David Orr, a refreshingly smart, honest, and independent critic—and kind of sexy, too.
Scarriet’s Thomas Brady used to be Monday Love on Foetry.com, Alan Cordle’s poetry consumer protection site that warned poets against rigged poetry contests.
Foetry.com came to my attention in a Boston Globe piece by Stephen Burt in 2005. Despite Burt’s attempt to discredit Cordle’s site, I knew immediately that Foetry.com was something new and different, and as soon as I began reading the site, Cordle impressed with his honesty and tenacity. Po-biz corruption obviously meant something to Cordle, and he was doing something about it by ‘naming names.’
A few thought it was wrong that Cordle exposed ‘foets’ anonymously—but I thought of Foetry.com’s anonymous nature as similar to an anonymous suggestion box in a workplace: the anonymity of Foetry.com was simply a method to uncover deeply entrenched wrongs: poetry contest cheating.
Academic poetry contests were important. Why? Because a public for poetry no longer existed, academic ‘fame’ was the next best thing, and winning an academic poetry contest was not only the step to academic renown, but contest entry fees paid for the publication of the winning manuscript. Judges were choosing their friends and their students. It was easy to find this out, and it was easy to see this wasn’t fair.
The self-righteous, indignant responses made it easy to see that a nerve had been struck.
The art of poetry was never supposed to be about private contests and academic awards. It was supposed to be about fame and genius. I had sent my poems to magazines and had some published, I had an advanced degree and had taught, but reading contemporary reviews, criticism and poetry and comparing it to the way poetry used to be, I knew, from a critical point of view, that something was rotten; Alan Cordle’s work—which quickly made him famous in po-biz—made sense to my whole way of thinking. I knew there were ambitious poets who mailed out more poems to magazines than anybody else, who earned advanced degrees and got to know the right people and were shaping po-biz through personal influence. I knew that I was probably lazier than these people. But poetry was poetry and truth was the truth.
And the truth, it seemed to me, was this:
1) Poetry was still an important academic credential.
2) Reaching out to the public (‘selling books’ the old-fashioned way) was no longer possible.
3) An art form once popular and prestigious was now only prestigious.
4) The game was now controlled by a relatively small number of networking academics.
When opponents of Foetry.com uncovered Alan Cordle’s identity, it turned out the ‘masked crusader’ was a librarian. His wife was the published, contest-winning poet (uneasy in fact, with his crusade, and not signed on to it) and this only confirmed that Foetry.com’s crusade was indeed a chivalrous one.
Complaints against Foetry.com inevitably took three forms:
1. The Witch Hunt Charge.
Foetry.com’s investigations were mild—they used documents in the public record: who judged a contest, who went to what school, the contents of a mass-mailed letter to potential contestants in a poetry contest. Perhaps the guiltiest foet, Jorie Graham, didn’t lose her job at Harvard, or any prestige, really, and she probably gained a few book sales from all the excitement; Bin Ramke stepped down from a Contest Series (that was crooked) but life goes on the same for every foet. Public awareness was raised—and this was important, because of the very issue that made Foetry.com necessary in the first place—poetry has a small public, and so: Alan Cordle’s consciousness-raising and public shaming was huge. The net amount of ‘pain’ was the moral humiliation of those who were guilty. If the anonymous Foetry.com was the Dark Knight, he was gentle, and performed a much-need service for poetry.
2. With all the wrongs in the world, why focus on pettiness in poetry?
But this question is unfair. If a wealthy, corporate criminal, for instance, gives to charity, are they the moral authority in every other sphere? If a person with little means wishes to do some small good, should this be resented?
3. Haven’t the great poets always networked and helped each other?
Not really. Byron and Shelley were companions, but neither judged the other a winner in a poetry contest, or wrote fawning notices in the press for each other—their pride would have found this abhorrent. Poe and Alexander Pope attacked puffery, mediocrity and self-serving cliques with glee.
Pound, Eliot and their friends at the Dial Magazine, however, did give each other (Cummings, Williams, Moore) annual Dial Prizes of $1,000 (equal to a year’s salary for Tom at Lloyd’s bank).
American poets Edgar Poe, Amy Lowell, and Edna Millay were attacked by the Pound clique, and naked ambition was the cause, even historical revenge, as Eliot’s New England roots trace directly back to the hatred between Poe and “English Traits” Emerson. Scarriet is the first to investigate this.
Scarriet has moved closer to solving Poe’s probable murder.
Scarriet is Foetry.com with a highly historical and critical perspective.
And Scarriet will not ban or censor or silence anyone for their views.
Foetry.com closed down and was archived in 2007. One day in September of 2009, without warning, Thomas Brady, Alan Cordle, Desmond Swords and Christopher Woodman were banned from making comments on Blog Harriet. The always amusing, ‘don’t-get-mad-get-even,’ Alan Cordle set up Scarriet.
So who are these poets, anyway? Orr says they suffer from the fact that “even if most people don’t know what poets do, the average person feels that whatever it is, it must be spectacular.” Orr cuts them down to size, an exercise that turns out to be bracing for all concerned. Poets spend an inordinate amount of time sitting in front of computers typing, or else reading, or else worrying over the fact that they can’t muster the concentration to read or write. When not writing, poets also preoccupy themselves with “sending dozens of envelopes filled with poems to literary magazines read by, at most, a few hundred people,” mostly fellow poets.
No wonder their world is what Orr calls a “chatty, schmoozy, often desperate reality.” There are, as you’d expect, the drunken book parties and the annual Association of Writers and Writing Programs annual conventions, which are more like returning to college—or is it high school?—than anyone would like to admit. And Orr reports at length on a full-blown scandal, “the Foetry eEpisode,” capitalizing on the gossip while also issuing a cautionary tale: Inbred cultures beware! Between 2004 and 2007, the Web site Foetry.com, run by a man named Alan Cordle, took aim at corruption in the supposedly anonymous book contests that land many poets their small and university-press-publishing contracts. Orr describes the site “stocked with outraged allegations of favor-trading, creepy insinuations about people’s personal lives, and buckets of name-calling (including my personal favorite, ‘foet,’ which referred to careerist poets).” People got hurt, at least one prize was shut down, and targeted poets like Jorie Graham basically stopped judging contests. It was ugly, often petty, and it made headlines outside of Poetryland. It was enough to make you forget that what poets really are is craftspeople: They make intricate little things out of very carefully chosen words, presumably at least in part for other readers to examine.
Alan Cordle has come a long way since he got mad and decided to do something about it.
The art of poetry has been treated shabbily by “the new.” It sometimes seems the dollar has been replaced by the Pound. But we can always find some good in the new: we have the internet now, and it wasn’t all that long ago that all the news came from sources like Walter Cronkite, or Understanding Poetry by a couple of crotchety old Southern Agrarians turned New Critics.
We celebrate the new, too.