Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Contributors' Notes: Yes or No?

Here's a question for everyone: Should poetry mags have contributors' notes? You know, those little things in the back pages that say, "So-and-so's poetry has appeared here, here, and here; he/she teaches at the College of Wherever and lives with her/his two dogs."

I ask because neither of the two journals I'm currently reading (The Hat and New American Writing) have them, and I'm wondering if this is a trend or something.

I've always found such notes vaguely irritating and feel like a moron on the few occasions I'm called upon to compose one. But I'll grant that they do serve a few purposes. They tell you something about a new writer you might like. They tell you where else you can find that writer's work. They give you some context for what's otherwise a set of disembodied texts. (Ron made this point a few weeks ago.) They can tell you a biographical fact that illuminates the work. They show you a web of connections between people in a journal that can explain why Poet X and Poet Y are next to each other.

And I can think of just as many reasons why they're awful. They all sound the same. They're show-offy. They're like posting a resume at the end of an aria. They emphasize the most crass and careerist aspects of being a poet (I went to school at the right places, publish in all the right places, and have a better job than you; I went to the same school all the other people in this magazine did and that's why we're being published together).

All these apply, of course, to the conventional bio note. There's the subgenre of the funny bio note, of which SHAMPOO is one of the more entertaining examples; these can keep the whole enterprise from taking itself too seriously, or even act as an extension of the poem.

So is the note on its way out? Is dropping contributors' notes an egalitarian act? a demand to focus on the text itself? Or does it hide the matrix--fetishizing publication even further by erasing the way the authors got there?


Chris said...

You beat me to it-- I enjoy either the funny/quirky contributors notes and/or those where they say something about the poem(s). I can do without the mini-CV and bragging notes.

Though I do have to admit I have discovered some interesting publications by trawling through the credits for writers that have contributed something I liked...

Mark said...

I like what Fence does with listing what each of the authors is presently reading. I have discovered a lot of interesting books by way of those contributor's "bibliographies."

Josh said...

Yeah, I like the Fence model too--although when I had to one for them I found it was hard not to succumb to self-consciousness about my choices (I'm not sure I didn't succumb). Not having them appears to make a statement against academicism and resumes and professionalization, but it also implies that those seeking context are hopeless outsiders barking up the wrong tree, along the lines of "If you have to ask, you can't afford it." Of course in the age of Google it's become very easy to find something or other about/by a given poet. Another example of how the Internet is breaking down old guild structures and perhaps building new ones.

Tim said...

Yeah, the "what I'm reading" note is an interesting variant, but I wonder (as Josh suggests) if it doesn't breed a narrowness or elitism of its own. You don't see people running notes that say, "I'm reading medical textbooks, People magazine, and and Letters to Penthouse."

Steven D. Schroeder said...

I like contributor's notes that are short, maybe a little fun or quirky (but not too much, oh no), and actually tell you where you can find other work by the poet (whether you loved or hated his or her work in the journal). I dislike life stories, and I don't give a shit where the person went to school, where they teach now, or how many cats they have (unless it's a really staggering number like 23, and the writer dresses them up as famous dead poets).

If a journal is going to eschew the typical contributor note, I'd rather see nothing at all or something really unique instead of reading recommendations, which I suspect are mainly an excuse for "My friend has this new book out."

In The Eleventh Muse, I'm pretty lenient about letting people say what they want to about themselves, which gives us the occasional silly one, the occasional book recommendation, and the occasional incredibly terse entry ("____ lives in ____.")

Alan said...
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Alan said...

I do remember, way back in Fence, one of the contributors (was it Tessa Rumsey) note that she was reading Teen People.

The worst Fence contrib. note that I ever saw was when a writer name-dropped her significant other's book in her "I've been reading..." list. Does cronyism get worse than that?

The ultimate expression of the Bad Contrib. note is Michael Martone's contributor's note fiction, e.g.:


(sorry for the doublepost; grammar falling apart left and right)

Lee said...

My main thought here is that it's been remarkably difficult to keep the author dead after the death of the author.

I would add that while there's a clubbishness implied in listing one's credentials, there's also a pretty practical use for it. Especially if we see writing as a long conversation. Someone who has published in a few places, studied with some serious writers, or has a book or two calls for you the reader to take him/her seriously, to judge their work by a certain standard. An undergraduate creative writing major doesn't necessarily call for that.

Of course, if it's good writing, fine. In the cases where we don't immediately recognize it as such, and are tempted to dismiss or ignore it, a short bio might make us look a little closer. It's one of the spaces available to authors attempting to create a taste for their work.

Lee Herrick said...

I like the Fence model over ones like New American Writing and Beloit Poetry Journal (with no bios). I also like Poetry's new humorous bios.

Mostly I like those (I rarely see them except for in the Best Americanseries) where the poet says a little something about the origins/process of the poem itself. There's a good anthology called What Will Suffice: Contemporary American Poets and the Art of Poetry which does this as well.