusion that poetry
    is for the birds.

    unfortunately, there are
    very few birds who edit reputable
    journals or even read.

    (they sing very nicely though.)

  11. Don’t be embarrassed about the outburst. I’m embarrassed that I haven’t had a meltdown like this. Although with me, it’s probably going to be at a concert when I finally snap off.

    People should have the basic manners to know when to shut up. If they don’t, the next best thing is for them to shut up because they’re afraid to open their mouths…. 🙂

  12. Rapid growth of comments shows that your talking was not in vain. Congratulations. You have received the readership.
    Each poet dreams to see his heart in hard covers, but that’s a lot that depends on lots of circumstances.
    My book wasn

  13. No doubt, Tomas, and I try to keep in mind that there are great poets who went undiscovered until later in life, or even in the case of somebody like Gerard manly Hopkins, after their deaths.

  14. Sam, Jim, Darrell, et. al.,I’m a fiction writer rather than a poet, but I understand your frustration with the corrupt system that is “literary” publishing (as for “trade” publishing, that’s so hopeless an area I won’t waste my time). I’ve published two novels and any number of short stories, many on-line because I can’t play the game of trying to please interns at traditional lit mags any more.

    I burned out on that about 1995 after 20 years of trying to please the club. And it is a club. You’re either in that club or you’re not. I trained at SUNY-Albany under award winners (AWP guys and other insiders) and opted out of the club while there despite pleading and warnings from my profs that I must try to fit their mold. It took me many years to get my work out. But get it out I did. I’m part of that underground that Jim Benz talks about, and I even get asked to submit pieces for e-journals occasionally now. One of those pieces was a diatribe against the university writing program club published in

    I encourage all of you to pursue your writing. If enough of us keep at it, we’ll eventually create a tipping point against the corruption and protege patronage in literary circles.

  15. I’m still rather new at this blog thing, but wanted to respond to something “Pint of Stout” posted above, i.e., “I haven

  16. It’s all happening at live venues anyway — slams and open mikes. That’s where the lifeblood of poetry is flowing these days.

    And that’s where poets are getting their biggest audiences.

    Let the academic poets stay in their closed circle. The best of them only sell about 143 copies of their books. I don’t even think they read each other unless forced to in order to get their MFAs.

    Meanwhile, thanks, Jim Benz, for your worthy additions to S&R.

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  18. Russ: not to stir something up here, but slams aren’t necessarily a solution. They’re popular and are driving interest, for sure, and that’s a great thing. And it is a style that produce some great work.

    But it’s almost more like hip-hop than poetry, and a lot of great poetry simply isn’t built for that environment. If I were doing one of those I probably have three or four that would work, but most of my stuff? No way.

    So while I’m glad writers whose work leans in that direction have an outlet, I wish there were an equally vibrant demand for what I do.

    And your comments also point up something else. You use the term “academic” – a lot of the best work I see is neither academic (which isn’t a bad way of describing the Iowa crowd) nor “slam.” Hell, I have no idea WHAT you’d call my work. I guess as long as you aren’t calling it “crap” I’m okay, huh? 🙂

  19. D: “Archipelago” is unlike anything I’ve written, and really, it’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen. If somebody were to say that it wasn’t even poetry, I might have a hard time arguing. There’s poetry in it, but I think the reason you feel so much authenticity in it is because what you’re reading are the real words. The people I’m talking with are actual friends, and those e-mails are the actual e-mails. That’s the real suicide letter (translated) and the real newspaper notice. Some of the dramatization stuff is built around things people said to me, as well, although most of that stuff is in fact original. But the use of the theater metaphor made sense because that’s what Lars was really into – acting, writing, etc. And also because of that Scandinavian art and theater tradition – Strindberg fits perfectly, Munch….

    So maybe there’s so much non-original stuff in it that it isn’t poetry. But your reaction tells me that it accomplishes what it set out to accomplish. I can tell you that it’s still all I can do to read it without crying – for some reason, that suicide hit me in a place I never even knew existed until that e-mail arrived.

    It’s obviously really different, but I see what you mean about the Hip song, as well. They’ve always been a whole lot smarter than your average band, and I think this illustrates why their fans are so loyal to them.

    I’ve thought about the potential for adapting “Archipelago” into a play or screenplay, but I wonder if I’m capable of doing that without losing the edge – it seems that it’s the performance metaphor that makes it powerful, and if it’s adapted for actual performance, that metaphor goes away, right?

    As for your band, don’t give up – maybe someday you’ll start writing songs that are tender and meaningful, too….. 🙂

  20. Jim et al, this is part of the reason I haven’t published my own short stories. Sam’s the one person besides me who’s even seen one (he graciously consented to help me edit the sucker), and it took me a while to gather up the courage for me to shoot it off to him. Even my wife hasn’t read my first story (she’s had the chance but not the interest – it’s a cyberpunk setting and that’s not her thing). I’m outright terrified of submitting something that I poured hundreds or thousands of hours into over a decade plus and being told “You suck, go away, never bother me with your blather ever again.” Given the fact that my first story or two won’t make me anything anyway, I’m starting to consider publishing a story or two on my own website for free, just to see if it grabs any interest and to see if my writing is good enough to put myself through the stress of a real submission.

    When I say in my profile that my passion is writing, I’m not kidding in any way – I just can’t afford to live on my writing. Writing full time (fiction or non-fiction) just won’t pay the bills without a massive following willing to pay for my stories.

  21. well, it really doesn’t hurt that much to get your work rejected – once you get used to it. and nobody will really tell you

  22. Thanks for the kind words, Jim. I kinda felt like it was a good poem, to the extent that it was a poem at all, but given length and format and the fact that it’s so different, I don’t have a lot of hope for publication. I’ll check into Conduit, though – sounds interesting, and I’m always looking for people who get it.

    I’m not sure if there is an open mic around here, but if there is I should find it. I do love doing readings, but haven’t done one in a long time.

    Hope you check back for more of our verse days….

  23. Hi Sam– I hear what you’re saying. When I first decided to get serious about getting published (approx 1 1/2 years ago) went to Powell’s Books and to the county library (I live in Portland, OR) and speed-read through all the poetry journals I could get my hands on. It was like drinking sewage out of a fire-hose.

    Since then I’ve been working my way up through various online zines and refining my submission strategies for paper ones– I do mostly formal poetry, so I’ve aimed for The Lyric and Measure. It’ll never get me anything that counts as a “professional” credential, but so what– I already have a day job that I like and that pays well. (And I do appreciate that that makes me one of the rare and lucky ones.)

    I’m not fond of open mics and slams, for all the reasons cited above, but I have really enjoyed doing readings at local coffeeshops and so forth. I did it monthly for most of a year and then had to quit due to some health problems. Now that those are resolved I need to get myself back into it.

    I did like “Archipelago”, tho I agree that it might work better as an actual stage or multi-media type presentation than as text. You might explore converting it into multi-media and see if you can find a place to present it online.

  24. Part of me is afraid to try adapting it. I think part of why it works is because of the unexpected stage motif – it’s unconventional and jarring as a result – and I wonder if it would have the same impact if it were transposed into an actual stage work.

    Don’t think I haven’t thought about it, though….

  25. The fact is, there are far too many people who think they can write, enormous amounts of reasonably good writing given away for free over the internet, and very few people who are willing to pay for it. Under those circumstances the chances of a poet earning a living from his/her work is exactly the same as it has always been, miniscule. Not that it matters,