Q: [Nic Sebastian]
Patricia: You wrote in a recent [WOMPO] list email: “What is the goal of publishing poetry in this day? Is this an attempt to validate the poetry in the context of your hope for future jobs in higher education? Or is is about finding an intelligent and informed audience and readership for the poems? The two are very different, and the paths to these two goals seldom intersect.”
I’d be very interested in hearing your thoughts as to why and how these two objectives differ. I consider myself a poet, but earn my living in an absolutely-nothing-to-with-poetry field. After initially having lots of energy and a strong desire to pursue publication over several years, and with some success, I have lately found myself seriously losing momentum in this regard and am wondering to what extent the dichotomy you refer to plays into it. Not an earth-shattering development, but I am curious.
Nice meeting you, Nic, and thank you for question. I’m pondering how to clarify my earlier statement, but basically it’s personal for me. I’ve been in both places and find value in both, and continue to struggle to make sense out of this dichotomy. I’m also really tired (sick kid) so hoping this isn’t rambling too much and makes sense to someone.
My poetry career began in academics. Well, my post K-12 poetry career, I should say. This was back in the 70s and late 80s. Because the poetry publishing field was so highly competitive, and it was so HARD to get published, I was always afraid to show my work to anyone for fear it would be borrowed, cribbed, stolen, abused in some fashion. I have enormous notebooks collecting jealously guarded early works that very few have ever seen. I won awards; was published in most issues of the the school literary magazine; moved onward to small press poetry mags; worked in a library in part as selector for 20th century English language poetry; applied to creative writing programs; was offered a fellowship. I made friends among poets, bought tons of poetry books, went to readings & receptions, and was determined to make poetry my profession.
Sounds like a fairly typical progression, doesn’t it? Well, after I received the offer of a fellowship, I celebrated by going out with my creative writing pals from the local university, and asking what happens once you get your degree? It turned out, for a woman, there was no real future. There was a long pause, as my circle of friends all looked at each other, trying to decide who would be the one to share the unhappy truth. Eventually, the head of the local creative writing program, still a highly respected and frequently published poet, told me, “You will be over qualified for the job you hold now.” A flurry of vehement conversation later came part two, “You have been offered a fellowship. That is your degree. You are a writer, you are a poet. The rest is just politics and the icing on the cake. Even if you do get a job as a writing faculty, you will lose the freedom to write what you really want. You’ll be measured by quantity of published work in the area you’re hired to write in, not your creativity or innovation. If you are hired as a poet and decide to start writing short stories, the stories will not contribute to your tenure efforts. They will be discounted. And visa versa.” Or words to that effect.
I didn’t want to believe this, so I did research. At that time, I was able to locate only ONE tenured woman faculty of poetry on the North American continent. Most women ended up with one or two year temporary appointments, moving from school to school. The looks went around the circle again. I was told, “We are writing faculty because we can’t do anything else. You can. You have options, choices.”
I declined the fellowship and went to library school. I was a single parent. I had a child to support. I didn’t want to raise her as a gypsy, I wanted to give her some stability and safety in life. I wanted health insurance (kid was sick a LOT, in the hospital three times her first month).
Fast forward twenty or so years. I continued to write. A lot! But I didn’t continue to submit my poems to formal publications. Well, occasionally, just a few, but I didn’t work at it. When I did submit works, it was usually to chapbook contests, and they were gently declined. It really does help with later publications to have various journal publications first. I did a little bit in the Chicago slam poetry movement, but again not a lot. I grew up in a university town, and was focused from an early age on academic achievement. I was still protecting my poems, afraid of sharing them except through official formal publication channels. I had a few really trusted readers, but I had to train them myself. The tendency of friends is to simply always say whatever you’ve done is wonderful. That never helped me understand what went wrong at a certain paint, how to make a piece stronger, did I ramble too long, or try to cram too much into too small a space, did I overdo it with alliteration/rhythm/???, were the line breaks too random, etc, etc.
A few years ago I become the UM Emerging Technologies Librarian, with a significant focus on the impact of social media on academic activities such as teaching, learning, research, publication. I work closely with the unit focusing on open educational resources, and actively promote Creative Commons licensing on campus. This is part of my job, but has snuck over into almost every aspect of my life. After a few years, and after routinely posting short poems (micropoetry) on Twitter and Facebook and Identi.ca, I was asked to contribute to the blog OpenMicro. This grew into collaborations, and other invitations. I started reading online poetry magazines in addition to print. I attended poetry readings & workshops in Second Life, and joined in as a reader, and challenged myself with improv poetry. Eventually I started a poetry blog for the National Poetry Writing Month challenges, which I’ve done a few years now. It gives me quite a rush when people end up in a flurry of conversation around my daily poems during April, people telling me they are eagerly waiting for the next one, guessing what I’ll do. Unfortunately, I simply don’t have the stamina to keep it up all year. I wish I did. Online social media, being open and sharing my poetry has resulted in a readership many magnitudes larger than any I could ever have through print media, much more engagement and activity. It is so much more rewarding than anything else I had done with my poetry, I cannot begin to express it.
Now, I am not seeking academic tenure for my poetry, so I am not risking my professional reputation. Actually, I am ENHANCING and enriching and expanding my reputation. But, as a writer and a poet, I am having massively more fun with my poetry and other folks poetry working in this more open and social environment than I ever did working off in my own little cubby with fewer readers than fingers and protecting my poems so much than I’ve lost copies of most of them. Just my experience, but it illustrates a bit of the dichotomy.
For the record, I’ve observed similar shifts in research and science. There is a huge focus coming out of the government to try to facilitate more rapid growth of science through transparency & collaboration. The whole concept of translational science (one of my own research interests) is based on this, as are the movements on open science / open notebook science / open data / data sharing / citizen science / etc. This is part of the conversation that will be happening at the HASTAC conference December 2-3 on Digital Scholarly Communication in the humanities. In my honest opinion, this is the wave of the future. I could go into detail about why for hours. I feel heartbroken and sad for my poet friends who don’t understand this and linger in the “I must protect my content by not sharing it” mode. Sharing it is HOW you protect your content in the modern online environment. That is how you build reputation, how you prove the date of authorship, how you expand your audience, how you maximise your sales. There is quite a bit of research to substantiate these claims. My favorite new article came out last week in PLoS showing how research publications that share data tend not only to be more cited but also more accurate and better quality!
Jelte M. Wicherts, Marjan Bakker, Dylan Molenaar. Willingness to Share Research Data Is Related to the Strength of the Evidence and the Quality of Reporting of Statistical Results. PLoS ONE: Research Article, published 02 Nov 2011. 10.1371/journal.pone.0026828
Obviously, I’m biased. Which was why in the original statement, I tried to focus on the goals and not my bias. Sigh, failed, again.