Friday, January 23, 2004

The Boy Who Cried "Blog!"

I've discovered a new blog that is sophisticated and readable (both in terms of its content and its form as webpage), Janet Holmes' Humanophone. She has a lot of interesting opinions about poetry and is an editor of one the most interesting university poetry presses, Ahsahta. But I'm distressed to have discovered it in the context of a reaction to my commodification-and-narcissism-anxiety post that accuses me of ingratitude and cynicism. Holmes' reaction (I found it very weird to see myself referred to as "Corey," but I suppose that's the convention; in any case, what's good for the goose is good for the gander) is perhaps understandable given that I seem to be setting up editors as egoistical cultural commissars asking writers for a kiss on the ring and twenty-five bucks. That's certainly offensive to anyone who does the invaluable and often thankless labor of small-press publishing, and I apologize to her and to anyone else who got that impression. I'm less willing to apologize for the anxiety I feel about the currency of recognition that I as a poet trade in; I think it's ungenerous to assume that because I have in fact received a great deal of recognition for a "young" poet that I should just shut up and enjoy my UPS ground-rate halo.

What I was trying to address in that post is the perdurability of such anxiety even for the fortunate and how the contest system might partly function as an "imaginary" reduction of that anxiety in the short run while adding to the sense of real disempowerment experienced by the submitting poets in the long run. I don't have a good alternative to contests, and I know that they make it possible for more books to be published, which is of course a good thing. The Barrow Street contest that I won is about as good as it gets, I think: there was no favoritism (I've never met Robert Pinsky and he's even rejected some of my poems in his capacity as poetry editor of Slate), the book is beautiful, and all the entrants get a copy of the winning book (hopefully not all of them will end up in used bookstores but hey, that's distribution too). What I think is more honorable, though requiring greater self-esteem on the poet's part and considerably greater financial resources on the publisher's part, is the old-fashioned mode of publication whereby you query a publisher and they read your manuscript and perhaps choose to publish it without fees or prizes. Without enclosing a fee with the manuscript the poet has nothing but the bare conviction that their work is good to justify their bothering a harassed and overworked editor with it; without a prize at the end (or the likelihood of making more than a pittance from sales) the poet is forced to confront more directly his or her motives for getting published in the first place. The publisher is more closely in contact with the work he or she is publishing, particularly because the intercessory "famous judge X" variable has been removed. One of the best solutions I've seen, which I've already mentioned, is the poets published poets model of subpress. Another good solution might be to charge a reading fee but to do the judging yourself. I'm very grateful both to Barrow Street and to Mr. Pinsky, but the fact that I didn't work with him at all in the publishing of Selah feels a little odd. I am indebted to someone I've never met; instead of the sense of community I might have discovered working with him, elder to ephebe, I am simply interpellated as an "emerging poet" by Mr. Famous.

This search for community is part of the reason I feel I must reject the priestly convictions of one of the commenters on Holmes' original post, Aaron McCollough. I don't want to reprint it without his permission, but I think what he says pathologizes my "paradoxical desires" (for transcending the system and for being rewarded by the system), rather than recognizing that this pathology is a reaction to a paradoxical system. Again, to go back to Nick Piombino's "Blogging and Narcissism" post, these are actual social problems that turn into psychological problems. McCollough's solution seems to be that one should accept one's role as unacknowledged legislator and opt out of the system entirely. On the one hand, I have some intuitive sympathy with the notion that poetry's value derives precisely from its economic valuelessness. And if I were to publicly embrace this notion while furtively applying for every fellowship and prize in sight I would indeed be guilty of cynicism. But the context for my original post was that even if poetry has no economic value, it does have cultural and social value—and in that respect, the system we have for producing poetic value (and the relations of production of poetic value) looks pretty damn capitalistic. You can try to opt out of capitalism by going to live on an island or farm and producing only what you need, but how are you going to get the land in the first place? It's impossible for an individual. It's also difficult to envision a working "cultural revolution" through which cultural recognition is distributed from each according to their ability and to each according to their needs. But I think recognition is the currency of culture (read Allen Grossman on poetry and the production of personhood) and so the best solution that I've been able to come up with is to pool that recognition with the loose community that I've found—partly in academia, partly here on the web. Which is why I wrote that troublesome post in the first place: I was responding to the pain and anxiety of "my people," which I too have felt. That's why blogging has become so important to me and to so many of the poets who I admire: bit by bit we're changing our relations to the means of producing recognition.

I hope it goes without saying that I write this in the spirit of dialogue, of expanding community, and more in sorrow at being misunderstood than in anger at either Janet Holmes (whose taste in poetry appears to be strikingly similar to my own) or Aaron McCollough (he has a gorgeous poem here at the Ahsahta webpage for his book, Welkin.

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