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 poets.Foetry.com has done all it can do in its present form. It has chiseled a small crack in the faÃ§ade 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.