Thursday, December 31, 2009

An Open Letter to Bill Henderson, Editor of Pushcart Prize Volumes

I always hate it when poets are cynical towards other poets who brag about being nominated for a Pushcart Prize. I like it when someone's happy. It makes things feel better. "Who isn't nominated for a Pushcart Prize these days?" a friend said recently. This was he truth: me.

But my friend misses the point. There is something special when you're singled out. When you say in your introduction that you received more than 7,000 submissions that means a hell of a lot of people have been singled out. And I like that. What can it hurt? I've always found it cool when a lit mag posts its nominations. And a lot of them do. Your annual volume has offered the hope to so many writers of their work being made even more visible. And, for me, anyway, maybe because I am a gay man, visibility is always better than invisibility-- in all realms of life.


In graduate school, my best friend said that she had two goals: to be nominated for a Pushcart Prize and appear in Glimmer Train. Glimmer Train has always freaked me out. Does anyone really want to see someone's childhood photo next to their published story? It's creepy.

But a Pushcart Prize feels like a normal, good , healthy thing.


Here are the some things that concerned me about your introduction that makes me fear that your amazing project is losing its integrity and even worse its necessity:

1.) I fear that you might find yourself charming in a cranky, old codger way when you say that on-line magazines aren't as significant as print ones. You write, "Another lust that consumes our culture today is speed, not the drug but the electronic version. This is especially deadly to writers. One demand vanity publishers will zip out your efforts, no questions asked (and usually no readers found)." This feels at best hypocritical and at worst mean. Your volume, I always thought, was meant to be for the magazines that no one sees. Those very small presses.

There are, as far as I can tell, no stuff from the electronic version in this volume. For a man as energetic as you are, I cannot imagine that you haven't had curiosity at what's out there in that cyber world. If you haven't, I don't think you've looked hard enough.

2.) And then there seems to be an annoying glorification of old age itself: "The electronic juggernaut drives their frenzy for renown and is very destructive, particularly to young authors. It takes years, maybe a life time, to figure out what you want to say and how to say it."

The most revealing statement: "Because you can burp out a poem or short story online, you will not immediately join the ranks of the immortals."

That's true, but another reason is that your volume has grown committed to publishing people who have been around forever. Or the few, same young people have been published volume after volume after volume. Or you choose judges that I thought were already dead. This year it was Rosanna Warren (a poor woman's Linda Gregerson) and Wesley McNair (who I met once and loved. He was a true gentleman, something there needs to be more of these days.) See. I'm already writing their eulogies.

Do people really change ultimately for the better as they grow old. Look at Louise Gluck in this volume. She's been recycling the same issues over and over again--which just goes to you: psychotherapy never works. We need more drugs. And yes: no matter how you may resist, speed should be a choice. You can't tell me you didn't at least a caffeine pill or two when you went through the alleged 7,000 submissions you received.

3.) Don't quote people like Rosanna Warren who have the audacity to say that poetry at this historical moment "exhibits a blessed profusion not easily categorized-thank heavens-into schools..."

When you have conservative poets --not that that's necessarily a bad thing--like McNair and Warren doing the judging, you get a lot of what you expect: strategically flat, unadorned understated narrative. When people complain about the Best American series being rigged, I find it annoying. They're guest editors, what do you expect. Of course, people are going to publish their friends? Who else are they going to? Their enemies?

But with all these nominators, and screeners, and judges, you expect more difference.

4.) Who the hell is Diann Blakely?

I swear she must nominate at least half of the 7,000 submissions. I see her name reprinted at least a dozen times every volume. Confess, Bill. Have you succumbed to the conglomerates? And if so, does she have stock?

It makes me queasy that out of 60 of the award winners, they come from only 41 different magazines. I'm not going to get into a numerical analysis. You can make statistics mean whatever you want them to. To a certain extent anyway. Also: I'm too lazy to make a pie chart. But you know what I'm saying. It doesn't take much time to scan the volume and see that a lot of the small magazines aren't that small.

Your volume was a great thing, but now it's starting to date itself before it's even be released. Here are some ideas to rejuvenate it: a.) make a concerted effort to peruse those on-line magazines, or at least put them in the maybe pile. (I'll be happy if at the end of my life the Universe puts me in the maybe pile. It's fitting closure) b.) if someone's already won a Pushcart, maybe they should be ineligible. c.) reprint only one entry from a magazine for each volume.

With 7,000 or so nominations you can't have at least a few runner ups. And isn't the Pushcart Prize volume all about the idea of the runner-up. It's about those of us who have exerted ourselves, hoping secretly that we might move beyond the small presses into undeniable fame. But through our own egotism forget that coming close is all as anyone--even those who have, indeed, "placed"--can do.


  1. Great post!

    I have so many responses, but don't know where to begin. I do hope the Pushcart really consider the poems and not what magazine they came from. It takes a good editor to look at all the poems and see the diamond in the papersack and realize what came in the Tiffany's box might be cubic-zirconia.

    I've always liked the Glimmer Train kid photos, but I'm creepy like that.

    Thanks for these thoughts, Steve.

  2. I have to confess that I agree with a lot of what Henderson says. Blogs and online journals have not been good for literature. So many writers don't even bother to proofread any longer. The question mark at the end of an interrogative sentence is becoming a thing of the past.

  3. Wow. I concur. I hate it when some poets are cynical toward those who brag about getting a Pushcart Prize nomination.
    As for online work, I've read some magnificent work on the Internet. And I like having my work published online because it means it's probably getting a range of readers and because it allows me to easily direct people to what I write.

  4. I'm with you on the cynicism thing. I wonder if poets who are cynical about Pushcarts have never edited. They've never been the ones who've been so excited about a poem that they can't wait to put it forward for more recognition. They've never been the ones who've sent the email to the writer to tell them they've been nominated. So they've never understood why the nominations matter, what they truly mean, because they're only thinking about themselves, and obviously, they're also assholes.

  5. I like this post. Time to post it on Facebook!

  6. yeah. i haven't been nominated for a Pushcart either but I'm certainly not gonna knock all the awesome people I know who have been!

    Since Pushcart only allows you to nominate six things from your journal perhaps they should also limit how many awards they will give to a given magazine? that really does seem a fair way to narrow down the contestants so to speak.

  7. I completely disagree with the commenter about online journals not being "good" for literature. This is that same, stuffy, old-fashioned line of thinking that many in academia still peddle. I don't know what journals your reading online, but the ones I read -- and have been published in -- have great editors and pay close attention to content.

    I've been nominated four times now, but never expect to win. The nomination by editors who think my work is worthy enough to put forward is plenty of reward for me.