Monday, May 16, 2005

The Foetry Debacle

Okay. Maybe it's not fair for me to call it a "debacle." But I've been following, from a comfortable distance, the debate going on over there at Today there is a Chronicle of Higher Ed story on Foetry.
This past week I've been posting and responding on the website, which was probably a big mistake. The posters there are angry and are not really interested in dialogue. They want to have angry exchanges with each other about "foets" whom they get to designate without really having an explicit criteria for who is and who is not a "foet." For sure Jorie Graham, in their opinions, is a "foet." There is a strange, paranoid conspiracy theory feel to their "conversation" which doesn't involve much listening or ideas about what to do about poetry contests, which they say are "rigged." I guess their next idea is to sue some University Presses using the Consumer Protection Act. The problem is, what constitutes "proof" of "unfairness" in a poetry contest? It's not like a contest at McDonald's, where everyone who gets a game card has an equal chance of winning. Unlike the lottery, there is some skill involved. It is a bit like the lottery, I guess, if choosing numbers is like writing poems. And if the person who shoots the number balls out of the big barrel (is that how it's done these days?) chooses the number of their friends or former students. But the idea of "rigging" or unfairness bypasses the aesthetic argument, which seems to me the most compelling.
I'm not saying Jorie Graham isn't unethical for choosing her former students or lover as the prize winner. I'm just saying that it's possible, theoretically, that she really did like the manuscript of that person best. (Maybe she was responsible for shaping the writing and THAT'S why she liked it). All I'm saying is that, in theory, it is possible to like one poet's work more than another's, and it may not even be because you shaped that aesthetic or because you love or even like the poet.
That's my five cents.


Mary Anne Mohanraj said...

I agree with everything you say, and at the same time, I think it's only appropriate to recuse yourself from judging the work of your students or those you've been romantically involved with. If anything good comes out of this, it could be an understanding across the board that that's the standard course of action in such situations. It's just not that hard to say, "I'm sorry, but I can't judge this person's work fairly. Please bring someone else in as the arbiter here."

Suing is ridiculous, though.

Nik said...

I love the controversy though. I go to Foetry every day to see if there's a new "bad contest." It's like the gossip is so much more interesting than some of the poetry out there. But I, for one, do feel cheated when University of Wisconsin picks somecone that went there for their MFA or when Rebecca Woolf from Fence picks someone she knows. I feel like I've wasted tons of money on some of these contests. I think it's more important to discover what contests are really there for everyone and which ones promote their peeps. Then, send to the democratic ones and become friends with the peepified ones. That's my new solution, unethical though it may be.
I agree with Mary Anne that judges SHOULD be that ethical, but I think Lynn's point is well-taken, maybe your student's is the best, because it does reflect your aesthetic. There's no objective arbiter like that in the number-picking games. Still, if we're going to gamble, don't the odds get worse if Jorie Graham's the judge and one of her students is in the mix?
Submitter beware and come up with your own policy--submit only to contests that name the judge and insist that no previous students apply--to 2nd the suing is ridiculous. But FUN. How else does Poetry make it to the NY Times?

Lisa B. said...

A. I agree with you that it's a bad idea to post to the forum on Foetry--it's awful, rude.

B. But come on, Dr. Write. If you're going to have a contest, you have to have better controls. Of course, it's really all about the horrible condition of poetry publishing. Not enough market, too many good poets. If they're going to let judges pick their students, they should just say, "We're letting Jorie Graham pick a book that we'll publish. Oh look! It's by her lover!" And if they can't publish books except as funded by suckers like us, then maybe we should all accept that poetry is a fool's game--there's no money, we'll never get published.

C. I cannot finish without confessing the utter joy and glee I felt when I stumbled onto the Foetry site, long before this controversy erupted. It gave a name to what I had experienced--the deeply incestuous and corrupt world of academic writing programs and the professors who run them.

Dr. Write said...

Don't misunderstand: I agree that judges shouldn't choose their former students or lovers. I absolutely think they shouldn't. But I also don't think we can make blanket statements that judges who choose their friends/lovers/students do so out of some evil intent. I think they are probably a little self-deluded or perhaps not completely aware of their own motives. And, I think, they probably do think that the manuscript they chose was the best, and they don't think too much about the ethics.
So I agree with Nik, we shouldn't submit to unethical contests and we should give our money elsewhere. But I also think some of the posters on foetry are a bit deluded about the power of their own language.
yes, I love foetry and its gossipy "access hollywood" version of the po-biz. But I think the way to change the contests is to convince them of the unethical practices they have undertaken. And I don't think foetry's acerbic approach is going to work. They ridicule poets (and not for ethics breaches) and they make the whole thing seem a little immature.
That said, I too love that poetry was on Talk of the Nation AND in newspapers. Gotta love that.
I think some contests are changing.
I just don't want to assume that the poetry judges have evil motives. Why not assume they are clueless instead of mean?

Nik said...

After reading through the forum, I found a bunch of truly invested poets severely disaffected. I wonder if you and I Lynn maintained our singular to focus to poetry, would we be so bitter as they? Perhaps. It seems that by not embracing any of the spiritual rewards of poetry, they've lost out on the purpose of poetry anyway. I'm pretty sure I went into my MFA program knowing that it was a semi-scam. Get an MFA to get a PhD to teach poetry so others could go on to get their MFA's and teach poetry. Of course it's a self-sustaining, circular economic. So is the insurance industry. Who cares? As Scott Cairns said, the more poets, the better. Certainly there's enough good contests, good programs, good magazines that the true "cream does rise to the top."
I'd post this to the forum, but I think they're a reactionary group. I do love some of their crazy radicalism. It just seems perhaps they should direct their energies toward radicalizing something truly destructive--like the "W"hite House.

theorris said...

I am always amazed at how rude/angry/whatever people can be on some sites. If you really want to see how low folks can sink, try reading the comments political blogs.

As for poetry contests, it always strikes me funny when the words poetry and prize are put together.

Prize poetry. Prize pig. Blue ribbons at the county fair.

Lisa B. said...

By the way, in an unrelated-to-Foetry comment, I want to tell you that I saw a review of the complete Def Leppard recordings in Rolling Stone, complete with a photo of the band wearing Union Jack hot pants. Thought of you.