25 July 2010

Publication Imminent

At least that is what my publisher has told me this past week.

And yes, I'm excited, and I'm totally humbled and happy with the good fortune and attention.  I realize how easily I could have struck out on the book publishing altogether, and a fourth book is not bad at all.  Yes, I know of other poets my age who are getting their eighth or so book out, or those who are being published by far more prestigious presses and occasionally appear in Poetry, The New Yorker, or American Poetry Review.  But I am just too fortunate to be gnashing my teeth over not getting "better" published. 

Besides, it's not like some Hollywood agent is now knocking on Rae Armantrout's door to do a movie deal.  What I love about poetry is the lack of money associated with it.  Yes, there is the example of the Ruth Lilly and her bequest to Poetry magazine and its foundation (at $200 million, that's even more than what T. Boone Pickens initially donated to the Oklahoma State University football program).   Oh yes, Billy Collins can still get $5-10K per appearance, and he did broker the first six-figure book deal by any poet.  But obviously, even the high end of the poetry market is chump change compared to any profession and to almost any trade. 

And I like it that way.  It allows the whole poetry enterprise to be largely untouched by commercial interests.  Yes, I know that there are other corrupting influences on the professional poetry world, but money, I mean serious money, isn't one of them.   I'm sure some poets are pressured in producing a certain body of work by their publisher, perhaps feeling some heat from one luke-warm, begrudging review.  But that pressure is probably felt by all of six poets in the United States.  The rest of us, well, we can pretty much operate on the margins doing whatever we bloody well want.

Probably the best parallel I can come up with is with peer visual artists, those who more or less have the same level of "success" in their artwork as I have in my poetry.  For them--and here I'm just talking about the 30 or so truly professional artists in Lee County--they feel the pressure of producing commercially viable work, whatever seems to be working for the galleries their work appears in.  It's not that they're handcuffed, but it becomes a fact of how they have to do business.  Poets, outside the Blue Flower Arts agency (which represents poets as "speakers," which is where the only money really is for poetry), are free agents.

I'm pretty happy with that lot in life, that one lack of complication.

10 July 2010

I, Academic Poet

Last week, January Gill O'Neil asked in her blog what makes a poet an academic poet, and so being an academic poet, I have the following long answer.

First, I need to say that an academic poet doesn't necessarily write academic poetry, whatever the heck that is, and I'm not going to bother in this post with a discussion of what academic poetry may or may not be.

Second, I have a fairly narrow definition of an academic poet:  a poet whose professional poetry life is tied to an academic institution and its approval.  That is, your poetry is partially being evaluated by other academics for either job hires, annual job reviews, tenure reviews, or promotion reviews.  

Thus, I consider anyone who is currently pursuing an M.F.A. or Ph.D. in creative writing automatically to be an academic poet; and most remain so for a few years after their degree, regardless whether or not they continue to remain in the academy, as they are likely refashioning their thesis/dissertation for the usual rounds of book contests.  Anyhoo, these students are seeking to satisfy academic requirements and they must submit and process their work through the workings and whatnots of their home institutions in order to receive their degree.

And obviously, then, I consider almost any poet teaching at a college or university to be an academic poet.  The "least" academic are adjuncts, as usually they are hired to be teaching drones, and their creative work is rarely included in their evaluations.  Then are the temporary instructors, those lucky enough to have full-time status, but usually temporary teaching contracts, one to three years typically.  Like adjuncts, their poetry is not usually "evaluated" in their annual reviews.  However, most adjuncts and instructors are submitting writing samples of their poetry in job application after job application, subject to academic review by hiring committees.

For those of us who have ranked positions, we're the most academic of academic poets (by the way, I teach at a university where tenure is not a part of the university's structure).  We prepare annual "professional development plans" in which we must specify what we want to accomplish with our creative work for that year.  We write annual reports assessing how well we accomplished those goals and plans.  We included copies of all our publications as well as any publicity materials we have for readings and conferences.  Every year our chair and dean have to sign off on these plans and reports.  Then, if we go up for promotion, we submit everything yet again to some Tenure Committee or Peer Review Committee, again always for the sake of academic approval.

Thus, every year, you are supposed to be viable, active, publishing, and writing, being able to document that for academic credentialing.  This has nothing to do with the poetry itself.  And it can be also beside the point, and sometimes, it can be very destructive for the poetry itself, not to mention the poet.

At my institution, with scholarship, there is supposed to be a progression of quality and prominence as you climb from assistant to associate to full professor.  I have always had a problem with the trajectory of this narrative (and I think math professors do as well), as it assumes a fairly lineal progression, that year by year you will get increasingly more "prestigious" publications and awards, that you'll grow into achieving some kind of national reputation in your field by the end of it all.  What if you're a genius and shoot your wad at 28?  Or what if your work goes out of fashion?  Or what if your new work is so radically brilliant that it won't ever get published?  Or what if . . . .

But it's too late then, as you have signed on to this career path.  So with your promotion materials, you kill a couple of trees with all the photocopies of everything you have to provide, as you yet again justify your poetry for academic review, yet again waiting for the same word of approval you received in your first graduate workshop.  You're still in the club, ol' chap.

Lately, though, I have been thinking of an art student who took a graduate creative writing workshop when I was an MFA student at Indiana University--this would've been in 1982.  Late in the semester, for her last poem to be workshopped, she brought in a dozen paper bags, each quite used, all twisted closed.  She said her project was a failure, because we were supposed to come by these bags by accident--her plan was to place the bags haphazardly, on a bus, in a field, in a closet room at a club--but the course required her to bring the work into class.  Inside each bag was the poem cut up into a hundred paper fragments, just confetti, really.  She also mixed in a little dirt, dandelion clippings, and who knows what else.  The professor "got it," but reminded the student this was a poetry workshop, and we really needed to see the poem intact on a single piece of paper in order to workshop it. 

Me, ever since, yes, I've been the dutiful one, getting my reports in on time and following the specifications to perfection.  At worst, this is what academic poets do in fact become.

For me, truly, my only recent poetry outlet beyond my ivory tower is with my own experiments with performance (even though they can also be easily included in my c.v.), those things that resist a paper trail.  Oh, to put my annual report in a shoe box, every poem faithfully copied, shredded, with maybe some egg shells, sand, a drop of oil.  You see, a poet would indeed do that.

01 July 2010

Lottery Time, Of Sorts

Just finished with copying and mailing of materials for a Florida Arts fellowship, which is a biennial affair as is the NEA fellowship, which I submitted a few months ago.  I can't complain about the bother, as I have won more than my share.

It's something of a crapshoot, a lottery, although that makes it sound only as if it were a matter of luck.  In one respect, there is indeed an element of fortune.  For the NEA (if the system of evaluation hasn't changed over the years), the submissions are divided up among groups of readers for first evaluation.  A good deal of your luck there is contingent upon which set of readers your poems are assigned to:  the wrong group early, and you have no shot.  But if your poems make it into the second round, your work is considered by all the readers.  That's actually a fair system, despite some of the arbitrariness.

In Florida, all the readers evaluate all the submissions.  On one hand, that is extraordinarily fair.  To get into the final round, your submission has to achieve an average score of "8" out of "10."  But on the other hand, this is where the system of averages can be skewed by a single judge, who might deliberately give all the submissions he or she doesn't value a low score of "0" or "1."  With the panels consisting of only five judges, that kind of skewing would prevent a submission that got "9" from each of the other judges from going into the next round--this is why in much of Olympic scoring the high and low marks are tossed out. 

In any event, submitting for fellowships reminds me most of submitting writing samples for graduate school applications--where you regard not the communication and dynamics between poems as you would for a book manuscript, but the quality of poems and what they reveal about your aesthetics and abilities.  Do you opt for depth of style, showcasing your strength in narrative?  Do you bring together a unified sequence to demonstrate cohesion?  Do you choose to show the eclecticism of your tastes in subject matter?  Do you decide to showcase your ability to work in closed forms?

Obviously, you send your "best" work, but for me, that's such a slippery idea, and honestly these days, about the only time I genuinely make that consideration, group poems by their "quality," is when I put together a fellowship submission.  That's where the grouping of the poems seems most haphazard.  And even then, I have opted not to follow that criterion of quality.

Anyway, of course, I hope to win, and it's a shock and surprise when it does come my way--even moreso than a book acceptance.  Is it the money, those pennies from the poetry gods?  Yup.  But it's also because the poems serve no other purpose but for that recognition (and the money is ultimately about time, but that's another issue).  How odd when I compare that to why I write otherwise.

And what of the usual of not getting the money?  I always eagerly read the list of fellowship grantees, and yes, I am most often Miss Congeniality, really happy for these poets because we so seldom get this kind of recognition, and sometimes I am Susan Lucci, wanting to kick the winner in the groin all the while I smile bravely.