Poets Should Be Socialists
Updated: May 22, 2020
A Critique of the Literary-Academic System
As stated in a previous post, there are political reasons for deciding to freely self-publish my full length collection of poems, A Dark Address. While the poems themselves are not overtly political (except for a few), my decision to release it myself is in large part politically motivated by a rejection of the world of conventional poetry publishing and of the enormous shadow it casts on poetic production more broadly. However, having been more or less trained by my education to enter this world, I feel it’s worthwhile to offer an account of my position and to further the critique I’ve slowly been establishing on this blog.
And this critique becomes more pressing by the day, as COVID-19 has exposed the contradictions within our universities and major literary institutions. Departmental budgets are cut, jobs are lost, and futures that so many have invested in are simply discarded. The small press industry is in crisis, and many are asking questions about redistributing the wealth centralized in institutions like Poetry Foundation. In short, this system supposedly designed to support poets -- but which serves primarily to professionalize and class them -- is possibly transitioning from slow-building crisis to hegemonic collapse.
In what follows, I will address underlying reasons for much of this, but I want to begin with a brief reflection on my own experience as a writer, student, and teacher trying to navigate the US literary-academic system. I feel that my own experience serves as a useful and fairly typical example, and it provides context for my primary argument here. And that argument is this: Poets must pay far more attention to the economic forces shaping the production of poetry and the culture and institutions that surround it; they must work to build new economies of solidarity outside the dominant institutions while also working to antagonize, critique, and radically transform the major institutions shaping poetic production and its culture. In short, more poets need to become socialists: they need organize themselves and socialize their means of production.
Much of my adult life has been shaped by the literary-academic system. I have both an MFA and a PhD, and I could go on about these things at length. But I want to focus on the more recent events leading up to my decision to self-publish my collection of poems, A Dark Address. It first took shape in 2016 as part of my dissertation. Between then and now, it shed its skin multiple times, many new poems were added, and it is mostly unrecognizable from that earlier draft. Also in the intervening years, I submitted the manuscript to book contests and many of its individual poems to journals. However, going through this submission process in a rigorous way for the first time (I made some very clueless efforts with a previous, jettisoned book around 2008), I soon began to question whether or not I wanted my work to reach the world in the way this system makes possible. All along, the process of submitting felt exploitative and increasingly unrewarding. Fees kept adding up. While I could find exceptions for journal fees without much problem (though it cut down my options by about 50%), avoiding book submission fees severely narrowed my possibilities. Too many books are attached to contests, and these very rarely cost less than $25, with a few bucks tacked on to cover Submittable fees. Even open reading periods at many presses run $25 or more. I explored various very small presses, many of whom I greatly admire, but many of these focused on chapbooks or micro-chapbooks, or they simply did not seem like a good fit for my work. I felt stuck.
The thing is, even my successes felt hollow. I managed to land some “prestigious” acceptances of individual poems from the manuscript, but I had no idea if the poems were even being read. It went like this: finish a poem, submit incessantly, receive acceptance after three or more months (amid multiple rejections and some very long waits, and some submissions just falling off the radar, apparently), and then wait six months to a year or more before it appears in the world to little or no notice (except in the very rare case where a journal had a strong social media presence). Sometimes I got paid, sometimes not. In sum, it all felt a bit hollow. I mean, I wasn't expecting a parade; I know it takes patience and that one can never really know what their work is doing out there in the world, or what it might do years later (and perhaps only for one individual you will never meet). And I also know that, ideally, this is a form of participation in something larger than I am. And yet it seemed less and less like participation in anything, really, besides paying fees and waiting to read form letters from anonymous readers and editors. Increasingly, I realized I was adhering to a process that I intensely disliked -- and which cost a lot of money -- all in order to perpetuate...what, exactly? Why was I doing this?
And yet, among poets in the academic orbit, this dogged, unrewarding persistence is often upheld as a sign of seriousness. This is especially so among those hoping to capitalize on their publication record for professional gains. I’ve often seen people trumpeting their 100th rejection of the year, as proof of commitment ad resilience; or describing how they psych themselves up to “just keep submitting” and developing strategies to maximize their numbers; people become spreadsheet experts to keep track of things while they relentlessly send poems out. The thing is, to submit this much, there is absolutely no way you can know or care about the overwhelming majority of the content produced by the people publishing you, let alone the material forces shaping them. And so you begin to treat them as just a market you are trying to sell your product within. Who knows what's really keeping these places afloat financially, and never mind that (quite often) you are being charged to sell your wares to the publisher (or to give it away free!). Just tally up the wins, put them on a CV and keep plugging away, telling yourself, “This is how the game is played.”
As stated, all this is gets intensified when ones poems are connected to their career. I teach writing, mostly composition, but I have never been anything higher than an adjunct, mostly teaching at community colleges. While in school, I was taught that, while having an MFA and PhD is helpful, it’s going to be tough to “compete on the job market” without a substantial publication record and a book “with a reputable press.” Very soon, however, it became common for a truly competitive applicant to have two or more books. Soon the statistics claimed that 70% of university faculty in the US were contingent and 50% are adjunct/part-time, and that the job market was tanking (and this was before COVID-19, during which schools are faced with extreme austerity, and will likely get much worse.). And soon, I found I could not in good conscience tell my few creative writing students who were interested in pursuing an MFA that it was necessarily a good idea, especially if it would require them taking on debt. And it became clear that all this was absurd and I was paying for the right to compete within a system that had nothing to offer but stress and precarity.
But again, this is not just about jobs and academia, and it is not just about me. It is about the fact that, for several years now, this system has had a profound effect on how poems are produced and circulated in the US. And it seems to me this system entrenches a mode of poetic production that mirrors a capitalist drive to maximize productivity and accumulate cultural capital, requiring many participants to absorb sizable losses and rationalize exploitation along the way. The word "exploitation" may seem like a stretch, but what else does one call it when people produce in order to establish credentials within a system that then inures them to meaningless competition, status-consciousness, and scarcity? What else does one call a system that misleads its subjects about outcomes and yet relies on their continued investment?
Moreover, the effects of all this extend outside of the academy proper into the connected but once-separate culture of small presses. As Ugly Duckling Presse's Matvei Yankelevitch writes in his series of Poetry Foundation blog posts (about which we should nevertheless remain quite skeptical, as argued by @creepingmraxist), "Institutions that ostensibly support the work of the small press, in conjunction with a more professionalized literary culture of the MFA and the AWP, have served to marginalize small press practice, diminishing its political significance and redefining its boundaries, while plunging its mostly volunteer laborers deeper into debt and dependence." Ultimately, this system of apparent support for poetic production serves primarily to create indebted, career-oriented individuals who eke out a largely transient sense of community through alignment with institutions and sources of funding (MFA programs, AWP, foundations, writing conferences and colonies, etc) that are largely problematic. Further, this system manipulates the hopes and ambitions of young writers whom it ultimately rejects and excludes. And it isolates, professionalizes, and classes those poets and publishers on the inside, and thus erodes the possibility of a meaningful, class-conscious solidarity among these cultural producers. And in this way, the radical social potential of poets and poetry is neutralized and absorbed into the status quo.
Granted, there are many exceptions to the conventional, largely university-based system of poetry production I am describing here. And some of this may not apply as much outside the US. But as a first-generation college graduate who came of age in a small rural town where poetry was absolutely alien—and as one who learned among teachers, mentors, and peers who all seemed to agree (or were taught to agree) that this system was the only one that mattered for poetry—I am particularly concerned with pointing out the US system's precise flaws. Because this system sets the terms for many of us and offers models and norms that dictate possibilities. Crucially, it also holds all the resources: the money as well as the locations and infrastructure that allow select people to live and write comfortably, while receiving payment and promotion, all the while suggesting that you, too, might have a place there.
And yet, the reality is that the literary-academic system is far from autonomous. It is subject to the neoliberalism of universities and their boards, regents, presidents, etc. Budgets are squeezed for departments and their literary magazines, and yet students are still brought in, and debt is taken on in the process. Although all my time in grad school was “fully funded” -- I did not pay tuition and was given teaching fellowships -- I still ended up in debt due to the cost of living and the multiple summers when I was not given classes to teach. And this is not at all unusual; in many cases it is inevitable. Moreover, students lured by the possibility of living in Poetryland enter via a labyrinth of fees: fees for applications, for GRE tests, for transcripts, travel, classes, books, conferences, for summer housing, etc. Payment is the norm. And so when one is asked for three or thirty dollars for a manuscript submission, it seems perfectly in keeping with the student's entire experience: of course there is a fee! Besides, what’s another $30 out of the loan or on the credit card? It will pay off eventually, right?
Thus, in addition to overt courses of instruction, universities covertly train student poets to believe in the system by paying into it, and to rationalize their losses as somehow immaterial. And this is all in keeping with their need for students 1) to pay tuition and establish debt (see Claire La Berge below, in section three) and, if they are graduate students, 2) to be used for cheap labor in teaching undergraduate classes. That is, poets serve an economic function within the university, but it is one to which they are effectively blind and it has nothing to do with the poetry they produce. And here allow me to note: this is not the fault of professors or of the students who pursue these degrees (though they/we are not immune from critique), and this is not to vilify any individuals; rather, my criticism is structural and institutional.The fault lies with the university itself as an instrument of capital, overseen by boards and presidents and other zealous advocates and enablers.
Paradoxically, amid all this covert exploitation and debt, we simultaneously see dramatic overcompensation in the form of large sums being thrown at a lucky few in the form of prizes, awards, and fellowships. In many respects, "poetry news" is little more than a litany of names and monetary sums, suggesting that "winning" is essentially what poets are supposed to do. And so there is a schizoid quality to all this: poetry is at once flat broke, and yet the surface narrative tells of nothing but golden tickets. And so, after struggle and endless payment, if one is lucky enough to be handed such a ticket, one thinks, "I don't care, I'll take whatever money they give. I'm lucky to be getting anything at all out of this, esp. after all I've spent. Best not to question it. Say thanks, tweet it out, and keep moving." And frankly, who could blame them? But this is not OK as a system. It is not OK for us to participate in a system that teaches poets to rationalize or ignore these unacceptable economic realities. And it is not OK to even passively endorse the system's contradictory ideology of 1) bogus meritocracy and 2) some vague, liberal ideal that says poetry somehow transcends the economic, material reality it stands upon and renders it moot. For both of these are ways of coping with a parasitic system or of manufacturing consent for it. All this is the same thinking that allows someone, when confronted with a contradiction in their position, to cynically respond, “Look, I’m just a player in the game.”
And so against this system and the rationalizations that uphold it, we need to build new forms of association among producers of poetry. These may partake of a more genuine gift economy (of which free self-publishing is only one example), but it also means supporting producers themselves and forming a robust solidarity economy based on shared political convictions, material interests, and aesthetic practices. We need to stop feeding more money into an institutionalized, exploitative system that requires a majority of losing and indebted producers in order to exist. Moreover, by asking poets to ignore or rationalize away “the money question” and to literally invest in a meritocracy, this system effectively neutralizes the possibility of poets as class conscious thinkers and actors—or, it just absorbs them into the aspiring bourgeoisie of the professional class. (And if you understand the history of creative writing in this country—as one part of a legacy of neutralizing radicals and communists, and diverting all energies away from ideology and towards questions of craft—you can draw conclusions as to why this might be so.)
In recent years, there have been several books and articles focusing on the economic role of fiction, visual art, and other art forms (see this post's section on "Very Recent Works of Criticism on Art and Economy"), but very little attention is paid to poetry. And it must be admitted that the broad market for poetry relative to other media is laughable. It cannot operate competitively and profitably -- there is no mass demand for it -- and so it requires outside support, and this leads to poetry being understood largely as a kind of philanthropic subject. It makes no money, and so has no economic place, and is thus on life support. And this is also the logic that leads one to see the university as an ally to poetry, thinking that it is crucial in keeping poetry alive. And yet what began (ostensibly) as a way of helping support and sustain poetry and the literary arts more broadly has transformed in the last forty or so years in which the university was profoundly altered. And that alteration has been economic—neoliberal, more precisely—and has created a kind of bubble within the humanities and creative writing. For while the numbers of aspiring poets has drastically increased, the returns have diminished significantly by becoming more elusive and expensive.
And so there is a crisis going on here, as poets move through the academy and into graduate school, becoming teaching fellows or assistants, only to be siphoned into the adjunct pool. I believe that part of what allows this exploitation to go on is that poets are often fundamentally confused about their place economically. More precisely, they are unsure of whether or not they are participating in a kind of gift economy (fellow producers supporting one another in the promotion of a larger communal good, reciprocating gifts of labor and attention, often resorting to "labors of love," etc.) or just a competitive market in which poems are commodities, poets (and presses, journals, schools, etc.) effectively are brands, and these compete with one another for prestige. Obviously, it is somewhere in between, but this dual mentality leads to a very dangerous way of thinking: one can always fall back on the idea of the gift and the labor of love to rationalize whatever exploitative aspects of the market encroach upon you—and that rationalization can be a way of disciplining and training poets for exploitation. After all, shouldn't we poets strive to "be above such economic concerns"? Isn't poetry really a "calling," not a career? If so, then why am I being credentialed? And why is anyone being expected to pay to submit? And how, exactly, is this helping promote poetry as a social good (as defenders of the liberal arts want to assert)? To whom is it a good? And how?
Part of the answer is that, despite the precarity of poets themselves, poetry is economically quite useful to the university by generating debt as a secure asset for financial capitalists to trade upon. As Leigh Claire La Berge writes, the logic of lack, debt, and uselessness that surround the humanities, of which poetry is a part, paradoxically plays an important economic role. In her essay "The Humanist Fix,"she traces the connection between financial capital and student debt, writing, “Finance may be a risk-dependent regime, but for some assets to be traded for their risk, other assets must be guaranteed as safe, a job that falls to the federal government. Universities have become crucial in the production of safe assets as they generate two low-risk holdings: university bonds and government guaranteed student debt.” Claire La Berge goes on to describe a sleight-of-hand whereby the humanities are treated like a loss, financially, leading to students taking on debt and its departmental budgets being squeezed; and yet this is not a failing of the humanities necessarily: debt is what it is intended to produce; debt is in many ways the product itself, and that product has a larger function to underwrite riskier trading on Wall Street. As Claire La Berge puts it, “The humanities are valued because they organize a discourse of lack of value within the university, and this contradiction ultimately becomes a site of profit.”
In short, this situation calls into question whatever social contract has supposedly been struck between poets and the university. In many respects, the poetic production the university shapes and molds is incidental to the entire function of having poets within the university in the first place. Poets are not parasites clinging to the university to prop up their art and give them careers; these careers are a lure that ensnares them in a world of debt and scarcity whose function they are prevented from seeing. And what is more, the very real gift economy inherent to poetry—language as a kind of commons, as Badiou and others argue—is being used against itself as a way of rationalizing loss and debt in paying to pursue something that is “more important than these material concerns.” After all, isn’t money something worth sacrificing in the pursuit of an artistic ideal? And shouldn’t you feel a bit guilty about wanting to spend your life writing instead of doing actual work? And so aren’t you really quite privileged, really, one of the winners, and shouldn’t you just accept the costs?
Guilt, idealism, luck, privilege, status, etc. -- some of the worst asocial values and principles are instilled in the poet inured to the academy. And all this is a way of confusing poets about the real role that money, class, and community play relative to their art form and its production. And so, I think that poets need to confront these concerns in ways that make them uncomfortable and which are not helpful for their career. For why chase after career success within a system that expects you to function via loss? Why allow the very idea of a gift economy to be abused and manipulated in the name of a supposed privilege? Why consent to being trained for exploitation?
I know that many have come to these conclusions already. And I know my analysis is incomplete and that there are exceptions. But I also know there is truth here. And I feel that more need to speak out, emphatically and critically, to expose and repudiate the way the assimilation of literary production into the university too often leads it to unconsciously reproduce the values of the ruling class—all while asking poets and writers to carry the debt necessary to prop it up. In many ways, this system is designed against producers of poetry: the way editors are compromised, the way teachers are roped into becoming administrators, the way poets are turned into professionals and careerists, the way the underprivileged are excluded and alienated, or the way they are assimilated and forced into cognitive dissonance, bad conscience, and re-alienation. There is simply no reason to keep this system afloat unless we work to change it in major ways. Instead of remaining trapped in a false binary whereby market economies producing debt manipulate the gift economies that artists often try to uphold, we need to move toward socialized, solidarity economies in which writers, publishers, and readers seek to form new associations outside of now-dominant institutions.
What I am suggesting, then, is the pursuit of both a counter-hegemony of poetic production as well as a relentless critique of the system. the aim should be to provide a material analysis of the role poetry plays in propping up our exploitative university systems, and to help push toward a radicalization of poets in the effort to change or simply abolish the dominance of these institutions in the production of poetry. While this will require work on campuses, the forming of unions, and an ongoing antagonism of those places that function as epicenters of this institutional mode of production (AWP, Poetry Foundation, universities, et al.), there are other more local and small-scale practices that could begin to bring about change for individual poets and publishers, whether they are connected with the university or not.
At the very least, the following items (updated from a previous post) need to be considered, especially by those occupying a prominent place in poetry, whether inside the academy or not:
How is your journal or press funded? What percentage comes from subscriptions? What percent from submission fees? Are you taking grants, reader donations, private capital? Who from? Do you have a board or other advisors? Who is on it and what is their input? Are you working toward a more equitable or socialistic approach? How, or why not?
If a university is funding your efforts, what are their practices with regard to grad student unions, debt, 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? What kind of stand are you taking, and if none, then why not?
How many subscribers do you have? How many hits does your website get? Who reads you? Is it only those affiliated with your journal or press? Are you doing any sort of outreach to readers beyond this bubble? How?
What is your position toward the forces of capital shaping literary production? You occupy a place within this process, so you cannot be neutral without simply dodging. Do you think of yourself as being on the left, politically? If so, how are you working against capitalist appropriation of literary production in a material way?
In addition to statements about your aesthetic preferences and your desire to be inclusive, begin to include overt statements about how your journal or press is positioning itself as a producer relative to the exploitative forces I’ve tried to identify here.
Understand that failure to provide such a statement will be perceived as acceptance of the status quo. Acknowledge that aesthetics and subject matter are not always sufficient: the material facts of production also counts and should be theorized and made transparent.
While some of this information is already available from those both within and without the literary-academic system, I believe it needs to become more common to foreground this information as an essential aspect of how we understand the political position of journals and presses. But this is just a start. Ultimately, in addition to reforming those publications already in place, attention should be placed on solidifying and creating new positions outside of it. Collectives, co-operatives, self-publishing—these are some options to be explored (and being explored). To quote (with some alterations and edits) from a previous post at some length:
To my mind, the ideal arrangement between poets and publishers is an intensification of collaboration, leading to more known affiliations and long-term associations. More journals and presses could become forums, communities, participatory endeavors. Imagine a form of cooperative publishing in which subscribers, partners, creators, patrons, designers, editors, and printers are more aware of one another’s role and able to participate in dialogue and discussion about the journal or press and its purpose. This would be facilitated by message boards as well as in person meetings (when and where possible). Also, subscribers and patrons could gain access to more than just the latest poems: they could enter into a conscious, educational, and supportive community, online and/or in-person, in which work is discussed, reading groups formed, workshops and classes offered, editorial decisions made more transparent (even democratizing some aspects), distribution of funds voted upon, etc.
This could serve, in many respects, to replace the function of the MFA itself. Essentially, a journal or press could organize groups of producers and readers of literary and political writing and media, clarify their position within the larger economy, model cooperation and democracy, and thereby be in a position to interact meaningfully with likeminded presses as well as political and community 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 and the securing of debts. 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.
Granted, much of this is speculative and would require trial and error (especially given that many poets, like myself, are somewhat erratic and temperamentally inclined to solitude). And yet I cannot help but want to drive more poets and publishers toward modes that at least aspire to a model such as this.
And these things are already being pursued by some. Now, I'm not interested in mapping a specific trend here, identifying who fits in and who does not, so I won't pretend to offer a comprehensive list. But to name only one prominent example: Protean magazine, run by the Protean Collective, is doing some excellent work. It is reader funded and ad free; it appears both in print and online; it now features a podcast and provides a forum for patrons via Discord. The first two issues have been excellent, and it will be exciting to see how this project expands as it draws in more readers and patrons and expands to more media. Additionally, there are many smaller journals, presses, and individuals using platforms like Patreon, Gumroad, Tumblr, and Substack instead of or in addition to actual print. Of course, the use of online platforms raises its own issues, and sometimes the projects launched there fade away too quickly. Nevertheless, all of these approaches -- self-publishing, online publishing, collectives, co-operatives, experiments, temporary formations, etc. -- are immensely valuable and necessary not only for the work they create, but also for how they help critique our current publishing cultures. These help further the call for more transparency about the material factors that go into producing a book or journal, and they insist that this knowledge be foregrounded and consciously understood by all those involved as they work together to create a basis for more radically democratic poetic production.
As stated at the outset, my decision to self-publish was motivated in large part by these concerns. It is a very small gesture, and I'm certainly not the first to do this, but it is nevertheless a not-meaningless refusal to comply with a system that I do not believe in. Had I stuck it out a bit longer, perhaps I could have gotten published with a press "reputable enough" to look good on a CV. And perhaps that might have been one step closer to landing a professorship with higher pay than what I now earn as an adjunct at a community college. But I simply don't see the point anymore in subjugating my work and trying to capitalize on it for academic success. While I may not self-publish all my future work, I will absolutely not be going through contests, and I will seek out only those presses operating ethically and consciously -- and, ideally, those working overtly toward a socialist or collectivist publishing practice. Additionally, I will continue trying to raise consciousness on these matters in whatever way I can.
In recent years, poets have frequently framed their work as a form of political "resistance," embracing the central hashtag of liberalism. However, if poets ever hope to participate in genuine change and cease to be legitimizing ornaments of capital, those presently in the literary-academic orbit must either 1) utterly refuse to participate in the conventional market for poetry or 2) fiercely grapple with and work to change the material and economic circumstances within that market and its institutions and hierarchies. For these circumstances have been rationalized, ignored, and obscured for too long. Until the university is transformed, all its poets and writers need to take a stand and speak out on in an effort to revolutionize the university and counter the extended system of exploitation, careerism, scarcity, and meritocracy. Quietism in the face of this only enables poets and intellectuals, whose social function is filled with radical potential, to settle for reproducing ruling class values and ideology and reinforcing the domination of capital.
Finally, let me just say how thankful I am to those who have been asking these questions all along, who are working to chart new ways, and whose insights and efforts and poems have helped me to further realize these things. I feel like I’ve been behind all my life. I hope, though, that my way of getting caught up is helpful to you in turn. I am grateful.