Sprains, scams, and spells

March got ahead of itself, blowing in like a lion well before February’s end. Everything seems to be on the move–including me, although I sprained my ankle last week by glancing down at an irritating text as I was walking home, tripping down a short flight of steps, and landing hard. Such a classic consequence for my bad habit of rushing, which does not, ultimately, help me stay on top of anything.

I do take the long view from time to time, though, and there have been some good outcomes lately from work last spring. Because I applied to so many festivals and reading series, I have some events in the near future, including one at New Dominion Bookstore in Charlottesville, VA this Saturday night, 2/25 (weather gods, please smile on us!), and then four at AWP:

  • Weds 3/5: Of Gods & Monsters: A Poetry Reading, 6-8 pm, Shawn O’Donnell’s, 508 2nd Avenue (offsite, organized by Sonia Greenfield)
  • Thurs 3/6: 9:00-10:15, “Occupational Hazards: Teaching and Writing Risk Across Genres” with Jan Beatty, Destiny O. Birdsong, Erika Meitner, and Asali Solomon, Rooms 435-436, Summit Building, Seattle Convention Center, Level 4
  • Friday, 3/7, 11-12 am, Kestrel Book Fair Table T1300: book-signing with Sally Rosen Kindred
  • Friday 3/7, 1:45-3, Book Fair Stage 1, Kestrel reading with Donna Long, Sally Rosen Kindred, Rick Campbell, and Doug Van Gundy

Thanks to Kestrel for being so awesome to its authors! I have two poems in the new issue, one of which, “It Is Advantageous…,” might help you conjure a grant:

It’s from a series that include lines (italicized) from page 27 of a pretty wide range of books–hence the bibliomancy. Oliver de la Paz was visiting a class of mine years ago and told my students to write a fourteen-line spell-poem with a found line, the color teal (I cheated), and the breath of a machine. Look what he hath wrought…

Here’s another result of slow deliberation: a new essay, “Creative Scholarship, or Doubling Down,” on the web platform of the scholarly journal, Modernism/ modernity. You’d think I could have written this column quickly, given that I’ve been pondering the subject for a decade and just published a book in that mode, but I struggled hugely to wrangle it into shape. Thank god for smart editors. I finished it in September so it doesn’t tackle the debates stirred up by John Guillory’s new book, which I haven’t read yet, but the intense feeling about Guillory’s book increases my hope that my piece remains timely.

Speaking of stirs: like many others, I appreciated Becky Tuch’s recent investigation into publishers with whom I have entanglements. When I published my first book, Heathen, with C&R, the press was owned by Ryan Van Cleave and Chad Prevost, who treated me well. After the press was sold and the new owners, Andrew Sullivan and John Gosslee, were visiting my region, they reached out, we got together for coffee, and they invited me to submit any book mss I was working on (at the time, Poetry’s Possible Worlds, so it might have been 2015 or 2016). I didn’t submit the book to C&R. It wasn’t ready yet but I also felt uneasy about the interaction, not that I was able to put my finger on why. I’m not saying you should trust my instinct or my memory, but for whatever it’s worth, a random detail that made an impression: the editors seemed incredulous when they found out I wasn’t paid for serving as an AWP board member. I was surprised that they were surprised. While board members at nonprofits get some free meals and similar perks, it’s because they’re attending meetings, getting VIPs to the event on time, etc. They’re working hard as a gift to the organization, although like other professional service, being on the AWP board can make you and your writing a notch more visible, a kind of compensation that did weigh with me. Anyway, at that point John Gosslee invited me to submit to Fjords Review, then accepted and published two poems. Now I wonder with chagrin if my name in the magazine or on the press’ backlist could have made anyone feel safer submitting–whether I helped credential businesses that have done harm.

Poetry’s Possible Worlds is in part about my father’s long cons. There have been too many liars and gaslighters in my life, so I have deep sympathy for people who get sucked in. In this case, while there are still some authors defending C&R and I have no first-hand experience of any unprofessional behavior, I’ve now heard credible stories of scams and damage. A colleague I trust and admire, Brenna Womer, is quoted in Tuch’s piece; I’d previously seen her tweet about Gosslee’s abusive behavior, and I believe her completely. I had the vague sense, in fact, that he had stepped down from mastheads in the wake of multiple #MeToo allegations, and that even Andrew Sullivan had distanced himself from his collaborator. (One of Tuch’s key findings, though, is that Sullivan sometimes goes by Andrew Ibis. Even if that didn’t make me wonder about an ominous Thoth allusion, I’d find the name-switching problematic. Authors use pen names, but how would that serve an entrepreneur seeking work as an editor and agent?)

In short, while there’s some rhetorical twistiness in Tuch’s piece–asking questions to convey reportorial skepticism, then answering them with evidence that’s more suggestive than conclusive–I find the gist persuasive and am grateful for her research. It’s sad, though, that exposés can’t put scammers out of business without hurting the scammed. Personally, I’m just fine–it was a long time ago and I have other creds. Yet C&R, even under its current leadership, has published good books, and those authors don’t deserve a press boycott. I guess that’s why I’d rather blog about all this than tweet; I keep glimpsing a star of clear wrongdoing surrounded by a nebula of mess.

Publishing scandals keep coming, and not because there are just a few bad actors casting shadows over the pure of heart. A much-discussed example is the contest system of poetry publishing. Sometimes these contests are shady or outright unethical. Even when they are run transparently and with high ethical standards, though, many couldn’t function without a lot of paid subs from people who don’t understand that they don’t have a real chance at winning. I’ve been that person, and I feel for that former self, even though she was too cocky about her work’s readiness and shouldn’t have trusted the system without more reconnaissance. When I send mss to contests now, as a person who’s been reading and listening pretty hard for twenty years, I scrutinize organizations and only submit when a contest pays off with subscriptions or books I’m interested in, or I trust the judge strongly, or I’d feel okay about donating to the press outright. That strikes me as being partly reasonable, part rationalization.

I want the small press ecosystem to thrive; its existence is a net good. It’s also true that some authors aren’t well-served by it. On the flipside, many editors at little magazines and presses are also giving generously of themselves with little reward. Every part of the system exploits energy and goodwill (as academe does–back to my “Creative Scholarship” piece). Plus, it’s SO easy to accidentally support toxic operations. I have many times sent to venues I later learned unsavory things about. No doubt, I will again.

Stumble, sprain, learn not to walk while texting. It’s not magic, but it does involve luck as well as attention.

2 responses to “Sprains, scams, and spells”

  1. Absorbing your smarts and experience on these matters, as I have in past posts here — and I, like you I wish the idea of small presses and magazines well — but it reminds me of why I stopped trying to figure out small press poetry publication decades ago.

    Wishing you good healing and a good spring.


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