"I am an idealistic, naive, passionate, truth-seeking, spiritually motivated artist, unschooled in the science of law and finance." --Wesley Snipes

Monday, January 09, 2006

Seth & Joe, Sittin' In A Tree'

Seth has this to say in one of his usual lengthy rants against the rants of others. His target, an easy one--for numerous reasons--is Joe Massey. The fact that I know and respect Joe and his poetry (while publicly disagreeing with some of what he says about poetry) should be noted; this fact does not, however, have any bearing on my disagreement with Seth.

I'll excerpt from Seth's post briefly:

Simply put, for all this talk of poets "writing for publication," I can honestly say I've never seen an example of it; in my experience, poets write the best poetry they possibly can, under the belief (how quaint!) that literary journals are seeking out excellence and therefore will respond to it when they see it (in the myriad forms it takes where poetry is concerned).

Now, I know I'll probably be admonished for not attending to the whole post (but, sheesh, it's WAY long), but, well, in my experience, this phenomenon is very real and to say that it doesn't exist means you must be either living in a cave or very very naive. It does happen. A couple of well-known bloggers regularly publicize their burning ambition to accomplish X in the poetry world by Z age, to write poems that are like X Poet in hopes that they might be published in similar venues, and who regularly report that they are dying to have a book published in this contest or that contest. Now, you know and I know (well, perhaps you don't) that "excellence" is a tricky (and to my wacky outlandish mind, outmoded) proposition. What is it? If one spends as much time longing for publication, studying markets, publicly airing one's poetic ambitions, you'd think that he or she is probably doing more than simply writing "excellent" poetry. Many many poets write to their intended markets. It's as simple as that. This is not to judge, but simply to say that it happens. We make our own choices about what we want to accomplish with our poetry and it involves a lot more than excellence, and writing the best poetry we can.

I once had a teacher (who shall remain nameless, and it's not who you think it is, though if you know me, you know I haven't had many teachers so it shouldn't be hard to deduce) who constantly made workshop comments aimed at making poems "publishable" and "marketable." If you want to get poems in top-shelf journals like Valley Hoover, and Po-Shares, etc., you'll need to make your imagery more X because editors like that more often than Y. And so forth. Excellence was never discussed. Personal vision or aesthetic choices were also lightly dismissed. Oh, that's nice that you want to write that way, but really, only X can get away with it. Instead, you should make your poetry more like this.

Another teacher (if I can call him that--I learned nothing but rage, pettiness, and venom from him) admonished me one day thusly: "I don't give a shit about your poetry. I don't care if you write good poems or bad poems. I'm not here to help you improve your writing. It's not important. I'm here to teach you how to survive in the poetry world and the publishing world. If you cross me, you won't get very far."

I guess this is just an aside, but I've done fine so far. This attitude though, I'd imagine is not entirely unheard of. For some "poets" it's really NOT about the poetry. This is one point on which I agree with Joe.


I like Joe's exuberance. I like his "puritanical" view of poetry. It's not my view, nor will it ever be, but dammit, he stands for something. And it doesn't hurt that the proof is in the pudding. His remarkable poetry is better than X% (don't wanna rile Behrle) of what's out there. It's REALLY REALLY good. So, bottom line is--I don't care if he rants and then later revises his position (Seth takes him to task for this as well, which strikes me as a bit childish--Oh, what, we're not allowed to change our minds?) and then rants again some more. If he keeps making poems, I'll be happy.

[Argh...I can anticipate already...not Seth, but, well, you know...]


Stuart Greenhouse said...

You really had a teacher say that? Like that? Wow. I know NYU is kind of not part of the real world, but the general advice offered there, was, wait at least a year after graduating before sending stuff out, and even then be super careful it doesn't bend or impact your poetry in ANY WAY.


Tony said...

No shit, Stu. I had teachers say both of these things. In the case of the second one, I bowdlerized the actual content for the sensitive.

I'm surprised that I kept writing poetry...

But that was a major factor (perhaps THE major factor) in me deciding not to finish the MFA.

Reb said...

Yeah, I definitely know folks who try to tailor their poems for certain publications -- it's bizarre.

The advice to wait until one is done with the MFA is generally good. I had one professor at Bennington who made that very clear and I'm glad she did.

Julie Carter said...

There are entire online workshops where a single idea of the "publishable" poem is the only bell being rung. Which means reading the poems there is like poking yourself in the face with a machete.

Emily Lloyd said...

What you said.

Whimsy said...

Hey, Tony, nice to read you again. I've been having a lazy Christmas.

I actually believe that Seth believes in the meritocracy thing, much as I would like to (and keep trying). I think some of this stems from Seth (and my) frustrations at a certain poetry board which generated a desire to throw our babies out into the world and get a second opinion.

I agree with you about Joe. It's refreshing to find somebody who cares so much about almost anything nowadays.

Hope you're doing well.

Seth Abramson said...


At the risk of opening the front-door of the sausage factory--never a pretty prospect--I think the type of "publication" such workshops speak of involves venues with acceptance rates over (say) 25%; while I've often seen workshop participants (and as you know, I was one for years) tell other members, in the contest of giving a specific review of a poem, that that poem is "publishable," this is quite different from advising a poet, beforehand, to write a certain way in order to produce something "publishable" (as opposed to something "well-written"). Likewise, I've seen no workshops where the key to publishing work in high-end venues--like, say, The New Yorker--is discussed, which makes me suspect that the sort of "writing for publication" we're talking about may be relevant to the amateur set, but not the professional community more relevant to the discussion at hand.


Seth Abramson said...


Do you mean "tailor" poems, or "tailor" submissions?

And which poets?

I'm willing to bet a good deal either the plan didn't work, or it worked but only indefinably so--as those poets would have been published in those venues (eventually) however they chose to write, given their level of talent, and thus the theory of "writing for publication" would go, logically-speaking, unproven.


Seth Abramson said...


We're purists, too.

Don't be fooled.


steve mueske said...

I like Joe's exhuberance, too; my problems with his position I've already detailed elsewhere so I'll not belabor them. When I speak of my love for poetry, I am speaking to a certain level of virtuosity -- not the common fare (or the common poet, for that matter, whose goals are too often "publish this anywhere that will take it"). Once a poet has achieved this level of talent, I'm willing to go wherever the poet takes me. I think that too often we bring our poet hats (and all its aesthetic baggage) to the journals and books we read and not our reader hats. 's all good. Fuck Bloom, et al. There's a lot of good shit out there.

Steven D. Schroeder said...

A few points:

-I think I've made a comment that something was "publishable" on an online critique board once or twice in the past. It was always intended as more of a wakeup call, as in "this is publishable, but it's not actually good."

-I think there's a big difference between saying "I really want to be published at place X," which I'm sure I do from time, and writing poetry specifically tailored for said place, which I never do.

-Trying to imitate other poets for me can be fun and edifying, but not a way to produce good poetry for the most part. I recently threw away a draft because it turns out I do a really terrible Kay Ryan impression. But for me, trying to write a poem like someone else is also a way to stretch what I do a little.

Stuart Greenhouse said...

Actually, now that I think about it, I remember a poet friend who set himself to write for a specific editorial audience. He's a very good poet, and was successful in his intention. Though I think he maybe actually undervalues the poems produced, because of the manner of their birth.

L. Trent said...

I had a poetry teacher who did the same exact thing-- told us how to make our poem publishable to different audiences. Also, once, when we were supposed to be having a discussion about "what it means to be a POET" (I cannot stomach such discussions-- it means to be a human being who writes poems) somebody asked, in all seriousness, how one could subtly indicate that they knew one of the editor's friends/teachers/students in their cover letter so they could get their letter past the slush pile and into the editors hands more quickly.

Julie Carter said...

"This is quite different from advising a poet, beforehand, to write a certain way in order to produce something "publishable" (as opposed to something "well-written")."

I know that you've participated on boards, so I'm certain you've seen comments like "Make change X and I'm sure you can find someone to publish this."

Or, the more common but related, "Do this and this and this or you can't post here."

On rec.sport.baseball there was a famous thread in which one participant argued that Ty Cobb could have hit more homeruns if he had chosen to. It's a silly argument, because, well, why they hell wouldn't he have chosen to? And if your argument is against someone who might argue that publication in prestigious journals is simply a matter of "I could do that if I chose," then I agree with you.

But if you are arguing that no poet "code switches," then I disagree.

Reb said...


Any smart person would tailor his/her submissions -- I know that by the number of "hotel" poems No Tell receives.

But some people do tailor their poems when writing them and I'm not "outing" friends by naming them. Like I need that kind of grief. Over the years I've talked process with a number of young poets and it's come up as a strategy several times. I'm just saying that's a fucked-up approach and those who do so know who they are and if you don't believe there are people who approach their poetry that way -- well, it makes no difference to me if you believe or not. I'm not in court and have no responsibility to produce evidence. Unless I start naming names.

And I can't meet you tit for tat for your lengthy blog post today. I'm unable to approach poetry in any "logical" approach that would be suited for such a discussion.

And just to be clear in case there's any confusion, my original comments were not directed at you in any way and I don't consider you at the opposite spectrum of Massey or a "careerist" or anything like that.

Seth Abramson said...


No worries, I didn't take it personally. My post today was a long time coming (and a long time in consideration) and wasn't directed at anyone in particular, though it did of course reference my ongoing dialogue (via blogs) with Joe Massey. Likewise, I write the way I write and think the way I think--lawyer or no, I don't mind if others blog, think, or argue differently. No need for a tit for tat from my perspective.

As to poets writing for publication: I have to think Tony will identify such individuals as "very very naive" (as I would), just as he has identified those who don't believe people write for publication as being "very very naive."

Really, I think it takes a total lack of familiarity with the vagaries of publishing--and with the limitations of one's individual talent--to believe that one could "write for publication."

Julie, "make this change and you could publish this" is, in my experience, shorthand for: "poems which are good get published, and if you make this change this poem will be good." A not unreasonable use of poetspeak, I don't think.

Which takes us back to the "meritocracy" Whimsy was talking about, which notion of a meritocracy is indeed foundational to my belief that publishing is something a purist might choose to do (as I explain in greater detail in my own space, and so won't elaborate on here).

Granted, some publications are more inclined toward the concept of a meritocracy than others, but let's face it, there are dozens and dozens of quality literary markets in America: which makes the theory that there's a distinction between "quality poetry" and "publishable poetry" that much more unfathomable to me (as, for any quality poem, I believe there's a quality journal willing and eager to house it [as distinguished from some poets' futile attempts to make self-consciously difficult poetry generally palatable; message to LangPo: it's not publishing that's the problem, it's that not enough people enjoy or admire the poetry...!]).


Rik said...

My lack of nicotine is making me dense - what exactly is the debate here?

If it's about writing a certain type of poem to get into a certain magazine, then yes I've tried it a few times. In fact, given that all my publishing credits (except one) are to the same magazine I'd say I'd have no problem writing a poem that could stand a good chance of being published in that magazine.

Deciding to write a poem to meet a particular goal is my main mode of operation - I just can't sit and stare at a blank screen and hope great poetry will somehow ooze into existence. When I got bored of reading scadloads of vampire poems (poetry newsgroups can be great fun) I decided to write a good vampire poem - which got published. When I decided to have a go at an erotic poem I worked hard to try and work out what makes some poetry erotic and other poetry porn.

I don't see any problem in setting a goal to write a particular type of poem - for example a poem that stands a chance of being published in a particular magazine. But then I think of myself as a hobbyist poet and don't have to worry about my reputation. Which I think is what this discussion is boiling down to.

Julie Carter said...

"make this change and you could publish this" is, in my experience, shorthand for: "poems which are good get published, and if you make this change this poem will be good." A not unreasonable use of poetspeak, I don't think."

You might be right, Seth.

I don't have a horse in this race since I'm generally apathetic toward publishing rather than for it or agin. I do enjoy the discussions, though.

I bet Ty Cobb coulda gotten published, if he wanted to!

Tony said...

You know, whoever posted the thing about "quality journals" has opened a whole new can o' worms.

As for what I described as occurring in "amateur venues," I can only submit that these incidents occurred in an MFA program that I attended for a year before dropping out. Make of that what you will.

Finally, I don't see any Language poets in a mad rush to get their poems published in the sort of "quality journals" that I assume Seth means. So it's rather a moot point. I don't know of any langpos who are depressed because they can't get published in Ploughshares or NER, for example. The audiences are quite different (not that there's not any overlap).

CLAY BANES said...

I'm beginning to think this workshop thing is a bad idea.