The publication of these letters might be said to come out of an idea, later stated in them, that: The human interaction of their creation was, on a gut material level, better than publication itself. Their context comes out of the situation of a writer inquiring as to the nature of an editorial decision from a literary publication.
Without wanting to make assumptions about an entire industry; it does seem, that a literary publication would take the time to reach out, and converse about said decision—and then to converse about so much more—is exceedingly rare. It would be my hope that subjects covered within these letters may turn out as relevant thoughts on reasons of not only why that might be, but of much else.
A. SCOTT BUCH: I’m concerned about why it is poetry can’t be a viable way for people to make a living, namely poets. It seems a problematic consequence of making poetry a kind of exclusive right to a handful of lucky elite folks, when I think that poetry is, and should be treated as, worthy of, its more universal and democratic appeal; so that it would be a more relevant force in current events, and the popular imagination. After all, it was this in the days of the beatniks; so what exactly has changed in between now and then? You can’t tell me that somehow one of the world’s oldest art forms simply became irrelevant in the matter of fifty or so years, when it has been with us since I suppose the dawn of time.
Regarding success and “selling out,” for one to not view success of a fellow contemporary as selling out, perhaps says more about the nature of poetry as being ultimately more cooperative and less competitive—in the way it’s harder to commercialize—than other art forms. Or maybe it speaks more to one’s individual character. I recently wrote a minor and basic essay in which I attempted to give a go at how I define what not selling out means, and to me it is like a combination of resisting the exploitative forces of capitalism, and of refusing to be obsequious to irrational and oppressive forms of authority. So that to me, if a person isn’t forced to alter their authentic nature, become more conformist in ways which are overall catastrophic to us as a human species faced with such profound existential problems; then this I too can get behind and be happy for that person. But if one’s success is to a degree the reflection of their obsequiousness to power, this I cannot get behind.
You have said you are a “skeptical optimist.” I am too. I think it’s hard to be an optimist, because when you see that such longstanding and overwhelming intractable problems, really do have a solution, it comes down to the force of one’s will, and this can become quite a large burden. Because then it is necessary that we choose to act, and not remain passive.
If individual success comes at the expensive of robbing poetry of a kind of revolutionary force that it could have, I don’t know if it is ultimately serving the ends of humanity. This is a broad enough statement that it would need qualified with very specific evidence however. To me, I think the degree to which it seems relatively impossible for poets to make a living, isn’t simply random, but a function of a force which is already operative in robbing poetry of what it could be. For instance, if one must become more concerned with how to make a living, than with what goes beyond the vulgar economic commercialism at the heart of our society; I think it is having an overall corrosive effect. Perhaps this is an argument that could be gotten more into in defining what it means to be a part of an underground.
For example you’ve described the existing system and academic model as “antiquated primary ways.” It does seem to me to be a good example of an establishment structure, which in advance defines what poetry is—because it delimits how a poet must act if they are to survive—and which ultimately has a corrosive effect on what poetry can, and probably ultimately really needs, to be, at this dire moment in our human struggle.
It is fairly interesting that while the “antiquated primary ways” are so dominant and ossified; at a moment when it seems poetry couldn’t be any more dead, it could really be primed for a renaissance, due to what might be construed as this next evolution of the information age we live in; making it where there is an almost limitless number of ways that alternatives to the status quo could be created. We are in agreement regarding the economics of poetry. “Isn’t it the dream of any artist to earn a comfortable living creating the art they want to make?” You say, and I agree absolutely. My take is I think the model of fame and fortune is what robs everybody who could be a great poet, or artist, from being able to make a living.
Being that we are around the same age, it seems we also have a lot of similarities regarding writing, because like you I have always considered poetry my primary calling. When I realized the seeming impossibility of “becoming” a poet—without selling out to the academic industry, which I feel in more ways than one, is corrosive of what poetry can and should be, as I have noted—I thought, hell, I’ll just write a novel. So I have done this. I spent an incredible amount of time and resources crafting what I felt, and still feel, is a novel worthy of publication. But getting that in through the gatekeepers of managerialism in the creative industries has now proven—it seems—far harder than simply getting some poetry published!
We may differ on a notion of manuscripts. You mention a kind of singularity to a poem, and I used to think this way that you do. It has only been in my, only very recent attempt to crack the industry, that I have started to apprehend this structure of manuscripts. As you know, this publication asks for 1-3, this one, 3-5, that one, 5-10. These aren’t differences that make no difference, at least in my estimation. So that for me it always becomes a problem of, how do I arrange these pieces which for me, are singular entities, and yet, they must be presented in such a way that they “make sense” more as a whole. From my perspective, the way the industry presents itself is that, you have to submit your work in a certain format, and if it didn’t work for that editor or publication, that, at least relatively, is a kind of objective measure, as to how viable or “good” your work is. And something which must be taken into account. So lately I have become interested in trying to address the system on these grounds of trying to make it more own up as to exactly why this or that piece of work in this or that context isn’t viable. Probably to go back to the economics of it, since we’re on the same page with this. If it was somehow possible that a poet could craft a work, and self-publish it, and then the means to sustain one’s self somehow grew out of that; like a fabulous garden where poetry was the water that helped the means to life grow, that would be one thing. But as it happens, the only way that people will seem to take you seriously as a poet, is if you give your work to them, and in exchange, they give you a little fraction of the means to live.
If there is any notion of shame, or something, in that problem of success and selling out, I don’t believe in that. But I do believe in changing the world for the better. I think the hard problem we face is that, structurally the system is corrosive, it needs to change, and the only way it will, is if we can mount some kind of effective system in opposition to it. What that would look like for me I guess, is an alternative structure where over time, poets, artists, intellectuals, writers flock to it, because it proves it is possible within it for them to do their work and not starve—or be forced to submit to exploitation—in the process.
I admire that in responding to me in person and deciding you will publish an excerpt of these letters, you are trying to pay forward what editors have once done for you in the past. I’m also very interested in continuing to develop what a poetry underground is and looks like in 2024. I may be an anti-authoritarian writer who, basically, opposes the very structure of the writer-editor relationship, but really what I am in strongest opposition to is the nature of an irrational authority, or authority for authority’s sake.
CHRIS BUTLER (WRITER, CO-EDITOR AT THE BEATNIK COWBOY): So we’re from the same generation. . . a little too old for the Millennials and far too young for Gen X, which is what I’ve referred to us as “Generation Y” (or “Why”). Presently, poetry should be the most viable form of artistic writing considering that people’s brains are slowly being conditioned to ingest art and entertainment as quickly and efficiently as possible with minimal attention required, which is not only the result of easily digestible social media and the sheer amount of information one can consume. But which should make shorter poems, as opposed to longer narratives, more approachable from a modern audience. [Regarding what has changed about poetry from “the days of the beatniks,”] I think it has to do with some peoples’ perception of poetry from their high school curriculum and ancient writers who died hundreds of years ago. The only two poets that were in the mainstream consciousness during my lifetime have seemingly only been Maya Angelou and Charles Bukowski. But of course, these people, either through not exploring the world of poetry beyond their teenage years for a homework assignment, likely never looked into the age of the Beatniks. From my experience, it’s due mostly to this ignorance, as well as those preconceived notions towards “poetry,” that may be two of the reasons it hasn’t maintained the mainstream appeal it possessed just a few decades ago. I honestly don’t understand it myself, as I enjoy writing poetry far more than any other, from non-fiction, fiction, reviews, articles, etc. I do hope for a renaissance for its rebirth is just beyond the horizon line, but getting closer every day. Some people may say that a professional poet is simply an amateur who didn’t quit, which is both true and false.
One of the reasons I agreed to become an editor of The Beatnik Cowboy was because it not only allowed me to read what words my contemporaries were writing. as well as finding dozens of other publishers for my words, as many people often include their most recent publications in their bio (which we don’t publish). But there is at least some minimal level of competitive fervor which is necessary for all artists to strive and continue to improve their skills and abilities, and not become complacent with past successes. For some, it’s the work of their contemporaries. For me, it’s more an internal opponent, trying everyday to write better than I could write the previous day. And plus, the daily reading helps keep one’s mind sharp and prevents lethargy on the page. And you’re right about some of the corrosive aspects of academia. It was the primary reason I became the only member of my family to get a graduate degree, because all I ever wanted to do was write. But degrees in “writing” usually result in more people becoming teachers and professors rather than writers, which is not the path I chose to venture down either.
But I also have the same issues when submitting to other journals, especially when one must consider how many poems to submit. We landed on the number three as a maximum because from our experience, most poets often begin a submission with the best poem or poems that corresponds to the publishers taste or because they wish to have it published there, and if they haven’t met the requirements after their best work, some may throw in poems that were written in a different time period and with a completely different mindset. We often submit our works with a similar tradition, but of course, everybody has their own approach for picking and choosing which poems to submit where and when. That’s why we just try to keep our process simple.
But based on your correspondences, your essay sounds very interesting, and that is why Randall and I are interested in publishing your thoughts and ideas which you presented in your examination, exploration and conclusions of the poetic underground (including some of the thoughts you have written here). It’s not only trying to pay it forward, but a well written, articulate and entertaining email can often be just as good or interesting to read as a piece of the art written for the intention of its creation and subsequent publication.
A. SCOTT BUCH: You make a fascinating point about how short poetry could be primed for a comeback, given the current structure of how media is consumed. I couldn’t agree more about the way a particular aversion to poetry can develop, through schooling. My addition to this observation would be that I don’t think it is limited to poetry, and I think it can apply to all subjects. The constant here is coercion, or the compulsory nature of the structure. It strikes me that when we are forced to do something at an early age, we naturally develop an aversion to that thing we were forced to do. This being in contrast to how we wouldn’t develop such an aversion were we to have come to that subject, or object, say math or poetry, voluntarily. Moreover I would go further in pointing out that rather than it being in the precise nature of folks being conditioned to not like poetry I think there is also a degree to which the social and political changes the country has undergone since the 1970s are such that people who once had more free time to be able to engage with an activity that one might think of as being engaged in fully for its own sake—or even, truthfully, merely voluntarily—we no longer have this. It would make no sense to a young person growing up today to think there was anything relevant about poetry because it doesn’t seem that it has any social value in terms of being commercialized, and thus, the tendency of the younger generations, I would assume, to desire to become influencers, rather than say, poets. In short, its force has been destroyed through socioeconomic and political changes that removed it as a seeming option or medium worth anything. The beatniks after all were living in that post-war era which was one of unprecedented affluence, that is of a very stark contrast to the type of era we are living in now that is more akin to those of the Gilded Age. But all the more necessary then for a poetry which was a true socioeconomic and political force to be seeded.
It is fascinating to know that of the many genres of writing, you simply desire poetry more. It is weird I think that this would be construed as unthinkable, though it is! It really makes no sense! Why shouldn’t people desire to want to write poetry more, and, if they desire that, why force them to write articles, essays, and the like. Real writing, apparently! For me the fact that poetry is what you desire to write, is as good a reason as any why you should do it. “[A] professional poet is simply an amateur who didn’t quit, which is both true and false,” is an interesting notion. One thing I think it speaks to is the fact that it’s ultimately hard to draw a hard line as to what necessarily makes one poet worthy of being able to write poetry for a living, and another not. I could understand if it was as easy to quantify in this regard as say, sporting. But even with sporting, it’s a bit absurd to say that only those who are the best at sports, can produce any value by doing it. While I may be an amateur swimmer, does that mean there’s no positive value say for my health, in engaging in the activity?
Interesting you don’t publish bios, yes I noticed that. I would also say that I share your intrinsic motivation model regarding the improvement of the craft. I noticed that it is like with anything, the more you do it, the simple labor of writing, the better one gets at it. It is refreshing to hear this opinion you put forward, that “degrees in ‘writing’ usually result in more people becoming teachers and professors rather than writers.” I noticed this too, and found something almost cult-like about it. It’s like the industry requires the carrot on a stick to maintain itself. I put it in an unpublished poem once like this. Well; I was going to quote from it, but then I realized, the relevant bits were almost the entire thing. So if it doesn’t make me too pretentious, and this correspondence too long, I will insert the poem in full.
“Queries on Making It”
I want to do something new without that slavish yoke
To newness one often sees under a consumerism
Addicted to novelty
Which is really the same old thing.
I read these many books
Where every line is self-conscious that it’s poetry,
From when I was educated into knowing
I didn’t come from the right class.
That for a poet to be a poet,
They had to become a professor.
Like the commodity rules the world.
And I am no one, and they were the gatekeepers
Not that their art isn’t excellent,
But is the sole domain of culture to be neurotic about excellence?
Is that the point of life to go into debt
Being schooled on aesthetics by those
Whose main subject is it’s sad the passage of time?
My life never started.
And it is I who is to blame,
Not a larger system.
If you were teaching me how to speak a language,
If how to drive a car,
If pass a test,
You could only be this way because you complied.
Whereas to me it would be like the question of shoplifting.
Hard for me to really take the corporate side,
For the abstraction of profits and margins
Over the bold declaration that people need bread.
If you could free the goddamn poem
And people at the same time?
What would it mean if the poem was free?
Hasn’t it been always?
So that your neurotic insistence on free verse
And your categories which slap up
Hierarchies here and there,
And specializations like the worst form of fake socialism,
Being obscure as a form of worth
Which shows capitalism finds you valuable?
Doesn’t it imply a kind of form of fake novelty
That is a sheen over the death-march of perpetual growth,
So that we could be poets but just for one day.
Though it will render all of that classical bullshit about fame
In short, it seemed to me like a kind of pyramid scheme. “Writing” degrees don’t teach you how to write, they are the way that people who got writing degrees sustain themselves, which isn’t the same thing.
Regarding the submission process, I had mentioned [in a previous letter] that I didn’t want to treat the instance of an acceptance in your journal as a “been there, done that;” not only wanting to keep submitting but to make it a point I was producing work to the best of my ability. Not be submitting some castaway poems, so to speak. This is my personal opinion, although I expect others might be apt to agree with me off the record, but regarding how you keep your submission and acceptance process simple. It strikes me this isn’t the broader norm within the industry. In this context, I’ve been lately contemplating whether, in general, editorial strictness may sometimes be more about control than necessarily quality control. I’ve come to wonder if, editorial fixations on style and format, might not sometimes be a marginalizing of content? For instance it’s easy to imagine instances where a piece of writing was strong solely as content, but was rejected, say, more on arbitrary grounds, like not meeting tedious formatting requirements, or regarding predilections of style, when—perhaps especially—what’s really being objected to is the content. But, for whatever reason, this can’t be said outright. I’d need others to confirm whether or not they felt there was a possible correlation there—between tediously fixating on stylistic or formatting problems, and control—however I do think it’s an interesting hypothesis.
If journals started to design their systems in opposition to that kind of arbitrarily autocratic control, it seems it wouldn’t be an insignificant difference, at least to me. In fact, I reckon it would be liberating. Perhaps there’s something to be said for being able to have the discernment where it’s possible to see where deviation from arbitrarily tedious rules or stylistic norms doesn’t necessarily hurt anything, and where being so strict to certain guidelines or bourgeois standards can often be an oppressive instance where we might be conditioned to think it’s normal to put abstract structures before people. When structures should serve people, and not the other way around.
Working collaboratively is nice. To some degree, the human interaction of the correspondence is on a gut material level, better even than publication itself. After all, I suppose why do we even create art to begin with? Isn’t it to communicate, to reach out; to connect?
CHRIS BUTLER: Absolutely, it’s not only the best who can produce something of value, especially in the arts, that it can be anyone. We’ve published people who say they have no aspirations for a career in any literary field, who say that they occasionally write poetry and submit it for nothing more than the sheer joy of writing. And they’ve written some of the best poetry you can find. That’s what makes poetry unique. It can take anyone anywhere from less than a minute to a lifetime to write the “perfect poem.” But I also do enjoy writing in other genres, as it was where my writing began, and sometimes where it still goes to. Everybody’s fingers bring them to the keyboard for different reasons.
But I very much enjoyed the poem. Your examination of this aspect of the industry that doesn’t occur to most from your unique take and observations on the subject is brought well together with your attention-snatching descriptions and unique use of language. It can be a very different experience from the outside of the academic world than from the inside of their little tribal circle.
And it was one system that was initially and specifically intended to enhance the participant in terms of acquired knowledge and experience, not to appease the “policy makers.” The idea of submitting your best work should always be the case. It is an occasional trend with some writers, however, that the last poem in their submission is one they didn’t anticipate would have chosen for publication (a trend we’ve noticed over the course of some time). In my mind, if I take the trouble of typing a poem, then it’s worth submitting. If it doesn’t go beyond the mind or my notebook’s pages of first drafts, then maybe it was never meant to be a poem. These are, after all, some of the words that we’ll be remembered for, so they better be good.
I also believe that the purpose of creating art is communication that creates human connection. The expression of one’s being has been painted on cave walls since we discovered how to create paint. And it’s that connection which keeps the readers of today reading the writers of yesterday, that eternal shared experience that can be captured by the right words.
A. SCOTT BUCH: Do you mind at this point in the discussion, providing some of your takes on online and print publishing? I appreciate the positive feedback you’ve given regarding my poem. A predicament I seem to find myself in is that it is hard to find out exactly where I belong. By this I mean, I both value art, poetry and writing, finding it’s what I’m most capable of doing, whereas I also have a very specific political perspective and perhaps outdated—though primed for revival—notion of the artist, poet, or writer, as one who should be in a position to challenge authority; power or irrational authorities; especially those of the nature oppressing, dominating, and exploiting humankind. As such, it is almost impossible for me not to end up writing poems which are in one way or another provocative, such that they may generally provoke a negative reaction that can’t come down anywhere else but on me. One direction this may pull would be to suggest writing and acting in ways that are less primed to make people uncomfortable. After all, I think it is only one mode of creating art, and I share that it should be available to all; that it shouldn’t be the privileged domain of professionals. I also sometimes feel sad at the idea however in those situations where folks who are already deeply established in one corner of being a valued member of society, say, doctors or lawyers; who also then want to dominate some wing of the creative industries with the product of what they merely consider a hobby!
It’s good to know that while you have a poetry preference, you do not at all mind writing in other genres. If I might ask you a brief aesthetic or maybe philosophical question, if you don’t mind, about poetry, but, do you think that simply because a poem has the form that it takes, that it rules out the possibility of it containing truthful or objective content? I bring this up in the context of having an interest in the style of poetry laid down by the Beat countercultural poet Ed Sanders in his work of 1976 called Investigative Poetry Manifesto. For instance; if one was going to write something of non-fiction, should that always rule out poetry as one potential medium in which to try to say, document objective facts? Or is poetry by its nature, always “fiction,” so that objective facts should remain the privileged domain of our journalists.
Recently I’ve been attempting to get into freelancing, which seems one of the only alternative models of being a writer to that of being based in academia. It seems tough to crack, and I find it one of those domains, like many others, in which there’s a high tendency for scams. I do wonder what it is about our society that one can find so many scams around every corner, whether it be get rich quick, easily make money freelancing, go back to university with one of those for-profit school scams. I worked for a time in the ESL industry in China and Myanmar—my experience with the scam aspects of that industry becoming the primary subject of a novel which I produced. Though it’s fiction, it’s a fictionalized account of real experiences, and even complicates the notion of how we tell the truth in art or writing, suggesting it’s often possible to tell a kind of truth in fiction, as much as it’s possible to lie and distort within non-fiction. This in itself is a philosophical question that resonates with the preoccupations of an investigative poetry. Such that I might further ask, do you or your colleague have any opinions on that possibility of a Historical Poetry, or again, that notion of an Investigative Poetry, which, to the best of my knowledge, comes out of the tradition of Ed Sanders?
When you mention best work, it brings to mind how the journals always do mention that, saying, send your best work. I suppose this takes me back to that notion [brought up in earlier emails] where the industry seems to demand a hell of a lot more of those who would be at the bottom of it, than necessarily what it offers back to them. For instance the demand that one should become deeply familiar with much of the work the journal has already published; reading fees and the like. Because I suppose a poet’s impulse when first apprehending the market is, well, if I’ll ultimately get paid dollars here, and dollars there, and some dollars there, one month, three months, six months, a year from now, that means that it is physically impossible for me to also submit my best work everywhere, because somewhere down the line, I’m also going to need to submit some mid-tier to also low-tier work. If I am going to survive. But for those who care more about the work itself, than necessarily what one gets paid for it, then of course, with that intrinsic motivation, the idea is always to want to be producing the best of what one is capable of. Interesting to notice that say, the final poem, in a collection, may be more of a throwaway piece. I’ve done that too. I suppose the idea there is, well if I give all my best stuff to this publication here, what else do I have for all the other ones which in theory, if this is going to be commercially viable, I need at least 500 more of these to go out somewhere that might equal being above the poverty line for one year.
I suppose then you are probably right, about bringing the poem to a final typed state. I would also be interested to know your thoughts on how we might then also know that a poem in a final typed state, might need to go through another revision, or another revision. For while I don’t necessarily subscribe to first thought best thought—when I think this is true is only after one has already had a lot of experience with writing—I believe there is a polar opposite phenomenon where, the search for “excellence” can sometimes destroy the essence of what worked in a poem to begin with. This is probably a fairly bad poem, but I thought it sort of captured this idea, to the best I was capable of, in an artistic way. I’ll share that too.
“Striving Like Blake”
Your innocence will be crushed by experience,
While only a mature mind knows how to retain what’s great in innocence,
As fresh experience rushes in to destroy what works
In foolishly desiring to be great.
CHRIS BUTLER: The challenging of authority, whether it be governments, people or publications, is something we’ve always been writers and publishers of. The next version of “The Best of the Beatnik Cowboy” print edition (out by the end of the month [February 2024]) opens and closes with poems about “the poetic establishment,” including on the subject of submissive guidelines. We get poems that are critical towards the industry pretty regularly in submissions. A few weeks ago I published a poem with a similar theme called “Trigger Warning.” We don’t stray away at all from defying some kind of establishment or institution, outside of following a site’s “reasonable” guidelines (as one that is unreasonable may not be worth the price of admission through submission). But poetry that elicits any sort of emotion, whether it be joy or contempt, disgust or pleasure, would be successful if that was the writer’s intent to invoke those emotions.
But no, I do not believe that poetry is designated as “fiction.” To me, poetry is the most efficient written art form to provide the reader with the discovery of universal “truths.” One of my more popular poems last year, at least from the feedback of publishers, was called “Truth,” that just made it into an anthology book (and, it just so happens to be the actual truth).
For me, poetry can be both fiction and non-fiction, but for most of what I read it tends to lean on the side of reality far more than the notion of an impossible utopia (which originally derives from the Greek for “not” or “no” and “place,” meaning it cannot exist). Objective facts shouldn’t be monopolized by journalists, and I don’t think they are, as there are many works of art around the world that resonate with the populace regarding historical events and real issues which affect real people in the real world. And in this age of information overconsumption, those who claim to be “journalists” can sometimes be nothing more than broadcasters of “public relations,” or its primordial form, “propaganda.” I guess one can always fall upon the old adage, “write what you know,” which is more than often the truth, or at the very least, one’s own truth.
I wish you the best in any freelance opportunity you take. Some of them are, unfortunately, on the end of the scam spectrum. I would recommend to steer clear of the ones who pay you based on views, unless they contractually agree to pay you consistently. The ones where you are paid in full either in advance or when the writing is done are your best bets. The most money I’ve made through freelancing has been educational assignments (writing papers for undergrad or graduate college students, which brings us right back to the issues of academia!) Sadly, it seems as if we are in the golden age of the charlatan; the hypocrites, false prophets and frauds, and their scams are seemingly everywhere.
But Sanders and Investigative poetry sounds very interesting to me.
When Randall and I first met, he was running a hotel and bar in Cambodia, so he knows that part of the world well and the political and municipal corruption which has been rampant for decades. It sounds as if your book should and could be necessary reading. What’s the title?
It is complicated to find a way to survive on writing poetry. I still haven’t cracked the answer to that question quite yet, but I imagine for the struggling it would likely be quantity over quality. Usually it does take time to establish one’s pen name and prove one’s consistency, but it doesn’t guarantee anything for the blood, sweat, tears and arthritic fingers. And as a proud papa of all of those little poems, even though they are all our bastard children, there are ones that an artist prefers as their personal favorites over others that would fall into lower tiers. We can be the most harsh critics and the most honest ones when it comes to our words. For me, poems can be considered finished when the stream of consciousness dries up, or a single line which began the poem is connected to a conclusion of a thought, concept or idea, so sometimes it’s hard to tell exactly when a work of art is finished, and not abandoned. I will also sometimes fall victim to too many edits, and “revise, revise, revise” a bit too much, resulting in the work losing its essence and purpose, more so with longer than shorter pieces. The obsessive quest for excellence can very easily ruin a good poem, in which case it may be best to take a step back, take what you like from it, and determine whether or not it works together (sometimes a great line doesn’t work in a particular piece of writing, and is better served elsewhere). Some poems feel as if they could go on forever, but they have to end eventually. . .
I’m curious about how you would consider a poem to be complete, as well as your process, because your poem which you say is “fairly bad” still has a clear recognizable beginning, middle and end, and narratively, achieves its purpose of reaching this reader with your idea.
A. SCOTT BUCH: I can’t express how liberating it would feel to read criticism of the poetic establishment especially insofar as guidelines. The feeling would be somewhat akin to being trapped in a sort of closet that made one feel insane for how one felt eventually realizing that this was utterly normal and indeed echoed in the minds of others. Fascinating that you get submissions in regularly which are critical of the establishment! Again this did come through to me; yet perhaps I am so conditioned to a kind of predominant cultural gaslight, that I could not yet see if what I was perceiving was what it was. I don’t know entirely how to qualify this perception. I think that proportionally one would assume there would be many more journals out there like it. To where not seeing that almost conditions one to think that, I don’t know, things could only ever be contrary to what they appear?
Where can I read “Trigger Warning”?
I agree about making a category of reasonable versus unreasonable guidelines. I see. A poem works, if it succeeds in eliciting the emotions it sets out to elicit. This makes a lot of sense to me. I have sometimes thought of something similar with art in general that the degree of its success is proportionate to the degree that one is able to realize in reality what had once been only an image in one’s mind. Interesting that you agree that it is reductive to classify poetry as “fiction.” Am I perhaps myself off base; in thinking that this had been set out as a kind of ideology to be picked up? (For I see it in that presumption that some pieces of writing are considered more implicitly worth paying for than others. And to this there is also a correlation with taking it “seriously.”) “[P]oetry is the most efficient written art form to provide the reader with the discovery of universal ‘truths’.” This is really fascinating when you think about it, in the context of how marginal poetry is. So that the disproportionality is staggering. Or maybe it makes perfect sense that in a culture of being such rampantly filled with lies—a most human art form of truth-seeking would be as if an alien to it.
I’ve read that poem, “Truth,” from when you shared it with me privately. The statement it makes about wanting to speak the truth and so starting out as a journalist, but eventually becoming a poet, is a solid statement which would seem to perfectly rhyme with the concept of investigative poetry. I will go out on a limb and speculate that if one desires to become a journalist, a truly successfully one—that down the line one may realize that actually a great deal of truth obfuscation is a necessary part of what the structure of the industry and politics behind it would require of the job?
I agree with your formulation that poetry can tend to fiction or non-fiction, but that remarkably it is almost as if it tends more to non-fiction generally, especially in the sense you bring up as pure fiction being a notion of what simply cannot exist. You make a good point to point out that objective facts already do crop up in an artistic context all over the place; so that I suppose to further press my concern, would be, what is it—or might this be subjective to me—what is it that would seem to marginalize art, in the context of the more “purely” activist, or journalistic? “[I]nformation overconsumption,” is a solid concept. When you put it that, “those who claim to be ‘journalists’ can sometimes be nothing more than broadcasters of ‘public relations’, or its primordial form, ‘propaganda,’” I think that you really must be onto something there. To me it strikes me as perhaps the fundamental problem in an era of information overconsumption, in which we get the message that the demos is not to be trusted under such conditions, and therefore the only recourse to deal with so much information uncertainty is to put our faith in the relevant authorities.
“[O]ne can always fall upon the old adage, ‘write what you know,’ which is more than often the truth, or at the very least, one’s own truth.” Yes; and so I think it is therefore anti-democratic, to deny regular folks the right to express their truth in that way. Perhaps we are, as you put it well, “in the golden age of the charlatan; the hypocrites, false prophets and frauds,” precisely because there is this assumption that everything must be representation, everyone must follow someone else. Nothing can be for its own sake; no one can live freely for their own sake; but must always be mediated through some authority or representation. Thank you for your advice on freelancing, and I will bear it in mind. My thought has been on the idea that it isn’t a trivial matter if one is fighting to write what one wants to write, versus needing to take the position where one is being exploited in the sense that someone else is taking one’s words for their own, as if they had written them (ghostwriting, and that); writing content for someone else, who in a parasocial relationship, is appearing to be the one who is actually generating the content; writing content merely for its own sake, because it helps an algorithm of sales and views. In short; a kind of view of the labor struggle of writers—beyond the mere bourgeois concept of—Oh, our Hollywood Writers aren’t being paid enough. (Though I do of course, express my solidarity to that movement.)
I appreciate you expressing interest in my novel. It’s called “MR. WANG.” I have an endless amount of pitch material that I have generated for this project; so please forgive me for not wanting it to go to waste; on the endless amount of non-responses one gets when sending out the fruits of that tough labor to literary agents. I’ll try to here clip you the best of what I have produced in pitching it. Well; here is the elevator iteration: A wild poet undergoes a subversive labor struggle in a dodgy language school in China, elevated to the satirical heights of a mock spy novel.
“Quantity over quality,” yes;—which goes back to pointing out the bullshit of the industry notion of, Always Your Best. I can’t be sure that it really believes its own bullshit. To some extent, perhaps it does know that what it demands on the surface, isn’t really what it puts out in point of fact?
Your words here on the writer’s struggle is really good and moves me. Your concept on aesthetics: “[P]oems can be considered finished when the stream of consciousness dries up, or a single line which began the poem is connected to a conclusion of a thought, concept or idea,” I think is totally right, and so free of any obfuscation. It almost also seems to demystify the process a bit. Better than the advice one might hear in a million pretentious writing seminars!
Interesting that you have a critique of that notion, “revise, revise, revise”—yes I mean, I don’t purport to be right, but I can’t help but think the mantra could sometimes be an obfuscation of the pretentious trying to masquerade as if the type of work they eventually end up with is somehow more magically of a quality than any others who apparently haven’t been compulsively revising the same one poem over and over. A very solid insight to then qualify this with length; because indeed, I do think it is in the context of a shorter poem, where intense revision can bear the best fruit.
You also make a good point about how sometimes it may come down to a great line simply not working with what’s there and the unfortunate circumstances of having to perhaps decompose a poem of its elements to in theory hopefully use the good parts elsewhere at a more opportune time.
The poems that could go on forever; perhaps serve as a reminder of the virtue of the full stop—and that tomorrow is always the potential of a different poem with similar themes!
How I would consider a poem to be complete; I find best expressed by you here. My process seems to come down to whether or not I can make a poem finish in one go (which happens perhaps once a month, and is more contingent on inspiration and capturing a moment); if I get one line that seems it will make an appropriate poem if I develop it over the course of a week or so. Keeping a notebook in which ideas are always free to be fully expressed, but then abandoned. Then sometimes realizing that lines which may have at first seemed totally separate from each other, may actually be combined in a way that makes perfect sense to me. (And are later ruled by editors as “unclear;” as if in their speed-reading of it, they somehow saw there was a Nothing in what a writer may have discovered there was a Something in, over the course of an immensely long period of time, compared to a very cursory short one.) Finishing a poem; because to me I know it’s done, because it moved me. And then I used to feel that was that, until I stopped self-publishing. So, now it consists of sending the poems out, getting rejected; assuming the poem is bad, till later I look back on it and either realize, it really could be altered, or, that I will simply need to keep struggling to find a home for it.
CHRIS BUTLER: Submission guidelines and just about every aspect of the submission process does seem to be a common frustration of a good portion of poets. But my poem is up at Horror Sleaze Trash. There’s nothing special about my poem compared to the ones that are in the book [“The Best of the Beatnik Cowboy”]. But it’s a topic I’ve also written and published about previously, so I’m trying not to be redundant in terms of subjects.
I guess the biggest difference for me between journalism and poetry was the freedom that one provided the author creatively and one which limited the more entertaining and stimulating aspects of the English language. There is, of course, the issue of appeasing sources in positions of power, authority and influence in order to gain access to the necessary information to perform one’s basic duties. Especially after one familiarizes oneself with the fields of public relations, sociology, history and politics, the script from both sides of the story becomes pretty evident. But, I also was briefly in the field, so my experiences are not reflective of many great feats of modern journalism that have exposed municipal corruption, exploitation and societal destruction. They’re out there…
Your novel does sound like it would be an interesting read! My best of luck to you in trying to find an agent. The act of attempting to find a literary agent to bring your work of fiction to the next level is very daunting. It can feel at times that it is like running full speed into an endless labyrinth of brick walls. I went through that process in my 20’s to no success.
I believe that the “Always your best” is seemingly just a token expression from most Editors, because of course they would prefer someone’s best material compared to their words they believe aren’t that good. The notion of “revise, revise, revise” I suppose was wired into the undercurrent of my academic critiques of my own work, and the idea that when writing longer pieces, it is better to get the first draft down as quickly as possible and then revise…but that has been the case for my current project in fiction. Some works require significant revision, while others may require none at all. But you make a brilliant point regarding the poems that could go on seemingly forever. They can quite easily get in the way of tomorrow’s new words and new ideas.
But one thing I can say from experience (more so from submitting poems rather than publishing them in an Editorial role) is that just because one, two or three places reject a poem, sometimes a poem is meant to be published elsewhere. I’ve given up on some poems quickly, just to have them be accepted by a new publisher a year or more after writing when randomly including them in a submission. It is of course deterring to have constant rejections, but it is something that comes with the territory of this established system that has existed long before us, and will likely exist long after us.
But I think every writer at points feels like their writing is lacking, and sometimes it feels like you can write no wrong. But, the doubts should be reserved for a motivational factor, not a deterrent!
A SCOTT BUCH: How do you sell [the print edition of The Beatnik Cowboy, in that] how or where does it stock? Also, what are your thoughts on digital versus print media? How much more expensive is it to print versus publish online? And, finally, is it easier to sell print material? Although, do the material printing costs end up outweighing, if there was, a higher ease in selling a tangible material product?
Interesting that submission guidelines and process would be a common frustration, because if so it seems like ripe ground for agreement between a lot of folks who could forge ahead with alternative models that might have a chance in the future of becoming a new kind of common-sense? Because if a strong amount of people object to something, why should we have to keep going along with it, merely because it is a status quo?
May I ask, [regarding Horror Sleaze Trash and “Trigger Warning:”] Let’s assume that journal might be considered, one of the “good [online] ones.” How might one categorize the “good ones” from the bad, and, what would be some other good ones?
I totally get you on the problem of trying to not be redundant on repeating subjects. When it comes to poetry too, I think this can manifest down to the level of words, phrases. I think it’s hard when coming up with a new poem and then suddenly wondering, wait a second, have I used too similar a phrase, or created too similar of a concept before?
When you mention this notion of freedom in differentiating poetry from journalism; I find that to be one of the more interesting aspects in the question of, how is it poetry can’t be true. I have once thought of it like this. That: It is true that form and content are united through a relation which shows their interdependence. But what doesn’t seem true is that the degree of aesthetic freedom inherent to poetry would necessarily rule out a content of truthful information. Said in another way, or the key point is; it doesn’t seem like it’s the freedom of it that necessarily makes it “fictional.” So, what is that bias, or form of editorial control or authority, which seems to marginalize poetry in its more free creative dimension, while privileging a form of writing which ultimately, doesn’t rule out its possibility to be objectively untrue, as in the fact of propaganda?
“There is, of course, the issue of appeasing sources in positions of power, authority and influence in order to gain access to the necessary information to perform one’s basic duties.” This I think is a crucial problem, and many have speculated that this is one of the reasons why journalism is in such the dire position that it currently is in. I believe I’ve heard it put that in the past, there was at least some working class presence within the profession, that, would have a kind of obvious bias against power. But now, the profession is almost entirely made up by people who come from elite socioeconomic backgrounds. As such, the acquiescence to power has more gone off the charts. To the extent that, it becomes a prerequisite to rise in the profession in being able to get privileged access to “scoops” from those in positions of power, who will move onto the next person as hungry to get those scoops, if said writer were to say, write up a story that was more adversarial to those in that position of power. Not to mention that a lot of times these “scoops” tend to already be, a doctored way of presenting information to the public. So that when journalists simply parrot it as if it were the truth, they are in effect serving the role of a propagandist, even if they weren’t precisely aware of it (but they probably are, at least to a subconscious degree). Because a good journalist would of course make sure to check up on exactly what power was saying to make sure it wasn’t bullshit. Why they so often don’t I think, is again a product of that unwillingness to rock the boat, which can be detrimental rather than beneficial to a rise.
I agree that there are many great examples of truly hard hitting independent journalism out there. It is kind of ironic because of how dead journalism seems to be professionally, it is as if it is also a golden age for it so to speak, in how direly necessary journalism that performs its truly democratic duty of challenging power is. Those who are doing it, have no lack of material to go on, is another way to put it. I also think obviously one of the best examples we have of a courageous publisher these days is Julian Assange, who has, as of the writing of this letter, been languishing in Belmarsh Prison for 1743 days. I’ve been keeping up with his story, of WikiLeaks, ever since the 2010s, around the era of Occupy Wall Street. The importance of this message has really never left me in all that time. Since that was quite a while ago now, I don’t know if people these days are that aware of his story, and what it means for press freedom, the nature of Freedom of Speech, especially in the United States. In short, those who believe that we have a free press in the United States, are fairly deceived if they aren’t aware of the story of Assange, or, for instance, longstanding analyses of the way that propaganda works in the US, as with Noam Chomsky and Bernard Herman’s model of manufacturing consent from the 1980s.
Your simile of seeking a literary agent is utterly spot on, “like running full speed into an endless labyrinth of brick walls.” The other day this came out of me, more a pure expression of anguish, than art, because I found it utterly inadequate as poetry when it was done. I’ll simply share it with you, because I don’t imagine I can make anything viable out of it. But it was: Form rejections are like domestic abuse. You expect it. You grow to expect it. Of course you must have done something wrong. It’s on you to do better next time. So you keep on trying. And yet you would almost be surprised. If something which had never happened before. Suddenly did. So you would keep on hoping. Though secretly knowing what to expect. As our culture makes a virtue out of it. That the best you know will come. Is the loving familiarity of a constant black eye.
I think you’re right about revision, that in certain contexts it makes every ounce of difference to keep revising, where in others very little revision may be necessary. As the labor of writing goes, often there is no better way than to get a long piece out as the moment strikes, then to go back and edit later. But what I find fascinating is, regarding works which take a very long time to produce (for instance, I conceived of my novel in 2013. Started trying to write it that year, through 2014. Stopped and then outlined the whole thing in 2015. Started writing from the top the whole thing in earnest in 2016, and produced a first draft at the end of that year. Wanted to be done with it, but gradually came up with how a second draft would be, and started that in 2017-2018. By the time that process ended, I knew exactly how the final draft should go. Except at that point, I had changed so much!—that I would no longer be “revising,” but effectively writing an entirely new manifestation of the work! It took me then from 2019-2022 to write the final draft. A deeply painful process insofar as it can feel that in creating a final draft I basically destroyed all the previous drafts. But I think that was the price to pay to write a decent novel). This goes back to what I referred to in whatever was stated in “Striving Like Blake.” It is hard to know when revision is really that; or when it will be tantamount to destroying what came before, for the sake of something which is in effect an entirely different thing. All this long-windedness to ask you for your thoughts on fiction. Because I can say one virtue of such a rigorous revision process is that you gradually come to understand the entire holistic structure of the work of literature being composed. This then seems to reveal one of the virtues of planning. But it strikes me that in the industry, editors would more want the writer to be starting out without a full picture of where the novel is leading. I believe this is called “pantsing it” in the industry. I wanted to know your thoughts on the planning process, because there is probably an argument to be made from both sides. Taking such a long time to meticulously put together a project I think guarantees it will have a certain quality. It could be read over and over again discovering new things about it. Whereas to start without knowing exactly where one is going, the finished project could be passed onto an editor for revision, then the writer could move onto the next book. In theory, producing quantity over quality. Perhaps three books for the price of one. However—the trade off is that each one wasn’t necessarily produced with the whole in mind, and which might become obvious and apparent in a deeper, closer reading. . . I’m sorry for such a long-winded lead up to a question. It is: What are your thoughts on fiction; quality over quantity? Pants or plan?
Finally, I could certainly see what you mean about one day randomly including formerly rejected poems that finally get accepted. I suppose I might differ on this idea though regarding rejections, “it is something that comes with the territory of this established system that has existed long before us, and will likely exist long after us.” I think it could one day change. Like the—perhaps—triggering metaphor of domestic abuse; I don’t think we should make a virtue out of its arbitrariness. I think we get indoctrinated into thinking it’s normal and that we have to accept it.
I agree with you on finding ways to harness doubts for the sake of intrinsic motivation. I suppose the ultimate question is, how do we know when there is something that can be improved, and how do we know when the system is merely ruling one out arbitrarily?
CHRIS BUTLER: We sell the book through the website (the details of it are on our “About” page), and then we send out notifications to all contributors and subscribers, as well as posting a notice on the site. It is a paperback book, as Randall has a printer that he has been doing business with for years. We keep the stock at our own residences, as we don’t print too many copies. But we always end up selling out our first run. Unfortunately, it’s far more expensive to print in paper than online, as the website is only the yearly cost of maintaining the domain. Most of our expenses come out of the printing end of the business. But there’s a large contingent of writers who always enjoy seeing their words written in print, as opposed to their computer screens (as do I). But some publishers will go the route of an e-book (which several of my chapbooks are published as) which does keep us breathing by saving the trees, but it lacks that tangible touch of nostalgia of seeing one’s words printed on the page amongst other great writers, along with all other senses that tingle when handling an actual book.
I would refer to Horror Sleaze Trash as a good one in terms of personal experiences from previous interactions between writer and publisher. I would consider the good ones to be the ones that are more writer friendly, such as a simple submission process, reasonable time frame in responding to a submission, the quality of the presentation of the final published product and the interactions between writer and publisher. There are quite a few publishers out there who are willing to invest the time into other writers and sit down and correspond back and forth, enthusiastically propose to do additional projects with writers, and some who extend an olive branch of additional promotion for a writer.
Once you reach a certain level with so many publications, it does get harder and harder to avoid repetition. Fortunately, there are some topics which can be written about from different angles or perspectives, and be a fresh take on a previous subject. But, if you keep your career of published and unpublished poems and writings organized (I keep published and unpublished in different folders on my computer, for example), it makes it a little easier to double check if it’s something you’ve rambled on before. But I suppose that it should be considered one of those good problems; when a writer has published so much they’re not sure if they are writing words they have already written before…
Poetry can still be true and based on facts and not fiction, as is the case when one follows the “write what you know” philosophy. Poetry can be either fiction or nonfiction, which is the one aspect of its creative freedom, at least that’s what I believe (which is why when learning about poetry in academia they always push the practice of never assuming the speaker of a poem is the writer, because it could be fictional, but it could also be factual). But there is a lot of “public relations” (the next evolutionary step of propaganda) involved in journalism, that is true. The old philosophy with the media has been “believe half of what you see and none of what you hear” due to all of the disinformation and bullshit that has always been present in mass communications. One has to be careful when there can be other reasons, some even nefarious, as to why an article is published by a media outlet other than spreading factual information. An example of this would be “sponsored articles,” or commercials for products or services that are presented as news stories. You will often see them on your local news affiliates, such as when they discuss a new consumer product that is hitting the market. But sadly I doubt that people like Julian Assange are on the minds of the average media consumer. It seems that years of mainstream condemnation and misinformation about WikiLeaks has created a negative perception from the general public towards some of those who exercise their first amendment rights to a free press, at least from my perspective. Hopefully you have met more people who still believe in a free press. At least some people seem to be at least familiar with Chomsky.
But your metaphor for form submissions is spot on; we writers often joke that we are gluttons for punishment, when it comes to everything, including creation, revision, submission, rejection, and repetition. It is a vicious cycle that is perpetuated by our repetitious acts.
As for your novel and the revision process, I have been down that same dark road before. I had a very similar experience with a screenplay that I wrote when I was 14. The first draft came easy, so then I revised. But it was around 100 pages, when according to “professionals” a typical full-length motion picture is around 120 pages. So, in trying to reach that 120 page threshold, the story became slowly more and more diluted through rewrites and revision and the extension of additional scenes began to ruin what had originally been a streamlined story. But that is one of those paradoxes which has pestered humanity for centuries. The Ship of Theseus. I’m afraid even the philosophers have been scratching their crowns about that one without any relief.
But for me, planning a full-length book ahead of time is the easiest way for my brain to get through writing chapter by chapter. But, of course, it really depends on the individual, as much as it does the original project. Some need meticulous revision and rewriting, some do not. Some do their best writing with a stream of consciousness, while others ponder and quarrel over every word as they write. I think as soon as you get through to the end of a first draft it would be clear. But, as of this point in time, I’ve only published short stories, and am still in the writing and research process of my first true attempt at a novel. But I guess there are two different types of novel writers: those who write with quantity over quality, and those who believe in quality over quantity. And I guess it depends on what kind of writer you would like to be. I prefer quality over quantity. It sure would be nice to live in a world someday where all literary journals and publications had a universally streamlined submission process, but every editor has their own policies and rules, and some hold onto them like grim death. It would take a significant movement of dedicated protestation by a large enough group of writers to elicit such change. But I didn’t mean that apathy is the only option. I think what I said after “it is something that comes with the territory of this established system that has existed long before us, and will likely exist long after us” is more important…the ability to find enough writers who are alive today that are willing to act in order to force such a change in established behaviors and expectations. One can have dreams of a better world, but it takes hard work and sacrifices to change pre-established preferences, prejudices and behaviors of people, and even that, you still may end up amongst the minority. I hope it happens in our lifetime, because eventually the dinosaurs will all go extinct.
A SCOTT BUCH: That’s right on you sell the print edition through the website. Do you then also independently handle the logistics of mailing as well? What comes to mind here is that aspect of self-publishing where folks often do it on Amazon. They provide the content, then Amazon is the medium through which the content is offered, in a print-on-demand scenario. I have often heard that while this is very viable for the entrepreneurial, there is often the hidden drawback to where the company ends up retaining the rights to the work indefinitely, while in truth doing really a small amount of the work? I don’t know if I’m getting the facts right, or if you know much about this or have an opinion on it.
“Randall has a printer that he has been doing business with for years.” That’s awesome! And excellent that you always end up selling out your first run!
“Unfortunately, it’s far more expensive to print in paper than online, as the website is only the yearly cost of maintaining the domain.” Yes, so then this was the intuition that I was going on. Far more than saving the trees—because, I think there’s likely an ethical way to print, and not waste resources; through avoiding excesses that say, capitalism normalizes—it seems we as modern humans may have a bias to print editions, in the same sense that it’s as if we are biased into thinking that, what appears in The New Yorker must necessarily represent work of a higher quality than say, what appears in The Beatnik Cowboy. While I can understand a feeling which comes from seeing the words in print as the feeling the work is done; for instance having publications come out on your online medium, has given me exactly that feeling.
An ebook can always be printed out! And I respect you’ve had chapbooks published! Quantity doesn’t matter so much to me but my first impulse was to ask how many. Maybe I might ask, which one is the one you like most; what is it called, and who published it?
Why I might be spending some time here on the notion of ebooks, and printing, but also, how, for instance your online journal, has given me the feeling that perhaps many only get from print media, is I wonder about a problem we have established as something of a subject of these letters. And that is what you referred to in [an initial letter], as I believe the economics of poetry. Regarding the tension between ebooks and print; online journals, and print ones. Isn’t it less about the tingle we get from print media, and more that concrete problem the creative industries have been dealing with since those early days that both you and I can remember like it was yesterday, of Napster, and the question of media piracy? As you know [based on a statement included for a post on The Beatnik Cowboy] my take on art and writing is that it’s labor worth being compensated for. So what I’m concerned with is those places where the problem more comes down to how the industry is trying to control how it monopolizes profits by effectively exploiting artists. To me, when I wrote of a “mutual aid of artists,” in that statement on the underground [for The Beatnik Cowboy], I think what I was also sort of getting at, is the idea or importance, of say, artists selling their work to each other directly, cutting out middle men who would try to take a piece of the pie, merely because they have a monopoly on platforming. Isn’t the real reason we consider The New Yorker more legitimate than an online publication, is simply due to the reach that it has? Are those artists who appear on the biggest television channels necessarily “better” due to the quality they have as artists, or is it more, that the reach they attain, is what effectively sells that notion to us?
“good. . . from personal experience in previous interactions between writer and publisher.” Ah! Now this also seems like it resonates as an important metric to me too!
“the ones that are more writer friendly, such as a simple submission process, reasonable time frame in responding to a submission, the quality of the presentation of the final published product and the interactions between writer and publisher.” These are really quality criteria that I can get behind. From your experience, does this tend to be the norm, or rare? (My intuition is telling me, rare. . . although I would deeply desire it was to be a norm. If it wasn’t already, then one day.)
“There are quite a few publishers out there who are willing to invest the time into other writers and sit down and correspond back and forth, enthusiastically propose to do additional projects with writers, and some who extend an olive branch of additional promotion for a writer.” This gives me a lot of hope. It would also help to quantify the notion of “quite a few,” only because in a cursory estimation from me, I often seem to come away, from doing a large survey of data out there, to perhaps coming to assume that it may be roughly 1% (maybe less) of publications which would be like this. One reason for this is over time I came to assume outright that any publication associated with a university, was likely not going to be a publication of the nature which you are here describing. And, those would seem to be the dominant form within the market. Another problem is one might discover a publication such as The Beatnik Cowboy, but when you go to look it up, after some years, you may find it has ceased operations. Or a lot of times, the journal would be closed for unsolicited submissions. Moreover, perhaps only opening back up at a very, very specific time (and, which often might not be correlating with how the writer is trying to get some acceptances right at that current moment). In short, that element you mention of “reasonable time frame in responding,” seems extremely important in this context. To see the journal frequently has new works coming out, and that one can expect a response within one week to a month; there is something extremely good about that in my eyes. (Though I imagine it must translate to quite a lot of work on the editorial side.)
You make a good point about dividing published and unpublished within one’s organizational methods. You’re also right about always being able to explore the same subject from a different angle, and I suppose this is that element often talked about in discussing the notion of an artist with their various themes. In cinema it became the auteur theory. I also think too that mostly it is the demands put on artists to make of their work marketable products, which may exert the most negative force on repetition and putting out the same stuff, because then I think the creative process becomes more compulsive. I think if there is room to let a poem develop naturally, it will probably of that nature, not have all that much repetitive in it. But then of course the imperative to make a living does not at all lend itself to say, creating one new work of art every month.
Regarding poetry and truth, and fiction as well, I think I have developed a critical attitude towards pure fiction—although you can see whatever this element is in non-fiction as well; say in a type of documentary—where there can be this kind of exploitation going on of other people for the personal gain of the artist. There are a ton of works of non-fiction out there like this (reality television is an old, but very emblematic example), where it’s more about exploiting the experiences of real folks, and not at all in ways which might be more constructive, as in trying to help them, or, even more substantially, help them insofar as trying to alter the social conditions that are causing the problems for these folks to begin with. So that indeed, it has to do with Drama, which is what is making these stories marketable at their core. You see it in fiction. This would be where the writer may be lacking in concrete experiences here or there, and so tends to gravitate towards stories of serial killers, or hitmen, drug addicts, con artists, or what have you, because there is this built in level of drama and conflict there, that sells. Notwithstanding that, to me, I would much rather have the most human story where apparently nothing happens, and yet it feels so totally true to me, and I connect with it, than some rehashed story with a hitman or drug addict as a protagonist, where, and crucially; it’s clear the main work the writer did, was draw on experiences emphatically not one’s own.
Your analysis of mass communications strikes me as correct. What I would push is wondering if we as Americans don’t also grow up with some kind of ideological bias thinking that our press is more free than it is elsewhere in the world. While this is certainly true to no trivial extent, I think it’s massively dishonest if put forward that we have a truly free press. As such, I see an element of indoctrination there, and think that we probably need to try the best we can to help our fellows develop more critical perspectives regarding the ways their perceptions tend to be manipulated. At least for me I would hope to try to make it more commonsense what is happening to Assange, and get that more on people’s minds. For while it is good for instance that so many people are familiar with Chomsky, he is now in his nineties, and, well, won’t be with us for much longer. (Though here’s to him living to one hundred and fifteen.) I think we certainly have some responsibility to where we must try to take on the torch of those who came before us in attempting to progress the long hard struggle of human emancipation.
Interesting to know my metaphor on rejections resonated! It was also in the back of my mind that one might accuse me of being very offensive for making such an analogy. Like if you say these days, that people are still enslaved. It would be like some would consider that idea offensive, even though it is objectively true. I think the “gluttons for punishment” thing, could be thought of too, as a kind of sadomasochism, and this is what I would write on that idea. I go back to your idea of intrinsic motivation. I think that the harder we might be on ourselves to overcome our own limitations, is great. It is when some external force is doing this to us which I find dubious. I might give perhaps another extreme metaphorical example, of the difference between fighting for what one believes in, and being conscripted into it. If we are the ones pushing our selves to get better, fine. But if some external force is as though making us submit to being sadomasochists, fuck that. To where to me it has felt a bit like confronting a taboo, but, I don’t think we should accept that sadomasochism of the industry, and make a virtue out of it. And, where I think we should most push back against it is where we can demonstrate that it is happening or in place, arbitrarily. Rejection that helps one get better is fine, but arbitrary rejection which is more a function of inequality and the subjective power of those who believe they are in a better position to tell someone what to do or how to be than that person themselves, I believe should not be made a virtue of.
Yes! Thank you for sharing that anecdote regarding a screenplay! Very interesting as well to bring up the philosophical problem of the Ship of Theseus. Without hopefully coming across as grandiose, I feel that there is a way out of this seemingly inescapable paradox. It is related in general to whatever was intended to come across, not only in “Striving Like Blake,” but also in that poem I was ecstatic that you published, “The Neurotic Perfectionism of Artificial Scarcity.” (It had been rejected, and called “unclear” elsewhere.) I would offer a sort of psychoanalytical explanation of the dynamics at play, and a brief analysis of those screenplays we write in our teens, that somehow fall apart utterly as we later try to “perfect” them. For the sake of becoming a work at industry standard. There is a quote by the anarchist anthropologist and activist David Graeber that I think is relevant here, so I will quote it in full. It may not seem initially relevant, but bear with me if you don’t mind. The quotation is on career advancement, and comes from an essay called In Regulation Nation that was published in Harper’s. It goes: “Sociologists since Weber have often noted that one of the defining features of a bureaucracy is that its employees are selected by formal criteria— most often some kind of written test— but everyone knows how compromised the idea of bureaucracy as a meritocratic system is. The first criterion of loyalty to any organization is therefore complicity. Career advancement is not based on merit but on a willingness to play along with the fiction that career advancement is based on merit, or with the fiction that rules and regulations apply to everyone equally, when in fact they are often deployed as an instrument of arbitrary personal power.”
The work produced by the fourteen year old kid would be perfectly relevant within a certain context of engaging with art as a legitimate form of human expression, intended to be experienced as a social act or to be a part of an interaction with one’s peers. The moment it steps into the context of the model of fame and fortune however; which is the only model of being an artist that our society presents to us, we take, rightly, from this, that the only way the work will be considered adequate, or, that we would “make it” from it; is if the work was somehow truly exceptional. As the fourteen year old becomes 15, 16. . . 20, and changes, they see the amateurism in the original work, but in the meantime have also become so neurotic from the imperative to be perfect (which is impossible), that one is attempting to refine something that, in another way of thinking about it, never had to be refined to begin with. It could have stood on its own for what it was at the time, and it could be the mere intrinsic motivation to want to produce better and better works, which could accept that old one, and move onto the next one. (I feel my analysis here isn’t all that great, but I must move on, for the sake of all that is brought up in this long form letter! I might try to better put this another time. And I would also be interested in what your thoughts are on this idea, that could probably be refined, and better formulated on into the future.)
Your paragraph beginning, “But for me. . .” is really well put, and I very much echo in my mind what you express really well there. Especially at the idea of knowing when you reach the end of a first draft, what the whole structure then is, I believe is utterly correct. Short stories teach you how to do that I imagine. (For whatever reason, I have never liked short stories. In fact, cinema was the medium I at first was totally taken by and in which I developed an artistic sense and appreciation for. Then when I noticed how much capital is required to make a film, I realized you could do the same in poetry with no capital whatsoever. So for me, it has always been like cinema rhymes with poetry. But, I have never liked short stories. I don’t know why. A personal bias of mine.) I see nothing wrong with not knowing how a story will end, while in the middle of it, and for some writers, that is what they enjoy. But I am like you in preferring the quality over quantity where I want to get a sense of the whole, then revise to make that as good as I can. I also believe in the virtue of doing a lot of research and letting a project develop organically. I also dislike that part of the industry where they are wanting to know what already popular books your novel is going to be like. With the novel you are producing, have you attempted to take what is already popular as a model, or, does it have so many aspects personal to the singularity of one’s experience, that it’s hard to really say it’s like this popular book or that?
“It would take a significant movement of dedicated protestation by a large enough group of writers to elicit such change.” I think it could take nothing less. And, it also seems very possible! You’re very wise to think of it, that, much would depend on “the ability to find enough writers who are alive today that are willing to act in order to force such a change in established behaviors and expectations.” That you’ve put it so well here, only makes me feel how very possible this would ultimately be to do! You are also very wise to note that merely dreaming of a better world, is never enough, and that it comes down to the hard fact of concrete actions taken, and finally, that there is also never a guarantee that in the end, it would work, or, perhaps, that one was finally able to see it come to fruition in one’s lifetime. But as you mention extinction; I think the positive side of thinking about impermanence, as in Shelley’s notion of Ozymandias, is that; it shows us, no matter how deeply ingrained one status quo may seem to us, All Empires Eventually Fall. To me, this is a positive notion; that sense of there always being the possibility of a rebirth. That no tyranny is ever so permanent to fully do away with the perennial desire for freedom.
CHRIS BUTLER: We handle the logistics of shipping to each subscriber and contributor. We have looked into Amazon in the past, it can be a quick and easy way to get your book to the most people possible, but working with one of the largest monopolies in the world has its benefits and its drawbacks. Most of my books are on Amazon through the publishers, but I have zero control over that. Amazon does have their own printers, and you can also choose to store your books in their warehouses (where they handle and maintain all of the stock and their logistics) for a monthly fee (one for simply selling and one for selling and keeping stock, along with the individual fees that come with every sale). So, the cost to benefit ratio wasn’t worth our trouble at the time. And their terms and conditions simply just had too many red flags. I do not know exactly what the policies are towards the words still being the right of the writer, as my friend has published a couple of humorous children’s books with Amazon, but since he used them as the printer (along with the rest of the process), I don’t believe he owns the rights outright to his books. Plus, they are currently involved in a 17 state lawsuit for antitrust and monopolistic practices, and as a union member, their anti-union policies and practices is something that every person should be aware of before using them as a marketplace or as an online supplier/store, considering their astronomical profit margin, vast control over the market and receiving free taxpayer dollars for shipping services by using the United States Postal Service.
[Regarding that notion of the difference in “quality,” between say, The New Yorker, versus The Beatnik Cowboy;] it would be humorous if the poet who published such classics as “When an Abortion Doesn’t Take,” “Holiday in Guantanamo Bay,” “Muhammed’s Self-Portrait,” “Flowers are for Pansies,” “Stoned Age Space Ape,” “I Wrote this Poem Whilst Sitting on the Toilet” and “Only Dead Poets are Famous” could sneak his way into the gated community of literary pretentiousness. I would reason that its legitimacy would come down to multiple factors, including the length of its existence (placing it into the status of an “institution”), the previous artists who have had their words printed there, as well as its primary market, which just so happens to be one of the most influential/important art markets on earth; New York, New York.
I agree, I have had no issue with publishing e-books (which can easily be printed out and turned into a literal paperback book as you said). Six of my books are chapbooks (with four also as e-books), while the other four are full-length printed books (with three also available as an e-book, as well as a paperback on Amazon). I designed the artwork for nine out of the ten. Some publishers will afford you that amount of creative freedom, others do not. But I think my personal favorite might just be Artsy Fartsy which was published by Alternative Current/Propaganda Press, as well as a 10 poem version on The Camel Saloon’s “Books on Blog” series in November 2012 (the print version is no longer available after selling out the its first run). But I guess my second favorite that’s available to read in its entirety on the informaniac superhighway would probably be BUMMER which is an e-book published by Scars Publications (it’s the only book where I had nothing to do with the artwork). I also have several poems that were “covered” by other poets and uploaded to YouTube. But no, I think social media has helped to expose the fact that just because someone is a famous artist, doesn’t mean that they are an “artist” in any sense of the word. Andy Warhol’s concept of “15 Minutes of Fame,” with a little help from the internet, has enabled billions to potentially get their moment under the stage’s single spotlight. But for most today it only lasts about 15 seconds. Their “reach” and “influence” is certainly an important aspect to creating and then sustaining fame for those who lack talent to the point that it has already been monetized, as some of the top subscribed Twitter or TikTok accounts have previously been sold for millions of dollars. But even those with talent or “super-stardom” need the necessary type and amount of promotion in order to succeed with most projects. And the companies or people who bought them were paying for that “reach” and “influence.”
I remember the good ole days of Napster well. In hindsight, Napster was a major benefit to the music industry, as its prevalence and popularity and infamy led them to realize that streaming or downloading individual songs was the next evolutionary step in monetizing music. Personally, I have no issues with the music I pirated, because once Napster became a subscription service, I ended up buying all of the music which I downloaded after losing access to the free version of all of those songs. Even the creator of Napster ended up making money after its demise and in spite of several multi-million dollar lawsuits by being an original stockholder and part-owner of Facebook. The music industry might be a bad example for this case, however, because they are more than notorious for ripping off artists with predatory contracts and control over the use of their own music since the Baby Doomers. Only a select few artists in history have had enough power and influence to force the industry to change their scummy policies just towards them. Many have had to resort to drastic action in order to get a deal which they deemed as favorable. Prince had to change his name to a symbol for a few years to get his record company to bend on the rights and royalties to his songs which he wrote but gifted to other artists. But according to many in and outside the music industry, it is basically the same as it always has been.
From my experience, there have been quite a few good small press publishers over the years. Unfortunately, some of them have folded over the years, and it is a “touch and go” process of trial and error to find more of the good ones. I usually check out where writers who I like have been published recently. Your estimation of about 1% for those who go above and beyond the established norm of a form rejection/acceptance is probably pretty apt (it also fits into my perception that about 1% of art is actually worth investing in). Many good publishers have unfortunately folded over the years for a variety of reasons. I also have had similar issues with journals who don’t accept unsolicited manuscripts (not sure how they find writers in the first place to solicit with such a policy, but I guess that comes from years of operation and establishing a consistent talent pool to pluck words from), and those who only accept during certain time periods, as I often find myself discovering or re-discovering them outside of their established parameters. But as an Editor, I can understand why some journals are seasonal, as it can be a lot of work depending on what the journal produces as well and the number of submissions they receive during their designated reading periods. But, response time is something which can be understandable, or they can be far too long that it is an immediate turnoff. We figure the one month gives writers the chance to write and submit seasonal poems, it gives the writer more time to find other journals during our short lives on this rock in case we don’t publish their entire submission and it affords us the chance to claim great poems which are simultaneously submitted.
But I also agree with your sentiment regarding truth in poetry or fiction, and when it comes to manufacturing drama. Those topics play upon people’s “power fantasies” (it was something I wrote about in a published poem last year called “Literally Me,” similar to those people with “Main Character Syndrome,” or one who identifies with a particular fictional character from cinema, television or a book and believe that character is “literally” them, sometimes with tragic results). At this point, they’ve been ingrained into western culture for generations (some, like detective or crime stories, have been a part of popular culture for over a century, although noire is a more recent adaptation that people associate with when they think of old crime stories from the era of black and white). But when you put it that way, it seems as if the exploitation that may result from inspiration can be a detriment to those individuals who face such societal ills or personal issues, but there are those cases where a piece of media (a film, a book, a television show) brings attention to a social issue that otherwise would not have crossed the minds of others, or has been repressed by society at large for some time. It’s a delicate and incredibly thin and high wire that artists must balance when addressing these issues, as they can easily result in a perspective which negatively affects members of said group or the group as a whole. There are countless examples of pieces of art which hit the bullseye, and those that completely missed the target. This is becoming more and more of an issue today when there are so many people who believe they are qualified to speak on behalf of the disenfranchised, and they end up sending the wrong message to the audience with their lackluster attempt at art. I think it depends on a variety of factors, such as the artist’s motivations, research practices and execution that can either result in a project being a success or a flop. But, I also think artists shouldn’t be restricted from exploring the deepest and darkest depths of society which they have absolutely no exposure to or experience within. If you limit someone to only “write what they know,” then only soldiers can write war stories, junkies can only write about drugs and crooks can only write about crime. I think with the right type and amount of research, topics can be tackled by those who aren’t on the football team. Quality over quantity. Before I started writing this novel, I decided to only write the stories I believed that I had to tell, not the ones which I wanted to tell. That seems to have prioritized what projects I feel I need to complete before I take my final spin around the sun.
I believe you are correct in the misconception that the Constitutional right to a “free press” doesn’t mean there is one. A quick search of the massive conglomerates which own the media companies who produce “news programming” which we digest on a consistent basis would make that evident to most, but when it comes to the press and the “news,” it seems that very few take the necessary extra steps to understand why a story is being written from a certain perspective to draw certain conclusions. This critical thinking isn’t something which skipped a generation, or was recently lost in the age of the internet and overwhelming amounts of media readily available at any moment at the finger’s push of the button. Personally, if I am going to develop a concrete opinion on a particular subject, I will at the very least explore multiple sources from varying viewpoints, and am never, ever afraid to admit when I am wrong or focused on the incorrect information from some bias which may have not been evident to my sparking circuits. I was exploring the concept of “pride” as one of seven deadly sins for a writing project, but when initially exploring the dictionary definition of the word, it is much different than the Biblical definition; people understanding the value of their work and expecting equal compensation for their contribution, as well as possessing self-esteem towards achieving one’s goals or possessing personal qualities that are on the positive end of the spectrum and contribute to benefiting themselves, their loved ones and/or society as a whole. But then, you examine the narcissistic nature of those who take pride to delusional levels – those who can never admit they are wrong, those who can never accept the consequences of their actions, those who are capable of lying with every word without batting an eyelid and those who truly believe their shit exudes a pleasant odor, and you come to understand how dangerous pride can be when exercised by the wrong individuals or groups. But yes, the great minds of the past are starting to slowly be silenced, as Father Time remains undefeated. There aren’t people like Chomsky who are at least universally recognized as having expertise in his field (instead there are others who are experts in their particular field, but tend to express opinions on subjects that they have little actual knowledge about and believing they are experts at everything, exposing them as fraudulent intellectuals to those who are able and willing to sniff out such chicanery from charlatans. As there seems to be more attention paid towards people who know a little about a lot as opposed to those who know a lot about a little).
But as the system currently stands, it seems to be a sadomasochistic aspect to being a struggling or rising writer…and we may not want it and can try everything we can to stop being these gluttons, but in an industry where one’s gifts to the world can be so easily accepted or rejected, it is something that does come with the territory. I would love to say “fuck that,” and there is an easy way to do that – if you decide to self-publish everything you write. But, if you want to be published here, there and everywhere, the system requires that we face some rejection in order to experience some acceptances. I know, I hate to say it myself. I view it similarly to the trials and tribulations of finding “love” in this life, or a romantic and sexual relationship with a single partner. In order to find that “one and only” person (and it’s still not a guarantee and is a crapshoot if you ever will), you are likely going to have to go through other relationships (unless you marry your childhood sweetheart) where you encounter heartache and pain. Does that pain make the moment of realizing you found that special someone worth all of the trouble? Probably not. But I don’t view such suffering as a virtue, not like the cliche of “paying dues” in a profession where seniority is a priority. I think the David Graeber quote, applied to this situation, does help to express the complicity that is commonplace that writers are willing to put their hearts, or their art, out there for the world to either hug with caring arms or carve up and devour with sinister canines. But, those dinosaurs are now one day closer to the asteroid.
I think you may have sidestepped the paradox by not looking at the revisions as not changing the story, but the revisions leading the story to its final form which was initially intended, which I agree with. Now, that doesn’t quite apply to a metaphorical boat with enhancements due to advancements in technology, wear and tear or repairs of destruction, but it applies perfectly to the art of writing, from the first word of the first draft to the ending punctuation of the final draft. But yes, art can never be “perfect.” However, I would say that some pieces of art can be “perfect” based on an individual’s perception, even the creator’s point of view. I know there are a few, select poems I’ve written where I wouldn’t change a word, but that is mostly due to the economy of words available in poetry and the simplistic nature of those poems (basic concept, short lines, limited words). Short stories are a completely different animal for their larger, full-length counterparts, and can sometimes be closer to poetry (a lot of poems read much like very short stories, which I suppose would make them “narrative” in form). I can understand why some people don’t like them…as I only like around 1% I’ve ever read…but I actually hadn’t published or written one since I was 22 until last year, when I penned a couple of quickies, just a couple of pages each, simply to get in the swing of writing fiction again after a decade. I’ve only published five of them, and the previous three were all written for classes when I was in college.
But there is nothing wrong with having utopian ideals and goals, because even if they can’t be fully achieved, you never know what little difference your effort might make. Maybe the next editor takes a minute to write a specific criticism and glorification of your work. Maybe they’ll include how much they enjoyed reading your words. Sometimes those little messages can make the difference in someone for the better, and there is absolutely nothing at all wrong with that. If there weren’t optimists with dreams, everything would remain a nightmare.
It’s quite interesting that cinema was your first favorite art form, as it was mine. Randall is also a cinephile himself.
“That no tyranny is ever so permanent to fully do away with the perennial desire for freedom.” I don’t think anyone could have put it any better. The entire paragraph. And while some see the fact that all empires eventually crumble as a bad thing, they neglect to view the notion of “rebirth” that comes crawling out of the rubble. We are long overdue for the next Renaissance.
A SCOTT BUCH: I wholeheartedly stand by your remarks on Amazon. I appreciate your expertise on the matter regarding these facts about publishing, and your perspective regarding how a conscientious citizen of the world might want to contemplate the type of working or consuming relationship they have with one of the world’s largest monopolies, notorious for its union-busting and its behemoth status within capitalism, that also takes advantage of the way the state privileges corporate behemoths like it, by, in so many ways, subsidizing its ruthless exploitation and dominance. I applaud you handling the logistics of your sales independently. I suppose also since your books have publishers separate from Amazon, that they make the stock available through Amazon, makes sense. It makes as much sense that say, smaller entities would have to do business with a dominant empire, because they really have no choice. Or like when one needs to buy food on a budget, they may go to Walmart, because there really don’t exist many if any other legitimately better options, in which the consumption choice could carry with it a better ethics. As you say here, I think it is when Amazon is both publisher, and distributor, that it ends up owning the rights to the work.
You give me such an authentic belly laugh in chronicling a number of titles of your works! That is brilliant, man! Firstly, those are some incredibly compelling titles for poems, that resonate incredibly with my sensibilities. And so does the irony that a journal emblematic of the establishment might one day feature works of such a subversive quality! Indeed, sounds like a kind of infiltration attempt of the “gated community of literary pretentiousness,” an “operation” which I certainly throw my support behind!
It’s a good point regarding what materially constitutes artistic or popular legitimacy, in such criterion as longevity which becomes institutionalized; the reputations of artists who have been featured in the publication; the size or power of its market force; and its location, as in New York. This reminds me of a subject which may become in danger of getting a bit controversial here, though I’m into spy stories, and the like. To preface. Because insofar as we have been speaking of propaganda often in our letters, as well as how we have discussed the ways that Americans may not be so literate about how propaganda works in this country; that we tend to have a bias, that it happens in other, bad, countries out there, but not in here. Well, from what I understand, there are situations documented in the past where spooks, spies, propagandists, etc., have worked their way into media positions, where they had inserted stories which were doctored in ways to push certain imperial narratives. This came out in the famous Church Committee hearings on the CIA in 1975 that revealed to the public often for the first time, a lot of the abuses of the American intelligence agencies. I have also heard it alleged that during the Cold War there was a concerted effort to attempt to move the art capital of the world—that had in the past, been Paris, France—to New York City, USA. The idea being to attempt to develop a reputation for how much more free the States were, especially regarding art and culture, in comparison to the authoritarian Soviet Union. Not sure how much you might be into the history of espionage or stuff like this, though I know I am. The really difficult part of it though is when dealing with such stuff one needs to be immensely careful to stay as objective as one can, to stick to facts (which is hard when dealing with clandestine aspects of politics that by their nature, attempt to remain secretive). Otherwise it can be very easy to be taken in by rabbit holes of disinformation and to get caught up in propaganda which ironically appears to be “debunking” propaganda. In short, we must to the best of our ability, be critical thinkers who strongly value objectivity.
That is an immense amount of published work, Chris! I am truly impressed. Awesome as well that you designed the artwork! Thank you for providing this information on your published work, I’m compelled to read it. I have lately become concerned or interested in that aspect of the creative process in which one might say that output is influenced by input. What one chooses to read or the publications one chooses to follow, can’t help but not have an effect on fresh work one eventually generates. The more I learn about your creative sensibilities the more they seem to really resonate. May I ask, have you in your literary career thus far, encountered other poets whose sensibilities are similar to your own, that you might point to, as necessary reading, along with your works?
That is fascinating about your work being “covered” on YouTube. Do you mind providing some more information on this too? Because I have often noticed that there seems to be something of a poetry genre on YouTube. As we have talked about previously the potential for a poetry revival, often I have felt that YouTube also represents one of the possibilities of this. If not YouTube precisely (which is very much, the Amazon of an online media platform), then some other version of it. A side note in this regard too is I have become interested in one aspect of YouTube wondering why for instance, a certain style or type of video seems to be what dominates the platform, when, I can’t for the life of me figure out why, say, Short Films shouldn’t flourish on the platform. I don’t get why it is all this kind of superficial TV show type content, when in theory, what is stopping creators from making it more into a democratic platform of Short and even Long Form independent film? But this is an incredible digression. Returning to poetry, indeed; it seems like the platform could totally lend itself, to the dissemination of poetry performance. These folks who have “covered,” you work, has it been with your permission, as in some kind of collaborate exercise, or what? Indeed, any more details on that I think, would be incredibly interesting.
Good point about Warhol’s 15 minutes of fame—that, at the time of that prediction; seemed already so inconceivable (and in my view, dystopian)—but now having turned out rather more like 15 seconds! You know, I’m glad you bring this up, because I think there is already something in this Warholian perspective that dominates in art and culture these days, that I am opposed to. Without getting too much into it, I think it’s a deeply ideological way of construing what art is, and what it can and should do. It would seem to be a view on art seeing it strictly in terms of how it gets turned into an object of commericalism. Commodified.
I once watched a documentary on the art world, and all the fraud which goes along with that. The title of the documentary escapes me. But one of its central theses that I found utterly fascinating was that. Art is in—and has been in—an economic bubble, for quite a long time now. Since about the fifties. But like with all bubbles in capitalism, it will eventually burst. Though it is fascinating to think that one bubble could still be going on, for indeed, about as long as Warhol was really dominating the scene. The idea was that those who own Warhols often intervene in the purchasing of art to artificially bid up the price to make it so that the properties they own retain their value. But ultimately since it is a speculative bubble like all speculative bubbles, one day, the true value of a lot of the art will make itself known to our future society. All of those artworks which now go for exorbitant prices, will eventually reach a cap. To where somewhere down the line, those left holding onto a lot of this art which has a vastly inflated value, will one day be left holding onto the pure material value of whatever the object is. For it will have lost that social element that created such a speculative value around it. I’ve likely not written very sufficiently on this topic, but I would certainly be interested to know your thoughts on it, as well as if I’m speaking correctly on this topic.
It’s also fascinating to think about why, and how it is, that some “artists” would be so unfathomably famous, without even being talented. Doesn’t it really seem to blow out of the water the whole idea that a hierarchy of fame and fortune was somehow “meritocratic”? I mean, why don’t we as a broader society, even look at that and see the real paradox of it. Why do we accept that certain people tend to become rich and famous for entirely arbitrary reasons?
Because finally I do agree, that ultimately really vital art needs some kind of platform, some kind of effort behind it which makes it more visible, gives it more reach. I think what I’m most interested in is locating those places where there is an oppressive hierarchy in place which doesn’t really correspond with merit, and trying to figure out what has produced such a structure, because in knowing what produced it, I think in theory, a kind of alternative structured could be generated.
Good point about the ultimately positive effects of Napster. That is funny about Napster too, how much hot water it got into, and yet it could have still ended up profitable for, I believe his name is Sean Parker, who was portrayed by Justin Timberlake in the David Fincher dramatization of the origins of Facebook, “The Social Network” (2010). I like your creative coinage of Baby Doomers; and to differentiate the music industry here, calling out how predatory it has been. I didn’t know that about Prince, and that is not only fascinating, but admirable! What you bring up here I think is very notable, regarding how some have fought really hard to get the industry to change, though in ways which may only serve to help one individual. The trick, wouldn’t it, would be to force a kind of change which wasn’t only favorable to one individual at one moment in time, but more structural in the sense that what one person or group fought for, could ultimately then apply to many others who didn’t ultimately benefit in that original and novel context.
What fascinating figures to think about regarding the tiny percentages around not only underground publications but also of what art is worth investing in. What it would seem to imply is as an industry what one ends up with is such a flood of material, it’s like throwing something at the wall to see what sticks, chasing after those truly rare instances where something becomes a blockbuster success. It reminds me of what I read about publishing which is that a lot of presses lose money on most of what they publish, however they need to have a catalog, and ultimately it is those rare smash hits that really pay the bills, and ultimately subsidize I suppose, all those other works which lost money. To me what I think this demonstrates is really a problem with the structure or model. I think what it has done over time is vastly take out originality from the market, because it is so afraid of the risk of investing in something which can’t be proven it necessarily will be a blockbuster hit. But that in short this structure which makes the whole industry dependent on smash hits is also ultimately its weakness, or the paradoxical reason it ends up awash with so much throwaway art.
Your theory on those publications which have periods of not accepting unsolicited submissions does make sense. While I get it, I also think it’s uncharitable towards those who would be starting out or who are at the bottom of a name recognition hierarchy. I can certainly see what you mean about the benefits of seasonality though, and can imagine the added pressures an editor would be under. I think there’s quite a lot of good in terms of the naturalness of seasonality, although in the kind of dystopian world we live in, perhaps a rhythm more in tune with those of needing to buy food and pay rent every month, seems to make more sense in a material way. (For instance, the monthly model.) It’s like the industry operates out of the notion that poetry is already this kind of airy thing that stands above the material world, when I think what is airy (like consciousness) is ultimately always embodied in a material reality. So that the industry would perhaps be better off operating under the idea that writing and editing weren’t some pure airy magic not in need of such material components like time and resources.
I think of the one month model of The Beatnik Cowboy, and in fact, as I went about trying to research more journals out there recently, I ended up using the one month time frame as my dominant criteria in the search! As it happens, I almost found nothing else which really had that. I’m sure there are more out there which can do it. But I suppose I simply want to stress what to me are really the benefits of being able to do a one month turnaround, especially in regards to poetry submissions.
The subject of “Literally Me” sounds like a very important notion to write on! I would much like to read that poem. Going back to what you mentioned about the baby boomers, I think it is generally understood that they grew up in an era in history of unprecedented affluence, and that one very negative consequence of this, I would say, was the generation of a culture of narcissism, which—to let the boomers off the hook a little—became something all following generations could develop as well, and to even greater degrees. I have often thought that one of the dilemmas coming after them involves making the choice to become more or less narcissistic than they (and that to me, the clear imperative we face, is to become less). You know it’s interesting that you also put this idea of main character syndrome into perspective regarding genres like noir, detective stories, and the like, because in fact this is a thematic element I tried to play off with my novel in attempting to subvert tropes from the spy story. In numerous ways; not only how we live in times where it can sometimes feel like the most mundane aspects of life, carry with them certain hidden dystopian threats, say, of deception or surveillance; but also in those ways that governments often try to make us identify with them and their imperial interests, over the much more material class interests that we share with all of the common folks who make up humanity on this planet. You are certainly right to bring up that while there is the potential for exploitation in art there is as much a counter tendency that what it can help to bring about is something more like liberation. The crux of the issue for me seems to revolve around the problem of representation. I think this is ultimately the wrong value to have, in favor of direct participation. Why should some one figure try to represent the interests of an entire group? To me I think, were everyone in a position to be able to participate and represent themselves as they saw fit, there wouldn’t be such pointless bickering over whether or not this or that representation was the correct way for a community or group to be portrayed. Or for decision-making to have occurred for them by proxy. Such that while it might not seem like the connection is that apparent, I see it as the same problem regarding representative democracy versus direct democracy.
I agree that artists should be free to explore whatever they choose including the darkest reaches to which they are willing to go. I also think it comes down to intention too that would bring it back around to the exploitation issue, because I think sometimes the creative imperative can become a narcissistic one, especially when it might be putting a final product above and beyond the lives of real people. Another perspective is that also art is frequently like a form of therapy or a way of working out subconscious conflicts that even the artist might not be fully aware of. And in this way, that is why I think freedom of speech and freedom of expression is ultimately a top value to have, because without it I think it tends more to allow the darker aspects of the human psyche to become repressed. And these, to get psychoanalytical, never go anywhere when repressed; and rather then will need to come out somehow. This can tend to be violent or even catastrophic on individual or even mass scales.
I think you make a great point of fiction to qualify pure imagination with research. I could never advocate “write what you know” as an inviolable law. I suppose to continue my critical train of thought it would be, I’m against whatever might compel a writer to feel only stories with hitmen or spies or policemen, or superheroes, as protagonists are viable for their story, since it seems the industry tends to be biased towards having such narratives filled as they are with a familiar and nostalgic form of drama. By emphasizing stories that one must tell rather than necessarily wanting to, I think is a great metric. Without making too much of a virtue out of the notion of struggle; it seems more related to the writer feeling a sense of responsibility of what they feel is necessary to impart on the world, rather than simply, I want a cool protagonist, who wields a gun, or has a superpower, and always has the coolest things to say before enacting violence, or beating up bad guys, as that is most dramatic.
I think our general lack of critical thinking skills regarding the news is a product of our education system, at its first lowest levels, at least, that more encourages us to accept the words of authority as true—as with that, we pass the test—rather than to be trained to assess what authorities are saying critically. It’s interesting how you seem to put it that it’s a longstanding idea to question what authorities are telling us, and so this problem in full—perhaps, the problem of social control—would appear to go back quite deep into the recent past. (I think the birth of modern propaganda seems to have started with WWI. Because no one wanted to fight that war, and wouldn’t have, were it not for the massive propaganda campaigns developed by the states that participated, to get common folks to fight a “noble war,” but which in hindsight—although many did see it like this at the time—was a totally pointless loss of human life.)
“Personally, if I am going to develop a concrete opinion on a particular subject, I will at the very least explore multiple sources from varying viewpoints, and am never, ever afraid to admit when I am wrong or focused on the incorrect information from some bias which may have not been evident to my sparking circuits.” This is really an excellent value and perspective that I get behind 100%.
“the narcissistic nature of those who take pride to delusional levels – those who can never admit they are wrong, those who can never accept the consequences of their actions, those who are capable of lying with every word without batting an eyelid and those who truly believe their shit exudes a pleasant odor, and you come to understand how dangerous pride can be when exercised by the wrong individuals or groups.” You really hit on something here. It reminds me of how hard or seemingly impossible it is for some individuals to understand the difference between certain forms of nationalism, those which are positive and needed, say, in identities of minorities or oppressed nations, in contrast to those which are negative and forms of fascism. I’m not sure about you, but since about 2016 I have noticed this disconcerting trend where the incredibly needed progressive developments in this country have created a kind of fascistic reaction where many—an alarming amount of folks, in the States, but globally as well—feel compelled to rally around white identity. There really is no such thing as white identity, because its construction has historically been the justification for a certain power hierarchy based on arbitrary biological differentiation of no real consequence. Ultimately, race does not exist, from a purely biological stand point. But from a social standpoint the concept has become a real abstraction that has justified all kinds of political horrors which—if one is a conscious human being—don’t seem all that remote from the possibility of happening again. The development of a kind of World War Three, for example. Not to have taken this so cataclysmically here, but I do think there is a kind of indoctrination into an ideology of exceptionalism that may be the modus operandi of all nation-states, but certainly for the United States; as it produces an ideology of exceptionalism that for many, I think, has normalized the idea that one country on the planet, should and can so dominate it. And moreover, that it produces and believes justifications as to why it should dominate it. In short, I think there is a real connection between narcissism, and authoritarianism (although this may appear like another one of those connections that would seem to come out of nowhere). I think the more we can deconstruct the negative narcissistic facets of our ego, the more we can see ourselves as a part of the whole of humanity that has no business believing in petty fictions of why we all should consider each other so different, and rather instead how we should see that working together as one species is not only desired, but without any exaggeration the only way we are going to end up surviving on this planet.
You also make a very strong point about intellectuals; that there is it seems this tendency for us to want to follow certain thought leaders who make a case for being so right about topics that, ultimately, they really aren’t in the position to speak so authoritatively on. For me I suppose it would go back to the problem of why do we construe society so much in terms of a split between those who lead and those who follow; those who speak on a subject, and those who listen; again, the difference between a representative versus direct politics.
It seems to me the only way to really have a strong grasp on the truth, is try to independently verify the information we are taking in. So that I suppose down the line it probably becomes easier to simply seek out some trusted authority privileged to do the thinking for us. But I don’t think this is a natural condition. I think it is the natural consequence of having no time, being constantly busy, too much information, and thus the existential ease that can come from simply listening to the comforting words of a strong warm figure, whom one has determined must be correct about everything.
I think you make a good point ultimately about rejections. You even show that an analogy with a sexual relationship is for whatever reason, very apt. This may be an extremely interesting domain to explore, because I think there is a lot of complexity here. Let’s start with the idea, “better to have loved and lost.” We can even see it as a metaphor for all of life. Even though we eventually die, of course it is better to have existed than not! (At least in my view.) And further, even with all the suffering and hardship which comes from loving, truly loving another person, it’s worth it! (At least in my view.) Now here is where I would note the difference between these examples however, living and loving, and the literary industry. Because after all; that is the point of a metaphor. It helps one compare and contrast. Not only to find the similarities, but differences. While I think that you are ultimately right about rejection in a literary context having a certain quality, because of the sensitivity necessary to produce art; I think there is perhaps for instance, a clear difference between say, rough sex that is ultimately consensual and enjoyable, and being in an abusive relationship. I suppose it is much easier for folks who have to struggle in the harsh world but don’t make art, because I think it is impossible to make art without being sensitive. And yet the more sensitive one is, the more one would take rejection personally. I think it all again comes back to if the suffering, or hardship, is arbitrary or not. With life, we have no control over that, so we can embrace it for what it is. But in the societies we have built for ourselves, these aren’t unchangeable in the sense that existence has its necessary fixed qualities. So that again, I would perhaps point to what I find is neurotic about the idea of suffering as a necessity. I think there is that kind of religious bullshit which can make it seem like suffering is necessary, for whatever reason, as a part of a divine plan. That would be the more sadomasochistic part of it I think, if one were to make a virtue out of suffering that didn’t ultimately have to be that way. I bring it all back around to the nature of a hierarchy, and whether or not it can be proven justifiable. Though I think we have established that in many ways, the hierarchy of the creative industries makes no sense, if we at least go back to the idea of fame and fortune, and how we have established that very often, a celebrity may be rich and famous, without a correlating degree of say artistic merit. This would be its demonstrable arbitrariness, so that I think one could argue that to become rich and famous under such circumstances, may be more construed metaphorically, as “selling one’s soul,” if indeed, it is more the fame and fortune which is sought, and not a kind of authentic degree of skill. One of course has to suffer for some necessary degree of skill, its blood, sweat and tears, so to speak. But this it strikes me is completely justifiable. Needing to internalize an arbitrary sadomasochism because it represents the whims of those in subjective power positions to me strikes me as unjustifiable.
Regarding revision, yes. One discovers what the potential form is, by reaching one draft of it. But then one realizes the necessary work which would go into realizing what has been glimpsed at that point, only a vision of what could be. This goes back to one major way I view what art is, as the ability for one to take what has been at one point only an intangible vision, and then to bring that into existence as some material object. Going back to the original paradox, of the ship of theseus, the idea is, when can you say the original boat is still the original boat, after it has gone through so many repairs, and had all of its elements replaced, that it is in effect, a different boat. It is the same as saying, start removing hairs from one’s head, at what point does one cross that threshold, from having hair, to being bald. And the answer is, it is not fully possible to say where that line is. Ultimately, it is arbitrary to us. Now, apply this back on the problem of art, and especially, “perfection” in art, or when it is finished. This is where I would advocate for a more relaxed view of art. Because I think it is too possible to become neurotic and obsessed in a quest for perfection. But the point is, the society very much places this quest for perfection before us like a carrot on a stick. And I don’t think it ultimately serves the interests of artists or of society; at least to me, to the extent that it is purely extrinsic, as in society continuing to tell us we are shit, until we have achieved, this, these, or that. Intrinsically; when we keep pushing ourselves to overcome our own limitations, this to me is very positive, and a model I can get behind.
You make a true point about perfect art; to me this is beauty. This is the real subject of aesthetics. And yet I will continue to argue my devil’s advocate, by making the claim that if there are elements that are sacrificed to beauty, that should be considered more important than it, that is what I find to be objectionable. Let’s say, Freedom or Truth. It would go back to the idea about exploitation in the arts. If in order to create a great work of art, one needs step on so many people’s toes, and maybe steal elements from people here or there, or what have you; or lose track of arguably more important things than art, such as life itself; this is where I think, it is better to have an imperfect work of art, than one of immense beauty that ultimately compromised a lot about what makes life good to begin with (say the freedom or health of others). In that old argument of, what is more important, art or life; I suppose to me it’s life, is what I’m ultimately trying to say.
When you put it regarding your poems, and how you wouldn’t change a word, this is where the problem becomes also one of authority, because, what if someone came along, and told you they could or should be altered? It’s that which I find interesting, because I agree with you, that it is possible to reach a point, where a poem seems complete in the sense of, objectively one need not make any further changes.
And I agree that very often, poems are basically like short stories. I suppose this may be why I am biased against short stories in favor of poetry (or perhaps a short film).
That only recently you’ve started writing short stories again I find interesting. I also recall when I attempted to write short stories in college I was really bad at it. I do think that nowadays I could probably try my hand at it again but man it is way harder than it might appear!
I very much agree about having utopian ideals and goals. Simply striving to be published as a process, can become more valuable than whether or not the struggle ends up one day in clear victory. But counter to this though is endgames are also important. I suppose we need to have the wisdom to know when we are engaging with an impossible opponent—the nature of the struggle then becoming purely training, like playing the wall in ping pong—and when we do have a clear endgame in mind, so that we can ultimately bring our ideals and goals to fruition.
“If there weren’t optimists with dreams, everything would remain a nightmare.” This is a very fine aphorism. I couldn’t agree more. And I think you put in such an artful way here, one crux of the problem that we currently face, being as we are confronting such nightmarish conditions; it does make one wonder, what the role of positive vision would be within such difficulty. It makes me think that on some level, we might even understand one of the best roles of poetry to have as that of generating positive morale. While I do think there is a huge element of bullshit to those “mindset” ideologies like the power of positive thinking (for, as much as one may desire to fly like a superhuman, this is not possible in our universe); to what extent is it our inability to imagine a world different from the one we currently inhabit, that is keeping us from realizing it in material reality?
Goodness, it is so cool to know that you and Randall are both into film! Answer me this [for the continuation of the discussion, in Beatnik Cowboy Letters 2]. In your mind, what are some of the structural analogies between film and poetry?