“I do not want to be the leader. I refuse to be the leader. I want to live darkly and richly in my femaleness. I want a man lying over me, always over me. His will, his pleasure, his desire, his life, his work, his sexuality the touchstone, the command, my pivot. I don’t mind working, holding my ground intellectually, artistically; but as a woman, oh, God, as a woman I want to be dominated. I don’t mind being told to stand on my own feet, not to cling, be all that I am capable of doing, but I am going to be pursued, fucked, possessed by the will of a male at his time, his bidding.”
“I must find a strong potential powerful mate who can counter my vibrant dynamic self: sexual and intellectual, and while comradely, I must admire him: respect and admiration must equate with the object of my love (that is where the remnants of paternal, godlike qualities come in).”
Sylvia Plath Hughes and her husband Ted Hughes:
And now, an immensely long recent diatribe from a male American poet, which I want to keep in case it gets lost otherwise:
by Seth Abramson:
“I don’t know exactly when it was that I first became ashamed of the American poetry community, but I know that at some point over the last few years it happened, and I know too that since I was a member of the community at the time I first felt this shame my first indication that I was ashamed of the American poetry community came when I realized that I had become ashamed of _myself_. And while absolutely no one in or out of American poetry needs to care one whit whether I am ashamed of American poetry or the community that’s arisen in and around it, I have all the right in the world to care about when and how I came to feel ashamed of myself and to discuss that publicly. That it touches on activities others are still engaged in daily and that therefore it might anger them to hear me speak on matters to me these days only to the extent that my family or friends might be in any way hurt by the things I say — the rest of you are strangers to me, finally, and one of the cruelest ironies of the cult American poetry has become is that we begin to spend exponentially more time thinking about what absolute strangers think about us than about what we think of ourselves or what our loved ones think about what we are doing to ourselves by continuing to participate in a national community that is absolute poison to all who live under its strictures.
In the first dozen or so years of this century, I submitted my poetry to hundreds and hundreds of literary magazines, and was published by hundreds of them, including nearly all the ones you’ve heard of and many besides that you haven’t; I published three books, two of which won national book prizes; my name appeared on the cover of Poetry; I gave readings across the country; I attended and graduated from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop; I did other things poets habitually do and did them “well enough” that I received some consistent notice for it. While I didn’t seek out any fellowships, because I thought and still think it wrong to seek fellowship money if you can otherwise support yourself, given all the poets out there who desperately need such money when they’re between jobs or for some reason (medical or otherwise) unable to hold employment; and while I didn’t seek to participate in any residencies or summer conferences, the residencies because beginning my life in poetry while I was an attorney meant learning to write best at odd hours and under inconvenient circumstances, the conferences because I continue to have no understanding whatsoever of why the disgustingly hierarchical structure of conferences like Breadloaf is acceptable to any person with an ethical code or moral conscience; I did give readings around the country and make several increasingly misery-inducing trips to AWP, by the end of which string of trips I had learned that the only purpose of AWP is to visit with friends–as to expose oneself to any of the rest of it is to soak oneself still further in the miasmic goo of fakery, hipsterism, and opportunistic posturing that typifies the American poetry community then and at all other times, as well.
But because I’d come to poetry from public service–I was a public defender from 2000 to 2007, and began writing poetry in 1998-1999, a time when I was interning as a student-attorney with a public defender organization–just publishing my own work was never going to be enough for me. Many poets augment the writing and publishing and performance aspects of being a poet with finding a subcommunity within the American poetry community that can act as an encouragement of their interest in writing (for writing is a lonely affair) and a means to find the companionship of lifelong fellow-travelers (for, again, writing is a lonely affair). I couldn’t really do much in that respect because I was and am a loner: not quiet, not shy, but simply someone who from childhood has always preferred being alone to being in company, not because I’m a misanthrope but because the psychic cost of being in company is, to me, very high. Like many introverts, I don’t enter such situations readily and recover from them only slowly, most especially if even a single stranger is involved. My point here is a simple one: writing and publishing is a lonely affair, and the only thing that makes it bearable is the finding and maintenance of a subcommunity, and to the genuine introvert–or simply anyone who lives far from a major urban center where large numbers of poets live–that’s an impossibility.
For fifteen years I’ve wanted to state this clearly, so I’m going to state it now, as someone who’s been in and around poetry for nearly two decades: the hardest thing to be in poetry is a loner, period and full stop. Whatever group or sub-group you belong to and believe is maligned or disadvantaged within the sphere of American poetry, and no matter how accurate your grievances, you do _not_ suffer as much immediate harm either emotionally or professionally as the loner in American poetry. It’s not even close. The loner suffers and suffers alone; all others who suffer may well suffer mightily but in time earn the distinct and abiding privilege of doing it in company.
The second-most under-privileged group in American poetry comprises all poets whose work is aesthetically unrecognizable to their peers, for in poetry today that’s simply another form of (and indeed term for) inescapable loneliness. For all that poets pretend to having even the slightest interest in audacious aesthetic, formal, theoretical, philosophical, moral, and ethical innovations, American poets are in fact the most conservative and retrograde subcommunity of American artists living and working today. This is in large part because we habitually read and admire and seek the company only of poets who remind us of ourselves in some way; if, instead, your work reminds us of what we are not, of what we cannot or will not or simply do not do in and with poetry, we shun you instinctively and (where possible) visit small and large psychic punishments upon you besides. We do it organically and non-reflexively. So the artistic loner in poetry is invariably the social loner and, therefore, again, significantly more under-privileged in all respects that any other discrete group of persons in the American poetry community.
The above is inarguable, in part because it’s inarguable definitionally: having it bad alone is always worse than having it bad in company. So if you’re in some way terrorized by being told that social and artistic loners in poetry are the most beset upon group in that sphere — by far — feel free to, respectfully, take a hike to a dictionary or the dicta of the APA-DSM 5. Until you’ve tried being a poet with virtually no support network, no mentor or reading group or lit-movement cadre or nearby urban literary epicenter or abiding institutional affiliation or interest-group patronage, you have no goddamn idea what that’s like. So ask a full-time employed 44 year-old mother of three in Wichita how it feels trying to be a “national” poet, you twenty-something poets of whatever demographic description living underground reading series-to-private salon in Brooklyn. And since it’s these far-flung poets that we by the very nature of things never hear from, in fact virtually _none_ of us know what their life in poetry is like, nor do they even have sufficient voice in the semi-nationalized poetry community to tell us. By contrast, any one of us can see that those poets who consider themselves to be in a marginalized group within the sphere of American poetry may well have many, many valid grievances but also — and we can witness it in real-time on social media — have hundreds and hundreds of shoulders to lean on. Any aggrieved poet who is a member of a discrete poetry subcommunity can be certain that at the moment something bad happens to them dozens and dozens of shoulders to cry on will appear online, which doesn’t fix the harm but mollifies it somewhat undoubtedly. To be a social or artistic loner in poetry is to experience emotional and artistic and psychic harm repeatedly — over and over and over — and bear it singly and discretely forever.
So I decided to seek community in poetry in the only way that, as a social loner, I could: public service. I thought that if I fought for the rights of my fellow poets in the same way I fought for the indigent as a public defender I could both do things to elevate my community while also feeling connected to poets and poetry in principle even when and as I couldn’t do it in real time.
I first created an assessment scheme for graduate creative writing programs, with just one goal in mind: to force programs which, despite being terminal degrees, offered no funding to their students to finally face real consequences for doing so — namely, to face an assessment scheme which, for the first time in the history of higher education, included as one of its considerations the real-time disapproval of vulnerable and indeed routinely abused end-users, i.e. program applicants.
I started this project with no interest in pedigree, as those who know me know that I have never cared — for a moment — about other people’s pedigrees. That topic holds well less than zero interest or value to me. But compelling large institutions which historically have taken advantage of their most vulnerable community members — students — to properly fund their operations, to hire enough full-time residential faculty to facilitate meaningful student-faculty interactions, to lower unreasonable barriers to entry like GRE tests and English department-imposed language requirements, yes, these things _did_ matter very much to me. And isolated, vulnerable, penniless aspiring poets mattered to me because that’s more or less what I’d been when I first discovered that poetry was in me to be had and held. It helped, too, that the most important part of my public defender practice had been working with emotionally disturbed and often drug-addicted juveniles; the cross-over between this population and the population of young people who write poetry was, to be succinct, eye-opening. It’s why I created an assessment scheme with twenty independent measures of program quality, while, like all higher-ed “rankings,” not making any totalizing assessment of what a given program could or would offer any individual student.
The immediate effect of the rankings, confirmed by innumerable emails from various program coordinators, was millions and millions of dollars in new student funding lines at institutions across the country, new conventions for program transparency that institutions felt earnestly held to, a new conversation about how graduate creative writing programs do or do not serve aspiring writers, and much more, besides. I was and am proud of those rankings because I know what they were actually intended to do and I know they achieved that objective. I know too that, over six years of making those rankings, nearly every objection about them I ever heard came from someone who hadn’t even taken the basic step of reading the rankings’ freely available online methodology article. That was the first time I realized poets don’t enjoy reading (poetry or anything) as much as they claim, and certainly not as much as they like hearing themselves talk and (more often) complain: I received calumny for things the rankings didn’t say, or intend to say, or for things I was believed to have done or felt or believed or expressed which I didn’t, indeed such a stream of abuse over imaginary slights and intentions that responding to it all was impossible and frayed my nerves nearly beyond repair.
In the end, hundreds of well-paid professors signed a public letter about the rankings and publicly (or more often privately, for fear of alienating their programs’ potential consumers) petitioned Poets & Writers to stop exposing their institutions’ lack of funding for their students. It took some time, but that pressure ultimately won the day for them, costing their students millions and millions of dollars and indeed leaving they themselves without an important piece of leverage in trying to convince their own institutions’ bureaucrats to increase student funding. (After the rankings were gone, I received email after email from programs asking where they’d gone, as they’d been secretly using them as a means of charting their own progress in critical funding conversations with university administrators.) After the rankings were destroyed through the lobbying efforts of people like — let’s name them, because I don’t care anymore — Deborah Landau and Matthew Zapruder and Erin Belieu and Leslie Epstein, all of whom are handsomely paid to assist their students in going into crippling student loan debt, all of those people and their allies were universally hailed and I was drummed out of the poetry community. It was a victory for large, impersonal, exploitative institutions and a massive defeat for a vulnerable population of persons — young, penniless, aspiring poets and writers — but it was hailed within the American poetry community as a victory for justice.
I say all this knowing that the full story of what happened is so much longer and more interesting than the one you’re getting here. Like the time Leslie Epstein tried to bribe me with owner’s box Red Sox tickets if I would re-consider BU’s ranking — a ranking his program’s hard data and applicants themselves, not I, had created, as I kept explaining to him — and when I told him that as both an attorney and a fellow proud New Englander (yes, I actually said this) his suggestion I could be bought offended me and that our conversation would immediately conclude if the offer were repeated (which, incredibly, it later was), he made up a quote by me that he then sent to Erin Belieu to put in her domestically and even internationally disseminated open letter. Leslie and I had had a conversation via email which, in MS Word, was 80 pages long — I know because I cut-and-pasted — and having found nothing damning in all 80 pages of it regarding my motives or first principles he made up a quote that in no way reflected anything I had ever felt or believed or said, and put it in his open letter, and, when its falseness was brought to his and Belieu’s attention and I demanded a public retraction, they refused. That’s who these people are — the sort of people I want nothing to do with, and god help the young people who daily are looking to them for ethical guidance. I won’t go into detail about Zapruder except to say he’s one of the most self-important jerks I’ve ever met, and I used to represent con-men charged with major felonies. Those con-men cost people hundreds of thousands of dollars less than Zapruder cost his students by privately militating for the end of the rankings — when last seen, he was at AWP implicitly threatening P&W with the possibility he’d gin up a lawsuit against them by Facebook (it’s a long story).
So that was when I, as a former public defender who had actually fought for vulnerable populations for years, realized that so many in the American poetry community had actually not a goddamn idea what justice was or is or what it means to advocate for others rather than yourself. What happened with Poets & Writers was a disgrace upon the American poetry community that will cost young people numbering in the tens of thousands their financial futures over the next few decades, but every day I get to see the people who orchestrated that disgrace feted in the New York Times as advocates of art while those of us who fought for young people’s right to a fully-funded creative writing education are treated as moral lepers. Fine. It was a good thing to have happened, I later discovered, because one needs to know the values of one’s community before one decides to leave it forever, and I’ve no interest in being involved in a community that elevates Zapruder’s right to have the “strongest writers” in his workshop — because it makes his job more fun for him — over the right of his students to be fully-funded for their terminal-degree graduate education, like the students in every other field are.
Anyway, I tried other avenues of public service too: advising hundreds and hundreds of creative writing applicants about their writing futures privately and pro bono, which was appreciated by these folks at the time but didn’t mean, when I was later attacked, that they could defend me publicly for, as so many wrote me privately, “I just can’t risk my career for you, I’m sorry.” Well, so was I, though I wrote them and said I understood and that I didn’t want anyone to expose themselves to risk on my behalf. Which was true, though of course it still hurt. So I tried to do the sort of private, fee-based workshopping for otherwise disconnected writers — older writers, overseas writers, and otherwise isolated writers who want to apply to graduate creative writing programs but aren’t connected to the major undergraduate educational institutions that (for a hefty tuition) will help their writers make that leap — and of course this was publicly cast as me, not coincidentally a Jew lawyer, trying to profit off poets. Needless to say the whole enterprise made basically no money, and for a couple years was nothing more than a labor of love that paid for gas money at best, but the narrative that this man who’d dedicated his legal career to low-paid public service and his poetry career in part to advocating for younger writers was in fact a monstrous Jew-tycoon making many thousands off the backs of the hopeless was too good to pass up. (And if you don’t think Jews hear a dog-whistle when John Keene calls the Jewish poet Kenneth Goldsmith “Kenneth ‘Solid Gold’ Goldsmith” you have no idea what anti-Semitism looks like. Apparently neither did the hundreds in the poetry community who passed around that risible essay on Goldsmith, which argued –as anti-Semities have for decades — that you can’t get away with criticizing Jews the way you can other minorities because Jews hold too much cultural power to ever be threatened. Really? Change your name to “Seth Abramson,” go to law school to become a public defender, and be visually marked in a horrifyingly conspicuous Jew body and see how awesome it is to stumble into the poetry community, John. You’ll be counter-factually accused of being a money-grubber almost instantly.)
Today many people do publicly, re: one-on-one workshopping, what I was doing ten years ago, but as they’re better connected — remember the plight of the loner — there’s no outcry. I can still remember Daniel Nester scornfully saying to me on a blog, “Yes, I _do_ hate it because it’s _you_.” Well, that’s the poetry community for you. I can still remember the first aspiring poet I ever worked with — we remain Facebook friends, as I am with everyone I worked with who’s on Facebook — because he paid about $200 for a lengthy course of back-and-forth conversation and critique about his writing and ended up getting an $80,000 funding package at an MFA program a few months later. He wrote me to say he couldn’t have done it without the one-on-one coursework-like interactions we’d had; meanwhile, I was in the process of shutting down the whole thing because the constant abuse over it online was causing me to have a breakdown.
I tried a different avenue for service: I would start the largest poetry-review column in America, with the most reviews run per month and the largest audience for a poetry-review column — because it could be read for free, online, and on one of the 40 highest-traffic websites in America — the poetry community had ever benefited from. Moreover, all the reviews would be in the nature of recommendations rather than critiques; I reasoned that, with so much poetry out there, the utility of savaging some peer for their shoddy metaphors paled in comparison to giving inundated potential readers some guidance on where their limited reading time might be spent. It was a wholly positive, poet-oriented project, so of course I began getting threats over it almost immediately. Why did I pick this person rather than another? Why was my reading of _why_ this particular poet was interesting different from others’ readings? Why did _I_ have the special right to do these reviews? (Answer: I didn’t; I sought out a place at the Huffington Post because I wanted to do service for my “community,” not because I felt entitled to a special place in that community. This very basic concept about what it means to care for other people and — yes — try to be selfless was, non-ironically, lost on almost everyone in poetry, it seemed.) In one year I wrote more than a hundred poetry reviews, and if you don’t have a sense of the work involved in that just ask yourself what the highest number of reviews of your peers’ work you’ve ever published in a single calendar year is. Now further inform that number, whatever it is, with the following additional fact about the Huffington Post poetry review series: along with not getting paid a cent, I didn’t review friends or colleagues, but sought out the work of people I’d never met, so there was no subterranean ego-stroking (as there so often is in reviews of people within your current social circle) going on. Of course, this also meant that the people I was reviewing felt minimal appreciation for the reviews, as I was a stranger who’d simply given them something out of the blue — not someone with whom they participated in a mutual gift economy (or even a mutually emotionally supportive subcommunity). Hell, I even gave a glowing review to someone who indirectly threatened to kill me and published reams of snuff-porn about me online; I reasoned that if I really cared about poetry, not even personal animus would or should stop me from saying, “Hey, you need to check this out, it could really be special for you.”
I didn’t expect writing reviews for others would lead to me getting reviews of my own work in return, for as much as those who’d developed the “monstrous-Jew” archetype for me assumed otherwise, I actually did my reviews without any hope or expectation of those reviews allowing me to really participate in the poetry community in real time — as I knew myself to be a loner, and knew that wouldn’t change. I also knew that poetry-reviewing had largely become nothing more than a means of elevating your friends and thereby yourself, or placating powerful people (by way of placating their friends) with the hope of some future reward, so I didn’t even imagine for a moment (and spent no time thinking about the possibility) that a loner-authored review series detailing the work of people who were strangers to me, set up like the one at The Huffington Post, would net any result for me personally whatsoever. I honestly saw it simply as a chance to give back to the community — well, to pretend there _was_ a community and that I was part of it — without getting the stream of online abuse and bullying I’d received for nearly everything else I’d ever tried to do in poetry.
When my next book came out — an award-winning book from a university press — and it received not even a single review from anyone in the poetry community, I realized that the dramatic irony of my life in poetry (100+ reviews given, 0 received in that single year) was more than I could bear. A project that I’d started with no hope of return turned out, once the _dramatic_ nature of the lack of return materialized — even _one_ review, from any source whatsoever, would’ve changed my heart on the whole thing simply in that it would’ve created at least the illusion that I wasn’t writing into a total void — became too much for me to bear. I’d been doing it for free, though per usual accused of having some nefarious secret intent — so like a Jew! — and of course doing it instead of my own projects, and suddenly it felt like the loneliest and most pathetic enterprise I’d ever embarked upon. Much like poetry itself had become. So I stopped the reviews, and began thinking about whether a life in poetry meant simply a life of misery, usually keeping to myself but occasionally falling for the despicable trap of pretending online to respect people I didn’t, or trying to pretend good cheer over a community that somehow hasn’t produced a legitimate literary movement since the 1980s (the proto-joke that was flarf, or the one-note hammering of Goldsmithian “conceptual writing,” notwithstanding. Christian Bok is a legitimate genius, but he’s Canadian, so American poetry can’t take credit).
Sure, over that period I tried some other things: honoring those who give freely of their time to poetry in an _unranked_ and _explicitly nonexhaustive_ list of “top poetry advocates,” which for every reason you can imagine I was immediately savaged over in all quarters; attempts to start a conversation about cronyism in major-anthology editing, which of course reduces the quality and efficacy and ethos of those anthologies but (likewise “of course”) was a topic met with either stony silence or public aggression by those who considered themselves likely to one day benefit from that cronyism; Huffington Post articles lauding the current state of American poetry, which were passed around online only by those who didn’t have an opinion on me, as those who did would with relish _avoid_ any opportunity to pass around articles promoting and helping to advance poetry if they were written by people they didn’t “like” (of course having never met them); and of course a current annual anthology of experimental writing explicitly targeted toward use in high schools and among marginalized writers who think their artistic inclinations and idiosyncratic forms of daring are “not okay” — a project that has received absolutely no support from the poetry establishment in the form of press, reviews, or even acknowledgment. That’s right: the Poetry Foundation used to cover my work with the Huffington Post nearly every other month, largely because I was publicizing their friends — not because the effort in its very conception was admirable or helpful to American poetry — but as soon as I wrote and published a “remix” poem some people didn’t like, and that got panned by four influential websites, the Poetry Foundation wouldn’t cover BAX. So, yeah, BAX isn’t getting the coverage it deserves — that the second-ever annual anthology of American poetry in U.S. history, the first ever of experimental poetry, would expect to get — and its now hundreds of working poets and writers who’ve done unimaginably complex and exciting work and published it in the pages of the anthology are getting ignored because people don’t want to publish my name or an article on anything associated with me online. Where have we seen this refrain before? Hurting poetry and poets and undercutting your own ethos as a nonprofit aimed at promoting poetry because of some petty grievance against a man you’ve never met? That’s right: everywhere. That’s what American poetry _is_, finally– your special and predictably mistaken views and feelings on and about things and people you don’t even know or understand are far more valuable than anything else, including fighting to promote the artform you daily announce online, with such a special and artificially honeyed fervor, you love.
I wonder how many poets actually love _poetry_ — not many. I certainly see little to no evidence of it, as opposed to the love of being _seen_ to love poetry. But the evidence of self-love masquerading as an ethos committed to an artform is everywhere.
And now we’ve entered a new phase in the lifespan of the American poetry community, the one that finally let me — and, I note, many others you don’t see around these parts nearly as often anymore — cut the cord from the unhealthy, self-perpetuating, mythos-cum-cult American poetry has become. It’s the period in which poets regularly visit upon one another the only _actual_ violence they can do: telling other poets what they can and cannot write, and policing the artistic vision of their peers in real time and with actual malice. Anonymous terrorism of other poets is now publicly celebrated, even as those who are trying to innovate poetry out of its present decades-long doldrums — and yes, doing so in fits and starts, with false steps and errors in judgment and cantankerous disagreements over process, you know, all the things that universally signal ART is happening — are the subject of long-term campaigns to destroy not just their professional lives but their personal reputations. Bad art has been created for millennia, and the response to it that someone who is an artist themselves has historically given has been to ignore it, make better art, and (as necessary) offer thoughtful and literary critiques of the work itself — not its author. Other people’s poems don’t hurt you; your expectation (special to this era in human history) that other people who hurt you must in any sense stay in your life, rather than be excised (by you!) from it, is what hurts you. Fuck people who hurt you; get them out of your life by an act of your own will; until they daily are impeding your thought and movement and application of your rights in _material and provable terms_ that you turning your attention elsewhere will not alleviate, don’t turn your struggle over your own emotional reactions into an attempt to contain or otherwise curtail the behavior of shitty people. Think someone wrote a shitty poem? Go advocate for expanded voting rights at the national level, as I did in 2004-2005 through a lengthy course of freelance journalism. Think someone wrote a shitty poem? Go volunteer for a non-profit organization that defends wrongly criminally accused indigent persons, as I did from 2000 to 2007. Think someone wrote a shitty poem? Register to vote, register others to vote, and then vote; assist a local leaflet campaign helping unions to organize; create nonprofit organizations with discrete policy aims and then chart your progress by whether those aims have been met. Or do whatever the _fuck_ you want, as what you do has nothing to do with what I think you should do — but _do_ leave your fellow artists the _fuck_ alone, or give up your artist cred immediately and permanently. What we have now, instead, is a violent, anti-intellectual tribalism whose latent fetishization of left-wing fascism is cloaked beneath the mantle of some sort of enlightened, revolutionary progressivism. Destructive, self-indulgent, reactionary movements have always cloaked themselves this way, but suddenly writing anonymously and in all-caps about people you don’t know who like you are simply humans fumbling their way the best they know how through a life in art is _courage_. Abandoning literary critique, recourse to our legal system, or even reasoned dialogue is seen as a form of activism by those who are not actually political activists and have discovered a key secret for self-advancement in poetry: the appearance of consequential activism is super easy to maintain if you predicate your public presence in poetry on others’ fear of having their careers destroyed forthwith.
So now we come to what I really want to say, to the small number of young poets I actually know and whose emotional well-being I care about: THE ONLY WAY OUT OF THIS CULT, AND A LIFE OF UNHAPPINESS, IS TO BLOW UP YOUR POETRY “CAREER” AND THEREBY BECOME AN ACTUAL WRITER.
A life in service (servitude) not to poetry but to other poets and/or some conception of what you think it means to be a poet is not just an unhappy life but it is not the life of an artist. American poetry has become a cult that destroys hearts and minds too slowly for it to be readily perceived by those daily drinking its spiritual poison. We are killing the artform, we are killing our own spirits, we are –ironically — in doing all this also killing any possibility of a real “community” of poets that ever might have existed in this country. Poetry has become a backwater of innovation and artistic courage because we are simultaneously communally self-policing and privately self-advancing ourselves out of any historical meaning. If you are online daily moderating your beliefs in the public view so as to ensure that this publication or that one will publish you or review your work, you are killing your own spirit by degrees; if you have tossed aside the artist’s ethos — fearlessness, innovation, audacity — in exchange for one designed merely to hold your place in a cult of reactionary outrage and solipsistic self-emulation; if you are creating a feedback loop in which you only read that which looks like what you already write, and only admire those who write that which looks like what you already read, and only promote the work of either those you already know or those who know those you already know — read those words back and see clearly the cycle of behaviors and attitudes they create — you are ending your life as a poet before you’ve begun it. My point: fuck the cult of the Mongrel Coalition every bit as much as fuck the cult of Kenneth Goldsmith; fuck the incestuousness of Jacket2 every bit as much as fuck the incestuousness of the Poetry Foundation. Be a goddamned artist by realizing that in 2016 the only way to do that is to leave the poetry “community” behind altogether because right now it has both your body and spirit by the throat. AWP has you by the throat no more or less than does that indie publisher whose tiny cadre of hipsters you’re hoping to break into some day so that they’ll publish you.
It’s all high school bullshit, and none of it has a damn thing to do with art. And the moment you’ve cleared yourself from it, you’ll see how sad and pathetic and spiritually ruinous it really is. But it’s hard — it _really is_ a cult — so for those who can’t break free I feel only empathy. Most cults are hard to escape, and cults of the mind promulgated by cults of society are the hardest of all to break away from. That the cult of American poetry plays, finally, most of all upon your earnest and abiding love of poetry is its sickest but most effective tool for recruiting, self-maintenance, and self-policing. I think I got out only because I came to a point where the alternative was killing myself or ruining my marriage or (if the former) both.
I can say these things because the poetry community has nothing left to terrorize me with, and virtually no one within it whose opinion of me means anything. Enough publishers have blacklisted me because of what their friends or those on their author list say (without having ever met me); I’ve gotten enough death threats, threats of assault, threats to get me fired from my job, threats to get me expelled from my university, blockings on Facebook or Twitter or elsewhere (often blockings not because of anything I said but because of the potential “damage” of being publicly associated with me, and if you’re one of those who blocked me or disassociated from me for such reasons I hope to god you don’t pass that form of cowardice on to your children or students); enough days and months and years of waiting for my books to be read or reviewed even by those who claim to be looking for something new and different in poetry; enough bullying, public and private, by people beloved in the poetry community who have not even the basic decency of leaving a stranger they’ve never met and don’t understand the hell alone. I’m outside that system now, because all it ever gave me was grief and fear and crying and self-loathing and self-doubt and if you think my story is a special one look in the mirror, for I have met precious few poets who don’t know in their heart that what I’m saying is all true and that poetry, at least in this period and at least in America, is dead and will be forgotten a hundred years from now. We have deliberately made ourselves and our art inconsequential to anything that can matter historically, and we did it as much with exclusive salons and “soft blacklistings” and public shamings and cliquish provincialism as we ever did it with MFA programs, annual conferences, and the pressures of tenure. Everything we do now will be gone in fifty years, because we poisoned the well and do so with a fake smile for the camera on our faces.
So climb from the well.
So walk away.
What you leave behind is a field that now routinely lies about its readership; that book you were told “sold well”? You and I both know it actually sold 400 copies, most of which were bought by the author themselves, their friends, their family, and a few hundred students who were forced to purchase it when it was taught (not for pedagogical reasons, or after a review of all possible classroom texts, but as a favor) by a friend of the author. That book contest or fellowship you didn’t win? It was given to someone who was a friend of a friend of the judge and thereby via a process of corruption that was untraceable; all that happened there is that your money was stolen from you. That fellowship you didn’t get? A first-line reader didn’t think you wrote enough like they do, or is angry at you because they’re friends with a friend of your ex-boyfriend, so you never made it to the final judge. Made it to the final judge? Congratulations: you didn’t win because the judge and the press made a political calculation that it would be better to give it to someone else because of some esoteric point of public relations or the risible realpolitik of American poetry. Got a book published or reviewed? Congratulations: if history is precedent, there’s a 5% chance you were published or reviewed by an editor who’s never met you personally or who hasn’t heard you “vouched for” by one of their friends, and a 95% chance that it wasn’t your work in toto that led to the publication but some combination of how much your work looks like the editor’s own work, ergo your standing with them and in the “community”, ergo your chance of selling a scant few hundred copies, ergo your chance of building buzz for the press so it can continue scraping by financially. Don’t know the editor you’re writing to, or are not known to them already by other means? Either you can expect to be precluded from submitting, can expect never to be read if you do submit, or can expect never to hear back if you’ve submitted and by some blind chance have actually been read. And if you submit and are read and hear back, well, you better hope nothing you wrote surprised or at all unsettled the person you wrote to, because if so they definitely won’t publish you. Why take the risk? Indeed, why risk anything for poetry when poetry can’t itself protect you from anyone or anything?
My point to young poets: you have nothing to lose by walking away from all this garbage except a few hundred readers and a life of miserable spiritual solitude and servitude. You stay and you will be _more_, not less likely to write poetry that won’t survive you. You stay and you will always be looking over your shoulder, wondering whose permission you need to seek in advance to take the next risk in a poem that you’ve never seen anyone take before. You’ll get all the drawbacks of being a poet — penury, envy, depression, loneliness, a sense of everything constantly being in flux — without any of the _complete and total spiritual liberation_ poetry implicitly promised you when you first encountered it. I came to poetry through my first reading of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, which literally made me weep, and it’s been a downhill trajectory emotionally and spiritually ever since then because poets and a poetry “community” got in the way of me and Whitman. I can’t read a book without looking at the author’s name first, wanting to know who they are and what their story is, whether the work they’re writing is work I could have written or would want to write or could’ve gotten published if _I’d_ written and submitted it and so on. So what have I done? I’ve returned to political activism, to expressing my poetics however I like and in whatever genre I choose, and suddenly I feel free again for the first time in twenty years. I am writing actually freely — and actually for me — after years of writing, without realizing it, for crypto-fascists, panderers, networkers, philanderers, crooks, and morons. And am I writing well? No idea. Can’t say. Who knows? But I’ve developed a poetics and I’m exploring it, and I’ll keep exploring it and hoping it surprises the pants off me, and that’s what being a poet was supposed to be about when I first began writing nearly two decades ago. And you can read this and feel holier-than-thou — a-ha! you might say, I’ve finally proven that Abramson thinks he’s better than everyone else — but in fact not one poet in ten can honestly say the above is untrue (I know this because I met and corresponded virtually with many hundreds of you over the last two decades) but far more importantly none of the above is a story of my special intelligence.
Exactly the opposite.
If you’ve been reading this closely, you’ll see that this is a confession of two decades of ignorance and stupidity and self-harm and a lack of wisdom I will never forgive myself for. I cannot any longer see myself as the person I once wanted to be or thought I would become, because for almost twenty years I allowed the poetry “community” to ruin my life — personal and professional. Just as so many poets deliberately create drama in their own lives so they can vampirically feed off it for the sake of art — and if that means creating needless drama for others, too, even drama that almost kills them, what’s a little bit of collateral damage, eh? — I fed off the very thing that was killing me and said I was doing so for the most admirable of reasons: art. But then I remembered what I always knew, which is that people matter more than art — didn’t “Tubthumping” teach us anything? — and that I can’t do anything for people, including those I love, until I seek my own safety and health first. So in a certain sense I take no pride in getting out now, because the shame that it took me so long so overwhelms my sense of liberation that all I can do to process that guilt and self-loathing is write this thing that I hope to a god I’m not sure I believe in saves even just one of you who are reading this now.”