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Boston (well, actually, Somerville) is the first city I lived in after receiving my poetic license.  Here again now, enjoying the sun off the Charles and the good food at Toro and the many offerings at the American Literature Association Annual Conference, I’m wondering what it means to be a publishing poet.

I went on a walk of nostalgia today. I remembered how much I prefer the Red Line to the Green Line.  I remembered how amazing the selection is at the Wine and Cheese Cask. I felt bad about not calling my old friends (apologies to everyone, I promise to call ahead on my next visit, the excuses are myriad, call and I’ll spill). I even remembered (when I snuck out of the conference for a short visit to my old neighborhood—highlights pictured above) the man we called Tony the Tiger.

Tony lived across the street from me. I remember my elation upon receiving notice about an early poem’s acceptance to a journal I was quite excited to be published in.  Tony, I recall, scoffed, wondering when I would publish in a journal he’d actually heard of.

Oh, to be an American poet.

I remember meeting Maya Lin, the vision behind the Vietnam Memorial on the DC Mall.  Her brother is a poet. But when I asked her what she thought of Yusef Komunyakaa’s “Facing It,” arguably one of the most anthologized poems by the Pulitzer Prize winning poet, she’d didn’t know what I was talking about.

The odds are against our poems, and our poetry publications, gaining a major audience.

Tony the Tiger is likely never to hear about most of the places where I publish my work.

So, returning from my trip to the little alley where Tony questioned me about my publication record, I was already thinking about these things when, while on the T (the steady Red Line, not that lurchy Green), I stumbled on a blog post in which the poet Timothy Green compares submission acceptance rates to baseball’s Batting Average on Balls in Play.

I don’t know what more to say about this other than that, with the sun glinting off the Charles, the MIT sailing team out for afternoon drills, my guilt over not calling Steve or Eloise or Tom or David or Victor or Amanda or Lynne or …. in high gear, and my nostalgia about myself as a young poet eager to publish and not sure where or whether or if ever enough all ramped up, Green’s post put it all into a kind of perspective I can live with for awhile.

Originally Published: May 23rd, 2009

Poet and editor Camille T. Dungy was born in Denver but moved often as her father, an academic physician, taught at many different medical schools across the country. She earned a BA from Stanford University and an MFA from the University of North Carolina, Greensboro.   Dungy’s full-length poetry publications include Trophic...

  1. May 23, 2009
     Christopher Woodman

    I was very struck by the current top item on the NEWS page of this site:\r

    "Poetry News: 30 Most Recent Entries\r
    05.22.09\r
    Foetry international: Arab poetry prize winner turns out Jewish."\r

    Everybody should check this out, it's such a positive event. \r

    A Jewish poet, Tuvit Shlomi, submitted a poem to an Arab Poetry contest–and won! The prestigious El Hizjra Prize is a poetry award designed to promote the culture of Arab immigrants to Holland, particularly those from Morocco. Tuvit Shlomi, who is a Jewish immigrant to Holland, used a pseudonym in her submission because her name is so obviously Jewish–and even Israeli. But she was quick to reveal her true name to the organizers, as per the regulations, and was subsequently praised not only for the quality of her Arabic and her poetry, but for her good will and understanding.\r

    So why list the news as from "Foetry International?" There is no reference to a "Foetry International" on the JTA News Bulletin, so this is obviously the Poetry Foundation's on-line News editor's comment on the news.\r

    So what is the Poetry Foundation's message then? Should Jews not support Arab poetry? Is it somehow compromising for a Jew to write in Arabic, or for an Arab to read poetry written by a Jew–and praise it? Or is the Poetry Foundation suggesting that the results have been compromised by favoritism?\r

    It's a good piece of news, and the JTA article is excellent, so my comment is not aimed at anyone–just at a word.\r

    Because I do have a question, and I think it's an important one. Now that the dust has settled, now that Alan Cordle has gone back to the library and Georgia has resumed its Poetry Series under new management, what does the word "Foetry" mean to us? How are we to use this neologism, and what is its contemporary value? And did the Poetry Foundation on-line News editor use it appropriately in the context, and in so doing did he or she deepen our understanding of the news?\r

    Christopher Woodman

  2. May 23, 2009
     Terreson

    Camille Dungy, memory lane always has more than two sides of the street. Keep your head high and walk as deliberately as a big cat walking the forest floor with all its layered detritus. The floor is yours anyway.\r

    Oh. Christopher Woodman are you still milking that old cow? Next I guess we will have to hear the story again of what a hero you were in a scandal no one much remembers anymore. Kind of rude, dude.\r

    Terreson

  3. May 24, 2009
     Christopher Woodman

    I posted my previous comment in the hope that it might in some magical way find itself connected with the NEWS item it discusses. No such luck, and I feel embarrassed now to find it cluttering up Camille Dungy's fine entry. I'm also embarrassed that it solicited an ugly put-down worthy of the bad old 'Foetry' days. \r

    Needless to say, this is not what I meant at all.\r

    But all is not lost because Camille Dungy does come close to a theme that the neologism 'Foetry' might actually signify. In "Speaking of Batting Averages," she refers us to a lively essay by the editor of Rattle, Timothy Green, called "Batting Average on Balls in Play." Timothy Green writes, "You’d think poets with books published and tenure-track teaching jobs and literary connections would run circles around the high school seniors in AP English, but you’d be wrong. The difference on average was only a couple hits a month – so the best indicator of success wasn’t how big your bio was, or even how good your poems seemed to be, but rather simply how often you submit." And it's the assumptions behind that statement that are bothering Camille Dungy, obviously, assumptions that might now be easier to get our minds around simply because we have passed through the 'Foetry' phenomenon. Today in America, even AP students assume that real poets have "big Bios," "tenure-track jobs" and "connections"–which is certainly not the case in most places in the world today, and wasn't the case in America either until only very recently. Even "how often you submit" is a brand new assumption, even "submit" itself is an assumption--poets submit and important poets submit a lot is what American poetry has come to assume simply because publishing poems is now the avenue to a viable career!\r

    Would it be wrong to say that the abuses which the neologism 'Foetry' has come to stand for are new, or at least have arisen in the past 40 years? Would that statement be comprehensible to an AP student today--or to his or her young teacher still hoping to get into graduate school, as a poet?\r

    As a much, much older poet I can honestly say that I was NOT brought up with those assumptions. Indeed, while I was studying English literature at three of the finest universities in the world in the 50s and the 60s, the 'Foetry' concept would have been unthinkable–as unthinkable as the assumption that a Jewish poet winning an Arab poetry prize ought to blow some whistles!\r

    Christopher Woodman

  4. May 24, 2009
     thomas brady

    Christopher,\r

    Poetry is politics by other means. Poetry does its work beneath the radar of politics, unless poetry itself is infected with politics, and then politics must live under poetry's radar, sans dignity, sans metaphor, sans beauty.\r

    Thomas

  5. May 24, 2009
     Colin Ward

    "So if you take a player’s batting average and subtract out the at bats that became home runs or strikeouts, you get a stat called Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP), which amounts to a measure of how lucky you’ve been."\r

    While I'd never question Tim Green's poetic judgement I take issue with his view of baseball. Ted Williams consistently led the league in Batting Average for Balls In Play so either he was the Law of Average's Most Wanted Man or there is a skill involved in "hitting 'em where they ain't". Few would argue that a batter with a .300 average last year is more likely to bat .200 than .300 this year. Owners and managers count on this consistency.\r

    "Removing my own subjective editorial opinion from the equation, there’s seemingly no rhyme or reason to another editor’s taste."\r

    This is an interesting observation. Of course, we improve our chances if we follow the editors' advice and familiarize ourselves with what they've accepted in the past. With virtually everyone doing that, though, we're back to square one. \r

    I think that predictability varies inversely with the knowledge level of the editor, though. In an era when anyone with a DTP/web-design program is an "editor", yes, things are wild. However, if we are talking about those editors who know the difference between diarrhea and diaeresis I submit that acceptance/rejection is easier to foretell. I'd certainly be more confident betting on or against verse submitted to, say, Mike Burch of The HyperTexts or David Lundrum of Lucid Rhythms than a free verse piece sent to the Podunk Review. The same poet sending poems to Mike or David would likely have a success rate well above or well below 15%. \r

    No doubt, form (it may be easier to judge the odds of verse than free verse) and genre (the chances of general poetry being harder to assess than, say, light verse) play a role, too. It may also be worth noting that the difference between the highest and lowest batting averages is much wider in Little League than in the majors.\r

    Tim's point about normalization is well made. Interesting article, Camille. \r

    -o-

  6. May 24, 2009
     Colin Ward

    Sorry, I should have said that predictability varies directly with the editor's knowledge level.\r

    -o-

  7. May 26, 2009
     Christopher Woodman

    Thomas Brady has jumped over from the Germaine Greer/Edna St Vincent Millay patch to remind us that poetry is politics. Colin Ward, on the other hand, says that predictability is verifiable–which indeed it may be, and certainly would be, and of course very much ought to be. But for the politics! \r

    Here's how Thomas Brady explains that: "If one of the sonnets in Shakespeare’s famous sequence lacked all metrical qualities exhibited by the rest of the sonnets in the sequence, it would for this reason receive extra attention. If women were better poets, this, too, would receive extra attention, especially if such a thing became really evident.\r

    Criticism and philosophy can be defined simply, thus: extra attention.\r

    It is my judgment that Millay and Poe receive less attention than is warranted and this is quite naturally a triplicate concern: how is it so, why is it so, and how can it be corrected?"\r

    As Colin Ward points out, Ted Williams had the statistically verifiable ability to place the ball "where they ain't," proof that good, thoughtful balls in play do exist, balls so good and thoughtful that nobody can catch them, or at least not catch them in time. What about the poetry that can't be caught because it [u]lacks[/u] that "extra attention," shouldn't that poetry receive greater respect when it's also a fair ball, a genuine hit into play?\r

    I was very surprised in the discussion of Poe and Millay to hear them called "populist," and wonder if that isn't why their balls count for so little in the park today. It's a complicated notion, "populist"--if you don't like the politics of a populist you call him Hugo Chavez, and if you do Nelson Mandela. Indeed, they both wrecked havoc, depending on how you look at it.\r

    Billy Collins or Charles Simic? Edgar Albert Guest or Robert Frost?\r

    Colin Ward writes, "We improve our chances if we follow the editors’ advice and familiarize ourselves with what they’ve accepted in the past. With virtually everyone doing that, though, we’re back to square one."\r

    Isn't that it, how it's so, why it's so? Might that not also be how it could be corrected?\r

    "I’m wondering what it means to be a publishing poet," writes Camille Dungy, and she's a good writer and knows the difference between a present and a past participle. What does it mean for her personally to be a publishing poet in these times? Doesn't she too have to examine "my nostalgia about myself as a young poet eager to publish and not sure where or whether or if ever enough all ramped up." \r

    Do we dare examine our own eagerness to publish, and how we choose where? But it's the last question that's really hard. When is ever enough all ramped up?\r

    Not knowing the answer, what's the consequence for us? \r

    Christopher

  8. May 26, 2009
     thomas brady

    Spectator sports features an objective audience–and the popularity of 'sports argument’ should not divert us from this important fact. \r

    You cannot “argue” with a .400 BA or a World Championship witnessed by millions of fans. \r

    Imperfect umpires, the betting scandal of 1919, the recent steroid issue, aside, the talents of ball-players and a “W” are pretty much objective facts. \r

    One can argue Mickey Mantle v. Willie Mays for days, but the objective worth of both players is never in dispute by either side of the debate–-which is a quibble more than a real argument. \r

    This is why spectator sport is such a popular pastime: it turns war’s subjective menace into a game’s objective quibble.\r

    Poetry has not been a popular pastime for a long while, and I think one of the reasons is that 'the objective’ has gone so completely out of it.\r

    Edna Millay slugs 400 lifetime homers and brings home several world championships, but with a little revisionism from well-placed sources, it turns out... she’s only hit 120 homeruns and never won a championship. \r

    It doesn’t really matter if one, personally, thinks Millay hit 400 dingers or not; it’s the change in fortune which puzzles the public and makes poetry seem less stable, and thus less real, than major league baseball, for instance. \r

    Subjective opinion may thrive, but if no façade of objective stability exist over and above that subjectivity, and the public senses no objective control, public interest is sure to wane–eventually destroying contemporary poetry’s legitimacy. \r

    Strike three! You're out! Sit down!

  9. June 3, 2009
     Timothy Green

    You might be right about the poetry, Colin, but I've got to defend the baseball. While it's true that Ted Williams was always among the league leaders in BABIP, players that can consistently sustain a high BABIP are exceedingly rare. It can be done, as Ted Williams managed, with a significantly high line drive percentage, or as Ichiro manages, by legging out infield hits. The vast majority of hitters, however, are not that skilled -- players like Gary Matthews, Jr., who meander on a random walk between .250 and .350. The BABIP concept is more accurately applied to pitchers, as well, but I was oversimplifying, so as not to lose the interest of poets who don't play ball. \r

    That said, the Ted Williams exemption probably makes the argument more accurate -- poetry has its share of Hall of Famers who defy the odds. Everyone has their own list, but for me, it's hard to find a poem by Jack Gilbert or Kim Addonizio or Li-Young Lee that I don't like. Every swing seems like a hard line drive. But the vast majority of poets publishing today aren't Ted Williams. 30,000 of them have submitted to Rattle over 15 years -- they're all over the place, and for them (most poets) there's not a lot they can control but diligence. \r

    And that, to me, isn't necessarily a bad thing. I'd sell my soul to be a journeyman middle infielder in the show. If you love the game, it's always worth playing. (My only gripe is with those who focus too much on the paycheck.)

  10. June 3, 2009
     Timothy Green

    Also, I wanted to add, though it's not really relevant, that I think averages vary more in Little League only because of sample size. Major league baseball sees 162 games per season, Little League maybe 16. The lower you gown down the ladder or organized ball, the smaller the sample sizes are, so the less time there is for the numbers to balance out.

  11. June 3, 2009
     Timothy Green

    If I'm reading you right, then I agree with you. My main point, which I only indirectly tried to make, was that poets these days tend to take publication too seriously. If you love poetry, then write poems and do what you can to give your poems an audience -- but do it for the love of poetry, not for the feeling of accomplishment, which is more often a function of chance than we like to pretend.

  12. June 3, 2009
     Timothy Green

    I don't think the problem is that there isn't enough objectivity in poetry -- I'd argue that the problem is that we pretend there needs to be. If you watch Millay hit a home run onto Lansdowne Street, you don't have to wait for the official scorer to put the run on the board before you start cheering. But that's the sense we tend to give people about poetry -- that you don't have the faculties to judge this art for yourself, so you'd better wait for the press box to tell you what to think, or you might embarrass yourself. Millay only hits as many homeruns as you're there to see. For me she's hit 5. Maybe you love Millay and she's hit 500 for you. What's wrong with that?

  13. June 3, 2009
     thomas brady

    Timothy,\r

    "Millay only hits as many homeruns as you’re there to see. For me she’s hit 5. Maybe you love Millay and she’s hit 500 for you. What’s wrong with that?"\r

    She hit 400.\r

    Get your facts straight.\r

    But seriously.\r

    The difference between Mantle and Mays is minor, but the difference between 500 and 5? That's huge. Someone's got to be wrong, in that case. Unless you're making the coy point that I have read 500 pages of Millay's book and you have only read 5, which I don't think is what you're saying.\r

    I just don't think it works that way: everyone in a bubble liking every single part of reality in their own unique way...Nature and Society, by necessity, entails more agreement, and I'm not saying their OUGHT to be more agreement, I'm saying anything which lacks agreement fades away, dies, ceases to exist. I don't think you're in a bubble as far as Millay goes; I think someone else has told you how to think about her, and you think about her not in pure Millay terms, but in terms shaped by your critical universe, which has been shaped by others, and so forth, and that 5 and 500 cannot both be correct, and that wrong (which must exist in this case) is the most important wrong in the world, at least in terms of how society and Letters interact.\r

    Thomas

  14. June 6, 2009
     Timothy Green

    I mean both -- you've read more of her, and you've responded to a higher percentage of her poems. But I think we're getting bogged down in the baseball metaphor. The point is, poetry is both subjective and ever-present. Whenever we read a poem, no matter how old it is, we have a new and personal response to that poem. I don't care how many great poems you think Millay has written, because I have a library card -- I can read and judge for myself. And I think the vehement desire to make poetry objective turns a lot of people off.

  15. June 6, 2009
     thomas brady

    "And I think the vehement desire to make poetry objective turns a lot of people off."\r

    (shrug) Maybe. I like a challenge. I like desire. I like truth.\r

    "The point is, poetry is both subjective and ever-present."\r

    This turns me off. It's a boring idea. "Ever-present?" Good lord, *everything* is ever-present...

  16. June 8, 2009
     Timothy Green

    Babe Ruth isn't ever-present -- he died in 1948. Neither is Millay; only her poems are. The idea is only as boring as you make it.

  17. June 8, 2009
     John Oliver Simon

    Hey, I'm a baseball geek too, and I keep stats of my own submissions in order to keep myself encouraged. \r

    I used to send out a batch of poems, they'd all get rejected, and I'd hide for six months. Then I started keeping track, found that my average (of getting something in a batch accepted) was approaching .500, so I would tell myself, "A rejection, yes! An acceptance will come tomorrow! Better send out another batch!"\r

    My current 30-year record is 288-209, a .579 pace. I do advocate that at 300 acceptances I'm moving into Randy Johnson, Early Wynn territory, and ought to merit serious consideration for Cooperstown. \r

    The poet owes her work an honest, energetic and right-sized representation. Hustling and putting your stuff in front of editors is a worthy and unglamorous part of the poet's vocation.\r

    On the other hand, to shift the baseball metaphor back where it was, nobody hits 600 dingers. The great Chilean poet Gonzalo Rojas (b. 1917), whom I translate, told me once, "We all end up with five or six poems. Well, maybe if you're Neruda, six or eight."