Thursday, February 4, 2010

The quickest path to irrelevance

In his infinite-scroll list of links today, Silliman points to my blog with a bit of editorializing:
Publish the poem, not the poet
is the quickest path to irrelevance
So ... instead we should publish well-known poets regardless of the quality of the poem? The logical conclusion of this policy is that only poets who are already widely published get published. What happens when all the famous poets die? Poetry dies with it. Ah, poetry, with your built-in obsolescence, at least you were relevant while it lasted.


  1. If you're not in Ron's comfort zone, you're a blind spot.

  2. Elisa, you gotta make this known/unknown poet distinction more explicit. Why not have a contest where your readers try to distinguish known poets vs. unpublished poet and post the stats.

    This situation is ripe for you to pull some sokal-style hoax btw. With any luck Stanley Fish will write some op-ed calling you a jerk.

  3. You mean write a fake poem and get it published? The bar to publishing poetry is far too low for that to make any impact whatsoever. Plus the fake poem would probably be pretty good.

  4. I assume he's saying that the journal will be irrelevant if it doesn't publish big names, which is kind of funny coming from someone who rails against the infinite reach of the Quietist Movement and the acolytes which constantly replenish its energy needs. I guess he's going for the realpolitik statement--that big names bring journal sales/site hits/ad revenue and so it's worth the hit to one's artistic soul to publish substandard work from a known author--but that's hardly a radical idea. It's pretty blasé, in fact.

  5. I can't help but read Silliman's statement with some invented context. It seems like a rejection of the idea of as a poem as an object -- and focuses instead as each poem as a part of a discourse, meaning it has a context and comes from an individual. This makes sense to me. It doesn't mean, then, I think, only publish famous poets, but rather, poetry belongs to a conversation. Each poem belongs to a continuum in discourse. A poem cannot really be judged like some object discovered on Mars. (But I'm coming to this thread without any context myself ... )

  6. I'm not against publishing well-known poets -- I'm against publishing meh poems. I understand the "part of a discourse" thing, but there are so many forgettable online journals that exist only to mirror other forgettable online journals ... I don't think that's much of a discourse.

    I think the point of a journal is to showcase exciting work. If you want to read the collected works of some poet to see all their work in context, can't you just buy their books?

  7. Sorry, not sure why I singled out "online" there ... it's equally true of print.

  8. "poetry belongs to a conversation"

    to me that sounds like, "poetry is imprisoned by conversation"

    i mean, what if the people doing the conversing are idiots (as is often the case on silliman's blog)? can't one have the option of staying out of it?

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  11. For the most part, the "biggest-name" poets who've submitted work to No Tell Motel were turned away. It's not that I had any problem publishing poems by well known names. I was genuinely excited to see their names in the sub box. Then I read the poems and became a lot less excited.

    The reason seemed pretty clear to me. They send their d-list poems to online and smaller journals. I don't want d-list poems. I don't consider that an honor or a favor to the magazine. In fact, often it feels downright insulting.

    If that makes No Tell Motel irrelevant, so be it. I'm OK with that.

    (forgive the two deleted comments above -- I'm the typo queen today)

  12. I feel you Reb. I'm leery of soliciting big name poets for fear that they'll send me D-list work as a pity move.

  13. As a fledgling editor, I would rather publish a poem that speaks to me, no matter who the poet is. So, if that means saying no to a 'big name' them I would say no.

    I don't think my little zine is ever going to be considered relevant anyhow...I'd settle for good each and every issue.

  14. With respect, maybe you missed the drift of Ron's comment /editorializing.

    Ron's always insisted (and this is my paraphrase or remembering, so everyone will need to figure it out more exactly for themselves) that the poet must establish her/himself in the world/market/among readers as a distinct entity.

    I happen to agree with that, with the exception made for anonymous work.

    Anyways, I don't think Ron was saying only poets with established names should be published. I understood his comment to be: a poet has to brand her/himself, and others ought to help that along.

    Now whether your original post had anything to do with what he was thinking about when he talked about publishing the poem without the poet is another thing to consider . . .

  15. "the poet must establish her/himself in the world/market/among readers as a distinct entity"

    i'd like to do the opposite: try to publish poems each under a different name, so that no one ever connects them and i'm free of any anxiety concerning "reputation".

  16. Hi Steven: Sounds very much like what, in marketing, we call "personal branding."

    I have a feeling he may not have read the post in question, so I am not overly offended. Thanks for commenting--

  17. I think Matt Briggs is right, and that this discussion is getting side-tracked by worrying about "name poets"--or even just poets you know by name (I'm not a name poet, but you know who I am).

    Even if you never know who a poet is by name, you publish that poet when you publish their poem. I don't know who wrote Sir Gawain & the Green Knight, but that poet's poem has been published, and encoded in that poem are the poet's beliefs, preferences, etc.

    That said, I'm perplexed by "the quickest path to irrelevance." That *might* support the theory that Silliman *does* mean publish name poets or your journal will have no audience. And that would be true, unless you're able to make the journal itself into a name--which requires a combination of things, not just good poetry.

    Absent, for instance, has Elisa Gabbert. And she is a name within a community. Even if I don't know any of the poets Absent published, I have an interest in reading the journal aside from an interest in poetry. Is this ideal? I dunno. That's not the point.

    Ultimately, we want to know who's behind a poem--in some way--as we know, for instance, where and when the Gawain poet lived, from which we can extrapolate many other aspects of their identity. Poems are not objects free of the author, and I don't think anyone wants them to be. Otherwise: machine poetry.

    As for evaluating poems' worth without poets' identities, see Louis Zukofsky's A Test of Poetry.

    Oh, and didja get lots of new traffic from the Silliman link?

  18. But what happens when a person who is new to poetry picks up a particular magazine and doesn't know any of the names, their backgrounds, or their other work. Is that person less capable of enjoying and appreciating the poems than someone who is in the know? I'd hope not...

  19. Adam ... who are you to wander in and tell me why this discussion is getting side-tracked? ;) Again, I never said I'm against publishing work by well-known poets. Nor did I advocate publishing work anonymously.

    Oh, and, I haven't checked my traffic since yesterday, but I'm pretty sure the numbers pale in comparison to the Andrew Sullivan link. I'm also wondering how Silliman's traffic compares to Bookslut's and HTML Giant. Dedicated posts probably drive a lot more traffic than ginormous link lists....

  20. "and focuses instead as each poem as a part of a discourse, meaning it has a context and comes from an individual. This makes sense to me. It doesn't mean, then, I think, only publish famous poets, but rather, poetry belongs to a conversation."

    To an extent, I agree with this. It's how styles and movements are founded and sustained, and we've gotten some lovely poetry over the past decade with this "discourse."

    However, this "discourse" has also moved poetry almost completely out of the realm of the everyday reader and into the realm of poet-reader-- the poet-reader being the only audience for poetry.

    That, in itself, might not be the most tragic thing. So poetry becomes increasingly irrelevant to the outside world. So what. It still appeals to those who write it, and that's validation enough for most of us.

    The tragic thing is that with a community so small-- "discourse" gets lost in a shit-ton of mediocre poems by poets who have already established a "name." Most poets get too comfortable too quick once they've "established" themselves somewhat-- they lose focus or discipline and they start calling it in. If what they're adding to the "discourse" isn't as rigorous as their very first poem that gave them any confidence in their own work, they're not really adding to "discourse," anymore. When they publish a poem that sucks, it's like they're signing their name to a petition without actually reading the petition, first.

    I do agree that it's nice to know a bit about the poet's intentions (how they're using their poetry) before dismissing a poem as "unreadable." (And I'm very guilty of this-- I'm very dismissive, and pretty jaded, as far as reading poetry.) But I think the poet has the responsibility of not resting too heavily on a set of "guidelines" or "rules" for their chosen strand of discourse, and that not enough poets take this responsibility (to be selective) to heart.

    Having said all that-- when I'm writing, I seriously keep an imaginary audience of visual artists in mind, not an audience of poets. After reading most poetry being published these-a-days, I don't often feel I have anything to add to it, or that it has added anything to mine. I wish that weren't the case.

  21. Thanks, Brooklyn -- this part of your post speaks to my original motivation for bringing this up:

    "The tragic thing is that with a community so small-- 'discourse' gets lost in a shit-ton of mediocre poems by poets who have already established a 'name.' Most poets get too comfortable too quick once they've 'established' themselves somewhat-- they lose focus or discipline and they start calling it in. If what they're adding to the 'discourse' isn't as rigorous as their very first poem that gave them any confidence in their own work, they're not really adding to 'discourse,' anymore. When they publish a poem that sucks, it's like they're signing their name to a petition without actually reading the petition, first."

    I feel like maybe we're too quick to give poets the benefit of the doubt, i.e., you've written good poems before, everyone thinks you're good, so this is probably good too? This may be related to the sophomore album effect -- artists work really freaking hard to get recognized, then once they get recognized, they suddenly don't have to work nearly as hard to earn praise. So they start, as you say, phoning it in a little to get the easy praise. It's almost more aggravating, really, to read mediocre poems by writers you know can do better than to read mediocre work by someone you've never heard of.

    Which, for anyone intent on being contrary, doesn't mean I advocate publishing mediocre work by no-names. It means I advocate raising our standards.

  22. A link in Silliman's list typically adds about 50% to my visitors for the day.

    Steven F., even if you generously read Ron's snarky, dismissive comment the way you have, I think that underlying argument is pretty silly and an excuse for the same sort of laziness and mediocrity I'm sure Ron would pillory if it came from one of his usual suspects. Why is it that poets can have these identities and discourses, but poems can't?

  23. By the way, one of the Silliman blog"moves" (not purely a negative, as you know, Elisa) is the Silliman Cryptic One-Liner, perhaps better called the Silliman Horoscope. It's gotta be a line that both ruffles feathers enough, and is interpretable enough, to cause large numbers of other poets to decipher at length its meaning relative to him and to their own lives. Always intriguing to see who will put a positive or negative spin on what is meant by the Silliman Horoscope.

    He's a master at it somehow; it doesn't come across as pure insult automatically, or else people would more just ignore it.

  24. Funny! I sure thought it was pure insult.

  25. Amen, Elisa and Brooklyn. I honestly don't know how to read Silliman's one-liner. But the sophomore (and junior, and senior) effect *is* frequent and frequently annoying. There's a certain amount of loosening up after that first book is published ("now I've run the marathon, I can just take long summer walks for a while!"), that can be very freeing and generative, but without a new focus/push to go one further, the poet can linger in that loosey-goosey wow-my-poems-are-getting-accepted-I'll-just-submit-any-old-thing land forevah. It's like Hotel California. It can be sad to say No to a solicitation when you just know you don't have a poem ready that's worth a damn. But submitting meh work is not doing anyone a favor.

  26. Elisa, I didn't think you advocated publishing anonymous poets or having a no name policy. You advocate publishing a good poem and never making a decision because of the name, right?
    I think the name always effects an editor's choice--even a name the editor doesn't know (gender and ethnicity are often apparent from a name. What that means to an editor may vary--from the appalling to the well-intended).

    Let me make a distinction re. name vs. poet. "Publish the poem not the name," might be a better way of saying what you mean, Elisa, because you always publish the poet.

    Matt (not Briggs, white shirt, glasses), you wrote: "Is that person [a person who is new to poetry...and doesn't know any of the names] less capable of enjoying and appreciating the poems than someone who is in the know?" I believe I get what you mean, but first of all, absolutely! A person new to poetry is likely ignorant about a lot--and thus limited in what they'll be able to appreciate.

    But I think you're imagining a more sophisticated reader who happens to pick up a journal with no "names"--certainly possible. Of course such a reader might enjoy such a journal, might enjoy it more, for the pure pleasure of discovery. But from that point forward, that reader will look for those names.

    My point is that buying a journal for names you know is neither crass nor foolish, and all the names you don't know benefit by association. It works both ways. I tend to avoid journals that publish certain authors.

  27. that sounds accurate. all i was really talking about was how you shouldn't have to know anything outside of the poem in order to "get" the poem ("get" meaning "enjoy", for me).

  28. I don't think it's possible not to be influenced by the name on the submission, unless you read blind, which I don't. All other things being equal, I probably am influenced by the name. I mean, let's say I only had one spot left (sort of moot in an online journal) and two equally good poems, but one by someone I have long been a fan of. I would publish the poet I'm a fan of, I'm sure.

    My point was really this: To me, the purpose of a journal is to feature exciting *work* -- not exciting poets. Exciting poets are often doing exciting work, in which case, publish that. Poets you've never heard of also write exciting work. Publish that too. I think exciting poets should save their not-so-exciting work, if they must see it published, for their chapbooks and books, so fans and readers can see it all in context. Or they can send it to mediocre journals, I don't really care -- I just won't read those journals.

  29. What I want to know is why good poets send out mediocre poems. And why would you inflict a mediocre poem on a friend? If your friend were a poetry editor, wouldn't you want to send him or her your very best work? Also, I think that the glut of publishing options, from online journals to blogs to little presses, is a blessing and a curse. More people can get their poems out there than ever before, but it seems that with more poetry comes more mediocre poetry. I wonder if there's some absolute percentage of good poems to total poems written. I know this is true for me. The more I write doesn't necessarily raise my chances of writing a good poem. I'm resigned to the fact that some percentage of the poems I write just don't work. I think of Stanley Kunitz. Like him or not, there was a poet who limited his total output. Or at least he limited what he published. He may have been prolific in private, but he published relatively few poems. I don't necessarily describe to the "ubi sunt" lament that the good ol' days of poetry were better, but the work of a poetry journal editor is harder when there are more editors and more poets out there. Elisa, keep up the good work of helping us all define and refine our aesthetics, and relish the fact that you've aroused the suspicion of Silliman.

  30. One more thing: I'm guilty of adding to the glut of poetry. I have a blog and sometimes I just post a brand new poem right to the blog because I tire of the rigamarole of submission/long-wait/rejection-mostly-and-sometimes-acceptance. I love having a blog to just throw a poem onto.

  31. Hi Chad! Posting a poem to your own blog is totally different than sending it to a "legitimate" journal. There's no claim that the poem is finished or even good really. But once a poem has been vetted by editors the reader expects more. You know? In a journal, you feel like that space could have been better used. But your blog is yours to do with as you like.

  32. Another interesting question is what constitutes a "name" poet too. There are reasonable definitions by which Anti- has published no name poets at all, and by which we've published quite a few. It's another interesting area of discussion that hasn't really opened up yet.

    I don't mostly solicit big "name" poets, and most of the ones I have tried either politely rejected me or ignored me. The ones who did send work, I can only recall once I felt like I was getting lowballed quality-wise. A couple times when I've been disappointed with solicited work, it's been more about the poet striking out in a new poetic direction that's not what I previously liked best about their work.

  33. Another interesting discussion would be what makes a poem "mediocre." I know we keep saying how awful it is when poets send out mediocre work, but maybe they don't think it's mediocre. (!) Or maybe we all disagree on whether a poem is mediocre. (!) While I'm piecing together poems I like and don't like, I'm running into poems by the same poets and sometimes it's really obvious to me which ones are mediocre. But I'm not going to do a post about certain poets and which of their poems are mediocre-- only poems I think are really good and really bad. :-)

  34. Steven: "A couple times when I've been disappointed with solicited work, it's been more about the poet striking out in a new poetic direction that's not what I previously liked best about their work."

    That's what I mean, too. Maybe what we think of as "mediocre" is just a poet's new 'do. I know that -I- lost the interest of a few fellow-poets when I stopped writing what I call "girly nursery rhymes." But I'd just left my marriage and moved back across the ocean to no job, and had no clue about anything other than language and landscape consoled me. I didn't feel like writing the catchy femme-y stuff, anymore. Once, I was solicited for work based on that style, and when I responded with newer stuff, I made sure to tell the editor that I understood if he was looking for more of the same, and he was free to reject the new stuff, NSA. Which he totally did.

  35. Mediocre for me means a competent poem that risks nothing. It's not outlandishly bad -- it doesn't even have the balls to fail grandly. It's just safe and dull and pleasant and forgettable. I prefer getting bad poems because they're amusing and easy to reject. Mediocre work wastes more time.

    Certainly this is subjective since editors across the land are publishing mediocre work every day, and they must see some value in it.

  36. Oh, I agree that posting a poem to a blog is no guarantee it's finished or good (though posting a poem to a blog is no guarantee that it's unfinished and bad, either), and it is certainly a different thing than submitting it to a journal for someone's approval or disapproval.

    But in talking about what makes a poem good, mediocre, or bad, it also is worth asking what makes a person qualified to judge a poem's merits? Does a big "name" editor make a journal worth sending to? Or a big "name" judge a contest worth sending to? Do these big names publish the poet or the poem? It strikes me that this conversation is as much about the editor as it is about the poets who submit their work for approval.

    I think you've consistently made a case here for what qualifies you as an editor at Absent. Maybe you should invite other journal editors to guest blog about what they're looking for in a poem.

  37. Interesting thought. These kind of statements are so often vague or circular, e.g., "We want to be moved," i.e. "Send us poems we will like." Any editors who have come across this thread (Steve Schroeder, Adam Golaski): It would be cool to see a detailed statement of what you're looking for in work you publish, here or on your own blog.

  38. Will try to do something this week on that subject + the fun "poems I like/don't like" theme.

  39. I don't believe there are d-level poems, I've decided. I've been thinking about this off and on for a long time, and this comment stream has been quite fun to read on it...

    But while reading it, I kept wondering not about NAME vs NOt NAME poets, but instead D-LEVEL vs A (?) - LEVEL poems.

    I mean, I believe that most poems fail in some way no matter who writes them. It's not about quality of the work. But more, it's about an author thinking something like "I've written this D-level poem, what should I do with it?"

    Perhaps big-name poets are different, but I hope not. And maybe this is just my inability to figure out what I think about what I write, and then to project that onto everyone else... but often the poems I write that are my favorites are rejected from where I send them.

    If there are poets out there who decide they've written a d-level poem, and who then decide to send it somewhere, should be slapped, and not in the good way.

  40. John, I often feel like my poems that I'm most excited about are the ones that are the hardest to publish. It may be because I send them to the most selective places, but I always wonder if it's because the poems I like most are the "riskiest" (for me that would just mean committing to big "IDEAS" and "EMOTIONS") and most editors like "safer" poems, by which I mean more open, less committed, so people can make whatever they like of them. In my mind it's the difference between a poem most people will like just fine, and a poem some people will love, and some people will hate. I think I'd rather write (and publish) the poems that some people will hate.