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You’re All Good
A few years ago, I got a mass email from a poet acquaintance. Sent to a dozen of his peers, this poet offered to pay “the usual fee” to anyone who would review his new book. Needless to say, it should be positive. Not quite in the loop, I didn’t know there was a usual fee, though I had already figured out that reriews of contemporary poetry weren’t primarily about literary assessment, but schmoozing. Dishonesty isn’t just rampant, it’s more or less required. The reasons should be obvious. The poetry ghetto is tiny. Sooner or later, you will pretty much meet just about everybody. In Denver this week, you can probably do it in a night, if you know which after hour karaoke bar to pop in. (Do check your cane at the door, Rigoberto. I won’t be inside, waiting to give you a hug in solidarity. Maybe some other time.) In such a cozy community, even a vaguely negative review can have nasty consequences. You have just made a lifelong enemy, someone who can deny you a grant, job or reading invitation down the line. With the pie so puny, you gotta lick each crumb before someone else does. Pen a puff piece, however, and you have just gained a new ally.
Responding to my gentle poke at the factory farm, MFA racket, poets have pointed out the benefits it brings them such as health insurance, a three-month vacation, even campus housing as “subsidized luxury.” Hell, I’d love those perks too! Like Ange Mlinko, who wouldn’t want a daily dip in the Mediterranean? But these are exactly the carrots dangling in front of the debt-addled students. To keep them (audaciously) hoping, dishonesty comes into play, again. Whatever the professor does, he must not frighten his charge into leaving the program. That would not be viewed kindly by the head cheerleader and used car salesman, uh, I mean, the department head. He should not warn them about their dismal prospects of making it, not just economically but as a writer. He must not let on, above all, that he himself may be irrelevant and unread, i.e., that he’s already a failed poet. To keep them paying, the professor must reassure his young investors.
As with contemporary poetry criticism, flattery has become the dominant mode. It could only be called encouragement if so much money wasn’t involved. As is, it really is a pyramid scheme. I’m not here to insult but to warn your precious students. As you count and justify your rewards, I’m pow wowing with them. If I had a class in front of me, I would point them to a passage such as this, from Eiríkur Örn Norðdahl:
It’s been a little over 10 years since I decided for sure, rock-solid, that I was going to be a writer no matter what. In that time I’ve mostly hustled – I’ve worked as a nightwatchman, I’ve worked as a reporter (and skipped having a social-life, mostly, working at night instead of watching TV or meeting people), I’ve signed up for school to be applicable for student loans (and then dropped-out, as I was home writing), I’ve collected unemploymant benefit, I’ve worked three jobs for several weeks to be able to relax and write for a couple of months – I’ve been really poor, collected gross debts. In the last three years I’ve twice gotten a smaller stipendium, and I’ve translated several crime-novels and the like, and thus manage an existence where I can “work from home” (or more accurately, from the library, as I have a six-month-old baby at home who makes it kinda hard to work there).
Why hustle, many of you will ask, when you can have a tenured track position on some leafy campus? But you’re already hustling! Speaking of which, Etheridge Knight is said to have sold a car, then driven off with it. To those suffering from the post MFA hangover, yet not as adept as Etheridge or Eiríkur at keeping one’s head just above the waves, I offer these free signs. Just cut along the edges and, voila, you’re ready to hit the street!: