Thursday, April 15, 2004

I've only been very sporadically following the discussions about Foetry, the site that aims to expose the corruption of allegedly "open" poetry contests. I say I've only been following it sporadically because it's been relatively absent from the blogs I read the most, although looking over at Shanna Compton's blog it seems to have been burning up other sectors of the blogosphere. Maybe it says something about the demographics of my little corner. I don't have an MFA, although I will confess to having won one poetry contest, judged by Gwendolyn Brooks, when I was eight years old. Let the record show that I had no prior relationship with Ms. Brooks and that at the time I saw her merely as a nice lady who handed me a check for $50.

I haven't read all of the blog discussion of Foetry, so it's possible what I'm about to say may sound misguided or even mean. But the logic behind Foetry seems to rest on an idea that strikes me as rather quaint:

There is such a thing as pure literary merit, uncontaminated by politics, economics, or power, and it is this alone which should be used in judging poetry contests.

Cynic Tim says: All literary judgment and gatekeeping is rigged; it's just a question of how and in what direction. If we're talking about this in a crude sense, it's something I've seen at least since the high-school litmag, and certainly in college: people publish and promote their friends. Perhaps that's why I've never been so keen on entering contests; it's always seemed patently obvious to me that awards circulate within a relatively closed group, with admittance restricted to graduates of certain favored programs or institutions, or students of certain prominent figures. (And this hardly is new in the age of the MFA; one of the first things that struck me when I picked up the Vintage Book of Contemporary American Poetry years ago is that nearly every single poet in the book seemed to have attended Harvard.) I don't know why paying an entry fee would change one's expectations in this regard.

Lest this just be filed under "life isn't fair," Grad Student Tim would jump in at this point to note that this was part of the interest of Charles Bernstein's critique of "official verse culture" back in the '80s--not that Bernstein was the only one to say such things, but he was the person who I found saying it most effectively and in a way that seemed to capture the whole scope of the problem. Bernstein looked at the system as a whole--from MFA programs to the publishing and reviewing practices of The New Yorker to the work of Helen Vendler--and showed not only how stunningly narrow and unified it was, but that official verse culture was not only an institutional but an aesthetic phenomenon. In other words, official verse culture also had an official style--the dreaded post-confessional first-person lyric. This is what I think Jonathan and others are pointing to, providing a more sophisticated version of the Foetry critique: judges may very well choose from among their own students or among Iowa grads not out of pure favoritism but because of their common allegiance to a certain aesthetic--a "house" style, if you will. While Jonathan argues that it's still possible to separate this from true "cronyism," I'm not so sure. One could argue that even if Foetry succeeded in its goal of making contest-judging truly blind, nothing at all would change; judges would go on picking the same kind of work (probably work most like their own), which would almost certainly continue to be, if not from their own students, then from poets within the judge's sphere of influence.

What I found most compelling about Bernstein's critique was its solution: not to demand change in the way decisions were made at the most powerful poetic institutions (since no matter how transparent such decisions looked, Bernstein suggested, the results would always be substantially the same), but instead to construct alternative institutions that would help produce and distribute work that adhered to other aesthetics. I echoed that idea last month in hoping for "other avenues of getting things done", but of course Jordan was much pithier in his call to get building.

Of course, some of what Bernstein called "provisional institutions" have become pretty durable, and this entire discussion is complicated by the fact that the institutions of experimental poetry have come to seem equally dominanting and oppressive to some writers (witness recent discussions on the Poetics list). If the mainstream still has its Iowa, experimental writing has made its Buffalo (a development whose benefits still vastly outweigh any drawbacks) and for many younger writers the latter, not the former, has become the point against which to react. Perhaps Foetry doesn't move me because the institutions against which it protests--the AWP, Iowa, Colorado--have little or no relevance to me or many of the writers I know, though others might.

The problem, in short, is not favoritism or cronyism; it's power.

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