Sunday, June 26, 2005

Jane's comments of last week are a fitting and astute coda to the Foetry affair, and aside from this brief remark, hopefully the last we'll hear of it. I should note, though, that one of the upshots of the fallout from Foetry is a greater transparency on the part of contest administrators, if also a somewhat paranoid eagerness to assuage the wounded egos of the rejected, as if at any moment an Alan Cordle might go all librarian on their ass. Many of the contests to which I've submitted in the last year have provided not only detailed descriptions of their operations--how first readers are selected, how finalists are judged--but also narratives by the judges and editors and/or their own impression of the field. Earlier in the year, for instance, Michael Wiegers sent a five-page e-mail describing at great lengths the merits, as he saw them, of the finalists for the Hayden Carruth award, and quoting representative passages. If I wasn't surprised that his aesthetic and mine differ in more places than they overlap, I was also happy to know exactly where we stand. I also thought it was a charitable act to those unfortunates who came close, but not close enough. It's preferable, in many senses, to not even place for these contests. More recently, Sarabande's editors have sent a list and explanation of the five qualities--Transfomation, Ratio, Submission, Obsession, and Power to Silence--that they look for in a good manuscript. Although I can think of a couple books that I've enjoyed from Sarabande, particularly Deborah Tall's Summons, these seem exceptions to Sarabande's staid and unthreatening position, with its inistence on the principles of proportionality, moderation, and passivity on the part of both reader and writer. Most troubling, I suppose, is their praise of a poem's "power to silence," which I must admit certainly lends credence to some of Silliman's often annoying remarks about "quietude." It's worth quoting in full.

"It's been remarked that the first reacction to powerful art is silene. Bad art on the other hand tends to evoke a flood of language. Easy and fun: to pan. Hard to praise. It's a bad sign when we're halfway through a poem and the voices in our heads have already begun to comment. What's missing most of the time is the intrigue of the unfamiliar. A good poem leads you to a place you didn't know existed. It is like disovering a hidden room in a house where you lived for many years. When the poet shows you the hidden room it may be dark and forbidding, or airy and awash with sun, furnished like a room in your dreams. You look for a long time at the objects there, which are familiar and strange at once. How can we not have known, all these years? It is the wonder at finding suh a room, where previously there was none, that takes away speech."

What we have an image of here is the sublime without the requisite threat, cruelty or indifference, a sublime which only confirms what had long been familiar but unarticulated. The silencing power of this art isn't that of the awe-inspiring, or the stupefyingly difficult. For that kind of work, although it might eventually silence, first must engage the reader, wear her out. This kind of silence sounds to me like boredom, or death, or at the very least an unvarying repetition of recollected emotions. I do want poetry to generate voices in my head, not commentary as much as a kind of parapoetry. I'm not sure how you can have an experience of the unfamiliar in the midst of general brain-death. It sounds like poetry as T.V., and I'd rather just watch T.V.

But, disagree as I might, I'm glad the editors have taken the time to set down these aesthetic musings. Differ though we may, this doesn't mean, necessarily, that I won't apply to the contest again. The winner of the prize this year, Matthew Lippman, has written some poems I recall enjoying, and I'm happy to have underwritten the expense of publishing his book, even if there were indubitably manuscripts from the pool of entries that I'd rather read.. This wouldn't be the first time that the right book was picked for the wrong reasons. Because I'm fortunate enough to be employed right now, twenty-five dollars is a small amount to contribute to all but the most egregiously wrong-headed of publishers.


Probably nothing will come of this but the hypocritical posturing of administration figures complemented by the cravenness of the press, but it's still encouraging. It's for the sake of cases like this that I sometimes fantasize about going to law school.


Anne Boyer said...

Thanks for your astute reading of that passage from Sarabande. My first reaction at what you quoted here was muttered obscenity, and a "but I like to stand next to an amp!"-- then, after a breath, what I hope is a growing tolerance for this difference.

Is the entire statement from the editors online somewhere?

L. Trent said...

This doesn't have much to do with your post here, but I wanted to say I really enjoyed your poems in the latest issue of MiPO. I think they were my favorites of the bunch.