Thursday, June 26, 2008

Why contests (and poetry publishers in general) are a sham

I thought I had blogged about this but was mistaken. Perhaps I just can't find it. At any rate, it needs restating.

Here goes:

We have a small-press contest. Its entry fee is $20. Its prize is a press-run of 500 copies of your book and $1,000. Let's say it's a fairly well-known prize and 2,000 poets enter. Our small-press has just brought in $40,000.

If we subtract, say, $2,000 for the printing (what I would pay right now for 500 books through an on-demand printer -- I'm sure an established press could do it for this much or less) and $1,000 for the prize. Heck, let's pretend that the small-press actually gets a "real" judge and pays him or her an honorarium. Let's pretend it's a real sum of money: $5,000. Let's pretend even more that our small-press actually spends $2,000 promoting our book. So we have $10,000 in expenses.

Our small-press has just made $30,000. Now, lets say our small-press is run at home while we have other jobs (or even better, it's funded by the university). What do we do with this boodle? Easy! We publish and promote 5-10 other books. Or maybe just publish 15 of them without promotion. Now we are really contributing to the poetic landscape. Hooray for us.

What's the problem here? Oh yeah, we haven't actually spent any of our own money! There's no profit/risk incentive for us to do ANYTHING. In fact, wouldn't it be awesome if we just published our friends and then talked about what great poets we all were? Yes, that would rock truly. In fact, we might not want to publish something that would sell because then we'd have to do more work (okay, that's just me being cynical but you get the point).

What we really need is someone willing to invest a sincere chunk of money in discovering and promoting poetry that people will actually buy and read. As the current market for poetry is less than .1% of all book sales in America, I'm pretty sure we have room for growth.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The Private Irrelevance of Spoken Word Poetry

In order to prevent you from thinking that my concerns are solely with academic poetry, I must point out that spoken word/slam poetry/black urban poetry suffers from the opposite afflicition of modern academic AABC poetry (MAP). That is, it exists solely in the public sphere. This makes it much more prominent (and indeed, profitable) than MAP but it still doesn't make it complete.

Poetry, like all art, must sufficiently balance itself between the public and private spheres so that it:
1) enriches both the individual and the community
2) creates a dialogue between the two
3) and serves as a storage of communication and information over time.

If poetry is simply public, it will not be preserved. If it is simply private, it will not be shared. Poetry, as art, must be both.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Science and Poetry

Read this book now.
The author is Mary Midgley. She rocks.

from page 48:

"The business of poets and other prophets is not only to celebrate things, and it is certainly not to go on always celebrating the same things. Just as often, they need to denounce things, to shake us from our dogmatic slumbers, to warn us, to point to what is going wrong. Sometimes, that is, they have to act as unacknowledged legislators of the world."

Amen, momma.

The Public Irrelevance of Modern Poetry

I extend again my apologies for another extended absence. I’m into my second week of a new job as an editor. The past month has been fairly whirlwind what with getting canned, getting a new job, going to weddings, etc., etc.

Having said that, I’ve absorbed a lot of what I was reading last month. It’s a good start but not wholly O.T. What sticks in my craw, however, is a passage I’d read before (from Wally Benjy):

“The uniqueness of a work of art is inseparable from its being imbedded in the fabric of tradition. This tradition itself is thoroughly alive and extremely changeable. An ancient statue of Venus, for example, stood in a different traditional context with the Greeks, who made it an object of veneration, than with the clerics of the Middle Ages, who viewed it as an ominous idol. Both of them, however, were equally confronted with its uniqueness, that is, its aura. Originally the contextual integration of art in tradition found its expression in the cult. We know that the earliest art works originated in the service of a ritual – first the magical, then the religious kind. It is significant that the existence of the work of art with reference to its aura is never entirely separated from its ritual function. In other words, the unique value of the “authentic” work of art has its basis in ritual, the location of its original use value. This ritualistic basis, however remote, is still recognizable as secularized ritual even in the most profane forms of the cult of beauty. The secular cult of beauty, developed during the Renaissance and prevailing for three centuries, clearly showed that ritualistic basis in its decline and the first deep crisis which befell it. With the advent of the first truly revolutionary means of reproduction, photography, simultaneously with the rise of socialism, art sensed the approaching crisis which has become evident a century later. At the time, art reacted with the doctrine of l’art pour l’art, that is, with a theology of art. This gave rise to what might be called a negative theology in the form of the idea of “pure” art, which not only denied any social function of art but also any categorizing by subject matter.”

There you go. To paraphrase Mr. Benjamin (sans Marxist syntax [and please remember that I’m speaking of primarily American/Australian/British/Canadian {AABC} poetry – a lot of other English traditions are doing quite well {not to mention poetry in other languages}]): modern poetry has abandoned the social function of poetry. Modern poetry has done this by abandoning classification in both content and form.

That is, as modern poetry (private poetry) has developed in complexity, obfuscation, and tatonnment it has become impossible to classify (indeed, how often have you asked yourself “is this even poetry?”). As humans are dependent upon our ability to put things in order, this de-classification of poetry alienates it from the mass of humanity.

(To be peremptory), it doesn’t matter if poets feel their work should or does have “social function.” The fact that it obscures itself by the very nature of its nondescriptness makes any content or purpose irrelevant in the public sphere.

That’s controversial enough for now. More soon.