Travis Nichols has posted his reaction to Stacey Lynn Brown’s account of her frustrating experience as the winner of a Cider Press Review publication contest. Nichols calls her account a “tale”—a term that is just one brick in the wall he wants to erect between Brown’s revelations and Nichols’ evident faith in the contest system.
Personally, I’m grateful for Brown’s candor, and I set out to post a response to Nichols saying just that. But the more I wrote, the more it morphed—until it turned into this (the opening quote is from the first paragraph of Nichols’ post):
“The sordid ghost of Foetry.com….”
Let me get this straight—and I hope I’m not misreading you: Foetry unmasked the craven manipulation of the contest system by Jorie Graham and others, and it’s Foetry that was “sordid”? If that’s what you mean then I would say your ethical compass is cracked. I suspect it is, because you link to Ashbery’s Some Trees as an example of a good book of poetry that saw print because of nepotism. (This is news to me: maybe you’d care to elaborate.) Surely the fact that good poetry has been published because of nepotism is no defense of nepotism, nor is it a defense of the emotional and financial fraud perpetrated on the “losers” of such a “contest.”
Of course, the roots of this fraud go deeper than contests, which after all are simply an expression of two distressing and conflicting forces: the indifference of the vast majority of Americans to poetry, and the lucrative system of writing programs whose administrators must be able to pretend that publication is possible for the thousands of poets it produces each year. Contests produce “winners”—i.e., poets who approval-stamp makes their work slightly more marketable—and feed the illusion poets seem to need that a large and appreciative audience awaits them.
Contests also provide useful fodder for one’s vita, which can help land a job within the writing program System itself. We now have a whole generation of poets teaching other poets only a few years younger than themselves. And what will most of these student poets do? Graduate, of course, and begin teaching other slightly younger poets. Clearly this Rube Goldberg machine can’t chug along forever.
I am not saying that writing programs are evil (I teach writing myself on occasion and was energized and inspired early on by the terrific University of British Columbia writing program), or that they damage poets or poetry. Nor am I arguing against contests per se. What I am arguing is that poets need to ask themselves if spending a lifetime in the bubble of the System is good for them or their work. And the denizens of the System need to ask themselves if there isn’t some connection between the American indifference to poetry and kind of poetry the System validates and rewards.
I want to add that I certainly don’t blame writing programs for the indifference of Americans to poetry. Whitman wrote that “great poetry requires a great audience,” doubtless in the hope that a great audience for poetry would arise in the United States. It never did. There is something to be said for the argument that writing programs have been successful precisely because America lacks a great audience for poetry. These programs can be a real refuge for like-minded lovers of poetry who would otherwise have to exist in the kind of spiritual desert that forced George Willard to abandon Winesburg, Ohio.