Thursday, September 08, 2011

Regarding the recent BlazeVOX controversy

To briefly recap: An aspiring poet named Brett Ortler recently had a manuscript accepted by BlazeVOX Books and was then asked by its publisher to contribute $250 to the publication costs. The author objected and went public with the email exchange, posting it on the Bark blog. The post set off a firestorm of comments to the blog post itself (many worth the long scroll-through), arguments on both sides, and further blog posts on the subject all over the internet. BlazeVOX publisher Geoffrey Gatza first suggested he would cease publishing, but after a wave of support posted a statement saying that “I feel like I should explain a bit further the co-operative nature of our business model. I am not going to change what we do, but I do acknowledge that perhaps I could communicate what we do a little better.” On another page on the press’s site, Gatza writes, “We will rescind this program [of asking writers for funding] immediately and I am sorry for the troubles it has caused.”

Let me state that I once had a couple of poems published in one of BlazeVOX’s annual anthologies. I was not asked to pay, though I believe it was sold as an e-book or pdf only, meaning there were no real printing costs except to the buyer. I have never submitted a book-length manuscript to BlazeVOX and so have no first-hand knowledge of the situation described above. In my brief exchanges with Gatza, he has come across to me as a good guy, and his press publishes a lot of innovative stuff, which I like. The practice of asking for money in this way is something I would not agree with, however. And personally, I doubt that at this point in time I would be able to afford to pay $250 to publish with any press, even if I wanted to, though I have always done my best to support the presses with which I have worked, Salmon Poetry (Ireland) and Six Gallery Press (U.S.), whether through buying as many copies of my own books as I could afford, buying the books of other press-published writers, or supporting various other press activities.

I think this is the right thing to do, and, sure, it’s kind of expected (if you can afford it), if not exactly required. Given the sorry state that sales of poetry books are in right now, we need to support those who support us, if at all possible (for some it may not be, and that should be accepted as okay too). In this case, it seems that Gatza was looking for a more definitive, immediate financial commitment. So yes, he can be faulted for not being explicit about this up front, and in his statements he admits that. As far as I’m concerned, there was a mistake on his part for not being transparent and for being a bit confusing with the figures he used to justify it, but it is a mistake that has now been admitted (and even apologized for). Some of the language some people are using to describe the situation, though (“scam,” “scheme,” “Nigerian style”), is a bit extreme. I hope BlazeVOX continues to publish, as stated — presses of this sort are few and far between, and without some source of external funding they are hard to keep up.

There are a lot of things I could say about Ortler’s original post, like is it ethical to publish a private email exchange without (presumably) the other party’s permission? Even if Ortler felt that Gatza had acted unethically, do two wrongs make a right? Further, even after Gatza’s clarification and apology, Ortler seemed intent on rubbing his nose in it, writing in another post, “For all we know, he could be buying pizza and Pepsi” (with the profit Ortler alleges Gatza made from his requests for help with costs, as if he’s rolling in the supposed poetry dough), going on to ask, “Also, is Blazevox really a for-profit company? If so, then what they’ve been doing may be illegal. I’m no lawyer, but might this qualify for deceptive business practices [Ortler’s link] in the state of NY?” Well, I’m no expert on trade practices, but if you read this New York State Consumer Protection “False Advertising and Deceptive Trade Practices” webpage linked here by Ortler, you’ll see it refers to goods sold or “actual damages,” rather than to voluntary donations of the sort Gatza asked for. Ortler was asked for financial help, and he opted to pay nothing. He bought nothing and incurred no “damages” whatsoever. It seems to me, therefore, that Ortler either didn’t read the page he himself linked or is blatantly obfuscating for one reason or another. Or perhaps to give him the benefit of the doubt, he really is just clueless about legal matters (“I’m no lawyer”).

I’ll let you parse through all that’s already been said about this nasty business, in blog comments or elsewhere online, and decide for yourself. But the debate has provoked discussion about some wider issues beyond what Ortler initially wrote, issues about poetry publishing in general, “business models,” the effect of a capitalist economy on poetry, small presses vs. the notion of “vanity presses,” and even the value of MFA programs. I want to comment on each of these, coming from the perspective of my own experience (which of course may be limited and just as subjective as everyone else’s).

To begin, the number of poetry publishers who are able to survive and thrive on sales alone (i.e. without grants, subventions, or other outside sources of funding) are few and far between and dwindling yearly. Some large and long-lived presses may still get by on their back catalogue of major names or their non-poetry bestsellers. If you’re Seamus Heaney or Billy Collins, you sell a lot of books. If you’re not in that category, you probably don’t. We can debate the whys and wherefores of poetry’s marginalization, but that is the economic reality at present. Very few poets can hope to expect a monetary advance or even to have their books on store shelves. Thanks to the internet, at least there are some other outlets (the obvious book-selling websites), but driving people to your links in itself takes a lot of work that the publisher may not be able to do for you. But we all know this, right? If not, we should.

The idea that a poet today can be “discovered” out of obscurity and offered a contract wherein one is treated like a big deal, the idea that the press will be able to afford to pay for everything, the idea that the poet can sit back and watch the sales total up, the interview requests roll in, watch one’s reputation grow accordingly — those days are long gone for most, and for those who still yearn for it, it’s largely a fantasy. Yes, it would be nice not to have to pay anything at all for one’s own book, and sure the lucky few won’t, but for most of us we will pay something one way or the other (usually it’s for copies / postage for mailing review copies). As I said, I personally would not be up for an arrangement such as had been asked for by BlazeVOX, but neither would I be extremely shocked by it. A polite, private demurral might instead have been in order.

The fact that BlazeVOX did ask for help with publishing costs has led some to charge that it is in essence a “vanity press.” At the HTMLGIANT site, Christopher Higgs wrote, “Back in the day, before the internet, there used to be this thing called The Writer’s Market … One of the first rules you would learn by reading The Writer’s Market is that anyone who asks you for money to publish your work should not be trusted … [T]his sort of pay-to-publish policy seriously threatens to diminish the press’s legitimacy in my eyes.” Again, I would have balked at the idea too. But in the current climate of small-press publishing, I cannot say it makes BlazeVOX “illegitimate.” I think Ortler and Higgs would be surprised at the number of writers who have offered or agreed to help out their publishers in the course of history (if the money was there and after already being honestly and impartially accepted). It should not be a condition of acceptance, of course, but these things do occur, at least from what I have heard now and again.

On the other hand, it’s not as if any of this is new. There’s the obvious Whitman example. Charles Reznikoff, Louis Zukofsky, and George Oppen published themselves, out of their own pockets, with their Objectivist Press. Lawrence Ferlinghetti published his own books with City Lights. Trevor Joyce and Michael Smith published themselves and their friends through New Writers Press. There are numerous other examples. So the ire, the indignation over BlazeVOX asking for something like this strikes me as a bit overblown. Gatza made it clear he is not simply open to all comers who can afford to pay $250; he has an editorial process. Ortler would no doubt be glad to achieve anything close to the repute of Reznikoff or Ferlinghetti (wouldn’t we all?). Indeed, none of the aforementioned poets are stigmatized as “vanity” cases. Mike Meginnis makes some interesting points about this at the Uncanny Valley blog, going so far as to say that poets should actually publish their own books more often (though I would disagree with him when he contends that “If it’s really that bad out there, if publishing must inherently be both exploitative and pointless, then let’s just not do it” — there are other ways of doing it, I would suggest).

The truth is most poetry presses cannot survive without some kind of help. Should they then all fold up shop? No, of course not. If you think they should, if you think that nothing other than the cutthroat capitalist marketplace should dictate whether or not innovative or original poetry books are allowed to see the light of day, then you may as well stop reading this now. Because I don’t. I believe there is a value to poetry beyond what can be quantified monetarily. So aside from those rare profit-making poetry presses mentioned above, the reality is that this whole thing is a gigantic cooperative enterprise (Johannes Göransson has gone into this idea further at Montevidayo). Poets want to be published, obviously, but publishers (many of whom are poets themselves) need to know that the poet is going to do his or her part to support the book where the publisher just cannot. More books, for example, are sold at readings than in bookstores, and these are books that the poet him- or herself has therefore had to purchase from the press (hopefully at a reasonable discount).

The idea is to get our books in print, do our best for them in the present, and hope they resonate someday in the future (how many great writers are recognized in their day, and how many writers once recognized in their day are now considered great?). If there’s no way to do that, if we say that the market forbids us from leaving anything for posterity, then we are sunk. Better to get the books out, granted as “reputably” as possible, than not at all. This might entail something beyond the old model of expecting to be snapped up by a profit-making press. We might criticize Gatza (but let me reiterate that he has rescinded his earlier policy, and apologized!), but we cannot expect our publishers to single-handedly make us stars as we sit on our asses. Most of them are simply unable to. Let us get this through our heads. Equally, it is to be hoped that, if sales were in fact to outweigh costs, the publisher should pay the writer commensurately — this cooperative enterprise is a two-way street, and a contract that spells things out is no bad thing. After acceptance, the writer has the option of agreeing or not agreeing to what is in said contract. Just as Ortler had the option of agreeing or not agreeing to the conditions Gatza put forward after acceptance.

The question of MFA programs is kind of an ancillary issue, to my mind, but it is something that has come up elsewhere in this discussion, in blog posts and the other comments. While I strongly agree with Göransson’s vision of small-press poetry publishing as a cooperative, and with his negative view of the elitist “Great Figure” and “Literary Authorities,” I would have to disagree with him when he says of the latter two notions, “I do think this is an incredibly MFA-based idea of the author … I think this is a view definitely reflecting a common MFA pedagogy based on validation of the teacher, the institution.” Ortler has made it a point to mention his MFA credentials (almost as special pleading?), and Gatza in one of his statements has similarly made a point (possibly in response?) of noting that “I am not a teacher or associated with any college or university” (as if there were money in that, ha!). I think that some people have a lot of misconceptions about what an MFA program is and what sort of status it confers on those who earn such a degree, and so it becomes an easy target. Certainly there are MFA programs that promulgate this sort of elitism. But MFA programs as a whole are in no way a monolith; there is in fact no “common MFA pedagogy.” There are lots of different programs out there, some perhaps “based on validation of the teacher, the institution,” but many others whose focus is something other, or even on, say, avant-garde poetics and destabilizing that older idea of the author as an “authority” which Göransson attacks.

If an MFA student thinks that a degree is his or her ticket to publication fame and fortune, then he or she is probably going to be sadly mistaken. In my experience (I have an MFA and have read up on many MFA programs), no program that I know of is marketing itself that way. Ultimately, the value of the degree depends on the writer him- or herself. I took my degree at North Carolina State University and studied with a number of poets, all of whom I respect immensely, but whose work bears little resemblance to my own approach to poetics. This clash was for me quite fruitful. I learned a lot about poetry as a discipline and a practice, and it challenged me to think about my own poetic stance in greater depth. I didn’t want to be merely reinforced in my assumptions, nor did I want to become a carbon copy of my professors. What would be the point of either? Of course, I came into the program at age 40, having had a lot of experience in the “poetry world” myself and something of a “career” of my own already, however modest. And so I felt that I could go through the degree and get what I wanted out of it for my own reasons. In this, I am maybe an exception; there probably are 22-year-old grad students out there who can’t help but be inculcated with the prevailing ethos of their program, be it positive or negative. On the other hand, how long does it take for one to learn to think critically and independently? So I say again, the value of the degree depends on the writer him- or herself.

If it is an illusion that an MFA is a fast track to publication, then what is it worth? Just as there is a glut of poets in the wider, non-academic world seeking publication, so is there now also a glut of MFA graduates who think they’re the next big thing (well, some may think that), and clearly that won’t be happening for all of them. But for the percipient individual, it certainly can be a forum in which one can develop one’s work if not one’s prospects with big publishing houses. I think MFA programs can also help to educate its students in how to read poetry and how to interpret literature in general. Poets need readers now more than ever, and so we should be glad that MFAs exists. Without them, the readership for poetry is even smaller. Part, anyway, of the problem of poetry’s lack of readership can be solved by investing in arts education. As Brian Joseph Davis recently wrote in The Huffington Post, “This is what arts education does better than anything else: it protects traditions from suffering market fluctuations, challenges forms with new traditions and constructs large buildings named after dead people and equipped with ace sound systems, in which to debate and perform.” The attack on arts education, firstly in America but throughout the whole world, and the promulgation of the corporate model of education, to my mind are two of the major reasons why poetry has fallen into such disregard over the last number of decades. Right now, the tide seems to be continuing in that direction, unfortunately. But if we want innovative poetry to continue to exist in the public arena, we need to oppose this.

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