Sunday, August 29, 2010

On The New England Review's and Ploughshares' New Creepy Practice of Charging Fees for On-Line Submissions

It seems that a possible new trend within the world of literary magazine is the charging of on-line submissions. Two magazines, New England Review and Ploughshares, have begun this practice, and with their huge reputations could impact other magazines to do the same. It should be said that if you are subscriber, you don’t have to pay. If you send by snail mail, you don’t need to pay. For Ploughshares, it costs three dollars. I can't find out how much it costs over at the New England Review.

Ploughshares claims they are charging the fee to be able to continue to give money to the authors of accepted poems. In other words: the people who don't get the pub need to pay for those who do. As they say on their website: "This fee will help us to continue to pay our contributors." This is shocking from a magazine that I respect and claims to be interested in social change.

Of course, the most significant argument in defending this practice is that the magazine could face definite extinction if it doesn’t find ways to increase revenue. It is an important fact. It would be a sad fate.

However, then the magazines have an ethical responsibility; they must ensure that at least 40 % (or more) of their contents include work by unpublished or emerging writers. I am defining emerging as a writer who has publications, but no book. If a magazine can’t at least meet that percentage, then they are engaging in unethical practices. Their chances of getting published should be reflected in what the charge for submissions is.

I am suspect of any magazine that does not include 40 % unpublished or emerging writers. If they are uninterested in supporting unpublished and/or emerging writers, they should not ask for submissions fees. Take Five Points. They only publish established writers. And usually their worst pieces! Which does provide for great entertainment. I hope they keep it up.

A popular train of thought is that magazines can do whatever they want. It’s their magazine after all. For me, this is such a cop-out. Magazine editors have a responsibility to hold themselves responsible for the way they treat potential writers, especially when claim they’re interested in submissions.

Some people say that it’s a “tiny” fee. I don’t know how much the New England Review's is. Ploughshares is three bucks. It may be a tiny fee if you have a tenure-track job. But when you are a graduate student or working-class, chances are it isn’t—three bucks add up really fast. You send to six different magazines with submission fees, and there’s eighteen dollars.

Let’s face it: graduate students make up most of the submissions. And most of them are struggling financially as it is. To take money out of their pocket, when they’re struggling means that you don’t have a conscience. The editors of these magazines themselves should be decrying the situation. They should encourage their publishers to go on-line, perhaps. It’s not the end of the world. But taking money from hard working students is. With the current depression, it is inexcusable.

Needless to say, these same graduate students are not in a position to argue—their future livelihood may depend on these reputable magazines. Who isn’t going to want to have a poem in the pages of the New England Review or Ploughshares? I’ve been sending to these places on-and-of for a decade or more. In the past month, I bought a gift subscription of Ploughshares for a friend. When I first came to Brockport for my tenure-track job, I immediately purchased subscriptions to Kenyon Review and the New England Review.

The literary community is small. Trust me. I’ve paid the price for opening my mouth on a blog I’m always surprised anyone would even glance at. People don’t like people who have opinions. And some editors would say in advance that, hey, they do so much work for nothing, keep them out of this. No one should be excused from the discussion. And also, it’s so prestigious to be an editor of a lit magazine. I would love if someone included me. I like finding new poets, new poems. But I don’t expect them to pay for our newly formed friendship.

Addendum: Since I posted this, I thought perhaps a submissions manager could be created in such a way that working class people and graduate students could identify themselves privately and be exempt from paying the fee. All others could pay perhaps even a slightly higher fee if this is a system that will come into play. I know I'd be willing to do that. I'm indebted to the literary magazines for my salary and health insurance and do my best, not all the times successfully, to purchase as many small press books and magazines as possible.

Friday, August 20, 2010

On Paul Lisicky's Poem "The Little Songs" and James Schuyler

Amidst the strident push for gay marriage, Paul Lisicky’s prose poem “The Little Songs” admirably dares to be about gay male relaxation; his rhetorical effects are more than a little reminiscent of James Schuyler, arguably the most important New York School writer. The deliberately slight poem even evokes the momentary, yet ultimately insignificant doubt that queer men may actually have towards tying the knot. This James Schuyler impacted poem feels genuine, partly because-- not in spite of-- its willingness to explore the banality of gay male life.

From the title alone, "The Little Songs," you see that Lisicky avoids a convention in gay male poetry-- the loud, flashy, even campy title. The sentimental title seems unconcerned with announcing its self-importance; it doesn’t feel the need to overachieve and create something over-determinedly memorable. Strategically flat, the opening sentence reifies the rhetorical effect of that title: “Three notes into the song, and I’m cooked.” The next sentence, though, creates an image James Schuyler would be proud of: “And I know myself as well as I know the inner life of a sunflower stalk.”

The poem's plot is as simple as can be. Paul has pleasant thought about the interconnectedness between him and his partner. It consists of a remembered pastoral setting, "yesterday, in the woods" --another Schuyler trademark-- and traces Paul's internalized thoughts.

Almost immediately after the sunflower line, Lisicky deftly provides another Schuyler moment: “...just like I never knew until now that you sing to keep yourself lifted when the light in you wants to go down, down. Should I tell you that? Oops.” For a poem to not sound kitschy after an "Oops" you know you've got something special.

Later, Lisicky writes: “But I completely get it why any of us might need to say those are your fingers, your shins, and your habits, given the mighty temptation to merge.” This broad claim undoubtedly gives voice to the ephemeral yet very occasional doubt gay men have to the opening up of the institution of marriage. Will it simply cause gay men to lose their distinctiveness, their own self-identities?

Like Schuyler’s “The Morning of the Poem” the subject here doesn’t pretend that it is of vital interest. This creates a challenge and reward for the writer: How do you create even the slightest tension in a poem that admits that on some level it can be disposed of? The reward is that the poet, such a Lisicky, offers a fairly rare generosity: the poem allows the reader to relax, and enjoy the comic sublime without guilt or demand.

In the sentence, "And how many times a month do we hear; Are you guys related? No, we're from Fire Island, though I never find the sass in my to say so." This provides an intriguing ambiguity: are we to think that the people-- perhaps unknowingly-- conflate the lovers as a result of their own unconscious homophobia (they're blurred together, indistinctive as anything other than homosexuals)? Or is it a way of complimenting them, implying they look complementary, like a perfect couple? Obviously, it must be one of these--in real life, Lisicky and his lover look nothing alike. Whatever possibility it is, or perhaps it is both, Lisicky punctuates the thought with typical unobtrusive humor: "Damned if you do and damned if you don't."

Never self-aggrandizing, polite, yet calm and assured, Lisicky's "The Little Songs" is one of the most generous tributes to Schulyer I've read in some time.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

On Emanuel Xavier's "If Jesus Were Gay"

With a title that recalls the brouhaha over Terrence McNally's play Corpus Christi and is obviously meant to engender controversy, you wouldn't expect performance poet Emanuel Xavier's book If Jesus Were Gay to be shy. It's generally not, though at times, it can be surprisingly, steadfastly reticent. As a gay Latino poet, Xavier reveals his anger at the homophobia of distant relatives who "don't give a flying cono about me/because blood is supposed to be thicker than arroz con dulce..."

His undeniably necessary and significant rants at a white supremacist society comes through most vividly in his throw-away lines: "TO THAT GUY FROM PHILADELPHIA WHO FELL IN LOVE WITH ME AFTER ONLY ONE KISS AND WISHES HE NEVER MET ME/Why is it that white people can't deal with adversity?"

Yet from time to time, his poems suffer from a limp didacticism: “...what you create/thrives on your self/destruction, I pray/with your dreams bloodied on my hands.” Amidst all the broad claims of loss of innocence, drugs, hustling, it seems Xavier has sometimes yet to fully realize the power of his poem’s quick comic tangents.

In contrast, in a longer piece, “Dear Rodney,” his thumbnail sketches of his tricks enliven: “...He also happens to be a yoga instructor. This is definitely one of the pro’s of gentrification.” And: "The next evening, we crashed Cumalot's "Rocky Horror Picture Show" party by showing up with hoodies and pretending we ended up at the wrong party." Perhaps the expansiveness of prose allows him to surprise himself in interesting ways.

It's probably not fair, but whenever I read work of a performance poet, I hold them to incredibly high standards. How many David Antins-- one of the most important poets in the latter half of the 20th century-- can we have? (He's not gay, but he does look like a daddy bear on stage!) Using an occasion and an audience he creates a "talk poem," thinking aloud, creating a long, ostensibly rambling poem in simultaneously controlled and spontaneous ways. Here's a link to one of Antin's poems:

Xavier's anger towards Latino culture, homophobia, white society can occasionally be ultimately too polite, reigned in. But when he exchanges self-pity for a silly egotism, his poems become more energetic and appealing. In a poem called "The Mexican," Xavier writes:

When a legendary wordsmith introduced us for the first time
It was as if the Virgen de Guadalupe
and all the orishas
Had sanctioned the meeting

...Until I met your vato
This poem could have been epic

And indeed, with a greater inflation of his own self-importance, a more precise tracking of his reckless consciousness, he will transform himself into a unique paradigm of wonderful poetic immodesty.

For more information on Emanuel Xavier's "If Jesus Were Gay" and Queer Mojo/Rebel Satori Press, visit:

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

On the Question of Critical Passivity

Amidst all the hoopla surrounding Jessica Smith's post regarding the potential vitriolic nature of comment streams, not very many people have mentioned what is for me was a truly dangerous political statement. Most people have addressed her claim that after receiving a positive review on Silliman's blog she felt she endured psychological damage due to some of the comments to that blog post. After she received that mention, and sold 200 copies as a result of that singular post, some people said hurtful, vengeful things in the comment stream, making it near impossible for her to write poetry or partake in the poetry blogging community. She suggested that poetry bloggers consider rethinking having comment streams.

But I don't want to focus on all that. What I want to focus on is a particular statements made in passing during this controversy: in her discussion of how a particular small press possibly lost its momentum to publish as a result of comment stream defaming their reputation, Smith writes:

"I cannot stress enough how important chapbook and zine publishers are to the growth of experimental writing and how much time, money, and effort go into publishing a single issue or single chapbook. If you are not such a publisher, you have no right to complain about anything related to publishing. If you think something ought to be done differently, do it yourself– with your own time, money and sweat."

What I find most disconcerting here is the anti-intellectualism contained within this statement. I have nothing against Jessica Smith; she seems like a very nice person. But to advocate for a critical passivity simply because you don't know the complicated ins and out of publishing makes me nervous, and the fact that so many people seem to be complicit in advocating for this sort of repression makes me sad and anxious.

On this blog, I do go out of my way to focus on unknown authors and small-press books. One of my goals is to find unknown or lesser-known poets and small press books and give them attention (So often the books that receive gay awards are at least from university presses or there is a direct line of inheritance from the writer to a huge figure in the field).

Another motivation for me is to offer critiques of major poets who I feel need to be reassessed for failures in regards to politics. This is why I haven't talked much about D.A. Powell or Henri Cole on this blog: they are supported by significant presses and almost always deserve the attention they get.

My attitude in life is that it's pointless to love someone/something who everyone else wants. I focus my love on people who haven't been fully appreciated (or at least not yet). That's how I prove to myself how amazing of a critic I am: I can see what most other people fail to notice. Everything is ultimately about me, thank God!

I suppose I have violated Smith's comment when I gave a somewhat unfavorable review to a book that was released by the amazing Lethe Press. I have liked (a lot) a number of their other titles. But I did feel this particular book was lacking and said so. For me not to do so as a reviewer, even though there was some considerable anxiety in being unable to advocate for the book, would be an unethical decision. As a teacher, I see the review as a pedagogical tool--first, for my students who inspired me to create this blog. How can I expect my students (or anyone else) to think critically about a book if I tell them to silence themselves because they haven't produced a book themselves? Also, if, when your writing is out there, you don't want to be open to criticism-- even if it can be, yes, sometimes unkind and thoughtless-- I'm not sure why you're in this profession.

Presses are responsible for what they introduce to the world. Smith may not realize she's condescending to the very presses whom she supports and publishes. To ask us to safeguard small presses simply because they're small presses is a dangerous form of pity.

What her comment fails to realize is that breaches of etiquette are usually a symptom of larger institutional and individual inequalities. It is unfortunate that so many wonderful (and even not so wonderful poets) can't get published. If your book is read --let alone sells 200 copies as a result of a singular blog post, as what happened to Smith --you've been loved, with all the puzzling, questionable, horrible things that come with it.

Proposition 8 Ruled Unconstitutional.

"...The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice." -- MLK,0,7711145.story