Tuesday, January 04, 2005

I Want To Be an Intellectual When I Grow Up!

"One of the things so sad about [Susan Sontag's] death is she represents something that I'm afraid that's passing," said fellow author Francine Prose. "I don't think that many people these days say, 'Oh, I want to be an intellectual when I grow up.' "

I don't blame people for not wanting to be intellectuals. Intellectuals are the funny-looking kids on the playground who don't even get beat up because they're too freaky to approach. Intellectuals are weirdos. "Intellectuals" put words in quotes, and question the meaning(s) behind everything. Rarely satisfied, these annoying, pesky creatures raise a ruckus and are avoided at family reunions. I've already received a few e-mails, not from people who disagree with me and want to intellectually engage with me, but from people who have no idea what the f**k I'm doing with this blog on Asian-American poetry. So I'm trying to justify my many purposes here in the hopes that people will understand, but if Prose is right that the intellectual is an endangered species, I think that I'll be crossed off more than a few Christmas lists.

Still, I want to be an intellectual. I won't say "like Sontag," because I think that, like a grand intellectual, she herself would not want slavish imitation of her thoughts, even her style of critique. She won't get imitation from me, and she probably wouldn't have it any other way. I've always felt that professors should be intellectuals (as well as always kind and generous to students, but that's another story), but unfortunately, I know that some aren't. Too bad. The alternative to living in the la-la land of intellectualism is to live in the dullsville of ignorance.

Uh oh, Asian-American poetry! :) That's why you're here, isn't it? Well, if you want to watch Asian-American poet and New England Review editor C. Dale Young and I figuratively give each other WWF smackdowns over what is "bad/good/great poetry" and over the editing process itself, go here: http://avoidmuse.blogspot.com/2005/01/bad-part-of-editing-etc.html#comments (I'm just kidding, of course. Really, I think that it was very generous of C. Dale to devote his time and energy to intellectually engaging with me. EDIT: It has come to my attention that C. Dale Young has deleted our discussion. Our exchanges were really quite cordial, but I imagine that he felt that he revealed too much of the New England Review's editing process. I'm hoping he wasn't personally offended in any way, because I always try my best not to personally offend. It is his blog, so I respect his decision.)

But being the unappeased, wannabe intellectual that I am, I will leave you with a conundrum related to my previous post. Let us say that XYZ Prestigious Literary Magazine receives 50,000 poetry submissions/year. It has a staff of five editors who pore through submissions, leading up to one editor who chooses 50 poems from the 1000 poems sent up to her or him. XYZ has 2000 subscribers. The editors at XYZ work really hard for no money. (Don't worry folks, this ain't a math question.)

Provocative question: If XYZ Prestigious Literary Magazine fails to read poems closely and/or clearly attempt to justify their criteria for selection, what makes XYZ different from the vanity publications put out by the International Library of Poetry?

One smart-a** answer is that the International Library of Poetry makes money. Another answer may be that XYZ has a smart, well-read, prestigious editor -- so in other words, you are trying to please this person and this person as alone. You might want to answer, but XYZ is a "real" publication with "real" people who care...and that is where you would have to stop yourself. My main point is that close, critical readership matters, even in, if not especially in, the editorial process. Otherwise, if it doesn't matter, you might as well just go for the ILP model and at least try to make some money off the deal.

I am fully aware of the practical problems of the poetry publishing industry. Look at my hypo. But if XYZ is run by intellectuals, then XYZ should at least be more honest with itself and run its publication by devoting more attention to the poetry and not sacrificing the intellectual for the practical and unimaginative. Possible reforms include: (1) restricting the numbers of submissions, (2) expanding the number of editors, so more attention may be given to each poem, (3) devoting a couple pages in each issue to an articulation of what the editor(s) think are "good/bad/great" poems, (4) making the editorial process more transparent, (5) this one for universities and arts-related nonprofits: more funding to poetry publications!....None of these proposed reforms are easy. There are more. Please list others if you think of any! All have pluses and minuses and should not be taken lightly. Some may turn out to not work out. They may need to be taken alone or in combination. I think it merits further contemplation. At any rate, if "publish or perish" predominates, then an "un-intellectual" selection process risks producing professors/scholars of poetry who are "un-intellectual" themselves. I don't want that to happen.


Blogger Hannah Craig said...


Well that’s interesting.

I’m not sure that I necessarily see the connection between intellectualism and improved quality.

But the proposed solutions are interesting. I find some of them unlikely—rather than coming together into “giant” journal complexes, we tend to scatter outward, making our own small presses, creating new journals staffed by one or two friends that then go belly-up when someone has a child or goes back to school. Most submitting poets probably (I hope this isn’t true) spend less than $100 a year on subscriptions to journals. And I think, practically, that because of the insidious connection between poetry submissions and poetry readership, the concept of “open submissions” is necessary (at least, what isn’t already limited by the set reading period, planned size of the issue, etc) to perpetuate the theory of a readership and/or audience for the journals. And more money. Yeah, sure, of course that would be good. But um. Not likely. And can I say that I think there are some truly huge flaws in the theories that predominate about making poetry more marketable, about viewing the utility of poetry in terms of input/output capital?

I think the most interesting ideas that you suggest are #3 and #4.

#3, I think, can be expanded into an editor’s willingness to be open about his/her aesthetic objectives and goals in publishing work, in limning good/bad work, etc. Doing more to intersect the critical space with the creative spac; being self-critical, being self-aware. There’s actually a journal that does something sort of interesting along this line—Golden Handcuffs Review, which has contributors to the journal respond to other pieces in the journal. I like the concept beyond that. You don’t get your contributor copy in the mail and open it up to see who’s randomly been placed next to you—the journal is an interaction between genres. People respond to one another in poetry, in prose, in satire…I think this is a cool idea and even if it isn’t an editorial act, it still, to my mind, provides feedback and dialogue within the text, rather than just sticking to exposition.

#4 is something I think about a lot and I can’t fathom why more journals haven’t taken advantage of technology to make their editorial process quicker, smoother, and MUCH more transparent to the user. I mean, with the internet and decent database technology, there’s absolutely no reason why a poet couldn’t submit their work via an online form to a number of journals, which could then each move the poems directly into an editor’s queue. Different journals could even apply basic filtering technology to poems to determine where in the queue the poem fell. Editors could enter their comments online…and with the push of a button accept, reject, or forward a poem. Poets, on the other hand, could easily track their submissions…see when they were read, see comments on them…perhaps understand better WHERE and WHY their submissions were being accepted and rejected instead of just sending out a flurry of random queries. We’d all save on postage and time spent printing and copying and mailing, and I think eventually the submission process would be cleaner. I.e., we’d gradually get an idea of where we ought to be submitting and how. There’d still be the inevitable slush pile of novice submitters who didn’t care to learn how things worked, but that slush pile would hopefully be smaller and more easily detected by editors.

Erg. Didn't mean for this to get so long.

9:45 AM  
Blogger Roger Pao said...

Hello Hannah, thanks for the fabulous post! And, please, if you're worried about that post being too long, think how I must feel. :)

I think that an intellectual editor should pay closer attention to individual poems that are submitted, give greater thought behind her or his basis for acceptance, and articulate this basis more clearly. If I was using the term "improved quality," I would thus define it as poetry whose acceptance has been predicated on a close reading of the poems, and most preferably, whose basis for acceptance has been privately justified to the poet and publicly justified to the reader/subscriber of the magazine. I think that the public justification could come from (3) -- basically a clearer articulation of the editors' basis for judgments.

I can definitely sympathize with your critique of theories about making poetry more marketable. I might challenge the very idea of "publish or perish" on another day. For now, I'm assuming that "publish or perish" is a fact with which we must live, which unfortunately means that small presses started by one or two people, online journals, blogs, state poetry society, informal poetry groups, online poetry discussion forms, etc. don't carry as much weight as the few larger publications and publishing houses that predominate the poetry world.

So I was aiming my critique at the largest enchilladas of power. And it IS power. These institutions help determine who gets hired, who gets tenure, and who does not. These institutions help determine why we all know and care about the poems of Eliot, Stevens, Ashbery, but we know and care less about the work of other poets, many Asian-American poets, for example. I'm suggesting that power is ok, but it needs to be justified.

I happen to think that your elaboration #4 is marvelous. I think that it's no coincidence, though, that I do, and both of us are bloggers. Some poets/editors are still uncomfortable with the Internet and perhaps even computers/ technology in general. And I understand that there are both benefits and costs to switching to an online format.

Whew, now I'm worried about going too long. :) I hope you keep reading!

11:53 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

here's a tip: instead of opening doors to talk about issues, the *way* you refer to WELL-RESPECTED editors and journals (let's not be sidestepping here. we all know u are referring to NER and Mr. Young) is just going to piss people off. in my opinion he deserves a whole heck of a lot more credit. i dont' consider him my equal at all. but i don't consider him a god either. BUT i respect him b/c the poems he chooses at NER are effing brilliant and i for one don't care if editors JUSTIFY their choices. the poems and stories should speak for themselves. and really, they do.

6:17 PM  
Blogger Amy Unsworth said...

The problem with a too closly defined editorial process is that you might discourage something wonderful and atypical. And people send what is on their desktop anyway, appropriate or not.

It'd be nice if you'd include the names of a few Asian-American poets in your blog. I'm only familiar (today) with Li-Young Lee and Marilyn Chin.


6:30 PM  
Blogger Andrew said...

I love the idea of opening up the editorial process via the power of technology! Make it easier to submit, make submissions easier to sort and categorize, and make it easier for editors to tell poets what is flawed in their work.

The only issue I see is that current standards, i.e. HTML, make it difficult to have anything but the most simple of forms in a poem.

7:48 PM  
Blogger Roger Pao said...

Yes, more comments! I'll try to respond as succinctly as I can.

Anonymous, NO, I definitely was not referring to NER and Mr. Young, both of which and whom I highly regard. I was aiming for a generic description that could apply to many different publications. But I can see how the flow of my post may have given that impression, so I apologize if it looked that way.

But because I respect him, I was engaging with his arguments. His arguments ARE EQUAL to mine. Conceding that anyone in the blogosphere is smarter, stronger, a better dancer, etc. than me, that doesn't automatically exempt his thoughts from any challenge. Remember: wannabe intellectuals challenge people's thoughts. That's why we're avoided at family gatherings. :)

3:05 AM  
Blogger Roger Pao said...

Also, I was polite at all times and ONLY addressed his claims and arguments. I've been to different message boards and know full well that these things can devolve into name-calling, etc. I want to keep discourse at a higher level than that.

3:08 AM  
Blogger Roger Pao said...

Hey Amy, originally this blog was going to focus enitrely on individual Asian-American poets and it still very well may. But the blog is only about a week old, and I just have had so much to say about Asian-American poetry in general. So I'm still thinking about its direction.

Also, I have to confess that I'm a little concerned about how I'm going to deal with individual Asian-American poets. It seems boring just to list names. (If you're looking for some style of poetry or poet(s) in particular, though, please feel free to e-mail me for book rec's.) But if I say something bold and provocative about poets/poetry, are they going to be offended? And is it ok that they are offended? And what are the benefits and costs of that? Just incidentally, I consider whether poets are offended by criticism to be an ethical question, which is why I try to behave ethically by focusing on the poems, though I might not always succeed and though I shouldn't just assume that taking poets out of the picture completely is an ethical response.

Sorry, I'm going long here, yes, I guess I didn't mean a tight definition of poetry, rather than an explanation of what the editor is thinking.

3:21 AM  
Blogger Roger Pao said...

Hey Andrew,

Glad you're still reading! And before I forget, I'd like to give a big shout out to all my readers thus far! :)

Yeah, I can probably make 10 posts on poetry and technology alone. But I won't. I mean, look at the title of this blog. :) I think I'm already drifting here. Just quickly, being someone who does enjoy a magazine/book of poetry in his hands, I do have some sympathy for the anti-techies who want to keep everything the way it was. I do think that we'll see online poetry play a greater role in the future, though.

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