This Week’s Column:


... a MobyLives guest column

by Anonymous

Editor's note: Recent news items in the MobyLives news digest about the website, and its accusations that certain literary prize competitions are corrupt, have generated some of the most heated mail this site has ever received. Remarkably, most of that mail—even the majority that applauded Foetry—was, by request, off the record.
     Seeking light amidst the heat, MobyLives has asked to explain itself, and in particular to address concerns about the anonymity of whomever is behind it. Foetry agreed . . . on the condition of anonymity. While MobyLives does not favor the use of anonymous sources, there are times when, because of threat to the source, they are justified. The proprietor of satisfied the proprietor of MobyLives that this was such a case.

28 March 2005 — According to Whitman, "The maker of poems settles justice, reality, immortality." How will the poets writing and publishing today be remembered? launched on April 1st of 2004 to expose the status quo in American poetry publication: many books published are winners of contests that are often large–scale fraud operations. Judges select their friends, students, and lovers from pools of manuscripts numbering in the hundreds or thousands, accompanied by an entry fee, usually around $20–$25. Some of the competitions are sponsored by university presses, such as the Iowa Poetry Prize and the University of Georgia Contemporary Poetry Series.

As soon as was launched, the defenses began. "What if the manuscript really was the best one?" "This is how it's always been." "You should spend less time whining and more time writing." "You're just bitter that you didn't win."

We hear the same arguments regularly and none are convincing. When is it ever acceptable to cheat? Have we really come to the point that universities sponsor "open" competitions that are funded by thousands of hopeful victims? When Jorie Graham, a Harvard professor, selects the manuscript of her own husband and colleague, Peter Sacks, out of hundreds of entries, why are people angry at us instead of them? Does academic integrity apply only to students and not to professors?

When these poets publish their "winning" books, more awards, readings, and teaching posts follow. The judges bestow prizes to the writing they helped to shape, that they influenced, in contests subsidized by entrants on a crooked playing field. In an exchange on "Ambition and Greatness" in a recent issue of the journal Poetry, Daisy Fried says, " . . . when the only aim is getting an A+ in reproducing teachers' revolutions, it's unlikely to lead anywhere but mediocrity."

Any judge can easily recognize the writing of poets they have taught, or work they know intimately, in a blind reading; removing the names from manuscripts is not enough. It's a poor excuse and every good reader knows that. Contests must prohibit entries from poets where a conflict of interest is a possibility. Screeners and judges must recuse themselves when writing is recognized as that of a personal associate. is under attack by two groups of people. One is the poets who have benefited from the unscrupulous behaviors we discuss, and their defensive friends. The second is made up of those who hope to advance their writing by defending illicit activities; after all, one day it may happen for them — if their poetry cannot stand on merit, perhaps it will be affirmed through connections at the right cocktail party or by sucking up this week at the Associated Writing Programs annual conference.

In addition to our webpages that detail the illicit — some say illegal — selections of various contests, and the judges who made the choices, provides a discussion forum area. Most of the more than eight hundred members of the forum are anonymous, as are the site administrators. We are tired of the people who use that as a way to discredit what we are doing. Their hope is that people will forget the real issue if they say we are cowards, or that they have no way to defend themselves. The people complaining about anonymity are the ones who have something to hide. Do we refuse to read every article in the newspaper that quotes a source speaking on condition of anonymity?

Lately, it has become clear why anonymity is important. Our forum includes stories of blacklisting by Brown University professors. A website called Whoisfoetry divulges the "true" identities of some of our site members and solicits tips for our outing. The University of Georgia released the name of the person who requested records of the judges and their selections on our behalf. Recently, through insinuation, another forum member has been victimized on a professor's personal website as retaliation for our work, though he was not involved; in fact, he had not even posted on our site. He has been victimized by foets on grant panels before and was recently threatened again.

We are not afraid; our work is just beginning. Some presses have adopted the so–called Jorie Graham rule, a moniker created because the Macarthur genius and Pulitzer winner has chosen her students and lovers as "prizewinning poets" so many times. In general, the rule says no friends or former students of the judge are eligible, but even with that important guideline in place, some publishers are violating their own rules. The University of Georgia finally added a statement of Academic Integrity to the contest page, and soon after announced winners of the latest round. One, Susan Maxwell, is a current student in the PhD program at the University of Denver, where series editor for the George prize, Bin Ramke, teaches. Every party should be ashamed, from Georgia, which allowed that to happen again, to Bin Ramke, to Susan Maxwell, whose work is affirmed only through fraud.

One of our Foetry Forum regulars, Vermeer expresses the frustrations of our visitors:

I know the poets I love (Neruda, Blas de Otero, Lorca, Angel Gonzalez, Brodsky, Bei Dao, Yannis Ritsos, Vasko Popa, Nāzim Hikmet) have always seemed heroic to me. They stood up to political regimes. They wrote when their lives were threatened. Lorca was dragged into an olive grove and assassinated. Ritsos and Hikmet were thrown in prison. But they continued to stand up against the oppressors, the thieves of liberty and freedom of expression. And they helped change the world to be a better place, they confronted the word and created art that transformed. And here in America the brave writers of the MFA programs and non–MFA programs can't get a little backbone and stand up and say enough is enough with these rigged contests and self dealing awards? Stop this pathetic self–dealing and stealing? STOP STEALING! It is utterly outrageous and pathetic. We can't do that?

That is what we want. If the contests are to continue, if taxpayers are to support the National Endowment for the Arts, which funds many of the sham presses, then we insist that people stop stealing. We are watching.

This commentary was written by the editor of who wished to remain anonymous.


Previous column:
WHY I WRITE SHORT STORIES . . . It's getting as difficult to sell stories as it is to sell poetry or first novels. Why try? With his newest collection about to come out, Steve Almond offers some reasons.

Previous column:
THE DEATH OF FIRST FICTION . . . In a guest column, Ig Publishing's Robert Lasner describes the growing difficulty in publishing and promoting debut novels — and the growing need to keep publishing them.


All material not otherwise attributed ©2000 – 2005 Dennis Loy Johnson.