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Exiting the Poetry Casino

Updated: Aug 13, 2021

Poetry is an economic paradox: it both is and is not a commodity. While some theorize that its economy is based more on giving than exchange -- that is, poetry transcends strict economic determination and is, essentially, free -- poems nevertheless do get bought, sold, and consumed (i.e. read). Although a poem is "worth" very little money, the way poems circulate -- both before and after publication -- must be considered in economic terms lest we end up allowing and rationalizing exploitative practices that harm poets and limit the radical potential of poetry.

To begin clarifying the economic character of poetry, we need to first note that -- under present conditions -- most journals or presses accepting submissions are effectively MARKETS: a poet is trying to sell their poems to the publisher; there is competition; there are wins and (esp. if fees are involved) losses. However, this market also functions inherently as a form of collaboration: both parties work together and both benefit when the final, published work is offered to the market of reader-consumers. The publisher, in fact, ADDS value to the work through credentials, distribution, promotion, etc. And if the poet is well-known, or if their work is of high quality, that adds to the perceived value of the journal as well. Moreover, a poem is never fully "consumed": it is a kind of inexhaustible product, at least potentially (we know, of course, many poems are not even read once by the poetry-reading public).

And yet, despite this collaborative effort and the gift-like nature of poetic value, it must be acknowledged that poets lack power in this arrangement. After all, it is the publisher who opens and controls the market during the submission process, and that market is usually drastically oversaturated with potential sellers. It is very much a buyer's market, meaning that it is in a basic respect arranged against the primary producers: the poets themselves. Granted, many publishers are themselves poets; and I know most publishers of poetry are not getting rich (in most cases, the thought is bitterly laughable). So I don't intend to antagonize publishers; rather, I want to clarify the economic relationship and insist upon its inherently collaborative nature, and thereby to reorganize the relationship in a manner that might conduce something more radical for both parties. I think that by elucidating what Walter Benjamin referred to as "the apparatus of production"underlying poetry publication, it might be possible to pursue a further goal of, following Benjamin, bringing it "in accordance with socialism."

What this means is that poets and publishers must be on an equal level as producers. And this means, first and foremost, most publishers -- especially those charging fees of any kind --need to be far more transparent about their practices. There are numerous pieces of information that would be valuable to poets wanting to make informed decisions about who they submit to:

  • How many submissions do you receive, and what is the "acceptance" rate? (This is ESP. crucial when fees are involved.)

  • Who funds your journal or press? Are you taking private capital? Who from?

  • If it is a university, what are their practices with regard to student unions, adjunctification, privatization, etc.? What is your position with respect to this, and how is your publication working in solidarity against those exploitative forces on your campus?

  • How many subscribers do you have? How many hits does your website get? What are the demographics of your readers?

  • What is your political orientation toward the forces of capital shaping the process of literary production? You occupy a position within it, so you cannot be neutral about that. And if you think of yourself as being on the Left in any way, how are you working against capitalist appropriation of literary production in a material way?

This is extra work for publishers, yes; however, neglect of these factors is problematic for all parties. Ultimately, it is in the poet's interest to understand each individual market lest they simply throw money away in the poetry casino, playing the numbers, trying to rack up "acceptances." Instead, we need to know what value is ADDED to our work so that we know what it is we are actually collaborating WITH: what is being posited, materially, in this relationship? And further, how is that material situation understood politically?

That said, the above conditions, if met, would be the bare minimum for simple equity; this information alone would not constitute any real progress beyond the present model, it would simply make it fair. To my mind, the ideal arrangement between poets and publishers is an intensification of collaboration. More journals and presses could become forums, communities, participatory endeavors. Imagine a form of cooperative publishing in which subscribers and patrons gain access to more than just the latest poems; they can enter into a dynamic community, online and/or in-person, in which work is discussed, reading groups formed, workshops and classes offered, editorial decisions democratized, distribution of funds voted upon, etc. Essentially, a journal or press could organize producers of poetry, clarify their position within the larger economy, model radical democracy, and thereby become socially and politically useful to other political groups. This would be a step toward consciousness, autonomy, and solidarity for a group of cultural producers who are often assumed to have no real place in the economy except as a kind of dumping grounds for philanthropy. More, they would be doing more to build an audience for the imaginative work they are producing, and build it beyond the presently established confines for poetry production (namely, the academy).

I may be dreaming a bit too far ahead here, and much remains to be thought out. However, let me end by insisting on my more limited claim: Allowing publishers to keep so much information private only obscures the basic economic nature of the poetry production, and this hurts poets, and in many respects neutralizes the radical potential of everyone involved in poetry publication.

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