Thursday, February 25, 2010

"the poetry of self-promotion"

My title is taken from the comments stream of an article recently published by The Chronicle of Higher Education, David Alpaugh's "The New Math of Poetry. The article at first seems to be rehashing the tired conservative complaint about the proliferation of poetry and its venues for publication—a lament for the gatekeepers. But it becomes more interesting when Alpaugh begins speaking out for what he calls "independents": poets like himself who are unaffiliated with any institution. His real argument, it turns out, is that because it's impossible to sort the poems and make sure each receives its just reward, that the existing institutions (MFA programs, literary magazines, the Poetry Foundation, all the usual suspects) resort instead to sorting poets. It's easier to recognize a colleague, in other words, than it is a genius poem. This is the money paragraph:
Perhaps the most sinister fact about the new math of poetry is that it allows the academic oligarchy that controls poetry to impose a nonaesthetic, self-serving scoring system without attracting notice or raising indignation. Since no one can possibly read the vast number of poems being published, professionals can ignore independent poets and reserve the goodies—premiere readings, publications, honors, financial support—for those fortunate enough to be housed inside the professional poetry bubble.
This is a fair criticism, and an intelligent articulation of the protest that curdled into ressentiment in the days of Foetry. The publication possibilities for poets have exploded, but the oligarchical apparatus of recognition and initiation has not. These institutions exert the power they do because there is no market for poetry—the market being the only extra- or hyper-institutional force that our society recognizes as the ultimate court of appeal. Many poets celebrate what they see as the decline of the power of gatekeepers because that means there are no more barriers between their work and readers. But the common reader of poetry probably does still rely on some kind of middleman, be it the imprimatur of a famous poet or just a website like Poetry Daily, which as Alpaugh points out is a largely uncritical distributor of oligarchy-approved poems.

Still, I find it strange that his touchstone poets—his examples of poets whose work would never have survived without institutional support and rescusitation—are Blake and Dickinson. They make for a strange pair. Blake, you will recall, was a print-maker, and thus very much the owner of his own means of production and reproduction. Dickinson, of course, famously declared that "Publication - is the Auction - / Of the Mind of Man -" and in a sense was also her own "publisher," sewing up her fair copies into fascicles so as to, like Berryman's Henry, "hide the pieces, where they may be found." In their eccentric way, they might offer better paths forward than tsk-tsking over the problem of poetic overproduction.

Commenter "markleidner" gives my post its title. His full comment:
don't worry... today's dickinsons & blakes won't sit idly around, waiting, hoping for attention to descend on them... and thus remain uknown... they will know the world needs to hear their voices, and they will be consequently burdened with the responsibility... to take its ear by force... and master the poetry of self-promotion
Yesterday a student came to talk to me about grad school. Mindful of the dismal prospects, I urged her to think carefully about the decision, to recognize its likely economic consequences, and to take a year or two off after completing her undergraduate degree before applying. But the best advice I gave her—advice I would have liked to receive when I was in my twenties—was not to put her trust in institutions. Instead of waiting to be recognized, Lana-Turner-at-Schwab's style—or worse, disciplined, shaped into a round academic peg that may never discover any holes, round, square, or otherwise—any writer today needs to DIY, even—perhaps especially—those who have found some kind of institutional niche.

To succeed as a writer—and I define "success" quite simply as being able to continue in one's work—you not only have to "create the taste by which [one] is to be relished" (Wm. Wordsworth) but you have to create relationships and infrastructure and paths of distribution. Start a press, start a blog, form a reading group, start a reading series. If you can synergize with institutions, do so, but don't sit around waiting for them to recognize or rescue you: they can offer you everything but initiative. This is the best path I've found for resisting the otherwise inevitable alienation from one's own creative labor that comes from permitting oneself and one's work to be processed by workshops and editors and tenure committees.

"Self-promotion" is a crass phrase, or rather a class phrase: I was raised to be squeamish about such things because I grew up in the middle-class "meritocracy" with the assumption that the privileges I was born into would be continued automatically, provided that I did well enough on standardized tests to go to the "right" schools. Needless to say, neither I nor many other people from such circumstances can afford to go on thinking this way. This is not something to be regretted. At the same time, I'm not advocating that writers shrug their shoulders and just convert to the cult of self-commodification. I'm not quite sure that the phrase "the poetry of self-promotion" will ever enable me to see self-promotion itself as poetic. (Though I can't help but be skeptical about the corollary saying of Robert Graves', "There's no money in poetry but there's no poetry in money either.") But I do think that what poetry you promote and how you promote it matters, and that ultimately we can't and shouldn't separate a poem from the context of its production and means distribution.

Here I recall a crucial paragraph from Vanessa Place's and Robert Fitterman's endlessly thought-provoking primer Notes on Conceptualisms (parenthetically, I am very much looking forward to Place's participation in next week's Lake Forest Literary Festival, which promises to be epic):
Pure conceptualism negates the need for reading in the traditional textual sense—one does not need to "read" the work as much as think about the idea of the work. In this sense, pure conceptualism's readymade properties capitulate to and mirror the easy consumption/generation of text and the devaluation of reading in the larger culture. Impure conceptualism, manifest in the extreme by the baroque, exaggerates reading in the traditional textual sense. In this sense, its excessive textual properties refuse, and are defeated by, the easy consumption/generation of text and the rejection of reading in the larger culture.

Note: these are strategies of failure.
Poetic overproduction here is no longer cause for nostalgia for an imaginary past in which there was "just enough" poetry, Goldilocks-style, and only the right sort of poems received prizes. Instead, "the new math" that Alpaugh laments takes its proper place as a symptom of the larger crisis/"rejection" of reading, which is in turn contextualized as a symptom of technological change/acceleration ("the easy consumption/generation of text"), which in turn may be conceptualize as a symptom of the current state of capitalism, which finally leads us to something resembling reality. That is, poetry's problem is everyone's problem: there are more and more people on the planet every day whose participation in labor or collectivities of any stripe are becoming less and less meaningful, as we trade our labor and agency for the false freedom of consumer choice and the increasingly tattered illusion of "security." Or as Richard Greenfield puts it in his poem "Harm": "one is so small in the age of terror as to be vast..."

The paths of conceptualism that Place and Fitterman describe confront this logic head-on via "strategies of failure" which are also "assassination[s] of mastery" (a strongly political move when these strategies are in the hands of anyone not historically a "master"—that is, anyone not white, rich, heterosexual, and male).* This is, perhaps needless to say, not a path likely to appeal to Alpaugh. I don't know his work (but I see he's published one book with the New Formalist house Story Line Press), but everything about his essay points toward nostalgia for mastery and the hierarchically controlled access to mastery that a smaller world of poetry would provide. Yet his touchstones, Dickinson and Blake, were both strategists of failure, not only in their eccentric paths to publication, but in their highly allegorical and linguistically/imagistically excessive work.

There's an intrinsic connection, there to be discovered, between these poets' production/reproduction and their historical experiences at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution (Blake) and the rapid economic and territorial expansion of the U.S. (Dickinson). And I would suggest that writers today need to think closely the connections between what they write, how they publish it, and the scene of writing at this moment of textual—and human—devaluation.


* It's hard for a white male heterosexual to pull off conceptualism without the gesture being recuperated into his pre-existing privileges: Kenny Goldsmith's career is certainly not suffering for his being the poster-boy for "uncreative," "de-authored" writing. Even Kent Johnson, whose heteronymia offers perhaps the most promising means of attack on mastery, hasn't done too badly for himself in terms of notoriety, as well as the more meaningfully narrow terms of "success" as I defined it earlier. This is not to denigrate the work of Goldsmith or Johnson, both writers I admire; I just want to acknowledge that their apparent subject-positions create meaningful difficulties.


C. Dale said...

Thanks for this. I have a lot of thoughts about all of these recent articles, but haven't really formulated a response of any kind, at least not one that is meaningful.

Morgan said...

Arrived here somewhat randomly; just wanted to say that I really like what you say about "not putting your trust institutions." It seems like a very level-headed, flexible yet still principled alternative to just "not trusting institutions," meaning a knee-jerk oppositionalism of the sort that leads to a lot of needless criticism of things like, say, Charles Bernstein reading Marinetti at MoMA. Use the institutions when they work for your ends; when they don't, do your best to build an alternative.

RL said...

Josh, I really appreciate this. I find it exasperating that so many of these artistic-spirit squelching articles find homes in publications that purport to support art. Oh woe, the filthy masses are writing poems! And trying to share them with an audience! Poetry's "survival" (as if it could be killed) is not tied to publication or job markets. These critics aren't worried about poetry, they're worried about legacies.

I love your definition of "success." Success IS being able to continue one's work. Shouldn't every single human being be encouraged to pursue their own artistic development? Wouldn't that be a huge step for humanity as a whole? Isn't that the bigger, more vital picture? Whether or not our own poems SURVIVE after us is really out of all of our control anyhow. Others, not born yet, will make those decisions. We have no idea, no gauge of what poems and poets were lost before us. That doesn't mean those poems, those expressions, those lives were for naught.

jenjen said...

thanks for sharing this – lots to think about. have thrown some responses up on
overland for discussion.

John Gallaher said...

I find it lamentable that The Chronicle of Higher Education published this. Looking around, I see that it's basically the very same thing he's been writing other places. RATTLE, for instance.

If all the places that were happy to publish Poetry Obits would publish actual articles ON poetry, things would be a whole lot better.

Anyway, thanks for the post. You gave this more thought than I did on my blog.

William Gabriel said...

I very much enjoyed reading this. Thanks for posting it.

I think the public is fascinated less by who we _are_ than by what we _do_. In my morning paper:

Note how the photographer (and the newspaper, which ran the photo large in its print version) was struck by the student's text!

Kent Johnson said...

Really interesting post, Josh. I've never seen the word "heteronymia" before, a good one.

Just to say, on the matter of that: I've always felt that modes of authorship experiment (the whole area is ultra-ripe for testing) can open up *additional* dimensions of poetic practice, collaboration, criticism, community, and the like. It's not that such experiment would supersede the usual forms of authorial property and presentation. Those will always be the norm as will all the institutional structures and dynamics of hierarchy and disciplining that normative authorship enables. The point is that one can write *as* "Joshua Corey," or write under less definable ascription. The two aren't contradictory, really. It's a matter of making things richer, more complex, of finding vehicles of presentation that can open up unsuspected possibilities of expression. Paintings framed in the museum are great. But there's land art, too. Our poetry has no land art.

On Conceptualism, what's really interesting to me is how that norm goes virtually unquestioned in its practices, as if it were a category outside or incidental to aesthetic principles supposedly being questioned and unsettled. It's not so much that a figure like Goldsmith *can't* escape that norm, so much as there is no indication he even *wants* to explore and test it. I challenged him a couple times at the Poetry Foundation (Conceptualism Central, it seems, of late) on this, and he had nothing to say on the issue, which was no real surprise. To go back to my above art trope, ConPo is stuck in the museum.

Check out Geoffrey Gatza's genius video on the production of my last book, DAY. It's a kind of putting the cards on the table in the above regard. To my mind, and I say this seriously, I think Gatza more or less leaves Conceptual poetry in the dust with it:

There's an essay on this coming out soon in Jacket, I've heard. I have no idea what it says, but it should be interesting.


Archambeau said...

You know how much I appreciate you, your work, and you know I like the DIY ethos, so I'm pretty sure you won't take this the wrong way, Josh -- but I just feel that there's a big, unexamined assumption behind the "go forth and promote your work" thing. I mean, just why do we feel the need for recognition? John Donne circulated his poems privately, among friends -- and while posterity has been kind to him, he didn't feed off of the prospect of it: he derived satisfaction from his work, and from a small circulation. I've seen so many people get worked up about status in the poetry world, but I'm just not sure what they want. Fame? Money? They're in the wrong racket. Autonomy? You can best have that by not caring what the world does with your work. Am I being somehow classist in saying I don't get what people are after?

I know we've had this conversation before. Did we come to any kind of conclusion?



Unknown said...

Bob, I have two perhaps contradictory responses. The first is to redirect you to that part of the post where I muse on conceptualist "strageies of failure." I intended for that part of the post to be in a dialectical relationship with the career-advice part. The ultimate strategy of failure--as in the Blake and Dickinson examples--might very well be the forgoing of any notion of ambition or public, so as to achieve the level of perfect autonomy that you valorize.

That said, I have a more prosaic answer, which is: I care about my writing being read. I'm not particularly interested in fame, and I'm obviously not that interested in money (but both modes of disinterest are probably markers of my own class privilege). But I am attracted to the idea of readership, or Place/Fitterman's thinkership, and so my work is not complete--I am not succeeding in my limited sense of being able to continue--if I don't have some sense of audience, even if it's coterie-sized.

Put yet another way, I'm interested in connection. Reading and writing have always been my primary modes of connecting with my world and with other people (which is another way of saying I'm a serious geek). The quantity of my readers is thus less important to me than their quality. And I'm lucky to have a number of high-quality readers, of both my poetry and of this here blog.

Archambeau said...


Maybe I'm an odd one, here. For me, writing is more or less a means to understanding. I mean, for me it's the best way to feel like I've really appreciated what I'm writing about. I'm not so much an isolato that I don't like to share it sometimes, though, so the notion of the work's raison d'etre being connection isn't entirely alien to me. I mean, I enjoy conversation too, of almost all kinds. I suppose that's why I send my work to people who ask for it, and to a few friends who sometimes send me theirs. And since most of the writers I really connect with are dead, I'm glad they left a record where I can find it.

That said, it's always seemed strange to me how much anxiety people have about seeking some kind of status, and I think it's important not to encourage it (not that you've done that). One wonders at all the hustling and griping out there -- Alpaugh clearly wants something different from a dose of the good old E.M. Forster-style "only connect." I think he wants recognition in Hegelian sense, which has always seemed like a chump's game to me. I mean, if you want to be alienated from not only your work, but your subjectivity, the quickest path is to place your sense of value in the hands of others, and to believe the work matters inasmuch as it is recognized by them. This is especially insidious when it becomes a question of the quantity of others.

I buy that the lack of interest in money is quite likely a sign of privilege. But a lack of interest in fame? I dunno. I know/am related to plenty of blue collar people. As a rule, I'd say they're less interested in the idea of seeing their name in lights than are people from the chattering classes. In working class America, the self is small, the group is large, as someone once said.


I do think you're right when you say "I would suggest that writers today need to think closely the connections between what they write, how they publish it, and the scene of writing at this moment" -- I'm all in favor of people actually knowing what they're doing, or trying to. On a good day I like to think the project I've been plugging away at for the last few years is the kind of thing you're talking about. I also think we can't understand much about this moment without looking to the history of how we got here -- but I imagine we're on the same page here.

All best,


Kent Johnson said...

Bob Archambeau said,

>I'm all in favor of people actually knowing what they're doing, or trying to.<

Not me, for whatever that's worth... Too much caution in our poetry. Too much professionalism.

However, I'm with Bob in celebrating Canada's great victory today. Always root for the country with public health care.


Unknown said...

Kent, your comments remind me of something I didn't realize when I put you and Kenneth Goldsmith under that asterisk: your direct and pixieish challenge to a poet with a very similar name via your doubling of DAY. Vary innerestin variation. At some point, I want to address Michael Theune's series in Pleiades and the "middle style" he says you're the antidote for.

Bob, when I said I write for connection, I should have included my own self--the self that I only have partial access to, plumbed only by poetry and memoire involontaire--as a primary object of that connection. That's perhaps similar to what you call writing for understanding, though you seem to have something more intellectualized in mind.

Of course it's a bad idea to place your sense of value in others, but if you even half-buy psychoanalytic theory you can recognize that none of us start out able to do that--we're all trying to present something that the big Other (or the Slave/Master if you want to keep it Hegelian) will recognize and approve of. If you're lucky and, I would say, spiritually educated enough, then you can internalize that enough to recognize that a) you've met the big Other and it is you and b)everyone else is caught up in the same painful cycle of attachment.

Which is just a quasi-Buddhist/Lacanian/Hegelian way of saying that the craving for status is pretty much in our DNA, and if we can't acquire it through one (unhealthy, other-directed, fundamentally a mask for powerlessness in the face of death) means, we'll seek it in another way. "Within"--but my own "within" is a crowded place, populated with figures from my past and a lot people I've only met through their writing (including, on some level, what Whitman called "the me Myself"), whose good opinion I seek every day.

Archambeau said...

I'm suspicious of any argument that rests on a notion of what our essence is, so I'm wary of the "this Hegelian stuff is in our DNA" argument. But granting for the sake of argument that it is in our nature, then I think you're on to something with the notion that we will seek ratification from one source or another (I was thinking about this stuff when I blogged about David Riesman, and the tradition-directed, inner-directed, and other-directed selves). Of course there are degrees of need for recognition, and I imagine striving to reduce that need can alleviate a lot of angst, in a way that striving to "win" at some game like po-biz won't. (Trust me -- I did some work on the poets who won all the prizes, and the hunger never gets satisfied).

But you weren't talking about making it in po-biz, right? (I think I misunderstood you initially). I mean, if we're talking about a devotion to poetry as a way of connecting, and what we're talking about connecting with are A. the inner world of our divided selves (which of course opens onto the wider world of which it is the product and in some small measure the creator) and B. some people to genuinely care about and to have care about us, then I think we agree on a lot.

And Kent -- I hear you about the limits of understanding. I think the best part of coming to understand anything is the perpetually ongoing dialectic of knowing and unknowing that takes place. Negative dialectics are even better than watching Olympic hockey!


JenRay said...

Thank you for this post. As a beginning writer looking to "continue with my work" I found this article informative and necessary. You've inspired me to regain my initiative- thank you!

Chris Hamilton-Emery said...

I think most poetry is the product of a command economy, actually. I think this is in a terrific piece. There's so much to feed in on here. The factory based system you have through the AWP in the USA is unrecognisable here in the UK or in Oz. I suspect that bit of context could be important. But I also know that the gatekeeping idea is finished or has been displaced by the need for non-funded presses to make their money through sales — so a great deal of effort goes into considering readerships, choices, building ideas of value. The command economy system operates in the UK too, with direct funding from the State for some presses, there's no not-for-profit endowment based system in the UK.

I think the article needs a counterpart, and that's a piece on readerships instead of production. Producer-led bureaucracy models won't hack it in the long run. We need to understand readerships: general ones (which we have still in the UK), professional ones, how they are constructed, how their value systems align or don't, the idea of discrete reading communities. And some hard facts about self-publishing and the vacuum of endeavour that this creates. And how it is being monetised.

Aidan Semmens said...

Please forgive me jumping into this conversation - and rather late at that. I'd just like to say, having been pointed this way by Chris Hamilton-Emery, what a pleasure it's been to read all your thoughts - the comment string possibly even more than the original blog piece, excellent as that was.
It makes sense to me that the good opinion I seek most assiduously in my writing is my own - but after that, I'm very happy if I can connect with others I respect. Beyond that, who cares? Except that if a response to what you do/write enables you to widen the field of those you respect, then that's a result.
Connecting with those you don't respect (is this a definition of that fickle spectre 'fame'?) seems relatively pointless, unless you can use the connection to some valuable purpose, which may be in the remit of other kinds of writing, but surely not of poetry.

susan said...

DIY (with Wikipedia link, love it!) is great, but I think the real lesson is to create communities by publishing the work of _other people_ (as well as one's own, if you do). That places the emphasis not on the poet (as you remark early on in your post) but on the poetry. A good press is an argument for a certain kind of writing, not just for a few individual authors. The schools of conceptualism and flarf are only two of many such groups that merit attention. And not for their "mastery," but for the real work they're doing to intervene in language, politics, and other crucial issues. (As well as to have some fun along the way.) Consider this a promotion of Tinfish Press! (Is that self-?)

Joan Houlihan said...

Thanks for this thoughtful post. Especially this: "I define "success" quite simply as being able to continue in one's work." So true.

Joan Houlihan said...

Thanks for this thoughtful post. Especially this: "I define "success" quite simply as being able to continue in one's work." So true.

Henry Gould said...

Josh, thanks for your thought-provoking post. I think I feel closest thought to what Bob A's saying. Po-biz is a self-promotional, ambition-filled scramble, & I'm right in there with 'em... & yet there is a factor that skews all our best laid plans in an essentially comic way. That factor is the universality & objectivity of the experience of beauty. Beauty is the real benchmark of artistic labor & achievement. & the gift or talent for making beautiful things simply cannot be manipulated or finessed. I'm think of the aesthetic experience - for both maker & audience - as basically a given of experience (I guess in Kant's sense in Critique of Judgement). The artist either has or not. & all the comedy involved in pursuing ways to make it work for us in the real world is just that - a comedy. Because we cannot finesse beauty. & this aspect is very ose to the old notion of "inspiration."

hema said...

I love your definition of "success." Success IS being able to continue one's work.
The schools of conceptualism and flarf are only two of many such groups that merit attention. And not for their "mastery," but for the real work they're doing to intervene in language, politics, and other crucial issues. Thank you

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