“I would like to become a poet like you but I’m afraid I won’t be able to support myself. What should I do? —Bob the Broke Poet
Poets once made themselves ubiquitous at Occupy Wall Street and the various Occupy Movements around the country. Happily so. Like many people across our great swath of land, poets know that the current American Economic system doesn’t serve them. It serves banks and gigantic mega-global corporations. Poets don’t need banks, they need ham sandwiches. We’re just the human batteries inside their matrix. In the same way that Charlie Brown of “Peanuts” fame is the Charlie Browniest, If there’s anyone in the 99% getting the long hard screw, poets are the 99%-est. So chant and carry signs and read your poems at protests, poets. It’s all good.
American Poetry relies on the lie that if you work hard and pay into the system, good things will happen for you, too. Chances are, no good things will ever happen to you in this art or any art. The Traditional American Publishing System simply is not interested in Poetry in any real way. The big houses select a few poets apiece, continue to publish them over the course of their careers and hope they acquire an audience. Put the right cover and the right blurbs on a book of anything and then put it in every chain bookstore in America and you’ll sell an OK amount of books before you have to pulp them and turn them into a mystery paperback. Just because a book is published by a big publisher or well-blurbed, it doesn’t mean it’s any good. Right?
You know, take a Rothko painting, get quotes from Former Poet Laureate A and National Book Award Winner B, that sort of thing. Most poets just give blurbs away like candy. They are paying to play, too. Blurb this and get blurbed. And so there’s a large, hungry poet who someday wants to have a book with a Rothko cover and blurbs from former award winners. They will buy this $18 80-page book just to devour all its secrets? I’m pretty convinced that most poets when they’re reading books of poems are reading right through the poems, to try to understand what the press and editor was looking for. Something that can quantify as a brand and then recreate in their work. This American Poetry System continually pits you against all the other poets in America to get whatever it is you want from the Art. Readings, books, awards, review attention. You think, why did that poet get that? Instead of, why did this system create so few opportunities if there are so many of us?
It is no stretch to think that American Poetry could benefit a much larger amount of poets than it currently does. Once e-book technology becomes available to poets themselves, poets will have the ability to publish and distribute one another without the intrusion of middle management. There’s plenty of shelf space on the internet. And the tastes of editors have always been overrated. Judging a poet’s poems is a fuzzy transaction. Judging a poet’s fame is way easier. Poets are not brands of toothpaste or new shows on CBS. Some books are good and some are crummy. And some poets get chances and opportunities and some just never will. Not out of any sort of brilliant master plan on behalf of American publishers. They rejected Emily Dickinson, too, you know. Like, every single time.
More criminally, American colleges and universities have been steadily jacking up tuition over the past 25 years. Even paying into this system to get an undergraduate and graduate degree doesn’t mean you’ll ever get a job. Chances are your professors won’t even remember your name after a year or two, if they ever learn it in the first place. The only perceivable benefit from getting an MFA in poetry writing at one of the institutions of higher learning in this country is that you’ll be able to maybe someday teach poetry writing to other kids someday. The wheel of crushing debt spins on and on.
I’ve often railed against overly ambitious, deviously-climbing poets in our art. But it’s the system that makes poets act like jerks. We see some poems inexplicably lauded and other poems ignored. Being published or having one’s poems marketed effectively doesn’t mean the poems are any better than anything out there. (VIDA’s recent counts have underlined some of the major blind spots in American Publishing in magazines and books; if someone did a count of the minority poets or LGBT poets to be found in those outlets, the results would be similarly depressing and alarming.) The slush pile is a lousy place to be. Perhaps the one or two poems that somehow miraculously rise up out of that black hole do so for the same reason that balls fall into just the right order in the lottery drawings: just dumb luck. The lottery is actually a much more fair system than the one that Poetry operates under. There’s a very good chance that you’ll at least make your money back at some point on a scratch ticket.
So what can you do to overthrow this system that benefits the famous at the expense of you? Make some noise. Act out. Demand the things you want from Poetry. Rage against the fax machine. Poetry’s ruling paradigm is extremely outdated and benefits only the status quo. You should not have to be a straight, white male poet in his 60s or 70s to get anything back from American Poetry. If you’ve paid tuition, paid to enter contests, paid to have your manuscript read, paid to attend AWP, you ought to get something in return. Not the vague, vanishing kind of promises. Actual results for your buck. Thanksgiving turkeys line up patiently and nicely at the chopping block, but you don’t have to.
Jim Behrle lives in Jersey City, NJ and rarely fights the power.