Sunday, September 6, 2009

There's too much money in poetry!

(You don't get rich from poetry, part 2)

Despite Robert Lee Brewer (not to mention Robert Graves) saying "there's no money in poetry," Micah Mattix tells us that he knows what's wrong with modern poetry: it's corrupted by too much money.


He's commenting on his earlier article, "Poetry and Subsidies: Is Materialism Ruining Creativity?", and the criticism of it.

Too much money? Well, maybe he has a point. He says: "The fact is, if you add up all of the lectureships and professorships at creative writing programs at universities, and add this figure to fellowships and prizes, there are more institutional funds (both private and public) devoted to poetry than ever before."
He quotes from Dana Gioia's classic essay, now 18 years old:

"Decades of public and private funding have created a large professional class for the production and reception of new poetry comprising legions of teachers, graduate students, editors, publishers, and administrators. Based mostly in universities, these groups have gradually become the primary audience for contemporary verse. Consequently, the energy of American poetry, which was once directed outward, is now increasingly focused inward."

Well, he may have a point. There are 2618 accredited four-year colleges and universities in the US-- probably twice that number when you add in community colleges-- and a good fraction of them have creative writing departments. Poets get hired, getting promoted, get awards and fellowships and sabbaticals and tenure based on publishing poetry in the "right" 'zines, the "literary" ones, the ones with "high ambition" that are "highly selective."

What is this doing to poetry? All those literary quarterlies and reviews-- just who's actually reading them, anyway?

Brewer had said, "I think the lack of money in poetry helps take the pressure off the art form. It's really all about a great line, a wonderful image, something that sticks with the reader." But that "lack of money in poetry" is an illusion-- if you count creative writing departments, it sure looks like poetry is a business churning through hundreds of millions of dollars a year.

Have we evolved a professional poetry-business? A "large professional class for the production and reception of new poetry" that has "gradually become the primary audience for contemporary verse?" Wait a minnit! What about poetry that people actually like to read?

Is that what's wrong with contemporary poetry?


Charles Gramlich said...

I never thought about it that way. I sure wish I could get some of those subsides.

Mike Allen said...

Geoff, I enjoyed reading these and following the links you pointed to -- great food for thought.

S Scott Whitaker said...

very nice, although i wonder how much longer this "professional class" will last with regional and small presses continuing to power the larger unsung non academics, who are often more interesting, and either cleave to forms, or americana free verse, or wild new processes of language

Greg said...

there may be too much money in poetry at the higher (academic/literary) levels, but there's certainly not in the small presses. i think poetry is and will always continue to be a labor of love.

Geoffrey A. Landis said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Brian S said...

All I can really say to the charge that there's too much money in poetry is, "have any of the people making that charge tried to get a tenure-track job teaching it?" I suspect not. The market is beyond tight--last year, which was a banner year for poetry jobs until the economy crashed and burned, the average position I applied for received upwards of 200 applicants. I had friends who were former Stegner Fellows with prestigious book awards and publications who couldn't get interviews at MLA. And this year, it looks like it's going to be even tighter.

Like I said in my original post on the subject, it may be that there's more money than ever in poetry, but it's also possible that there's still not enough there. The two positions are not mutually exclusive. Mattix's complaint is that there's not enough poetry he likes, and too much he dislikes, so he created a straw poet he could burn down instead.

Geoffrey A. Landis said...

Yes; people I know doing the adjunct-instructor in English thing have part-time work at two, and in one case even three, different campuses. It's hard out there.

Of course, effectively, what this may be doing is triggering an arms race for those jobs. These days a MFA is barely a credential to get a shot at a part-time gig, and there are thousands of people trying to fluff up their credentials to get shot at something a little more secure.

Brian S said...

Enter the PhD in Creative Writing. Part of the problem is that not all MFAs are created equal. I got mine at Arkansas, which is a 60 hour program with 30 hours of coursework in literature classes. I tell people that and I get horrified looks in return. And yet, a number of my classmates went on to pursue PhDs in Creative Writing, essentially the same degree, same system, but with a different set of letters at the end, because it makes them more marketable. Will it help? Probably, at least when it comes to getting an interview, assuming you have multiple books and other prestigious pubs.

I've really come to appreciate the position I have--it's full-time, though not tenure-track. I teach a 4/4 and my department values me to the extent that I teach upper-division Lit and CW courses nearly every semester. I make enough to starve on, but it's a lot better than the adjuncts make and I get full benefits. It's a good gig--not everything I want, but good all the same. Most poets I know who want an academic job would slit my throat for it, though (if they were the throat-slitting type, anyway).

Runechris said...

I am not an academic poet and I‘ve not been involved in the local poetry scenes very long. So my comments are based more on what I’ve seen so far and what I know from my experience in interacting with poets on a local level. This includes a mix of street and academic poets if you are going to make a distinction between them.
But something about this article bothers me. I feel it makes a lot of assumptions. First that poetry and the ‘business’ of poetry are homogeneous… they are not. And that it might actually be egalitarian…. and I don’t think is true either. Or it does not appear to be from my vantage point.
There is a lot of posturing and positioning that takes place to be noticed and to be funding let alone just being recognized or even being published. Not just in noted journals or publication but also at the small press or zine level.

I see it on a daily basis. It is not even necessary sometimes to have good material for a small press or zine to be published, you seem to only need to know the right people. So it isn’t always based on talent but on connections. That’s the sad part. In some cases it is.. but not from what I’ve seen from my vantage point. It is very discouraging to a “young” poet.
I assume funding is sometimes dispersed in the same way even at the university levels. And that is unfortunately where most of the big money for poetry is, if you want to call it BIG, is at the academic or university level. Many small presses and zines struggle financially and are often privately funded by the zine editors, often at a deficit. I actually feel it affects the quality of poetry at both ends of the spectrum. At the top end because to get published in the proper journals and funded you have to stifle your creativity to fit in, get tenure, etc...but not necessarily make big money on your books or salary. At the local and small press level it is all about being noticed and admitted to the “group”. A lot of good people are left unnoticed because they refuse to play the game or suck up to someone to be published, or even knowing the right people, much of that being based on “politics”. I think that as much as the money aspect sucks the creativity out of poetry. And if they think academic that teach CW and or literature make big money they are mistaken. I know many an instructor that can only get part-time coarse work, tenure track is very hard to get today and even that doesn’t always pay well now. So where is this BIG money of which they speak? Not anywhere I’ve seen or heard from talking to people.

DyanaAset said...

I don't have and most likely never will have a tenure-track job, but then again, I don't teach creative writing very often. I teach mostly composition, and when I'm lucky, literature.
If we can somehow take the snobbishness out of academic poetry in general and MFA programs in particular and make it once again--as it is in many countries--an art form by and for the people, rather than a self-perpetuating navel-gazing exercise, then we will get somewhere as poets.
Then the money will begin. Until then, most of us are just hanging on. If people wonder why I mostly write nonfiction and other stuff that makes me money, it's because I make so little as a teacher that I have to supplement my income with my writing...something ironic about that...

michael salinger said...

The likes of former poet laureate Ted Kooser, Wendell Berry and Octavio Pas have made similar comments re: the symbiotically parasitical relationship of academia and criticism. In a nutshell: In order for critics to have a job - poetry bordering on the inscrutable must be produced. In order for poets to be noticed by the critics they must produce work that needs to be deciphered. This can be accomplished by writing obtusely and calling it “experimental” while following a bunch of derivative rules, ignoring narrative in lieu of some sort of self congratulatory “craft” or presenting overly simple work delivered with an ironic come hither wink.

By creating this special level of verse – the intention of which is deciphering for the sake of deciphering – poetry remains a secret language only understood by folks with acronyms following their names. This keeps out the riff raff. Of course it also narrows the audience – but producing work with wider appeal would be poking pins in this hermetically sealed grant money inflated bubble anyway.

I mean poetry is meant to be studied – not enjoyed. Isn't it?

Karen Sandstrom said...

I love this conversation. I'm not a poet (which is not to say I've never written a poem, but ...). But the criticism rings true, and I think there's a parallel in the world of fiction, particularly the short story.
Ditto for newspapers. The more these disciplines become interested in professionalization (and prizes! don't forget ESTEEMED PRIZES!)the more exclusionary they become.

sammy greenspan said...

Who am I to argue with the likes of Kooser et al? But this exchange is feeling a little claustrophobic to me.

If you think newer poetic forms can't be captivating, try Norton's 2009 anthology, "American Hybrid"--and don't skip the foreword. I find good poetry in academic venues, and in community and small press spots. Plenty of bad or under-developed poetry in both areas, too. A prejudice either for or against highly accessible "narrative" poetry--prejudice which sets it in opposition to more abstract or non-linear verse--is like a prejudice between abstract and representational painting. Why buy into outdated pigeon-holing? Why not celebrate all types of quality writing, whether it happens to emanate from the academy or the streets?

Picasso did not paint as he did because he desired to insult or snub or otherwise alienate the public. Neither did James Joyce write with that intent. Visionary artists are often misunderstood, even excoriated in their own time. Are there sometimes big egos at play who do have that purpose? Sure, but it's our job to weed out the quality work for ourselves.

In this country we treat artists of all stripes approximately as well as we treat waiters. (Come to think of it, most of us have supported our art, at one time or another, as waiters). Economy of scarcity is the name of the game. There's no huge fountain of cash in academic poetry--compared to other professions with similar training time, it's underpaid. Has the proliferation of MFA programs spawned some undercooked, derivative writing? Yeah, better informed people than me have documented that pretty well. That doesn't mean everything emanating from educated and literate quarters sucks. Wide audiences are one goal to strive for, but not the only or always the best goal for any artist.

At the risk of being labeled elitist: a poet's job is not just to open poetry to his audience, but also to carry the art form itself forward. Adhering to old forms is not always the best way to do this. While not every artist accepts this mission or needs to, thank goodness some do.

I enjoy a good Mary Oliver piece as much as the next guy. But for the record, Geoffrey, I *love* to read Brenda Hillman, John Yau, and a whole scadoodle of other "modern" poets. They are, in my view, part of what is most right about contemporary poetry.

My humble opinion, of course, and your mileage (obviously) may vary.


The poet doesn't invent. He listens. ~Jean Cocteau