Literature should not be suppressed merely because it offends the moral code of the censor.
—Chief Justice William O Douglas
Poets & Writers operates as one of a number of modern-day LITERARY CENSORING ORGANIZATIONS akin to the Catholic Church of yesteryear which put together the Index Librorum Prohibitorum. It refuses to even list The American Dissident with other literary journals listed on its website. Other listing organizations with similar censorial mindsets include New Pages, Poetry Foundation, and Arts & Letters (The Chronicle of Higher Education). The bourgeois nature of literature has become the norm today in America, such that anything not bourgeois will have the most difficult time presenting itself to the public, unless it has the fortune to possess an extraordinarily large budget. Money is the great determiner of literature in America today and perhaps always has been. Shamefully Poets & Writers receives thousands of dollars of taxpayer monies annually from the NEA and other public organizations. For this reason, it is scandalous that it closes its listing to journals that do not fit its bourgeois taste and aesthetics. As a citizen I am both outraged and fully disgusted and feel helpless to do anything at all about the situation, except decry it here. Democracy continues its downward spiral thanks in part to the democracy-indifferent citizens managing Poets & Writers.
What has changed, in the last few years, is that the advice to at least act in a positive way has taken on a harsher edge. The penalty for nonconformity is going up, from the possibility of job loss and failure to social shunning and complete isolation.
—Barbara Ehrenreich, Bright-Sided Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America
This review-essay was perhaps triggered by the rejection of my request by Poets & Writers to list The American Dissident with other journals listed. Notice of its existence was sent to P$W staff members, not one of whom responded. Unfortunately, I could not locate the email addresses for the magazines 24 board members, so could not inform Celia Currin, CEO of WhisperStreet.biz; Allison J. Davis, Director of Communications and Media for The Riverside Church; Lynn C. Goldberg, CEO Goldberg McDuffie Communications, Inc.; John W. Holman, Jr., partner at Hintz, Holman, & Robillard, Inc.; Ellen R. Joseph, attorney/partner at Kaye Scholer, LLP; Susan D. McClanahan, entrepreneur and education specialist; Theodore C. Rogers, general partner at Private Equity Investments American Industrial Partners; Shen Tong, president of VFinity; or Galen Williams, founder of P$W, Inc. and owner of Galen Williams Landscape Design, Inc.
Nor could I inform P$W ‘s Secretary of the Board, Helen Macioce, former President of Merrill Lynch Bank & Trust Company. Merrill Lynch and poetry? Yep! Evidently, reviews were never objective, even when reviewers would like us to believe they were. Just the same, a number of objective observations were included in this particular review and culled from the Jan/Feb 2010 issue of Poets$Writers.
Perhaps nonprofits like P$W, receiving thousands of dollars in public monies, ought not to be in the business of blacklisting literary journals like The American Dissident, a non-capitalist magazine of democracy-friendly poetry, writing, and debate. Well, P$W’s “Literary MagNet” rubric reported on certainly more “worthy” journals, including Monkeybicycle, which was “considering submissions of one-sentence stories,” Literary Bird Journal (i.e., LBJ: Avian Life, Literary Arts), and McSweeney’s known not for its ideas or original focus, but rather for its “innovative packaging.” Evidently, those journals would likely please and certainly not upset the easily offended bourgeois clientele nourished every other month by P$W. Yet should “pleasing” be the purpose of writing? Wouldn’t writing better serve society if it questioned and challenged and otherwise went against the grain of entrenched politicos, business leaders, and their poet/writer/professor puppets content with the intrinsically corrupt status quo?
Of the myriad poetry magazines and journals in America, Poets & Writers magazine certainly best represented the business of poetry and writing, which was, of course, precisely what was wrong with poetry and writing. In fact, that thought provoked me to Google “business poetry.” Numerous entries, of course, were listed. “Nick has visited various company websites, found the closest thing to a Corporate Overview, and then set about rearranging the words into poetry,” stated Nick Asbury, who included the following poem to illustrate his book, Corpoetics:
I am strong.
I am vibrant.
I am committed to a vision.
I am tremendous.
I am quality.
I will lead people to excellence.
I am delighted.
I am respected.
I am very greatly valued.
What am I?
I am the best.
In any case, the well-remunerated staff of Poets $ Writers had to confront, every several months, the task of filling the 140-plus pages of the next given issue of the magazine. Well, pages 79-140 actually consisted entirely of ads, while even pages 1-79 contained many full and partial-page ads. So, how to fill perhaps 20-30 pages with actual writing that, at least on the surface, might appear to be minimally fresh? Hopefully, subscribers weren’t simply content reading through the mountain of ads and celebrity-writer rehash, though it was quite possible they were. Part of the likely role of P$W was to act as a social community like Tweeter or Facebook, thus serving to comfort the many poets and writers, especially of the younger tie-and-jacket set, for whom solitude was unbearable. But the main role of P$W was to obviously push and bolster the academic/literary established order of writing for the sake of writing.
On New Year’s morning, I’d picked up the copy of P$W off my table and began leafing through it, which immediately provoked a flurry of negative thought. It had been hanging around on my table for over a week and was the last issue of J’s subscription which, thanks to me, would not be renewed. I’d avoided opening it… because deep within me I didn’t feel like tangling with the inevitable crap I knew I’d damn well find within it. Even a battler like me needed a moment of peace.
What certainly characterized that issue, more than anything else, as mentioned above, was the plethora of advertisements. Indeed, more than anything else, the magazine constituted a compendium of money-making ads pertaining to the writing industry. It would have been interesting to discover how much P$W raked in every year from advertising revenues, subscriptions, and taxpayer monies in the form of grants, etc. Perhaps each issue pulled in well over $100,000. In any event, the cover illustration was so bland that I didn’t even notice it until reading Kevin Larimer’s editorial on just how “stunning” it was. Self-vaunting (thinly-veiled or straightforward), backslapping, and positivity had become the prime traits of the literary established order today. Negative critique of poets and writers was simply not permitted. Larimer informed that Chip Kidd, the artist, always created “prize-winning ideas for book jackets.” Larimer was too far indoctrinated (his career depended on it) to ponder what “prize-winning” so often really implied, including base popularity and bourgeois-friendly. Sadly, most poets and writers simply groveled for prizes. Few wondered about thee often intrinsically corrupt nature of prizes. The writer today had become an amazingly incurious, conforming creature. In any case, Larimer’s editorial was as innocuous as it got and ended with the following happy-face message: “When inspired, you are an inspiration.” Moreover, his little interview with Kidd informed that the latter had been designing book jackets for the last 24 years. “I’m mainly seen as a book-jacket person,” noted the latter. Not a word of wisdom in that interview—just 100% filler fluff.
When I first opened the magazine, I noticed the first two pages were full-page ads. Now, that was honest in a sense. One of the ads was for Norman Mailer’s Writers Colony in Provincetown, MA. That spurred me to say something to J since we’d visited PTown less than a month ago. I’d mentioned how the Writers Colony served to further Mailer’s name and image more than anything else and that as a nonprofit it also served to shield his estate from taxes. A lot of dubious money issues were involved behind the glorious doors of the 501 c3 nonprofit designation. A large picture of Mailer was featured, not as the old guy with two crutches I’d seen several years ago in PTown, but as a much younger man. That kind of ageism was rampant in our society and was intrinsically fraudulent. I’d much rather see the wrinkled face of life than the young face of yesteryear. But youth oblige was the name of our society’s deceitful mask.
Page 3 was also a full-page ad, featuring the big smiling goateed face of a Fairleigh Dickinson University student praising the university in an egregious example of thinly-veiled academic self-vaunting business as usual. Indeed, was it not aberrant that colleges and universities spent so much money today on fortifying and distorting their images? Was it not aberrant for them to actually have majors in PR and even worse yet, to use students to push their smiley-faced messages?
“Juan, you’re the first student we’ve asked to be in our new ad campaign,” asked FDU.
“I’m honored,” replied Juan Gaddis.
“Do you know why we asked you?” asked FDU.
[“Because I have black skin and a Latino name?” said I.]
“Because I’m a gifted writer and a fine human being,” said Juan.
And on and on went the cutesy ad. Page 4 featured the first page of the table of contents with the photo of a nameless Latino face with the words: “Poetry gives a sense of beauty… It reminds us to feel human again.” Nothing like banality spewed from the mouths of happy-faced poets and writers! On the bottom of the page was a smiling young black female with no words. The next page was yet another full-page ad! P$W evidently incarnated the happy-face nature of writing today. That thought led me to hunt for an appropriate quote to preface this review. Then it was time for more java. In the kitchen, I thus microwaved a cup and suddenly found myself bellowing out a tune, no doubt out of tune: “Inspiration shoves me into negative phases! Inspiration shoves me into nay-gative phases! Always I am inspire-errred by craaaaaaap!” I chuckled aloud, then walked back to the writing table or rather chaise longue in the alcove where I wrote. Ah, then I noticed “INSPIRATION” written on the front cover of the magazine. Truly, the cover’s blandness had somehow de-highlighted that highlight.
Cecilia Ward Jones’ essay was featured in what editor Larimer announced as a new rubric, “Why We Write.” So, I forced myself to read through it only to discover Jones wrote because at first she was bored, then now because she was simply compelled. No wisdom at all was to be found in that essay—just an autobiography of an underachieving positive “perseverer.” Would editor Larimer be open to the negative as inspiration? If so, that would have certainly turned off his advertisers! Imagine him publishing this review under that rubric, as an example of why I write. No way, Jose! “Discover the Writer’s Life in New York City,” noted the full-page ad purchased by The New School, which was of course nothing but The Same Old School. “You’re Not in Iowa Anymore,” noted the next page, another full-page ad, purchased by Emerson College, which then simply listed its writing faculty. Thus, beaver poetling debutants would hunt through the names in search of a literary icon and when they found him or her, they’d send off an application form.
What one found in P$W, more than anything else besides the ads, were names, tonnage of names and banal cutesy one-liners like Ashbery’s famous “Writing is a meatloaf sandwich.” One would be hard-pressed to find anything remotely touching on unique ideas, including the shoving of steak knives into the heart of flatulent poetry. Instead, it was the ole name-game celebrity at its basest: Gluck, Pinsky, Dove, Wright, Angelou, Hall, Collins, Ryan, Ashbery, etc., over and over again, raking in the huge bucks on their names, not on anything unique they had to say. It was as if filling an article with well-known poet names, backslapping, and general positivity somehow made it good or rather worthy as a P$W contribution.
From every page I turned, the crap jumped right out at me trying its best to suffocate me. “There were two kinds of truths, good truths and hurtful ones,” noted T. C. Boyle under the “Page One Where New and Noteworthy Books Begin” rubric. Oh my, hurtful truths! “It was the cruelest winter,” noted Joshua Ferris. Et alors? In today’s New York Times, one of the headlines read: “When Everyone Is an Honor Student.” Well, the same was evidently applicable today to the poets in P$W: “When Everyone Is a Prize Winner.” Kevin Nance informed that TriQuarterly had eliminated the (well-remunerated) position of longtime editor Susan Hahn and would cease publishing as a print journal, and we were all supposed to be deeply saddened. Hahn of course was deeply saddened. But why didn’t Hahn, if she was really passionate, offer to run the journal for nothing? Hell, I did that with The American Dissident. The passion kept me publishing it… even if at a slight monetary loss. When there was sincere passion, there was no need for expensive paper and paid staff.
There was truly just so much crap I could bear reading, but I pushed myself onwards just the same. John Dufresne’s essay, “Writing Your First Novel,” began with a load of banality: “Where do you begin writing a novel? At the desk, of course. And how do you begin?” And blablabla. Why couldn’t I write essays like his for money? Evidently, money didn’t sufficiently compel me to do so. What compelled me instead, as mentioned, was crap or in more presentable terminology, “I write because there is some lie I want to expose” (Orwell). Embedded in Dufresne’s essay was a list: “Nine Ways to Begin Writing.” What so many needed instead were “Nine Ways to Stop Writing… Crap.” Yet the established order certainly depended on filler crap—tonnage of filler crap—, opium of bourgeois poets and writers. Dufresne stirred us to think of intriguing ideas like the “taste of Play-Doh” and “Happy Puppet Syndrome” to help inspire us to write… more crap.
Next I waded through an article on—surprise!—writer’s block, “How to Get Unstuck.” There must be anthologies now on writer’s block. Dennis Cass, author of the article, specialized in the psychology of writer’s block. Soon, if not already, we’d have specialists in the neurology, sociology, anthropology, and mulitculturalology of writer’s block. There was no end to the writer’s inanity rainbow as long as cash, prizes, and tenured posts lay awaiting in a golden bucket at the other end. If one could get over the tediousness, one would likely discover the sad hilarity. But how to get over the tediousness of the history of academic scholarship in creativity and writer’s block? Sorry, I couldn’t. “If you’re experiencing mechanized thought, then the answer might be as simple as going for a walk or reading poetry,” suggested Cass. “If you’re struggling with functional fixedness, the answer might not be so clear.” Now, if that incited you to read more of his essay, then surely there must be an academic post with tenure waiting for you. Next, Drew University and Lesley University presented themselves in two full-page ads.
The special section in this issue was on inspiration. Managing editor Suzanne Pettypiece, who thought up the brilliant idea to interview “Five Writers Who Practice Other Arts,” posed some pretty fluffy questions: “Do you paint as you’re writing or as you’re revising?” “Are there certain periods in which you dedicate more time to painting or writing?” “Do you ever feel pulled between the painting and the writing?” I mean, who gave a damn? In fact, I’d feel bad for the writer, Michael Kimball, who had to answer them, if he weren’t starving for publicity and fame. And what about the writer who cooked or was it the cook who wrote, Michelle Wildgen? “How does cooking play into your writing process?” “Do you ever use cooking when you’re stuck in a certain spot in a story?” “Are there certain periods where you turn more to cooking or more to writing?” “I cook in the same way that I write,” brilliantly responded Wildgen.
Then there was the list of 50 celebrity living authors who were supposed to “shake us awake.” Let’s see, for example: “Tom Wolfe—The white suit” (Yes, that was all!); “Billy Collins—He’s made accessible a dirty word…”; “Kay Ryan—The quietness and measured quality of her poetry…” [did that imply that unmeasured quality of poetry was bad?]; “Cormac McCarthy—He made it okay for literary snobs to read bloody westerns…”; “John Ashbery—One of the best and most enduring poets that this country is lucky enough to have. Period.” (Yes, best unquestioning and unchallenging poet cheerleader for the literary established order. Period.); “Lawrence Ferlinghetti—The last bohemian [multimillionaire]… his audience treats him like a rock star [because it has been Beatnik and celebrity-indoctrinated and didn’t want to know that he acted as grand censor at City Lights Bookstore]; and “Frederick Seidel—Sure, he’s filthy rich, but the man knows how to spend his money. He owns four Ducati motorcycles and writes poems about them.” Number 50 was the darling of the Democrat-party-lining, PC-herd Barack Obama. Give me a freakin’ break! Could we imagine George W. on the list for his book? Of course not!
Okay, I was beginning to feel as if I were toiling as a specialized skin-diver trying to unplug a massive blockage in a great literary cesspool. Well, the last time I enjoyed (more or less) such skin-diving was back in 2008 when I ripped out a 15-page plug on Best American Poetry of 2007 (see www.theamericandissident.org/Reviews-BestAmericanPoetry2007.htm).
Under the rubric “First Things First,” editor Larimer as poet-god chose 12 poets, noting that over the past four years he’d “shined a spotlight on fifty-four poets at a crucial moment in their careers: the beginning. For some reason, each “beginner” possessed an MFA. Perhaps Larimer had struck a deal with his many MFA advertisers to highlight their MFA grads. The verse highlighted was quite innocuously bad in general. Unsurprisingly, none of it questioned and challenged the status quo… even remotely. Indeed, these were up-and-coming poets of the literary-septic system here to spread diversion. Some of the worst verse was perhaps the following: “Spring-stink, the world heaves with lust” (Kate Darbin); “I Google myself,/ and I’m a racecar driver” (Justin Markes); “Thomas Edison loved a doll/ with a tiny phonograph inside/ because he made her speak” (Robin Ekiss); and “the gold rope, the wick pierces a flower’s heart/ to be blue this way of flame is to be new always (Ish Klein). As for the advice these “beginners” gave, not one of them mentioned questioning and challenging. Instead, the advice tended to be, well: “it may sound hypocritical, but try not to fixate on contests” (Darbin); “read book contest winners and the work of the poets who selected them” (Kristin Naca); and “just keep writing and revising your work” (Kiki Petrosino). Yes, brilliant student-poetlings indeed!
Unsurprisingly, the final essay of this issue, “Inside Indie Bookstores,” pushed the commerce of writing. “Once the authors, agents, editors, publishers, and salespeople have finished their jobs, it’s up to these stalwarts to get books where they belong: into the hands of readers.” The essay highlighted Richard Howorth, owner of Square Books bookstore. As for the last rubric, “Bullseye,” one literary journal (Subtropics—University of Florida) got a free ad (unless of course it paid for it) and was highlighted vis-à-vis how to submit to it. Not much in that little article with the exception of the same-old, same-old celebrity name droppings—we published blabla and blablabla. Didn’t anyone besides me get tired of seeing that same-old, same-old crap?
Finally, more amazing than the writing stuff in P$W were the readers of the stuff, who far from rejecting the crap as I did, ingurgitated eagerly and thankfully. Cite Mike Powell: “I stumbled upon your publication and felt compelled to reach out. Within your pages, I felt sincerity, pride, and truth. The type of sincerity that makes you feel accompanied, the type of pride that only the proud can possess.” And blablabla. Cite also Erin Steeley: I just finished turning the pages of Poets & Writers Magazine and was astounded when I saw the black bar at the top of the last page informing me of your nonprofit status and mission. I had chosen the magazine originally for its quality writing, but found this to be a great treat at the end. I am glad that I unknowingly chose a magazine that is doing something as meaningful with its profits as you are.” Steeley was yet another reader who never learned to question and challenge. Indeed, some nonprofit organizations paid their CEOs six-figure salaries. Perhaps P$W paid its CEOs six-figure salaries. Other nonprofits backed America’s wars all the time. P$W as a nonprofit backed the established order, which backed war all the time… currently orchestrated by #50, Obama. Yes, P$W “supports the all-important work of cultivating literary activity in urban and rural communities throughout the United States.” Sadly, however, the type of “literary activity” it supported would always be the kind that did not question the established order.
MONEY would always be detrimental to the health of poets and writers, for MONEY would always be distributed by organizations like P$W, Academy of American Poets, Poetry Foundation, and National Endowment for the Arts to those not questioning that MONEY or those organizations. MONEY would always serve in the interests of the established order to bury the rare voices of dissidence. Business would always thrust its controlling fingers into everything. Just take a look at the board of directors of P$W!