JANET HOLMES AND THE SECRETS OF PO-BIZ SUCCESS

Reading over Silliman’s blog-links (he sometimes links a Scarriet article, and we’ll notice a small jump in our readership) I came across a little piece by the poet and Ahsahta press editor, Janet Holmes, in which she  reveals how po-piz actually works:

1.  Invite book submissions to your press by holding an annual poetry prize contest: almost 700 for Holmes to read this year.

2.  Have the MFA grad class students you teach be your editorial board, so you can teach a class and edit your press at the same time.

3.  Avoid teaching anything of substance: poetry is anything group experience finds it to be; poetry study is nothing more than a navigation of social agreement.

These are the three pillars of Po-Biz.

There is no other successful way.

This is it.

1 and 2 are how you do it and 3 must be the underpinning of 1 and 2. Lure with prizes. Use students as fodder. No substance except in social agreement.

Janet Holmes, and other successful members of the poetry industry will never come out and state it quite this explicitly, but this is how poetry operates in practical terms as an art form today.

Holmes is humbly and sincerely talking about herself—as she unknowingly exposes the truth of Poetry Incorporated.

First, look at how busy she is:

The month of April coincides with the time of year that I’m finishing reading entries for the annual poetry prize Ahsahta Press conducts. I have spent the past months reading somewhere between 600 and 700 books that individuals have spent months, often years, writing and organizing.

Second, she readily admits that she is always learning from others’ manuscripts in terms of her judgment, her editing, her writing, and her teaching:

It’s impossible not to appreciate the commitment that goes into this work. Every time I read a manuscript I reassess what I think differentiates the best poetry from the good,  the good from the rest, and the exercise affects my editing, my own writing, and my teaching.

Third, she is forthcoming about her judgment criteria and acknowledges  how there is such a thing, in her opinion, as hastily composed, bad work:

A friend of mine who ran a reading series in Cincinnati tells a story about her mentor telling her she thought everyone should write poetry.

“Have you ever been to an open mic?” my friend asked.

“No,” replied the older poet.

That’s the end of the story, and it always draws a laugh. We’ve all been to readings where someone gets up to read excruciatingly bad work, often for a longer time than we wish to hear it. Sometimes it’s someone who says—as if the fact vouches for the poem’s authenticity or for the poet’s true vocation—“I just wrote this last night,” and we (who would never read last night’s production!) shudder.  Surely the person who thought “everyone” should write poetry would realize the error of her ways and take that statement back!

Fourth, she is humble enough to question judgment itself:

I don’t think everyone should write poetry, any more than I think everyone should be an operatic singer. But I do think that people who write poetry get something from the experience, and that in doing that writing they (may) become more aware of the poetry others write and measure their own against it. The more poetry they read, the better their own poetry may become. So my question goes to us, to the people in the open mic audience: what makes us so sure we know what’s good?

Fifth, she illuminates that process where her teaching and publishing meet:

During the spring semesters, when the contest is running, I teach a class of MFA grad students in Small Press Production. We discuss many aspects of small press publishing, but one of the major things we do is to read submissions to the press as that year’s editorial board. Every week, the students report on what they’ve found among their assigned manuscripts. They make notes on what they’ve read and they report to us all (often showing the manuscript on a screen) what they found interesting or deficient in a particular book. The manuscript is passed along to others for closer reading. Eventually it’s sent to the “Yes” folder, where everyone in class is required to read it and make notes; other times, it’s sent to the pile that means it’s “not for us.”

During these months of reading, each student is learning something about what he or she thinks makes an excellent book of poetry, but it’s not because I’m telling the class what’s “good” and what’s “bad.” Each student has to define these parameters personally, and in defining what they want to say “Yes” to they can’t help but notice how the manuscripts they prefer are organized, how the poems are focused or oblique in their presentation, what level of diction works for them or doesn’t. There is no consensus, and all of us learn from each others’ presentations.

As I’m writing this, I’m preparing for the Big Day, which is when each student presents a top-10 list of the manuscripts they think Ahsahta should publish. The board’s goal is to send from 15 to 20 of these books to our final judge, who will select a winner. I, too, have my top-10 list (actually, there are 23 books on my list!), and if this year is like others, there will be a great deal of overlap between my list and theirs. Every member of this editorial board will have manuscripts to champion to the others, and will have to have good critical reasons to try to overcome others’ reluctance to promote a book to finalist status. Usually I end up arguing for a manuscript or two myself, and sometimes I don’t prevail.

In the process of the semester, then, students come closer to trying to articulate to themselves (as well as to the rest of us) what they value in a book of poetry. While they may have been hesitant to speak out about their own poetics in a workshop or class, in this course they have no choice but to put words to the task. The next time they sit down to write, those values will be in their minds and their work will begin to take a shape that is, one hopes, closer to those values.

Sixth, she promotes an open, common sense approach to judgment:

I hesitate to talk about “good” and “bad” poetry, unlike some of my friends on the Internet. One forcefully reminds me almost weekly that to be deemed “poetry,” the work must adhere to a metrical pattern, though his own poems are almost exclusively what I’d call light verse or satirical doggerel. He’s not willing to allow anything written in free verse to be termed “poetry,” let alone “bad poetry.” But he’s successful in writing to his own standards, so who am I to stand in his way? (On the other hand, I don’t much enjoy reading any but a very small amount of his work at a time.) For students of poetry developing their own writing, I’ve found the only way to help that along is to show them many different kinds of poems and book structures that abound at this moment—what Joyelle McSweeney so memorably named “the plague field” of poetry that we all must pick through to find what keeps us alive.

Seventh, and finally, she promotes broad, grassroots recognition of the publishing process in terms of books supporting journals and journals supporting books, and once again confirms her open-minded judgment:

When undergraduate students leave my classroom, I give them a simple exercise. When they read a journal and find a poem they really love, they look to the contributor’s note and see whether that author has a book. If so, they read the book and check the acknowledgments page for other places that author has published. Then they find a journal they haven’t read before and read it, looking for other poems they love. Back and forth, acknowledgments to contributor’s notes, and before long they have an idea of what sorts of works appeal to them, and their poetry begins to take on new characteristics. We all know what’s “good,” and, if we’re honest, we know there are hundreds or thousands of ways to achieve good work for ourselves. I hope these exercises lead to a broader reading of literary work, and a greater appreciation for what our fellow poets can do.

We have quoted the entirety of her piece. What’s not to admire here?  Who can argue with: “We all know what’s ‘good,’ and, if we’re honest, we know there are hundreds or thousands of ways to achieve good work for ourselves.”

In the face of judging “600 to 700 books” of poetry for one annual Ahsahta press poetry prize, beside vague references to “best” and “good” and “the rest,” why should we expect Holmes to articulate any sort of criteria?  Holmes is wise to provide none.

And why shouldn’t Holmes use her graduate students to edit Ahsahta—editing, learning, teaching, and judgment all enhancing each other?

Judgment occurs whenever we have a “prize,” or whenever an editor decides to use one manuscript and not another, but why should this judgment be defined, once and for all?

We can use thought to arrive at social agreement, which is what the scientist does, or we can embrace social agreement to avoid thought—the default human comfort zone.

The latter is guiding poetry at the present moment.

We could call it Socialism, though political commentary is not our intent, even as it happens that poetry today is spectacularly beholden to an unspoken law of uncompromising political correctness.

But any p.c. factor is merely a secondary feature, for what is more “correct” than social agreement? Politics is not the point—the least resistance to social agreement is the point.

Poetry is a great blank, or a dust-mop that picks up anything that sticks to it.

The method here is not even ‘trial and error,’ for that implies a goal.

Holmes the Ahsahta editor and MFA professor, implies improvement, progress, a goal; but beyond a vague ‘talking cure’ to relieve private psychosis, or a vague sort of cross-word puzzle fondness for words, there is no reason to believe that poetry, the art, is improving one whit, or that it is not, in a cloud of obscurity, mental masturbation, dead phrases, and platitude, regressing.

Holmes allows herself one strong opinion: poetry that was written “just last night” is automatically and viscerally rejected.

We see immediately why this strong opinion is permitted by the otherwise non-affirmative Po-Biz mind: the poem written “just last night” and blurted out at a public reading has not had a chance to undergo the process of social agreement—and social agreement for Po-Biz is all.  Therefore, in Holmes‘ opinion, such a poem cannot be good and the very idea of a poem written “just last night” makes her “shudder.”

Holmes dallies a bit with one issue of aesthetic substance: a poet who insists on poetry with “metrical pattern.”

Poetry with something of a definition must be dismissed at once by the smooth Po-Biz operator, and of course we find that it is, regally, charitably, with just the right air of openness and nonchalance; Holmes magisterially says, “who am I to stand in the way” (of this “light verse” and”doggerel”)?

Holmes cheerfully admits that no one is steering the ship:

During these months of reading, each student is learning something about what he or she thinks makes an excellent book of poetry, but it’s not because I’m telling the class what’s “good” and what’s “bad.” Each student has to define these parameters personally.

How easy it is, then.

The product sold by Po-Biz is neither good nor bad; it is whatever the buyer believes in; it is no surprise, then, that it makes no impression on us at all when we peruse an actual poem written by Janet Holmes herself.

1862.17  (336)

I got my eye put out–

my Heart
split,

The Meadows —
The Mountains —
All Forests —

finite

The Motions of
Morning’s

news            strikes me dead —

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