Sunday, May 29, 2011

Why I Don't Worry About Posting Poems

1. I can always make more.

The idea that poems, even good poems, are a scarce resource is absurd. As long as you can keep making new art, some of it will be good, and some of it will be worth sharing. The idea that creativity is a scarce and treasured resource appeals to the mentality of some who would jealousy guard everything they own to keep entropy from taking it all away. But that's lack-thinking, not abundance-thinking. It's the mindset of the finite, closed game, in which someone must win and someone else must lose, versus the open-ended mindset of the infinite game, which stays in play forever.

Mostly I wait for poems to happen. (Right now, not many poems are happening, as all those currents seem to be flowing into the well of lyrics needed for the new music commission I am writing.) But I have been known, when inspired, to write to a prompt, or to write specifically for submission within the parameters given by a poetry journal, or other periodical. And I've had some success with that approach. (Although I am tempted to place "success" in quotes purely because what poetry-critical culture views as success is what I almost never think about, especially in the act of writing.)

2. The idea that posting a poem on one's website (or other online venue like this) means that the poem can't be published elsewhere is ridiculous.

Those poetry journals that view posting poems on one's own website, or even on a poetry workshop/critique forum means the poem has been "previously published" and therefore ought to be rejected, is based on the idea that only originality is good and true and must be pursued. Of course, ever since the beginning of the Romantic period in Western art (the early 1800s, circa the lifetime of Goethe), and especially during the Mondernist avant-garde of a century ago, the archetype of Originality, as well as of the Hero-Artist, has been lauded and praised and raised on a pedestal of its own making.

While I am not interested in recombinant or sampler literature—sampler-based music is only as good as its drum samples (kudos to Clyde Stubblefield, the single most sampled and under-credited funk/jazz drummer ever), and sample-based literature such as flarf and Oulipo is only as good as what it is sampling—I think there's a balance to be found between "pure" originality (there is no such thing) and overtly sampling art. Postmodernism is all about the reaction against Romantic and Modernist originality: postmodernism is fundamentally recombinant, with all possible elements viewed as being picked from a level playing field, whether they were formally fine art, outsider art, or popular culture ephemera. Postmodernism views "originality" in quotations itself, viewing all historical influences and root-sources as equally recombinant. While postmodernism's critique of colonial imperialism and hegemonic cultural norms has a great deal of merit to it, the formation of a brave new world wherein everything is reduced to same lowest common denominator of indeterminate artistic merit is not the answer.

And as for original rights in publishing: What, you've never heard of poems being republished in anthologies? Why is it so hard to generalize from that towards publishing a "previously published" poem purely because it's good, and because you, as the editor, want to publish it? The idea that one's journal's prestige is based mostly on publishing original work really limits your options. it's a valid route, if you want to take it, but it's not the only route available.

3. Because I can always write more, part two: Even when I don't want to write a poem, sometimes I do.

The idea that I am consciously in control of what comes out of my creative impulse is based on the false assumption that art is made by the will, from the mind alone, or by a finely-tuned antenna locked on the frequency of the subconscious universe—all of which are subject to the will of the personality-ego. Actually, none of these suppositions are true; although, in our left-brain dominated, personality-egocentric culture, we like to pretend they are. It seems to give us comfort, this idea that we are in control of our own artistic destinies.

All of these suppositions are premises underlying the plaudits given to the Hero-Artist. But the other kinds of artists, including those who seem to channel directly from the back-brain, are the exception that gives the lie to the myth. You can't pretend that Hero-Artists are the most important kind of artists, when the background is filled with other kinds of artists radiating on other wavelengths.

The Hero-Artist is best represented, in fact, by the consciously-willed art-making depicted in Soviet and fascist sculpture and illustration: art made under the dictatorship of the will of the proletariat. Beyond the obvious point that this way of art-making leads to a lot of bad political art, what it implies is that all of life is subject to the will alone, the will in action, the will dominating all other aspects of consciousness and action in the world. This is the dictatorship of the conscious-mind ego, and it is invariably a fragile dictatorship, unable to withstand much contradiction or criticism. Membership in ideology is enforced by brutality: the bullies knocking everyone else down on the playing field of life and art.

Poetry editors who believe, even unconsciously, in this worldview, have a hard time comprehending that poems often come to me when I don't want them to, when I'd rather be doing something. Yet the discipline of being a poet is to be ready at all times for a poem to happen, and to catch it in your net when it rises to the surface. Usually I have to drop everything to get it down before it evaporates. Ideas often come to me just as I'm falling asleep, and I must write them down quickly, to review them in the morning. Answers to problems I'm having with a piece of music, or a set of lyrics, often come this way. Your conscious mind is actually starting to shut down, and get out of the way. And that's often exactly when your clearest, best ideas appear. So much for will.

4. Really, who reads your poems anyway?

Seriously. I do not experience enough hubris to genuinely believe that many folks read any of my poems, or care to. It's a big universe out there. It's no surprise that nobody cares. Don't take it personally.

The only time posting a poem has even been an issue was when some anal-retentive editor did a browser search to confirm the poem had never ever appeared anywhere before. Seriously, if they're going to be that anal-retentive, that hard to please, do you really want to work with them? Well, it's a choice. But it's worth asking yourself what you intend to get out of it.

It's rare that someone new will stumble across a poem, and make a comment on it. It's rare for folks to care that much about it. It's even more rare for them to want to follow up.

5. Nonetheless, sometimes someone stumbles across one of your poems online and wants to (re)publish it.

That's a very nice moment of flattery, that someone noticed you and liked what they saw, and asked you for it. And sometimes for more. I get asked for some of my photography and visual art from time to time. I usually say yes. (Usually. Many requests repeat the mistake of thinking I should be flattered when they ask for something for free. If you really want to engage my interest, offer payment other than free "exposure.") When that happens, it makes you feel like all this art-making is actually worth it. That you're not alone and shouting into an alien universe with nary an echo returning. That somehow, you've managed to connect with at least one other person.

And that's the real birth of your audience. Odysseas Elytis, the Nobel-prize winning modern Greek poet, once opined, and I think this is true: Every poet needs an audience of three, and since every poet has two good friends, the search is always for that perfect third reader.

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2 Comments:

Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

In the strictness sense anything that appears on the Internet that anyone can access, even accidentally, has been published. If I were telling you this in an e-mail it would be different; that’s a personal correspondence between the two of us which you may choose to publish or keep to yourself. The fact is that only a handful of people will ever read these sentences. Yes, they are available to be read but that’s all. And, let’s say that I include a poem, as I often do, to illustrate a point, again, how many people will read that poem? Only once in my life has anyone noticed that a poem appeared somewhere else and the editor still took it. (This was back in the days when I didn’t know about such things and sent the same poems to everyone and anyone.) I think that editors need to gain a little perspective here: it is very unlikely that anyone who reads a poem in their journal will read any other journal that might happen to have the same poem in it. I would argue that no one reads (m)any journals that they don’t have poems in. I certainly don’t. I don’t think I’ve bought a poetry magazine in over ten years. If I found a magazine that published the kind of poetry I like to read I would, sure, but since I pretty much hate/don’t see the point of/don’t get most poetry I read anyway I think that’s very unlikely. No, I’ll stick to books and sites by single authors.

Where I am bad, and this is a definite problem with electronic publishing, is where I do stumble across a poem that works for me – you’ve written one of two – and I don’t do anything with it. I have saved a grand total of one poem off the Internet that someone wrote, one. By now I should have a tidy collection of decent poetry but I have one and I do have to wonder just how future generations are going to feel about the stuff they read. Is everything going to be treated as disposable? Read and toss. Read and toss. And why would they want to hang onto it because tomorrow they’ll have an inbox or a feedreader full of new, juicy stuff to read and toss?

4:34 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Your first point is a good summation. Editors do need to get some perspective. Maybe there's some professional jealousy going on beneath the surface, because surely journal editors do realize that fewer people read their publications than might read the same poem on someone's personal blog. The chances of the readership having any overlap, though, are trivial.

That's why I find the whole idea of rejecting a poem because it's been "previously published" online to be so silly: there's almost no chance that a reader will have seen the poem before anyway. (Unless it's a personal friend following your work.) The idea that poems are somehow a scarce resource is absurd.

The other argument that editors make is that they want unpublished work because they want to be first to publish it. (First publication rights.) They want to position themselves on the leading edge of poetry publishing by being able to say "you saw it here first, folks."

The problem with this argument is that nobody else really cares. The poet wants to get published anytime, anywhere. (Writers are always ready to prostitute their art, and rightly so.) The reader doesn't care if the poem is new to them. And so on. So when an editor make this argument it still doesn't seem very realistic.

As to your second point, I agree about compiling a personal anthology of poems one likes. Back in the old days, one used to copy a poem one loved into one's journal. These days, you can still do that, but you can also save the HTML page onto a folder on your hard drive. I do that sometimes, when I find a really great poem I want to remember. I also do my best to go buy the poet's book, if the poem appears in a book. Finding books of poems can be very challenging, as they are almost always small print runs with limited distribution. There are a couple of bookstores one can rely on, who care enough to carry a lot of poetry. But those stores are rare, too.

So making a personal anthology is no bad thing. We just have to remember to engage with the process.

10:15 AM  

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