a MobyLives guest column
Editor's note: Recent news items in the MobyLives news digest about the website Foetry.com, 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 maileven the majority that applauded Foetrywas, by request, off the record.
Seeking light amidst the heat, MobyLives has asked Foetry.com 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 Foetry.com 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?
Foetry.com 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 largescale 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 Foetry.com 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.
Foetry.com 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, Foetry.com 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 socalled 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 nonMFA 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 selfdealing 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 Foetry.com who wished to remain anonymous.
Link to this 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.
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.
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The Complete Review
Monday 4 April 2005
To our readers . . .
Due to unforeseen circumstances, MobyLives will be off for the rest of this week. We apologize, and hope you'll come back next week. Thanks.
Pope's demise is selling books . . .
"Pope John Paul's death was big business for publishers and memorabilia collectors yesterday as five books penned by the pope zoomed into Amazon.com's Top 100," with his newest, Memory and Identity, charting at number three on Amazon and number two on Barnes & Noble.com within three hours of his death, according to a New York Post report by Aly Sujo. Retailers stood long at the ready, says Sujo: "Over the past week, Catholic gift shops have stocked up on CDs and DVD on the pope's life, and Barnes & Noble sent messages to its stores about how to set up papal displays. The company gave instructions on how to display in-stock books with signs reading 'A lifetime remembered.'" An Associated Press wire story by Hillel Italie also reports stores were ready. "Stores around the country, from the Tattered Cover in Denver, to R.J. Julia Booksellers in Madison, Conn., were offering recommendations to customers. Nancy Brown, a buyer for R.J. Julia, said she was emphasizing books for children, including John Paul's Every Child a Light." Italie also reports on some of the more cynical chatter in the book business over the weekend: that "Media coverage of John Paul's death will likely take attention from three major U.S. books scheduled to come out Tuesday: Jane Fonda's My Life So Far, Jack Welch's Winning and Sue Monk Kidd's The Mermaid Chair."
Norman drops out of Morrison opera . . .
Opera megastar Jessye Norman has dropped out of the longawaited, soontopremiere opera based on Toni Morrison's 1987 novel Beloved. According to a brief Associated Press wire story, Norman cited scheduling conflicts as her reason. Metropolitan Opera star Angela M. Brown will replace her in the opera, which is a collaboration between Morrison and Grammywinning composer Richard Danielpour.
One way to get a book contract . . .
"A Pakistani newspaper vendor in Paris with a unique selling style has won a book deal to have his life story published," notes a BBC News wire story. Ali Akbar, who arrived in Paris as an illegal immigrant, is known in the St. Germain des Pres neighborhood for the humorous fake headlines he shouts out while hawking copies of Le Monde. Among them: "Monica [Lewinsky] is pregnant by Bush" and "Le Pen assassinated." Akbar's book, to be published by Edition Gawsewitch, will be called I Make The World Laugh, But The World Makes Me Cry. The book on daylight savings . . .
Michael Downing, a selfproclaimed "devoted lifelong fan of late summer evenings," is the author of Spring Forward: The Annual Madness of Daylight Saving Time, reviewed this weekend by David Mehegan of the Boston Globe. According to Downing's history, DST was adopted because of electricity scarcity during the wars and later implemented in the U.S. through local ordinances, like ones in New York and Chicago, in order to give workers more time for shopping and being outside. In an interview, Downing noted that the "idea of getting people to spend more time outside their houses just seems to me good social policy."
NOTE: Daily newspapers often change URLs when archiving, so some links won't work beyond the day they're first posted.
This week's fiction:
. . . IT IS BEAUTIFUL . . . THEN GONE
by Martin Venezky
(Princeton Architectural Press, $40)
Layer upon layer of old type, spirographs, fragmented animal photos and found objects combine in this hardcover to form maps of the designer's inner life. Each page is a carefully thoughtout, nonstop sensory overload. Author/designer Martin Venezky has included some of his commercial work (he has designed for clients such as Open Magazine and Reebok) and also original art made for the book.
by Thomas J. Hubschman
(from Me Three)
by MISSY WILKINSON
(from Prose aX)
This week's poetry:
"Not Pee Wee"
by NICK THRAN
by ELIZABETH VOLPE
(from Briar Cliff Review)
POEMS FOR THE TIME
First posted in October, 2001, Alicia Ostriker's anthology of poetry that she turned to after the 9/11 attacks including the work of Stephen Dunn, C.P. Cavafy, Marianne Moore, and others is far and away the most popular link ever posted on MobyLives. Find out why.
This week's fiction: