Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Who are the capitalists? Who extracts surplus value from us? Poets with tenure? Poets who publish with the large commercial presses, or even university presses? The "big" critics and book reviewers? Or is it the universities that swell the ranks of the adjuncts? The publishers who manufacture prestige for themselves through the loss leader of poetry? The foundations and nonprofits? Put another way: with whom would we poets collectively bargain? Who would we hurt with a strike? What would such a strike look like?

I have a fantasy of the stable of "name" poets at, say, Knopf or FSG banding together and demanding a more open review and publication policy. But is that just more feudalism? Noblesse oblige?

Poets manufacture poetry. Critics, editors, and academics manufacture attention. Which is the scarcer commodity?

Attention must be paid for.

Or less a union than a mutual aid society. If the members of such a society tithed some portion of their incomes they could perhaps make healthcare available at a discounted rate. General financial assistance, etc. PLUS collective bargaining where it counts.

At the very least: more ad hoc magazines, more ad hoc presses. More blogs devoted to reviewing small press work. More Subpresses.

The traditions of collective action in this country are extremely weak. Perhaps nowhere weaker than in the arts. But if poets—cultural workers, vision manufacturers—cannot imagine a meaningful collectivity, who can?


Simon said...

Who will put the bell on the cat?

There is the Freelancer's Union, which does provide health care bargining; but then, of course, I'm not sure if poets would even qualify for that, since how many get paid to write? Meanwhile, poets in the University like you and I get pretty good health care (if not, unionize!)

In the meantime, the state of collectivity in poetry seems healthy to me. I think CA Conrad was right when he went all gooey over the way in which poets are increasingly seeing each other's successes as boons and not problems.

Start a journal!

Anne Boyer said...

I have much to say, and blogger is all fouled up, so quickly: The Industrial Areas Foundation could be a useful model for poet organizing in that labor organizing strategies were applied to communities that weren't centered on employment. A poet's union (like an IAF group) could use all the tools of the labor movement without the traditional set up of having us all doing the same paid work. At first in IAF organizing, impatient folks don't get it -- they ask "why are we organizing? what are we asking for? who from?" But eventually, the _importance_ of affinity group building, sharing education and tools, and creating a fairly permanent structure for action becomes evident.


shanna said...

the authors' guild also provides group coverage for "published authors.' oh, there's that "must have book to count" problem again. but still.

as far as healthcare goes tho, i'd rather see universal healthcare countrywide (guessing i'm not alone there). but i'm right with you all on the rest. tony tost's notes on internet publishing and all the diy stuff, print on demand, more preses, more magazines started by Just Anybody, yes and more yes. it's really more of an attitude shift on the part of anne's peasants in ermine that'll help.

Jon Frankel said...

Are you all hallucinating? You're poets. Your labor isn't alienated. You are. Poets produce no wealth. Poets don't like each other. Poets organisations are like mayflies. Without producing wealth you have no more leverage than a WalMart worker, probably less. If every poet stopped writing tomorrow, there'd be ten thousand unhappy people in America, and fifty thousand idle poets.
Meanwhile, the whole country, the whole world labors for a pittance. You want to organize a strike? How about writing beautiful useless poetry in the morning, and bombing WalMart in the afternoon? And for all you poets out there with university jobs, what are you whining about? Not since Chaucer has a generation of poets enjoyed such privelege.
A poet is a holdover. We are priveleged just to have the calling of the muse. It takes no time to write a poem. You can be a garbage man, unemployed, a stripper, a plumber, a library worker, a donut maker. All you need is a pencil and a napkin. All you need is a mind and a body.

Henry Gould said...

I agree with Jon Frankel. The prospect of a writer's union frightens me, and there's some historical basis for that emotion (cf. Soviet Russia & other statist societies).

What has always intrigued me is the anomalous position of poetry & poetry-making in regard to the market. I think there's more social value in emphasizing that contrast, rather than trying to simulate a labor/capital relationship - which relationship is a core element of economic-market systems generally.

shanna said...

we are not talking about money, really. josh very clearly stated that we are talking (mostly) about cultural capital and attention as currency (among other things).

the idea that the poet is a holdover and that poets must so rudely jockey for so little are the very things that we would like to ponder. we ain't digging it, as much as we do like writing our useless beauties, and even enjoy the freedom of them being useless. we have pretty well figured out why, but now we want to think about what to do, what's next.

poets don't *have* to be commercials or wage-earning laborers (though yes, they gotta work at something extracurricular to eat) to be "valuable" do they? henry's "social value" and "contrast to the market" is another way to talk about the same thing. right?

most importantly, some of us do genuinely like each other, both personally and in the abstract. in this sense we are collective. and in thinking/talking, we are bargaining.

Nick Piombino said...

Go, Josh! It's rare and uplifting to have an "emerging" poet call for mutual solidarity and support. And on his blog, no less. Many poets,it seems, need at least "fake fights" to keep things interesting. Are they mostly guys? I don't know, but your post gave me much to think about.

Henry Gould said...

Every day one can GIVE solidarity & support to others. It's when people "call" for it, theorize about it, organize mass functions for it, pat each other on the back about it, etc., etc., that my Baloney Radioactivity counter starts beeping.

Not that such support cannot ever take vast & highly-organized forms, or that we shouldn't think creatively about these issues, as Shanna suggests.

But I think expressing reservations or making distinctions between artistic activity, on the one hand, and collective bargaining for social rewards, on the other, is a legitimate contribution to this discussion, pace Nick Piombino.

Anne Boyer said...

"Poets don't like each other" Huh? Since when? This is wild / historically inaccurate / presently inaccurate / surely more reflective of certain unfounded romantic masculinist notions or, well, a personal pathology than any reality I'm familiar with. I happen to like other poets just fine -- love some of them, and see the value in collaboration/ collective action / conversation, etc.

The social function of poetry -- is, well, the social function of poetry: I think it is a very good idea to use worker models of organizing to nurture this social function rather than institutional/boss models (like AWP). I'll say again IAF is a great model because it is not about labor-capital relations, but social organizing using the strategies learned in the labor movement -- but any of the new generation organizing (post WTO stuff) could be applied here. I can't imagine a poet's "union" functioning too much like a labor union in terms of getting material results (we are talking about the non-material here, clearly), but in the name / affiliation and in organizing strategies, I would hope it could learn a lot from, well, mostly the UE.

I had that fantasy already, am glad to see others have it too -- a politically committed, collective organization which exists in alternative to the AWP. I think as poetry is increasingly de- institutionalized due to scarcity of academic jobs, a non-academic organization is perfect: it also gives some idea of cultural value to poetry as a whole, and creates a new space for it outside the english dept. I think those who are clinging to the idea of extreme individualism in poetry are, well, themselves hallucinating. If anything marks this post-millenial generation of poets, at least the ones I truck with, it seems to be this shared urge to make poetry but also the urge to work together and refrain from acting like ass.

Henry Gould said...

I'll take my hallucinations any day.

Don't forget to give yourselves ranks, i.d. numbers & color-coded uniforms.

Anne Boyer said...

Henry, I'm trying to figure out why you think that a labor-based-model of social organizing would be particularly invested in ranks, uniforms, numbers, etc. Do you have a reason for this, or are you just committed to being an ass?

When I talk about post-WTO affinity group organizing strategies, I'm referring particularly to lateral structures: certainly the Internet provides one such model of this kind of lateral social formation, and in my experience with communty organizing, affinity group models _feel_ natural, take advantage of exisiting social structures, are far more fruitful than top-down institutions.

The Academic model is the one with ranks & uniforms, Gould: tweed jacket, tenure, latte.


Jon Frankel said...

Can you define what a romantic masculinist is? and would your organisation allow romantic masculinists in it? How about poets from the dreaded SOQ? Could Billy Collins be a member? Are there any other thought crimes that should be excluded? or would it, like the blogosphere, be one big happy poetic family, banding together to increase their cultural capital, and give those folks at Sony and TimeWarner a real run for their money.
Jon Frankel

upyernoz said...

i'm not a poet, but i am a union lawyer, so i feel like i should add something.

henry seems to be reacting against a stereotype rather than how an actual labor union functions (especially with the uniform and rank bit). but it's also not clear to me who exactly you would collectively bargain with.

maybe my mind is too tied up in legalistic definitions. maybe you're not talking about a labor organization as defined by the national labor relations act, but rather some kind of less formal association where you pool resources for discounted healthcare or other benefits, or maybe less tangible things like a support network.

but don't you already have a support network of sorts? isn't that was this place is part of?

or maybe not. i'm coming to this as a bit of an outsider.

Henry Gould said...

"Committed to being an ass?" Is that a rhetorical question, or have you already started working out the lines of authority?

I guess the latter seems more likely, since in every ranking system there's someone at the tail end.

Th concept of political organization for poets will always strike me as 1) a waste of precious time, and 2) a nightmare.

Henry Gould said...

p.s. & I'm speaking from some experience with organizing. I have a master's degree in C.O. Was deeply involved with establishing several food coops, community gardens, wholesale food collectives; worked for years, in paid & unpaid positions, with neighborhood groups and organizations. I have a deep love & respect for the people I've known, involved in such complex & demanding work. That's part of the reason - but only part - why I would never wish it on poets & creative people, unless necessary for the actual development & production of their art works.

Anne Boyer said...


Okay, it's good to hear you do have some idea about community organizing. I couldn't figure out why you were drawing on an outdated stereotype of organizing, so I was caught between two possibilities -- maybe you didn't know better, or maybe you were trying to dismiss my ideas as foolish. Now that I find out you do know that organizing isn't about badges, ranks, etc., I see that you were just trying to be dismissive of my ideas. That's what I meant about being an ass.

Jon, someone who is publicly committed to the idea that poets hate each other might not be interested in joining a poet's union. Perhaps I shouldn't have assumed that you ideas about the role & nature of poets came from some historical mythos, so maybe it would be better to ask you directly -- what evidence do you have that "poets hate each other"? Do you see community having a positive function in the arts?


Henry Gould said...

Speak for yourself, Anne. Dismissive is one thing, critical engagement is another.

You dismissed individualist poets as "hallucinating".

I wasn't being dismissive when I referred to ranks & uniforms. The concept of "organized" artists - organized to promote themselves, as opposed to organized to respond to particular political concerns (in the real world) - is too scary to me for dismissal. If I were able simply to "dismiss" the notion, I would never have bothered engaging in this polemic in the first place.

I'll be interested in your concepts of organizing artists when they produce something more valuable than put-downs & name-calling.

Anne Boyer said...


The "hallucinating" part was just borrowing language from Jon's post -- his "Are you hallucinating?" response to the idea of poets organizing. I am hardpressed to find historical examples of poets working in isolation from readers and writers. Even Dickinson (esp Dickinson) had that group of loyal readers & writers.

When was I name calling? I was just trying to understand your motivation. I'm still not terribly clear as to whether you were trying to insult me (maybe? maybe not?), but I do get now that you think artists working together in intentional community is for some reason frightening. I'm still unclear about what makes artists so different from other folks (say, the kind that get together and start a food coop, or those who get together to lobby for health care chocies, etc.) -- or how is it that as individuals both you and I have organized productively in our own communities, but that as poets it would somehow turn stalinist-scary if we organized together.

And really, I also don't get why you don't consider art a particular political concern "in the real world". Is art completely disengaged from your reality?


Henry Gould said...

Anne, to respond to these questions might really take up a lot of comment box space. If I have the energy maybe I'll write about it on my blog.

In a nutshell, I think mutual-support networks in the arts can be inimical both to the energy necessary for making art, and to the critical independence necessary for understanding and evaluating it.

This does not mean I'm in a position to judge various support & production collectives : I'm not. I know Subpress & other groups have helped good poets get their work published.

I'm just sensitive (some would say paranoid) about the effect of mutual aid & networking on critical judgement. Poetry is not about "us", in my view : it's about itself. A good chess game is not a shared project; neither are some forms of thought, prayer, contemplation, writing, art.

As for the name-calling : I think you called me an "ass" at least once. I find that mildly offensive, and another good reason (in my book) for staying away from "mutual support" networks.

Jon Frankel said...

I have to agree with Henry. I have nothing to add in that regard. I did not say that poets hate each other, I said they don't like each other. This blog and others like it are good evidence of that. Yoking together the words romantic and masculinist for instance is a species of ideological, polemical thinking which distorts language to score points off of a so-called opponent. That's fine, I started this I guess. But my point is that any group of poets would almost immediately degenerate into name calling, the setting up of abstractions, ideologies and theories that only serve to exclude people. Poetry in my practise is not engaged in that kind of activity. I don't have time. And, my food coop, which I love and have been a member of for 18 years, is hardly free of that kind of squabbling. The prices are still low though. I have never been with a poet for long before she or he starts to insult other poets. Poet gossip is vicious. The poetry world is full of people in search of either a disciple, a mentor or an antagonist. But the best thing for poets to do is live a life conducive to the writing of poetry and to find an audience where they can. Making up and enforcing rules is a waste of time. Rome burns and the poets fiddle. I think we've probably exhausted Josh with this, who appears to have been dreaming in public. The world we legislate is not this one. That's probably a good thing.
Jon Frankel

Anne Boyer said...


I am very sorry that your experience with poets is so uniformly negative. Obviously, my experience is quite different -- having worked in isolation from other poets, and then having experienced a community of readers and writers, I know it is better to have an imperfect community than to have no one at all.

But to be fair to Josh, how in the world does his blog prove poets don't like each other? Opening conversations about ideas, attending to poetry and language, even engaging in debates about "abstractions" seems pro-social, not anti-social.

I understand that you disagree with my assertion that the mythos of poets as competitive, back-biting individualists has its history in ideas of masculinist competition and romantic individualism. I do not consider these radical new ideas, nor unique to me, nor "point scoring" -- only an attempt to identify certain ideological fallback positions -- ones which I consider destructive to art and at odds with my experience. Now that you've offered your personal experience, though, it seems I have misread you. Perhaps your idea that poets dislike each other and can't work together is not exactly the same one found in certain cultural mythos but is something arrived at through what appear to be some unfortunate social interactions.

Once again, I feel very bad that this is your experience, and hope that some day your interactions with poets will be more positive.


Curt Stump said...

Josh, I completely support this statement you made:

"I have a fantasy of the stable of "name" poets at, say, Knopf or FSG banding together and demanding a more open review and publication policy."

This honesty is something that is attainable, and it exists in other places outside poetry (for example: double-blind experiments in science, or even anonymous contests in juried art shows). Sure, there is lip service to fair play and anonymous contests in poetry, but it doesn't seem that clean to me.

Unions and coops aside, there's a problem with the way poetry runs today, and a simple step like the one above would go a long way toward cleaning things up.

But it's not so easy, because there is capital involved in poetry, even if it's not in the form of book sales. It's largely in the form of teaching jobs, editing jobs, or public speaking appearances. There is money to be lost if successful poets bite the hand that feed them. Still, there are those who would speak out.

The ethics situation (favoritism, hidden publishing policies, etc.) could also be improved if more aspiring poets paid attention to ethics (for example boycotting of publishers who show favoritism instead of sucking up to those publishers). In other words, why don't aspiring poets care more about how they get published? Or from a reader's perspective, why does anyone still read Poetry Magazine after figuring out how the magazine operates? Why aren't publishers being held accountable by readers for ethics problems? Etc. Etc.

I'm glad to see someone is "dreaming" about improving the poetry landscape. Enjoyed your post.

Aaron Tieger said...

I agree that poets need to pay more attention to how they get published. I don't think this is limited to "aspiring" poets, however. I think the poets at FSG, Knopf, etc. need to think about their complicity in whatever the state of poetry is.

But the real problem - a real problem - seems to me the definition of "success." Curt (and I'm just using you as a convenient reference) essentially equates success with "teaching jobs, editing jobs, public speaking appearances." External criteria, in other words. It breaks my heart to see poets gauge their (lack of) success by these fleeting things when what really matters is how we feel about what we're doing as it relates to ourselves.

This is my own favored rant and possibly not called for here. I'll stop and go to bed. I just wanted to say.

Curt Stump said...

Hi Aaron, you're right that desire for fame/money/prestige is not limited to aspiring poets. I am just pointing out that aspiring poets cannot claim innocence just because they are located outside the power brokers. There's always a tendency to blame those in power for all the problems (I do this frequently) - but we also have to look at our own actions and decide to what degree our own actions reinforce the power structure (this is where I think talk of disobedience makes sense).

It may not be apparent from my comment above, but I'm not suggesting poets should strive for external success. I'm saying that money/fame/prestige is a real factor in poetry today and unfortunately it's a strong motivation for many poets. There's nothing wrong with studying poetry, or teaching poetry, or becoming famous because of poetry. But if poets are blinded by a desire to get rewarded then they end up reinforcing the current system just by playing the game.

Poets at the top have a good opportunity to do something about all this as well, and I like the idea of "name" poets banding together to call for open policies, as Josh said. Change can come from the top or the bottom.

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