Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Small ball in the world of MFA poetry

A revealing contretemps in the world of MFA graduates and academia which probably has not come to the attention of the 99% of the population engaged with the important things in life of working, earning a living, making things better.

Sherman Alexie is an author of a popular Young Adult book, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, which has become a contemporary classic. His advocacy concerns seem to be shaped by those hot-house academia philosophies of post-modernism, third-wave feminism, critical race theory, post-colonial theory, etc., i.e. various off-shoots of the early post-World War II Euro-marxist intellectual tradition which have died their natural death elsewhere but live on in the fringes of US universities.

He recently undertook the task of editing the most recent edition of the series, The Best American Poetry 2015. Over the years I have acquired probably three or four copies of BAP. I love poetry and am always on the lookout to find new poems and poets. I haven't bought a BAP in some years though after those earlier acquisitions. Basically I found most of the poetry to be anemic and lackluster, prolix logo vomitoria about trivially insignificant aspects of sheltered lives. Very little to admire or be inspired by.

Alexie has got himself into hot water after selecting a poem by a Chinese poet who, once selected, unmasked himself as a white man who, according to Alexie, had donned the Chinese nom de plume in order to subvert the "politically correct poetry business."

So, just another skirmish in the Social Justice Warrior culture war being waged by the cultural elite against the hoi polloi from Gamergate to Sad Puppies. This Irish Democracy of the unwashed taking the mickey out of their pointy headed betters has been going on at least since the early 1980s when I recollect some white man in the UK authoring some sob story novel under the guise of a hard done-by female immigrant which then won some prize for its authenticity, for its voice of the downtrodden. It has probably been going on even longer than that.

But Alexie is better than most. He doesn't just roll over and bewail the mean-spiritedness of his trickster. Instead, he lays out his approach to the challenge of selecting the poems in the first place, how this one slipped through, and he justifies why he elected to leave the poem in the collection once he understood that is was not in fact written by an Asian American. Good for him.

Granted, there is a lot of posturing and self-justification and the whole thing reeks of inside ball and preciousness of attenuated ideological philosophies which are at their core rank racialism and coercive punishment dressed up in faux nobility. But this is a braver stand than any others make.

Alexie lays out his 11 rules that he set for himself in selecting the best 75 poems (he actually selected 75 poets but I don't know whether any had more than one poem selected). This is interesting in and of itself. Poetry, and literature at large, is by its nature a difficult field in terms of making judgments. On what basis is one poem judged to be better than another, one novel over another? There are no standards, there are no empirical measures.

One can come up with some simple ones such as most number of copies sold, or highest citations in Google Trends or NGrams, or highest revenue. One could even go with most number of critically positive reviews if you wanted. But that's not how it is done. Basically, the current mode is an exercise in appeal to authority.

A couple of years ago, the Pulitzer Prize for poetry went to a wholly un-notable collection of poems by an obscure poet in academia. At the time of the announcement, about a year after the collection was published, the sum total of copies sold was something on the order of 382. It has probably hit 400 by now but nobody outside some distant nooks of prose poetry has ever even heard of it.

Poems are selected from a small cadre of poets, for a small cadre of poets, by people with positional juice. The broader reading public, those who want to read good poems which scan, rhyme, uplift and inspire? This process is not for them.

This small world incestuousness is highlighted by how many of Alexie's rules are intended to broaden the horizons for selection. Two of his rules are tongue-in-cheek acknowledgements of the nature of outside pressures. Of the remaining nine which are intended to broaden the selection, five of the rules cover conflict-of-interest (e.g. no poems by close friends, extra caution about poems by people he already knows, etc.), two of the rules require him to be broader in his selection (e.g. include internet poems, include poems from those not in academia), and two rules seem contradictory.
Rule #5: I will pay close attention to the poets and poems that have been underrepresented in the past. So that means I will carefully look for great poems by women and people of color. And for great poems by younger, less established poets. And for great poems by older poets who haven't been previously lauded. And for great poems that use rhyme, meter, and traditional forms.
Greater diversity based on race and gender and greater diversity based on poetical form. I laud the latter goal.

But Rule #5 has to fit with
Rule #10: I don't want to know anything about any of the poets beyond what I already know or what is apparent in the poem itself. So I will not do Internet searches on anybody. I will do my best to treat every poem like it is a blind submission, even if some famous poet has written the poem I'm currently reading.
So he wants to put his thumb on the scale for race and gender but he doesn't want to know anything beyond what is facially available in the poem itself. Hence the outcome, a poem that meets the race criteria which is not actually by a person of the claimed race.

Alexie acknowledges this with
Rule #11: I know that these rules will inevitable result in contradictions, conflicts, hypocrisy, and stress rashes.
What is never addressed is how Rules 5 & 10 can be in operation while also delivering on the implied promise of the title of the anthology Best American Poetry, 2015.

If you are seeking the best, then race and gender are irrelevant. If you are weighting the criteria towards race and gender, you cannot by seeking only the best. That is, of course, not to say that the best precludes anyone of any gender or orientation or race. What Alexie with his rules is promising is that he will select the best portfolio of poems of mixed quality which is biased towards women and racial minorities. That is probably not what people thought they might be getting, and presumably these rules were not public in advance.

Alexie's challenge is that, absent any objective or empirical criteria, any selection of poetry has to be an exercise of personal opinions, judgments, and biases. Fine. That is the nature of the beast. But what it also means is that there is actually no "Best." There is Alexie's best, and my best and your best. Each portfolio of best has no objective basis for being distinguished from the other.

Other than in sales. And that gets to an issue I have commented on before (The Narcissism of small differences). Poetry is no longer an exercise in cultural engagement. It is an obscure niche sustained and protected by academia for readers in MFA programs in academia. The challenge is that with the coming restructuring and slimming of universities, this financial ecosystem goes away. Poets will once again only survive financially if they are actually read by the general public and their poems adjust accordingly.

In the absence of objective standards, it is honest of Alexie to put his eleven self-developed rules out there. You know not to expect the best but instead the best that meet his biased criteria.

Alexie goes one step further and reveals the results of his criteria. He wanted poets to be more representative of the nation, more females, more people of color, more rhyme and meter, less academic. With his various digits on the scale, the results are:
Approximately 60% of the poets are female.

Approximately 40% of the poets are people of color.

Approximately 20% of the poems employ strong to moderate formal elements.

Approximately 15% of the poems were first published on the Internet.

Approximately 99% of the poets are professors.
Women are overrepresented by 20% based on their general population numbers. People of color are slightly overrepresented (but there is almost certainly dramatic over and underrepresentation within that group). Traditional poetry is still dramatically underrepresented. Academic poets are still overwhelmingly overrepresented, to the point of complete saturation.

The small confines of the poetry world are illustrated by the degree of contact Alexie has had with the poets he ended up selecting. Despite all his conflict-of-interest type rules, only 40% of the poems were by poets of whom he was unaware. 25% of the poets were individuals with whom he had had past experiences (friends, people who had invited him to speak at their universities, people who had picked his poems for publication, people he had corresponded with, etc.) That means 35% were people whom he had read in the past but had had no dealings.

The number that demands attention though is 99%. 99% are academic poets. I suspect that Alexie's net was not nearly as broad as he set out for it to be. But separate from that, think of the implications. 99% of the poetry being picked is by MFA writers in academia. That 99% doesn't look like America, that 99% doesn't behave like America, that 99% doesn't think like America, and that 99% doesn't live lives remotely like most Americans. No wonder there is such a chasm between poetry writers and poetry readers and why old anthologies of traditional poets so far outsell any of the contemporary poets. If you are a lover of poetry, that is not good for the poetry or for the readers of poetry. Not only is it a small ecosystem, it is also a self-reinforcing one, each back being scratched in turn by the other.

I think that is the biggest reveal in Alexie's confessional post.

The rest of it is more mundane and expected.
I was practicing a form of literary justice that can look like injustice from a different angle. And vice versa.
Please. In the rest of America there is the hard work of achieving justice. There is no such thing as social justice or literary justice. Those are simply fig leaves for exercising the othering and exclusion based on personal preferences and biases which Social Justice Warriors accuse others of doing. It just happens to be Alexie's biases. Of course it is unfair to pick "best" poems based on race and gender. Either pick based on quality or pick based on race and gender. You will certainly have people of color and you will have women among the best. Emphasizing race and gender as criteria means that you anticipate that you won't have as many as you might otherwise want. That's OK as well, just don't call it the best poems, because that is no longer what you are selecting for.

Oddly, Alexie justifies his decision to keep the offending poem in the collection on these grounds.
But I believe I would have committed a larger injustice by dumping the poem. I think I would have cast doubt on every poem I have chosen for BAP. It would have implied that I chose poems based only on identity.
I find that odd because he has quite explicitly already acknowledged in his rules and in his actual selections that he did indeed select at least partially based on identity. I am sure that it was not only on identity.

However, I find no solace in a chef presenting me a meal that was prepared because it was mostly good for me and doesn't contain much that is bad for me.

I think Alexie has done a great service in articulating his rules (flawed though they might be) and in presenting the results arising from his application of those rules. Those two acts are both brave and rare.

Regrettably, the last half of his post reverts to emotionalism, name-calling, self-justification. That is to be expected in these small ball deals but I think Alexie's forthrightness is commendable.

UPDATE: The issue is breaking into the mainstream media which is good for poetry but not so good for the postmodernist, critical race theorists et al.

A white guy named Michael couldn’t get his poem published. Then he became Yi-Fen Chou. by Sarah Kaplan which has the excellent line:
In a matter of about a day, the scandal was all over “Poetry Twitter,” which can be just as rancorous and swift to outrage as regular Twitter, but with a wider vocabulary.
The commenters aren't buying the lines from the academicians.

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