Monday, January 03, 2005

The International Library of Poetry: A Mixed Critique

I'm supposing that many of you have read the most recent issue of Poets and Writers's mixed review of the International Library of Poetry -- the highly profitable vanity publisher of poetry. Anyhow, that's basically what it was: a mixed review. Various poets praised the organization, condemned it, gave it mixed reviews, etc. -- but most surprising to me was the number of respected poets who are essentially now working for it in the sense of running the organization or giving talks at their various conferences.

Personal story: Back when the organization was known as the National Library of Poetry, yours truly submitted a poem that got published, and yours truly purchased the $40 or $50 anthology, and yours truly became a "Semi-finalist" in one of their "contests." In my defense, I was only 16 or 17 at the time. I was genuinely ignorant -- not just that it was a vanity publication but that there was even such a thing as a "publishing industry." When I found out that it was a vanity publication, I was, to put it delicately, quite pissed. I wanted the consumers' protection agencies to bring the organization down! How dare they! It pissed me off even more when I heard that they took advantage of poor people who poured hundreds if not thousands of dollars of their meager wages and savings into the organization. (In a desparate move to tie this entry back to Asian-American poets/poetry, I'll just note that poet Nick Carbo was quoted as having a similar reaction in the P&W article. Also, I've seen Asian names in the directory of published poets. Man, I really am desparate. :) )

Anyhow, I've cooled off since then. I was going to say that I can now bring a "critical perspective" to the International Library of Poetry, and perhaps I can, but I can't divorce my critical frame of reference from my inexplicable and ever-changing personal sense of morality, if morality and critique can ever be separate. I'll just say upfront that I could NEVER work for the organization. Sorry. Knowing that it takes advantage of poor people and young people who may not know better, I just can't. And assuming that the organization has indeed undertaken all the steps that the article notes of evolving into a more "legitimate" organization, let's get real here. The organization is out to make money -- it won't refuse to take the money of the poor, elderly, and young who are ignorant of ...Hmmm...

But to what am I objecting here? It is possible that I'm just being paternalistic here. The poor, elderly, young, etc. may be ignorant OR they may really want to see their work in print though still be ignorant OR they may not be ignorant at all but really want to see their work in print. They might just want the hardcover anthology to show to family and friends. Despite what I've said, I think that we should seriously consider that people who submit poems to the publication aren't stupid.

Also, I don't necessarily agree with critics of The International Library of Poetry who simply condemn the organization for publishing amateurish poetry for a profit. First, what is "amateurish" poetry? Sometimes, you hear "respected" critics or watchdogs essentially presume that such poetry is just amateurish because the "literary establishment" says it is. But I would press these critics to define what exactly they mean by "amateurish," or "bad," poetry. Second, yes, the organization is out to sell books and make a profit. But, come on, it is not the only one. The organization just happens to be particularly good at it. :) Are critics angry that it is a vanity publisher? Or are they angry that it is a vanity publisher that is making a profit?

Make no mistake about it: this is a power struggle. One of my themes for this blog is to not conceal power struggles where they exist already. The International Library of Poetry is redefining what constitutes publishable, or "good," poetry. "Good poetry" is essentially defined by the ILP as any poetry that the poet wants to be published. It is a very democratic definition. It shifts power away from the editor and towards the poet. It takes away potential customers and fans of "respectable" poetry magazines and publishing houses. Sure, its elaborate system of contests may "deceive" people by making them think that their poems have been read carefully and are "good" poems, as, ironically, defined the literary establishment itself, but aren't large "respectable" poetry magazines and publishing houses also performing a similar "deception" when they charge a $25+ entry fee for their contests, don't read submitted poems carefully, don't offer comments, judge poems by the name of the poet, and/or desire to make a profit as well?

Nevertheless, the International Library of Poetry's definition of "good poetry" is a dangerous definition on at least three counts: (1) first, by completely shifting the question of whether a poem is "good" or "bad" away from the merit of the poem, it risks squelching all dialogue over the poem itself, (2) on a related point, it risks destroying or at least eroding communities of good, critical readers who care about poems, and (3) third, most poignantly, it's simply splendid to have other people give your poem a honest, careful reading. (The third reason is why I try always to be honest about people's poems, while I still try not to hurt people's feeling -- more on my success (or lack thereof) in a later post.)

As I noted in my previous post, poetry is already commercialized. Critical editors, writers, readers must fight back. It is very possible that capitalizing on, for example, Li-Young Lee's good looks to sell books, is equally anti-intellectual and not the way to go. But, as I suggest above, we must seriously consider ways to justify poetry as "good" rather than simply paternalistically proclaiming poetry to be "bad" simply because it is published by a publisher that makes a profit or because it is "obvious" to us "smart, superior" people. I think that the "literary establishment"'s publishing model, while flawed, is the way to go, because it at least purportedly supposes an interested, intellectual engagement with the poems and books of poetry that it chooses to accept for publication. But if it loses this guiding purpose, we might as well all turn to the International Library of Poetry and at least not get our feelings hurt by the rejection of our submissions.

(Note: Sorry, this post has gotten long. But I just want to quickly note that I don't think that a poet has to be "published" anywhere to be a poet. In my thinking, I am aiming for an expansive definition of "poet." At this point, I am willing to go as far as anyone who has written a poem that she/he shares with anyone else. I'm still considering whether a "poet" who keeps all of her or his poems to him or herself is a "poet.")


Blogger Beleobus said...

I hear you.

Entered an online comp of theirs myself one day and they keep bombarding me with invitations to purchase bound volumes of their 'vanity' I guess they're making money somewhere though!

5:06 AM  
Blogger Roger Pao said...

Thanks for the post. Yeah, I was bombarded with mailings for the longest time as well. Don't worry -- they stop eventually. :)

Though I'm criticizing ILP, I do have to give them credit for tapping into, or even building, a market that no one else had done so to such a great extent before: everyday people who write poetry.

Poets, editors, publishers of poetry, and others who have not succumbed to ILP's de facto definition of "good" poetry must fight back -- and I'm suggest one of the first responses is to show that they really care about poems, to give these "everyday people" a reason NOT to have their poems published in ILP, the reason being a careful, interested, engaged readership.

I fully realize that some of these "everyday people" simply just want to see their poems in print for themselves. End of story. BUT I think that they are in the minority. I believe, or at least would like to believe, that the vast majority of these "everyday people" who are published in ILP publications do care about poetry and have some sense of pride and dignity. Being an optimist, I think the vast majority do.

1:06 PM  
Blogger Nick said...

hey roger, since my name came up, it's about time to surface into your masterful milieu. keep up the strong opinions because we really need this kind of discussion. if a Dana Gioia can ask "Can Poetry Matter?" and make a career out of his ruminations, why can't a Roger Pao assume a similar role for Asian American Poetry?

9:50 PM  
Blogger Roger Pao said...

Hey Nick, thanks a lot for surfing on over! Exactly. I think there should be more people talking about Asian-American poetry. It's what the cool kids do nowadays. :)

8:10 AM  
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