Monday, April 6, 2009

The Professionalization of Poetry...It's Okay

I’ve thought a little bit more about Mattix’s article “Poetry and Subsidies: Is Materialism Ruining Creativity?” Although Mattix seems to be asserting, along with several sub-points (jabs at the avant-garde, the need for riskier poetry that is against the commercialization of art, etc., etc.), that: poetry is waning because there’s too much money thrown at mediocre poets through prizes, subsidies, grants, lectureships, and professorships.

After re-reading the article it feels like an anti-academic criticism; after all who funds the majority of the prizes, subsidies, grants, lectureships, and professorships: universities and well-funded non-profit arts organizations who often have some ties to universities. I think what Mattix is talking about is the professionalization of poetry, which essentially means that the proliferation of creative writing programs necessitates professional poets (who of course have other skills…namely teaching lit, comp, etc.).

So, a poet who loves writing and has a passion for poetry and/or literature might postulate “I should teach” and off they go to build a resume to achieve that objective. But how is this any different than any other profession. I work for a bank. How does one move up in the bank:

• They take an entry level position selling residential loans or running a depository branch, get really good at selling residential loans, etc., etc.: top producer, awards dinners, plaques in office, etc.
• They get promoted to lower level management
• Go back to school and get MBA
• They get promoted to mid-level management: more accolades, awards dinners, more responsibility and more visibility
• And they eventually get promoted to senior level management and somewhere along they way they might have to get a little more education to sweeten the deal

The prizes, subsidies, grants, lectureships, and professorships help build a prospective “professional poets” resume along with, of course, publications. I don’t think “contemporary poetry works like a Ponzi scheme operated by the academic world” (sorry BJ) because this kind of “resume building” is prevalent in any occupation. So, “resume building” is expected for those that want to teach creative writing in academia and I still have faith that the prizes, grants, and publications are available to academic and non-academic alike because quality poetry will always rise to the surface whether an MFA student or teacher poet or established god/goddess of poetry or a poet outside academia is writing the poetry. My only concerns are:

A. That poetry becomes elitist: that bad poets make all the decisions or non-poets make all the decisions regarding prizes, grants, publications, funding of creative writing programs.
B. That those poets operating within “the hallowed walls” (sorry if this offends anybody…I’m not anti-academic) of academia are writing poetry for resume building as opposed to writing because they must.
I think to some degree the surge in small, grassroots presses helps counter concern A. There are many small presses that are producing wonderful work and two that have supremely impressed me are Black Ocean Press and Octopus Books. For example, I am not at all stylistically similar to Eric Baus but his work challenges me, inspires me, makes me feel good after I read it. I’ve read The To Sound twice and finished Tuned Droves about a month ago. And as BJ puts it, there are plenty of poets writing from outside academia to give proper balance to contemporary poetry:

There are scads of poets living and working outside of academia, and these voices are quickly becoming the voices recognized as contemporary poetry. They are voices that aren't being called upon to fill job requirements, in fact, they are voices that exist despite job requirements, motivated by no other desire than to make poetry that people want to read, or, in the very least, that we want to read again later. They are voices that don't have to exist, but do…

I don’t know if they are being “recognized as contemporary poetry” but they are being recognized and are evolving into a more essential component of contemporary poetry. And I like the idea of being “motivated by no other desire than to make poetry…” This is really what I’m after…to make poetry and equally important to ingest poetry (metaphorically of course…unless said poetry is chocolate in nature or Starburst jelly beans in taste).

So, in conclusion for tonight, I don't believe materialism is ruining poetry.