Thursday, February 22, 2007

Academia and College Mags

This is a post designed to touch down on a subject that seems prevalent in poetry. It isn’t comprehensive and by no means conclusive, and certainly more can be found through a basic online search.

There is a kind of divider right now between academia and everyone else concerning poetry. This has existed since the notion of teaching first became understood on a public level, but lately, there’s some excess anxiety over the role of academia in the realm of poetry. If you keep up in the small press to even a small degree, you’ve no doubt heard snippets of this division on occasion, and they can be found all over the place, dug in here and there. It has always existed, of course, but right now there seems to be bottleneck of complaints and praise going back and forth between them. You should be aware of it. There are arguments all over the place both denouncing and praising the MFA programs, as well as the rather ambiguous nature of editorial preference in the world. There is also a longstanding history involved, and the repercussions of poetry movements, academic movements, national affixion, and plain, old-fashioned righteousness.

The academic aspect of poetry generally seeks to define good poetry as such, and develop a longstanding measure and understanding of it through socially historic notions and exacting scrutiny, and do so by studying, summarizing, and teaching the results. Those outside of academia tend to favor gut instinct more, and whether they feel moved by the work, whether they find it unique or original. These are generalities, of course, but fairly staple. Within either of these houses, there is much bickering and indecisiveness. Outside of academia, publishing poetry is largely left to individuals not associated with particular schools or agencies, and in these people, tastes and preferences, as well as opinion and belief about poetry can be highly unpredictable and scattered. A poem you write in a more classical vein can be praised all to hell by one editor who finds it relevant and intriguing, whereas the next might dislike it greatly, believing it to be old hat, or too obviously modeled. What one editor finds to provide a sense of risk and unique language, another will find to be overblown, and not accessible enough. Get used to it.

Look around some poet’s blogs and you’ll find a lot on this topic. Many poets fear and hate what they feel to be hegemony and the equivalent of a poetry good-ol-boys network in the academic world, whereas others support the more academic magazines, respecting them and, in some cases, wanting to be counted within them. You know, not biting the hand. There seem to be shells firing off from all directions on the subject of poetry contests right now, and the potential for favoritism and the fear of cheating, and it’s affecting everyone in the poetry world, academic or not, and some more targeted than others. The foetry thing has been digging in the ground for some time, and there are poets and editors who support it, and some that dislike it greatly, but both sides of this poetic scrimmage seem to be writing a lot of poetry, so something is happening, at least. There’s also quite a bit of heat being applied to the scam presses, which have always been around but have flourished more, and on grander scales with the wider accessibility of the internet. One of the most notorious of these is Look around online and you’ll find a lot of animosity toward that ‘press’.

On to college mags. For me, getting into the college mags and university reviews has proven nearly impossible. In over three hundred submissions to U.S. college mags, I’ve been picked up by two. Both in Kentucky. I’ve been mulling over the idea of simply ignoring the university mags, for better or worse. I have some theories on why these are difficult to get into for uneducated writers like myself. The first is that these magazines usually have a specific purpose behind them other than simply printing good material. They have the contributions and submissions of their own students and faculty to think about, their local towns, alumni, competing schools and schools in which there is a more sibling connection or relationship, then there are regions many prefer to read from, then possibly the state... Also, as academically linked publications, there is a natural push and expectancy between them to exhibit some of the larger names in poetry. There may be precious little room in these magazines after wading through all the submissions from the abovementioned sources for someone that has no connection to their magazine or school. Also, most of the people who staff these magazines prefer a more worldly approach to their submissions, and like to see submissions from across the various seas. Couple this with the current salivation for translated work and the prevalent use of themes, and you have a lot of competition for an ever-shrinking bed in a very little room.

In addition to there being little room, many of these magazines are run by various advisors and students, which means every year, and in some cases, every term can provide a barrier to how easily the process might flow. Many of these magazines go under for a year, then are reborn under new advisors and whatnot, then go under for a quarter, then start up again. Sometimes a decade will pass while a magazine goes on ‘hiatus’. It depends on funding, staffing, and interest, as well as time. Give it a shot and submit to a few. It might work out better for you than it has for me. They might like your work. You’ll have to find out on your own.

As a last note: There are a lot of editors out there that seem to enjoy categorization of poems, specifically in the academic world (again, summary is key when trying to explain something broad). In their guidelines, these editors will mention enjoying ‘western poetry’, ‘New York school’, ‘Classical’, etc... This works for them, but not for you. Aside from basic type (poetry, prose, visual poetry, spoken word...), forget about all this. It’s important for categorization, study, affinity, and sales, but it generally means dick in regards to your writing. Stating that you’re a neo-classicist or that you only write New York school is silly and jock-sure. You might as well decide whether you’re a blood or a crip, while you’re at it. Do what you do and send it to whoever you think wants it. In poetry, there’s no reason to confound things by aligning yourself with some genre, or an old movement, or any other bullet. If you come across a magazine that only wants work prescribing to one of these, that’s their thing. Deal with it however you want. There’s a definite confidence with summary and connecting to someone through it, but summarizing yourself and work so stiffly is damaging and an easy route to writer’s block.

As for the role of academia, the laureates, the MFA, and all that happens inside and outside of this realm concerning poetry and its prolix users, I feel only time and the poetry itself will realize the outcome.
ray succre

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