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.

The Market 

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.

Alternative Lifestyles in Poetryland

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.

Quality Control

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.

A Prayer

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!

Piece originally published at Pearlblossom Highway