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poets and the academy

By Alan Gilbert

I’d like to try to split the middle between Linh Dinh’s and Ange Mlinko’s posts (here and here) on poets and poetry in the academy. As someone who spent ten continuous years in the university as an undergraduate and graduate student, and has now spent twelve years outside of it as an editor and writer, I feel sympathetic to both sides of the argument. When I left SUNY Buffalo with a PhD in English literature and the beginning of a career as a poet, I didn’t apply for a single teaching job, and probably wouldn’t have taken one had it been offered to me—unless maybe it was an already tenured job at Columbia. All I wanted to do was move to New York City and be a poet, art critic/book reviewer, and independent scholar. What have I missed? 

AWP every year. Better pay. Health insurance (currently). Full access to a research library (Ange mentions this as one of the true perks of academia, and she’s right). Summers off (to say nothing of sabbaticals). Travel and research grants. What have I gained? No endless letters of recommendation. No faculty meetings. No committee work. No classes to prepare and papers to grade. I’ve been lucky enough (I should say very lucky) to not have five-day-a-week jobs during my time in New York, which means I’ve had relatively (relatively—this is New York City, after all; plus, I have a seven-year-old daughter) uninterrupted long weekends during which to write year after year (but remember, no summers off), so I’m always writing something. I’m grateful for that consistently consistent time.

The danger for those of us outside of the academy, or even people locked in crappy teaching jobs, is feeling marginalized as well as resentful toward those with access to the university’s many resources—despite the current economic crisis. (You want to see budget cuts? Trying working for nonprofits during the past decade.) The danger for those inside the academy, as Linh writes, is that “the system as it’s set up demands a careerist mentality from both purveyors and suckers.” I’m frequently stunned by the social and cultural myopia of the poetry worlds (of course there’s not just one), and for some reason I’m still surprised when I see Iowa Writers’ Workshop in the bio note of the latest poetry book prize winner (I got an announcement for one in my inbox yesterday). The system is rigged, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. (It’s even worse in the art world, which an artist friend of mine recently described as “feudal”—poetry is post-feudal, though with a version of the court system intact.) But the system is rigged at every level of U.S. society. There’s absolutely no better example of this than George W. Bush becoming president.

Which is why I appreciated Craig Santos Perez’s post with its question: “Why is there such a dearth of reviews of poetry books by writers of color?” (his emphasis). There are exceptions (I’ve reviewed many books by non-white poets), and he usefully lists journals to consult. Barack Obama is somewhat of an exception to the structurally rigged U.S. system. Rigoberto González also splits the middle in his post—entitled “Oh, Schmacademy!”—when he sympathizes with frustrations concerning the proliferation of writing programs, while being “excited about these ‘too many’s. That means that groups that have been historically excluded (like Chicanos / Latinos and Native Americans) now have better chances of finding venues and homes and audiences for their work. How easy we forget that ‘too many’ tends to represent the dominant white population.”

It’s like the “death of the author” cited in Kenneth Goldsmith’s post. While I understand Foucault’s argument (and am partial to much of his thinking), and Kenny, as always, is challenging writers to examine what it means to exist in the contemporary moment, I can’t help but echo others who’ve asked why the author was killed off in the 1960s at the moment when women and disenfranchised groups were finding a more public voice?

Posted in Uncategorized on Monday, April 5th, 2010 by Alan Gilbert.